Thursday, September 30, 2004

Happy Anniversary to us

Happy Anniversary, Elaine,
"in our prime and flowering years."

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

SMiLE is here

Released today on Nonesuch (Wilco’s label too). It begins with a wordless prayer and ends with the wordless vocal segment of “Good Vibrations.” It journeys from Plymouth Rock to Blue Hawaii, from innocence to experience and back again. It is a work of ambition, humor, and youth. SMiLE is amazing. It is also the number-one-selling item on Amazon.com today. Charleston's Wal-Mart had one copy this afternoon.

“Intercolleg[i]ate,” continued

The misspelled signs that I wrote about last week have disappeared from Fourth Street, and will, I trust, reappear with correct spelling in the near future. Behold the power of blogging? Not really. I wrote to Lou Hencken about the signs and received an immediate reply saying that he’d look into the matter. I will say though that it was writing about the signs here that prompted me to send the email.

Just one look

I’ve always loved the end of Odyssey 16. Odysseus and Telemachus are out in the country when Odysseus (in disguise as a beggar) and Telemachus share a private glance in the hut of the swineherd Eumaeus:

Telemachus smiled, feeling his ancestors’ blood,
And glanced at Odysseus, avoiding the swineherd’s eye.
                                    (Lombardo translation)
This passage from a book review in the Christian Science Monitor just gave me a new way to think about the significance of this scene:
The critical concept in The First Idea is what the authors call “co-regulated emotional signaling.” By this they mean the affectionate back-and-forth between baby and caregiver. Mom and Baby make eye contact, and when Mom smiles at Baby, Baby smiles back.

It would be simplistic to say that the authors see games of peekaboo and patty-cake as the foundations of civilization—but it would not be completely wide of the mark. It is just this sort of nonverbal “conversation,” the authors argue, that was essential to the development of language among early humans and remains essential to each child’s learning to talk today.
I’ve always thought of this moment in the Odyssey in terms of the knowing look partners might give each other in a social setting. How interesting though to think of Odysseus and Telemachus as bonding in the way that a father and an infant son would bond. Telemachus is “reborn” as Odysseus’s son at the beginning of Odyssey 2. And Odysseus is, almost literally, a new father, having not seen his son in twenty years. His relationship with Telemachus is less than a day old when they share this moment of silent, eye-to-eye, mind-to-mind communication.

Monday, September 27, 2004

I’m the Teacher . . . (brief review)

I just finished an interesting if ultimately disappointing book by Patrick Allitt, professor of history and holder of the Arthur Blank Chair for Teaching Excellence at Emory University. I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom recounts the ups and downs of one course, an introduction to modern American history. Despite the stern title (designed, no doubt, to appeal to critics of higher education looking for a report from a hard-liner), Allitt’s account too often reveals him to be a happy panderer, dispensing “good” grades to work that by his own admission is outrageously bad while priding himself on his classroom rigor and his refusal to bend to his students’ pleas and demands. He seems not to see the contradictions and ironies in his situation. He insists upon good writing, yet appears unsurprised by the ungainly and error-ridden papers he receives all semester long. (And when a student turns in a much-improved essay, he laments that it isn’t as “entertaining” as an earlier effort that was filled with mistakes.) Grade inflation, he says, is endemic, but it’s too much trouble, he also says, not to go along, what with complaints from parents and pressure from deans. Thus he gives grades of B- to students who deserve (in his judgment) Fs.

I was also put off by Allitt’s breezy and inconsistent handling of procedures. His syllabus (included as an appendix) includes no policies regarding late work, yet he complains when he receives pleading, excuse-making emails from students who must feel that with no clear policy, their only hope is to try everything they can to move the prof. He quotes (and mocks) one at length, and gives us his reply, which never tells the student whether she may turn in late work. Another student, having turned in a wholly plagiarized essay, is given the chance to write another essay and receives “the lowest passing grade.” That’ll teach him, right? Where do grades come from, by the way? “Out of my head,” Allitt writes, “but in a rich social context.” Quizzes, according to his syllabus, count for 10% of the semester grade, but he gives only two quizzes all semester and decides at the semester’s end that “In reality, then, those ten are going to have to be distributed elsewhere.” I wonder what a student who took the syllabus seriously and studied hard for those quizzes might say about that.

