Bob Dylan: Bringing the Nobel back home

The first article I ever had published in a national magazine was a little essay about poetry in rock lyrics. I wrote it for a college course on magazine journalism and submitted it to a now-defunct publication called Music Journal, inspired by an English teacher who felt that Bob Dylan and the Beatles were producing some of the more interesting poetry of the day. Dr. Potter intoned “I read the news today, oh boy” (from the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life”) as if it were a line from “The Wasteland.”

Here we are some 45 years later and the world has finally caught up. Bob Dylan—an artist I’ve idolized since high school—last week won the Nobel Prize for literature. As Dylan himself might say, “I see the turning of the page / Curtain rising on a new age” (from “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”).

The announcement got me playing the Dylan classics again. I have so many albums. Back in the day, I would ardently await each new release and earnestly discuss the content with my friends, arguing over the meaning. I have many titles in multiple formats, from vinyl to MP3.

The language is inspired—the poet Allen Ginsberg was a fan and even toured with Dylan for a time—and the rhyme schemes complex (I never tire of parsing the intricate rhythms of “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word,” an early song Dylan wrote for Joan Baez and never recorded himself). And then there are the stories.

Dylan can wrap a complete novella, with a beginning, a middle and an end, into the form factor of a popular song. Take “Hurricane” (written with Jacques Levy), the real-life story of the New Jersey boxer Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, who was jailed for murders he did not commit. It’s practically a work of journalism.

“Black Diamond Bay” tells of a woman trapped on a tropical island that’s about to get walloped by a volcano in the musical equivalent of a comic disaster movie. “Blind Willie McTell” takes us to the Old South and “Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts” to the Old West.

With “Tweeter and the Monkey Man” (recorded when Dylan was part of the Traveling Wilburys supergroup), we are in New Jersey in the company of a pair of small-time crooks (“In Jersey everything’s legal as long as you don’t get caught”). And “Highway 61 Revisited” paints an absurdist landscape filled with wheeler-dealers and schemers of all sorts. I can’t help thinking of Election 2016. “We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun / And have it on Highway 61.”

I recently read a long article in the New Yorker about Leonard Cohen, another rock poet whose career has roughly paralleled Dylan’s. In one telling section, Dylan asks Cohen how long it took him to write his anthem “Hallelujah.” The answer is five years. Cohen then asks how long Dylan spent writing “I and I,” a haunting song from the “Infidels” album. Bob replies, “About 15 minutes.”

How does he do it? It’s a mystery—but one we all can enjoy. Don’t wait another minute. Put on “Desire” or “Blonde on Blonde” and let’s celebrate Bob.

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A brief history of time

I was running the vacuum cleaner on Saturday when something my mother said suddenly came back to me. It was on another weekend long ago when Mom came over to find me likewise cleaning the house. “That’s what people who work do,” she told me.

Retirees, by contrast, can do their housework any day they like. Time is flexible and there’s plenty of it, when there’s no place you have to be on a daily basis.

I am retired now, or at least semi-retired, ever since losing my job six months ago. Until then I always worked—and loved it.

I started out during high school as as a proofreader for my hometown newspaper in the days when huge linotype machines spit out trays of hot type. At deadline time I would go into the press room and read the headlines backward as burly operators made up the pages, inserting lead slugs to adjust the spacing. I’ll never forget the smell—or the noise.

My last job involved working out of a home office for a technology magazine published by a Silicon Valley company. My tools were a laptop, Internet connection and sophisticated publishing software. It’s as if a mechanic started out fixing Model T’s and ended his career tweaking Teslas.

In the spring I had whooping cough, so it was a blessing not to have to drag myself to the computer to work. From summer into fall there was a lot going on, including visits and visitors as well as major home improvement projects. So I haven’t been bored.

Having free time has taught me that time is subjective. Parkinson’s Law—which holds that work expands to fill the available time—is more than a cliché. When I was working, a trip to the grocery store was something squeezed into odd moments. Now, grocery shopping might make my morning. And no, that doesn’t feel sad.

