Tuesday, May 23, 2017

An observation

The Manchester-born novelist Howard Jacobson, writing in The New York Times:

If we want to find some consolation, it won’t be in speeches of municipal defiance, but in the stories, now coming thick and fast, of the assistance rendered not only by the emergency services, but by Mancunians of courage and goodwill who obeyed their deepest instincts in the face of danger and did all they could to comfort the injured and distraught.
See also Fred Rogers quoting his mother Nancy: “Look for the helpers.”

“Waterloo Sunset” at the BBC

The latest episode of BBC Radio 4 show Soul Music is devoted to the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.” Beautiful.

Monday, May 22, 2017

William Friedkin on Proust

William Friedkin writes about visiting Illiers-Combray and Paris in search of Marcel Proust. But, Friedkin says, “the alchemy” of Proust’s work is not to be found in places:

It exists in the genius of a person who understood there was a connection between everything — that the roads we take inevitably lead to the same place, a place within ourselves.

What Proust inspires in us is to see and to appreciate every seemingly insignificant place or object or person in our lives; to realize that life itself is a gift and all the people we’ve come to know have qualities worth considering and celebrating — in time.
Related reading
All OCA Proust posts (Pinboard)

“Center of the World, Ohio”

An especially good episode of To the Best of Our Knowledge: Charles Monroe-Kane visits family and friends in “Center of the World, Ohio.”


From The Dark Past (dir. Rudolph Maté, 1948). Al Walker (William Holden), escaped killer, sneers:

“Teachers, writers — screwballs!”

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Trump, child?

Alison Gopnik, who studies learning and development in children, explains why Donald Trump is “utterly unlike a four-year-old.” Four-year-olds, she writes, “care deeply about the truth,” “are insatiably curious,” “pay attention,” “understand the difference between fantasy and reality,” “have ‘a theory of mind,’” “are not egocentric or self-centered,” “demonstrate both empathy and altruism,” “have a strong moral sense,” and “are sensitive to social norms and think that they and other people should obey them.” So there, David Brooks.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

A real nut job

I found this defenseless creature online, combed its tail forward, did some touching up, typed a word, and added some sepia.

[Inspired by Fresca and bink’s alphabet book.]

From Jack Benny

On The Dick Cavett Show, February 21, 1973: “I’ll tell you what kind of life insurance I got: when I go, they go!”

Friday, May 19, 2017

Word of the day: nut job

The Oxford English Dictionary has it:

slang (orig. U.S.).

A mad or crazy person; (also, occas.) a violent person. Cf. NUTCASE n.
The first citation is from 1975: “He was led and followed by nut jobs, him the biggest of all for being there.” The OED also notes a dictionary of slang that records a New York University student using the term in 1972. Was it Donald Trump? No. Trump graduated from the Wharton School in 1968. Trump did not invent nut job.

This post is prompted by an extraordinary New York Times headline: “Trump Told Russians That Firing ‘Nut Job’ Comey Eased Pressure From Investigation.” Let’s see how that logic works out. Perhaps nut job will be the 2017 word of the year. And it won’t be applying to Comey.

[The OED spells it as two words: nut job. Merriam-Webster spells it as one. Google’s Ngram Viewer shows nut job outnumbering nutjob 2.8:1 (2008). Nut job is an open compound word; nutjob, a closed compound.]

Modern times

A book on interlibrary loan was due today, and the lending library would not allow a renewal. So I photographed the pages still to go and will read them on my phone.

That last sentence is one I couldn’t have imagined not so long ago.


[A caffeinated blowhard.]

“It’s really loosey-goosey, and it probably wouldn’t hold up in court, but —”

Related reading
All OCA “overheard” posts (Pinboard)

Shelley’s Jerry’s

A local pizza parlor was torn down, and all that remains on its large lot is a sign. I thought of lines from Shelley in which a traveler recounts what he read on the pedestal of a broken statue in the desert:

“‘My name is Jerry’s Pizza, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
My friend Rob Zseleczky would have gotten a kick out of this post.

[I follow many modern printings of “Ozymandias” by adding quotation marks around lines 10–11 for clarity.]

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Berlin poster

[Poster for Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (dir. Walter Ruttmann, 1927). Georgii Augustovich Stenberg and Vladimir Augustovich Stenberg. Russian, 1928. 42 x 27 3/4 in. Click for a larger view.]

I am a camera — and other things. This film poster is a Cooper-Hewitt Object of the Day. I wrote briefly about Berlin: Symphony of a Great City in this post. The film is available (without a musical score) at the Internet Archive.

Mongol Profile

[Disclaimer: This is not an advertisement.]

I had to do it. The 1988 Dewar’s advertisement I’ve spoofed appears in this post.

Related reading
All OCA Henry Threadgill posts
All OCA Mongol posts (Pinboard)

[Don’t miss the revised text, bottom right column.]

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Dust storm

We drove back in heavy wind from the butcher’s this afternoon, on two rural routes, and found ourselves in a terrific dust storm, a wall of light brown, with just a few feet of road visible. I’ve seen photographs and film footage from the Dust Bowl years, and I know that what we experienced today was nothing comparable: no black clouds, and long stretches of clear air. But what we drove through was bad enough in itself, and we had never seen anything like it. We wondered how children coming home from school would fare in that wind.

What didn’t the president know
and when didn’t he know it

National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster: “The president wasn’t even aware of where this information came from. He wasn’t briefed on the source or method of the information either.”

Ignorance is strength.

Baby’s First Resist-Story

Fresca and bink have created an alphabet book with wash-away illustrations: Baby’s First Resist-Story.

A is for alternative facts. Look, look, look. The clock will soon be striking thirteen!


Later that same day: There’s now a key to the illustrations.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Recently updated

Elaine Fine on the airwaves Now with a link to an archived broadcast.

The perception of doors

[Hi and Lois, May 16, 2017. Click for a larger view.]

