Thursday, May 31, 2007

Another strike against Sony

As I just discovered, Sony has allowed the DVD Glenn Gould Plays Bach: The Goldberg Variations to go out of print. This film of a 1981 studio performance is a rare chance to see Gould at work -- a picture of absolute dedication and genius. Watching several years ago made me vow to learn to read the bass clef (I did) so as to be able to play simple Bach pieces (I can, at least a few).

Amazon has three copies of the DVD for sale, starting at $138.59.

Sony, give us our Gould back.

Related post
3 strikes against Sony

Proust: the "little phrase" again

More than a year after he first heard it, Swann understands the "little phrase" better:

He knew that even the memory of the piano falsified still further the perspective in which he saw the elements of the music, that the field open to the musician is not a miserable scale of seven notes, but an immeasurable keyboard still almost entirely unknown on which, here and there only, separated by shadows thick and unexplored, a few of the millions of keys of tenderness, of passion, of courage, of serenity which compose it, each as different from the others as one universe from another universe, have been found by a few great artists who do us the service, by awakening in us something corresponding to the theme they have discovered, of showing us what richness, what variety, is hidden unbeknowst to us within that great unpenetrated and disheartening darkness of our soul which we take for emptiness and nothingness.

From Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 362-63
The music that gives me the best chance to come close to the response Proust describes is Glenn Gould's 1981 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations. And I'm not alone: I just watched Bruno Monsaingeon's 2005 documentary Glenn Gould Hereafter, in which several people talk about Gould's Bach recordings in these terms.
Related posts
Proust: "one phrase rising"
Swann's little phrase
Classical music for beginners (Start with the Goldberg Variations)
Three records (One is the Goldberg Variations)

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Pragmatism in lawn care

Elaine said:

"That's okay; if it looked perfect, it wouldn't blend in with the rest of our lawn."

My son, having fun

My son Ben and his friend Dan made this film-trailer film earlier this week. Ben is doing voices; Dan is wearing the beard. I especially like the dangerous liquids:

Candice (YouTube)

Proust and the finger-snapping bit

At a social gathering, the Princesse des Laumes listens to a pianist play Liszt. She also watches Mme. de Cambremer, who is both listening and keeping time, "her head transformed into the arm of a metronome." Mme. de Cambremer sways with such force that her jewels become caught in the straps of her bodice, and she must again and again adjust the "black grapes" in her hair. Watching "the pantomime of her music-loving neighbor," the Princesse has much to consider:

She began to wonder if this gesticulation was not perhaps a necessary response to the piece being played, which did not come quite within the scope of the music she had heard up to now, if to refrain was not to give proof of incomprehension with respect to the work and impropriety toward the lady of the house: so that, in order to express both of her contradictory inclinations by a compromise, she first merely straightened up her shoulder straps or put a hand to her blond hair to secure the little balls of diamond-flecked coral or pink enamel which formed her simple and charming coiffure, while at the same time examining her ardent neighbor with cold curiosity, then with her fan she beat time for a moment, but, so as not to forfeit her independence, on the offbeat.

From Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 343-44
The Princesse's effort to feign appreciation reminds me of the instructions in Duke Ellington's "finger-snapping bit," a wonderfully parodic discourse with which Ellington often ended performances. Here's one version of it, from Manchester, England, in 1969:
Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. You're very beautiful, very sweet, very gracious, very generous. And this is "Satin Doll." We use it now for the purpose of giving background to this finger-snapping bit. And you are all invited to join the finger-snapping. Crazy. I see I don't have to tell you that one never snaps one's fingers on the beat. It's considered aggressive. Don't push it; just let it fall. And if you would like to be conservatively hip, then at the same time tilt the left earlobe. Establish a state of nonchalance. And if you would like to be respectably cool, then tilt the left earlobe on the beat and snap the finger on the afterbeat. And so by routining one's finger-snapping and choreographing one's earlobe-tilting, one discovers that one can become as cool as one wishes to be.

From Duke Ellington's 70th Birthday Concert (Solid State Records)
Of course, only a poseur (Mme. de Cambremer) or a square (Mme. des Laumes) would think to adopt such a mechanical set of gestures.

Chicken strips and fries

Having provided the financial backing for countless chicken-strip plates when my daughter and son were younger, I had to smile at this article about efforts to bring greater sophistication to children's menus:

Perhaps no chef has taken the mission more to heart than Tony Miller of Latitude 41, the restaurant of the Renaissance Columbus in Ohio. (Renaissance, like Ritz-Carlton, falls under the Marriott International corporate umbrella.) "We do not have a chicken finger in this restaurant," Mr. Miller said. The father of a 4-year-old girl, he constructed his "Fun Menu" to appeal to children without pandering to them.

"It features zero fried foods on it," he said. "We do grilled organic chicken teriyaki, a seared fillet of whatever fish is in season, and a four-once fillet of natural beef with smashed potatoes. I have not received a single negative reaction from adults or kids. Not one. The kids say 'Man, that's the best steak I’ve ever eaten!'"

Don’t Point That Menu at My Child, Please (New York Times)

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Ideology v. values

[S]ometimes our ideological predispositions are just so fixed that we have trouble seeing the obvious. Once, while still in the Illinois Senate, I listened to a Republican colleague work himself into a lather over a proposed plan to provide school breakfasts to preschoolers. Such a plan, he insisted, would crush their spirit of self-reliance. I had to point out that not too many five-year-olds I knew were self-reliant, but children who spend their formative years too hungry to learn could very well end up being charges of the state.

Despite my best efforts, the bill still went down in defeat; Illinois preschoolers were temporarily saved from the debilitating effects of cereal and milk (a version of the bill would later pass). But my fellow legislator's speech helps underscore one of the differences between ideology and values: Values are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question.

Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Crown, 2006), 59

Related posts
Barack Obama on facts
Barack Obama on race

Proust: imagination and desire

Today's Proust sentence concerns the workings of imagination and desire. Swann, in love, has been shifting between two ideas of Odette: Odette as a "perfidious woman," manipulative and faithless, and "the other Odette," gentle, gracious, "shining softly":

Now that, after this oscillation, Odette had naturally returned to the place from which Swann's jealousy had for a time removed her, to the angle from which he found her charming, he pictured her as full of tenderness, with a look of consent, and so pretty thus that he could not help offering her his lips as if she had been there and he had been able to kiss her; and he felt as strong a gratitude toward her for this enchanting, kindly glance as if she had really given it to him, as if it were not merely his imagination that had just portrayed it in order to satisfy his desire.

From Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 314

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Monday, May 28, 2007

Swann’s jealousy

What is Odette doing when she is not with M. Swann? What is she doing at, say, five o’clock? Swann wonders. And wonders:

His jealousy, like an octopus that casts a first, then a second, then a third mooring, attached itself solidly first to that time, five o’clock in the afternoon, then to another, then to yet another.

From Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 294

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Remembering my friend Aldo

On March 14, 1981, my friend Aldo Carrasco wrote:

I for one keep all my friends’ letters for a time; one usually knows when the time comes to throw them away, if ever of course. I always wait because I have never regretted throwing anything out when it was done at the right time, so I trust my instincts there where I do usually nowhere else. That’s a real frightening thought — my letters roaming Boston (et, le monde!) for all eyes to see. I have a responsibility now to all those voyeurs out there; I just can’t give them anything to read. . . .
Last year I made a portrait of sorts of Aldo through the letters I have from him. I think he’d be pleased:
Letters from Aldo

Memorial Day 2007

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

A professor at Mme. Verdurin’s

A professor from the Sorbonne, Brichot is a visitor among the “faithful” who gather at Mme. Verdurin’s:

At Mme. Verdurin’s, he made a point of seeking his illustrations in whatever was most up-to-date when he spoke of philosophy and history, principally because he thought such subjects were only a preparation for real life and he imagined he would find the little clan putting into practice what he had known before now only from books, and then perhaps also because, having had instilled in him in the past, and having preserved without knowing it, a respect for certain subjects, he believed he was casting off his academic tendencies by taking liberties with them which, on the contrary, appeared such to him only because he had remained an academic.

From Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 261

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Vegan cupcakes

They were chocolate with vanilla frosting. Now they’re gone. My daughter made them, following a recipe in Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero's book Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World. Thanks, Rachel!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

An awful lot of people reading Proust

At Reading Proust in Foxborough, "Odette" is reading Proust and writing about Proust and collecting links to other people who are reading Proust and writing about Proust and collecting links to other people who are . . . . Here are links to three of her posts:

Memorial Day
Is there enough time to search for lost time?
The Whole World Is Blogging Proust
And all in one place:
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[With apologies to Bob Hilliard and Richard Miles' "The Coffee Song" ("They’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil").]

Odette and Zipporah


[Above, Zipporah, a detail from Sandro Botticelli, Scenes from the Life of Moses (1481-82)]

M. Swann is in the habit of seeing resemblances between people whom he knows and faces in paintings, a habit that allows him to associate the lovely Odette with the words "Florentine painting," making her thus more interesting to him:

Standing next to him, allowing her hair, which she had undone, to flow down her cheeks, bending one leg somewhat in the position of a dancer so that without getting tired she could lean over the engraving, which she looked at, inclining her head, with those large eyes of hers, so tired and sullen when she was not animated, she struck Swann by her resemblance to the figure of Zipporah, Jethro's daughter, in a fresco in the Sistine Chapel.

From Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 230-31

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Movie recommendation: The History Boys

[Note: If you're looking for the poem "Drummer Hodge," you can find it here: "Drummer Hodge."]

The History Boys (2006)
directed by Nicholas Hytner
screenplay by Alan Bennett, from his play
109 minutes

Like Être et avoir, The History Boys is a film about teaching. But I cannot write about it without giving away too much of what happens, so this recommendation will remain cryptic. I’ll make just three observations:

1. The film has been characterized as a British Dead Poets Society. I intensely dislike DPS and see very little resemblance between it and The History Boys.

2. The History Boys has been faulted for pretension. My pretens-o-meter, re-calibrated at regular intervals, finds very little pretension in this film.

3. The scene in which Mr. Hector talks about Thomas Hardy’s poem “Drummer Hodge” is the best film scene about poetry I’ve seen.

[An aside to my ENG 3808 students, if any are reading: I wish I’d known about this film while the semester was on. The History Boys is filled with modern British poetry, more poetry than any movie I’ve seen. You’ll recognize much (perhaps all) of what’s quoted. There’s even a group recitation of Philip Larkin’s “MCMXIV”!]

[An aside to all readers: I’m trying to get “smart” quotation marks and dashes to display properly — I think they add class to the joint. If they’re not displaying properly in your browser, if you’re seeing clumps of garbled characters instead, I’d appreciate your letting me know in a comment or an e-mail. Thanks.]

Swann's little phrase

One year ago, M. Swann was deeply affected by a phrase in a sonata for violin and piano. "The little phrase," as it comes to be called, is affecting him still:

Now, like certain confirmed invalids in whom, suddenly, a country they have arrived in, a different diet, sometimes a spontaneous and mysterious organic development seem to bring on such a regression of their ailment that they begin to envisage the unhoped-for possibility of belatedly starting a completely different life, Swann found within himself, in the recollection of the phrase he had heard, in certain sonatas he asked people to play for him, to see if he would not discover it in them, the presence of one of those invisible realities in which he had ceased to believe and to which, as if the music had had a sort of sympathetic influence on the moral dryness from which he suffered, he felt in himself once again the desire and almost the strength to devote his life.

From Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 218-19
This passage reminds me of the famous line from Rilke's "Archaïscher Torso Apollos" [Archaic Torso of Apollo]:
Du mußt dein Leben ändern.
[You must change your life.]

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

"The raised finger of the dawn"

The first section of Swann's Way, Combray, ends as it begins, with thoughts on sleep. At the close of this section, the narrator, lying in bed, has reconstructed his bedroom in the darkness, putting the pieces of furniture in their proper places. Or so he thinks:

But scarcely had the daylight -- and no longer the reflection of a last ember on the brass curtain rod which I had mistaken for it -- traced on the darkness, as though in chalk, its first white, correcting ray, than the window along with its curtains would leave the doorframe in which I had mistakenly placed it, while, to make room for it, the desk which my memory had clumsily moved there would fly off at top speed, pushing the fireplace before it and thrusting aside the wall of the passageway; a small courtyard would extend in the spot where only a moment before the dressing room had been, and the dwelling I had rebuilt in the darkness would have gone off to join the dwellings glimpsed in the maelstrom of my awakening, put to flight by the pale sign traced above the curtains by the raised finger of the dawn.

From Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 190-191
Is Lydia Davis punning on Homer's rosy-fingered dawn? I hope so.
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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Overheard

Waiting this afternoon in -- where else? -- a waiting room, while work was done on our car, I was also in Babel. A movie played on a large wall-mounted screen, with the sound coming from a speaker at the opposite end of the room. Among my fellow waiters, two or three cellphone conversations went on at all times. I slouched in a chair and shut out most of the noise by reading, but I did catch these words, from the movie:

"When they say 'hardwood floors,' what they really mean is 'hard wood floors.'"
And these words, spoken into a cellphone by someone two chairs down:
"Is she still getting beautiful, or is she fully done?"
A Google search tells me that the line about the floors is from the 1988 movie Funny Farm: "Chevy Chase finds life in the country isn't what it's cracked up to be!" The Internet, it has everything.
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Parents, weather, plaid, mourning, hums

The narrator's Aunt Léonie has died (trust me; that's not a spoiler), and the servant Françoise is grief-stricken. Today's Proust sentence has a little of everything:

That autumn, completely occupied as they were with the formalities that had to be observed, the interviews with notaries and tenants, my parents, having scarcely any time to go on excursions, which the weather frustrated in any case, fell into the habit of letting me go for walks without them along the Méséglise way, wrapped in a great plaid that protected me from the rain and that I threw over my shoulders all the more readily because I sensed that its Scottish patterning scandalized Françoise, into whose mind one could not have introduced the idea that the color of one's clothes had nothing to do with mourning, and to whom, in any case, the sorrow that we felt over the death of my aunt was not very satisfactory, because we had not offered a large funeral dinner, because we did not adopt a special tone of voice in speaking of her, because I even hummed to myself now and then.

From Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 157

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Chariot racing in Brazil

Brazilian sugar-cane farmer Luiz Augusto Alves de Oliveira has built a hippodrome and is seeking to revive the ancient sport of chariot racing:

The Brazilian Mr. de Oliveira's career as a charioteer began about 10 years ago while he was recovering from a motorcycle accident and had nothing to do but watch the Charlton Heston Ben-Hur over and over. When he finally got back on his feet, Mr. de Oliveira set about working with field hands and friends to build and race aluminum chariots.

Neighbors such as Heloísa Consoni were apprehensive at first about the goings-on at Mr. de Oliveira's ranch. "We weren't sure if he meant to bring in lions and gladiators, too," Mrs. Consoni says. But now she is a fan. "How can you not love that speed?" she says.

The New Ben-Hurs: Chariot Racing Stages a Comeback (Wall Street Journal)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Proust and Porter

Listening to my son's final high-school chorus concert tonight (way to go, Ben!), I realized that Cole Porter's "All of You" is the most Proustian of love songs. It is about nothing less than possession. Here's Proust:

I looked at her, at first with the sort of gaze that is not merely the messenger of the eyes, but a window at which all the senses lean out, anxious and petrified, a gaze that would like to touch the body it is looking at, capture it, take it away and the soul along with it . . . .

From Swann’s Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 144
And Cole Porter:
I love the looks of you, the lure of you.
I'd love to take a tour of you.
The eyes, the arms, the mouth of you;
The east, west, north, and the south of you.
I'd love to gain complete control of you
And handle even the heart and soul of you.
So love at least a small percent of me, do,
For I love all of you.
Hearing this lyric sung by high-schoolers might seem a bit strange, but it can't compare to the experience my wife Elaine and I had some years back of hearing a chorus of elementary-school children sing "YMCA." We're city slickers, so we found that scenario both embarrassing and hilarious. But we kept our mouths shut.
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Love and hate and Proust

Gilberte Swann made her first appearance in these pages last year. Here she is again, in a sentence from Swann’s Way that captures the sort of self-division that will come to shape the narrator’s relationships with women throughout In Search of Lost Time. The narrator has just seen Gilberte for the first time:

I thought her so beautiful that I wished I could retrace my steps and shout at her with a shrug of my shoulders, “I think you’re ugly, I think you’re grotesque, I hate you!”

From Swann’s Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 145

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Another Proust sentence

I like the way this sentence shows a writer listening:

A little tap against the windowpane, as though something had struck it, followed by a copious light spill, as of grains of sand dropping from a window above, then the spill extending, becoming regular, finding a rhythm, turning fluid, resonant, musical, immeasurable, universal: it was the rain.

From Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 103-104

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More "Giant Steps"

John Coltrane's tenor solo comes to life on the page. I can't imagine the amount of patient work that went into Dan Cohen's short film:

"Giant Steps" (YouTube, via Fojazz)

Related post
"Giant Steps" (Michal Levy's animation)

Sunday, May 20, 2007

"Lovely Sunday afternoons"

Today's Proust sentence is one over-the-top moment of apostrophe:

Lovely Sunday afternoons under the chestnut tree in the garden at Combray, carefully emptied by me of the ordinary incidents of my own existence, which I had replaced by a life of foreign adventures and foreign aspirations in the heart of a country washed by running waters, you still evoke that life for me when I think of you and you contain it in fact from having gradually encircled and enclosed it -- while I went on with my reading in the falling heat of the day -- in the crystalline succession, slowly changing and spanned by leafy branches, of your silent, sonorous, redolent, and limpid hours.

From Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 89

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Movie recommendation: Into Great Silence

Die Große Stille (Into Great Silence) (2005)
directed by Philip Gröning
French and Latin with English subtitles
169 minutes

Into Great Silence is a documentary film about the Carthusian monks of the Grande Chartreuse monastery. I was eager to see this film, about which I've read rave reviews. My wife Elaine and I went to see it yesterday, and we were disappointed, for similar reasons. I think that there are two main problems.

One: There is no narrative structure. That absence (along with the absence of a narrator) is deliberate, and it follows from the filmmaker's avowed intention to make the film "a monastery," allowing the viewer to enter into the possibilities of contemplation. But monastic life is about structure: the days follow a pattern; the year follows a pattern; and the monks have dedicated themselves to a faith that makes all human lives parts of one great narrative pattern. The absence of narrative structure makes it impossible to grasp the pattern of these monks' days and nights. Most conspicuously missing is any indication of one of the greatest difficulties of Carthusian life: the night office, which leaves monks perpetually without the benefit of a night's uninterrupted sleep. Gröning's image-oriented filmmaking, which returns again and again to a handful of motifs -- candles burning, water dripping, dishes drying, grass blowing -- might work well over an hour or so, but a film of this length needs something more. The constant cuts begin to feel both arbitrary and predictable: it's time once again for something completely different.

Two: The emphasis falls on externals. The film is beautiful to look at. But looking at is not the same as seeing into. Many scenes from the film have the beauty of upscale catalogue photography: that stone! that wood! that simple kitchenware! those natural fibers! that Vermeer lighting! But there's very little to allow a viewer entry into the lives of the film's subjects. We see, say, a monk sitting with an open book. Is he learning Latin? Studying Aquinas? Doing devotional reading? We don't know. We see a monk writing in Spanish. A letter? A translation? We don't know. Carthusian monks have more important things to do than talk about themselves to documentary filmmakers, to be sure. But by the end of the film we have almost no idea of what distinguishes these men from one another, what kinds of lives they once led, what brought them to their lives as Carthusians. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, says somewhere that "Our real journey in life is interior." This film gives us almost no chance to see into these monks' journeys.

