So, when I was in seminary in 1974 I was going through a difficult but exciting stretch of time. I had moved into a room in the top story of the seminary’s administrative building without telling anyone and was living there. I had a small 33 1/3 record player and two albums, the Kris Kristofferson album which featured the song “Why Me Lord” and John Prine’s eponymous album. I listened to them over and over, while avoiding my theological work, and memorized all the lyrics. I still remember them all. They were a life-changer. Thanks be to God for John Prine.
John Prine, Grammy-winning bard of ‘broken hearts and dirty windows,’ dies at 73 of coronavirus
John Prine was a raspy-voiced heartland troubadour who wrote and performed songs about faded hopes, failing marriages, flies in the kitchen and the desperation of people just getting by. He was, as one of his songs put it, the bard of “broken hearts and dirty windows.”
A onetime Army mechanic and mail carrier who wrote songs rooted in the experiences of lower-middle-class life, Mr. Prine rose to prominence almost by accident. He was at a Chicago folk club called the Fifth Peg one night in 1969, complaining about the performers, when someone challenged him to get onstage, saying, “You get up and try.”
Emboldened by a few beers, he picked up his guitar and sang three of his original songs. Within a year, he released his first album and was hailed as one of the foremost lyricists of his time, even as a musical heir to Bob Dylan.
He went on to record more than 20 albums, win three competitive Grammy Awards and help define a genre of music that came to be called Americana. He was a significant influence on a younger generation of singer-songwriters, including Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell and the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who called him “the closest thing I could imagine to ever being around Mark Twain.”
Mr. Prine, 73, died April 7 in Nashville of complications from the novel coronavirus, the media relations firm Sacks & Co. said on behalf of his family. He overcame throat cancer in the 1990s and lung cancer in 2013.
The three tunes Mr. Prine sang at his debut performance in Chicago were written during his breaks while delivering mail. All became classics in the singer-songwriter tradition: “Sam Stone,” about a Vietnam vet returning home with a drug habit; “Hello in There,” about the emotional loneliness of older people; and “Paradise,” an autobiographical lament about his family’s Kentucky hometown, plowed under to make way for strip mines.
Not long after he received a glowing review from Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, Mr. Prine quit his job with the Postal Service. His supervisor told him, “You’ll be back.”
His songs about blue-collar woes and hard-luck lives soon attracted a devoted following, which included Dylan, who described Mr. Prine’s work as “pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”
When Mr. Prine was a 24-year-old mail carrier, he received a career boost from his friend Steve Goodman, a Chicago musician who wrote “The City of New Orleans.” Goodman persuaded singer, songwriter and actor Kris Kristofferson to listen to Mr. Prine after hours at a Chicago club. After listening to about seven songs, Kristofferson asked Mr. Prine to play them all again.
“He was unlike anybody I’d ever seen — such a young kid, and yet he’s writing songs like ‘Hello in There,’ ” Kristofferson told The Washington Post in 2005. “John was singing some of the best songs I’ve ever heard, and they still are the best songs I’ve ever heard.”
In “Hello in There,” an old man reflects on his life and its litany of sorrows: “We lost Davy in the Korean War, and I still don’t know what for, it don’t matter anymore.”
In the song’s chorus, Mr. Prine sings, “Old people just grow lonesome / Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello.’ ”
From the beginning, he combined pathos and humor, the lyrical and the satirical. One of his more high-spirited tunes, “Illegal Smile,” was interpreted as a nod to marijuana. Another was a spoof of the letters to advice columnist Abigail Van Buren:
Dear Abby, Dear Abby . . .
My wife hollers at me and my kids are all freaks.
Every side I get up on is the wrong side of bed,
If it weren’t so expensive, I’d wish I were dead.
“He is a truly original writer, unequaled, and a genuine poet of the American people,” Ted Kooser, the 2005 poet laureate of the United States, said of Mr. Prine. “He did a better job of holding up the mirror of art to the ’60s and ’70s than any of our official literary poets. And none of our poets wrote anything better about Vietnam than Prine’s ‘Sam Stone.’ ”
“Sam Stone” is a chilling ballad about a wounded veteran with the gravity of a three-act play. Mr. Prine describes the vet coming home “with a Purple Heart and a monkey on his back” and how “the morphine eased the pain” of his physical and psychic wounds.
A recurring chorus suggests the poignant view of a child growing up too soon: “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes. Jesus Christ died for nothin,’ I suppose.”
Some listeners were offended by the invocation of Jesus in a song about drug addiction, but Mr. Prine said he was “just trying to think of something as hopeless” as a Vietnam vet succumbing to his private demons.
“You write a song about something that you think might be taboo,” he told Rolling Stone, “you sing it for other people and they immediately recognize themselves in it.”
His 1971 debut album, titled simply “John Prine,” received strong reviews — “he squeezes poetry out of the anguished longing of empty lives,” a Time magazine critic wrote — but modest sales.
Other performers recognized his talent, however, and Bette Midler and Joan Baez both recorded“Hello in There.” The Everly Brothers did a version of “Paradise,” and Johnny Cash sang “Sam Stone” (omitting the line about Jesus). Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty did background vocals for Mr. Prine’s 1992 album “The Missing Years,” and Bonnie Raitt had a memorable interpretation of “Angel From Montgomery,” which Mr. Prine wrote from the perspective of a woman regretting the missed opportunities in life.
His unadorned melodies were effective vehicles for introspective lyrics drawn from everyday sources. A haunting line from “Sam Stone” — “Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios” — was inspired by an Army buddy whose radio was held together with electrical tape.
When he wrote “Ain’t it funny how an old broken bottle looks just like a diamond ring?” for the 1971 song “Far From Me,” Mr. Prine said he recalled an image from childhood of broken glass sparkling in the city dump near his house.
“I don’t know of a better thing to follow as a writer than what your gut instinct tells you,” he said. “That’s where everything springs from.”
‘Broken hearts and dirty windows’
John Prine was born Oct. 10, 1946, in Maywood, Ill., one of four sons. His father was a factory worker and a union official, his mother a homemaker.
His grandfather had played guitar with the Everly Brothers’ father in Kentucky, and Mr. Prine’s own father enjoyed listening to the music of Hank Williams.
“I used to just sit and watch how he would be so moved by the songs,” Mr. Prine told the Los Angeles Times. “In fact, I might have been more affected by the way the songs touched him than by the songs themselves — they seemed to have such power.”
When he was 14, Mr. Prine learned to play guitar from his older brother Dave. Two of his brothers became musicians, and another was a police officer.
After completing high school, Mr. Prine was drafted into the Army and served in Germany, where he said he spent his time “drinking beer and pretending to fix trucks.” He returned to the Chicago suburbs and took a job with the Postal Service.
Mr. Prine’s music reflected his abiding connection to Kentucky, the birthplace of both of his parents. One of his most enduring songs, “Paradise,” is about the town in western Kentucky “where all my relatives came from,” uprooted in the 1960s by strip mines and a power plant:
Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County,
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay?
Well, I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking.
Mr. Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.
Before moving to Nashville in 1980, Mr. Prine had recorded seven albums for major labels, both of which dropped him. He launched his own record company, Oh Boy, which allowed him to pursue a more casual approach. He kept expenses down by driving himself to concert venues. His contract “riders” rejected expensive catering options in favor of supermarket deli platters, a bottle of vodka and Orange Crush soda.
Over the years, Mr. Prine experimented with musical styles, from raw country to hard-charging rockabilly, but his greatest gift was his ability to draw deep emotions from simple lyrics. “Broken hearts and dirty windows / Make life difficult to see,” he wrote in one of his early songs, “Souvenirs.” “That’s why last night and this mornin’ / Always look the same to me.”
He framed one of his most complex songs, “Lake Marie,” from the 1995 album “Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings,” as a virtual epic. In his 2017 book, “Beyond Words,” he said he wanted the song to begin with a spoken verse, delivered as a history lesson, about two lakes named for baby girls found abandoned in the woods.
With casual but memorable lines — “the wind was blowing, especially through her hair” — the song shifts to became the story of a couple “trying to save our marriage and perhaps catch a few fish, whatever seemed easier.”
Mr. Prine’s first two marriages, to Ann Carole Menaloscino and musician Rachel Peer, ended in divorce. (“Divorces have a way of turning into memorable songs for me,” he said.) In 1993, he married Fiona Whelan, who became his manager. They had two sons, and he adopted her son from a previous relationship. Fiona Whelan Prine said she also contracted the coronavirus.
In addition to his wife and children, Mr. Prine is survived by two brothers and three grandchildren.
Mr. Prine received Grammy Awards for best contemporary folk album for “The Missing Years” (1991) and “Fair & Square” (2005) and received a Grammy Hall of Fame award in 2015. He was named to the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019 and earlier this year received the Grammy for lifetime achievement.
In the late 1990s, he underwent surgery and radiation treatment for cancer in his throat. He quit smoking, and the operation left his head tilted at a noticeable angle. His voice deepened into a growling baritone, as weathered and scarred as his music. Part of a lung was removed after another bout of cancer in 2013.
In 2018, Mr. Prine released his first album of new music in 13 years. The 10 songs on “The Tree of Forgiveness” (some written with collaborators) showed the same blend of humor, sorrow and outrage that had long been his hallmark. The album reached No. 2 on the Billboard country chart and No. 5 on the pop chart, giving the 72-year-old Mr. Prine the biggest hit record of his career.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to describe the world the way I wished it would be,” he once told the Los Angeles Times. “That’s why when I finish a song, I’ll sit back and look at it and think, ‘Now if you could only practice some of those things in your own life . . . you wouldn’t have to write all these damn songs.’ ”
On Feb. 27, two days after the first reported case of the coronavirus spreading inside a community in the United States, Candace Owens was underwhelmed. “Now we’re all going to die from Coronavirus,” she wrote sarcastically to her two million Twitter followers, blaming a “doomsday cult” of liberal paranoia for the growing anxiety over the outbreak.
One month later, on the day the United States reached the grim milestone of having more documented coronavirus cases than anywhere in the world, Ms. Owens — a conservative commentator whom President Trump has called “a real star” — was back at it, offering what she said was “a little perspective” on the 1,000 American deaths so far. “The 2009 swine flu infected 1.4 Billion people around the world, and killed 575,000 people,” she wrote. “There was no media panic, and societies did not shut down.”
In the weeks leading up to the escalation of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, tens of millions of Americans who get their information from media personalities like Ms. Owens heard that this once-in-a-lifetime global health crisis was actually downright ordinary.
