Monday, June 30, 2008

"Uber-responsible" types

Lifehacker, the home of "tips and downloads for getting things done," had a remarkbly ill-advised post over the weekend, Get Drunk Faster. Oy. Some spirited (no pun intended) comments followed, one of which challenged readers to "name one …1… literal or fictional uber-responsible type that the opposite sex ultimately digs."

That's easy. In Homer's Iliad, there's the Trojan warrior Hector. His wife Andromache loves him, and Helen (the most beautiful woman in the world) seems attracted to him. In Iliad 6, when Hector and Helen speak, she wonders,

"But since the gods have ordained these evils,
Why couldn't I be the wife of a better man,
One sensitive at least to repeated reproaches?"
Like Hector? Helen then rebukes her keeper Paris by name and invites her "'Dear brother-in-law'" to sit with her. Hector's reply leaves little doubt about the undercurrent of feeling in this scene:
"Don't ask me to sit, Helen, even though
You love me. You will never persuade me.
My heart is out there with our fighting men."
Hector then tells Helen that he's off to see his wife and child. His wife and child. Get it? He's a family man, whom we see as a son, brother, husband, and father. Yet his responsibility to the people of Troy trumps even his devotion to family: when, in one of the most moving passages in the poem, Andromache pleads with Hector to consider his own safety in fighting the Greeks, he cannot honor her plea. The city is his responsibility, and he is his responsibility: his name means holder in Homer's Greek.

Aeneas, the hero of Virgil's Aeneid, one of the few survivors of the fall of Troy, is another "uber-responsible" figure with strong sexual appeal. Aeneas is devoted above all to what Virgil calls pietas, his duty — to the gods, his family, his people. Aeneas' departure from Troy gives us an emblem of that devotion: as Aeneas leads the band of survivors, he carries his father Anchises on his back. Aeneas is responsible too for his own son Ascanius: thus Troy's past and its people's future are both his responsibility. Dido, queen of Carthage, is smitten as Aeneas tells the story of Troy's destruction. She is, literally, love-sick, "a wound / Or inward fire eating her away," and she kills herself when Aeneas abandons her (not long after consummating the relationship) to find a home for his people.

Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) at the end of Casablanca (1942) is a distant inheritor of Aeneas' sense of pietas: "But I've got a job to do too. Where I'm going, you can't follow. What I've got to do, you can't be any part of." Rick walks off into "a beautiful friendship" (not sexual of course) with Captain Louis Renault (Claude Rains), who has said that "well, if I were a woman and I weren't around, I should be in love with Rick." Thus the "uber-responsible type" might appeal not only to the opposite sex but to "all the sexes," as Ira Gershwin put it. Everybody comes to Rick's.¹

[Iliad translation by Stanley Lombardo (1997). Aeneid translation by Robert Fitzgerald (1983). Casablanca screenplay by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch.]

¹ Everybody Comes to Rick's: the title of the Murray Burnett–Joan Alison play that was the basis for Casablanca; also a line in the film, spoken by Louis to Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt).

Related posts
On the Iliad and Aeneid

Friday, June 27, 2008

Anne Thackeray Ritchie in Google Book Search

If you've liked the passages that I've posted from Anne Thackeray Ritchie's Chapters from Some Memoirs, you might like knowing that the book is available as a free .pdf download via Google Book Search. I'm not sure why I didn't think of looking there earlier. No, I am sure: it's because I still think of books as objects found on shelves. Google Book Search has several other books by ATR available as free downloads.

Related posts
"[A]n aspirate more or less"
Anne Thackeray Ritchie on the past
One more passage from Anne Thackeray Ritchie

Paul Collins on the semicolon

Perusing telegraph manuals reveals that Morse code is to the semicolon what weedkiller is to the dandelion. Punctuation was charged at the same rate as words, and their high price — trans-Atlantic cables originally cost a still-shocking $5 per word — meant that short, punchy lines with minimal punctuation were necessary among businessmen and journalists.
Read the rest:

Has Modern Life Killed the Semicolon? (Slate)

Related posts
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Classic Arts Showcase background music

A Google search brought someone to Orange Crate Art yesterday looking for the names of the pieces played as background music during station breaks on the Classic Arts Showcase. So far as I can tell, this information is unavailable online. Until now! There are two excerpts:

One is from the overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie, 1817) by Gioachino Rossini. You can watch and listen to a performance on YouTube. The Classic Arts Showcase excerpt is about seven minutes in.

The other excerpt is from the first movement (Allegro non troppo) of Béla Bartók's Divertimento for Strings, Sz. 113 (1939). There's no YouTube performance, but the iTunes sample of the Chicago Symphony's recording has most of the relevant passage.

The Bartók piece has a curious association for me: whenever I hear it, I think of staying up until two or three in the morning reinstalling Windows, when the only television programming worth having on for company was the Classic Arts Showcase.

[Thanks to Elaine, who knew the Bartok and gave me "Rossini overture" with which to go a-fishing.]

Related post
Classic Arts Showcase

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Recommended reading: The Intuitionist

Colson Whitehead. The Intuitionist. New York. Anchor Books. 1999. $13.95 (paper).

The novel's setting is a mid-20th-century Manhattan-like metropolis, with finned cars and transistor radios. But something is off in Colson Whitehead's city: the newsstands are filled with not Life but Lift, a magazine of elevators. The plot focuses on the rivalry between two schools of elevator inspection — Empiricists, who inspect the machine's innards to judge its condition, and Intuitionists, who do their work by imaginatively grasping the machine's condition. The Intuitionist of the novel's title is Miss Lila Mae Watson, a graduate of the Institute for Vertical Transport and the first "colored woman" to work in the city's powerful, prestigious Department of Elevator Inspectors.

