The Coast Watcher 

Reflections on books, writing, parenthood and other stuff, from the rocky coast of Massachusetts.

‘Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me’ explains the Republican health care plan. Like all great comedy, it’s essentially tragic.

My happy place: Acres of Books

I no longer live in the Great American Midwest, but I have fond memories of Bertrand Smith’s Acres of Books in Cincinnati.

Skyline Chili — a five-way

My first wife loved the city and wanted to visit often. I’d go anytime, but all I cared about that city’s unique chili and this magnificent bookstore.

The building had a basement and four or five floors of books. I’d spend a whole day there and still feel cheated of time.

After the second floor, it was glow-as-you-go lighting — you had to pull the cord to light the shelves, then turn it off when moving on. There might be a chair crammed in nooks here and there, but this place was solid books, floor after floor.

It might just me and one other browser on a floor for hours at a time, making no sound other than the occasional throat clearing or burst of flatulence. (It was the other guy, not me.)

I understand that Bertrand Smith opened an Acres of Books that was a Southern California institution, but to me, there was something about the Bertrand’s in Cincinnati that was of another time and place. Looking out and seeing sunshine wouldn’t gibe with the dark interiors and the books stuck in every horizontal space.

Luckily, there were bathrooms on all the floors — tiny water closets, but still somewhere to go to save you the trek down to the main floor and the return up the narrow stairs to browsing.

No coffee here, no croissant. It’s a bookstore, dammit.

I’m not sure if it’s still there. I know the one in California closed. I’m not often in the Midwest anymore and I almost don’t want to know if that temple of books still stands.

When I scan my home library, I open up many books to find the stamp of Acres of Books and remember the time and place I bought it.

After Fenway Park, Acres of Books was my happy place. I’d hate to know my happy place had gone out of business.

1 April 2017

Let Us Now Praise Famous Baseball Nicknames

Pitchers and catchers reported this week for spring training, the annual ritual I miss so dearly since moving from Florida. Baseball has been much on my mind.

File this under “library, treasures of the.”

Whenever I’m blue, I get a book down from the shelf, turn to page 78 and begin to laugh.

It’s The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book and it’s one of those things available by special order. You can also find a used copy online, often for assloads of money.

Whatever the cost, it’s worth every penny.

You can also find it at the library, which is a pretty cool place. It’s like the Internet, only with stuff printed out.

On page 78, the authors simply list their favorite nicknames of ballplayers. I’ve never needed more than five bites of the first column before I begin to feel better.

I present this selection of names as a public service to all humanity. If only the United Nations General Assembly would join me in my mission to bring peace to the world . . . .

I love this book. I have the original, from 1973. This is the cover of the 1991 reprint. Click on the cover to see if you can track down this book through third-party sellers. It is a treasured part of my home library.

If this was read aloud before that body, in all the languages of earth, we could achieve a just and lasting peace.

It’s hard to fight when you’re laughing.

(I use the Rocky Bridges card as an illustration above. The nickname ‘Rocky’ isn’t nearly as funny as his real name — Everett. But Boyd and Harris write an essay on every baseball card in their book and the essay on Bridges is probably the funniest.)

Unfortunately, the tradition of baseball nicknames seems to have been lost. Since Boyd and Harris compiled this list four decades ago, there haven’t been too many colorful additions. Chris Berman does his part on ESPN. There was a player on the University of Florida baseball team some years back named Dave Majeski. I tried to get one of my sportswriter friends to work Purple Mountains Majeski into his story one day. He did, but it didn’t catch on.

The baseball nickname is the entymological equivalent of the dodo. So appreciate these names while you can.

Bless you, Brendan Boyd and Fred Harris. Your book is a treasure.

(Insert drum roll . . . )

Read this aloud at the office. Suggest new names for your pals. Fuck bringing sexy back. Let’s bring nicknames back.

(Big rimshot here . . . )

And now, broken down into alphabetical order, the silliest baseball nicknames we can find:

Bow Wow Arft

A: Wagon Tongue Adams, Snitz Applegate, Bow Wow Arft.

B: Bee Bee Babe, Sweetbreads Bailey, Rattlesnake Baker, Belve Bean, Bananas Beans, Desperate Beatty, Boom Boom Beck, Jittery Joe Berry, Hillbilly Bildilli, Red Bird, The Darling Booth, Goobers Bratcher, Bunny Brief, Chops Broskie, Turkeyfoot Brower, Oyster Burns.