The president’s backers sometimes seemed to take their cues from him. On Feb. 26, the day before Ms. Owens was a guest at the White House for an African-American History Month reception, Mr. Trump denied it would spread further. “I don’t think it’s inevitable,” he said.
At other times, the president echoed right-wing media stars. When he declared at a campaign rally two days later that criticism of his halting response was a “new hoax,” commentators like Laura Ingraham of Fox News had already been accusing his opponents of exploiting the crisis. “A coronavirus,” she said on Feb. 25, “that’s a new pathway for hitting President Trump.” And when he falsely asserted that he had treated the outbreak as a pandemic all along, Fox hosts like Sean Hannity backed him up, saying that Mr. Trump’s decision to restrict travel from China and Europe would “go down as the single most consequential decision in history.”
A review of hundreds of hours of programming and social media traffic from Jan. 1 through mid-March — when the White House started urging people to stay home and limit their exposure to others — shows that doubt, cynicism and misinformation about the virus took root among many of Mr. Trump’s boosters in the right-wing media as the number of confirmed cases in the United States grew.
It was during this lull — before the human and economic toll became undeniable — when the story of the coronavirus among the president’s most stalwart defenders evolved into the kind of us-versus-them clash that Mr. Trump has waged for much of his life.
Now, with the nation’s economic and physical health in clear peril, Mr. Trump and many of his allies on the airwaves and online are blaming familiar enemies in the Democratic Party and the news media.
The pervasiveness of the denial among many of Mr. Trump’s followers from early in the outbreak, and their sharp pivot to finding fault with an old foe once the crisis deepened, is a pattern that one expert in the spread of misinformation said resembled a textbook propaganda campaign.
Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School and co-author of a book on political manipulation called “Network Propaganda,” said that as the magnitude of the virus’s effects grew and the coverage on the right shifted, Mr. Trump’s loyalists benefited from having told people not to believe what they were hearing. “The same media that’s been producing this intentional ignorance is saying what they’ve always been saying: ‘We’re right. They’re wrong,’” he said. “But it also permits them to turn on a dime.”
“We can look at that and get whiplashed,” he added. “But from the inside it doesn’t look like whiplash.”
Step 1: Blame China
In January and early February, when the virus ravaged China and doubts grewabout how forthcoming Chinese officials were being, some pundits on the right warned that the country couldn’t be trusted to contain the outbreak or share accurate information about where it originated.
Starting in late January, Tucker Carlson’s prime-time Fox News show became an early outlier in conservative media, sounding the alarm about a “mysterious” sickness spreading in Wuhan, China, that had killed about two dozen people. According to Mr. Carlson, speaking on Jan. 23, it was “believed to have jumped from bats and snakes — which are commonly eaten in this part of China — to people.”
Fox News became a launching pad for the idea of halting travel from China, which guests like Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, urged while also at times suggesting that the virus had been created in a Chinese government laboratory not far from the epicenter of the outbreak. On Jan. 31, the Trump administration said it would bar entry by most foreign citizens who had recently visited China.
Some of Mr. Carlson’s Fox colleagues were less convinced of the threat. “Do I look nervous? No. I’m not afraid of this coronavirus at all,” Jesse Watters, a co-host of “The Five,” said on Jan. 30 as he teased another host for “shaking in his shoes.”
Fox News declined to comment.
Step 2: Play down the risks
In the weeks that followed, thousands would die from the virus around the world, thousands more would be sickened across Europe and the first cases would emerge in the United States. But the tone of the coverage from Fox, talk radio and the commentators who make up the president’s zealous online army remained dismissive.
Talk show hosts and prominent right-wing writers criticized other conservatives who took the threat seriously. “Drudge has a screaming headline,” Rush Limbaugh announced on Feb. 26, referring to Matt Drudge and his website. “Flight attendant working L.A.X. tests positive. Oh, my God, 58 cases! Oh, my God. Oh, my God.” For years, Mr. Limbaugh has encouraged his audience to be suspicious of science as one of his so-called Four Corners of Deceit, which also include government, academia and media.
On Feb. 27, Mr. Hannity opened his show in a rage. “The apocalypse is imminent and you’re going to all die, all of you in the next 48 hours. And it’s all President Trump’s fault,” he said, adding, “Or at least that’s what the media mob and the Democratic extreme radical socialist party would like you to think.” His program would be one of many platforms with large audiences of conservatives — 5.6 million people watched Mr. Hannity interview the president on Fox last week — to misleadingly highlight statistics on deaths from the seasonal flu as a comparison.
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On Feb. 28, Mr. Limbaugh read from an article from The Western Journal, a website that was blacklisted by Apple News last year for promoting articles Apple determined were “overwhelmingly rejected by the scientific community.” The coronavirus, Mr. Limbaugh said, “appears far less deadly” than the flu, but the government and the media “keep promoting panic.”
Joel Pollak, an editor at Breitbart News whose work on the virus has been cited by Mr. Hannity, published several articles in February and early March that highlighted the least severe symptoms and best possible outcomes. On Feb. 28, he urged people to “chill out.”
The first of more than 4,500 American deaths to date would occur the next day. Two days later, Mr. Pollak wrote another article criticizing a doctor from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who warned that the coronavirus was likely to spread. The doctor was the sister of Rod Rosenstein, the former deputy attorney general, he noted, “who was once suspected of trying to help remove the president from office.” He assured his readers that he saw “no conspiracy” — only “the ordinary problem of scientists not being very good at communicating to the public.”
Mr. Pollak, whose articles were breezier in tone than much of the coverage elsewhere on Breitbart, declined to comment.
Faced with the inescapable fact that the virus was killing people, many conservatives started sounding fatalistic. Yes it’s deadly, they acknowledged, but so are a lot of other things. “How many people have died this year in the United States from snake bites?” the conservative radio host Dennis Prager asked in an online “fireside chat” posted March 12 to his website, PragerU, where it has been viewed more than 600,000 times.
On March 10, the day that Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, warned every American to adopt an “all hands on deck” mind-set, Ms. Owens scoffed at what she called “the mass global mental breakdown” as financial markets plunged. “People think it’s novel that 80 year olds are dying at a high rate from a flu,” she wrote, adding that when future generations study the world’s coronavirus response, “This tweet will age well.”
Ms. Owens is the kind of influential conservative — she has a huge online audience as well as sway with the White House and top cable news and radio producers — who has been central to spreading doubt about the seriousness of the virus to Mr. Trump’s most loyal supporters.
In an interview, Ms. Owens said she did not believe that her tweets were irresponsible. “Do I think it’s irresponsible to say the economic impact will be the legacy?” she said. “It’s not about being responsible. It’s about being honest.”
Step 3: Share ‘survivor’ stories
After playing down the risks, some broadcasters turned to coronavirus survivor stories.
On March 13th, “Fox & Friends” ran a segment featuring a 65-year-old woman who said she caught the virus and barely had any symptoms. During the interview, the host Steve Doocy asked about the “absolute panic” and noted the concern about older people in particular. “Well look at that,” he said to the woman. “But you are over 60, and it doesn’t seem to have been a big deal to you, right?” Mr. Doocy said.
The interview was picked up that afternoon by Mr. Limbaugh, where its reach grew considerably given his 15.5 million listeners each week. Earlier that week, when a caller said that he and his wife believed they might have been infected before the virus was known to be widespread, Mr. Limbaugh dismissed him. “Let me ask you a question,” the host said. “Did you two die, and you are speaking to me from beyond the grave?”
On social media, people often responded with ridicule. They called the virus a “bad cold” and circulated memes of a red T-shirt that said “I survived Coronavirus 2020.”
Step 4: Blame the left
By the middle of March, the story of the virus on the right was one of how Mr. Trump’s enemies had weaponized “the flu” and preyed on the insecurities of an emasculated America.
Mr. Limbaugh blamed “wimp politics — which is liberalism.” Mr. Pollak, whose tone grew more serious, said the virus had spread while Democrats stretched out the president’s impeachment. “We now know the cost of impeachment,” he wrote.
Frank Luntz, the veteran political strategist who advises Republican leaders, said many on the right were applying the scornful, “own the libs” mentality of social media to a deadly and frightening health crisis.
Mr. Trump has also cast himself as a victim. “It’s so unfair. It’s so unfair,” he said last week to Mr. Hannity on Fox News. “If we could only have a fair media in this country, our country.”
Mr. Hannity and his fans may see criticism of the president as a histrionic meltdown of an anti-Trump mob, but the broadcaster has dialed back some denial. Elsewhere at Fox, Trish Regan, a Fox Business host, left the networkafter expressing doubt about the severity of the situation.
The criticism seemed to catch Mr. Hannity and other pro-Trump personalities at Fox off guard, according to people who work at the network, if only because they did not believe that their remarks on the coronavirus were any different from how they have defended the president as the victim of an orchestrated smear during other crises.
Mr. Hannity recently published a timeline of his own comments on the virus, which creates a revisionist impression that he was consistently raising concerns. The examples Mr. Hannity cites include his praise of the Trump administration’s response and declarations that the “greatest” and “best” scientists are working on the virus.
And in his interview with the president last week, Mr. Hannity cast blame on President Barack Obama for the deaths during the swine flu outbreak of 2009, saying Mr. Trump had been “very gracious” by not focusing on his predecessor’s failings, which he accused the news media of ignoring.
Stoking a sense of victimization, according to the president’s critics, is what has always worked for him.
“It’s a hoax, it’s a Democratic plot — that’s the degree to which Trump and Trumpism is fueled by grievance and a sense of constantly having to fight for survival,” said Steve Schmidt, the Republican strategist who advised John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign and is now a consultant for an anti-Trump group and an analyst for NBC News.
But treating a pandemic as politics as usual, Mr. Schmidt added, could have an extraordinary cost. “All the bombast and the delusional statements and the embrace of ignorance,” he said, “stand singularly alone at the top of a previously unreachable pyramid.”
There can be little doubt that many of the president’s supporters did not consider it bombast or delusion.
Calling into Rush Limbaugh’s program on March 13 — the day Mr. Trump declared a national emergency — Brian from Richmond, Va., urged the president to tell the nation to take a deep breath. “Wash your hands. Take precautions,” Brian said. “And don’t believe the fake news and the media hype. It’s not that serious.”
On Tuesday afternoon, California Highway Patrol officer Dillon Eckerfield was rumbling down Harbor Avenue on his police motorcycle, in San Pedro, Calif., when he witnessed a strange sight: a freight train flying off the end of the tracks.