Like Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, The Intuitionist is an allegory about color in America. Like Ellison's narrator, Lila Mae is a young African-American struggling upward and set up (it seems) to fail. But there's more than color involved: the conflict between Empiricists and Intuitionists involves different ways of constructing the relation between subject and object (or subject and elevator). Thus the wondrous excerpts from the two-volume Theoretical Elevators by James Fulton, the godfather of Intuitionism, who puzzles over the "vertical imperative" and the "index of being": "where the elevator is when it is not in service."

The Intuitionist is most wonderful when Whitehead fuses these postmodern concerns with the stuff of detective fiction and film noir, notably in the search for the "black box," Fulton's plans for an elevator built on Intuitionist principles. The name suggests not only flight data recorders and objects whose workings cannot be seen but also the "black bird" of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon, another object sought by rival factions.

Here's a sample passage. I think that if you like it, reader, you'll like the novel. It's from a conversation about the black box between Lila Mae and a teacher of Intuitionism:

"I don't see how that's possible," Lila Mae murmurs, twisting a button on her suit. "I mean from an engineering standpoint. At its core, Intuitionism is about communicating with the elevator on a nonmaterial basis. 'Separate the elevator from elevatorness,' right? Seems hard to build something of air out of steel."

Mr. Reed withdraws a cigarette from a silver case. "They're not as incompatible as you might think," he says. "That's what Volume One hinted at and Volume Two tried to express in its ellipses — a renegotiation of our relationship to objects. To start at the beginning."

"I don't get you," Lila Mae admits. Reluctantly.

"If we have decided that elevator studies — nuts and bolts Empiricism — imagined elevators from a human, and therefore inherently alien point of view, wouldn't the next logical step, after we've adopted the Intuitionist perspective, be to build an elevator the right way? With what we've learned?"

"Construct an elevator from the elevator's point of view."

"Wouldn't that be the perfect elevator? Wouldn't that be the black box?" Mr. Reed's left eyelid trembles.
I'm looking forward to reading everything else Colson Whitehead has written.

Related post
Colson Whitehead, "Visible Man"

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Old house, new concept

I have just discovered that our circa-1959 house can be said to have an "open concept kitchen/dining/living area." The "open concept" concept is sure to make daily life and conversation in our household more exciting and more ambiguous.

"Where did you put the DVD?"

"In the open concept kitchen/dining/living area."

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Things I learned on my summer vacation (2008)

Birds begin their warm-up exercises around 4:00 a.m.

*

A determined beaver can cross an interstate highway with remarkable speed. (Thanks for that.)

*

The Akron Brewing Company went about its business in a beautiful brick building.

*

Dublin, Ohio, is a town with beautiful stone fences.

*

Exit 303 from 80 East in Pennsylvania is the Gateway to Frustration. A roadsign advertises a seemingly non-existent Dunkin' Donuts. The McDonald's has no coffee. The re-entry to 80 East is marked by one small sign pointing the unfortunate traveler into the darkness. Minutes go by. So what does a prudent driver do? Give up and turn around to hunt for the missed re-entry, then realize that it's now necessary to turn around once more and press further into the darkness.

*

"Compared to your other aftershaves, British Sterling is a lady."

*

The Xlerator is an incredibly powerful hand dryer, so powerful that it moves the skin of your hand in waves. The men's room in the Wayne Public Library (New Jersey) has one. The women's room (I am told) does not.

*

An anti-gravity device that could pull the moon from its orbit would be a real problem.

*

Hazyblur is a small, spectacular Australian winery. (Thanks Jim and Luanne!)

*

Quantum Leap is a great mostly-vegan restaurant in Greenwich Village: 226 Thompson Street, between Bleecker and Third.

*

How to find a good (or great) vegan restaurant in Greenwich Village? Ask in a record store. The guy on duty is an omnivore, but "there's a girl who works here" who's vegan.

*

DJ Phil Schaap's redundancies are stupefying: vibraphonist Milt Jackson got the nickname "Bags" because he was "baggy-eyed, under, of course, his eyeballs."

*

Dark circles under the eyes are caused by blood leaking from capillaries and pulling down on the skin. (As stated in a radio commercial, 1010 WINS, New York.)

*

India Pavilion (17 Central Square) is still going strong in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

*

Poori (Indian bread) is more exciting than naan (another Indian bread).

*

The viola d'amore has fourteen strings.

*

The concert harp has forty-six or forty-seven strings.

*

The dowdy world is alive and well on the airwaves of central New York. "I don't want my arms around you, no not much!" (The Four Lads.)

*

Karl Bush still eats hoagies.

*

There is no apostrophe in Tim Hortons.

Related posts
Things I learned on my summer vacation (2007)
Things I learned on my summer vacation (2006)

Monday, June 23, 2008

What a mystery looks like

I discovered salted seersucker in the frozen-food section of my favorite Asian market in January 2008. Yesterday, I thought to check if this mystery item was still there and took this photograph as a reminder — I did not dream it, did not make it up. The package says (in English) "seaweed." The store's owner suggested that the only explanation of "salted seersucker" is mistranslation.

Of what?

Orange Crate Art remains the only item returned by Google and Yahoo searches for "salted seersucker."

[Click on the image for a larger version of the mystery.]

[Update, 8:31 p.m.: The mystery is no more. A search for seaweed and seersucker reveals that seersucker is a variety of brown kelp, though what's depicted on the package is unmistakably green. Still no entry for the seaweedy sort of seersucker in the Oxford English Dictionary.]

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Wordle



[del.icio.us tags for Orange Crate Art. Click for larger version.]

Jonathan Feinberg's Wordle makes a customizable word cloud from any text or any set of del.icio.us tags. Size indicates frequency. Way cool!

[Found via Lifehacker.]