I like Allitt’s habit of asking questions of his students and his emphasis on map-making and drawing as ways to understand the past. His descriptions of teaching with slides make me wish I had had a history prof who made significant use of visual materials. But too often Allitt’s attitudes suggest to me everything that I most dislike about academia, not least of which is the sense that college teaching is a really good racket: “It’s a great life being a professor: the benefits are major, the irritants minor.”

Troy

You can find Daniel Mendelsohn's astute essay on the movie here.

Sunday, September 26, 2004

SMiLE on NPR

Here is a link to a 15-minute-long NPR piece on SMiLE, with comments from Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks and many musical excerpts. This piece gives a good sense of the scope of SMiLE and tracks the human story (of Brian Wilson's breakdown and fragile recovery) with honesty and respect.

[SMiLE is the traditional spelling, as in the original album-cover art by Frank Holmes.]

Saturday, September 25, 2004

No job too small

I see more frequent and more exotic homonym errors than I used to. Maybe the most surprising so far is pros for prose. But sometimes even a familiar error stands out for sheer improbability:

“No job to small.”
That’s the motto (in large bold print) on an advertising flyer for a home handyman. My dad received it in the mail and sent it to me recently, sans comment. He knew I’d catch his point.

I’m not one of those people who equate proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation habits with something akin to moral superiority, priding themselves on their rectitude and looking down their noses at everyone else. I do believe though that spelling counts. There could be many reasons why the flyer quoted above came out wrong, and the guy who sent it out might be an ace of home repair. But reader, if you didn’t already know that, would “No job to small” persuade you to call him? Does his presentation inspire confidence?

A memory: Before my dad retired as a ceramic tile contractor, he received countless compliments from his customers, not only on his tile work but also on the care with which he prepared his written estimates. Truly, no job is too small to do right, and that includes spelling.

[Note: “No job to small” seems to be a remarkably common mistake. A Google search just turned up 5,950 hits. “No job too small” turned up 34,900 hits. And Leddy Ceramic Tile will now turn up at least one.]

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Field of dreams?

Walk along the street, and you’ll see the signs, three in a row:

Intercollegate Women’s Rugby Field.
Intercollegate Women’s Rugby Field.
Intercollegate Women’s Rugby Field.
There’s a fourth sign on the fence at the south end of a field:
Intercollegate Women’s Rugby Field.
Our university is pressed for funds, and making replacement signs with correct spelling might not be the most practical use of money. But these signs make a very clear statement to anyone in or out of the university who sees them—that we either don’t know or don’t care that they’re wrong. Neither possibility reflects very well on a university community.

Another way to look at the problem: Don’t the women who play intercollegiate rugby on this field deserve signage that doesn’t detract from the dignity of their sport?

Translators at work and play

Here’s the Phaeacian princess Nausicaa in Odyssey 6 asking her father for the wagon so that she can go down to the river and do the laundry.

Richmond Lattimore:

“Daddy dear, will you not have them harness me the
     wagon,
the high one with the good wheels”
“Daddy dear” doesn’t ring true to me, and it’s not because I’m judging by 21st-century standards. The words don’t ring true to me as mid-20th-century American English. “[W]ill you not have them” seems unnecessarily cumbersome; “harness me the wagon” simply awkward.

Robert Fagles:
                                                                     “Daddy dear,
I wonder, won’t you have them harness a wagon for me,
the tall one with the good smooth wheels? . . . “
Yikes! “Daddy dear” all over again. The ellipsis is Fagles’, not mine. In his translations of Homer and Aeschylus (and perhaps elsewhere too) his speakers tend to . . . zone out, for no apparent . . . reason. For me, the cumulative effect is tedious. And would anyone really interrupt such a simple request by adding the words “I wonder”? Why would Nausicaa wonder whether her father would act? Fagles’ attempts to suggest natural speech here seem stilted. Still, this translation is less cumbersome than Lattimore’s.