It didn’t even try to slow down. He watched it smash through the concrete and steel barriers at the track’s dead end, near the Port of Los Angeles. It crashed through a chain-link fence, careened through a parking lot and another gravel lot — barely missing three occupied vehicles — and then finally, after taking out another fence, came to a halt.
Roughly 800 feet ahead was the USNS Mercy, the Navy medical ship providing relief to hospitals overburdened with coronavirus patients — where police now believe the train’s engineer was intentionally headed.
Eckerfield pulled a U-turn, speeding in the direction of the spectacular train wreck, according to an FBI affidavit describing the incident. As he approached, he could see a man in a bright yellow fluorescent vest jump down from the train’s cab and start running. He was easy to follow. Eckerfield sped into the West Basin Container Terminal, an enormous ship cargo yard, and found the man in the yellow vest walking toward him. Eckerfield drew his weapon and ordered the man onto the ground.
Right away, as Eckerfield placed him under arrest, the suspect spilled out his story.
“You only get this chance once. The whole world is watching,” the suspect, later identified as Eduardo Moreno, told Eckerfield. “I had to. People don’t know what’s going on here. Now they will.”
Moreno, 44, was charged Wednesday in federal court with one count of train wrecking after admitting to intentionally running the train off the tracks in the direction of the Mercy hospital ship, the U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles said in a statement. No one was injured in the wreck, which caused a “substantial fuel leak” handled by firefighters, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors say Moreno was “suspicious of the USNS Mercy,” believing officials were lying about its true purpose. He believed “it had an alternate purpose related to covid-19 or a government takeover,” they said.
Moreno was held in jail overnight by local authorities before making his first appearance in federal court Tuesday on the train-wrecking charge, which carries a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison.
Moreno could not immediately be reached for comment late Wednesday, and it’s unclear if he has an attorney. A spokesman for Anacostia Rail Holdings Company — which operates Moreno’s employer, Pacific Harbor Line — said in a statement to The Washington Post that Moreno’s locomotive was pulling a single rail car when it ran off the track at a high speed.
“Thankfully there were no injuries,” said the spokesman, Stefan Friedman. “The engineer of the train has been arrested and charged, and we are fully cooperating with all authorities as they proceed with their investigation.”
In interviews with the FBI and Los Angeles Port Police, Moreno said that “everything was normal” and “no one was pushing my buttons” when he came to work on Tuesday morning. He said he hadn’t spoken to anyone about wrecking a train, and didn’t even plan it himself until the idea came to him spontaneously that afternoon, he said.
It popped into his head as he contemplated the pandemic — particularly the hospital ship.
The USNS Mercy arrived at the Port of Los Angeles on Friday to treat non-coronavirus trauma patients, thereby freeing up intensive-care at local hospitals treating covid-19 patients. The USNS Comfort arrived in New York for the same purpose.
But in a conspiratorial mind, Moreno told detectives he had been “putting the pieces together.” He no longer believed “the ship is what they say it’s for.” He believed “they are segregating us, and it needs to be put in the open,” according to the affidavit, which doesn’t explain what Moreno might have meant by that.
He was pushing his last train of the day, a cargo bound for Vietnam, when the idea hit him: He could “draw the world’s attention” to the USNS Mercy if he derailed the train, and then “people could see for themselves,” according to the affidavit. He could “wake people up,” he said.
“I don’t know. Sometimes you just get a little snap and man, it was fricking exciting,” Moreno told detectives. “I just had it and I was committed. I just went for it. I had one chance.”
It’s unclear if he intended to hit the ship directly or just crash near it.
Security cameras inside the train’s cab captured him hurtling toward the end of the tracks, the affidavit says. He made no attempt to pull back the throttle, no attempt to engage the brakes, instead putting the train in full speed.
At the last minute, Moreno lit a flare. He looked up at the camera, raising his middle finger to it. Then, just before the train smashed through the concrete barriers, he stuck the flare out the window, keeping it there all the way through impact.
He told the detectives, “I can’t wait to see the video.”
The evidence not only fails to support the push, it also contradicts it. It can take a while for official recommendations to catch up with scientific thinking. In this case, such delays might be deadly and economically disastrous. It’s time to make masks a key part of our fight to contain, then defeat, this pandemic. Masks effective at “flattening the curve” can be made at home with nothing more than a T-shirt and a pair of scissors. We should all wear masks — store-bought or homemade — whenever we’re out in public.
At the height of the HIV crisis, authorities did not tell people to put away condoms. As fatalities from car crashes mounted, no one recommended avoiding seat belts. Yet in a global respiratory pandemic, people who should know better are discouraging Americans from using respiratory protection.
Facing shortages of the N95 masks needed by health-care workers, the U.S. surgeon general announced on Feb. 29 that masks “are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus,” despite significant scientific evidence to the contrary. This is not just a problem in the United States: Even the World Health Organization says, “you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV infection.”
There are good reasons to believe DIY masks would help a lot. Look at Hong Kong, Mongolia, South Korea and Taiwan, all of which have covid-19 largely under control. They are all near the original epicenter of the pandemic in mainland China, and they have economic ties to China. Yet none has resorted to a lockdown, such as in China’s Wuhan province. In all of these countries, all of which were hit hard by the SARS respiratory virus outbreak in 2002 and 2003, everyone is wearing masks in public. George Gao, director general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, stated, “Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.”
My data-focused research institute, fast.ai, has found 34 scientific papersindicating basic masks can be effective in reducing virus transmission in public — and not a single paper that shows clear evidence that they cannot.
Direct Relief provides aid to global hotspots during disasters. Now they are responding to the coronavirus outbreak at home, as U.S. hospitals appeal for help. (Ray Whitehouse, Julia Weissman, Nicholas Weissman/The Washington Post)
Studies have documented definitively that in controlled environments like airplanes, people with masks rarely infect others and rarely become infected themselves, while those without masks more easily infect others or become infected themselves.
Masks don’t have to be complex to be effective. A 2013 paper tested a variety of household materials and found that something as simple as two layers of a cotton T-shirt is highly effective at blocking virus particles of a wide range of sizes. Oxford University found evidence this month for the effectiveness of simple fabric mouth and nose covers to be so compelling they now are officially acceptable for use in a hospital in many situations. Hospitals running short of N95-rated masks are turning to homemade cloth masks themselves; if it’s good enough to use in a hospital, it’s good enough for a walk to the store.
The reasons the WHO cites for its anti-mask advice are based not on science but on three spurious policy arguments. First, there are not enough masks for hospital workers. Second, masks may themselves become contaminated and pass on an infection to the people wearing them. Third, masks could encourage people to engage in more risky behavior.
None of these is a good reason to avoid wearing a mask in public.
Yes, there is a shortage of manufactured masks, and these should go to hospital workers. But anyone can make a mask at home by cutting up a cotton T-shirt, tying it back together and then washing it at the end of the day. Another approach, recommended by the Hong Kong Consumer Council, involves rigging a simple mask with a paper towel and rubber bands that can be thrown in the trash at the end of each day.
Many Hong Kong residents have been wearing masks during the global coronavirus outbreak, but now discarded masks are washing up on area beaches. (Reuters)
It’s true that masks can become contaminated. But better a mask gets contaminated than the person who is wearing it. It is not hard to wash or dispose of a mask at the end of the day and then wash hands thoroughly to prevent a contaminated mask from spreading infection.
Finally, the idea that masks encourage risky behavior is nonsensical. We give cars anti-lock brakes and seat belts despite the possibility that people might drive more riskily knowing the safety equipment is there. Construction workers wear hard hats even though the hats presumably could encourage less attention to safety. If any risky behavior does occur, societies have the power to make laws against it.
Many authorities still advise only people with symptoms to wear masks. But this doesn’t help with a disease like covid-19, since a person who does not yet show symptoms can still be contagious. A study in Iceland, where there has been unprecedented levels of testing, found that “about half of those who tested positive [for covid-19] are nonsymptomatic,” according to Iceland’s chief epidemiologist, Thorolfur Gudnason. In fact, in early February, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony S. Fauci warned there was strong evidence that covid-19 spreads even among people without symptoms. If we all wear masks, people unknowingly infected with the coronavirus would be less likely to spread it.
I also have heard suggestions that widespread usage of masks in the West will be culturally impossible. The story of the Czech Republic debunks this notion. Social media influencers campaigning to encourage DIY mask creation catalyzed an extraordinary mobilization by nearly the whole population. Within three days, there were enough masks for everyone in the country, and most people were wearing them. This was an entirely grass-roots community effort.
When social distancing requirements forced a small bar in Prague to close, its owner, Štefan Olejár, converted Bar Behind the Curtain into a mask manufacturing facility. He procured sewing machines from the community and makes about 400 cotton masks per day. The bar employs 10 people, including a driver who distributes the masks directly to people who are not able to leave their homes.
There are “mask trees” on street corners around the country, where people hang up masks they have made so others can take them.
The most important message shared in the Czech Republic has been this: “My mask protects you; your mask protects me.” Wearing a mask there is now considered a prosocial behavior. Going outside without one is frowned on as an antisocial action that puts your community at risk. In fact, the community reaction has been so strong that the government has responded by making it illegal to go out in public without a mask.
When I first started wearing a mask in public, I felt a bit odd. But I reminded myself I’m helping my community, and I’m sure in the coming weeks people who don’t wear masks will be the ones who feel out of place. Now I’m trying to encourage everyone to join me — and to get their friends to wear masks, too — with a social media campaign around #masks4all.
Community use of masks alone is not enough to stop the spread. Restrictions on movement and commerce need to stay in place until hospital systems clearly are able to handle the patient load. Then, we need a rigorous system of contact tracing, testing and quarantine of those potentially infected.
Given the weight of evidence, it seems likely that universal mask wearing should be a part of the solution. Every single one of us can make it happen — starting today.
It’s now or never for the U.S. if it hopes to keep coronavirus from burning out of control
The first phase of the coronavirus outbreak was a domestic challenge for China and a border containment one for the United States and others. Now we are in the second phase: community mitigation. Math and history must guide our next steps.
The near-term objective should be to reduce the acute, exponential growth of the outbreak, in order to reduce suffering and the strain on our health-care system. That will require significant effort, but it can work, as we have seen: Hong Kong and Singapore have achieved linear growth of covid-19 cases, staving off the terrifying exponential upward curve confronting Italy and pushing both the infection rate down and new cases out on the timeline.
The United States needs to take note.
