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The Straggler

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Review of the fiscal situation
"In Berlin the situation is serious but not desperate; in Vienna, the situation is desperate but not serious." This quip was heard around Central Europe in the closing days of both world wars, but certainly predates 1918. Political Scientist Paul Gottfried, my go-to guy on matters Mitteleuropäisch, thinks it originated with one of the late-Hapsburg... Read More
Bidibidobidiboo and other art objects.
The first thing I saw on entering the atrium of the Guggenheim was a horse suspended in a sling ten feet above the ground. The sling went under the belly of the beast (as it were), leaving its head, legs, and tail drooping down dolefully. A great many other things were also suspended from the... Read More
Russia, imagined and real.
I have just spent a week in Moscow with Mrs. Straggler at the invitation of a Russian foundation. Neither of us had been in Russia before. It was a working trip, with very little time for sightseeing, and that only in central Moscow. It was, though, in a perfunctory way, an opportunity to compare the... Read More
I am ill-read.
"Should I read Thomas Mann?" Miss Straggler wanted to know. She has enrolled in some sort of freshman Western Lit. course at college, and keeps coming up with these questions. What to say? I have never, to my knowledge, read a single word Thomas Mann ever wrote, though I did sit through that sappy Dirk... Read More
Goodbye, "supererogate"
Thus the founder of this magazine, writing in these pages, issue dated November 19, 1955. Bill Buckley was famously a man of many, many words. He had, I mean, more words at his disposal — there in his head, ready to use — than most of us have. That "supererogation" is characteristic. Bill used the... Read More
While I still can
We do ever more of our shopping online, I am told. The printed book is facing extinction, I am also told. The U.S. Postal Service is in dire straits, I am further told. Taken together, these facts imply, along of course with much else, that the big, printed, mail-delivered store catalog may soon be at... Read More
The lost souls of consumer culture.
Also shoes, skirts, dresses, blouses, lingerie, jeans, and sportswear. Jewelry, too; fine leather and luggage; housewares and home furnishings. Kipling's soldier didn't know the 'alf — sorry, half — of it. We had been visiting with friends in upstate New York. Now we were driving home. The first hundred miles was delightful: lovely scenery, clear... Read More
Confessions of a book amasser.
Miss Straggler, just graduated from high school and with time on her hands, came home the other day with two boxes of second-hand books on the back seat of the car. "Found them outside Book Revue," she explained, naming the local independent bookstore. "There was a sign saying to please take them." The books were... Read More
I visit Turkey.
It is always fun to gather first impressions of a foreign country. Turkey is, John O'Sullivan had explained to me, "upper-tier Third World." That seems about right. The Third World-itude exhibits itself at once in the streets. The Turks' own quip about their driving skills is: "In other countries people die by accident; here in... Read More
The fragility of civilization.
Winter conducted a fighting retreat this year, one last storm bringing down our cable service. That left us without TV, Internet, or house phones. When we signed up for this threefold package a couple of years ago, Mrs. Straggler observed that we should soon be getting our food and water from the cable-service provider. With... Read More
I become a client of the welfare state.
There is a school of psychology called Situationism that pooh-poohs the notion of individual character. This line of thought began with some experiments by Stanley Milgram of Yale University in the early 1960s. By manipulating his test subjects' conformism and respect for authority, Milgram was able to get ordinary pleasant people to give near-lethal 450-volt... Read More
Brace for the big commemoration
It starts! January 20th, the fiftieth anniversary of John F. Kennedy's inauguration, passed with little comment, so far as I could judge. Then the public-sector unions of Wisconsin began demonstrating against Governor Walker's bill to cut back their collective-bargaining powers. Propagandists for the unions were keen to remind us that it was John F. Kennedy... Read More
Learning to talk Turkey.
Until very recently the only thing I knew how to say in Turkish was the proverb Nerede çokluk, orada bokluk, which means (I shall bowdlerize slightly) "Where there are people, there is dung." I had learned this by the most random kind of chance. Many years ago I was living in a rooming house in... Read More
I fill a hole.
