Sunday, May 31, 2015

How to improve writing (no. 59)

From the national news, about a crane-and-building accident in Manhattan: “Luckily, the situation could have been far worse.” What’s lucky though is not that things could have been worse; it’s that things were not worse.

Better: The situation could have been far worse. But fortunately , &c.

Related reading
All OCA How to improve writing posts (Pinboard)

[This post is no. 59 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

From Newark to Boston

[A few weeks ago.]

We were sitting in Newark’s Penn Station, waiting for the Bolt bus that would take our son Ben back to Boston. It was quite a scene. An elderly black woman had just cussed out an interracial couple for being an interracial couple. The couple gave back as good as they got, drove the woman off, and began laughing about the encounter. And then I noticed a young white guy pacing. He wore track pants and a sleeveless T-shirt, and he kept doffing and donning his baseball cap, which he wore backwards. He had a muscular upper body and a shaved head and looked tightly wound, as if waiting for a bell to ring and a boxing match to begin. He had been standing outside near the Bolt bus that had been idling when we arrived, which of course had not been the bus to Boston. Now, inside the waiting area, he walked our way: “Are you waiting for the bus to Boston? Because I think that’s it.” He had spotted another Bolt pulling up outside. He too was going to Boston. We headed out, but it was the wrong bus, again.

Now he and I stood by the curb watching for further activity, and we spotted a third bus, waiting to turn the corner and head our way. He saw it first. Greyhound? We saw greyish-blue. But then as the bus began to move toward the intersection: orange. A Bolt bus. “They should hire you to keep everyone on top of things here,” I said. “No thanks — I spent enough time around here homeless,” he replied, entirely matter-of-factly. He explained that he had moved up to Boston, that it had been a good decision, and that he had come back to New Jersey to visit family. ”I hope there are better days ahead for you,” I said. “Thanks,” he said, and nodded.

This third Bolt was the bus to Boston. We said goodbye to Ben, watched as he queued up, and walked back to our car.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Amieux-Freres sardines


[Advertisement by Georges Fay, 1896–1900. From the New York Public Library Digital Collections. Click for a larger view.]

An approximate translation: “Amieux Brothers / Sardines and other canned goods / 11 factories employing 3500 workers producing 12 million cans a year / Required on every can: Our motto is like our name: Always the best.” I like the pun on Amieux and à mieux.

I may forget litotes , but I never forget sardines. Amieux Freres continues to this day. Not a bad run.

Related reading
All OCA sardine posts (Pinboard)

[Translation corrections and improvements are welcome.]

A useful made-up word

Coined by Kathyrn Schulz, the word is lapsonym : “a word whose meaning you forget no matter how many times you look it up.” I’d like to think of lapsonym as also applying to a word you forget no matter how many times you look it up. My favorite lapsonym is litotes . Again and again, I have to stop and wonder: what’s the name for the figure of speech that, &c. Or I confuse litotes with apophasis. But probably not after writing this post.

Reader, what’s your favorite (or least favorite) lapsonym?

[I know, all words are made up.]

Friday, May 29, 2015

Eames radios

“These little-known artifacts, which date from the mid- to late-1940s, are among the Eameses’ earliest experiments with their plywood-molding process”: “Design’s Best-Kept Secret: Eames Radios” (The Wall Street Journal).

Related reading
All OCA Charles and Ray Eames posts (Pinboard)

How to improve writing (no. 58)

From the news: “The current investigation is ongoing.” Can a current investigation be anything but? This sentence is an example of journalese. A Google search returns 59,000+ results.

Plain and nonredundant: The investigation continues.

Related reading
All OCA How to improve writing posts (Pinboard)

[This post is no. 58 in an ongoing series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Tobias Frere-Jones on cigar-box edging

“Everything is collected by somebody, and I’m grateful for that. Ephemera, the fragile snapshots of everyday design, would be lost without collectors”: Tobias Frere-Jones looks at cigar-box edging.

Doff, don

At some point in our recent travels, it occurred to me to wonder: could the verbs doff and don be related to the prepositions off and on ? Nah, I thought: too neat, too obvious, too much like false etymologies. But I was wrong.