This virus is such a threat because it is both highly infectious and lethal, and not enough people are being tested, despite significant recent effort by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By the time cases are confirmed, significant community transmission has likely already occurred. This is a classic tip-of-the-iceberg phenomenon. It’s also akin to looking at a star; the light we see today was emitted some time ago. But the most useful comparison now is to a fire that threatens to burn out of control. It is one we can still contain, even extinguish — if we act.
The best way to put out the fire is a vaccine, but that is over a year away. In the meantime, we must focus on reducing the height of the outbreak curve. This requires coordination and implementation of non-pharmaceutical interventions. School closures, isolation of the sick, home quarantines of those who have come into contact with the sick, social distancing, telework and large-gathering cancellations must be implemented before the spread of the disease in any community reaches 1 percent. After that, science tells us, these interventions become far less effective.
Simply put, as evidence of human-to-human transmission becomes clear in a community, officials must pull the trigger on aggressive interventions. Time matters. Two weeks of delay can mean the difference between success and failure. Public health experts learned this in 1918 when the Spanish flu killed 50 million to 100 million people around the globe. If we fail to take action, we will watch our health-care system be overwhelmed.
Starting now, public health messaging should be framed in light of this clear objective. Community-based interventions are needed to delay the outbreak peak. On this, the 1918 flu taught us a lot. The difference between the steps taken in Philadelphia, which waited too long back then, and St. Louis, which acted quickly, is staggering. Aggressive interventions put off and ease the peak burden on hospitals and other health-care infrastructure. Ultimately, these measures can also diminish the overall number of cases and health impacts.
Consider the actions taken in Italy. On Feb. 20, Italy reported three instances of infection and no known deaths. On Feb. 21, Italy had 20 cases and its first attributed death. Officials implemented interventions, including school closures, the following day and instituted a cordon sanitaire affecting 50,000 people. That’s aggressive, but it was too late. On Feb. 22, Italy reported 63 cases and a second death. A little more than a week later, there were 2,036 cases, with 140 patients in serious condition and 52 deaths. Today, the numbers continue to climb, with more than 9,100 cases and 460 dead, and on Monday the government expanded travel restrictions to the entire country.
By contrast, Hong Kong and Singapore acted immediately and are still holding the line, literally. Through isolation, quarantines, contact tracing, canceled gatherings and widespread surveillance, they have achieved linear growth of the virus, meaning a reproduction number close to one. What they are doing is working.
Working parents without child care have a legitimate concern, and we must find ways to help one another. But school closings can be the single most effective intervention. Amid an influenza pandemic, schools would be closed to protect the students themselves. Because children are not among the groups most vulnerable to coronavirus, schools should be closed in an effort to reduce community transmission and to protect the children’s parents and grandparents. How long? Epidemiologists suggest eight weeks might be needed to arrest this outbreak. Administrators, students, teachers and parents need to get busy figuring out how to continue the education of our children while contributing to this community-wide public health effort.
The United States and other liberal societies must mount a significant, coordinated response with public buy-in. Panic must, of course, be avoided. Most people who become infected are likely to get what feels like a mild case of seasonal flu. Many will not develop symptoms. But the elderly and otherwise infirm are at risk, and the number of Americans likely to be hospitalized and the subset of those who will require some form of critical care could still be significant.
The rates will be worse if the disease is not aggressively countered early. But I know we can all work together for the greater good.
Jim Bakker was a liar and a thief working five miles from the church I served in Fort Mill, South Carolina in the late 1970’s. He and his wife, Tammy Faye, were the public face of the Praise the Lord club, resort and amusement park (PTL). They stole money from people with an assortment of scams, all of which used religious imagery and excuses for sales pitches. They talked about the gospel while, at the same time using the gospel as a cover for their various scams and sexual misbehavior. He’s still at it. Randy
A disgraced televangelist promoted an alleged cure to coronavirus. Missouri is now suing him.
After televangelist Jim Bakker suggested on his show that colloidal silver could cure the novel coronavirus, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office announced Tuesday that it is suing him as part of a larger effort among law enforcement to crack down on fake treatments for the viral illness.
Bakker, a disgraced TV preacher in Branson, Mo., has long peddled “Silver Solution” as a cure or treatment for a number of aches and ailments, which medical professionals and the federal government have roundly rejected. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt is now asking a judge for a temporary restraining order to stop him from hawking the bogus cure as a way to treat coronavirus. The virus has so far infected more than 1,000 people and killed 31 in the United States as the federal government scrambles to control its spread.
According to the lawsuit, Bakker and the show are “falsely promising to consumers that Silver Solution can cure, eliminate, kill or deactivate coronavirus and/or boost elderly consumers’ immune systems when there is, in fact, no vaccine, potion, pill, potion or other product available to treat or cure coronavirus disease 2019.″
The televangelist has advertised the colloidal silver products for as much as $125 — a variety pack deal — on the “Jim Bakker Show,” where he is known to preach about the end of times. Bakker rebuilt his televangelist empire after spending nearly five years in prison on dozens of fraud and conspiracy charges stemming from his former ministry’s fundraising projects.
Schmitt joins New York’s attorney general, the Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration in targeting Bakker for misleading his viewers into thinking Silver Solution could keep coronavirus at bay — and possibly even “kill it” within 12 hours.
The agencies’ fury stems from a Feb. 12 segment in which Bakker invited a “naturopathic doctor” on the show to talk about the benefits of Silver Solution amid coronavirus panic.
“This influenza that is now circling the globe, you’re saying that ‘Silver Solution’ would be effective,” Bakker said to the woman, Sherrill Sellman.
She said it hasn’t been tested on the novel coronavirus, “but it has been tested on other strains of the coronavirus and has been able to eliminate it within 12 hours. Totally eliminate it, kills it. Deactivates it.”
Sellman said the government has “proven” that the Silver Solution “has the ability to kill every pathogen it has ever been tested on, including SARS and HIV.”Right Wing Watch✔@RightWingWatch
The Jim Bakker Show is suggesting that the silver solution it sells can kill the coronavirus within 12 hours.
A representative for Bakker and the show could not immediately be reached for comment, but as of Wednesday morning it appears the silver products have been removed from the program’s online store. Last week, after New York ordered Bakker to stop selling the product, a representative from the “Jim Bakker Show” defended the products in a statement to The Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer.
“We believe in Optivida Silver Solution … because of the research and the advice from medical professionals that we respect,” the statement said. “What has cemented that belief comes from the countless testimonies of its benefits and what we have seen and experienced ourselves.”
Bakker and his show are among numerous companies and salespeople around the world promoting faulty, ineffective or even dangerous coronavirus fixes or mitigation products, ranging from skin-searing hand sanitizer to bootleg alcohol. The World Health Organization has had to warn against eating garlic soup, gargling saltwater or drinking a “miracle mineral supplement” containing chlorine — promoted on Twitter by a QAnon supporter.
On Monday, the FDA and FTC called out seven companies, including Bakker’s, for peddling fake coronavirus cures or using the disease to promote products. “Simply type ‘Corona’ in the code box to save immediately,” one company peddling oils, Guru Nanda, said on its website, the FDA revealed Monday.
Other homemade products have had disastrous consequences — in some cases deadly.
In Iran, 44 people have died of alcohol poisoning, hundreds have been hospitalized and seven bootleggers have been arrested after serving up toxic drinks mixed with methanol that consumers were led to believe would keep them safe from coronavirus, USA Today reported. In Khuzestan Province, more people have died of alcohol poisoning than of coronavirus, state media reported.
I’m Going to Die. I May as Well Be Cheerful About It. By Mary Pipher March 6, 2020 New York Times While death is inevitable, our attitude about it is not.
Generally, I don’t think about death during the day. My schedule is full, and I focus on what is right before my eyes. It’s usually only when I go to funerals that I reflect upon deaths past, present and future; most of the time I think about life. Still, about once a month I wake in the night and know with absolute clarity that I will soon be gone.
I have always felt my own finitude. My father had his first stroke at 45 and died at 54. My mother died of diabetes at 74. I am 72. I would like to attend my last grandchild’s high school graduation and meet at least one great-grandchild. However, with my family history, that is unlikely. Now, with the news filled with stories of the coronavirus, I am reminded of the many random diseases that can strike suddenly and lethally.
Like almost all my peers, I want to die young as late as possible. I don’t want to live beyond my energy level. I don’t want to suffer dementia or lie helpless in a hospital. I want to die while I still believe that others love me and that I am useful.
I have done what I can to prepare for my death. I have a will, a health care proxy and medical directives. I’ve had many conversations with my family and my doctor about end-of-life decisions. My mnemonic device for all of them is, “If in doubt, snuff me out.”
While death is inevitable, our attitudes about it are not. We can be sanguine or gloomy, solicitous of others or self-absorbed. We can approach our deaths with fear and resistance or with curiosity and a sense of mission.
Facing death offers us an opportunity to work with everything we have within us and everything we know about the world. If we have been resilient most of our lives, most likely we will cope well with our own dying. It is frightening, of course, but it is our last chance to be a role model, even a hero.
I’d like to face death with the courage of my grandmother. The last time I visited her, she was recently widowed and dying from leukemia. She lay in bed in her small home in eastern Colorado. I could see she was in pain and could barely move, but when I asked about her health, she replied: “Let’s talk about you. How is college going this year?”
When I complimented her on her courage, she said simply, “I am going to be in pain and die soon no matter how I behave, so I might as well be cheerful.”
By the time we are in our 70s, we are likely to have witnessed many people dying. I’ve seen my parents and my husband’s parents die “bad deaths” with months of suffering and too much medical intervention, and I’ve witnessed peaceful deaths in rooms filled with love. Most of us boomers know how to behave at a bedside and have a sense of how we want to act when it’s our turn to be the one in bed.
We also have had decades of observing the rituals of death — hospitals and hospice, funerals, burials and the communal meals afterward. From these experiences, we have learned what we do and don’t want when it’s our turn. We may continue some of these traditions, but we will also design our own. Some of my friends with terminal illnesses have hosted goodbye parties in parks or at our local blues bar. Wakes with dancing, music and storytelling are back in style. Many of us want pine box coffins, green burials or cremations with our ashes tossed in beautiful places.
What happens after death is a popular topic among people I know. Opinions range from, “We turn into dirt,” to “I will see the face of God.” My writer friends want heaven to have a good library. One friend believes we will return to the place we were before we were born.
Jean Nordhaus wrote, “The dead are all around us / feathering the air with their wings.” A therapist who lost her young, cello-playing husband told me she feels his presence and knows they are still deeply connected in spirit. She finds that many people are afraid to die because they have no language for the numinous; however, she is certain that neither life nor relationships end with death.