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Cereals in the hands of an angry blog

Attention, shoppers: Post is marketing "Vintage Package Editions" of Grape-Nuts, Raisin Bran, and Spoon Size Shredded Wheat, three of its dowdier cereals. The boxes are pretty graceless objects, heavy on drab brown-yellow-pinks that recall the Formica surfaces found in mid-20th-century school lunchrooms. As far as I can tell, these boxes correspond to no Post designs of the past. But it's not the fake-vintage look that appalls me; it's the shoddy work on the backs of the Grape-Nuts and Spoon Size Shredded Wheat boxes. (Raisin Bran, for some reason, went its own way, free of error.)

Consider the back of the Grape-Nuts box:



[Click for larger versions.]
The word its at the top right should be it's.

Two dates (!) are given for the invention of Grape-Nuts: 1897 and 1898.

The word man (in the 1978 sentence) takes us back to the language of an old textbook. The word is also oddly used: it's not the several-thousand-year-old "man" who made bread into a cereal but C.W. Post.

The word compliment (in the 1995 sentence) should be complement: "Grape-Nuts is a nutritious complement to a healthy lifestyle." The sentence needs work though in larger ways:
Approaching the millennium, the 90's were all about taking stock — and rediscovering that Grape-Nuts is a nutritious complement to a healthy lifestyle.
Approaching is a dangling participle, and a silly one: the decade wasn't approaching the millennium, no more than Saturday is approaching Sunday. It seems silly too to associate Grape-Nuts with a thousand-year mark on a calendar. The words "taking stock" and "healthy lifestyle" suggest that people were giving up their 1980s (no apostrophe) lives of excess (cocaine and Studio 54) for Grape-Nuts. And cereal is, logically, not a complement to a way of life but a part of it. Better:
In the 1990s, Grape-Nuts gained even greater popularity as a nutritious part of healthy living.
This box is further distinguished by typographical blunders and oddities. There is no discernible logic to the use of red and blue text. Grape-Nuts is sometimes red, sometimes blue, sometimes in italics, sometimes not. Why (in the 1955 sentence) is for energy in red and an explorer in blue-bold? Note too how clumsy the design is: the words in red often fall below the baseline, and their spacing is often off:
The back of the Spoon Size Shredded Wheat box is another mess:


[Click for larger versions.]
The 1892 sentence is a wreck of punctuation and syntax:
Lawyer and inventor, Henry Drushel Perky's, experiments in Watertown, New York with business partner, William Henry Ford, prove fruitful when they finally succeed in making a machine that shreds whole wheat.
This sentence is cluttered and ungainly, and it carries the goofy implication that Perky was, err, experimenting with his partner. Note too that if one succeeds in making something, one has made it. Better:
In Watertown, New York, inventor Henry Drushel Perky and business partner William Henry Ford make a machine that shreds whole wheat.
In the 1928 sentence, aquires should be acquires. Sheesh!

The 1961 sentence is awkward:
The size of the Shredded Wheat Juniors biscuit is made even smaller and relaunched as Spoon Size Shredded Wheat cereal.
It's not the size that's relaunched. Better:
The Shredded Wheat Juniors biscuit is made smaller and relaunched as Spoon Size Shredded Wheat.
On this box too the design is a mess, with the words in red sometimes in bold, sometimes not. And here, the red text sometimes floats above the baseline.

Carelessness and lack of consistency in design reach a low point in the 1997 sentence:


[Red, black italic bold, black — all in the name of a single cereal.]
One can browse issues of Life and Time from the 1930s and 1940s and find text-heavy advertisements in impeccable prose, not a word misplaced. How many eyes looked upon these cereal-box designs and saw nothing wrong? These sorts of mistakes in the work of a major American corporation suggest that, yes, we're slipping.

[This post is no. 21 in a very occasional series, "How to improve writing," dedicated to improving stray bits of published prose. Title with apologies to Jonathan Edwards, who never tasted Post cereals.]

Related posts
Everything I always wanted to ask about Grape-Nuts
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Friday, June 20, 2008

At the World Trade Center
and St. Paul's Chapel

On vacation earlier this week, Elaine and I went with friends into what New Jerseyans call "the city" to see the World Trade Center site. I had the chance to go to the site in the March 2002, when I made a short trip to New York to see an exhibit of Henry Darger's work and hear John Ashbery read from his Darger-inspired Girls on the Run. But in 2002, I chose not to go downtown. I had plenty of memories of staying up until two or three in the morning, watching the WTC site on television. Not going felt like an act of resolve: I didn't need to see what I knew had happened. But now going to the World Trade Center felt like a necessary trip. Our friends had been to the site not long after September 11, and they were willing to go again. So we drove into Manhattan on Father's Day morning, found a parking space just a block away, and walked over.

The area where the World Trade Center stood is fenced off, and much of the fencing is covered with tarp, to render the site unviewable in areas where pedestrians would impede the flow of traffic. We walked to the corner of Church Street and Vesey Street, where there is room for perhaps ten people at a time to stand and look through an open section of fencing. Whatever one knows one already knows about September 11, 2001, it is difficult to understand the scale of destruction without seeing it. The hole in the ground, filled with movable roadways and heavy equipment, is massive. I looked down and then looked up, trying to grasp the size of the towers and the loss of life in what was, really, a city. I imagine that this experience is a common one — looking down at what's there, looking up at what's not there, and turning away in grief.