Stanley Lombardo:
“Daddy, would you please hitch up a wagon for me—
A high one that rolls well”
Now I really hear the voice of a daughter. As a teenaged princess, Nausicaa doesn’t need to wonder whether her father will do what she asks. As the father of a daughter myself, it occurs to me to ask: Is Nausicaa making a request, or is she simply telling her father what she expects him to do? Hmm.

“[H]itch up” is a nice American touch.

Robert Fitzgerald:
“My dear Papà, could you not send the mule cart
around for me—the gig with pretty wheels?”
Fitzgerald’s version of these lines is my favorite among the four. “My dear Papà” seems just right for a princess addressing her father. Such easy elegance! What a wonderful way to bring the charmed, magical world of the Phaeacians into our language. Fitzgerald is departing from the sense of the Greek with pretty, but pretty wheels do seem right in the Phaeacian world of aesthetic pleasures.

Monday, September 20, 2004

A poem for Hector

The Greek Anthology is a collection of more than 4,000 short poems written over roughly 1,700 years (beginning in 700 BCE). The best source for selections in translation is Dudley Fitts’ Poems from the Greek Anthology (1938). Fitts is a brilliant translator and presents the poems in sharp, terse, perennially modern English. If you’ve read Oedipus in a classroom setting, you’ve probably read the translation by Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald.

Here is Fitts’ translation of an epitaph for Hector, from a poet known as Archias the Macedonian:

HEKTOR OF TROY
Stone, who was his father that lies beneath you?
What was his name? His country? What was his death?

His father was Priam. Ilion his country. His name
Was Hektor. He met death fighting for his land.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Cave bling

Our concern with material wealth and status and the Homeric world’s preoccupation with τιμη seem to have deep, deep roots. Here are some excerpts from an Ananova news service article, concerning a piece in the British journal New Scientist:

Beads, jewellery and ornaments found at a cave in Blombos, South Africa, are thought to be status symbols dating back up to 77,000 years. Until now it had been thought that an interest in fancy accessories only started around 40,000 years ago.

The New Scientist report says the earliest nomadic hunters were far more civilised than thought previously. And the lust for bling led to an early pecking-order in which people with the right gear seemed more important: “Prestige goods could be the first step on the road to modern civilisation, paving the way for agriculture and urbanisation. No one believes the guy who spends £670,000 on a Bugatti Veyron does so because he needs to travel at 250mph. We all know he is buying an exclusive status symbol. But don't knock it—he is just being civilised.”

WEIU-FM, r.i.p.

Here’s the text of a letter to the local paper:

Ten years ago, anyone in our community could tune to WEIU-FM and hear music from the rest of the world. Only listeners who knew WEIU-FM in its glory days can fully appreciate the cultural resource that’s been lost in the shift to “Hit-Mix” programming. It’s grimly ironic that a university whose mission statement claims a commitment to “free inquiry” in “a diverse world” should feature a radio station whose main selling point is that every song is already familiar. Familiar to whom?

When I was a teenager, listening to old blues recordings on Columbia University’s WKCR-FM changed my musical life. Many EIU students have been introduced to and have grown to love classical music and jazz via WEIU-FM. Now jazz has been cut to a mere four hours a week. Classical music, indie rock, and hip-hop have been eliminated altogether. And so the cultural life of our community moves further toward bland homogeneity.

The whole point of college radio is to provide alternatives to the commercial airwaves, not more of the same. The “Hit-Mix” format makes WEIU-FM an embarrassing anomaly in the world of college radio.
WEIU-FM was indeed a local treasure: classical music in the morning, jazz in the afternoon, indie rock and specialty shows on weeknights (world music, country-folk-bluegrass, blues, and hip-hop), free-form shows on weekends. No station in the area (and probably no station in the state of Illinois) provided a comparable range of music. Mi esposa Elaine Fine did the classical programming for many years, and I did a weekly jazz show (and an occasional free-form show) for several years, so to me the end of the real WEIU-FM is a very personal loss.

Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Sims, the gods, and us

From a New York Times article on Sims 2:

Sims 2, a much enhanced version of the life-simulation game from Maxis, is the video-game answer to reality television shows like “The Real World” and “Big Brother.” Like these shows, Sims 2 allows the lives of its characters to unfold in moments of chaos and carnality. But unlike television, in which the audience is confined to the role of passive viewer, the game puts you into the action in the role of a god. And not a distant, magnanimous god, but one of those petty Roman gods who amuse themselves by toying with people.
I wish the writer had said Greek gods, but you get the idea.

Tip: You can read the full article on the Times site by typing “mediajunkie” (without quotation marks) as both user name and password. The magic word “mediajunkie” will get you into many free news sites that require registration.

Paris, pretty-boy

“Paris, you desperate, womanizing pretty boy!”

What is Hector really saying when he rebukes his brother in Iliad 3? I got curious enough this morning to look at the Greek.

That sounds scary, but figuring out the Greek is relatively easy, even if (like me) you don’t know Greek. There are books that help you to go word by word, and there’s a remarkable website, the Perseus Digital Library, where you can zero in on any passage in an ancient Greek or Latin author and click word by word to get a sense of what’s said.

For Lombardo’s line, I stuck with books. Here’s how Hector addresses his brother, word by word (with the Greek words transliterated into our alphabet):

“Duspari, eidos ariste, gunaimanês, hêperopeuta”

The line might be literally translated like this:

“Unhappy Paris, best in figure, mad for women, deceiver”

Duspari = unhappy Paris
eidos = form, shape, figure
ariste = best
gunaimanês = mad for women
hêperopeuta = deceiver

Desperate is an inspired way of bringing Duspari (which sounds like desperate) into English.

Gunaimanes combines the Greek words for women and mad. Paris is literally mad for women. We might say that he's girl-crazy, which would go well with his immaturity, but girl-crazy is probably too light-hearted for the context.

There’s no pretty boy in the Greek, but Hector’s praise of his brother’s looks makes sense only if it’s bitter sarcasm. Pretty boy suggests the right sort of contempt. I wonder if the sound of hêperopeuta inspired Lombardo to think of pretty boy.

It’s amazing what you can find when you go back to the Greek.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Stanley Lombardo interview

3009 and 2601 students: You can find the text of an interview with Stanley Lombardo here.

How did this interview come about? Stanley Lombardo came to our campus in November 2001 as a special guest at a conference for high-school teachers who teach the Odyssey. When he was taking questions (after a great reading of Book 5), he was saying wonderful things about Homer and translation. Later in the day I asked him if he'd ever been interviewed about such stuff. He hadn’t. So I asked if he’d like to do an interview. He was very generous with his time, and we were both very happy with what resulted.

I think anyone who’s started reading Homer can get something from this interview--you don't have to be an “expert.” I'm reluctant to point brand-new readers of Homer to it, but students who’ve read this interview after reading Homer for a while have told me that they wish they’d read it earlier on. If you read the interview, e-mail me and let me know what you get from it.

For anyone interested in contemporary poetry, Jacket, the home of this interview, is an indispensable resource, edited and published by John Tranter in Australia.

(Thanks to Rachel for showing me how to do italics and links.)

A place to start

“If you’re going to be this uptight and worried about it, you’re not going to be a very happy blogger. Just say ‘This is my new blog; I’m trying it out. Thanks to my son and daughter. I hope it works out.’”

Good advice.

This is my new blog. Thanks to Rachel and Ben for getting me started (and to Rachel for telling me what to say).

“Orange Crate Art,” by the way, is the title song of a 1995 album by Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson. The song was my introduction to each man’s music and is, to my mind, one of the great American songs.