The wall line above Lois’s head in the second panel suggests that the Flagstons’ front door is located just a foot or two from the house’s corner. We know from exterior shots that the door will not be found there.

But what really delights me in today’s strip: those windows. They must switch places whenever the door opens or closes.

Related reading
All OCA Hi and Lois posts (Pinboard)

[Post title with apologies to Aldous Huxley.]

FSRC: annual report

The Four Seasons Reading Club, our household’s two-person adventure in reading, just finished its second year. The FSRC year runs from May to May. (The club began after I retired from teaching.) In our second year we made it through thirty books. In non-chronological order:

Honoré de Balzac, The Human Comedy: Selected Stories, The Unknown Masterpiece

Willa Cather, My Àntonia, My Mortal Enemy, Obscure Destinies, One of Ours, O Pioneers!, The Professor’s House, Sapphira and the Slave Girl, The Troll Garden, Youth and the Bright Medusa

Beverly Cleary, Jean and Johnny, Ellen Tebbitts, The Luckiest Girl, Sister of the Bride

Hans Herbert Grimm, Schlump

Homer, Odyssey

Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here

George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

Joseph Roth, Hotel Savoy

Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

Timothy Snyder, Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century

John Williams, Stoner

Stefan Zweig, Chess Story, Collected Stories, Confusion, Journey into the Past, Messages from a Lost World: Europe on the Brink, The Post-Office Girl, The World of Yesterday

Aside from a few uncollected stories, we’ve now read all of Cather’s fiction. We have much more Zweig to go. Onward.

Credit to the translators whose work gave us access to the world beyond English: Linda Asher, Anthea Bell, Jamie Bullock, Simon Carnell, Carol Cosman, Richard Howard, John Hoare, Benjamin W. Huebsch, Helmut Ripperger, Joel Rotenberg, Joe Sachs, Damion Searls, Erica Segretrans, Will Stone, and Jordan Stump.

A related post
FSRC: first annual report

Monday, May 15, 2017

Orange stereogranimator art

GIF made with the NYPL Labs Stereogranimator - view more at http://stereo.nypl.org/gallery/index
[“Orange Blossoms and Fruit, Los Angeles, Cal., U.S.A. 1870?-1906 1897.” Made with the New York Public Library’s Stereogranimator.]

A joke in the traditional manner

Where do amoebas golf?

No spoilers. The punchline is in the comments. (And yes, “On a miniature golf course” would be much too obvious.)

More jokes in the traditional manner
The Autobahn : Did you hear about the cow coloratura? : Did you hear about the thieving produce clerk? : Elementary school : A Golden Retriever : How did Bela Lugosi know what to expect? : How did Samuel Clemens do all his long-distance traveling? : How do amoebas communicate? : What did the doctor tell his forgetful patient to do? : What did the plumber do when embarrassed? : What happens when a senior citizen visits a podiatrist? : What is the favorite toy of philosophers’ children? : Why did the doctor spend his time helping injured squirrels? : Why did Oliver Hardy attempt a solo career in movies? : Why did the ophthalmologist and his wife split up? : Why does Marie Kondo never win at poker? : Why was Santa Claus wandering the East Side of Manhattan?

[“In the traditional manner”: by or à la my dad. He gets credit for all but the cow coloratura, the produce clerk, the toy, the squirrel-doctor, Marie Kondo, Santa Claus, and this one. He was making such jokes long before anyone called them “dad jokes.”]

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Happy Mother’s Day

[Photograph by James Leddy.]

That’s my mom Louise Leddy and me. My dad Jim made a notation in the baby book next to this photograph: B.M.

Today seems like an appropriate time to say that our daughter Rachel and her husband Seth are going to have a baby girl, due in October. Which means that my mom, Rachel’s Grandma Louise, will soon be someone’s great-grandmother. And Elaine and I will soon be grandparents. Grandparents? But we’ve always been “a nice young couple.” [Insert moment of stunned silence.]

Happy Mother’s Day to all.

Saturday, May 13, 2017


Mark Shields:

There have been three memorable American presidents, the story goes. President George Washington could never tell a lie. President Richard Nixon could never tell the truth. And President Donald Trump cannot tell the difference.


“Have either of you ever been to a French restaurant?”

And from the same speaker, a minute or two later: “You set it on fire and drink it.”

I would like to have heard whatever was said in between.

Related reading
All OCA “overheard” posts (Pinboard)

Friday, May 12, 2017

Carhartt B324

A recommendation to my fellow man: Carhartt B324 Washed Twill Dungarees. They’re carpenter pants, not heavy or stiff, not baggy or saggy, and their slightly longer length begins to look perfectly appropriate after a few days. A pocket on the right leg solves the problem of carrying a cell phone. And there’s another pocket on the left leg. And because they’re carpenter pants, there’s also a hammer loop, which seems to me weirdly cool, even if I don’t often carry a hammer. B324s come in five colors: Black, Dark Coffee, Army Green, Dark Khaki, and Field Khaki.

I just retired a pair of Carhartt B18 jeans after seven years. I’m pretty sure I’ve never had a pair of jeans last that long. I hope the B324s are as durable.

[A caution: the cell-phone pocket easily holds an iPhone 6 or 7, but the Plus size may not fit. Try before you buy.]

Domestic comedy

[After warbling a couple of lines of “It Ain’t Me Babe.”]

“Aren’t you glad I’m not Bob Dylan?”

“Yes — you’d be insufferable.”

“But I’d be out on the road all the time.”

“Then it’d be okay.”


Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

Thursday, May 11, 2017

A Mongol sighting

[From Call Northside 777 (dir. Henry Hathwaway, 1948). Click for a larger view.]

P.J. McNeal (Jimmy Stewart) is all het up. Must be on a jag. But Photo Lab Technician (his only name) is a mellow fellow, though a bit worldweary. His pencil: Mongol, right there in his vest pocket.