We crossed Church Street to look at the graveyard of St. Paul's Chapel, the colonial gravestones worn, mostly, beyond legibility. The church was open, with people going in and out, and I thought of Philip Larkin's poem "Church Going" and the irony of a church — on Sunday morning — as a spot for tourists. But there was, to our surprise, a service underway. A sign near the doorway encouraged visitors to enter at any time, and a guard was beckoning people to come in. The small congregation (perhaps seventy people) sat in a circle, surrounding two celebrants at an altar. Exhibits documenting the aftermath of September 11 ran down the sides of the church: a cot used by those working in "the pit," a cross made of two pieces of metal recovered from the site, a gathering of memorial cards and photographs left at St. Paul's, words of sorrow and consolation in Chinese, English, French, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish (and no doubt many other languages). There were letters and drawings for firefighters from New York schoolchildren: "Thank you for putting out the fire." Above, a banner, perhaps twenty feet long, filled with signatures: "TO NEW YORK CITY AND ALL THE RESCUERS: KEEP YOUR SPIRITS UP … OKLAHOMA LOVES YOU!!" The congregation stood to sing a closing hymn (accompanied by grand piano and hand drum), and the people who'd come in to look around stood and listened. Coffee and baked goods were available for anyone interested.

We crossed back and walked the rest of the perimeter of the World Trade Center site, on Church Street, then on Liberty Street, and then from inside Two World Financial Center, amid marble and palm trees, looking at the site through glass: all this splendor on one side of the window, all that tragedy on the other. When we went back to Vesey Street, a New York City policeman was taking a photograph for two beautiful and beautifully dressed young women, standing in front of the fence and smiling.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Art and frugal living

NPR had a story yesterday about older artists of modest means who manage still to live in New York City. Hank Virgona, 78, usually makes $25,000 to $30,000 a year. The last movie he saw was Fahrenheit 9/11:

"No one has ever heard me say, 'Well, listen, would you like to buy this?' I never do that. I talk about art. I talk about my love for it; I talk about what you can get from it, you know? That a walk down a quiet street, especially towards like dusk, is as good as going to Caracas or Venezuela or anywhere — you know what I mean? It's nourishing. That's what art — that's part of its purpose."

One more passage from Anne Thackeray Ritchie

Early life is like a chapter out of Dickens, I think — one sees people then: their tricks of expression, their vivid sayings, and their quaint humours and oddities do not surprise one; one accepts everything as a matter of course — no matter how unusual it may be. Later in life one grows more fastidious, more ambitious, more paradoxical: one begins to judge, or to make excuses, or to think about one's companions instead of merely staring at them. All these people we now saw for the first time, vivid but mysterious apparitions; we didn't know what they were feeling and thinking about, only we saw them, and very delightful they all were to look at.

Anne Thackeray Ritchie, Chapters from Some Memoirs (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1895), 227–28
Related posts
"[A]n aspirate more or less"
Anne Thackeray Ritchie in Google Book Search
Anne Thackeray Ritchie on the past

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

"[A]thletes, philosophers, sex symbols"

On the need for variety in human ways and means:

So multifarious is existence that infinite varieties of attention are required to build a sustainable life within it. Those who particularly notice what is worrisome or anticipate — even to their detriment — what will be painful may be just those who notice nuances of life others might neglect. A species in which everyone was General Patton would not succeed, any more than would a race in which everyone was Vincent van Gogh. I prefer to think that the planet needs athletes, philosophers, sex symbols, painters, scientists; it needs the warmhearted, the hardhearted, the coldhearted, and the weakhearted. It needs those who can devote their lives to studying how many droplets of water are secreted by the salivary glands of dogs under which circumstances, and it needs those who can capture the passing impression of cherry blossoms in a fourteen-syllable poem or devote twenty-five pages to the dissection of a small boy's feelings as he lies in bed in the dark waiting for his mother to kiss him good night. It needs people who can design air conditioners, and it needs people who can inspire joy.

Allen Shawn, Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life (New York: Penguin, 2007), 249–50
The next-to-last sentence confirms that the seeming echo of Proust earlier in this book is indeed an echo.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Overheard

In Harvard Square, Cambridge, MA:

"Who knows? Maybe this one's not another hippie burnout who'll, like …"
A hope-filled beginning, a sentence that fizzles, incomplete: perhaps the pattern of human existence itself!

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

Monday, June 16, 2008

Bloomsday 2008

June 16, 1904: Mrs. Leopold (Marion, Molly) Bloom will soon embark on a concert tour. Later today she's meeting Blazes Boylan, the (ahem) "organiser" of the tour, to (ahem) rehearse. Mr. Bloom notices a letter in Boylan's handwriting:

A strip of torn envelope peeped from under the dimpled pillow. In the act of going he stayed to straighten the bedspread.

—Who was the letter from? he asked.

Bold hand. Marion.

—O, Boylan, she said. He's bringing the programme.

—What are you singing?

La ci darem with J. C. Doyle, she said, and Love's Old Sweet Song.
In the Homeric schema of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922), Leopold Bloom is Odysseus; Molly Bloom, Penelope; Blazes Boylan, a suitor. "Love's Old Sweet Song" (1884, music by J.L. Molloy, words by G. Clifton Bingham) floats through the novel and suggests the crucial question of the Blooms' marriage: is Love's old song to be found only in memory, or might it (like Odysseus) yet return?
Once in the dear dead days beyond recall,
When on the world the mists began to fall,
Out of the dreams that rose in happy throng
Low to our hearts Love sang an old sweet song;
And in the dusk where fell the firelight gleam,
Softly it wove itself into our dream.

Just a song a twilight, when the lights are low,
And the flick'ring shadows softly come and go,
Tho' the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight comes Love's old song,
     comes Love's old sweet song.

Even today we hear Love's song of yore,
Deep in our hearts it dwells forevermore.
Footsteps may falter, weary grow the way,
Still we can hear it at the close of day.
So till the end, when life's dim shadows fall,
Love will be found the sweetest song of all.

Just a song a twilight, when the lights are low,
And the flick'ring shadows softly come and go,
Tho' the heart be weary, sad the day and long,
Still to us at twilight comes Love's old song,
     comes Love's old sweet song.

