I recently achieved a life-long writing goal when I was recruited to write for the New York Times. I now write a monthly essay for "Booming," a blog on the Times website written by and about Baby Boomers.
"Booming" contains a comments section after each essay where readers can make their own views known. A new essay by an Op-ed superstar like Paul Krugman will generate hundreds of reader comments. One of his recent essays inspired more than a thousand.
My first essay, "I'm Not Getting Any Better," concerned my decision, at age 58, to stop trying to improve myself. "I won't take up yoga," I wrote. "I won't be lifting any weights. I will do nothing to strengthen my core. I'm not even going to learn where my core is. I'm a swimmer, and I walk the Yorkiepoo every day. That will have to do."
I also announced that I'd made my peace with the fact that I would never return to the piano or read Middlemarch.
"'Glib and cutesy'
When my Times editor informed me that my humor piece had been chosen to run on the very first day of "Booming," I was elated. I was even more thrilled when my essay received more than 100 comments.
Then I actually read a few.
They were intelligent, articulate and well informed— just what you'd expect from New York Times readers. And many of the responses to my humor piece were pretty funny themselves. But a small but vocal minority took my little humor piece seriously, and took me to task.
"Your glib and cutesy dismissal of lifting weights and working on your core does an immense disserve to anyone reading this," wrote one.
"I have witnessed the results of your approach and concluded that it is not a good idea," added another.
"Wow, I'm glad I'm not you," commented a third.
"You'll be the dullest octogenarian in the nursing home," warned a fourth. "Nobody will want to visit you!"
Apparently, I'd touched a nerve. I figured that this must be because I was joking around about aging— a serious (and scary) topic.
My next "Booming" topic couldn't have been more frivolous. "If The Shoe Fits, Don't Wear It Unless It's Comfortable" concerned my rejection of stilettos and other fashionably uncomfortable shoes.
Although most Times readers agreed with me, my essay provoked a perfect storm of wrath from women who adore uncomfortable shoes.
"Your story is not cute and I am not amused."
"This article is rubbish."
One woman re-posted my essay with the tag: "Where does the Times find these morons?" To me, she sneered: "Well aren't we the special little snowflake?"
The experience of being excoriated for writing a humor piece about footwear was a little surreal. It taught me that when you express an opinion in the Times, even jokingly, someone somewhere will make it his business (or hers) to trash that opinion.
Kvetching about health
So I wasn't surprised when my next essay— "Let Me Tell You What's Wrong With Me," a light-hearted look at the way we boomers enjoy kvetching about our health— provoked the following:
"Articles like this one are dangerous, insensitive and misleading."
"Beware. You attract what you focus on. Focus on aches and pains and they'll come to you."
"You might feel better if you stopped wallowing and coddling yourself."
"Some of us boomers still have a life."
Happily, most responses to my essays have been supportive, or at least respectful. But this much I've learned: That old saying, "If you don't have anything good to say, don't say it," doesn't apply to folks who surf the Internet— even the New York Times website.
In any case, I'm learning from my critics. Inspired by the many Middlemarch partisans who responded to my first piece, I've resolved to give George Eliot's classic another try. And thanks to the music lovers who urged me not to give up on the piano, I'm back at the keyboard.
Mostly, I'm just grateful for this gig, and thrilled to have so many passionate, engaged readers. Even the schmucks.♦
To read responses, click here.
To read a follow-up commentary by Dan Rottenberg, click here and here.