Related reading
All OCA Mongol posts (Pinboard)
More from Call Northside 777

[I think the actor playing Photo Lab Technician may be Ben Erway. But it’s difficult to put together one of several nameless roles and a photograph or two. The actor looks old enough to Ben Erway (b. 1892). The actor who plays Police Photographic Technician looks much too young.]

Call Northside 777
for supplies and technology

I sometimes wonder what Henry Hathaway’s office must have looked like. His 1945 film The House on 92nd Street is filled with supplies and technology: file drawers, ledgers, rubber stamps, teletype machines, the works. Call Northside 777 (1948), filmed (at least mostly) on location in Chicago, is a close second.

The Chicago Police Department’s Bureau of Information has a wire file basket, files, desk lamps, and overhead caged lamps. Also cops:

The department’s Communication Center has desk lamps and schoolhouse fixtures. Also telephony:

[Is that a quart of milk to the front right?]

[The only proper reaction to this shot in 1948 or now: “It’s complicated.”]

P.J. McNeal (Jimmy Stewart), newspaper reporter, has a tiny camera. He’s almost a spy, having passed himself off as a detective:

[A nifty touch: Joseph MacDonald, the film’s cinematographer, shows us the arrest record as it comes into focus in McNeal’s viewfinder.]

McNeal also knows how to work a typewriter:

Someone else handles the Linotype:

The shots of signage that precede the scenes in the Bureau of Information and the Communication Center strongly suggest (at least to me) that these scenes were filmed on location. If not, they’re pretty remarkable sets.

I’ve left out two elements of technology, one of which might be a spoiler. The other is a Mongol pencil.

More Hathaway, offices, and supplies
A pocket notebook in The House on 92nd Street notebook sighting
Dixon Ticonderogas in The House on 92nd Street
A police station in Niagara

This blog in Spin

My blog and me in Spin: “It’s Been Ten Years Since Brian Wilson Said His Favorite Movie Was Norbit.”

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Pocket notebook sighting

[The Naked Edge (dir. Michael Anderson, 1961). Click for a larger view.]

The Naked Edge shows George Radcliffe (Gary Cooper) making frequent use of this notebook. Someone took care to have it look well-used. Notice the ragged edge of a page torn from a spiral notebook and saved here.

More notebook sightings
Angels with Dirty Faces : Ball of Fire : Cat People : City Girl : Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne : Dragnet : Extras : Foreign Correspondent : Homicide : The Honeymooners : The House on 92nd Street : Journal d’un curé de campagne : The Last Laugh : The Lodger : Mr. Holmes : Murder at the Vanities : Murder by Contract : Murder, Inc. : The Mystery of the Wax Museum : Naked City : The Palm Beach Story : Pickpocket : Pickup on South Street : Pushover : Quai des Orfèvres : Railroaded! : Red-Headed Woman : Rififi : Route 66 : The Sopranos : Spellbound : State Fair : T-Men : Union Station : Where the Sidewalk Ends : The Woman in the Window

Twelve movies

[No spoilers, one caution.]

The Other Side (dir. Roberto Minervini, 2015). A documentary shot in West Monroe, Louisiana (the home of Duck Dynasty). Meth, alcohol, petty crime, economic exploitation ($20 for how many hours work?), illness, squalor, racism, paranoia, and a militia in training. As William Carlos Williams wrote, “The pure products of American / go crazy.” A caution: there are scenes that are difficult to watch, of addicts having sex, of Kelley shooting up a pregnant stripper. What I found most revealing: a scene of meth-making, with nothing but a welder’s mask and bandana for protection. It’s a long way from Breaking Bad.


The Suspect (dir. Robert Siodmark, 1944). It’s 1902. Philip (Charles Laughton) is a tobacco-store manager, a model of propriety, a husband in a loveless marriage. He befriends Mary (Ella Raines), a young unemployed typist. Their ambiguous (and surprisingly plausible) relationship becomes less ambiguous, and Philip’s life becomes much more complicated. A YouTube find.


The Naked Edge (dir. Michael Anderson, 1961). Gary Cooper plays George Radcliffe, a suddenly successful businessman who may have committed a murder. Deborah Kerr plays his increasingly suspicious wife Martha. A variation on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt and Suspicion, with great suspense and some shocking scenes. This was Cooper’s last film, made when he was already suffering from the cancer that would take his life. His preoccupied look must have owed something to those circumstances. Another YouTube find.


The Strange One (dir. Jack Garfein, 1957). Something Wild (1961), Garfein’s second (and last) film, is strange and brilliant. This film is merely strange: a stagey overwrought drama set at a southern military school. Jocko De Paris (Ben Gazzara) is a cadet who bosses around and humiliates his peers. An allegory of fascism, with heaps and heaps of the Method.


Blonde Ice (dir. Jack Bernhard, 1948). Fatal attractions: a society columnist kills her husband to be with her lover, and then kills the lover when a better prospect comes her way. My favorite line: “You’re not a normal woman.” Yet another YouTube find.


The Rabbit Trap (dir. Philip Leacock, 1959). Ernest Borgnine as Ever Ready, Steady Eddie Colt, underpaid (no college degree) and overworked, a draftsman and family man whose boss sees human resources as endlessly exploitable. Like The Apartment, this film is about standing up to executive power. My favorite line: “The company doesn’t own you.” The most unnverving moment: the boss calls Eddie’s co-worker and downstairs neighbor Judy (June Blair) back to work one night. You can guess why. “You don’t have to go,” everyone tells her. But she does.


Call Northside 777 (dir. Henry Hathwaway, 1948). Jimmy Stewart plays P.J. McNeal, a Chicago reporter looking into the guilt or innocence of Frank Wiecek (Richard Conte), who is serving a ninety-nine-year sentence for killing a cop. I hadn’t seen this movie in years, and I watched it with a much greater appreciation of McNeal’s investigative journalism, which at one point calls for tricking the police into taking him for a detective. Based on a true story and shot on location in Chicago.