There are wonderful moments: the benevolent looks on the faces of the older monks as they welcome two novices (one of whom soon disappears from the film), the brief intimacies of barbering, the strenuous efforts of a bent, bearded monk to remove snow from flowerbeds and debris from a stream. I'd recommend the film to any viewer: it's almost certainly the only chance anyone outside a Carthusian monastery will have to see the daily lives of the monks. But Into Great Silence seems finally to be much more about filmmaking than about the lives of its subjects.

Into Great Silence (The film's website)

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Proust and Cather

Willa Cather called Marcel Proust "the greatest French writer of his time," but these writers' names don't often turn up together. Yet consider the following passages.

The first, from Proust, concerns the steeple of Combray's Saint-Hilaire, which gives "all the occupations, all the hours, all the viewpoints of the town their shape, their crown, their consecration":

When after Mass we went in to ask Théodore to bring us a brioche larger than usual because our cousins had taken advantage of the fine weather to come from Thiberzy to have lunch with us, we would have the steeple there in front of us, itself golden and baked like a greater blessed brioche, with flakes and gummy drippings of sun, pricking its sharp point into the blue sky. And in the evening, when I was coming home from a walk and thinking about the moment when I would soon have to say goodnight to my mother and not see her anymore, it was on the contrary so soft, at the close of day, that it looked as if it had been set down and crushed like a cushion of brown velvet against the pale sky which had yielded under its pressure, hollowing slightly to give it room and flowing back over its edges; and the cries of the birds that wheeled around it seemed to increase its silence, lift its spire to a greater height, and endow it with something ineffable.

Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 66
This second passage, from Willa Cather's most enigmatic novel, concerns Godfrey St. Peter's early life near Lake Michigan:
When he remembered his childhood, he remembered blue water. There were certain human figures against it, of course; his practical, strong-willed Methodist mother, his gentle, weaned-away Catholic father, the old Kanuck grandfather, various brothers and sisters. But the great fact in life, the always possible escape from dullness, was the lake. The sun rose out of it, the day began there; it was like an open door that nobody could shut. The land and all its dreariness could never close in on you. You had only to look at the lake, and you knew you would soon be free. It was the first thing one saw in the morning, across the rugged cow pasture studded with shaggy pines, and it ran through the days like the weather, not a thing thought about, but a part of consciousness itself. When the ice chunks came in of a winter morning, crumbly and white, throwing off gold and rose-coloured reflections from a copper-coloured sun behind the grey clouds, he didn't observe the detail or know what it was that made him happy; but now, forty years later, he could recall all its aspects perfectly. They had made pictures in him when he was unwilling and unconscious, when his eyes were merely open wide.

Willa Cather, The Professor's House (1925)
Before going back to Proust, I will pause to say that The Professor's House is extraordinary -- satiric, poignant, and highly unconventional in form. It's one of my favorite novels.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Swann on newspapers

M. Swann speaks:

"What I fault the newspapers for is that day after day they draw our attention to insignificant things whereas only three or four times in our lives do we read a book in which there is something really essential."

Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 26

Paris Hilton won't fight sentence (Chicago Tribune)

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Monty Python and Proust

It's Monty Python's All-England Summarize Proust Competition. The goal is to summarize À la recherche du temps perdu in fifteen seconds:

"Proust's novel ostensibly tells of the irrevocability of time lost, the forfeiture of innocence through experience, the reinstallment of extra-temporal values of time regained. Ultimately the novel is both optimistic and set within the context of a humane religious experience, restating as it does the concept of intemporality. in the first volume, Swann, the family friend --"

Gong.

All-England Summarize Proust Competition (YouTube) (Slightly naughty language near the end)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

"Help! I'm reading Proust!"

"I've started In Search of Lost Time and found I like it. Should I keep going?"
Thus begins a 2005 thread from MetaFilter, with lots of suggestions for the reader:
Help, I'm reading Proust!
(The appropriate answer to the question is "Yes, keep going." The rewards are considerable.)
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Proust: "Now who can that be?"

I've just begun reading Proust again, my second time through, and will be posting one excerpt a day (at least from Swann's Way), probably single sentences this time through. Here's the narrator's family, working hard to make things sound and look natural when company arrives. I love the final simile, a beautiful example of Proust's genius for accretion:

On those evenings when, as we sat in front of the house under the large chestnut tree, around the iron table, we heard at the far end of the garden, not the copious high-pitched bell that drenched, that deafened in passing with its ferruginous, icy, inexhaustible noise any person in the household who set it off by coming in "without ringing," but the shy, oval, golden double tinkling of the little visitors' bell, everyone would immediately wonder: "A visitor -- now who can that be?" but we knew very well it could only be M. Swann; my great-aunt speaking loudly, to set an example, in a tone of voice that she strained to make natural, said not to whisper that way; that nothing is more disagreeable for a visitor just coming in who is led to think that people are saying things he should not hear; and they would send as a scout my grandmother, who was always glad to have a pretext for taking one more walk around the garden and who would profit from it by surreptitiously pulling up a few rose stakes on the way so as to make the roses look a little more natural, like a mother who runs her hand through her son's hair to fluff it up after the barber has flattened it too much.

From Swann's Way, translated by Lydia Davis (New York: Viking, 2002), 14

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Lord Buckley and Shakespeare

You know why they called him Willie the Shake? Because he shook everybody. They give him a nickel's worth of ink and five cents' worth of paper, he sat down, wrote up such a breeze, brrt, that's all there was, Jack, there was no more.
Lord Buckley does Shakespeare, the funeral oration from Julius Caesar. A bonus: His Lordship sings "A-Tisket, A-Tasket." Knock him your lobes.
Lord Buckley (You Bet Your Life, with Groucho Marx)
More on Lord Buckley:
Lord Buckley (The official website)
Lord Buckley (Wikipedia)
Transcripts of Lord Buckley monologues

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Happy birthday, Ben!



[Our family, drawn by my son Ben, some years ago.]

Main Street: The dowdy world goes shopping



[Postcard from the collection of Maggie Land Blanck. Used by permission.]

That's Main Street in Hackensack, New Jersey, pictured on a postcard postmarked 1971. That's Main Street as I knew it, circa 1969 and 1970, when it was my introduction to bookstores and record stores, via a short bus ride from my town of Ridgefield. I was in middle school then, not old enough to drive.