Hillbilly Bildilli

C: Scoops Carey, Ding-a-Ling Clay, Whoops Creeden, Crunchy Cronin, Dingle Croucher.

D: Daffy Dean, Peaceful Valley Deizer, Hickory Dickson, Bullfrog Dietrich, Buttermilk Dow, Pea Soup Dumont.

E: Piccolo Pete Elko, Slippery Ellam.

F: Broadway Flair, Sleuth Fleming, Suds Fodge.

G: Inch Gleich, Gabber Glenn.

H: Snags Heidrick, Bunny High, Bootnose Hofman, Herky Jerky Horton, Twinkles Host, Highpockets Hunt.

J: Bear Tracks Javery.

L: Candy LaChance, Whoop LaWhite, Bevo LeBourveau, Razor Ledbetter, Grasshopper Lillie, Memo Luna.

Cuddles Marshall

M: Cuddles Marshall, Humpty McElveen, Beauty McGowan, Sadie McMahon, Boob McNair, Spinach Melillo, Earache Meyer.

O: Peach Pie O’Connor, Orval Overall.

P: Pretzels Pezzullo, Cotton Pippen, Pinky Pittinger, Primo Preibisch, Truckhorse Pratt, Lumber Price, Shucks Pruett, Shadow Pyle.

Q: Wimpy Quinn.

R: Icicle Reeder, Raw Meat Rodgers, Half-Pint Rye.

Raw Meat Rodgers

S: Slim Sallee, Horse Belly Sargent, Skeeter Scalzi, Silk Stalking Schafer, Wildfire Schulte, Steeple Schultz, Blab Schwartz, Pius Scwert, Twinkletoes Selkirk, Colonel Bosco Snyder, Spook Speake, Fish Hook Stout, Inky Strange, Sleeper Sullivan, Homer Summa, Suds Sutherland, Ducky Swann.

T: Patsy Tebeau, Pussy Tebeau, White Wings Tebeau, Adonis Terry, Cannonball Titcomb, Turkey Tyson.

U: Dixie Upright.

V: Peak-a-Boo Veach.

W: Podgie Weihe, Icehouse Wilson, Kettle Wirtz, Chicken Wolf.

Z: Zip Zabel, Noodles Zupo.

For more fun along these lines, I heartily endorse The Outside Corner’s “All Innuendo Team,” featuring Rusty Kuntz, Stubby Clapp, Johnny Dickshot and many others.

I love baseball — Lord help me, I do.

13 February 2017



David Carr, 1956-2015

Some Final Words from David Carr

We are dealing with the second anniversary of David Carr’s death. There were so many tributes after this death, so maybe this ‘last interview’ (with Stefanie Friedhoff of the Boston Globe) got lost in the mix. Thought I’d reprint it. We were lucky to have David on the Boston University faculty. He was a gifted teacher and we all looked forward to many years of his friendship. This was published February 13, 2015.

New York Times columnist David Carr, who died Thursday at the age of 58, had a reputation for going after his own tribe with bracing honesty and clarity. With his unusual past as a crack addict, a distinctive scratchy voice, and quirky character, he had become a media figure in his own right as he chronicled journalism’s struggle to reinvent itself in the digital age. Carr shuttled to Boston once a week to teach journalism at Boston University, a routine he had started last fall. In one of the last interviews he gave before his death, Carr talked with Globe correspondent Stefanie Friedhoff in late January about his rookie teacher mistakes and the future of writing.

[Friedhoff’s questions are in bold italic. Carr’s answers are in regular type.]

What was it like, working with this next generation?

The first time they said, ‘Here comes the professor,’ I turned around looking for him, then realized, oh, that was me. I asked them to call me David. I did not feel a huge generational divide. I was not parenting or patronizing them. As long as they didn’t call me professor.

One generational difference is that they rely on texting, which is not a good business or academic application. I much prefer e-mail, which allows you to keep an archive, send attachments. I also made it clear that there was no texting or Facebooking during class. When someone did it, I would stop and say: ‘Do you need a few moments so you can finish what seems so important?’

The platform you used, Medium, allows for storytelling in all media. Did students experiment with different forms?

Some students included extensive video and audio, and some built stories around photographs, but writing played a distinctive role. Students were far more traditional than I thought they’d be, they were extremely animated by idea of longform narrative. I weighed heavily on blended content but they were not as interested as in big narratives.

Is there a future for writing, for the careful crafting of sentences and narratives, in the digital age?