One of our township's very few claims to fame, perhaps the only one, arises from its cesspools. The Wikipedia article headed "cesspool" devotes an entire paragraph to Huntington. In numbers of people sucked down into collapsing old cesspools, we lead the nation. There were three deaths just this past decade. The Straggler family avoided this... Read More
If you want to get ahead, get a hat!
The other day I stepped into an elevator while wearing a hat. Seeing ladies in the elevator, I removed my hat. One of the ladies, who was of a certain age, complimented me on my manners. "Not many men would know to do that nowadays." Not many men need to. As someone or other has... Read More
Capital punishment then and now.
Scowling out at me from my New York Post is Steven Hayes, recently convicted in an exceptionally vile crime in my neighbor state of Connecticut. With another man, not yet tried, Hayes invaded a family home, clubbed the father senseless, then raped, tortured, strangled, and burned alive the wife and two daughters. He has been... Read More
The past, present, and future of an indispensible material.
What a place it is, this world we humans have made! It has such variety, such abundance of skills and knowledge, so many aspects one never thinks of from one year's end to the next till they are suddenly forced on one's attention. Consider, for example, glass. Over the past three or four years, windows... Read More
The world of work.
August lived up to its reputation as the Silly Season this year, the news dominated for several days by JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater, who quit his job August 9 in a sensational manner, venting his grievances over the plane's PA system then exiting via the emergency chute. (Fortunately the plane was stationary on the... Read More
I become a cyclist.
The recent political ructions over the extension of unemployment benefit brought Norman Tebbit to my mind. Tebbit was Margaret Thatcher's Secretary of State for Employment in the early 1980s. There was some urban rioting, and it was suggested to Tebbit that these disturbances were a natural response to the indignity of unemployment. Tebbit, whose origins... Read More
Priscilla and James.
For some time I had wanted to meet James Buckley, fourth of the ten in his generation. (Bill Buckley was sixth.) This man had an extraordinary career. He served at a high level in all three branches of the federal government: as a U.S. senator, as an undersecretary of state, and as a federal appeals... Read More
The Navy comes to Manhattan.
Fleet Week! For a few days the rather distinctly un-military inhabitants of New York City find that in hurrying from one commercial deal to another, one fashion show to another, one dinner party to another, one charity fundraiser, poetry slam, book-launch party, gallery show, clubbing excursion, coffee-klatch, or private debauch to another, they are sharing... Read More
The risk-reward equation in medicine.
Science fiction writer Robert Sheckley wrote a story titled "Protection" whose first-person protagonist acquires a guardian angel. The angel is actually a validusian derg — an invisible, immaterial being from another plane of existence, present only as a voice in one's head. The derg's sole satisfaction is to keep a human being safe from harm.... Read More
Clubs and clubbability.
Third Thursday of the month, in season, is club night — the meeting, that is, of my gents' dinner club in New York City. We are a heterogeneous crowd: lawyers, doctors, writers, academics, a violinist, an ex-diplomat, some finance types. The club's been in business for decades. Bill Buckley was a member, showing up at... Read More
Finding each other with Google.
My breakfast-time reading matter of choice, the New York Post, has regular stories about long-separated friends, lovers, and family members who find one another via Google. Here's one: High School Sweethearts Rekindle Romance After 50 Years. The boy and girl were parted by a ruse of their parents, who disapproved. Half a century on, he... Read More
Reflections on being an immigrant.
"All those years we thought we were building communism! Actually they've built communism right here in the U.S.A.!" This gets the biggest laugh of the evening. All seven of us in the room laugh, including me, the only non-Chinese. Someone quotes one of Chairman Mao's tremendous Thoughts, "We should pay close attention to the well-being... Read More
Thoughts from passenger-seat limbo.