Having time to myself is a luxury. Unless I have a morning appointment, I don’t bother setting an alarm clock, because—well, it doesn’t matter when I get up, except to the cats, who want their breakfast. I have plenty of time to read, another luxury, and time to see friends too.

But I can foresee a point, somewhere past the holidays, when things will slow down and I won’t have anything much to do. How will I like not working then? Will all of this free time be too much of a good thing? We all need structure in our lives, even if our so-called schedule is merely to know that “The Big Bang Theory” runs on Thursday nights (except, of course, when they move it to Mondays during football season).

I once asked a friend who had retired how she filled her time. Turns out she takes yoga several times a week, volunteers in a literacy program and said her house was cleaner than it ever had been when she worked.

That doesn’t sound too terrible. I wonder if she vacuums on Saturdays?

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Gloria Steinem: Just one of the girls

It’s not often in life that you get to meet a public figure you’ve admired for as long as you can remember. Last weekend I did, when feminist superstar Gloria Steinem came to town for the Milford Readers and Writers Festival.

Steinem was gracious, funny and inspiring as she spoke to a full house at the Milford Theater on Saturday. Earlier in the day, the longtime political activist and co-founder of Ms. magazine stopped by Hillary Clinton headquarters to rally the volunteers.

She encouraged everyone to vote, but her bigger message was nonpartisan.

Steinem urged her listeners to keep an open mind about other people, underscoring the point by reading an anecdote from her book “My Life on the Road” (Random House, 2015).

A trip to Sturgis, S.D., happened to coincide with the fabled annual motorcycle rally there. Steinem admitted to feeling uneasy amid the leather and chains. But one day, “While walking in Rapid City, I hear a biker say to his tattooed woman partner, ‘Honey, shop as long as you want—I’ll meet you at the cappuccino place,’” she writes.

On her final morning in Sturgis, Steinem was eating breakfast at her hotel, “hyperconscious of a room full of knife sheaths, jackboots, and very few women.” Then the leather-clad woman from the next booth approached to tell her “how much Ms. magazine has meant to me over the years—and my husband too.”

Steinem concludes that as with the landscape of the Badlands, “What seems to be one thing from a distance is very different close up.”

It can’t be easy being famous, but Steinem must be used to it. She seemed very down to earth. During the question-and-answer session after her talk, an audience member called her an icon. Steinem laughed, shook her head and said, “I’m just one of the girls.”

She appeared unruffled at being besieged by fans and autograph seekers everywhere she went. People corralled her for photos and selfies, touching their cheeks to hers or putting their arms around her shoulders like old friends. (I myself got her to sign my book as a friend snapped a cell phone picture.)

The fuss is understandable, since for women of a certain age Steinem is a legend—a larger-than-life role model. As a friend put it, “she fought the good fight for so long on our behalf.”

At 82, Steinem was smaller than I expected, and she cut a glamorous figure in a buttery-soft suede jacket with deeply fringed sleeves. I would have loved to hear her speak about aging and what growing older has been like for her. Her one remark on the subject was that women become radicalized as they get older because they lose power, whereas men grow more conservative as they gain power with maturity.

“I am trying very hard to understand mortality because being 80 doesn’t feel any different from being 40,” Steinem told an interviewer earlier this year. “I tell everyone in the world my age because I just don’t believe it myself.”

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Another reason to pick up a good book

My town is a great one for festivals, and there’s a new one in the offing this weekend. The first Milford Readers and Writers Festival will be held at the Milford Theater and other venues Sept. 30-Oct. 2, with three world-class authors—Gloria Steinem, John Berendt and M.K. Asante—as the headliners.

Reading (writing too, for that matter) is a solitary activity, so it will be a treat to gather with others who love to read. And yes, old-fashioned reading remains an important activity even in an age when our eyeballs are monopolized by tweets and Facebook status reports.

