Saturday, May 23, 2015

Abbey Powell writes

Abbey Powell of the United States Department of Agriculture writes about her appearance as a character in Mark Trail: “Invasive Pest Invades a National Comic Strip” (USDA Blog).

Related reading
All OCA Mark Trail posts (Pinboard)

[“Invasive Pest”: I think that’s meant to be funny. If not, it’s also funny.]

Friday, May 22, 2015

Why Elaine Fine (still) blogs

“I see that even though you are on Facebook you still keep a blog. Why do you need to write long blog posts when you can instantly share pictures, birthday greetings, and observations with hundreds of people you know?” Veranda Davenport interviews Elaine Fine, who explains why she (still) blogs.

[Fresca posed the question to her readers earlier this month. My reply is in this post.]

Things I learned on my summer vacation

Hard-boiled eggs are an excellent breakfast for the road.

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Robert Frost is everywhere. At a rest stop in Ohio, a signboard described the Old National Road as “The Road Less Traveled.”

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Hirschbach, “Established in 1935,” is a trucking company.

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Passing out cards for Leddy Ceramic Tile in Leonia, New Jersey, my dad met Freddie Bartholomew. “Is that Freddie Bartholomew?” he asked a kid down the street. It was.

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Charles Halton played the bank examiner in It’s a Wonderful Life. He had roles in countless movies, among them A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and The Best Years of Our Lives, in which he plays Prew. Prew who? Mr. Prew, an employee of the bank where Al Stephenson (Frederic March) is in charge of small loans.

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“Just As Though You Were Here” is a beautiful early Sinatra recording.

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In New Jersey, some streets still have little heaps of salt and sand by their curbs. Such a winter.

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“They want you to get a trilobite of memory.”

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The places we have known do not belong solely to the world of space in which we situate them for our greater convenience. They were only a thin slice among contiguous impressions which formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is but regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years. [Passage from Swann’s Way, translated by Lydia Davis.]
Proust is correct (as I already knew). Walking down Hackensack’s Main Street for the first time in more than thirty years, I had only slight recall of what had been where. Which block had housed the Relic Rack? I couldn’t figure it out. But the Johnson Public Library was still familiar, outside and in, though the room that held LPs has been put to other purposes. Hackensack Record King is still going, at a smaller storefront. I found a copy of the Harper’s Bizarre’s LP Feelin’ Groovy. Van Dyke Parks plays on their version of his song “Come to the Sunshine.”

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Hariyali chicken is a socko Indian dish made with cumin, garlic, ginger, and mint.

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Doff and don : could these words be related to off and on ? I learned the answer to this question only after returning home.

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CW Pencil Enterprise is a small storefront that could have figured in the television series The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd — which is not a bad thing. Caroline Weaver sells pencils by the point, a dollar or two or so per pencil. Also erasers, sharpeners, notebooks, and pencil-themed books. How those items translate into a Manhattan rent is beyond me. How Molly Dodd made the rent is also beyond me.

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I still do not have it in me to buy a copy of David Rees’s How to Sharpen Pencils. The book just doesn’t appeal to me, in the same way that most musical humor, like, say, P. D. Q. Bach, doesn’t appeal to me.

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A gift of pencils may yield happiness well in excess of the cost. Last year our friend Margie King Barab gave me a pencil from Manhattan’s Poets House, dark red, with a haiku by Issa in a Robert Hass translation. This year I brought two pencils to give Margie, Mitsubishi Hi-Unis, whose red roughly matched that of the pencil she had given me. But how could I have known that Margie once had a cat named Mitsu?

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Our friend Seymour Barab played cello for many dance performances choreographed by Jean Erdman.

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“Brooklyn" is a “thing” in Manhattan: Brooklyn Diner, Junior’s Brooklyn. It is a tiresome thing.

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Looking down from an adjacent building makes it easy to understand why Rosemary’s Baby was filmed at the Dakota. It’s an exceptionally sinister-looking building.

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Walking in Manhattan is now more difficult because of slow-moving tourist types. They sleepwalk down the middle of the pavement, looking at their phones. On the way to the Port Authority Bus Terminal, I could see the difference: drifting visitors on the east side of Eighth Avenue, purposeful commuters zooming on the west.

