At Large : At the salad bar of life
Arnie Fischer found me at the salad bar the other day. I was getting a salad, although what I actually wanted was one of those pastrami sandwiches and a bag of potato chips. I don't know what Arnie was getting, but he put off his decision for a moment to say that he didn't get the point I was making in this space last week. The column was about dirt biking, sort of.
There are lots of approaches to column writing. For instance, there's the this-I-believe column. The New York Times columnist Paul Krugman is a good example of a practitioner of this technique. He tells you repeatedly what he thinks, generally in cogent terms, well buttressed with data and theory, and no matter the context — national, global, political, economic. It's the same basic column over and over, with the same message. Point of view-wise, it's small-ball, and sometimes the first few words, or the last few, are all one needs to read.
There's the I've-been-thinking-about-this concept column. Krugman's colleague David Brooks is an exemplar of this technique. He approaches the issues that concern us all, but he's flying at 30,000 feet. From that distance, our maddening behavior appears comprehensible and explicable. It fits into a social, psychological, or political construct. And, there's data to support it. He explains us to us. It can be comforting.
There's the life-as-it-is column. Nelson Bryant's Island Life column, that appeared for the first time on the OpEd Page last week, is a spirited and charming example. It's descriptive, suggestive, scaled for reading pleasure, and a treat for the reader's imagination.
Add to these the "thumb-sucker," the "think piece," the "straddler," the "panderer," and on and on. Some practitioners figure that if both sides of any argument think a column supports their distinct positions in the debate, the writer has acquitted himself brilliantly. In a few cases, I'm ashamed to report, I've had that sort of experience, and it's always important to assess the capacity for mayhem that may be temporarily latent in the reader who's paid the compliment. It may be wise to nod gratefully, rather than disabuse a reader who assumed you wrote one thing when in fact you wrote something else. Such occasions do not always arise at the salad bar, or even in the produce section. Frozen foods or fresh meats will do.
But, for sure, it's never good when a reader asks, as Arnie in essence did, What the hell was the point?
At the moment Arnie hove into view, I was struggling over a green bean question. I've never been a big fan of green beans in salads, although I'm very fond of other sorts of beans — black, red, lima, etc. But, I was trying to make a salad that avoided the meatballs, the potato salad, the fruits, the cheeses — you know, a real salad, one that's good for you. And those green beans looked as if they'd belong in that sort of salad. So, as I've said, I was in the middle of a deeply philosophical internal debate.
It was green beans, broccoli, dirt bikes, Arnie, huh? What was the point last week, I asked myself? It wasn't a this-I-believe column. It wasn't an I've-been-thinking column. It wasn't a "thumb-sucker" or a "think piece", and God, I hope it wasn't a "straddler" or a "panderer."
It was observational. I was observing that things change, that in 1969 or 1970, when I began life here, there was no Y, no Arena, no skateboard park, no zoning, no Martha's Vineyard Commission, no subdivision control, no bike paths, no dirt biking. (The salad days, you might say. Forgive me.) There was hunting, fishing, sailing, drinking, baseball, football, basketball, etc. There were demolition derbies and horse races.
But, change overtook us, 7,000 souls became 15,000 and new ideas became good ideas, or at least ideas we'd never thought of became attractive ideas to some of us. Thus, dirt biking happened, and the question is how or whether we'll fit it in.
It's a polemical world we live in. We like to talk to the people whose views agree with ours. We like to read and watch like-minded opinion mongers. We like to conform our list-serves and news feeds to news that suits us. We expect what we read or see to take a side — our side we hope. We form sides more quickly than we consider which side to take. We demand that leaders resist flexibility and embrace partisanship, and increasingly we find that they do as we demand, for good or ill.
The green beans and the potato salad are on offer, and sometimes the question is not whether one is good for you and the other is not. It's just a choice, something to consider, not inconsequential, not determinative either. Upon observation, one could go this way or that.