I feel death may not be as big a change as we suppose. Rather, it might be like crossing a river.
I like to think that my relatives and friends will be waiting for me on the other side. I like to imagine grassy banks and flower-filled pastures shining in the sun. I like to think a lot of things, but I don’t know for sure.
I am not a particularly mystical person, but I have had mystifying experiences. When my Aunt Grace died, I drove to the Ozarks for her funeral. Her little house was surrounded by pink surprise lilies — what my cousins called “naked ladies.” The next spring, even though I had not planted them and they had never come up before, surprise lilies popped up in my garden. The year after that they popped up again but in different places. I concluded that Aunt Grace was greeting me. If I wanted to send a message after death, I would do it with flowers, too.
I love the world but I cannot stay. Death is democratic and we will all participate in its enactment. I will miss the beauty all around me. I have taken so much pleasure in the natural world, in people and books, in music and art, in cups of coffee and lolling cats. If I knew that I had a month left to live, I wouldn’t spend my time much differently than I do now.
All of my life I have loved snow.
When I was a girl in the 1950s, snow fell often in the long winters of western Nebraska. I remember one winter when, after the streets were plowed, mountains of snow 10 feet tall stood in the middle of the streets. As a young mother, my favorite days were snow days when our family could stay home and play board games. I would make soup and popcorn. I relished taking my children outside to do the things that I had done in the snow as a girl. I loved falling asleep with my family safe on a blizzardy night when the streets were impassable and a blanket of peace covered our town.
Now, snow has become a profoundly spiritual experience. When it snows, I sit by my window and watch it fall. I go deep into its purity and softness.
Snow falls inside and outside of me. It settles my brain and calms my body.
I hope death feels like watching the snow grow thicker and thicker. Doctors call dying of a morphine overdose being “snowed.” I would not mind that at all. I would like to disappear in a whiteout.
Freeman Dyson, a visionary physicist and technophile who helped crack the secrets of the subatomic world, tried to build a spaceship that could carry humans across the solar system, worked to dismantle nuclear arsenals and wrote elegantly about science and human destiny, died Feb. 28 at a hospital near his home in Princeton, N.J. He was 96.
The cause was complications from a fall, said a son, George Dyson.
Mr. Dyson, born in England between the world wars, spent most of his professional life as a kind of genius-in-residence at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, overlapping in his early years with Albert Einstein.
In a career spent traversing fields as diverse as physics, biology, astronomy, nuclear energy, arms control, space travel and science ethics, Mr. Dyson was always obliging when a journalist called him for a grabby quote about the trajectory of humanity. His ideas were reliably unorthodox; the Pulitzer Prize-winning classical composer Paul Moravec once called him “the world’s most civil heretic.”
Of all his notions, his most famous was that alien civilizations, seeking to maximize their supply of energy, would build elaborate megastructures around their parent stars to capture much of the solar radiation. Astronomers periodically see something they speculate might be one of these “spheres” — although Mr. Dyson freely admitted he lifted the idea from science-fiction writer Olaf Stapledon.
Long before he became an oracle, he labored in the trenches of mathematics and physics. He succeeded in the late 1940s in developing an early landmark synthesis of the latest thinking in the theory known as quantum electrodynamics. His resulting paper, “The Radiation Theories of Tomonaga, Schwinger and Feynman,” was regarded as an instant classic and gave Mr. Dyson lifelong credibility in the sciences even as he went on to tackle more speculative interests.
That included the interplanetary spaceship. Project Orion, initiated in the late 1950s, was an effort to design a spacecraft powered by nuclear explosions, rather than traditional fuels, and capable of carrying people throughout the solar system.
A one-meter tall model seemed to work fine, and the Orion team decided they could send humans to Mars by 1968 and to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn two years later. But the government was not keen on nuclear bombs as a form of propulsion and the project, taken over by the Air Force, was eventually terminated.
He contributed to the design of what became known as neutron bombs, work he later regretted bitterly, to the point of describing an article he had written on tactical nuclear warfare as “a desperate attempt to salvage an untenable position with spurious emotional claptrap.” He became an advocate for arms control and served as outside counsel to decision-makers in Washington.
At age 45, Mr. Dyson told The Washington Post in 2014, he had a midlife crisis because he was surrounded by “all these bright kids down the hall who are writing papers faster than you can read them.” He decided to do science as a hobby and become more of a sage, writing books and magazine articles on science, technology and the future. He often contributed to the New Yorker and, later, the New York Review of Books.
His primary job, it seemed, was to think big thoughts — such as this one, from his 1988 book “Infinite in All Directions”:
“As a working hypothesis to explain the riddle of our existence, I propose that our universe is the most interesting of all possible universes, and our fate as human beings is to make it so.”
Depression, war, brainstorm
Freeman John Dyson was born in Crowthorne, England, on Dec. 15, 1923, the son of George Dyson, a composer who was later knighted, and the former Mildred Atkey, a lawyer.
The England of his childhood and teenage years was bleak, ravaged by war and pessimistic about its future.
“Things were really black at that time,” he told The Post in 2014. “We had Hitler coming along. We had horrible memories of World War I. My childhood was so dominated by this disaster of World War I and we saw World War II coming, and it was almost certainly going to be worse. And of course there was this economic depression and England was tremendously polluted. Every evening, my shirt collar was black.”
Small of stature, almost elfin, he endured bullying at his English boarding school but found escape in science fiction, including the works of Stapledon, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Poring over an Encyclopaedia Britannica entry, he taught himself calculus by the time he was 15, knowledge that served him well in World War II when he became an analyst for the Royal Air Force Bomber Command.
To his dismay, he calculated that experienced bomber crews had no better chance of surviving a mission over Germany than inexperienced ones, and he saw the futility of loading bomber crews with tail gunners who rarely had anything to shoot at and merely increased the number of British casualties. But in his 1979 memoir, “Disturbing the Universe,” he rued his youthful timidity and conformism and consequent failure to take action to change policies.
Mr. Dyson witnessed how technology had “made evil anonymous,” as the bombers dropped incendiary explosives that ignited firestorms, destroying whole cities. He wondered later “how it happened that I let myself become involved in this crazy game of murder.”
“I sat in my office until the end,” he wrote, “carefully calculating how to murder another hundred thousand people most economically. After the war ended, I read reports of the trials of men who had been high up in the Eichmann organization. They had sat in their offices writing memoranda and calculating how to murder people efficiently, just like me. The main difference was that they were sent to jail or hanged as war criminals and I went free.” (Adolf Eichmann was a key architect of the Nazi Holocaust.)
In 1947, Mr. Dyson journeyed to the United States to study as a graduate student at Cornell University, doing research under the physicist and future Nobel laureate Hans Bethe. He took a cross-country trip by car with a young, brilliant scientist named Richard Feynman. During this period, he spoke to, collaborated with or attended lectures by many other leading scientists, including Edward Teller, Julian Schwinger and J. Robert Oppenheimer.
These were people who had built atomic bombs while simultaneously probing the secrets of the atom. Mr. Dyson had a knack for engaging them in long conversations, sometimes over weeks or months. One day in September 1948, while riding on a Greyhound bus across the plains of Nebraska and spending his vacation deep in thought about the various theories he had been busily absorbing, he had a revelation about how he could combine some of the ideas.
He arrived in Princeton and took up a position, working under Oppenheimer, at the Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein had been spending his years in exile in vain pursuit of a grand unified theory. The first thing Mr. Dyson did was write down the conclusions he had reached on his cross-country bus ride, and those concepts evolved into his paper on quantum electrodynamics.
A raging intellectual battle took place amid Oppenheimer’s seminars regarding Mr. Dyson’s brainstorm. Until one day, he wrote, “I found in my mailbox Oppenheimer’s formal note of surrender, a small piece of paper with the words ‘Nolo contendere. R.O.’ scrawled on it in his handwriting.”
Peacenik and fringe thinker
In the 1960s, Mr. Dyson changed his mind about atomic bombs. He had been opposed to a ban on atomic testing and had earned a reputation as a military hard-liner — a status that gave him credibility with conservatives in Congress when he later became a peacenik. His conversion came in part from a simple exercise in calculation: He looked at all the atomic explosions starting in 1945 and, to his horror, saw them increasing in number exponentially.
In 1960, he was elected to the council of the Federation of American Scientists, a leading voice for disarmament; he became chairman in 1962 and wrote often for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. In 1962, he also went to work for a new government department called the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; he later testified in Senate hearings that led to the ratification of a treaty banning atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons. His book on the subject of nuclear war, “Weapons and Hope,” won a National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984.
The same innovations that made atomic bombs and long-range missiles could potentially open space to human exploration, and Mr. Dyson believed humans would find their destiny in the stars. He believed genetic engineering would make it easier.
“Probably we’ll be a million species before long,” he said in a 1998 interview. “For example, if you want to run around naked on Mars, you’d need a thick skin. I can imagine our descendants on Mars will be more like polar bears.”
He was a full-throated humanist without being fully secular. In “Infinite in All Directions,” he sought to reconcile science and religion, or at least create space for them to work congenially in their own orbits. That attitude propelled him to the 2000 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.
Mr. Dyson said he was raised in a conventional Christian environment and did not reject that, although as a scientist he could not embrace dogma. Scientists insist all propositions remain open to doubt and refinement.
“I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension,” he wrote.
His technophilia may explain his apostasy on global warming. In the early 2000s, he drew furious criticism from other scientists and environmentalists for his views on climate change. Although he did not deny the Earth was warming — he was not a global warming denier in the strictest sense — he thought the environmental movement had overstated the threats to the planet.
“I just don’t see any evidence that global warming is particularly dangerous,” he said.
That view is not shared by the overwhelming majority of scientists. Mr. Dyson’s fringe position reflected a deeper philosophy: that change is coming, inevitably, and we should embrace it and not fear it. His scenarios for the future always involved a completely different sort of human existence.
In Mr. Dyson’s expansive cosmos, our destiny is to spread intelligence everywhere.
“The universe is like a fertile soil spread out all around us, ready for the seeds of mind to sprout and grow,” he wrote. “Ultimately, late or soon, mind will come into its heritage.”
Mr. Dyson’s first marriage, to mathematician Verena Huber, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife since 1958, the former Imme Jung of Princeton; two children from his first marriage, George Dyson of Bellingham, Wash., and Esther Dyson of Manhattan; four daughters from his second marriage, Dorothy Dyson of Redding, Calif., Emily Dyson-Scott of La Jolla, Calif., Miriam “Mia” Dyson of Freeport, Maine, and Rebecca Dyson of Ashland, Ore.; and 16 grandchildren.