Well, there are two problems with it. One, if you look at The New Yorker, GQ, and the Atavist or Longreads, there is a good supply of deep immersive writing, but there is an audience problem, in terms of what people are willing to commit to. And two, there is a business problem: getting paid enough to do what may pass for literary journalism.

Some signs are encouraging: Engagement levels, people staying until the end of the story, are quite high. But you have to earn the readers’ interest. Turns out that the phone, which was thought of as the enemy of longform — people read a lot on phones, they have become used to the infinite scroll. I read a lot on my phone, and I am old as dirt.

Did you like teaching?

Oh, this class was like a bomb going off in my life. I thought I could zoom up on an airplane on Monday, teach the class, do office hours, go to sleep, take the train back in the morning and be fine.

That is not how it went. There was a lot of steady communication with students. We produced a lot. Sixteen students wrote over 60 pieces, published in four collections on Medium. Four articles are on their way into the commercial market.

David’s memoir, “The Night of the Gun,” is one of the finest books I’ve read in the last decade. Click on the book cover to order.

I enjoyed it all. The truth about teaching is, whatever you expect from them, you should be ready to give back. I’m glad I’m like a vampire. I still keep college hours and stay up late.

You have guest taught a lot. What surprised you about teaching a semester-long course?

I made a fair amount of rookie teacher mistakes. I brought in too many guest speakers.

I said ‘I love your personal essays, I will put comments in’ and then I had to really do that. It took me five seconds to say in class but 12 hours to finish.

I learned I talk too much. Every time I went quiet and solicited discussion, wonderful things were said and I thought, ‘Duh, of course.’ Part of the reason was that I wanted to look like a serious academic. I did not want to be one of these newspaper people who show up and tell stories.

There was also an important business lesson: My teaching assistant insisted I give students some class time to collaborate on their projects. I asked, ‘Why? They are doing this online all the time.’ But she was right — face-to-face time led to amazing cross-team collaboration and improvements. We think online communication works, but a well-run meeting has a lot of value.”

Are you a tough grader?

Not as tough as I thought I would be! When I was an editor, my office was known as Cape Fear. I did give out some rough grades to start with, but if kids demonstrated improvement, I gave them better grades. I was kind of torn about what to do when someone was a good writer but didn’t try very hard, versus someone who tried hard but wasn’t so gifted. It was very much a learning curve.

What did you tell students about their future in journalism?

I told them it’s a good time to be looking for a job. There is a lot of money in content in New York. You can’t be too picky about what you want to do initially. And you need to make your own judgments about where you want to [go] — regardless of where you went to school or who you know.

There is no doubt students will be walking into a news ecosystem that has more information, more sources, more providers, and more clutter. And they have to think about what value are they adding that will make them a signal above the noise and make their work stick out and have value — both in terms of who they work for and the kind of work they do. They have to [go] from creating commodities and toward creating things of value.”

13 February 2017

Rosie the Riveter Reboot

Millions of women entered the work force during the Second World War and the ‘We Can Do It’ image of Rosie the Riveter became a frequent symbol of that change. Saturday Evening Post illustrator Norman Rockwell made a couple versions of Rosie on his own — one modeled after Michelangelo. But the image has persisted long after that war, even as American women were encouraged to vacate the workplace and return to the kitchens of post-war America. It’s good to see the Rosie symbol returning in the aftermath of the Women’s March of January 21, 2017, and the comments by Senate leader Mitch McConnell, made in an attempt to shut down Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Great new slogan — and, I’m proud to say, inspired by my senator, Elizabeth Warren. This image is available on mugs, posters, T-shirts and hoodies. Click here to see the whole array and the profits go to support the women’s-march movement.

12 February 2017

Bob Dylan: A Job Description

These are Bob Dylan’s liner notes for his 1965 album Bringing it All Back Home. I used this as the opening piece in my book Rock and Roll is Here to Stay. This is my favorite piece of Dylan writing that has not been set to music.
i’m standing there watching the parade/ feeling combination of sleepy john estes. jayne mansfield. humphry bogart/mortimer snerd. murph the surf and so forth/ erotic hitchhiker wearing japanese blanket. gets my attention by asking didn’t he see me at this hootenanny down in puerto vallarta, mexico/i say no you must be mistaken. i happen to be one of the Supremes/then he rips off his blanket an’ suddenly becomes a middle-aged druggist. up for district attorney. he starts screaming at me you’re the one. you’re the one that’s been causing all them riots over in vietnam. immediately turns t’ a bunch of people an’ says if elected, he’ll have me electrocuted publicly on the next fourth of july. i look around an’ all these people he’s talking to are carrying blowtorches/ needless t’ say, i split fast go back t’ thenice quiet country. am standing there writing WHAAT? on my favorite wall when who should pass by in a jet plane but my recording engineer “i’m here t’ pick up you and your latest works of art. do you need any help with anything?”