When I think about Main Street, I can reconstruct it only as isolated points of interest amid long stretches of commercial something-or-other. There was the Relic Rack, my first record store (my friend Chris Sippel, with whom I first made these bus trips, was listening to oldies). I bought my first blues records at the Relic Rack, the Columbia double-album The Story of the Blues. Across the street a little further up, there was Woolworth's, where I found Canned Heat's Living the Blues in the $1.99 section, back when every Woolworth's, Kreskge, and W.T. Grant had one or more bins of bargain LPs. Then there was Prozy's Army-Navy, where I once bought a blue web belt. Further up the street and back across was Hackensack Record King (such modesty in that name). I can remember buying John Lee Hooker and Canned Heat's Hooker 'n Heat there. Then the Hackensack Library, where I borrowed Art Tatum records and books on T.S. Eliot. And up another block or so, Womrath's, the first great bookstore I ever knew.

Imagine: a large independent bookstore on a downtown street in a modestly-sized city. I remember many books from Womrath's: James Joyce's Ulysses (a Modern Library hardcover), Dashiell Hammett's novels, Jorge Luis Borges' Labyrinths, and Frederick Copleston's multi-volume History of Philosophy, small paperbacks whose bindings tended to crack when the books were opened. I can also remember standing in Womrath's and puzzling over Wisconsin Death Trip, which seemed too scary to bring home.

Near the end of the shopping territory was a corner shoe store where I bought Adidas and Converse All-Stars and Pumas. The Pumas were Clydes, named for the Knicks' Walt Frazier ("Clyde," apparently in honor of a hat like one that Warren Beatty worn in Bonnie and Clyde). Yes, that's the Walt Frazier who now does commercials for Just for Men hair coloring.

The strangest store on Main Street, so strange that I can't place it in relation to the others, was Wehman Brothers, which seemed to be partly a book warehouse and partly a used-book store. The storefront windows were always filled with tools, plumbing fixtures, and pieces of machinery. The attraction of this place for me was an enormous inventory of Dover paperbacks -- not as cheap as Dover's Thrift editions, but still modestly priced.

There were two Wehman brothers, old guys who might be described as heavy-set Collyer brothers. One smoked cigars and sat behind a counter piled with papers and books. He claimed to have known Andy Razaf, the lyricist for "Ain't Misbehavin'," "Black and Blue," and "Honeysuckle Rose." I remember the other brother once showing me a picture of a bodybuilder, minus clothing, and asking if I wanted to buy it. All I could think of saying was "No." After that, I didn't go back. Further strangeness: I have now discovered, via Google, that the Wehmans were apparently also publishers, reprinting books on Freemasonry, hypnosis, magic, sexuality, and UFOs.

My teenaged shopping habits mirrored those of the general population: though I visited Womrath's all through college (supplemented by the Gotham Book Mart and the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan), I forsook the rest of Main Street as soon as I could drive to Garden State Plaza in Paramus, the home of Sam Goody's, a then-great record store. Life in malltime had begun.

I still have every record and book I've mentioned in this post. Of the stores I've mentioned, only Hackensack Record King, now simply The Record King, remains.

Hackensack, New Jersey (Postcards from the collection of Maggie Land Blanck)

Related posts
The dowdy world goes to a party
The dowdy world on film
The dowdy world on radio
Record stores

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Duke Box



[Duke Ellington at the Hurricane Club, 1943. Photograph by Gordon Parks. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Prints and Photographs Division.]

The Duke Box: Duke Ellington in the Forties
(8 CDs, Storyville Records, 2006)

The Duke Box collects more than eight hours of live recordings of the Ellington band, 1940-49. At least some of the music has been issued before (I have about half the contents on LPs), but it's a pleasure to find it all here, under one roof in a sturdy new house.

In the 1940s, recorded music was still bound by the confines of the 78 rpm disc. So the first thing to note about The Duke Box is the simple excitement of hearing the Ellington band stretch out in performances that range well beyond three-minute mark: a six-minute-long "Black and Tan Fantasy," an almost seven-minute-long "Across the Track Blues," an eight-minute-plus arrangement of "Take the A Train." Extended Ellington performances -- "Creole Rhapsody," "Hot and Bothered," "Reminiscing in Tempo" -- were already available on disk, of course, but they were recordings in parts, split up across the sides of one or more 78s.

The second thing to note about these recordings might be the variety of their circumstances: radio broadcasts from nightclubs in Boston (the Southland Café), New York (the Hurricane, the New Zanzibar) and Los Angeles (the Hollywood Empire); studio performances for broadcast to British audiences and American military personnel; concert recordings from New York (Carnegie Hall), Washington, D.C. (the Howard Theatre), and military bases in Maryland and Virginia; and a private recording from a ballroom in Fargo, North Dakota.

The name Fargo has magical properties for an Ellington fan -- on November 7, 1940, this northern city's Crystal Ballroom was the site of a spectacular Ellington performance that happened to be recorded by two young fans, Dick Burris and Jack Towers. The 2.5 hours of music captured in Fargo are stuff of legend, music by one of Ellington's greatest bands, the so-called Blanton-Webster band, with bassist Jimmy Blanton (who permanently changed the role of the bass as a time-keeping instrument) and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. The Fargo recording has been available for some time now -- I bought the LPs when they were first issued by the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1978. But the newly remastered music may now be heard with greater clarity, making the contrast between this live performance and the band's 1940 studio work even more dramatic. Listening to the Fargo CDs, it's as if one's ears have just popped: everything that was murky and muted has suddenly become clear. I make this analogy as someone who in fact loves the warmth of Ellington's 1940 studio recordings. But the sound of the band in Fargo is extraordinary, with an energy and excitement that the studio recordings simply do not convey. The final full-length tune from Fargo, an all-out "St. Louis Blues," stands as one of the most exciting moments in all of Ellington's music: Barney Bigard's clarinet solo, Ivie Anderson's vocal (including a call-and-response chorus with the band), Webster's tenor, Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton's trombone (quoting "Whistle While You Work"!), and an ensemble ending that dips into "Black and Tan Fantasy" and "Rhapsody in Blue."