"The parking brake, honey. Parking brake." "Sorry, Dad." She releases the parking brake and we move out into our quiet suburban street. Signaling, she drives nicely to the corner, stops, looks, and makes a graceful turn in the direction of the village. Coming up to her 17th birthday, my daughter will soon take her driving... Read More
Open the pod bay doors, Hal.
What shall I do to be saved? Well, I might try uploading the contents of my brain to some more durable substrate. If I survive another 30 years, this will be a real option, according to Ray Kurzweil, leading light of the Singularity movement. Singularitarians believe that galloping progress in computer technology and brain science... Read More
Adventures in asphalt.
So many things to know; so many points of view; so many disagreements, so many mishaps. Compared with home ownership, politics is a breeze. We are waiting for the driveway people to show up — the firm, I mean, that seals the surface of the driveway with a black rubberizing liquid. This is a 40-yard... Read More
Captain Cook, Mozart, and the Founding Fathers.
The monument to Captain Cook is on the western side of Kealakekua Bay, on the big island of Hawaii. It is pleasantly inaccessible. You can hike to it from one of the island highways — three hours, our guidebook told us — but we chose to come at it from the seaward side, paddling the... Read More
Sell auto-makers, buy self-storage.
My local GM dealer has shut up shop. I drive past the place every day; it is a melancholy sight. Weeds and tall grasses are coming up all around. The forecourt is empty, more weeds beginning to push up through cracks in the concrete. The big display windows have been crudely masked with some reflective... Read More
Twelve weeks of juvenile idleness.
The thing one always hears about the long school summer vacation is that it is a relic of the time when farmers needed the youngsters to help bring in the harvest. Historians, however, pooh-pooh this. Fear of summertime disease transmission, unavailability of air conditioning, and downward influence from the vacation habits of the rich, seem... Read More
We Landed on the Moon 40 Years Ago.
Is it really 40 years? Good heavens! I suppose everyone who cared about such things can recall the moment with precision. I was working as a bartender at a pub in Liverpool, northwest England. The proprietor of the place, a fussy, middle-aged Irish bachelor, belonged to the category of persons who did not care about... Read More
Confessions of a papyrast.
The question going round the dinner table was: Do you have any secret pleasures of a mentionable kind? The subsequent confessions displayed various degrees of weirdness: the lady who sings show tunes in her car, the middle-aged man who climbs trees when no-one is looking, the book-sniffer. (Some people go to bookstores to buy books;... Read More
One of the leading darks.
I have just recently finished writing a book about pessimism. Spare me the jokes, please. "A book about pessimism? Oh, that'll never sell …" etc. By way of background research into some of the leading lights (darks?) of pessimism, I read Dr. Johnson's magnificent long 1749 poem "The Vanity of Human Wishes" all the way... Read More
The pheasant that got away.
The luckiest bird in the world lives in a wood near Reading, Pa. He popped up out of the tall grass thirty yards in front of me. "Popped" isn't quite right. These were farm-bred pheasants, well-fed and not much keen on flying. They had been scattered around the forty-odd acres of grass early that morning,... Read More
From beneath the sign of Saturn.
Conservatives, it says here, are happier than liberals. I am looking at this much-discussed study from New York University. "The Palliative Function of Conservative Ideology," it's called. So far as I can make out — and you should by no means quote me on this; my powers of attention are not what they should be,... Read More
The occult is still with us.
I was somewhat surprised recently to be told by a friend that she had had a "reading" done. I didn't grasp her meaning immediately. The Church of Scientology came first to mind. Don't they have some ritual (sacrament?) of wiring you up to a device that locates Bad Thoughts? Then, getting more up-to-date, and having... Read More
We need some H.L. Mencken.
President George W. Bush would "like to be a president [known] as somebody who liberated 50 million people and helped achieve peace," it says here. Well, that's nice. I don't recall either of my votes for the gentleman having been cast with that in, or anywhere near, my mind, but I won't begrudge the departing... Read More
Nature/nurture total immersion course.