“In some ways, my lifetime has been amazingly quiet and stable. My mother lived through much bigger changes,” Mr. Dyson told The Post. “She started her life riding around in a pony cart and finished up flying in jet planes. I haven’t had any changes as big as that.”
Whether the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) disproportionately helped the rich may be 2020’s biggest political issue. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin claimsthat it benefited most Americans. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) calls it a massive giveaway to the rich.
Unfortunately, no one can tell from the TCJA studies done to date. Those studies, produced by government agencies and D.C. think tanks, do conventional fiscal analysis, which, truth be told, has four fatal flaws.
First, it’s static. It considers only taxes paid in the current year. But TCJA impacts, and differentially so, every household’s future taxes.
Second, conventional TCJA analysis classifies households as rich or poor based on current-year income. This means a billionaire investor who realizes no capital gains can be classified as poor even though she’s rich.
Third, it lumps together the old and the young. But the young have higher incomes not because they’re richer but because they’re working.
Fourth, conventional analysis takes current-year, after-tax income as the measure of welfare. But consumption (spending), both current and future, is what economics, as well as the public, ultimately care about.
Why are the outstanding economists working in Washington doing highly misleading tax analysis? The answers I get are, first, members of congress are their clients and are used to seeing the wrong numbers presented in the wrong way. Second, members of congress aren’t smart enough to process the right numbers.
This “good enough for government work” approach isn’t good enough for voters. Nor is it economists’ role to teach or talk down to members of congress, who, by the way, seem plenty smart to me.
In any case, to rectify this situation, I, together with Berkeley economist Alan Auerbach and Darryl Koehler, an engineer in my financial planning software company, have spent the last five years fixing tax analysis.
Our just-released study, “U.S. Inequality and Fiscal Progressivity,” which includes an appraisal of TCJA, addresses all four aforementioned mistakes.
First, we consider remaining lifetime net taxes (taxes paid net of benefits received), not just taxes paid in the current year. Second, we classify households as rich or poor based on their remaining lifetime resources (net wealth plus the present value of projected future labor earnings), not their current income.
Third, we analyze inequality and fiscal progressivity within birth cohorts.
Fourth, we measure household welfare based on remaining lifetime spending, including bequests.
Where do we get the data? We run the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances through a tool — The Fiscal Analyzer (TFA) — which we developed using my company’s software.
TFA incorporates all federal and state fiscal policies, including the federal personal and corporate income taxes, state income taxes, state-specific Medicaid benefits, welfare (TANF) benefits, Social Security benefits, Medicare benefits and premiums, payroll tax, food stamps and ObamaCare’s subsidies.
Our study has important findings for inequality and fiscal progressivity. Inequality in remaining lifetime spending is dramatically lower than inequality in wealth.
For example, the richest 1 percent of 40-year-olds own 34 percent of their cohort’s wealth, but account for only 15 percent of its spending. This cohort’s poorest 20 percent own less than 1 percent of cohort wealth but do 7 percent of its spending.
This reflects two things: Labor income is far more equally distributed than is net wealth and the U.S. fiscal system is highly progressive. Indeed, the richest 1 percent of 40-year-olds pay 35 percent of their remaining lifetime resources in remaining lifetime net taxes.
Those in the third, second and first resource quintiles (20-percent groupings) face 13 percent, 4 percent, and negative 47 percent average remaining lifetime net tax rates, respectively.
The study also shows that large shares of households who are in the second, third and fourth quintiles of the remaining lifetime resource distributions are conventionally classified as richer or poorer than is actually the case due to ranking based on current income.
What about TCJA? Was it a giveaway to the rich? No and yes, depending on your fairness criterion. Let’s again consider 40-year-olds. Results for other cohorts are similar.
TCJA’s generally small percentage-point cuts in remaining lifetime net tax rates are largest for the middle class. The cut is 1.7 percentage points for the middle fifth (third quintile) compared with 1.1 for the poorest fifth (bottom quintile) and 0.8 for the richest 1 percent.
The corresponding percentage increases in lifetime spending are 1.9 percent for the third quintile, 0.8 percent for the bottom quintile, and 1.1 percent for the top 1 percent. Only 3 percent of 40-years-olds saw their lifetime net taxes rise and their lifetime spending fall.
What share of the tax cuts went to the rich and the poor? The richest 1 percent received 9.3 percent of the total tax cuts, the top 5 percent got 26.5 percent, the top quintile received 52.2 percent and the bottom quintile got 3.3 percent.
So, the rich received the lion’s share of the tax cut. But they also pay the lion’s share of taxes. The top 1 percent pay 30.2 percent, the top 5 percent pay 51.1 percent, the top quintile pays 80.1 percent and the bottom quintile pays negative 9.0 percent.
Hence, TCJA was progressive as conventionally defined. The rich received less than a proportionate share of TCJA’s total tax cut. The very poor benefited even though they pay negative net taxes.
These figures may well understate the progressivity of TCJA. Our analysis assumes that the share owners of U.S. companies (most rich Americans) bear the burden of the U.S. corporate income tax.
Others, ourselves included, think the burden of the corporate tax actually falls in full or in large part on U.S. workers (mostly middle-class and poor Americans). Why? Because it limits investment in the U.S., which limits worker productivity. Were we to assume that the corporate tax falls on labor, not capital, the TCJA would be even more progressive.
Doing the analysis correctly matters. When we use our data to do conventional tax analysis (rank households by current income, consider only current-year taxes and toss the young and old in the same pot), we find that TCJA is regressive, i.e., those with the highest incomes experience the highest percentage-point reduction in current-year tax rates.
Indeed, the correlation coefficient between our current-year tax rates and those of the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) based on the JCT’s income intervals is 96 percent. Hence, it’s not our data, but economics’ clearly prescribed methodology that produces the exactly opposite result for the TCJA’s progressivity as conventional and conventionally inappropriate fiscal “analysis.”
For Secretary Mnuchin, these findings will be heartening. But Senator Sanders will surely focus on the absolute size of average lifetime tax cuts. On average, the richest 1 percent received a $278,540 lifetime tax cut (lifetime spending increase) under TCJA — miles higher than the $21,704 going, on average, to those in the middle and the $4,975 going, on average, to those at the bottom.
Did the top 1 percent of 40-year-olds who pay, on average and to be fair, over $13 million in lifetime net taxes deserve a tax break equal to the annual pay of 18 McDonald’s workers? Did anyone deserve a tax break given the massive official federal debt and gargantuan off-the-books liabilities we’re dumping in our children’s laps?
These questions of intra- and intergenerational fairness are something voters will intensely debate over the coming 16 months. Economists can’t tell them what’s fair. But we can, at long last, provide them with tax analysis they can trust.
This column originally appeared in The Hill.
Larry Kotlikoff is a Professor of Economics at Boston University and the founder and president of Economic Security Planning, Inc, a company that markets Maximize My Social Security and MaxiFi Planner. Both tools maximize lifetime Social Security benefits. MaxiFi also finds retirement account withdrawal strategies and other ways to lower your lifetime taxes and raise your lifetime spending. Most important, it suggests how much to spend and save each year to enjoy a stable living standard through time.
Check me out. The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B. No, it’s more as if I’d been a catcher for the Hall of Fame pitcher Candy Cummings, the inventor of the curveball, who retired from the game in 1877. To put this another way, if I pointed that hand at you like a pistol and fired at your nose, the bullet would nail you in the left knee. Arthritis.
Now, still facing you, if I cover my left, or better, eye with one hand, what I see is a blurry encircling version of the ceiling and floor and walls or windows to our right and left but no sign of your face or head: nothing in the middle. But cheer up: if I reverse things and cover my right eye, there you are, back again. If I take my hand away and look at you with both eyes, the empty hole disappears and you’re in 3-D, and actually looking pretty terrific today. Macular degeneration.
I’m ninety-three, and I’m feeling great. Well, pretty great, unless I’ve forgotten to take a couple of Tylenols in the past four or five hours, in which case I’ve begun to feel some jagged little pains shooting down my left forearm and into the base of the thumb. Shingles, in 1996, with resultant nerve damage.
Like many men and women my age, I get around with a couple of arterial stents that keep my heart chunking. I also sport a minute plastic seashell that clamps shut a congenital hole in my heart, discovered in my early eighties. The surgeon at Mass General who fixed up this PFO (a patent foramen ovale—I love to say it) was a Mexican-born character actor in beads and clogs, and a fervent admirer of Derek Jeter. Counting this procedure and the stents, plus a passing balloon angioplasty and two or three false alarms, I’ve become sort of a table potato, unalarmed by the X-ray cameras swooping eerily about just above my naked body in a darkened and icy operating room; there’s also a little TV screen up there that presents my heart as a pendant ragbag attached to tacky ribbons of veins and arteries. But never mind. Nowadays, I pop a pink beta-blocker and a white statin at breakfast, along with several lesser pills, and head off to my human-wreckage gym, and it’s been a couple of years since the last showing.
My left knee is thicker but shakier than my right. I messed it up playing football, eons ago, but can’t remember what went wrong there more recently. I had a date to have the joint replaced by a famous knee man (he’s listed in the Metropolitan Opera program as a major supporter) but changed course at the last moment, opting elsewhere for injections of synthetic frog hair or rooster combs or something, which magically took away the pain. I walk around with a cane now when outdoors—“Stop brandishing!” I hear my wife, Carol, admonishing—which gives me a nice little edge when hailing cabs.
The lower-middle sector of my spine twists and jogs like a Connecticut county road, thanks to a herniated disk seven or eight years ago. This has cost me two or three inches of height, transforming me from Gary Cooper to Geppetto. After days spent groaning on the floor, I received a blessed epidural, ending the ordeal. “You can sit up now,” the doctor said, whisking off his shower cap. “Listen, do you know who Dominic Chianese is?”
“Isn’t that Uncle Junior?” I said, confused. “You know—from ‘The Sopranos’?”
“Yes,” he said. “He and I play in a mandolin quartet every Wednesday night at the Hotel Edison. Do you think you could help us get a listing in the front of The New Yorker?”
I’ve endured a few knocks but missed worse. I know how lucky I am, and secretly tap wood, greet the day, and grab a sneaky pleasure from my survival at long odds. The pains and insults are bearable. My conversation may be full of holes and pauses, but I’ve learned to dispatch a private Apache scout ahead into the next sentence, the one coming up, to see if there are any vacant names or verbs in the landscape up there. If he sends back a warning, I’ll pause meaningfully, duh, until something else comes to mind.