The Oxford English Dictionary dates doff to approximately 1375: “to put off or take off from the body (clothing, or anything worn or borne); to take off or ‘raise’ (the head-gear) by way of a salutation or token of respect.” The Dictionary describes the word as the “coalesced form of do off ,” meaning “to put off, take off, remove (something that is on).”

Don dates to 1567: “to put on (clothing, anything worn, etc.).” The word is “contracted < do on ,” meaning “to put on.” Both do off and do on originate in what the OED calls eOE, the operating system also known as early Old English. Do off is now archaic; do on, obsolete.

So if you’ve ever wondered about doff and don: there you have it, or them. I am not putting you on, or off.

Joseph Mitchell and small words

From an interview with Norman Sims:

“I do believe the most commonplace words are the ones that in the end have the most power. . . . The commonplace words are the strong ones. It reminds me of those old paving stones the fishermen use to weight the nets. Those words are like stones. I’ll search endlessly for the right small words of a few syllables that hold something up. A foundation.”

Quoted in Thomas Kunkel’s Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of “The New Yorker” (New York: Random House, 2015).
Related reading
All OCA Joseph Mitchell posts (Pinboard)

[How many would like to see Sims’s three interviews with Mitchell in print? Raise your hands.]

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Joseph Mitchell the collector


[Poster for The Collector: Joseph Mitchell’s Quotidian Quest, a 2009 exhibit of photographs by Steve Featherstone, at Duke University’s Kreps Gallery.]

Here is an article about the exhibit. And here is an article, slightly fuzzy, with more photographs of Mitchell’s finds. My favorite detail: the wedding-day doorknob.

A related post
Joseph Mitchell and things

Joseph Mitchell and things

Bricks, posters, forks, insulators, menus, matchbooks, hats, jars, vacuum cleaners:

He was fascinated by architecture and building materials, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to return to the tiny Greenwich Village apartment he shared with his wife and two daughters with bricks (all the manufacturers had their distinctive signatures), or discarded posters from the Fulton Fish Market, or pickle forks from hotel dining rooms (Mitchell wound up accumulating nearly three hundred), or the colorful glass insulators from telephone and electric lines. He saved restaurant menus and matchbook covers and the tiniest of receipts, and he was a faithful member of both the James Joyce Society and the Gypsy Lore Society. He was fastidious to the point of mild eccentricity. He never went outside without his hat, even if he was taking out the trash. If that trash included discarded razor blades or the lids of opened tin cans, he wrapped these carefully and then put them into Mason jars to protect the garbage collectors from accidental cuts. He routinely dusted his extensive book collection. He also enjoyed vacuuming, so much so that, later in life, he was known to turn up at his daughter’s apartment having lugged his own Hoover onto the train.

Thomas Kunkel, Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of “The New Yorker” (New York: Random House, 2015).
A related post
Joseph Mitchell, scissors, paper clips

[This short New Yorker film shows Gay Talese wearing a hat to descend the stairs of his townhouse to an underground office. Found via Submitted for Your Perusal.]

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

One more piece of paper

My piece of paper of choice is an 8½″ × 11″ page folded into eighths and scissored across the middle — a design made popular, or at least semi-well-known, by the PocketMod. I use a blank page, no lines or grid. A PocketMod has been in my pocket for many a concert, many a film. When I travel, I keep one in my shirt pocket, the better to collect addresses, subway info, bits and pieces learned along the way. Everything in this recent post went into one little PocketMod, cleverly titled Summer 2015 .

Related posts
Joseph Mitchell, paper and pencil
William Shawn, paper and pencil

William Shawn, paper and pencil

Charles McGrath, writing about the New Yorker editor William Shawn:

Shawn carried a list inside his breast pocket — a piece of copy paper folded lengthwise and covered with notes in his tiny, feathery handwriting — and sometimes he would pull it out and consult it, crossing off items one by one with a silver mechanical pencil.