Aristotle explained hundreds of years ago how the “pity and fear” we feel while watching good drama help us better grasp the human condition. Now scientists are exploring the mechanisms by which this catharsis occurs, examining how reading—especially of literary fiction—builds empathy. Genre fiction doesn’t have the same effect.

“These effects are due partly to the process of engagement in stories … and partly to the contents of fiction, which include complex characters and circumstances that we might not encounter in daily life,” the psychologist Keith Oatley recently reported in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Understanding stories engages the same parts of the brain as understanding other people, Oatley said.

We need this deep understanding now more than ever, but collectively we’re getting less of it. The National Endowment for the Arts disclosed in August that the practice of reading for pleasure had fallen to its lowest point since the agency began tracking data in 1982.

In the NEA study, less than half of all Americans—just 43 percent—reported having read at least one work of literature the previous year. The agency tracked discretionary reading only, and didn’t count books assigned for school or work purposes.

By way of comparison, in the NEA’s first survey 34 years ago, 57 percent of Americans reported reading a work of literature in the prior 12 months.

For purposes of the study, the NEA defined literature as novels, short stories, poetry and plays. I would argue that literary nonfiction and memoir should be included too. Just think of the impact of a book like “The Diary of Anne Frank” on our understanding of the Holocaust.

Women were more likely to read for pleasure than men (50 vs. 36 percent), the NEA found, and there were differences based on ethnicity and educational level as well. People with a graduate degree, for example, were the biggest readers, at 68 percent.

Storytelling is available in forms other than books, or course. Movies, TV series and podcasts help fill our human need for complex narratives to help us make sense of the world. In fact, TV and even video games have been shown to positively affect empathy test results.

But books are the beginning. As the Washington Post noted in an article on the NEA findings, “If we’re reading less literature, it stands to reason that we may be becoming a less empathetic country as a result.”

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Vietnam: The war that wouldn’t quit

In one way or another, everyone in the baby boom generation was marked by the Vietnam War. Choices made during those years come back to haunt male politicians decades later, even the ones who served heroically, like John Kerry. Those who avoided service (Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Donald Trump) scramble to tell us why.

Veterans may still suffer PTSD nightmares all these years later, or have illnesses stemming from exposure to Agent Orange, the herbicide so nonchalantly employed to clear the triple-canopy jungle.

Meanwhile, the aftereffects of the antiwar movement have been slow to dissipate. Some still resent Jane Fonda for her trip to Hanoi in 1972, even though she has repeatedly apologized. “I made a huge, huge mistake that made a lot of people think I was against the soldiers,” the actress said in 2015.

Given the central place of Vietnam in the collective psyche, it’s instructive to read a first-hand account from someone who was there. A high school classmate of mine, Michael A. Montigny, supplies one in his new book, “A Few Good Angels.”

Mike delivers a raw, riveting narrative of what it was like to be a 19-year-old marine at Khe Sanh. This self-published book (available on Amazon in paperbook and Kindle editions) has such immediacy that you feel you are beside him as he navigates the perils of combat and the hazards of the environment itself, from poisonous snakes and giant scorpions to monsoons, mud and heat.

Unable to attend college directly after high school, Mike got sucked up in the draft and wound up as a marine. He vividly describes the harsh discipline—at times bordering on the sadistic—of his training. He was assigned to be a machine gunner, a dangerous job.

“Life expectancy for a machine gunner is about 15 minutes in combat,” his gunnery sergeant told him, since snipers “will always try to kill you first.” Indeed, Montigny notes that only half of his class of a dozen machine gunners made it home alive.

Life in Vietnam was desperately difficult. Mike describes bathing out of his helmet, trying to sleep as rats the size of chihuahas nipped at him and marching through deep mud lugging heavy weapons.

Over it all lurked the specter of being killed or gravely injured at any moment. In fact, Mike had so many close calls in Vietnam that he came to believe he was being kept safe through supernatural intervention—by the “few good angels” of the title.

Mike goes on to describe the letdown he felt upon coming home to a country that seemed indifferent to what its fighting men had endured. With the nation so torn over the war and even top policymakers ambivalent, there was no hero’s welcome. “It took more than thirty years for someone to say to me, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Mike writes.