Faust (dir. F.W. Murnau, 1926). Faust is the fourth Murnau silent I’ve seen. It has great special effects and dizzying scenes of flight, but the real stars of the film are the faces of Gösta Ekman (Faust old and young), Emil Jannings (Mephisto), and Camilla Horn (Gretchen). Mephisto’s kabuki costume is a strange and inspired bit of orientalism.


Action in the North Atlantic (dir. Lloyd Bacon, 1943). Merchant marines at sea and on land, but mostly at sea. It’s odd to see Humphrey Bogart in a film among so many other manly man, among them Raymond Massey (as Bogart’s captain) and Alan Hale. Great action sequences, lots of colloquial American English (“Sure, sure”), a healthy, irreverent contempt for fascism, and an idiosyncratic belief system: “I got faith in God, President Roosevelt, and the Brooklyn Dodgers, in the order of their importance.”


The Big Lebowski (dir. Joel Coen, 1998). All I can say is that this movie is much funnier and much more enjoyable when one stays awake, which I did. And I am happy to have figured out for myself the connections to The Big Sleep. My favorite line: “These men are nihilists — there’s nothing to be afraid of.”


Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (dir. Walter Ruttmann, 1927). A montage of day and night in the life of Weimar Berlin: empty streets at first; then trains, trolleys, buses, men and women walking to work, children walking to school, window-shoppers, streetsweepers, produce sellers, typists, a wedding, a funeral procession, and café life; and then on into the night. Juxtapositions: well-dressed men in their cars and carriages, then beggars and cigarette-butt scavengers. What’s on the screen is often modern technology reduced to beautiful abstractions: electrical wires against the sky, a single part of a machine revolving. For Ruttmann, a great city is a matter of motion. With a 1993 score by the composer Timothy Brock.

As with People on Sunday (dir. Robert Siodmark and Edgar G. Ulmer, 1930), it’s impossible to watch this film without wondering: what became of all these people post-Weimar?


Lichtspiel Opus I (dir. Walter Ruttmann, 1921). Light-play: the movement of swirls, blobs, fields, and pointed forms. It’s easy to see this short film as a preparation for the grand montage of Berlin. One moment seems to presage Mark Rothko. All of it seems to point to light shows and screensavers. Available at Vimeo.

[From Lichtspiel Opus 1.]

[From Berlin: Symphony of a Great City. A train in motion.]

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)
Fourteen films : Thirteen more : Twelve more : Another thirteen more : Another dozen : Yet another dozen : Another twelve : And another twelve : Still another twelve : Oh wait, twelve more : Twelve or thirteen more : Nine, ten, eleven — and that makes twelve : Another twelve : And twelve more : Is there no end? No, there’s another twelve : Wait, there’s another

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Trump fires Comey

An extraordinary bit of reasoning:

While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau.
I.e.: You’re not investigating me — great! But there are still problems with your performance.

Is it Watergate yet?

[Yes, informing is a fused participle. Should be your informing me, not you.]

“Day after day after day”

Hal Incandenza is thinking of his future as endless repetition:

Maybe the worst part of the cognitions involved the incredible volume of food I was going to have to consume over the rest of my life. Meal after meal, plus snacks. Day after day after day. Experiencing this food in toto. Just the thought of the meat alone. One megagram? Two megagrams? I experienced, vividly, the image of a broad cool well-lit room piled floor to ceiling with nothing but the lightly breaded chicken fillets I was going to consume over the next sixty years.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996).
Yikes. But this passage is what came to mind when I read that a high-school junior amassed enough retweets to receive a year’s worth of Wendy’s Chicken Nuggets. Carter Wilkerson is sixteen. Hal is seventeen.

Related reading
All OCA DFW posts (Pinboard)

[One megagram: 2204.62 pounds.]

“Lunch Order”

[xkcd, May 8, 2017.]

A somewhat better hair day

[Mark Trail, May 9, 2017.]

“Something strange? Like what? My hair?”

But today’s hair is better than yesterday’s. Or is it “hair”?

Related reading
All OCA posts (Pinboard)

Monday, May 8, 2017

Bad hair day

[Mark Trail, May 8, 2017. Unaltered.]

“. . . and we still cannot figure out what happened to your hair.” Poor guy.

See also this other guy.

Related reading
All OCA Mark Trail posts (Pinboard)

Elaine Fine on the airwaves

Hurrah for Elaine: Music of Our Mothers, a weekly radio show devoted to classical music written by women, will air a recording of Elaine’s More Greek Myths by Susan Nigro (contrabassoon) and Mark Lindeblad (piano). The show airs on WCFC-FM, Wednesday, May 10, 1-3 p.m. Eastern, with an online live stream. An archived broadcast will be available a few days later.


May 16: It’s in the archives, in this downloadable file. Elaine’s piece is introduced at 12:44.

“The narrow aperture
of national interest”

In a 1939 lecture, Stefan Zweig describes his reaction to looking into his old high-school history textbook:

And instantly it dawned on me — that here history had been artfully prepared, deformed, coloured, falsified, and all with clear, deliberate intention. It was obvious that this book, printed in Austria and destined for Austrian schools, must have rooted in the minds of young men the idea that the spirit of the world and its thousand outpourings had only one objective in mind: the greatness of Austria and its empire. But twelve hours by rail from Vienna — a couple of hours today by plane — in France or Italy, the school textbooks were prepared with the directly opposing scenario: God or the spirit of history laboured solely for the Italian or French motherland. Already, before our eyes had barely opened, we were forced to don different-coloured spectacles, according to the country, to prevent us during our entry into the world from seeing with free and humane eyes, ensuring we viewed everything through the narrow aperture of national interest.

“The Historiography of Tomorrow,” in Messages from a Lost World: Europe on the Brink, trans. Will Stone (London: Pushkin Press, 2016).
Related reading
All OCA Stefan Zweig posts (Pinboard)

Recently updated

Le Steak de Paris A vanished Manhattan restaurant, now with photographs.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

New York v. Los Angeles

Susanna Wolff, “No, I’m from New York”:

“Welcome to Los Angeles”? Thanks, but no, thanks — I’m from New York. I don’t need to engage in cordial small talk with strangers. In New York, we greet newcomers by giving them incorrect directions to Times Square and criticizing the way they spread their cream cheese.
This short piece hits the right notes, coast to coast.