“Remembering Mr. Shawn” (The New Yorker, December 28, 1992).
A related post
Joseph Mitchell, paper and pencil

Joseph Mitchell, paper and pencil

The everyday carry:

He overhears snippets of conversation off to one side or another, and once in a while, maybe catching a well-turned phrase, he removes a folded piece of paper from his jacket and makes note of it. (His note-taking regimen has never changed: Before he goes out for the day, he takes a piece of New Yorker copy paper, folds it in half, then neatly folds it again into thirds — the perfect size to slide in and out of a coat pocket, where he also keeps his ever-ready pencil.)

Thomas Kunkel, Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of “The New Yorker” (New York: Random House, 2015).
A related post
Joseph Mitchell, scissors, paper clips

[See also Gay Talese: “I Don’t Use Notebooks. I Use Shirt Boards.”]

Monday, May 25, 2015

On Campus, worth reading

The Summer 2015 issue of On Campus (a publication of the American Federation of Teachers) has worthwhile reading for anyone who cares about American higher education. Virginia Myers’s “University Inc.” looks at corporate influences on academic life, with particular attention to the brothers Koch. Lakey’s “Koch case study” documents the Koch influence at Florida State University, “from the president’s office to content in the classroom.” “UnKoch your campus” offers guidelines for doing just that. And an unsigned article on Pearson PLC, “The power of Pearson threatens academic integrity,” examines one company’s role in publishing, testing, online instruction, and teacher education.

A related post
Boycott Koch Industries (With a list of products)

[Nothing missing: it’s just Lakey.]

Memorial Day

Memorial Day, one hundred years ago in New York City:


[“Torn Battle Flags Cheered by Crowds: Veterans of the Civil War Hailed with Enthusiasm All Along Their Line of March.” The New York Times, June 1, 1915.]

Sunday, May 24, 2015

adjunct world

“Primary texts shall not be taught in this department. What do you think this college does?” From adjunct world, “a comical odyssey detailing the fortunes of the Disposable Adjunct.”

The idea of a course without primary texts is not exactly new. I remember from many years back the (true) story of a course in medieval thought with no primary texts. How would the students know what Aquinas, Scotus, &c. were saying? “The professor will tell them.”

I appreciate the grim comedy of adjunct world, but it makes me want to reach for Lewis Hyde’s observation: “Irony has only emergency use. Carried over time it is the voice of the trapped who have come to enjoy their cage.”

[The sentences from Hyde appear in “Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking,” American Poetry Review, October 1975.]

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Equal marriage in Ireland

“Ireland became the first nation to approve same-sex marriage by a popular vote, sweeping aside the opposition of the Roman Catholic Church in a resounding victory Saturday for the gay rights movement and placing the country at the vanguard of social change”: from today’s New York Times story.

Sixty-two percent of those voting voted for equal marriage rights. Resounding indeed.

Abbey Powell writes

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

Related reading
All OCA Mark Trail posts (Pinboard)

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

Friday, May 22, 2015

Why Elaine Fine (still) blogs

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

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

Things I learned on my summer vacation

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is eminently suited for spontaneous lyric additions:
I met a girl named Sirena
She lived in a little can
I spoke to her of my desire
But she hid underneath a fan
*

Our friends Luanne and Jim are generous beyond any measure of what’s reasonable. They made it clear to me that retirement is a Big Deal.

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

Scully Planners might be worth looking into.

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*



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

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Letter, stranger

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

Later, stranger.

VDP’s next-to-last

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

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

Related reading
All OCA VDP posts (Pinboard)

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

Free writing advice

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

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

The more I write, the more I revise.

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

The age of spinach


[Family Circus, May 21, 2015.]

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


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

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Word of the day: eremite

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dylan on Letterman

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

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Gay Talese’s address book

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

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

Opt out is not a transitive verb

Heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, in a story about parents opposed to state assessment-tests: “She opted her third-grade son out of the tests.”

Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009) glosses opt out of:

Opt out (of), meaning “to choose not to participate [in],” is a bit of legalese that has entrenched itself in the public consciousness through class-action lawsuits, contracts, and governmental regulations.
What GMAU didn’t need to point out is that opt out is an intransitive verb. It takes no object. You can opt out, but you cannot opt someone out. NPR’s reporter could have phrased the sentence in other ways: She chose to have her third-grade son not take the tests. She opted out of having her third-grade son take the tests. She refused permission for her third-grade son take the tests. She would not give permission for her third-grade son to take the tests. I like the last one best.