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Kanye West sings and dances, sort of. His dancing in the video for “FourFiveSeconds” reminds me of Corky St. Clair in Waiting for Guffman. See especially 2:37–2:47.

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It is always fun to introduce friends to Waiting for Guffman. The movie goes by more quickly with every viewing.

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They’ve got an awful lot of sardines in New Jersey. Brands I’ve never seen. Several shelves of sardines in the supermarket. Who buys sardines on vacation? I do.

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Rachel and Ben can Simonize-and-Garfunkelize anything with their fine voices. For instance: Queen’s “Somebody to Love.”

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“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is eminently suited for spontaneous lyric additions:
I met a girl named Sirena
She lived in a little can
I spoke to her of my desire
But she hid underneath a fan
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Our friends Luanne and Jim are generous beyond any measure of what’s reasonable. They made it clear to me that retirement is a Big Deal.

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All my dad’s elementary-school teachers were — in his word — “spinsters.” Some miserable, some very kind. Marriage in those days was the end of a teacher’s career.

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My mom used a Waterman fountain pen in fountain-pen days. Wait: these are fountain-pen days. But for most people they’re not.

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It is possible to run into one’s parents at the supermarket twice in two days. They, too, were going to pick up a few things before we came over.

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The Italian cookies I know as stripes are, it seems, more generally called rainbow cookies or tri-color cookies.

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The 2nd Ave Deli doesn’t really offer complimentary yarmulkes — just pickles and pickled cabbage. That’s enough.

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“What am I, chopped liver?” Meaning: chopped liver is an appetizer, not the main event.

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In New Jersey, the beefsteak dinner is still a fundraising strategy for schools and teams. Joseph Mitchell has a great essay on the beefsteak tradition, “All You Can Hold for Five Bucks”, but I knew that already.

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Eleanor Roosevelt on Emma Goldman’s temporary return to the United States in 1934: “Emma Goldman is now a very old woman. I really think that this country can stand the shock of her presence for ninety days.”

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WINS 1010, all-news radio: kid for child , cops for police . Is it brevity they’re after, or the vulgate, or both?

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Scully Planners might be worth looking into.

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Signature Stationers in Lexington, Massachusetts, might be worth visiting during business hours.

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Crab cakes Benedict at the Deluxe Town Diner: a good way to choose both breakfast and lunch: crab cakes, poached eggs, English muffin, bliss.

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Masona Grill serves Peruvian specialties and other dishes. Pork Three Ways! There will be pork!

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Harvard Square never changes. People panhandling, people drumming on buckets, people playing Beatles songs on dreadnought guitars. All things Tibetan for sale. Neverending street repairs, now moved to Mount Auburn Street.

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“Always, when you want to see something fine, there is a crease in the map.”

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Ron’s Used Tires describes itself as “Specializing in Used Tires."

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The Welcome Center on Interstate 64 West in West Virginia (mile marker 179) is the greatest rest stop I’ve ever seen. I told the attendant so and signed the guest book. “Bless your heart,” she said. Unbeknownst to me, Elaine came to the same conclusion about the stop’s greatness and told the attendant as well. The day that we stopped was the third anniversary of the Welcome Center’s opening.

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Stitch head: slang for a baseball fan. (Stefan, do you know this term?)

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Tender Fluff: A, uh, “gentlemen’s club”? No. An animal-grooming business? No. A donut shop? Yes.

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Presence and absence: at Luanne and Jim’s, it felt as if our friend Rob Zseleczky would come through the door at any minute.

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Totals: 1199 miles, 53.1 mpg, 50 mph. 267.3 miles, 54.3 mpg, 33 mph. 559.8 miles, 55 mpg, 54 mph. 709 miles, 51.4 mpg, 59 mph.

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More things I learned on my summer vacation
2014 : 2013 : 2012 : 2011 : 2010 : 2009 : 2008 : 2007 : 2006

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Letter, stranger

In the mail today, a letter. I like letters. But this one was a bit strange, or stranger. I know the writer by name, but I’ve never met her. How she knows me, I can’t imagine. But there we are, on the page — or pages, four of them — on a first-name basis. She’s telling me about how much we have in common, about her summer travel plans, about her grandchild. She says it’s “our moment.” And she’s asking me for money, and including an envelope in which I can send her some. Yipes.

Later, stranger.