No one who reads this book will ever say those words casually again. This moving memoir makes you appreciate what “service” really means in a war zone.

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Sick of sick talk

I remember as a kid being alternately fascinated and appalled by the after-dinner chat among the women at my grandmother’s table. After the men left the room, to either play or watch sports, my female relatives would open up about all manner of bodily insults, from operations and kidney stones to the agony of childbirth.

It was scary stuff for someone in elementary school, and I made a vow then and there that when I was an adult, I would never talk about illnesses. Maybe I imagined I wouldn’t have any, or perhaps I expected to be stoic if I did.

Fast-forward a bunch of decades and here we are, my boomer friends and I, routinely sharing talk of maladies, from the mundane to the life-threatening. And we don’t mind doing it at dinner.

I get it—I really do. When you’re not feeling well or are facing a tough diagnosis, it’s hard to think about anything else. Your illness is your news, and so that’s what you talk about. The syndrome is so common that etiquette maven Miss Manners has weighed in on the subject.

She proposes that when people of a certain age gather, you “announce Medical Report early in the evening … That way you not only get it over with, but if someone goes on too long, you can say, ‘Oh, dear, I hope you’ll be better soon’ and turn to the next person.”

The thing is, I’m actually interested in my friends’ and relatives’ health and wouldn’t want them to hide anything from me. I want to know how they feel, the status of any chronic disease or the onset of any acute one. However, some of the more, um, personal details might be better shared one-on-one. No one wants to hear about blood and guts while the appetizers are being served.

Lately I’ve been the one doing the sick talk, thanks to a relapse of the whooping cough that beset me in the spring. I started coughing again in August and I’m just getting over it now. It’s not called the Hundred Day Cough for nothing.

Relapses are common in this strange disease that sounds so 19th century. I’m glad I didn’t know that when I first got sick. It was bad enough having it once; I wouldn’t have wanted to contemplate a second round.

So, rather than belabor the point, let me just say that yes, adults can and do get whooping cough. It’s not just a childhood disease. I know five adults besides myself who have had it recently. The paroxysmal cough stops you from breathing and makes you feel like you’re going to pass out—or die.

Almost everyone gets the pertussis vaccine as a kid. But immunity wears off eventually and at some point, you need a booster. Who knew?

For my part, I’ll never have whooping cough again. Getting it at my age makes me immune for the rest of my life. I’ll have to find something else to talk about at dinner parties.

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Rollercoaster ride of longevity

Sometimes when I can’t sleep, I turn on the TV. They say an electronic screen is the worst prescription in the world for insomnia, but for me, the soft TV voices murmuring in the background are soothing. It’s like being a kid in my room, drifting off to sleep to the sound of my parents quietly conversing in the living room.

To avoid commercials, I usually choose PBS. But last week WVIA was doing its fund drive, so I was force-fed house ads. In-between those pledge pitches and falling asleep, I learned an awful lot about improving my health.

Along with the music beloved of baby boomers, public broadcasting peppers its pledge weeks with lectures from doctors and nutritionists who specialize in aspects of longevity. This time I heard about how to boost my metabolism; massage pressure points to relieve pain; optimize my heart health and brain function; lose weight; deal with allergies; and quell stress, worry and anxiety. Those latter three scourges are a bigger factor in degenerative diseases than even smoking and obesity, according to the doctor who presented “The Healing Mind” program.

Unless you take notes (or buy all the books), it’s hard to remember all the good advice offered, especially when some of the medical professionals disagree with others (peanuts: healthy protein or hidden allergen?).

But we boomers are at the age when we need to get serious about health, diet and fitness. In your 20s and 30s, who thinks about aging and disease? That’s something for your parents to worry about. In your 50s and 60s, you are your parents.

Over the weekend I happened to see an article online about a hospital in northern England that’s refusing to do elective surgery on smokers and the obese. People with a BMI of 30 or more, along with anyone who smokes, must wait six months to a year for routine, non-life-threatening operations, though they can move up in line if they quit nicotine or lose 10 pounds.