Related post
Bloomsday

Sunday, June 15, 2008

A simile on Father's Day

[D]ealing with growing children is like being in a batting cage with ball after ball being thrown at you. You hit the balls you can. Amazingly, the score gets kept for a very long time.

Allen Shawn, Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life (New York: Penguin, 2007), 197

Related posts
"[O]ur past inside us"
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Saturday, June 14, 2008

Make way for ducklings



Are such signs common? They are uncommonly cute.

[Spotted near Columbus, Ohio.]

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Overheard

A moment in the never-ending battle between imagination and reality:

"I'm so glad we don't really go camping."
(Thanks, Elaine!)

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

Managing attention

Do you have a never-ending list? Do you manage your time? Do you manage minutes, tasks, and lists? Do you start each day with a list that has more on it at the end of the day than it did at the beginning of the day, in spite of how many items are completed and crossed off?

Or do you manage your attention? Do you manage emotions, intention, and make choices about what will and will not get done? What are your favorite ways to do this?
Linda Stone, who gave us the term "continous partial attention," is asking some questions:
Is It Time to Retire the Never-Ending List? (Huffington Post)

"Is Google making us stupid?"

Nicholas Carr poses that question in the July/August 2008 Atlantic:

Over the past few years I've had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn't going — so far as I can tell — but it's changing. I'm not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I'm reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.

I think I know what's going on. For more than a decade now, I've been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet.
As Carr acknowledges, written language and the printing press have also occasioned alarm. I would argue though that it's not Google that makes us stupid but continuous partial attention. It's possible to read online selectively, even deeply. (Mark Hurst's Bit Literacy offers some guidance, and adding an ad-blocking extension to one's browser makes for a much less distracting environment.) And it's possible to use Google as a focused investigative tool. Google is certainly a fine means to the sort of inexpert, everyday knowledge that underwrites what E.D. Hirsch long ago called "cultural literacy." And Google makes possible various kinds of informal research that would otherwise be tedious or unmanageable. In such ways, Google can make us smarter. Information though is not the same as knowledge, and Google co-founder Sergey Brin's dream of "all the world's information directly attached to your brain" suggests a pretty dismal, Gradgrindian model of human potential.

I'm planning to assign Carr's essay as a first piece of reading in the freshman writing class I'm teaching in the fall. Whether to read it online or in print will be, I hope, a subject of discussion.
Related posts
"A lot out there is conspiring to distract you"
George Steiner on reading
Words, mere words
Zadie Smith on reading

61 Atherton Road

I was thinking about the house in Brookline, MA, where Elaine and lived in 1984 and 1985. Typing the address into Google reveals that 61 Atherton Road just went on the market. We rented the first floor — living room with fireplace, dining room, kitchen, bathroom, two bedrooms, screened-in back porch — for $600 a month (heat not included). The asking price in 2008: $879,900.

Anne Thackeray Ritchie on the past

The full passage is sunnier than Allen Shawn's excerpt:

When people write of the past, those among us who have reached a certain age are sometimes apt to forget that it is because so much of it still exists in our lives, that it is so dear to us. And, as I have said before, there is often a great deal more of the past in the future than there was in the past itself at the time. We go back to meet our old selves, more tolerant, forgiving our own mistakes, understanding it all better, appreciating its simple joys and realities. There are compensations for the loss of youth and fresh impressions; and one learns little by little that a thing is not over because it is not happening with noise and shape or outward sign: its roots are in our hearts, and every now and then they send forth a shoot which blossoms and bears fruit still.

Anne Thackeray Ritchie, Chapters from Some Memoirs (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1895), 227
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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

From The Savages

I just saw The Savages (2007, now on DVD), and it's pretty plain to me that Tamara Jenkins, who both wrote and directed the film, well deserved the Academy Award for best original screenplay (she lost to Diablo Cody, who wrote Juno). Like, say, Sideways, The Savages is a film for grown-ups. The story focuses on siblings who must decide what to do about (or for, or with) a parent who's failing. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Laura Linney offer brilliant performances as Jon and Wendy (apt names!), adult children trying to do the right thing, still caught in the bickering and rivalry and emotional distance of a dark childhood. Philip Bosco is their father Lenny, a man whose anger and intolerance remain frightening even as he passes into dementia. A brief scene late in the movie gives an idea of what he was like in earlier years.

Here's one bit of dialogue, when Jon and Wendy find their father tethered to a hospital bed:

Lenny: So do something! You're the doctor!

Jon: I'm gonna go get somebody.

Wendy: He's not that kind of doctor, Dad.

Lenny: I thought he was a doctor.

Wendy: A doctor of philosophy. He's a professor, of theater.

Lenny: Like Broadway?

Wendy: No, Dad, like theater of social unrest.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Daughter, time, wine

You know that time is passing when your daughter is suddenly old enough to give you a bottle of wine (Crane Lake Petite Sirah) as a gift. Thanks, Rachel!

Homer's world

Book 18 of Homer's Iliad contains a remarkable description of the surface of Achilles' shield. Made by the god Hephaestus, the lame blacksmith, the shield offers an enigmatic picture of life in its totality: sun and moon, war and peace, city and country, the seasonal endeavors of agriculture and pastoralism and vintage, all encircled by the River Ocean. I like to think of the shield as the god's silent, somber celebration of all the possibilities of life beyond the Iliad: the city at war (i.e., life as it's lived in the Iliad) represents only a small part of the whole.

Above, a remarkable visualization not of Achilles' shield but of the geography of the Homeric world, creator unknown. (Click for a larger view.) If this picture were a real snowglobe, I'd buy it in a second. More via the links:

Homer’s Snowdome (Strange Maps)
Homer's view of the earth (henry-davis.com)
An explanation (henry-davis.com)
(Thanks, TRH!)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Armstrong and Arlen, blues and weather

Singer Ethel Waters famously described songwriter Harold Arlen (1905–1986) as "the Negro-est white man I ever knew." Such songs as "Blues in the Night" (lyrics by Johnny Mercer), "I Gotta Right to Sing the Blues," and "Ill Wind" (lyrics by Ted Koehler) suggest Arlen's strong affinity with African-American musical tradition.

