Monday, October 3, 2011


In the mid-sixties, I wrote a piece for Newsweek about the author-critic Renata Adler, then a staff writer for The New Yorker who had just returned from reporting in Vietnam. In setting down her background, I noted that she had attended Bennett Junior College. An editor decided that this naked fact needed some oomph and inserted the adjective tony. The copy desk, ever alert, refined matters further, thus introducing the magazine's readers to Tony Bennett Junior College.

I have told this story often, dined out on it, as my father liked to say. For him, everything was grist, even rejection. In 1953, after Saul Bellow published The Adventures of Augie March, the book that launched his reputation, my father urged my mother, who had worked with Bellow at the University of Chicago's Great Books project, to invite him over.

Would you like to come to dinner Friday night, Saul? she said over the phone.

No, replied Bellow, and my father, always adept at turning a debit into an asset, was off and running with another anecdote, which he dined out on cheerfully for years and that I have done my best to keep alive.

We all have our fund of such tales, which we roll out despite the rolled eyes of our spouses and close friends. The conventional wisdom is that we indulge in these stories more and more as we plunge deeper into our dotage, because our aging brains forget that many of our listeners have heard them before. This may well be so, but it doesn't account for what goes on when our synapses are firing on all cylinders.

Call it Ball Stealing. George and Mary are twenty-somethings who have just met at a party. She's still excited by the production of King Lear she saw the night before and is enthusiastically describing the mad scene when George says, "Yeah, Shakespeare's great; at college, I played Polonius, and because I stood behind the curtain in the wrong place I almost got stabbed. Really! Crazy, huh?"

Like a hustling point guard, he has grabbed the conversation. In my experience, it's mostly men who do this–myself, I fear, included. It's our way of commandeering the floor, of at once putting ourselves in the spotlight, and often an end to conversation that might actually have some heft–sober or witty–and intelligent continuity.

"That reminds me, when I was . . . ."

At the end of our recent travels, Diane and I stayed in London for two weeks with our generous and high-spirited friends Hugh and Julie Sandeman. It was there, after a number of twice-told tales, that we came up with the concept of The Spike, named after the prong on which newspaper editors used to impale stories they had killed. 

One evening there were nine for dinner. Cries of "Spike!" exploded like popcorn throughout the meal, as one of us after another started to recount stories that within seconds at least one diner, usually a spouse, decreed were covered in moss. 

As I sat there, I began to notice how often hoary tales rose for the telling, as if they were divers desperately coming up for air. I held back nonetheless, as did the others, and none of us drowned, as the conversation began to follow a more spontaneous and engaging course.

I even began shouting "Spike!" on myself, to show everyone that I had self-control (and, yes, to get attention, I suppose). I'm hopeful that if I remain disciplined my spikes can be treated as Starbucks does my cups of coffee, and that after censoring myself ten times I'll get a free shot at retelling one story from my repetoire. Maybe the one about . . . .