my songs’re written with the kettledrum 0in mind/a touch of any anxious color. unmentionable. obvious. an’ people perhaps like a soft brazilian singer . . . i have given up at making any attempt at perfection/ the fact that the white house is filled with leaders that’ve never been t’ the apollo theather amazes me. why allen ginsberg was not chosen t’ read poetry at the inauguration boggles my mind/if someone thinks norman mailer is more important than hank williams that’s fine. i have no arguments an’ i never drink milk. i would rather model harmonica holders than discuss aztec anthropology/ english literature. or history of the united nations. i accept chaos. I am not sure whether it accepts me. i know there’re some people terrified of the bomb. but there are other people terrified t’ be seen carrying a modern screen magazine. experience teaches that silence terrifies people the most . . . i am convinced that all souls have some superior t’ deal with/like the school system, an invisible circle of which no one can think without consulting someone/in the face of this, responsibility/security, success mean absolutely nothing. . . i would not want t’ be bach. mozart. tolstoy. joe hill. gertrude stein or james dean/they are all dead. the Great books’ve been written. the Great sayings have all been said/I am about t’ sketch You a picture of what goes on around here sometimes. though I don’t understand too well myself what’s really happening. i do know that we’re all gonna die someday an’ that no death has ever stopped the world. my poems are written in a rhythm of unpoetic distortion/ divided by pierced ears. false eyelashes/subtracted by people constantly torturing each other. with a melodic purring line of descriptive hollowness — seen at times through dark sunglasses an’ other forms of psychic explosion. a song is anything that can walk by itself/i am called a songwriter. a poem is a naked person . . . some
people say that i am a poet

(end of pause)

an’ so i answer my recording engineer “yes. well i could use some help in getting this wall in the plane”

11 February 2017


Dream of a Different Stipe

I had a two-part dream last night.

Michael Stipe approached me, asking if he could teach a section of our beginning writing class at BU. I said sure, and we began working out a teaching schedule.

Then I woke up, went to the biffy, and then when I returned to sleep the dream resumed. That doesn’t happen to me very often.

Michael and his people (two or three, far short of an entourage) and my colleague Sarah and I were never able to work out a schedule because of his other commitments, but he kept gripping the edge of the table, saying, “Dammit! I am determined to make this work!”

Then I woke up again. Michael, if you’re out there, we would love to have you teach for us.

Care for a slice?

Frozen pizza on the traffic island at Beacon and Park, Boston.

Cranston’s words

Actor Bryan Cranston‘s portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson was more than a triumph of prosthetics and make up.

Watching “All the Way,” I felt that they had exhumed the former president. Cranston was justly rewarded for his performance by the Screen Actors Guild.

This is what he said in his acceptance speech: “I’m often asked, how would Lyndon Johnson think about Donald Trump? I honestly feel that 36 would put his arm around 45 and earnestly wish him success. And he would also whisper in his ear something he said often, as a form of encouragement, and a cautionary tale: ‘Just don’t piss in the soup that all of us gotta eat.'”


When I drive, I become a beast. I swear nonstop and call fellow drivers a number of unattractive words. For the good of all humanity — and my blood pressure — I take the train to work. This is the design I proposed for Massachusetts plates a few years back. Sorry to report that the Commonwealth has yet to adopt it.

John Glenn, hero

From my interview with Tom Wolfe in the August 2011 issue of American History .

So define “hero” for us, Mr. Wolfe.
In my mind, it’s always someone who risked his life for us. But that’s probably just my view, a classic definition. Someone can be a great role model, like a father, yet still not fit that classic definition of ‘hero.’ To me, the word ‘hero’ is bandied about loosely these days. Has there ever been a hero of Wall Street? I get asked by groups all the time to make motivational speeches: ‘Do you have The Right Stuff?’ I decline, but I want to ask, ‘How many of your fellow employees have died this year in the performance of their duties?’ Risking of life is a more stable measure of heroism for me….
[John] Glenn, in his way, was engaged in single combat with his Soviet counterpart. These were the days of the space race. So even though it wasn’t face to face, he was having a duel in the sky. And so the cops at the intersections in Manhattan looked at him go by and they cried, because, in one sense at least, he had “protected” us from the Soviets.