Some quick Google searching suggests that a transitive opt out is playing a bit part in discussions of testing.

[NPR, your transcript needs a hyphen for third-grade. I’ve added one here.]

What you mean “we,” Terry Gross?

Yesterday on NPR:

This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross. Remember when you first saw a self-checkout aisle at a grocery store? We use them all the time now without giving much thought to the fact that they're doing work real people used to do.
Some people don’t use self-checkout, precisely because they do think about the jobs self-checkout eliminates. Some people choose people, even if it means waiting a little while in line.

Notice that Terry Gross’s “we” — “We use them all the time now” — is a “we” composed of non-cashiers. But people (“real people”) who cashier or have cashiered go shopping too, and they, too, might have reason to think about jobs lost to automation.

Related posts
Ceci n’est pas une caissière
Sad sight of the day

[Post title courtesy of an old joke about the Lone Ranger and Tonto: “It looks like we’re surrounded, Tonto.” “What you mean ‘we,’ white man?”]

Monday, May 18, 2015

Domestic comedy

“I have to figure out how to write it without using the word asshole.”

“Why don’t you leave the word out?”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

[Context? See previous post.]

Spot story

I pulled into a choice spot in a parking lot — aah, shade. As soon as I opened the driver’s door and stepped out, the driver to our left rolled down her window: “I hope you’re not going to start banging my car. You’re parked so close to the line.”

“Believe me, I’m as careful with my car as I am with everyone else’s,” I said. (I know that I should have said it the other way around, but this story is true in every detail.) Up went her window. I closed my door and stepped back to check my parking. Our car was centered in the narrow space, as I more or less already knew. I don’t think a measuring tape would have added anything to what was obvious to the eye — my parking was, well, perfect.

As for our neighbor to the left: her SUV was parked within perhaps three inches of the white line between our cars. On her driver’s side, she had perhaps a foot and a half of space.

I wasn’t willing to let it go. I walked around to the other side of the SUV. “Would you like to look at how our cars are parked?” I inquired. She pulled out her phone and started her car. I worried for a moment that she was calling the cops. But she just backed out of her space, still talking on her phone. I stood at a distance and watched her leave.

This moment was my first experience of rudeness from a stranger in a long time. Elaine told me to let it go: was I going to let an idiot ruin my day? No. Not the idiot in the SUV next to us, and not the idiot in me who wanted to hang on to my indignation. I let it go long before writing this post.

[Yes, it felt like a moment from Curb Your Enthusiasm.]

Saturday, May 16, 2015

George Bodmer at 1,000

George Bodmer’s daily cartoon Oscar’s Day has reached the one-thousand mark. Hurrah!

Friday, May 15, 2015

No to MFA

At the University of Southern California, seven MFA students in art and design have just said no:

We are a group of seven artists who made the decision to attend USC Roski School of Art and Design’s MFA program based on the faculty, curriculum, program structure, and funding packages. We are a group of seven artists who have been forced by the school’s dismantling of each of these elements to dissolve our MFA candidacies. In short, due to the university’s unethical treatment of its students, we, the entire incoming class of 2014, are dropping out of school and dropping back into our expanded communities at large.
Julie Beaufils, Sid Duenas, George Egerton-Warburton, Edie Fake, Lauren Davis Fisher, Lee Relvas, and Ellen Schafer: a year’s worth of students saying no to what might be described as an academic bait-and-switch. It’s sad to say that these seven men and women seem to be the graduate students of the future, getting wise and walking away.

Thanks to Ian Bagger for pointing me to this story.

Related reading
MFA NO MFA

John Ashbery and Marcel Proust

From an interview with John Ashbery in The New York Times:

Q. Who is your favorite novelist of all time?

A. Proust.
And:
Q. If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

A. Again, Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu, for better or worse. You finish it feeling sadder and wiser, so if you’re O.K. with the sadder part, you should take it on.
[Luanne, this post is for you.]