The ban is a cost-cutting measure. But weirdly, I read another article the same day that showed how it’s actually the thin and fit who use up the most health care dollars.

A study in Holland found that smokers and obese people did consume health care resources when they were middle-aged. But because they died sooner than the healthy group, “it cost less to treat them in the long run,” the New York Times reported. Healthy people, by contrast, “live years longer” and the care they got in those extra years outweighed any earlier savings from staying fit.

In the Dutch study, the healthy lived till age 84, the obese till about 80 and the smokers to 77.

A friend who smokes once told me that she’d never give it up. Longevity wasn’t a goal. “I don’t want to live to 90 and have somebody changing my diaper,” she said.

The rest of us are still listening to PBS specials, hoping to find a way to grow older without growing iller.

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Life lessons from Mom

In her day, my mother was a political junkie. She attended town council meetings, wrote letters to senators, worked on local campaigns and followed national politics avidly. After suffering a series of small strokes at the age of 72, she no longer cared. “Let the next generation do the worrying,” she said.

Nevertheless, in 2008 she was excited to learn that none other than Bill Clinton was planning to visit our tiny borough, on a campaign swing for his wife during that year’s Democratic primaries. The former president was scheduled to appear at a home just a few streets over, but by then, Mom couldn’t walk well. She had no stamina.

So we drove up the alley to the church parking lot, a block away, to save her from having to walk uphill, then proceeded slowly, arm-in-arm, through the crowd for another two blocks.

Soon President Clinton came out onto the front porch and said a few words. He stands out in a crowd, literally, since he’s a head taller than most people. Mom—at just over 5 feet tall—had no trouble seeing him. Afterward, we returned home, happy.

I wish Mom was around during this election season, for I’d love to hear her take on campaign 2016—surely the weirdest in recent memory. Indeed, as we draw closer to the second anniversary of her death, I find myself wishing I could check in with her on other topics too. I miss her commonsense opinions.

I recently began jotting down a small list of life lessons my mother left me with—not the big things that every mother espouses, like “be a nice person” and “brush your teeth after meals.” It’s a more idiosyncratic list.

First item: Don’t bother cleaning any surface that’s taller than you are. Mom was a neat freak and kept her house immaculate. But she was tiny, so the top of her refrigerator was allowed to get as dusty as it liked without her intervention.

Mom taught me how to budget by tucking money into envelopes designated for particular bills every payday. She taught me to iron a shirt and to fold a towel into thirds for the neatest package.

She handed down her love of bargain hunting and thrift shopping. Mom unearthed interesting finds from junk shops long before Martha Stewart made it stylish. She always looked chic on no money, thanks to her ability to sniff out a deal. I remember the time she nabbed new, wool designer scarves for 50 cents each.

As she aged, my mother was philosophical about her health problems. She didn’t much complain; she just dealt with whatever life handed her. She didn’t fear birthdays; indeed, she felt it was a privilege to grow older and was proud of every year.

I asked my mother what it was about aging that she liked. She thought for a moment and said, “I’m less afraid than I used to be.”

That’s a lesson from Mom that I hope to take into my own older years.

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The eyes have it

Makeup has always been a mystery. How much is enough to get that “natural” look—the finish that says “I’m not wearing makeup, wink wink; I was born with a natural glow and these huge smoky eyes”—and how much is too much? You don’t want to be Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”

Let’s assume you finally get it right, after years of experimentation. Then you grow older and find that your skin has changed. Now you have to start over, jettisoning the blue eye shadow and mineral powders, and learning some new tricks.

I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about makeup—the bare state of my eyes doesn’t keep me up nights. But last weekend at a party, I was so entranced by the eye makeup of a cousin’s wife that I began wondering how to replicate the look.

This is not the first time recently that I’ve fantasized about eye makeup. A young friend who used to live on our block is a whiz with makeup. Not long ago, she posted a photo of herself on Facebook with amazing cat’s eyes, ala Liz Taylor in “Cleopatra.” Stunning.

