Two noteworthy deaths over the weekend, which lately I’ve been trying not to take personally. Every light extinguished before the threescore-and-ten mark is a reminder to be aware of how close eternity is, how suddenly it can be your time. Although, if longevity is your aim, it helps not to be a crack addict, too. Right, Whitney?
First was Jeff Zaslow, the Chicago/Detroit journalist and best-selling author. He plowed the same ground as Mitch Albom — inspirational, uplifting nonfiction — and managed to make you want to smile rather than roll your eyes, no small trick for a veteran eye-roller like me. I confess I didn’t read any of his books, but only because inspirational, uplifting nonfiction isn’t my thing between hard covers. But I was a fan of his columns and longer features in the Wall Street Journal, the former of which were loosely organized around themes of personal growth and change, the latter just good stories. Poynter has organized a links page with some of his best work. My favorite — an account of the Miss Cass Pageant here in Detroit — is there, but the link only takes you to the teaser page. Grr. There’s plenty more to read, however.
Many people in Detroit knew him well, but I barely knew him at all, having toiled alongside him in the press corps at the 1983 Miss America pageant. Zaslow was working in Orlando at the time, and Miss Florida that year was a real spitfire, the wealthy daughter of an orange grower who came into the pageant just weeks after being arrested for drunken driving. He was following her. I was following Miss Ohio, who wasn’t a spitfire, just a pretty girl with an operatic singing act that didn’t get her into the top 10. Miss A was still proudly clutching its modest pearls at the time, and getting 10 minutes with a random Miss was only slightly less difficult than scoring a nothing-off-limits, full-access week of immersion with Callista Gingrich. So we reporters spent a lot of time hanging around together, throwing stories back and forth. Zaslow had a lot of them. Miss Missouri, the youngest contestant at just 18, had fingernails so long her mother had to help her get her pantyhose on. Miss Florida’s talent, Jeff told us, was “an erotic dance,” which made us all laugh, but then her night of the prelims came and, well: Her 90-second routine featured a move where she put her hands on her butt, rolled a distinctly oh-mama move, threw her hair over her shoulder and gave the audience a look that suggested she was a Miss in the technical sense of the word only. I think we went to the boardwalk parade together, the early-week news event, featuring 50 classic convertibles, 50 Misses perched on the back deck, and thousands of howling Atlantic City gamblers bellowing, SHOW US YOUR SHOES. I think Miss Florida slipped hers off and waved it for the crowd. I don’t think Miss Ohio did.
Zaslow was a bundle of energy, curiosity and fun, the ideal mix for a reporter. Everybody loved him. His week was going great, mine less so — around about Wednesday, I learned that my stories were being cut by 30 percent and wedged inside the B section. “Too much Nancy Nall and not enough Miss America,” one copy editor reportedly sniffed in a meeting, and if she’s reading this, she is still invited to kiss my ass. I was sitting in the press room, sending my copy via Teleram or something, and I wondered aloud why I was bothering. Zaslow asked why. I told him. He became indignant on my behalf. “They should be putting this on Page One,” he said. I wondered what it was like to work in a functional newsroom, where everyone wasn’t fighting all the time and writers got the support they needed.
Another writer I hung with that week: Elsa Walsh, the future Mrs. Bob Woodward.
A real loss, Zaslow was. The one weekend we get some actual snow in Michigan, and this happens.
As for Whitney Houston, well. Never much of a fan, so I don’t feel the loss. I heard a segment on some NPR show a few weeks ago about vocal health, featuring doctors and a Broadway warbler whose name was unfamiliar to me; I was impressed by the work that goes into staying in good voice, and my takeaway was that the more extraordinary the voice, the more it must be treated with care. It’s probably safe to say inhaling crack cocaine year after year was not the best idea for either her career or her life, but that’s addiction for you. It reminded me of a piece by Mark Steyn — perhaps the only piece of his I think I ever liked — about the dangers of entourages for wealthy performers. The column was pegged to the 2001 death of R&B singer Aaliyah, whose overloaded small plane crashed on takeoff, weighed down by equipment and a couple of 300-pound bodyguards. If I recall correctly, Steyn describes an incident where he was asked to escort Houston across the street in New York one night. He was at some event with her, and she needed to go to her hotel across the avenue, and evidently the very idea that she could make such a trip by herself was unthinkable. Amazing. I mentioned this to Alan after reading it, and he said, “That must have been like leading a racehorse through a forest fire,” a pretty good quip for Alan. I tried to find the column, but it has disappeared from the internets, and isn’t available on Steyn’s website, either. Sorry about that. As we all know, nothing needs protection like decade-old newspaper columns.
Eric Zorn is collecting the various over-the-top things being said on the GOP campaign trail these days. Hey, Zorn: Here’s one for you, via Fort Wayne’s own Tim Goeglein, who is apparently now wearing bow ties (!!!!), perhaps because he heard they were extra-masculine or somethin’. Stripped of some of its adverbial filler:
In the history of the United States …we have never had a president who has more radically, but more intentionally, savaged and attacked man-woman marriage, the dignity and sanctity of every human life, and now… has begun to redefine and therefore attack our basic religious liberties and individual consciences.
That link takes you to a one-minute-and-change video. I urge you to check out this weekend’s iteration of the man our own Coozledad said made Fred Rogers look like Dick Butkus. I wonder if they realize how fucking obnoxious that sort of statement sounds to a person who isn’t quite as full-up with the Kool-Aid as they are. And now they’re the anti-birth control party. Good luck selling that line to the moderates, guys.
A ball was tossed around and then Madonna sang. She’s the diva of super-prosperity, that woman. Her high-kicking legs and vast, pansexual dance-troupe conjured up glitzy memories of the boom years, back before our national descent into paranoid partisanship and pessimism. She ran through her hits and the years melted away, revealing a core of American contentment that suddenly seemed like our default condition, the one that the candidates labor to convince us will never return but has really never left us. I missed the Clint Eastwood commercial intoning that “It’s Halftime in America.” But I gazed at the faces around me. They had that look of people who who understand that they’re watching live, in person, what tens of millions of their countrymen are taking in electronically, on screens. One nation under Nike, is how it felt.
Oh, shut up, Mr. Pretentious Novelist Butthead.
Finally, a long video to sit through, but fascinating. Rachel Maddow on how the Ron Paul organization is gaming the GOP’s system to pile up delegates, contrary to the generally accepted idea that delegates belong to the winners of individual primaries and caucuses. This is a good story. I’d like to hear more about it.
And with that, I think IIIIII-eeee-yiiiiii-eeee-yiiiii have bored you enough. Happy Monday and good weeks to all.