B. B. King (1925–2015)

B. B. King has died at the age of eighty-nine. It really feels like the end of something. The New York Times has an obituary.

[Live at the Regal (1965) is a good place to start.]

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mark Trail, reuse, recycle


[Mark Trail revised, May 10, 2014; Mark Trail, May 14, 2015. Click for larger views.]

If you’re me, you may remember the context for the first panel. If not, see here.

Related reading
All OCA Mark Trail posts (Pinboard)

Word of the day: lane duck

The word of the day is one of my recent invention:

lane duck \ ˈlān-ˈdək \ noun
: a motorist or motor vehicle traveling immediately behind a slow-moving vehicle and thus unable to pass into a lane of more rapidly moving traffic because vehicles to the rear are already passing

Sample sentence: Dammit, I’m a lane duck.
More made-up words
Humormeter : oveness : power-sit : ’sation : skeptiphobia

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A moment of puzzled self-promotion

I have no idea what it means, but Teads Labs ranks Orange Crate Art as forty-ninth of one hundred top blogs for culture in May 2015. And the month ain’t even half over.

At sixty-seven: The Chicago Blog, from the University of Chicago Press. At the top of the list: Gawker.

Ben Leddy on songs in the classroom



Our daughter Rachel put it this way: “This fifth-grade teacher says he has a superpower. What he reveals next will shock you.” It’s our son Ben at the Boston EdTalks 2015: “A Different Tune: Rethinking Songs in the Classroom.”

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

William Zinsser (1922–2015)

The New York Times has an obituary.

William Zinsser was a giant of sane, humane guidance in writing. I used a substantial excerpt from his talk “Writing English as a Second Language” in many writing classes. Written English really is a second language, for all writers.

Zinsser’s work is the subject of several OCA posts. This one and this one are the substantial ones.

Domestic comedy

[After tearing a paper towel in two.]

“That wasn’t very even of me.”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

One more from Mr. Hyphen

Just one more bit from Edward N. Teall’s Meet Mr. Hyphen (And Put Him in His Place) (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1937):

Duke University publishes the Journal of Parapsychology. Its editors would not grieve over loss of a reader who might puzzle it out a parapsy chology, but there is fairness in the question, How far should we go in trying to make the reading easy for all? Should we refrain from cooperate because someone might, either seriously or facetiously, pronounce it coop-erate ?

Something will have to be said about this!
I learned about Mr. Hyphen from Mary Norris’s Between You & Me. Here’s what I’ve written about that book.

More from Meet Mr. Hyphen
Living on hyphens
Mr. Hyphen and Mr. Faulkner
Funk & Wagmalls trademark

Monday, May 11, 2015

Mark Bauerlein on professors and students

Mark Bauerlein, writing in The New York Times:

One measure of interest in what professors believe, what wisdom they possess apart from the content of the course, is interaction outside of class. It’s often during incidental conversations held after the bell rings and away from the demands of the syllabus that the transfer of insight begins and a student’s emulation grows. Students e-mail teachers all the time — why walk across campus when you can fire a note from your room? — but those queries are too curt for genuine mentoring. We need face time.
Bauerlein’s description of alienation and isolation in present-day academia — few office doors open, few students waiting to speak to profs — rings true for me. His picture of the way things were in the 1980s — “you couldn’t walk down the row of faculty offices without stepping over the outstretched legs of English majors lining up for consultations” — is less convincing. As a grad student in the early 1980s, always around an English department, I certainly never saw anything like that. And Bauerlein’s contention that students saw their professors as figures to emulate — “students looked to professors for moral and worldly understanding” — seems to me true only in a limited way. A student more likely looked to one professor, or two. As I wrote in a 2006 post, several fellow undergrads and I wanted to be James P. Doyle, to be able to read (that is, interpret) poetry as he did. While I found many other profs deserving of deep respect and affection, I’m quite sure that I never thought of them as guides to life. But they were great guides to medieval philosophy, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the nineteenth-century novel, and so on.