Can I get that look, at my age, I asked in the comments, only half joking. Wear whatever makeup you like, whatever your age, she responded with all the assurance of a confident twentysomething.

My generation of women has been on both sides of the makeup wars. In the ‘60s we wanted to look like Twiggy, with kohl eyes and white lipstick. In the ’70s, many of us abandoned makeup altogether, either to make a feminist statement or in pursuit of a back-to-nature look. Those who did wear makeup went light and fresh—think Cheryl Tiegs.

By the ‘80s, we were back in war paint. It was the only time in my life I wore red lipstick. Thank you, Madonna.

The art of applying makeup didn’t come naturally to me. I’ve always worn lipstick (I’m too pale without it) and mascara. Beyond that, I’m lost.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with foundation (the color is never right); blush (contouring? but how?); and, especially, eye makeup. Drawing Magic Marker lines on my own eyelids, one at a time, is a messy undertaking. I’ve experimented with pencils, paints and powders and pretty much failed with all of them. As for shadow, the colored ones seem garish, the monochrome ones, drab.

What kind of sleight of hand would I need to reinvent my makeup now? A quick Google search of “makeup for mature skin” produced depressing results involving “hooded eyes” and ways to minimize wrinkles.

But in truth, I’m never going to look like cousin Melissa, even if I were to copy her eye makeup line by line. She is years younger than I am and happens to be drop-dead gorgeous. She would look good without anything on her face.

And that, I think, is the ultimate irony of makeup: The women who look best in it are the ones who patently don’t need it.

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Creative disruption on the home front

Do you believe in horoscopes? Neither do I, but there’s something spooky in the way the prediction I saw in a magazine at the beginning of the month seems to be coming true.

I specifically remember what the horoscope said, because the prognostications for August were so out of whack for this Virgo that I read the entry aloud to a friend.

Learn to live with chaos, the horoscope advised. Invite disorder into your life—it’s the route toward a creative solution that will please you in the end, yada yada yada.

“Yeah, right—that’s not going to happen,” I scoffed.

We Virgos don’t like chaos. We are nothing if not orderly—assuming, again, that you believe in astrology. I don’t, necessarily, but this is one Virgo trait I relate to.

I enjoy being organized, thrive when things are in their place. It drives me nuts when my husband puts a kitchen utensil in the “wrong” drawer or drapes his jacket over the back of a chair instead of hanging it up. (He’s a Pisces. Is that a Pisces thing?)

So, creative disruption is not something I would naturally welcome. But here in the dog days of summer, it has found me.

I’ve been painting the porches. The side landing went smoothly enough, except for a wonky post at the bottom of the stairs that needs replacing. But the job is essentially done, and if there’s anything we Virgos like, it’s getting things done.

The front porch, on the other hand, is not.

Because the porch is large, I opted to do it piecemeal, beginning with the living room side. After power washing came scraping, puttying and sanding—all the prep work that I hate. Only then could I tackle the job I like: painting. I find a Zen pleasure in brushing on the color and I love how nice it looks when it’s finished. All fresh and clean.

Because the weather got hot around the time I began, I had to work sporadically. Early mornings were best. Trying to accomplish anything later in the day made me a little sun sick. How do professional painters do it?

Next came the monsoons. They slowed me down too. And then I traveled out of town for a few days.

But finally it all came together and that side of the porch looks great now that I’ve reinstalled the furniture and plants. But the other side is begging for attention—and now the weather is even hotter.

Meanwhile, my husband is almost done rebuilding the back porch, but the heat has driven him indoors too. He has turned his attention to the kitchen ceiling, which needs replacing due to a flood a while back in the bathroom upstairs.

So here I am, like it or not, living just as the horoscope predicted, in a muddle of messy, incomplete projects. It’s my fervent hope that at least one of them will be finished in time for my birthday in September—a Virgo wish if there ever was one.

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    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines, book publishing and technology journalism. Read Full
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