On the other hand, I’ve not yet forgotten Keats or Dick Cheney or what’s waiting for me at the dry cleaner’s today. As of right now, I’m not Christopher Hitchens or Tony Judt or Nora Ephron; I’m not dead and not yet mindless in a reliable upstate facility. Decline and disaster impend, but my thoughts don’t linger there. It shouldn’t surprise me if at this time next week I’m surrounded by family, gathered on short notice—they’re sad and shocked but also a little pissed off to be here—to help decide, after what’s happened, what’s to be done with me now. It must be this hovering knowledge, that two-ton safe swaying on a frayed rope just over my head, that makes everyone so glad to see me again. “How great you’re looking! Wow, tell me your secret!” they kindly cry when they happen upon me crossing the street or exiting a dinghy or departing an X-ray room, while the little balloon over their heads reads, “Holy shit—he’s still vertical!”
Let’s move on. A smooth fox terrier of ours named Harry was full of surprises. Wildly sociable, like others of his breed, he grew a fraction more reserved in maturity, and learned to cultivate a separate wagging acquaintance with each fresh visitor or old pal he came upon in the living room. If friends had come for dinner, he’d arise from an evening nap and leisurely tour the table in imitation of a three-star headwaiter: Everything O.K. here? Is there anything we could bring you? How was the crème brûlée? Terriers aren’t water dogs, but Harry enjoyed kayaking in Maine, sitting like a figurehead between my knees for an hour or more and scoping out the passing cormorant or yachtsman. Back in the city, he established his personality and dashing good looks on the neighborhood to the extent that a local artist executed a striking head-on portrait in pointillist oils, based on a snapshot of him she’d sneaked in Central Park. Harry took his leave (another surprise) on a June afternoon three years ago, a few days after his eighth birthday. Alone in our fifth-floor apartment, as was usual during working hours, he became unhinged by a noisy thunderstorm and went out a front window left a quarter open on a muggy day. I knew him well and could summon up his feelings during the brief moments of that leap: the welcome coolness of rain on his muzzle and shoulders, the excitement of air and space around his outstretched body.
Here in my tenth decade, I can testify that the downside of great age is the room it provides for rotten news. Living long means enough already. When Harry died, Carol and I couldn’t stop weeping; we sat in the bathroom with his retrieved body on a mat between us, the light-brown patches on his back and the near-black of his ears still darkened by the rain, and passed a Kleenex box back and forth between us. Not all the tears were for him. Two months earlier, a beautiful daughter of mine, my oldest child, had ended her life, and the oceanic force and mystery of that event had not left full space for tears. Now we could cry without reserve, weep together for Harry and Callie and ourselves. Harry cut us loose.
A few notes about age is my aim here, but a little more about loss is inevitable. “Most of the people my age is dead. You could look it up” was the way Casey Stengel put it. He was seventy-five at the time, and contemporary social scientists might prefer Casey’s line delivered at eighty-five now, for accuracy, but the point remains. We geezers carry about a bulging directory of dead husbands or wives, children, parents, lovers, brothers and sisters, dentists and shrinks, office sidekicks, summer neighbors, classmates, and bosses, all once entirely familiar to us and seen as part of the safe landscape of the day. It’s no wonder we’re a bit bent. The surprise, for me, is that the accruing weight of these departures doesn’t bury us, and that even the pain of an almost unbearable loss gives way quite quickly to something more distant but still stubbornly gleaming. The dead have departed, but gestures and glances and tones of voice of theirs, even scraps of clothing—that pale-yellow Saks scarf—reappear unexpectedly, along with accompanying touches of sweetness or irritation.
Our dead are almost beyond counting and we want to herd them along, pen them up somewhere in order to keep them straight. I like to think of mine as fellow-voyagers crowded aboard the Île de France (the idea is swiped from “Outward Bound”). Here’s my father, still handsome in his tuxedo, lighting a Lucky Strike. There’s Ted Smith, about to name-drop his Gloucester home town again. Here comes Slim Aarons. Here’s Esther Mae Counts, from fourth grade: hi, Esther Mae. There’s Gardner—with Cecille Shawn, for some reason. Here’s Ted Yates. Anna Hamburger. Colba F. Gucker, better known as Chief. Bob Ascheim. Victor Pritchett—and Dorothy. Henry Allen. Bart Giamatti. My elder old-maid cousin Jean Webster and her unexpected, late-arriving Brit husband, Capel Hanbury. Kitty Stableford. Dan Quisenberry. Nancy Field. Freddy Alexandre. I look around for others and at times can almost produce someone at will. Callie returns, via a phone call. “Dad?” It’s her, all right, her voice affectionately rising at the end—“Da-ad?”—but sounding a bit impatient this time. She’s in a hurry. And now Harold Eads. Toni Robin. Dick Salmon, his face bright red with laughter. Edith Oliver. Sue Dawson. Herb Mitgang. Coop. Tudie. Elwood Carter.
These names are best kept in mind rather than boxed and put away somewhere. Old letters are engrossing but feel historic in numbers, photo albums delightful but with a glum after-kick like a chocolate caramel. Home movies are killers: Zeke, a long-gone Lab, alive again, rushing from right to left with a tennis ball in his mouth; my sister Nancy, stunning at seventeen, smoking a lipstick-stained cigarette aboard Astrid, with the breeze stirring her tied-up brown hair; my mother laughing and ducking out of the picture again, waving her hands in front of her face in embarrassment—she’s about thirty-five. Me sitting cross-legged under a Ping-Pong table, at eleven. Take us away.
My list of names is banal but astounding, and it’s barely a fraction, the ones that slip into view in the first minute or two. Anyone over sixty knows this; my list is only longer. I don’t go there often, but, once I start, the battalion of the dead is on duty, alertly waiting. Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this. Why am I not endlessly grieving?
What I’ve come to count on is the white-coated attendant of memory, silently here again to deliver dabs from the laboratory dish of me. In the days before Carol died, twenty months ago, she lay semiconscious in bed at home, alternating periods of faint or imperceptible breathing with deep, shuddering catch-up breaths. Then, in a delicate gesture, she would run the pointed tip of her tongue lightly around the upper curve of her teeth. She repeated this pattern again and again. I’ve forgotten, perhaps mercifully, much of what happened in that last week and the weeks after, but this recurs.
Carol is around still, but less reliably. For almost a year, I would wake up from another late-afternoon mini-nap in the same living-room chair, and, in the instants before clarity, would sense her sitting in her own chair, just opposite. Not a ghost but a presence, alive as before and in the same instant gone again. This happened often, and I almost came to count on it, knowing that it wouldn’t last. Then it stopped.
People my age and younger friends as well seem able to recall entire tapestries of childhood, and swatches from their children’s early lives as well: conversations, exact meals, birthday parties, illnesses, picnics, vacation B. and B.s, trips to the ballet, the time when . . . I can’t do this and it eats at me, but then, without announcement or connection, something turns up. I am walking on Ludlow Lane, in Snedens, with my two young daughters, years ago on a summer morning. I’m in my late thirties; they’re about nine and six, and I’m complaining about the steep little stretch of road between us and our house, just up the hill. Maybe I’m getting old, I offer. Then I say that one day I’ll be really old and they’ll have to hold me up. I imitate an old man mumbling nonsense and start to walk with wobbly legs. Callie and Alice scream with laughter and hold me up, one on each side. When I stop, they ask for more, and we do this over and over.
I’m leaving out a lot, I see. My work— I’m still working, or sort of. Reading. The collapsing, grossly insistent world. Stuff I get excited about or depressed about all the time. Dailiness—but how can I explain this one? Perhaps with a blog recently posted on Facebook by a woman I know who lives in Australia. “Good Lord, we’ve run out of nutmeg!” it began. “How in the world did that ever happen?” Dozens of days are like that with me lately.
Intimates and my family—mine not very near me now but always on call, always with me. My children Alice and John Henry and my daughter-in-law Alice—yes, another one—and my granddaughters Laura and Lily and Clara, who together and separately were as steely and resplendent as a company of Marines on the day we buried Carol. And on other days and in other ways as well. Laura, for example, who will appear almost overnight, on demand, to drive me and my dog and my stuff five hundred miles Down East, then does it again, backward, later in the summer. Hours of talk and sleep (mine, not hers) and renewal—the abandoned mills at Lawrence, Mass., Cat Mousam Road, the Narramissic River still there—plus a couple of nights together, with the summer candles again.
Friends in great numbers now, taking me to dinner or cooking in for me. (One afternoon, I found a freshly roasted chicken sitting outside my front door; two hours later, another one appeared in the same spot.) Friends inviting me to the opera, or to Fairway on Sunday morning, or to dine with their kids at the East Side Deli, or to a wedding at the Rockbound Chapel, or bringing in ice cream to share at my place while we catch another Yankees game. They saved my life. In the first summer after Carol had gone, a man I’d known slightly and pleasantly for decades listened while I talked about my changed routines and my doctors and dog walkers and the magazine. I paused for a moment, and he said, “Plus you have us.”
Another message—also brief, also breathtaking—came on an earlier afternoon at my longtime therapist’s, at a time when I felt I’d lost almost everything. “I don’t know how I’m going to get through this,” I said at last.
A silence, then: “Neither do I. But you will.”
I am a world-class complainer but find palpable joy arriving with my evening Dewar’s, from Robinson Cano between pitches, from the first pages once again of “Appointment in Samarra” or the last lines of the Elizabeth Bishop poem called “Poem.” From the briefest strains of Handel or Roy Orbison, or Dennis Brain playing the early bars of his stunning Mozart horn concertos. (This Angel recording may have been one of the first things Carol and I acquired just after our marriage, and I hear it playing on a sunny Saturday morning in our Ninety-fourth Street walkup.) Also the recalled faces and then the names of Jean Dixon or Roscoe Karns or Porter Hall or Brad Dourif in another Netflix rerun. Chloë Sevigny in “Trees Lounge.” Gail Collins on a good day. Family ice-skating up near Harlem in the nineteen-eighties, with the Park employees, high on youth or weed, looping past us backward to show their smiles.
Recent and not so recent surveys (including the six-decades-long Grant Study of the lives of some nineteen-forties Harvard graduates) confirm that a majority of us people over seventy-five keep surprising ourselves with happiness. Put me on that list. Our children are adults now and mostly gone off, and let’s hope full of their own lives. We’ve outgrown our ambitions. If our wives or husbands are still with us, we sense a trickle of contentment flowing from the reliable springs of routine, affection in long silences, calm within the light boredom of well-worn friends, retold stories, and mossy opinions. Also the distant whoosh of a surfaced porpoise outside our night windows.