Free speech on Beacon Street

Some great music

I’m Facebook Friends with a fellow named Kevin Lynn. Never met him, never talked to him. All of our communication has been through this forum. He’s a flesh-and-blood friend (high school classmate, I believe) of my old pal Ruth Baxter. A few years ago, Kevin and I became Facebook Friends. I soon learned that Kevin is a good dad, has shitty taste in baseball teams (hey, fuck the Yankees), but excellent taste in music.

A couple of days ago, Kevin commented on one of my posts and suggested I track down the Sid’n’Susie recordings. I immediately listened to a couple of tunes online, loved them, then found a four-disc box set online and, without hesitation, ordered it.

Susanna Hoffs and Matthew Sweet

I have been listening to it — with serene satisfaction — for all of my waking hours for the last two days. My home is awash in great, lovingly crafted music.

(And yes. I still like discs. I like — nay, need — packaging. I need to know who wrote what, who played what, who produced it, who engineered it, who did the song first … and historical background. The box set has a book with interviews, credits … just the way things used to be before digital downloads caused such magnificently produced products to fall into disrepute by becoming mere bytes out of context. Good God! Respect the music! Respect the artists! Buy the music in tangible form!)

Ah, but I digress.

The “Sid’n’Susie” recordings are by Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs, two great rock / power-pop voices. Listening to the Under the Covers discs is like sitting on the living room floor, watching them flip through three decades of 45 rpms and reimagining the songs as their own. Let’s try this one, let’s try this one. Matthew Sweet plays most of the instruments, but they invite a few people to help them out, including Steve Howe, Dhani Harrison, Lindsay Buckingham and Van Dyke Parks.) Matthew and Susanna sound great together. What beautiful voices.And what a spectrum of artists they cover: Bob Dylan, Bread, the Grateful Dead, Badfinger, the Ramones, the Clash, the Mamas & the Papas, the Pretenders, the Who, the Beach Boys … wow! I’m pleased to report they do one of my all-time favorite songs, “You’re My Favorite Waste of Time” by Marshall Crenshaw. For more fun, listen to “The Kids are Alright” and “And Your Bird Can Sing.”

One historical error: They put their interpretation of “Run to Me” by the BeeGees on their Sixties disc, when it rightly belongs on one of the Seventies discs. I can forgive and hope you can as well.

 It should come as no surprise that they have excellent taste in music. I’ve always taken pride in my music library, so I love the reworkings of some of my old favorites. And they even do a few songs that I somehow missed.

Speaking of missing: How did I miss this? How far have I fallen out of the world to have not known of the Sid’n’Susie recordings? Having found them, my life is complete.

Which brings me back to Facebook: Thanks, Kevin, ol’ buddy, ol’ pal. Thanks for letting me know about these wonderful recordings.

I’m passing it on. (Insert big thumbs up here)

Track listing

Disc 1 (The Sixties)
1. I See the Rain
2. And Your Bird Can Sing
3. It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue
4. Who Knows Where the Time Goes?
5. Cinnamon Girl
6. Alone Again
7. The Warmth of the Sun
8. Different Drum
9. The Kids Are Alright
10. Sunday Morning
11. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
12. Care of Cell 44
13. Monday, Monday
15. Run to Me
16. Village Green Preservation Society
17. I Can See for Miles

Disc 2 (The Seventies, Part 1)
1. Sugar Magnolia
2. Go All the Way
3. Second Hand News
4. Bell Bottom Blues
5. All the Young Dudes
6. You’re So Vain
7. Here Comes My Girl
8. I’ve Seen All Good People: Your Move/All Good People
9. Hello It’s Me
10. Willin’
11. Back of a Car
12. Couldn’t I Just Tell You
13. Gimme Some Truth
14. Maggie May
15. Everything I Own
16. Beware of Darkness

Disc 3 (The Seventies, Part 2)
1. Dreaming
2. Marquee Moon
3. I Wanna Be Sedated
4. Baby Blue
5. You Say You Don’t Love Me
6. (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding
7. You Can Close Your Eyes
8. Melissa
9. Killer Queen
10. A Song for You

Disc 4 (The Eighties)
1. Sitting Still
2. Girls Talk
3. Big Brown Eyes
4. Kid
5. Free Fallin’
6. Save It for Later
7. They Don’t Know
8. The Bulrushes
9. Our Lips Are Sealed
10. How Soon Is Now
11. More Than This
12. Towers of London
13. Killing Moon
14. Trouble
15. Train in Vain
16. You’re My Favorite Waste of Time
17. I Would Die 4 U