Thanks to my daughter Rachel, who points out that “No, I’m from New York” dates from September 2016. But she discovered the New Yorker linking to it today and sent the link on to the fambly.

Steven Heller on humility

From the podcast Design Matters. Steven Heller, graphic designer, has said that when he was a twenty-four-year-old art director at The New York Times, he was “a dismisser.” Debbie Millman asks him to explain:

SH: Old guys would come to my office who had had a history, and I would just ignore them.

DM: Why?

SH: Because I had — I was arrogant. I was shortsighted. I was arrogant. I had a sense of myself that was disproportionate to all reality. And I was ignorant. . . . When you start out, there are all sorts of things you have to learn, and humility is one of them.
This episode is not yet available at the Design Matters website. But it’s available at iTunes.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

John Shimkus at work and play

Mike Viqueira, a reporter from NBC News, asked some Republican members of Congress if they had read the bill that they were about to vote on to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Some said they had. Some walked on by. And then there was our representative, John Shimkus (R, Illinois-15):

“Good morning, Mr. Shimkus, have you had a chance to read this bill?”

“Uh, I just got back from baseball practice.”
When I heard about it, I thought someone was kidding. But it’s no joke. It’s on tape.

There are no words. (It’s before 10 p.m.)

Related reading
All OCA Shimkus posts

Folk facade

[Panel Division Study for Facade, Museum of American Folk Art, New York City, early 1998. Designed by Tod Williams and Matthew Baird. Pen and black and red ink, brush and white gouache, graphite on tracing paper. 25 1/4 x 12 inches. Click for a larger view.]

This drawing is a Cooper-Hewitt Object of the Day. The Museum of American Folk Art opened in 2001 and was torn down in 2014 at the behest of a next-door neighbor and new owner, the Museum of Modern Art. I spent most of a day at the Museum of American Folk Art in March 2002, visiting a Henry Darger exhibit and attending a poetry reading by John Ashbery. Still gotta tell that story someday.

A related post
Farewell, 45 West 53rd

Friday, May 5, 2017

The real reason for “no town halls”

I know that speaking to a member of Congress is unlikely to change that member’s mind. I know that speaking to the district director for a member of Congress is even less likely to change that member’s mind. I read The New Yorker.

But I went this morning to the office hours of Representative John Shimkus’s (R, Illinois-15) district director, as did fifty or so other voters, and we made our concerns about yesterday’s vote on the Affordable Care Act — and much else — heard. The director had no explanation of why Shimkus voted to repeal the ACA: he was on a plane; she was busy organizing a dinner for him.

In the aftermath of this meeting, I think I figured out the real reason why a member of Congress might choose not to hold town halls. When you meet with people only in ones and twos, they have much less opportunity to see themselves as members of a polis, as participants in a political community. Likeminded citizens have less opportunity to identify one another and find common cause. Citizens at odds on matters of policy have less opportunity to listen to each another and perhaps rethink their allegiances. (Imagine, for instance, hearing an argument for gun legislation from a firearms owner and hunter in your own community. It happened this morning.) Talking to constituents in ones and two means that there are, in effect, no witnesses, no one else listening and thinking and making up or changing her or his mind. No reporters either.

Related reading
All OCA Shimkus posts

[“He was on a plane; she was busy organizing a dinner for him.” I know: what?!]

Bear, a writing app

Bear is a writing app of great simplicity, shown here in its plainest macOS view. The basic Bear is free. Bear Pro (by subscription) adds exporting, syncing, and themes. What can I say? I love the no-title-bar look.

Bean lives!

I discovered the free word-processing app Bean in 2007, not long after switching from Windows to a Mac. James Hoover stopped developing the app a few years ago. I’m not sure what made me check the Bean website, but lo: a new version for macOS Sierra appeared in November of last year.

As I wrote in 2008, “Bean is small and fast, like this sentence.” It still is. The screenshot shows Bean as I’ve configured it. You might prefer a toolbar with colorful icons. And you can have one, just by downloading and installing the app.

Thanks to James Hoover for continuing to work on Bean.

Inopportune, opportune

In late April, when Representative John Shimkus (R, Illinois-15) scheduled time for a staff member to meet with voters, no one could have foreseen that the meeting would be taking place the day after Shimkus voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

It should be an interesting morning.

A regular reader may recall that Rep. Shimkus does not do town halls.

Related reading
All OCA Shimkus posts

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Mosaic Records

Mosaic Records, a label devoted to limited-edition jazz releases, sent out an e-mail today reporting that the label is in financial difficulty. An excerpt:

We are not certain how Mosaic Records will continue going forward or how many more sets we will be able to create and release. We’ve got a lot of great plans but few resources.
And: “If you are thinking about acquiring a certain set, now's the time.”

At a time when major labels handle the music in their vaults with indifference, or even contempt, every Mosaic release, with its extensive documentation, serves an act of cultural preservation, as if to say: these musicians and what they created will not be forgotten.

[I have five Mosaic box sets on my shelves (forty CDs): Bix Beiderbecke, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang. I should order at least one more, don’t you think?]

Pocket notebooks FTW

James Lileks: “Writing by hand is making a comeback. Notebooks are fashionable again.” Again? Did they ever really go away? With attention to Field Notes and Moleskine.

And in the May 8 New Yorker, a cartoon by Harry Bliss. Two servers eye a guy standing at the bar, a man purse satchel over his shoulder: “Twenty bucks says he pulls out a Moleskine.”