VDP’s next-to-last

Here is Paul Zollo’s review of Van Dyke Parks’s next-to-last piano-vocal performance. A choice bit:

His friend Eric Idle, of Monty Python fame, introduced him to the packed house. “Van Dyke Parks,” he said, “is not just a genius. He is a fucking genius.”
It’s true.

Related reading
All OCA VDP posts (Pinboard)

[Penultimate seems to be everywhere these days, what with Letterman and Mad Men. Thus next-to-last.]

Free writing advice

What most students don’t recognize about writing is that improvement can come only from within. As with playing a musical instrument: no one can make you play in tune if you’re not interested. If you are interested, a good teacher can show you what you’re doing right and point you toward ways to improve.

The most useful habit a writer can develop is practice — regularly writing something . The most useful ability is a good ear, being able to hear what’s right and what has to be made right.

The more I write, the more I revise.

[Found on a piece of paper. Perhaps the idea was to offer advice in three sentences, two, one.]

The age of spinach


[Family Circus, May 21, 2015.]

No, Billy, they do not. But there is “teen spinach”:


[It’s no joke. An explanation of the name may be found here.]

I’ve seen shelf labels for “teen spinach,” but I’ve never seen the name on a package. Too creepy, I suspect.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Word of the day: eremite

Back in high-school chorus days, my daughter and son were singing Randall Thompson’s setting of Robert Frost’s “Choose Something Like a Star”:

And steadfast as Keats’ Eremite,
Not even stooping from its sphere,
It asks a little of us here.
Someone piped up: “What’s Eremite?” And the teacher explained that it was an element Keats had discovered.

It could be that this teacher was passing on misinformation that had come his way. Or he could have been winging it. From what my children have told me, the second possibility sounds more likely. He might have been working from so-called context clues: the poem’s reference to chemical elements (“Tell us what elements you blend“), perhaps the strange capital E (though it’s chemical symbols, not the names of elements, that begin with capitals). Either way, the teacher was leading a chorus in a song whose words he had not taken the time to understand. He had not practiced what I like to call defensive reading: reading that requires a sure grasp of details, because somebody might ask you a question.

Eremite of course has nothing to do with chemistry. Frost’s poem makes reference to John Keats’s sonnet “Bright Star” (one of my favorite poems of eros). The poem’s speaker wants to be both like a star and not like a star— as “stedfast” as a star, but not a solitary contemplative:
    Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
    Like nature's patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
    Of pure ablution round earth’s human
        shores
The speaker of “Bright Star” would prefer to be “still stedfast, still unchangeable” with his head resting on his beloved’s breast, where he can remain “Awake for ever in a sweet unrest” or swoon to death. What the speaker doesn’t want to be is alone. He doesn’t want to be an eremite. From Merriam-Webster:
noun er·e·mite \ˈer-ə-ˌmīt\
: hermit; especially : a religious recluse
The only good response when a student asks a question that the teacher cannot answer is something along these lines: “That’s a good question. We should know that, shouldn’t we? Let me see what I can find out.” Sending the question-asker in search of the answer teaches students that they’re better off not asking questions. Offering to find out is an appropriate combination of curiosity and humility. Nobody knows everything. But yes, the curiosity that might prompt a search for keats eremite should have been there to begin with.

I wish the question-asker in my children’s story had followed up the malarkey about a scientific discovery by asking, “Keats who?”

Related reading
Keats’s “Bright Star” : Frost’s “Choose Something Like a Star” : Randall Thompson’s setting of Frost’s poem

Dylan on Letterman

Last night David Letterman introduced Bob Dylan as “the greatest songwriter of modern times.” And Dylan sang “The Night We Called It a Day.” The introduction must have left at least some viewers thinking that Dylan wrote this beautiful song, written in 1941 by Tom Adair (words) and Matt Dennis (music).

You don’t have to be Frank Sinatra to sing “The Night We Called It a Day” persuasively. But you need much more musicality than Dylan can muster. I can imagine Tom Waits doing a great version.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Gay Talese’s address book

I finally found four minutes and forty-six seconds to watch this film: Gay Talese’s Address Book. My favorite words: “I am a person who cares about the past as much as the future. I don’t think that it is ethical to erase the past.” I, too, don’t erase names from my address book.

Matt Thomas has also pointed his readers to a film about Gay Talese’s office. It requires three minutes and thirty-two seconds.