And then there's "Stormy Weather" (also with Koehler), which Waters introduced at the Cotton Club in 1933. I woke up yesterday morning realizing that the song's first three notes — "Don't know why" — are the first three notes of the opening ensemble chorus of the 1928 recording by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five of King Oliver's "West End Blues." "West End Blues" is in E flat. Here's the start of "Stormy Weather," with the same intervals in G:

Armstrong's version of Oliver's tune adds a two-note pickup (the "Don't know" of the lyric) not found in Oliver's own 1928 recording. The three notes are then repeated (with different time values) in both "West End Blues" and "Stormy Weather" ("Don't know why," "there's no sun"). Was Arlen paying conscious homage to Armstrong? I doubt it. But unconscious homage is the best homage of all.

In 1929, Oliver recorded a remake of "West End Blues" that follows the contours of the Hot Five recording, with Louis Metcalf approximating Armstrong's trumpet. Oliver, Armstrong's mentor, was now emulating his former student.

Will Friedwald's Stardust Melodies: A Biography of Twelve of America's Most Popular Songs (New York: Pantheon, 2002) has a chapter on "Stormy Weather" (the source of the Waters quotation) that makes no mention of a "West End Blues" connection. So it may be that you heard it here first (though Elaine says that she thought of it a long time ago). What made me think of the connection? Stormy weather, perhaps.

(Thanks, Elaine, for the musical notation!)
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Friday, June 6, 2008

"[A]n aspirate more or less"

A remarkable passage from Anne Thackeray Ritchie, quoted by Allen Shawn, prompted me to look up Chapters from Some Memoirs (1894). My university library has an 1895 edition, which I borrowed this afternoon, after waiting for twenty-five minutes or so in the "safe area" of the library basement during a thunderstorm and tornado warning. It was quite a thunderstorm, leaving trees and parts of trees scattered about, and at least one telephone pole listing badly. I saw the top of a birch tree resting upside down in a driveway, with no birch tree nearby.

But here is a passage from Anne Thackeray Ritchie. Watch as the writer's youthful judgment of others turns into mature self-judgment and, finally, into a celebration of beauty in which all judgments become irrelevant. It's as wonderful as I think it is, isn't it?

A great many of my earliest recollections seem to consist of old ladies, — regiments of old ladies, so they appear to me, as I look back through the larger end of my glasses to the time when my sister and I were two little girls living at Paris. I remember once that after a long stay in England with our father, the old ladies seemed changed somehow to our more experienced eyes. They were the same, but with more variety; not all alike as they had seemed before, not all the same age; some were younger, some were older than we had remembered them — one was actually married! Our grandmother looked older to us this time when we came back to Paris. We were used to seeing our father's gray hair, but that hers should turn white too seemed almost unnatural. The very first day we walked out with her after our return, we met the bride of whose marriage we had heard while we were away. She was a little, dumpy, good-natured woman of about forty-five, I suppose, — shall I ever forget the thrill with which we watched her approach, hanging with careless grace upon her husband's arm? She wore light, tight kid gloves upon her little fat hands, and a bonnet like a bride's-cake. Marriage had not made her proud as it does some people; she recognised us at once and introduced us to the gentleman. "Very 'appy to make your acquaintance, miss," said he. "Mrs. C. 'ave often mentioned you at our place."

Children begin by being Philistines. As we parted I said to my grandmother that I had always known people dropped their h's, but that I didn't know one ever married them. My grandmother seemed trying not to laugh, but she answered gravely that Mr. and Mrs. C. looked very happy, h's or no h's. And so they did, walking off among those illuminated Elysian fields gay with the echoes of Paris in May, while the children capered to itinerant music, and flags were flying and penny trumpets ringing, and strollers and spectators were lining the way, and the long interminable procession of carriages in the centre of the road went rolling steadily towards the Bois de Boulogne. As we walked homewards evening after evening the sun used to set splendidly in the very centre of the great triumphal arch at the far end of the avenue, and flood everything in a glorious tide of light. What, indeed, did an aspirate more or less matter at such a moment!

Anne Thackeray Ritchie, Chapters from Some Memoirs (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1895), 26–28
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Anne Thackeray Ritchie on the past
One more passage from Anne Thackeray Ritchie

Faulty sources

From the local paper:


Here once again is the difficulty of deciding whether the comedy is in the headline writer's head or mine.
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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Technorati, broken

Here is the top story on Technorati right now. Technorati, alas, is broken. Is anyone noticing?

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Technorati is broken

"[O]ur past inside us"

Freud's insight that we carry our past inside us as a permanent present seems completely, physiologically factual. The distant past accrues innumerable new meanings and connections through the experiences of intervening years, but inside us the past is still there, as it if were occurring now. As memoirist Anne Thackeray Ritchie wrote in 1894, "There is often a great deal more of the past in the future than there was in the past itself at the time … one learns little by little that a thing is not over because it is not happening with noise and shape and outward sign." No matter how old and jaded we have become, how long our parents have been dead, or how far we have traveled from their world, inside we are still waiting for our mother to come in and kiss us good night, holding our ears from angry outbursts, cowering from being struck, or are hoping to be rewarded for eating our vegetables with a warm hug.

Allen Shawn, Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life (New York: Penguin, 2007), 174–75
Very Proustian. Reminsicent too of what Wallace Shawn says at the end of My Dinner with André.

Related post
Reliving our learning

[The source for the Anne Thackeray Ritchie quotation: Chapters from Some Memoirs (1894).]