Nothing else here is quite as astonishing as Fargo, but every disc has many great moments and sound that is always at least adequate, and sometimes excellent. Among the highlights: a deft "Tootin' through the Roof" with Rex Stewart and Cootie Williams, Harry Carney's swampy bass clarinet and Betty Roche's cool vocal on "I Don't Know What Kind of Blues I Got," Johnny Hodges' alto on "Laura," Harold Baker's trumpet on "Star Dust," and Joe Nanton's solo on the Carnegie Hall "Black and Tan Fantasy." Nanton contributed a distinctive solo to the first recordings of "Black and Tan" in 1927, a solo which had long since become an integral element of the piece. Stepping forward to make his statement in 1943, he does not simply reproduce the now-familiar solo, as Ellingtonians so often did. Instead, he seems to be intent on producing the greatest solo of his life.

The only performances in The Duke Box that leave me less than sent are some of those from a 1949 radio broadcast. Here the Ellington band seems to have stepped into The Future, The World of Tomorrow, where everything is louder, faster, and dripping with chrome (or, more accurately, brass). One number is performed, as the announcer puts it, "1949-style." "With fins," I'd say, though cars didn't yet have them. Even here though the beauty of Ellington's music shines through (despite the chrome), as with "Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin'" and "Cotton Tail."

It's increasingly difficult to get a good sampling of Duke Ellington's music from any source other than a "collector's" label. The Duke Box offers a great sampling of Ellingtonia, for $9 a disc via Amazon. Thank you, Storyville!

The Duke Box (Amazon.com)
Storyville Records
The Duke Was Here (The story of the Fargo recording, from NDSU Magazine)

A related post
Ellington for beginners (What to listen to first)

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Happy Mother's Day



Your mother is your best friend after all,
She's always there to help you when you fall;
When your days are dark and dreary,
Mother does not grow weary;
Just a word and she comes quickly at your call.
You'll find lots of friends as through this world you roam,
But there's no friend like your mother dear at home;
Though her brow's all lined with care,
And there's silver in her hair,
Your mother is your best friend after all.

"Your Mother Is Your Best Friend After All"
Words and music by Charles Coleman, 1914

[Materials © The Parlor Songs Association, Inc. Used by permission of the Parlor Songs Association.]
Yes, she does look like Jonathan Winters' Maudie Frickert.

You can find more Mother's Day songs via the link:
Celebrating Mother's Day (Parlor Songs)

Saturday, May 12, 2007

No pants

My daughter was amused by the unintended ambiguity of this sentence:

Few restaurants enforce a coat-and-tie dress code for men or a no-pants policy for women.

Connie Eble, "Slang." Language in the U.S.A.: Themes for the Twenty-first Century, ed. Edward Finegan and John R. Rickford (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Just what would a no-pants policy prohibit?

(Thanks, Rachel!)

Friday, May 11, 2007

Alkalize with Alka-Seltzer


[Popular Mechanics, June 1938. Click for a larger version.]

There's so much to like in this illustration: the family all dressed up, the crowded back seat, the slightly fiendish boy with his head out the window, his more timid sister peeping out over the door, the barn and the nest-building bird in the background. Most of all, I like the "poem," the way it moves from joyous proclamation ("THE WORLD IS BORN ANEW" echoes the all-caps in William Carlos Williams' 1923 Spring and All: "THE WORLD IS NEW") to the gritty details of grandma's ailments, to the gentle euphemism of "'NIGHTS BEFORE,'" and then to the point: buy and use our product. I also like the mini-poem in the last panel, equating, for the second time, Alka-Seltzer and wisdom.

When I was a kid, I thought Alka-Seltzer the most sophisticated over-the-counter drug: the long glass tube, the fizz, the lack of sweetness. It made me wonder what mixed drinks might taste like. Little did I know that Alka-Seltzer was understood to be, as this ad makes clear, a hangover remedy. Sales have been flat (sorry) in recent years -- partly from concern about aspirin, partly from consumer reluctance to use products designed to treat multiple symptoms. (When was the last time you had a headache and an upset stomach at the same time? And, while I'm asking rhetorical questions: Can you imagine ordering an Alka-Seltzer at a soda fountain? Or listening to a barn dance?)

There's a story that goes with this copy of Popular Mechanics, which I bought at a flea market some years ago. While I was standing in a store waiting for my wife, a woman noticed my magazine and struck up a conversation. She had worked for PM in Chicago for many years and, it turned out, had known Clifford Hicks, the magazine's editor-in-chief and the author of my favorite book from boyhood, Alvin's Secret Code. I asked her if she knew anything about Mr. Hicks' then-current whereabouts, and she replied, "Oh, they're all dead." That prompted me to check online, and I was happy to discover that Clifford Hicks was (and is) living in North Carolina. I wrote him a fan letter some years ago and was thrilled to receive a response. But that's another story.

[Addendum: My reference to WCW was facetious. But I didn't realize that the ad is almost certainly referencing James Russell Lowell: "Each day the world is born anew / For him who takes it rightly."]

Alka-Seltzer (Wikipedia)
The Wacky World of Alvin Fernald (Clifford Hicks' fiction)

Related posts
"MONEY MAKING FORMULAS" (A PM ad)
A mystery EXchange name (Another PM ad)
Out of the past (On reading Clifford Hicks in adulthood)
"Radios, it is" (And another PM ad)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Brian Wilson at the movies

From an interview with the Asbury Park Press:

Q. Have you seen any good movies lately?

A. Well, I've only seen one in the last couple of years. It's called Norbit by Eddie Murphy.

Q. How did you like it?

A. Fantastic movie. Very funny.

Q. What's your favorite movie?

A. Norbit.

Don't Worry Baby (Asbury Park Press via SmileySmile.net)

Of guitars and zippers

From "Struts and Frets," by Burkhard Bilger, on luthier Ken Parker and guitar design:

One afternoon this winter, I watched a man named Tom Murphy systematically beat up a brand-new Les Paul. Murphy, who is fifty-six, works for GIbson's custom, art, and historic division. He has thick forearms and ruddy features and a boyish devotion to the guitar heroes of his youth. Every week or two, the company sends ten or twenty guitars to Murphy's workshop, in Marion, Illinois, and he sends them back looking as if they'd been played for fifty years. When I visited, he began by etching some lines into the lacquer with a razor blade, to mimic the crackle of an old finish. He shaved the edges off the fingerboard, so that they looked worn by countless earsplitting solos. Then he took a bunch of keys and shook them over the surface, like a spider skittering over glass. To imitate years of belt wear, he held an old buckle against the back and whacked it a few times with a hammer. Then he flipped the guitar upside down and slowly ground the headstock into the concrete floor.