One change in academic life that Bauerlein fails to mention: the rising number of adjunct instructors. It’s difficult for students to line up for office hours when there’s no office. An office shared by half a dozen instructors hardly makes for a congenial setting for life lessons. An adjunct instructor racing from one campus to another may not have time to stop and chat. And looking to an adjunct instructor for worldly understanding seems like a contradiction in terms.

To my mind, the importance of Bauerlein’s essay (right now the most e-mailed item at the Times) lies in its implicit acknowledgement of the value of what I have come to call real-presence education. Face time.

Two related posts
The gold standard, haircuts, and everyone else
How to talk to a professor

Recently updated

Another college president plagiarizing? Cleared, kinda sort of.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Happy Mother’s Day


[Louise Leddy and son, April 21, 1957. Photograph by James Leddy. Click for a larger view.]

I was, or should have been, humming “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So.” I am fortunate indeed to have such a wonderful woman for a mother.

Happy Mother’s Day to my mom and to all mothers.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Domestic comedy

“I, tense and preoccupied?”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

[But it was a few days ago.]

Accidental bird


[Post-its and eraser crumbs. Photograph by Michael Leddy. Click for a larger view.]

To my eye, It looks like a chicken or rooster, facing left or right.

I wonder whether the series of events that produced this accidental bird is common: 1. Fill book under discussion with Post-its to mark significant passages. 2. Get suddenly fed up with the fringe of slightly curled notes running down the side of the book. 3. Remove Post-its as quickly as possible, sticking one to another to another. Aah, room to breathe.

A related post
Twenty uses for a Post-it note

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Why I (still) blog

Fresca said that she’d like to read responses to this question: Why do you (still) blog? The adverb suggests, rightly, that it’s a little archaic to write this way. As I joked in a 2013 post, blogging feels so early-twenty-first-century. And older still, reaching back to the commonplace book and daybook.

I began writing here as a way to collect items useful in teaching — when such items began turning up more often online than in print. And then my purpose and my readership began to widen. I now think of Orange Crate Art as Philip Whalen thought of his poetry: “a picture or graph of a mind moving.” (But I’m not comparing myself to Philip Whalen.) To write in this daily way is to make a record of preoccupations, questions, habits of attention, associations of ideas. It’s all personal, but in the spirit of illustration rather than confession, snapshots along the way. And it’s all factory direct. No middleman, or -person.

I (still) blog, and I still write letters (with a fountain pen), and I still wear an analog watch (Timex). That fewer and fewer people do so makes no difference to me. My writing practice here is, to use a Van Dyke Parks phrase, of supreme unimportance . One can read that phrase with emphasis on the third word or the second.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Small Colon Collider, up, running

Back in business:

“The Small Colon Collider is a huge project involving cooperation between many European nations and we therefore built in filters for acute and grave accents, umlauts, cedillas, circumflexes and even the ringpull on the top of a Swedish å, but the Spanish only came into the project late and gummed the whole thing up with their mañanas.

“The tildes kept slipped off the first n and getting stuck in the machinery.

“But now we’ve cleaned them all up and installed a tilde filter, so it’s all systems go.”
A related post
Dark punctuation

“OH NO!!”


[Mark Trail, May 6, 2015.]

“OH NO!!” is what Abbey Powell (a real person) should have said when Mark Trail called her about the problem in Wallace Wood’s timber empire. Better still: she should have spent Invasive Plant Pest and Disease Month (April) on vacation. Having tripped on a log, she has now lost her glasses and her truck. I would like to say that no one can take away her dignity, but I think James Allen’s comic strip already has.

I think that those are flaming truck parts leaping up at Ms. Powell. As I said on April 14, the day she entered the strip: Run, Abbey, run!

Related reading
All OCA Mark Trail posts (Pinboard)

Marco Arment on Apple problems

Marco Arment, writing about persistent problems in Yosemite:

This is what’s so frustrating about today’s Apple: if a bug persists past the early beta stages of its introduction, it rarely ever gets fixed. They’re too busy working on the new to fix the old.
As the discoverer of the sempervirens bug, I have reason to agree. Arment though is writing about serious problems, not minor ones that can be given playful names from Latin.