Related reading
All OCA notebook posts (Pinboard)

Word of the day: nixie

The Oxford English Dictionary Word of the Day is the noun nixie:

U.S. Post which cannot be forwarded by the postal services because it is illegibly or incorrectly addressed. Freq. attrib.
The first citation, an entry in the Century Dictionary, dates from 1890. Here’s a 1929 citation that provides food for thought:
The similarity in appearance of the letters N.Y. and N.J. . . . is responsible for many letters reaching the “Nixie” division.
So yay for ZIP codes!

A page-ninety test

I bought the book a few years ago and never got around to reading it. So I took it from a shelf this week and began. I lasted six or seven pages before deciding to do a page-ninety test. It’s a Ford Madox Ford practice: turn to page ninety, choose the first paragraph of any real length, and read it to gauge the quality of the writer’s prose:

This is another of the ironies of the melancholy existence. In feeling fractured and fragmented, isolated and bereft, one actually comes to experience wholeness and unity. To suffer melancholy is also to understand its polar opposite, joy. Lacking joy, one broods on it more deeply than when one possesses this state. Contemplating this condition, one eventually comes to understand it more profoundly than one would if one were actually experiencing joy. In vacillating between sorrow and joy, one grasps the secret harmony between these two antinomies. Doing so, one apprehends the rhythms of the whole cosmos, itself a dynamic interplay between opposites. To get this fact is to move close to the core of the world, to become acquainted with how the universe works and breathes and is. In such moments as this — those instants when we feel connected to the whole — we return, in a strange way, to innocence.
Or we return the book to the shelf — or better, we bring the book to the nearest library sale or used-book store. In its redundancies (“fractured and fragmented,” ”isolated and bereft,” “polar opposite,” “whole cosmos,” “moments” and “instants”), inelegant variations (“this condition” for “this state,” “opposites” for “antinomies”), slackness (“actually” twice, “this — those”), and vague pseudo-profundities (“wholeness and unity,” “the rhythms of the whole cosmos,” “a dynamic interplay,” “the core of the world,” “the whole,” “in a strange way,” “innocence”), this writer’s prose is, for me, unreadable. I wish I’d figured that out before buying the book.

Related reading
Ford Madox Ford’s page-ninety test
My Salinger Year, a page-ninety test
Nature and music, a page-ninety test
The history of handwriting, a page-ninety test

[The book’s writer is a professor of English, or as he describes himself, “a literary humanist searching for a deeper life.” Though it’s not clear from this passage, he makes a sharp distinction between melancholia and depression. Still, “polar” is an unfortunate choice in this territory. And the whole passage strikes me very wishful thinking.]

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

In other news

In other news: rain. Keeps rainin’. All the time.

Jeez, rain — cease!

A related post
Armstrong and Arlen, blues and weather

Zweig on “the technological spirit”

Sefan Zweig, from a lecture given in 1932:

The technological spirit working today towards the unification of the world is more about a way of thinking than anything to do with humanity. This spirit has no country, no home, no human language; it thinks in formulae, reckons in figures and it creates machines which, in their turn, create us, almost against our will, in an exterior form which is more and more identical.

“European Thought in Its Historical Development,” in Messages from a Lost World: Europe on the Brink, trans. Will Stone (London: Pushkin Press, 2016).
At so many points in these essays, Zweig is eerily relevant to our times.

Related reading
All OCA Stefan Zweig posts (Pinboard)

“A French garden in Hamilton”

Godfrey St. Peter, professor, historian, writer of an eight-volume Spanish Adventurers in North America, is something of a conquerer in his own midwestern town:

Willa Cather, The Professor’s House (1925).

Elaine and I just finished reading The Professor’s House, and we’ve now read, aside from a handful of uncollected stories, all of Willa Cather’s fiction. Elaine was reading the novel for the second time; I was reading it for perhaps the twentieth time (still finding new things to notice). I’ve been trying to decide upon a passage that might interest a reader, and this paragraph is the best I can do. If the professor seems like a mock version of his — it’s a telling word — “adventurers,” imposing a foreign order upon a place, well, he is. But set against that mockery are the generous descriptions of the garden’s delights: slender poplars, geraniums dripping over a wall. Tom Outland’s name at the end of the paragraph, the first reference to him in the novel, adds a note of mystery.

To my mind, The Professor’s House is Cather’s greatest novel and one of the greatest American novels. It’s an experiment in form (with lapidary, musical, and painterly analogies to account for its three-part structure), an exploration of cultures modern and ancient, and an examination of what Cather calls “the double life” of human connection and utter aloneness. The novel has haunted me from the time I first read it. I was younger than Tom Outland then, and older that Godfrey St. Peter now.

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

Tuesday, May 2, 2017


A Republican political analyst opines:

“Broom Clean Daily”

[While stopped at a red light.]

I like this sign, whose rules, for the most part, might apply to any workplace: “Work Safe / Hardhats Required / Broom Clean Daily / No Smoking / Fine: $250.00.”

Hi and Lois watch

[Hi and Lois, May 2, 1017.]

The lettering on the window reads correctly: no more ETATSE LAER. But that bald spot, or rather, the hair that surrounds it: yikes.

Related reading
All OCA Hi and Lois posts (Pinboard)

Monday, May 1, 2017

An Obama thought

From a New York Times editorial:

It is disheartening that a man whose historic candidacy was premised on a moral examination of politics now joins almost every modern president in cashing in. And it shows surprising tone deafness, more likely to be expected from the billionaires the Obamas have vacationed with these past months than from a president keenly attuned to the worries and resentments of the 99 percent.
If I were Barack Obama, I would have skipped the $400,000 speech and sought an opportunity to speak at an Illinois state university’s commencement. Not at the state’s flagship institution: at a second-tier (“regional”) school, any second-tier school. I would have used the occasion to speak about higher education as a public good, as something deserving of strong support from the state’s governor, legislature, and people. I would have done it for no fee. I would have paid for the cost of security myself. But I’m not Barack Obama. And neither, in some ways, is he.

Related reading
All OCA Illinois budget crisis posts (Pinboard)
Obama on the Titanic (In Springfield)

[Illinois has gone nearly two years without a full state budget.]