A "Murphyized" Gibson sells for twice the cost of a regular Les Paul, and Murphy's signed Jimmy Pge replicas (complete with cigarette burns) have gone for as much as eighty thousand dollars. Fender's aged guitars have been equally successful. Customers can choose from various degrees of wear, from Closet Classic ("played maybe a few times per year and then carefully put away") to Heavy Relic ("played vigorously on a nightly basis") to the Rory Gallagher Tribute Stratocaster ("worn to the wood"). When I asked Matt Umanov, whose guitar store has been a fixture in Greenwich Village for forty years, why people buy these instruments, he made an impatient noise. "Ninety per cent of this business is male-oriented," he said. "In my opinion, most purchases are governed by four words: the zipper is down."
"Struts and Frets" (good title!) is available in the May 14 issue of the New Yorker (print only).

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Remedial civility

William Pannapacker, who writes a column for the Chronicle of Higher Education under the pen name Thomas H. Benton, teaches English at Hope College, a small, private liberal-arts college in Michigan. His most recent column, "Remedial Civility Training," should be required reading for everyone in academic life. Here's an excerpt:

This is not about the simple rules governing which fork one should use but about norms of behavior about which nearly everyone used to agree and which seem to have vanished from student culture.

There are the students who refuse to address us appropriately; who make border-line insulting remarks in class when called upon (enough to irritate but not enough to require immediate action); who arrive late and slam the door behind them; who yawn continually and never cover their mouths; who neglect to bring books, paper, or even something with which to write; who send demanding e-mail messages without a respectful salutation; who make appointments and never show up (after you just drove 20 miles and put your kids in daycare to make the meeting).

I don't understand students who are so self-absorbed that they don't think their professors' opinion of them (and, hence, their grades) will be affected by those kinds of behaviors, or by remarks like, "I'm only taking this class because I am required to." One would think that the dimmest of them would at least be bright enough to pretend to be a good student.

But my larger concern here is not just that students behave disrespectfully toward their professors. It is that they are increasingly disrespectful to one another, to the point that a serious student has more trouble coping with the behavior of his or her fellow students than learning the material.

In classrooms where the professor is not secure in his or her authority, all around the serious students are others treating the place like a cafeteria: eating and crinkling wrappers (and even belching audibly, convinced that is funny). Some students put their feet up on the chairs and desks, as if they were lounging in a dorm room, even as muddy slush dislodges from their boots. Others come to class dressed in a slovenly or indiscreet manner. They wear hats to conceal that they have not washed that day. In larger lectures, you might see students playing video games or checking e-mail on their laptop computers, or sending messages on cell phones.
Professor Pannapacker's column jibes with recent conversations I've had with students who've told me how difficult it's become to be a good student and how fed up they are with their classmates' surly attitudes.¹ Reading this column makes me glad that I added a "decorum" paragraph to my course syllabi some years ago. It's grown more detailed over time:
The atmosphere in our class should be serious -- not somber or pretentious,‭ ‬but genuinely intellectual.‭ ‬No eating,‭ ‬talking,‭ ‬sleeping,‭ ‬wearing headphones,‭ ‬doing work for other classes,‭ ‬or other private business.‭ ‬Cell phones‭ ‬should be turned off and‭ ‬kept‭ ‬out of sight in our classroom.
That paragraph seems to cover everything -- for now.

¹ These accounts involve classmates in other classes, not in classes that I've taught.

"Teaching Remedial Civility" is available to readers without a Chronicle subscription:
Teaching Remedial Civility (Chronicle of Higher Education)
Alas, the Chronicle has placed this immensely useful essay behind its firewall. [September 10, 2009.]

The essay is out from behind the firewall: Remedial Civility Training. Thanks, Chronicle.

Related post
Homeric blindness in "colledge"

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Movie recommendation: Être et avoir

Être et avoir [To Be and To Have] (2002)
directed by Nicolas Philibert
French with English subtitles
104 minutes


[Jojo and M. Lopez]

Fictional films about education, at least the ones I know, tend toward corny predictability: a young, idealistic teacher; alienated, potentially lethal students (who for some reason have not yet dropped out); a moment of breakthrough (the Jack and the Beanstalk cartoon in The Blackboard Jungle, the Silas Marner trial in Up the Down Staircase); and the teacher's resolution to forsake easier and better-paying options and continue where he or she is needed.

Nicolas Philibert's documentary, focusing on a classroom in a French village, is a welcome contrast. The teacher, Georges Lopez, is near the end of his career (after thirty-five years teaching, twenty at this school). The thirteen children in this classroom (what an American would call a "one-room schoolhouse"), ranging in age from four to twelve, are endearing. And there is no breakthrough, only small moments of humor, sorrow, and effort. Which is to say: the film moves in the way that school moves, slowly. It's appropriate that one of the first scenes we see is of two turtles making their way around the floor of the empty classroom. The film's slow pace is a reminder that the work of learning is a matter of many small steps -- writing the numeral 7, understanding the difference between ami and amie, mastering the conjugations of être and avoir.

What's most striking when I watch this film is how calm this classroom is. M. Lopez never raises his voice, and he speaks to his students without false, cartoonish praise for their efforts. The students are, of course, children, and there are cheeky attitudes and small fights. But M. Lopez seems to trust that appealing to his students' dignity and capacity for reason will sooner or later lead them to do the right thing. Thus he waits patiently for Jojo (a feisty boy who gets a lot of time on camera) to add a necessary Monsieur to his oui and reminds him of a promise to finish a picture before lunch. With Julien and Olivier, two boys with a history of fighting, M. Lopez points out the pointlessness of their battles and reminds them that they will need to stick together when they go off to middle school. What we come to see in the course of the film is a group of students whose regard for one another and for their teacher is genuine. And in M. Lopez we see a teacher with the deepest love for his students. Pay close attention when the students say goodbye.

I can remember in third grade the excitement of opening a note written by my teacher and learning that her name was Roslyn (she sent me on these messaging jaunts to her colleagues until my parents asked her to cut it out). I can remember the far greater excitement of being invited to my fourth-grade teacher's wedding. Which is to say: teachers used to be mysterious figures. I never had any idea where my teachers lived or what their families were like. So it seems appropriate to me that this film lets M. Lopez remain something of a cipher. All we learn of him, in one short scene of speaking to the camera, is that he comes from a farming family, that he wanted to be a teacher from childhood, that his mother lives in France, and that his father (no longer living) came to France from Spain. When the movie was made, M. Lopez was evidently living in the large school building. Is he married? He wears no ring. Does he have children? We don't know. I wonder for some reason whether he might be a former priest or monk. It's curious that though M. Lopez is described again and again as having become a "celebrity" in the aftermath of this film's release, I can find no further background online.

Être at avoir has, alas, a bitter and bewildering coda: when the film became a surprise hit, Georges Lopez sued for a share of the profits (and lost).