“Such is the future of education”

From a new novel of academic life, Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members :

Alex Ruefle has prevailed upon me to support his teaching application to your department, which I gather is hiring adjunct faculty members exclusively, bypassing the tenure track with its attendant health benefits, job security, and salaries on which a human being might reasonably live. Perhaps your institution should cut to the chase and put its entire curriculum online, thereby sparing Ruefle the need to move. . . .  You could prop him up in a broom closet in his apartment, poke him with the butt end of a mop when you need him to cough up a lecture on Caribbean fiction or the passive voice, and then charge your students a thousand dollars each to correct the essays their classmates have downloaded from a website. Such is the future of education.
Maureen Corrigan talked about the novel on NPR’s Fresh Air. Thanks to Sean at Contrapuntalism for sending the link and this excerpt.

As I’ve often written in these pages, I think real college will continue to be available for a fortunate few. Malia and Sasha Obama and Mitt Romney’s grandchildren will no doubt go to college, the real thing. But for the rest of us, the prospects are likely to be different. The great democratization of American higher education in the aftermath of the Second World War begins to look like a glorious, sadly short-lived experiment.

[Pop quiz: Dear Committee Members is written as a series of recommendation letters. What other novel of the teaching life takes the form of letters, memos, and notes?]

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

VDP’s Lost Weekend

Friday and Saturday at Los Angeles’s Largo at the Coronet: The Lost Weekend, Van Dyke Parks’s last piano/vocal performances. There will be Very Special Guests. I wish I could be there.

[Has anyone out there read Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend?]

The honorific Mx

The gender-neutral title Mx may be joining the honorifics Miss , Mr , Mrs  and Ms in the Oxford English Dictionary. OED assistant editor Jonathan Dent:

“This is an example of how the English language adapts to people’s needs, with people using language in ways that suit them rather than letting language dictate identity to them.”
Here, from The Guardian , is the most helpful article on Mx I could find. Newspaper articles referring to the “next edition” of the OED are almost certainly in error: the online OED is updated quarterly.

[See also the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun hen, which has several uses. The honorifics Mr , Mrs  and Ms appear in the OED without periods.]

David Letterman on his show’s end

From a New York Times interview: “I’ll miss it, desperately. One of two things: There will be reasonable, adult acceptance of transition. Or I will turn to a life of crime.”

I haven’t watched Letterman in years. I tired of the shtick. But I like his either/or.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Recently updated

A Yosemite bug Fixed in 10.10.3.

Works in some places, not others. Still broken.

A joke in the traditional manner

Why did the ophthalmologist and his wife split up?

No spoilers. The punchline is in the comments.

More jokes in the traditional manner
The Autobahn : Elementary school : A Golden Retriever : How did Bela Lugosi know what to expect? : How did Samuel Clemens do all his long-distance traveling? : What did the plumber do when embarrassed? : What happens when a senior citizen visits a podiatrist? : Why did the doctor spend his time helping injured squirrels? : Why did Oliver Hardy attempt a solo career in movies? : Why was Santa Claus wandering the East Side of Manhattan?

[“In the traditional manner”: by or à la my dad. He must take credit for all but the squirrel-doctor and Santa Claus.]

For finals takers

The yin and the yang of it: “How to do horribly on a final exam” and “How to do well on a final exam.” Which post did Nancy read?

Best wishes to all exam takers and givers.

[Three finals to go.]

Sunday, May 3, 2015

You should absolutely expect him to deliver those buzzwords

Lucy Kellaway examines a sentence from Twitter CEO Dick Costolo: “Twitter chief’s six common crimes against the dictionary” (Financial Times). Here is the sentence:

As we iterate on the logged out experience and curate topics, events, moments that unfold on the platform, you should absolutely expect us to deliver those experiences across the total audience and that includes logged in users and users in syndication.
All the money in the world can’t make a good sentence.

Kellaway also appears in these pages in a post about paper: “Paper, +1.”

Recently updated

Step right up Freshman MOOCs, now with no financial aid.

Domestic comedy

“You know, if you grow up with one version of something, any other version is going to strike you as ersatz.”

