Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Some atolls

The astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti photographed some atolls:

For newcomers to Orange Crate Art: “some” is a crucial category for organizing reality. The work begins with rocks.

Thank you, Mathias.

The happiness of suspended coffee

Yesterday I had my first-ever suspended coffee. Elaine ordered a large tea, I ordered a small coffee, and the barista said that a previous customer had paid for a future customer’s small coffee. A suspended coffee! The barista too knew about the practice but she too had never before seen it in action. I took the free one and paid for another suspended coffee. As Elaine and I put caps on our cups, we saw a student ordering, yes, a small coffee. The barista told her that someone had just paid for one. The student turned, saw us, and thanked us. She thanked us at least four times. Laughter and smiles all around. It was the most fun I’ve ever had paying for a cup of coffee.

The tradition of caffè sospeso seems to have started as a way to help anyone in need. A customer without sufficient funds might come in and ask if there were any suspended coffees. In this east-central Illinois adaptation, it seems to be more a matter of kindness aimed in no particular direction. Pay it forward, random acts, and all that. I highly recommend paying for a suspended coffee and plan to do so again as soon as possible.


January 28: And now I have.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

“What I Forgot”

There is nothing wrong with description, watching people pass by, remembering how things used to be. I suppose it’s always like that. On the other hand,

        there is no

        of what
        is wrong with
        my hat


We say an expression misleads us, that we have been given “bad directions,” ending up in a tight corner of the cloakroom, a bright orange bowling ball now speeding toward us,

        Wang Wang Blues
        on the

        floormodel radio


Then the news is so matter-of-fact that there is no news, just years of patient inventory,

        bread milk and snow


        Snow what is

        y brillante

        now I
        have it

        hat hat

[I wrote “What I Forgot” sometime in the 1990s. The poem was published in a chapbook of my work, Inventories (Oasii Press, 1997). Now I know why the trio bread milk and snow has been running through my head. “Wang Wang Blues”: an early Ellington recording.]

No Koch

The New York Times reports that the Koch brothers plan to spend nearly $900 million on the 2016 elections: “The brothers’ financial goal, announced on Monday at the annual Koch winter donor retreat in Palm Springs, Calif., effectively transforms the Koch organization into a third major political party.”

If you oppose this style of radical will, don’t buy Koch products. Tell others to do the same. And give to the candidates of your choice.

[Angel Soft Toilet Paper, Brawny Towels, Quilted Northern Toilet Paper, Georgia-Pacific Paper Products, Dixie Products, Stainmaster Carpet, Sparkle Paper Napkins, Lycra Fiber, Zee Paper Napkins, Mardi Gras Products, Dacron Fiber, Vanity Fair Paper Napkins, Soft ’n Gentle Toilet Paper. Image found here. Irony of ironies: our local indie moviehouse, soon to show Citizen Koch, was using Dixie products at the snack bar. I clued the management in.]

Raise high the roof beam, Donald Meek

I may be lacking in imagination: I rarely if ever visualize characters in literature, and I’m always surprised when people report that they do. Indeed, there’s a book about it, whose title, What We See When We Read, takes it for granted that we visualize, even if I don’t.

But on occasion a visual image will present itself to me. When it does, I take it. Enter Donald Meek.

[Donald Meek, actor (1878–1946).]

I’ve seen Donald Meek in just two movies. In Little Miss Broadway (dir. Irving Cummings, 1938), a Shirley Temple vehicle (and fambly favorite), he plays Willoughby Wendling, an upper-crust fellow and member of a fuddy-duddy vocal quartet. In State Fair (dir. Walter Lang, 1945), he plays the mononymous Hippenstahl, a judge of pickles and mincemeat.

When I first read J. D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters (1963), I instantly imagined the “tiny elderly man” of the story as Donald Meek. The little man is a member of an ill-fated wedding party: he is Seymour Glass’s bride Muriel’s father’s uncle. He is deaf and never says a word, communicating only with pad and pencil. He is never identified by name. Here are two descriptions of him, courtesy of the story’s narrator, Buddy Glass:

Twice, without any excuse whatever, out of sheer approval, I glanced around at the tiny elderly man. When I’d originally loaded the car and held the door open for him, I’d had a passing impulse to pick him up bodily and insert him gently through the open window. He was tininess itself, surely being not more than four nine or ten and without being either a midget or a dwarf. In the car, he sat staring very severely straight ahead of him. On my second look around at him, I noticed that he had what very much appeared to be an old gravy stain on the lapel of his cutaway. I also noticed that his silk hat cleared the roof of the car by a good four or five inches.


The bride’s father’s uncle and I brought up the rear. Whether he had intuited that I was his friend or simply because I was the owner of a pad and pencil, he had rather more scrambled then gravitated to a walking position beside me. The very top of his beautiful silk hat didn’t quite come up as high as my shoulder. I set a comparatively slow gait for us, in deference to the length of his legs. At the end of a block or so, we were quite a good distance behind the others. I don’t think it troubled either of us. Occasionally, I remember, as we walked along, my friend and I looked up and down, respectively, at each other and exchanged idiotic expressions of pleasure at sharing one another’s company.
“Rather more scrambled then gravitated,” “looked up and down, respectively,” “idiotic expressions of pleasure”: what funny, wonderful writing. But you’ll notice that aside from short stature, nothing in these descriptions suggests Donald Meek. (According to his IMDb bio, Meek was 5'4".) Why his image floated into my mind, I’ll never know.