We elders—what kind of a handle is this, anyway, halfway between a tree and an eel?—we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility. Here I am in a conversation with some trusty friends—old friends but actually not all that old: they’re in their sixties—and we’re finishing the wine and in serious converse about global warming in Nyack or Virginia Woolf the cross-dresser. There’s a pause, and I chime in with a couple of sentences. The others look at me politely, then resume the talk exactly at the point where they’ve just left it. What? Hello? Didn’t I just say something? Have I left the room? Have I experienced what neurologists call a TIA—a transient ischemic attack? I didn’t expect to take over the chat but did await a word or two of response. Not tonight, though. (Women I know say that this began to happen to them when they passed fifty.) When I mention the phenomenon to anyone around my age, I get back nods and smiles. Yes, we’re invisible. Honored, respected, even loved, but not quite worth listening to anymore. You’ve had your turn, Pops; now it’s ours.
I’ve been asking myself why I don’t think about my approaching visitor, death. He was often on my mind thirty or forty years ago, I believe, though more of a stranger. Death terrified me then, because I had so many engagements. The enforced opposite—no dinner dates or coming attractions, no urgent business, no fun, no calls, no errands, no returned words or touches—left a blank that I could not light or furnish: a condition I recognized from childhood bad dreams and sudden awakenings. Well, not yet, not soon, or probably not, I would console myself, and that welcome but then tediously repeated postponement felt in time less like a threat than like a family obligation—tea with Aunt Molly in Montclair, someday soon but not now. Death, meanwhile, was constantly onstage or changing costume for his next engagement—as Bergman’s thick-faced chess player; as the medieval night-rider in a hoodie; as Woody Allen’s awkward visitor half-falling into the room as he enters through the window; as W. C. Fields’s man in the bright nightgown—and in my mind had gone from spectre to a waiting second-level celebrity on the Letterman show. Or almost. Some people I knew seemed to have lost all fear when dying and awaited the end with a certain impatience. “I’m tired of lying here,” said one. “Why is this taking so long?” asked another. Death will get it on with me eventually, and stay much too long, and though I’m in no hurry about the meeting, I feel I know him almost too well by now.
A weariness about death exists in me and in us all in another way, as well, though we scarcely notice it. We have become tireless voyeurs of death: he is on the morning news and the evening news and on the breaking, middle-of–the-day news as well—not the celebrity death, I mean, but the everyone-else death. A roadside-accident figure, covered with a sheet. A dead family, removed from a ramshackle faraway building pocked and torn by bullets. The transportation dead. The dead in floods and hurricanes and tsunamis, in numbers called “tolls.” The military dead, presented in silence on your home screen, looking youthful and well combed. The enemy war dead or rediscovered war dead, in higher figures. Appalling and dulling totals not just from this year’s war but from the ones before that, and the ones way back that some of us still around may have also attended. All the dead from wars and natural events and school shootings and street crimes and domestic crimes that each of us has once again escaped and felt terrible about and plans to go and leave wreaths or paper flowers at the site of. There’s never anything new about death, to be sure, except its improved publicity. At second hand, we have become death’s expert witnesses; we know more about death than morticians, feel as much at home with it as those poor bygone schlunks trying to survive a continent-ravaging, low-digit-century epidemic. Death sucks but, enh—click the channel.
I get along. Now and then it comes to me that I appear to have more energy and hope than some of my coevals, but I take no credit for this. I don’t belong to a book club or a bridge club; I’m not taking up Mandarin or practicing the viola. In a sporadic effort to keep my brain from moldering, I’ve begun to memorize shorter poems—by Auden, Donne, Ogden Nash, and more—which I recite to myself some nights while walking my dog, Harry’s successor fox terrier, Andy. I’ve also become a blogger, and enjoy the ease and freedom of the form: it’s a bit like making a paper airplane and then watching it take wing below your window. But shouldn’t I have something more scholarly or complex than this put away by now—late paragraphs of accomplishments, good works, some weightier op cits? I’m afraid not. The thoughts of age are short, short thoughts. I don’t read Scripture and cling to no life precepts, except perhaps to Walter Cronkite’s rules for old men, which he did not deliver over the air: Never trust a fart. Never pass up a drink. Never ignore an erection.
I count on jokes, even jokes about death.
TEACHER: Good morning, class. This is the first day of school and we’re going to introduce ourselves. I’ll call on you, one by one, and you can tell us your name and maybe what your dad or your mom does for a living. You, please, over at this end.
SMALL BOY: My name is Irving and my dad is a mechanic.
TEACHER: A mechanic! Thank you, Irving. Next?
SMALL GIRL: My name is Emma and my mom is a lawyer.
TEACHER: How nice for you, Emma! Next?
SECOND SMALL BOY: My name is Luke and my dad is dead.
TEACHER: Oh, Luke, how sad for you. We’re all very sorry about that, aren’t we, class? Luke, do you think you could tell us what Dad did before he died?
LUKE (seizes his throat): He went “_N’gungghhh! _”
Not bad—I’m told that fourth graders really go for this one. Let’s try another.
A man and his wife tried and tried to have a baby, but without success. Years went by and they went on trying, but no luck. They liked each other, so the work was always a pleasure, but they grew a bit sad along the way. Finally, she got pregnant, was very careful, and gave birth to a beautiful eight-pound-two-ounce baby boy. The couple were beside themselves with happiness. At the hospital that night, she told her husband to stop by the local newspaper and arrange for a birth announcement, to tell all their friends the good news. First thing next morning, she asked if he’d done the errand.
“Yes, I did,” he said, “but I had no idea those little notices in the paper were so expensive.”
“Expensive?” she said. “How much was it?”
“It was eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars. I have the receipt.”
“Eight hundred and thirty-seven dollars!” she cried. “But that’s impossible. You must have made some mistake. Tell me exactly what happened.”
“There was a young lady behind a counter at the paper, who gave me the form to fill out,” he said. “I put in your name and my name and little Teddy’s name and weight, and when we’d be home again and, you know, ready to see friends. I handed it back to her and she counted up the words and said, ‘How many insertions?’ I said twice a week for fourteen years, and she gave me the bill. O.K.?”
I heard this tale more than fifty years ago, when my first wife, Evelyn, and I were invited to tea by a rather elegant older couple who were new to our little Rockland County community. They were in their seventies, at least, and very welcoming, and it was just the four of us. We barely knew them and I was surprised when he turned and asked her to tell us the joke about the couple trying to have a baby. “Oh, no,” she said, “they wouldn’t want to hear that.”
“Oh, come on, dear—they’ll love it,” he said, smiling at her. I groaned inwardly and was preparing a forced smile while she started off shyly, but then, of course, the four of us fell over laughing together.
That night, Evelyn said, “Did you see Keith’s face while Edie was telling that story? Did you see hers? Do you think it’s possible that they’re still—you know, still doing it?”
“Yes, I did—yes, I do,” I said. “I was thinking exactly the same thing. They’re amazing.”
This was news back then, but probably shouldn’t be by now. I remember a passage I came upon years later, in an Op-Ed piece in the Times, written by a man who’d just lost his wife. “We slept naked in the same bed for forty years,” it went. There was also my splendid colleague Bob Bingham, dying in his late fifties, who was asked by a friend what he’d missed or would do differently if given the chance. He thought for an instant, and said, “More venery.”
More venery. More love; more closeness; more sex and romance. Bring it back, no matter what, no matter how old we are. This fervent cry of ours has been certified by Simone de Beauvoir and Alice Munro and Laurence Olivier and any number of remarried or recoupled ancient classmates of ours. Laurence Olivier? I’m thinking of what he says somewhere in an interview: “Inside, we’re all seventeen, with red lips.”
This is a dodgy subject, coming as it does here from a recent widower, and I will risk a further breach of code and add that this was something that Carol and I now and then idly discussed. We didn’t quite see the point of memorial fidelity. In our view, the departed spouse—we always thought it would be me—wouldn’t be around anymore but knew or had known that he or she was loved forever. Please go ahead, then, sweetheart—don’t miss a moment. Carol said this last: “If you haven’t found someone else by a year after I’m gone I’ll come back and haunt you.”
Getting old is the second-biggest surprise of my life, but the first, by a mile, is our unceasing need for deep attachment and intimate love. We oldies yearn daily and hourly for conversation and a renewed domesticity, for company at the movies or while visiting a museum, for someone close by in the car when coming home at night. This is why we throng Match.com and OkCupid in such numbers—but not just for this, surely. Rowing in Eden (in Emily Dickinson’s words: “Rowing in Eden— / Ah—the sea”) isn’t reserved for the lithe and young, the dating or the hooked-up or the just lavishly married, or even for couples in the middle-aged mixed-doubles semifinals, thank God. No personal confession or revelation impends here, but these feelings in old folks are widely treated like a raunchy secret. The invisibility factor—you’ve had your turn—is back at it again. But I believe that everyone in the world wants to be with someone else tonight, together in the dark, with the sweet warmth of a hip or a foot or a bare expanse of shoulder within reach. Those of us who have lost that, whatever our age, never lose the longing: just look at our faces. If it returns, we seize upon it avidly, stunned and altered again.
Nothing is easy at this age, and first meetings for old lovers can be a high-risk venture. Reticence and awkwardness slip into the room. Also happiness. A wealthy old widower I knew married a nurse he met while in the hospital, but had trouble remembering her name afterward. He called her “kid.” An eighty-plus, twice-widowed lady I’d once known found still another love, a frail but vibrant Midwest professor, now close to ninety, and the pair got in two or three happy years together before he died as well. When she called his children and arranged to pick up her things at his house, she found every possession of hers lined up outside the front door.
But to hell with them and with all that, O.K.? Here’s to you, old dears. You got this right, every one of you. Hook, line, and sinker; never mind the why or wherefore; somewhere in the night; love me forever, or at least until next week. For us and for anyone this unsettles, anyone who’s younger and still squirms at the vision of an old couple embracing, I’d offer John Updike’s “Sex or death: you take your pick”—a line that appears (in a slightly different form) in a late story of his, “Playing with Dynamite.”
This is a great question, an excellent insurance-plan choice, I mean. I think it’s in the Affordable Care Act somewhere. Take it from us, who know about the emptiness of loss, and are still cruising along here feeling lucky and not yet entirely alone. ♦