“Even if it’s the original. Put that on your blog.”

We were talking about the television series Lassie. The Lassie of my childhood is the Timmy-Ruth-Paul version. I’ve never really cottoned to the Jeff-Ellen-Gramps version, which came first. Indeed, without Jeff-Ellen-Gramps, there’d be no Timmy-Ruth-Paul: Timmy came on the scene as a runaway orphan hiding in the Jeff-Ellen-Gramps barn. Ruth and Paul bought the farm from Ellen and adopted the runaway. COZI TV is running four hours of Lassie this afternoon, two hours of which are Timmy-Ruth-Paul.

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)
All OCA Lassie posts (Just a handful)

[Did you know that before there was June Lockhart, there was Cloris Leachman? She was a tightly wound Ruth Martin, something like the Phyllis Lindstrom of just-outside-Calverton.]

Saturday, May 2, 2015

More adventures in sardines

Emboldened by my happy experience with a tin of King Oscar Mediterranean Style sardines (thanks again, Martha), I decided to try a tin of King Oscar with Hot Jalapeño Peppers. Lord have mercy. Other exclamations, too. The combination of heat and smoke (“smoked in real oak-wood ovens”) makes for a surprising, delightful adventure. These sardines make me remember the midwestern characterization of anything unusual: “That’s different.” Yes, different — and good. King Oscar with Hot Jalapeño Peppers: the avant-garde of the sardine world.

Related reading
All OCA sardine posts (Pinboard)

[“Hot jalapeño” is redundant, no? Perhaps it’s to protect the company from complaints. But “real oak-wood ovens”: as opposed to pretend ovens? Image from King Oscar. Thank you, Your Majesty.]

Friday, May 1, 2015

Walking on clouds with Nancy


[Nancy, June 30, 1949. Click for a larger view.]

I, too, am walking on clouds today, giddy and more than slightly in a trance. After thirty years of teaching, I’m retiring. All semester long, I’ve been feeling like Bunny Colvin: “Five months to my thirty.” And then four, three, two, one — and none. Three final examinations next week, and I’m done.

Last things:

The final scene of Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931), which ended a look at films that owe something to Homer’s Odyssey. Tramp returning, intuitive understanding: it’s the Odyssey.

The streamside scene from the Father Knows Best episode “Betty’s Graduation,” in a class that began with Gilgamesh. There is no permanence.

In an American lit class, the end of chapter 6 of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Pnin. I am leaving academic life in very different circumstances from those of poor Timofey Pnin. What moves me most in these pages (which I read aloud): after a cracking sound, Pnin’s aquamarine glass bowl, a gift from his not-son Victor, lies not broken at the bottom of his kitchen sink. It’s a goblet that broke. The bowl still has its integrity, as Pnin has his.

I’ll have more to say about teaching and not teaching. But not now, not yet.

A secret message to friends

Thank you, Kathy and John David, for a wonderful time last night. In the internal combustion engine of life, you two are mighty pistons. Vroom, vroom!

Joseph Mitchell, scissors, paper clips

Joseph Mitchell’s labor of writing:

And labor it truly was, as can be readily seen from the few draft examples Mitchell left behind. Seated at the sturdy Underwood typewriter that he would use his entire New Yorker career, Mitchell would patiently cast and recast sentences, sometimes dozens of times, changing just a word or two with each iteration until an entire paragraph came together and seemed right. He would move through his drafting of the story in this slow, painstaking fashion, at certain points (in that pre-computer era) using a scissors to cut these passages apart, sometimes sentence by sentence, and physically rearranging them to get a better feel for the narrative rhythm. In so doing he often used paper clips to hold the sentence strips together, and these constructions would come to resemble a long, flexible washboard or a kind of primitive girdle. All this fussing was exceedingly time-consuming, even for a magazine writer, which helped establish Mitchell’s growing reputation for deliberation.

Thomas Kunkel, Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of “The New Yorker” (New York: Random House, 2015).
I haven’t started to read this book, really: I’ve only dipped in. A biography whose index includes the entry “paper clips used by” is a biography I’m going to like.