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Weegee in Indianapolis



The Indianapolis Museum of Art has acquired several hundred Weegee photographs, found in a trunk at a Kentucky yard sale.

Above, "Martian Woman on the Telephone," circa 1955. Can anyone make out the exchange name on the dial? ELgin?

Kentucky Yard Sale Yields a Trove of Weegee Images (New York Times)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Obama!

CNN and MSNBC just called it.

It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come.

(Thanks, Sam Cooke.)

Serendipitous searching at Big Lots

David Pescovitz posted to Boing Boing yesterday concerning a dissertation by ethnologist Erik Ottoson on "serendipitous searching," which Ottoson defines as "open browsing for anything that awakens the person's interest." "Serendipitous searching" seems to be what explains my attraction to Big Lots — a store that I visit in the hope of finding something surprising and worthwhile. Where else am I going to find pocket packs of Kleenex tissues printed in Thai? Without going to Thailand, that is. (88¢ for six packs, ten tissues each.)

If you like tea and live near a Big Lots, you might seek out two excellent bargains of the moment: Good Strong Tea and Hedley's Tea. I'd never seen either, anywhere. The Big Lots price is $2 for a box or tin of fifty teabags. Good Strong Tea is a product of The East India Company, a Sri Lankan company that appears to be related to the original East India Company in name alone. Good Strong Tea lives up to its name: it's a black tea with a full-bodied, winey flavor. It comes in two varieties, for drinking with or without milk. I've tried without, and I would suspect that with is stronger still, to stand up to the white stuff. Hedley's (from Tea Masters Ceylon, also a Sri Lankan company) is available at Big Lots in a number of varieties. I can vouch for Black Currant, which tastes good hot or iced, and has a less artificial flavor than Twinings Black Currant. Founder and chairman Saman Kasthurirathne guarantees every tin.

[Correction: The address on the box is Sri Lankan, but the East India Company is British, as a friendly e-mail from the company tells me.]

Metaphor of the day



YouTube has the context.

[Calendar page made with iWork '08's Pages.]

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Monday, June 2, 2008

Reliving our learning

When I sit down to the piano to compose, I am with the counterpoint assignments I handed in too late to my college theory professor; with the pieces once brought to joyous fruition and with those I abandoned or completed badly; I am with my father, my mother, my sister, my brother tuning his violin, my piano teacher on a Saturday at home in her Chinese dressing gown; with the Mozart concerto I learned at sixteen, with the Berg Piano Sonata, with the Fugue in C Sharp Minor of J.S. Bach. When I am on a train heading into a tunnel, I am engulfed by images of death and darkness, as if pinned beneath a giant calamitous wave. From moment to moment we relive our learning and build upon it.

Allen Shawn, Wish I Could Be There: Notes from a Phobic Life (New York: Penguin, 2007), 140
This passage has me thinking about the frame of mind in which a college student might sit down to work on an essay. Does the student bring to the task a history of accomplishment that fosters confidence in the face of difficulties? Or does he or she relive a history of failure and near-failure that fosters a hopeless fatalism?

What many of my students need to do (and what I try to help them to do) is to unlearn some of the lessons they have been taught and continue to relive: that they're "terrible at grammar," that they "can't write," that they're simply "bad at English." No one sits down to write an essay with the intention not to succeed. But many students acquire along the way the belief that that's the only kind of essay they can write.
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Sunday, June 1, 2008

Sports Illustrated and Proust

In April, Odette at Reading Proust in Foxborough linked to a fine post from On-Screen Scientist, detailing one reader's initial inspiration for reading Proust: the words of 1950s quarterback Ronnie Knox, as quoted in the November 3, 1958 issue of Sports Illustrated:


[Quarterback Ronnie Knox of the Toronto Argonauts, an I-like-football-but man: "If I had to make the choice between a month of playing football and a month of reading Marcel Proust, I'd take Proust."]
The Sports Illustrated archive is now online, free to any reader, so I decided to see what part Proust has played in SI history. Between 1958 and 2004, Proust's name appears on thirty-two occasions. Most of these appearances involve metaphorical madeleines. For instance:
Memory works on its own principles. In Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust claims that it was madeleines, small, molded cookies, that had brought his memory, the scenes of childhood and adolescence, flooding back into his mind. The mere taste of a cookie and one of the world's great authors was off for 1,000 pages of reminiscence.

That's O.K. if you're French, but the American in search of his past needs something stronger than cookies. For me it is airplane glue. [J.D. Reed on model-airplane construction, January 5, 1976]

Like Proust's madeleine, the jumbo shrimp provoke a remembrance of the season past. [Robert F. Jones, September 19, 1977]

Its wooden-ness, like Proust's madeleine, opened the floodgates of memory. [Sarah Pileggi on a yo-yo, December 27, 1982]
Steve Rushin weighs in with back-to-back madeleines (no, not really — I'm just attempting to show that I can use a sports metaphor):
The scent of a pastry set Proust off on a recollection of childhood three volumes long, each the size of a breeze block. Likewise, the distinctive odor of the Metrodome — of concrete and Raid and grill disinfectant — had me instantly feeling 16 upon inhaling it again last week. [October 21, 2002]

One whiff of a long-forgotten pastry set Proust off on a three-volume remembrance of things past. For me, insect repellent is Little League baseball, just as sledding is instantly evoked by a speedball of Swiss Miss and Vicks VapoRub. [July 7, 2003]
Sometimes the name Proust is a trope for all things brainy and difficult:
Where sport is concerned, a revolution has occurred. Bearded and barefoot students today find it possible to think about the draft, drugs, Marcel Proust and Fran Tarkenton simultaneously and without any sense of ludicrousness. [John McCormick, May 20, 1968]