The “Jane Austen” fallacy

In 2013 a medical editor who calls himself mededitor coined the term “the ‘Jane Austen’ fallacy” to describe a strategy that informs some discussions of grammar and usage:

In many discussions of usage, you’ll find language experts pointing to past authors’ works as evidence that a particular point of grammar is OK because so-and-so used it. For example: singular they.

Yes, you can find instances of singular they used by Shakespeare, Austen, and many others. Likewise you’ll find idiosyncratic spellings and constructions that today would be disallowed in edited prose.

The point here is that past usage does not justify modern practice.
Exactly. As I wrote in a review of a new book about lexicography:
Yes, Shakespeare used double negatives and Austen used ain’t and the possessive it’s. But so what? Try using them in a letter of application to Merriam-Webster and see how far you get.
I wish I’d known the term “the ‘Jane Austen fallacy’” when I was writing that review.

And why is it the “Jane Austen” fallacy? I think that mededitor’s quotation marks are meant to suggest a speaker or writer invoking a name — which, now that I think of it, is a favorite strategy of childhood argument: “But Jane Austen’s going. And Bill Shakespeare’s going too!” And the parental reply: “If Jane Austen and Bill Shakespeare jumped off a bridge, would you follow?”

Related posts
Orient and orientate (Invoking W.H. Auden and others)
Pullum on Strunk and White (Invoking “classic texts”)

[I’ve italicized the two instances of they in mededitor’s prose.]

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Orient and orientate

[Thinking about usage.]

Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day today is orientate. A note on usage adapted from The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (1989) accompanies the word. Here is today’s note:

Orientate is a synonym of “orient,” and it has attracted criticism as a consequence. “Orient,” which dates from the early 18th century, is in fact the older of the two verbs — “orientate” joined the language in the mid-19th century. Both can mean “to cause to face toward the east” and, not surprisingly, they are related to the noun Orient, meaning “the East.” Both also have broader meanings that relate to setting or determining direction or position, either literally or figuratively. Some critics dislike “orientate” because it is one syllable longer than “orient,” but you can decide for yourself how important that consideration is to you. Personal choice is the primary deciding factor, although “orientate” tends to be used more often in British English than it is in American English.
I see two problems with Merriam-Webster’s commentary:

~ Casting a preference for orient as a matter of stinginess about syllables is a little misleading. That red, for instance, has one less syllable than orange is not a reason to prefer red. A better reason to prefer orient to orientate is that orientate is, as Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016) calls it, a “needless variant,” doing work that orient already does. Add a dis- and orientate sounds even more ungainly: “I felt disorientated in my new surroundings.”

~ The advice to “decide for yourself” between orient and orientate is, to my mind, wildly unhelpful. On what basis will you decide? What if you hold the mistaken belief that longer words sound more intelligent? To think of “personal choice” as “the primary deciding factor” seems to miss the point that your language is for another, for some listener or reader who will be weighing what you say or write. Will orientate strike that listener or reader as intelligent and sophisticated, or as merely pompous? Will it inspire respect for what you say, or will it leave your audience wondering why you can’t just say or write orient?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Usage supplements its discussion with sample sentences from writers “who obviously saw nothing wrong with orientate”: W.H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, Margaret Mead, Robert Morley, and others. Yes, and one of those writers (Morley) also saw nothing wrong with using the word Chinamen. In 2017, what Merriam-Webster fails to point out is that in British English, as in American English, orient is far more common than orientate. Here’s just one Google ngram to help make the point. Choosing orientate on either side of the Atlantic might mark a speaker or writer as something of an outlier.

NPR, sheesh

“I’m, like, a huge narcissist, so, like, let me get out there, basically.”

Related reading
All OCA sheesh posts (Pinboard)

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Thirty-two questions

In The New York Times, Gail Collins presents “The Trump 100-Day Quiz," parts one and two.

On Duke Ellington’s birthday

Here’s a wonderful scene from the first part of Richard O. Boyer’s three-part profile “The Hot Bach” (The New Yorker, June 24, 1944). It is night. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (aka Sweepea, or more usually Swee’ Pea) are composing on a train:

“I got a wonderful part here,” Duke said to him. “Listen to this.” In a functional, squeaky voice that tried for exposition and not for beauty, Duke chanted, “Dah dee dah dah dah, deedle dee deedle dee boom, bah bah bah, boom, boom!” He laughed, frankly pleased by what he had produced, and said, “Boy, that son of a bitch has got a million twists.”

Strayhorn, still swaying sleepily in the aisle, pulled himself together in an attempt to offer an intelligent observation. Finally he said drowsily, “It's so simple, that's why.”

Duke laughed again and said, “I really sent myself on that. Would you like to see the first eight bars?”

“Ah yes! Ah yes!” Strayhorn said resignedly, and took the manuscript. He looked at it blankly. Duke misinterpreted Sweepea's expression as one of severity.

“Don't look at it that way, Sweepea,” he said. “It's not like that.”

“Why don't you reverse this figure?” asked Strayhorn sleepily. “Like this.” He sang shakily, “Dah dee dah dah dah, dah dee dah dah dah, boomty boomty boomty, boom!”

“Why not dah dee dah dah dah, deedle dee deedle dee dee, boom bah bah bah, boom?” Duke said.

“Dah dee dah dah dah!” sang Strayhorn stubbornly.

“Deedle dee deedle dee dee!” Duke answered.

“Dah dee dah dah dah!” Strayhorn insisted.

Duke did not reply; he just leaned eagerly forward and, pointing to a spot on the manuscript with his pencil, said, “Here's where the long piano part comes in. Here's where I pick up the first theme and restate it and then begin the major theme. Dah dee dah, deedle dee deedle dee, boom!”

The train lurched suddenly. Sweepea collapsed into a seat and closed his eyes. “Ah yes!” he said weakly. “Ah yes!”
Duke Ellington was born on April 29, 1899.