Être at avoir (The film site)
Defeat for teacher who sued over film profits (The Guardian)

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The National Dean's List again

[For a previous post that explains what prompted me to look into the National Dean's List, click here.]

I just followed a link at College Confidential to Form 10-K, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission by the American Achievement Group Holding Corp., AAC Group Holding Corp., and American Achievement Corporation, the companies behind the National Dean's List.

I was surprised to learn how big this business is: for fiscal 2005, the American Achievement Group's "achievement publications" (Who's Who Among American High School Students, Who's Who Among American High School Students -- Sports Edition, The National Dean's List, Who's Who Among America’s Teachers, and The Chancellor's List) accounted for sales of $20.1 million.

And I was surprised to see a relatively frank acknowledgement of what it means to be "nominated":

We obtain nominations for our achievement publications from a wide variety of commercial and non-commercial sources, which we continuously update. One company that supplies a significant number of nominees to us for inclusion in our Who’s Who Among American High School Students publication has received an inquiry from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, relating to its supplying names and other personal information of high school students to commercial marketers. We have received a request from the FTC for information relating to this matter and are complying with this request.
Also of interest: the letters that "Leddy Fine" and I received state that "Only 1/2 of 1% of our nation's college students" are named to the National Dean's List. Form 10-K states that
The most recent 29th published edition [of The National Dean's List] honors almost 158,000 high-achieving students, representing in excess of 2,800 colleges and universities throughout the country.
That number would call for a population of 31.6 million college students. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, enrollment in degree-granting institutions in 2004 totalled 17.3 million.

Something is rotten in Texas (home of the American Achievement Group).

Update, November 9, 2007: A reader has informed me that the National Dean's List is no more. From the company website:
Educational Communications, Inc. has ceased all operations, including discontinuation of its publications for Who's Who Among American High School Students, Who's Who Among America's Teachers, and The National Dean's List, as well as the Educational Communications Scholarship Foundation.
The Internet Archive shows that Educational Communications, Inc. — or at least its website — was still functioning as of August 2007. Some quick Google searching turns up no details on the company's demise.

I feel sorry for the clerical workers, printers, and bindery workers whose lives will be altered by the demise of Educational Communications, Inc. But I'll still say good riddance to this company. It's mail from outfits such as EC, Inc. that can lead a student to mistake, say, a letter of invitation from Phi Beta Kappa for yet another sham honor. And it's the Internet that allows anyone with an online connection to look around and ask questions. (Type "national dean's list" into Google and see what happens.)
Related reading
Phi Beta What? (Wall Street Journal)

Related posts
Is this honor society legitimate?
The National Dean's List
The National Dean's List is dead

Friday, May 4, 2007

The National Dean's List

Two letters came in the mail today from an outfit calling itself The National Dean's List. Putting one and one together allows me to conclude that being on this dean's list is a deeply dubious honor.

The first letter is for me:



It would be nice to think that my college achievements are wowing this organization, almost thirty years after I graduated. But something else is going on. The second letter begins:



There is no one at our house named "Leddy Fine"; that name is simply my last name and my wife Elaine's last name (yes, I kept my name when we married). But we have a magazine subscription for "Leddy Fine" (the result of a clerical error), from a collegiate subscription service, one of those companies offering discounts for students and faculty. We have another subscription, in my name, from the same service. "Leddy Fine," like "Michael Leddy," is simply a name from a mailing list.

The National Dean's List thus seems to be little more than spam-marketing with a letterhead. There's a catch of course: to see your name in print, you need to buy a copy of the book ($69.95, or $84.95 "with my name in gold on the cover").

If I were a genuine high-achieving college student, I might not have reason to doubt the claims on the NDL website. For instance:

Being selected for nomination to The National Dean's List is an honor bestowed on outstanding college students by the professors, coaches and teachers who know their work best.

Every year, professors, deans and leaders of civic and community service organizations affiliated with post secondary institutions are invited to nominate outstanding students who have achieved "Dean's List" honors, or comparable academic achievement, have a "B+" average or are in the upper 10% of their classes.
But I'm no longer a high-achieving college student, and "Leddy Fine" never even shows up for classes, so I can only conclude that the National Dean's List is about as selective as a telephone book.

Update, May 5, 2007: There's more on the National Dean's List in this post: The National Dean's List again.

Update, November 9, 2007: A reader has informed me that the National Dean's List is no more. From the company website:
Educational Communications, Inc. has ceased all operations, including discontinuation of its publications for Who's Who Among American High School Students, Who's Who Among America's Teachers, and The National Dean's List, as well as the Educational Communications Scholarship Foundation.
The Internet Archive shows that Educational Communications, Inc. — or at least its website — was still functioning as of August 2007. Some quick Google searching turns up no details on the company's demise.

I feel sorry for the clerical workers, printers, and bindery workers whose lives will be altered by the demise of Educational Communications, Inc. But I'll still say good riddance to this company. It's mail from outfits such as EC, Inc. that can lead a student to mistake, say, a letter of invitation from Phi Beta Kappa for yet another sham honor. And it's the Internet that allows anyone with an online connection to look around and ask questions. (Type "national dean's list" into Google and see what happens.)
Related reading
Phi Beta What? (Wall Street Journal)

Related posts
Is this honor society legitimate?
The National Dean's List again
The National Dean's List is dead

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Overheard

In a parking lot, a discussion of condensed soups:

"I always take the straight-up noodle."

Previous "Overheard" posts (via del.icio.us)

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Euphemism

From Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day:

The Word of the Day for May 1 is:

euphemism \YOO-fuh-miz-um\ noun: the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant; also : the expression so substituted

Example sentence: Aunt Helen would never say that someone had "died"; she preferred to communicate the unpleasant news with euphemisms like "passed on."

Did you know? "Euphemism" derives from the Greek word "euphemos," which means "auspicious" or "sounding good." The first part of "euphemos" is the Greek prefix "eu-," meaning "well." The second part is "pheme," a Greek word for "speech" that is itself a derivative of the verb "phanai," meaning "to speak." Among the numerous linguistic cousins of "euphemism" on the "eu-" side of the family are "eulogy," "euphoria," and "euthanasia"; on the "phanai" side, its kin include "prophet" and "aphasia" ("loss of the power to understand words").
Merriam-Webster might have quoted George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" (1946):
In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.
Orwell of course did not live to hear of extraordinary renditions and enhanced interrogation techniques.

Update, May 25, 2007: A reader of Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish reports that
"enhanced interrogation techniques" is a fairly decent English translation of the Gestapo euphemism "verschaerfte Vernehmung," which was the code word for torture in the Third Reich.