Via YouTube you can watch Willoughby and his cronies lip-sync with Shirley Temple on “Swing Me an Old-Fashioned Song” from Little Miss Broadway. Caution: the brief bit of “In the Evening by the Moonlight” may be cause for offense.

More from Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters
“A sort of jump-seat Mona Lisa”
“Love, Irving Sappho”

Monday, January 26, 2015

White stuff

Bread, milk, and snow: Why blizzards make us go crazy for milk and bread (The Washington Post).

It’s snowing in east-central Illinois, but it’s nothing like what the northeastern states will get. Stay safe, northeastern states. Get the bread and milk.

A related post
“The white stuff”

[Please notice that the white stuff in this post is not snow alone.]

Kenneth Koch on reading poetry

Much of the difficulty of reading poetry comes from unfamiliarity, from not being able to take the suggestions the poem gives as to how to read it. It’s possible, too, to be misdirected by teachers and critics, so that poems are read in an unprofitable way. Common mistaken ideas about how to read poetry include the Hidden Meaning assumption, which directs one to more or less ignore the surface of the poem in a quest for some elusive and momentous significance that the poet has buried amid the words and music. This idea probably comes from the fact that, being moved by a poem, one assumes an important religious, philosophical, or historical cause for being moved and tries to find it hidden someplace in the poem; whereas in fact a few words rightly placed can be moving if they catch a moment of life — almost any moment; if, amidst all the blather and babble of imprecise, uncertain language in which we live, there is something better, some undeniable little beautiful bit of light. This is given to us, of course, by the music and the words, not something that they conceal. Important, and at first unseeable, meanings may be in poems as they may be in other experiences, but there is no way to find them except by having the experiences. It's not the nature of poems to be clues, or collections of clues, so to read them as if they were is not to properly experience them, thus to be lost. Many people talking about poetry are lost, and even more people have given up reading poetry because they knew they were lost and didn’t like it. A poem may turn out to be a deep and complex experience, but the experience begins by responding to the language of poetry in front of you, not by detective work that puts that response aside.

Kenneth Koch, Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998).
I wish that teachers everywhere could take Koch’s words to heart.

More Kenneth Koch (Biography, bibliography, selections)
Koch reading his work (PennSound)

Related posts
Against “deep reading”
Seventeen ideas about interpretation

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Joe Franklin (1926–2015)

“‘My show was often like a zoo,’” he said in 2002. ‘I‘d mix Margaret Mead with the man who whistled through his nose, or Richard Nixon with the tap-dancing dentist’”: Joe Franklin, Local Talk Show Pioneer, Dies at 88 (The New York Times).

The best moments on The Joe Franklin Show came when Joe asked his guests to talk about one another. Awkward, crazy, and wonderful.

[Yes, the URL says 2014. I never make the last-year mistake when writing checks — only when I’m writing online.]

Hi and Lois watch

[Hi and Lois, January 25, 2015. Click for a larger view.]

Here are the first two panels of today’s Hi and Lois, panels that will be missing from many newspapers. Not because of censorship: who can fault an infant for chortling about her neighbor’s alcoholism? Rather, because these panels form the “throwaway gag,” the unnecessary bit that can be removed to save space without damaging the logic of the Sunday storyline. No accident that it’s the risky joke in these panels.

Related reading
All OCA Hi and Lois posts (Pinboard)
The evolution of Thirsty Thurston (

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Newsday’s Saturday Stumper

Several months ago I cancelled my subscription to the New York Times crossword. It wasn’t the ludicrousness of 46-Down, “Cool jazz pioneer” that finally got to me: it was the increasingly forced cleverness of the puzzles. I know that the Times is the gold standard of crosswords. But Will Shortz’s sense of what’s amusing and fun is not exactly mine.

I now do the Times crossword in syndication for free, often though not daily. My new daily crossword, also free, is Stan Newman’s Newsday crossword. The Sunday through Friday puzzles are good ones, always with a theme, always with nice touches of wit in the clueing. Saturday’s puzzle, the Saturday Stumper, is a themeless killer, generally far more difficult than the Times Saturday puzzle. I’ve been able to complete just one Saturday Newsday without having to reveal one or more words. A sample clue, from today’s puzzle by Brad Wilber: 36-Down, eight letters, “What you might do for your own sake.” The answer, which I’m happy to have figured out: HOMEBREW. There’s a nice sense of proportion between clue and answer: the out-of-the-way answer justifies the clue’s wit. You’ll have to highlight to see the answer, which I won’t give away.

[Brad Wilber, the constructor of today’s Newsday puzzle, co-constructed the puzzle that made me a little crazy. I suspect though that “Cool jazz pioneer,” which seems to derive from a Times obit, was Shortz’s clue.]