Academic accomplishment and social activity are more important at Virginia than football success. For instance, the 1975 football program contains articles dealing with William Faulkner and Marcel Proust, and drinking during games often takes precedence over such things as paying attention to cheerleaders. [Robert W. Creamer, December 8, 1975]

As for pitching, well, like Cleveland general manager John Hart, we'll get around to that later. For now it's a lineup that's deeper than Proust that has the Indians flying. [Tom Verducci, May 24, 1999]
And sometimes Proust signifies fragility:
"I always said he had a delicate side. It comes out completely unexpectedly. It's his Proustian side. Tell me was he very attractive? I try to be broad-minded." [Ernest Hemingway, dialogue from "Miss Mary's Lion," January 3, 1972]

Did Proust jog? Why, the man could hardly get out of bed. [Ron Fimrite, October 8, 1979]
There are some wonderful one-of-kind Proust moments. Here, two comparative literature students liken writers to basketball players:
Proust (Bob Cousy) — Good peripheral vision.

James Joyce (Lew Alcindor) — If you like him, he's the greatest.

Yeats (The old Celtics). [Peter Ellis and Jan Feidel, April 26, 1971]
And a surprising passage in an article about boxers Ingemar Johnasson and Floyd Patterson invokes Proust's cork-lined room. Ponder a world in which the general reader was assumed to know enough to understand the reference:
Pursuing his happiness, if not Ingemar's, Patterson has been sparring in the Napoleon Room, Section 3. This is a free-form auditorium with ghastly brass chandeliers and cork walls. It might better be named the Proust Room. [Gilbert Rogin, March 13, 1961]
Quarterback Ronnie Knox has some fellow Proustians among athletes and sportswriters:
"I can't stand fiction, except for Dostoevsky and Melville, so I stick mainly to books about sociology, philosophy and political thought. I read a lot of Kafka, along with Camus, some Proust, Hegel, Rousseau and Mill." [George Saimes, Buffalo defensive back, on his literary tastes, October 18, 1965]

"He's a bulldog on a story, but a sweetheart of a man," says sports editor Ed Pope of the Miami Herald, who was a reporter for 50-odd years and still recalls his first meeting with Povich, at the 1950 Sugar Bowl. "I was walking down a corridor of the old St. Charles Hotel," Pope says, "and I saw him through an open door. There was my idol, the first and only sportswriter I've ever seen reading Marcel Proust." [Saul Wisnia, on sportswriter Shirley Povich, September 18, 1995]
But Proust of course was no sportsman:
"Be at No. 15 Place Vendôme Monday morning at 9:15 sharp," the wire read. No. 15 Place Vendôme is the address of Paris' Ritz Hotel, where two days earlier my wife and I had met the owner, Charles Ritz, and had promptly earned his disapproval of our fly-casting techniques. I wanted to talk to him not about fishing but about the literary associations of the Ritz—which is so very rich in them—but when I asked Charles for his recollections of Proust, who for years dined there nightly, he said, "I may have seen him. He was another flyswatter." That was Charles' name for anybody who was not a fly-fisherman. I dropped the subject." [William Humphrey, July 16, 1979]
The no. 1 Proustian at Sports Illustrated was Robert Cantwell, a journalist, biographer, and, in the 1930s, a novelist. A memorial tribute by publisher Kelso F. Sutton in the December 18, 1978 SI quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald praising Cantwell as a writer who "'learned a better lesson from Proust than Thornton Wilder did and has a destiny of no mean star.'"

Here is Cantwell writing about Emily Post and invoking Proust's world:
Mrs. Post had a good deal in common with the characters in Proust's novels, a sort of lordly impracticality that was coupled with shrewd common sense. [June 22, 1964]
Emily Post in Sports Illustrated? Yes, the article is about motor sports, and Post wrote By Motor to the Golden Gate.

A more extended Proustian excursion, from a profile of Jacqueline Piatigorsky, chess-tournament sponsor:
A vague, opaque expression seems to settle on her features when she remembers Paris, but from the bits and fragments of her recollections you can recognize something: she lived in the sort of social and intellectual world that Marcel Proust described in the early, glowing volumes of Remembrance of Things Past. Devoted students of Proust have carefully traced the connections between the Rothschilds and the originals of some of the characters in Proust's great novel, and Gaston Calmann-Lévy, Proust's publisher, was a close friend of Jacqueline's parents. Faced in reality with the sort of elegance and sumptuous grandeur that Proust evoked so brilliantly in fiction, she wanted to get the hell out of there. [September 5, 1966]
Cantwell's monument to Proust is the article "Bright Threads in His Tapestry," a piece on the role of sport in Proust's life and work, with some beautiful evocations of the second volume of In Search of Lost Time, the world of Balbec and la petite bande of girls who captivate the novel's narrator. Just one passage:
Easily amused by anything ludicrous, they are turned off by people who are thoughtful, sensitive, shy or constrained, qualities, they say, which "don't appeal." But they make an exception in his case, and soon he is spending most of his time among them, awkwardly trying to keep up with the games they play naturally, philosophizing over matters they take for granted. His first impression of them was altogether wrong. They are the daughters of well-to-do families, followers of a new informal fashion, the products of a new wealth and leisure and the habit of physical culture. In love with all of them, he gradually centers on Albertine, "the bacchante with the bicycle" and "the frenzied muse of the golf-course." She has laughing eyes and colorless cheeks, her polo cap giving her a tough, rakish air. The novel turns imperceptibly into the story of their love affair. "Now I was keenly interested in golf and lawn-tennis," he remembered. "The world seemed more interesting to me…I was a new man." [December 17, 1973]
Any Proust reader will want to read all of Cantwell's piece. Anyone else has likely given up on this post by now.

[This post is for my friend Stefan Hagemann, who knows baseball and Proust very well.]
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