I know, I know, we are the land of opportunity. Log cabin to White House! Anyone can be anything! Up by the bootstraps! TV talking heads, motivational speakers, pastors and pedagogues, all want to tell us — and especially our children — that we are each a hissing, throbbing little pressure cooker of potential. If... Read More
Life in the middle.
Thus Emmanuel Goldstein in The Book, the one that Winston Smith reads while canoodling with his girlfriend in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Goldstein got the essentials right, but he failed to foresee the great success of meritocratic welfare capitalism. His schema needs a few adjustments. These thoughts ambled through my mind while I was watching... Read More
Playing the slots in Atlantic City.
Sixty-three … single … 62 … single … 61 … triple … Ching! Yes! Fifteen credits! So … 76 … single … 75 … single … That is your columnist playing Triple Cherry. Let me back up a little for some scene-setting. My daughter was away in England, my wife and son both at loose... Read More
Libraries and their discontents.
Has there been some kind of revolution in library management this past year or two? The reason I ask is that I recall library fines as being puny — nickels and dimes even for books overdue by a month or more. And then it seems — and this is impressionistic because I am, you understand,... Read More
The past is full of noises.
"Tovarishchi! Grazhdanye! Bratya i syostri! Boitsy nashei armii i flota! K'vam obrashschayus ya, druzya moi …" One listens in fascination to the man's recorded voice, then goes to one's books. Edvard Radzinsky: "On July 3 Stalin at last made his long-awaited appeal to the people: 'Comrades! Citizens! Brothers and sisters! Warriors of the army and... Read More
Taking a walk.
How far can I walk? The question's been nagging at me for a couple of years. I'm a sedentary type, and walking is the only form of exercise I have ever really indulged in. In my youth I was a great walker. Welsh and Scottish mountains, the country lanes of rural England, the streets of... Read More
First meal of the day.
Is anybody in a good humor at breakfast? Well, Mr. Pickwick was. Our last glimpse of that gentleman is at the breakfast table after the marriage of Mr. Snodgrass. "Mr. Pickwick, having said grace, pauses for an instant, and looks around him. As he does so, the tears roll down his cheeks, in the fulness... Read More
A nephew gets married.
In the beginning there was a mid-20th-century nuclear family living in a small English town: Father, Mother, Sister, and Brother. Brother was the younger of the kids by two years. There was also a much older half-brother, issue of Father but not of Mother — a "bye-blow" in the frank dialect of the ancestral district;... Read More
Family ski trip.
We are five: Dad, Mom, daughter, son, son's friend. The kids have reached the age where they would rather be boiled in oil than be seen in company with their parents, so on this ski lift, with seats three across, all three of them pile into the chair ahead of us, leaving Mr. and Mrs.... Read More
Drinking, Chinese style.
I see that the highest grades of Chinese baijiu ("white liquor"— it's pronounced bye-jee-oo) were retailing at over three thousand dollars the bottle this Lunar New Year. It is good to know that all the T-bonds we have been shipping over there are having their coupons put to use. This particular extravagance probably seems very... Read More
Not my favorite time of year.
Not my favorite time of year. Taxes, for one thing. As a freelancer, working from check to check, the nearest I get to the sly painlessness of the salaryman's withholding tax is quarterly "estimated" payments. Figure out how much income you will have next year (Ha!) Compute federal tax payable. Divide into four equal parts.... Read More
Cartophilia.
Cartography has been in the news recently. It was just five hundred years ago this April that a German monk named Martin Waldseemüller produced the first world map to use the name "America" for our continent. Only one copy of that map survived the centuries. It is in the Library of Congress, who currently have... Read More
Category Classics
Confederate Flag Day, State Capitol, Raleigh, N.C. -- March 3, 2007
The sources of America’s immigration problems—and a possible solution
An alliance of pro-immigrant Democrats and anti-immigration Republicans could finally fix our broken system
Not What Tom Jefferson Had in Mind