Related reading
All OCA Ellington posts (Pinboard)

[Boyer’s profile is reprinted in The Duke Ellington Reader, ed. Mark Tucker (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).]

Friday, April 28, 2017

Recently updated

Mystery actor Now with an identification.

Library savings

Our public library has added a nice detail to the receipt that accompanies borrowed materials: “You just saved $47.00 by using your library. You have saved $47.00 since April 14, 2017.” Common practice maybe, but it’s new to me.

Related reading
All OCA library posts (Pinboard)

Mystery actor

[Who? Click for a larger view.]

You may have seen her on television — dozens and dozens of times. Do you recognize her? Leave your best guess in the comments. If necessary, I will add a hint.


A hint: You may have seen her at the Stellar Employment Agency or in a sweltering apartment.


It’s been very quiet today. The mystery actor is Betty Garde, seen here as Wanda Skutnik in Call Northside 777 (dir. Henry Hathaway, 1948). Garde is probably best known to television viewers as Thelma, the maid in the Honeymooners episode “A Woman’s Work Is Never Done,” and as Mrs. Bronson in the Twilight Zone episode “The Midnight Sun.” “Dozens and dozens of times” was meant as a bit of misdirection: I was thinking of seeing that one Honeymooners episode again and again and again. “The chubby one’s gonna be trouble.”

More mystery actors
? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ?

[Garner’s Modern English Usage notes that “support for actress seems to be eroding.” I’ll use actor.]

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Recently updated

Review: Walks with Walser Now that I have the published book and an accurate page count.


Elaine and I have a garden going, for the first time in many years. She is the brains of the operation, the planner and the planter. I do whatever she asks of me — hauling dirt, filling the watering can. We have been trying to figure out a name for my role in this project. Am I “the hired man,” or what?

Elaine came up with a fitting name today: sous-farmer.

A related post
Dream jobs (Including soda jerk and sous-jerk)

Our alphabet and
how it got that way

ABCDEFGHI_KLMNOPQRST_V_XYZ: from The American Heritage Dictionary, it’s a succinct account of the differences between the alphabet the Romans used (twenty-three letters) and our own.

I had to laugh when I began reading: ”As everyone knows, there are 26 letters. . . .” Well, not everyone. I recall a Great Moment in Teaching from the early 2000s, when I was explaining to a class that the Iliad and Odyssey had each been divided into twenty-four parts for the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet. In other words, the episodes had been lettered, not numbered. A hand went up: “How many letters are there in our alphabet?” I didn’t bat an eye: “Twenty-six.” Yes, this was in college.

When I told recounted this moment to Elaine, she suggested a different response, to be said in a kindly, speaking-to-a-child tone of voice: “You can count them yourself.”

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Life’s “we”

These thoughts don’t belong in a post about comic strips and Hula Hoops, but I don’t want to let them go either. Consider this sentence from an Editors’ Note in Life, January 31, 1964:

And don’t forget the Hula Hoop. What American didn’t climb into a colored plastic hoop in 1958 and undulate his torso?
Life’s question is rhetorical: the editors assume that we all climbed in. But consider how limited that “we” is. Set aside the generic “his” (because it’s 1964), and Life’s sense of an American still fails to account for the very young, the very old, those with disabilities or medical conditions that make movement difficult or impossible, those who might find the Hula Hoop an insult to (or unnecessary supplement to) their own traditions of dance, those living in the kind of privation that might have made Hula Hoops unaffordable or unavailable. Were Hula Hoops for sale in deepest Appalachia? That question too is rhetorical.

My point is not to hate on Life or the year 1964; it’s only to point out that anyone’s sense of who “we” are is informed by countless unexamined assumptions. Mine too.

Risking ruin in a TED talk

A delightful headline that will likely see much attention from the syntax-minded. A better headline: “In TED talk, Pope warns powerful to act humbly or risk ruin.” Or in what sounds to me more like journalese: ”Pope, in TED talk, warns powerful to act humbly or risk ruin.”

[Got a hat tip at Language Log.]

Joubert on Homer

Joseph Joubert:

If a superior intelligence wanted to give an account of human beings to the inhabitants of heaven and to give an exact idea of them, he would express himself like Homer.

The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert: A Selection  , trans. Paul Auster (New York: New York Review Books, 2005).
Also from Joseph Joubert
Advancing without aging : Another world : “As real as a cannon ball” : Being and nothingness : Brevity : Doing something well : “Everything is new” : Form and content : Irrelevancies and solid objects : Justified enthusiasm : Lives and writings : New books, old books : ’Nuff said (1) : ’Nuff said (2) : Politeness : Resignation and courage : Ruins v. reconstructions : Self-love and truth : Thinking and writing : Wine : Writing, too much or not at all

Odysseus in the North Atlantic

A startling bit of dialogue, from Action in the North Atlantic (dir. Lloyd Bacon, 1943). The speaker is merchant seaman Boats O’Hara (Alan Hale):

“You know what I’m doin’ when this is over? I’m puttin’ into port, I’m gettin’ off the ship, I’m puttin’ an oar on my shoulder, and I’m startin’ inland. And the first time a guy says to me: ‘What’s that on your shoulder?’ that's where I’m settlin’ for the rest of my life.”
That’s Homer. In Odyssey 11, Odysseus recounts what the ghost of the seer Tiresias told him he must do if he makes it home to Ithaca and kills Penelope’s suitors:

There’s no place for winnowing fans or animal sacrifices in 1943. And Odysseus, unlike Boats, would never settle inland. As Tiresias foretells, Odysseus will return to Ithaca after his inland journey, offer sacrifices to the gods, each in turn, and thereby be assured of an easy death in old age.

Related reading
All OCA Homer posts (Pinboard)

[The quoted passage is from Stanley Lombardo’s translation of the Odyssey (Hackett, 2000).]

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Forger

“My pen, my ink, my stamps, and my stapler”: tools of the trade for master forger Adolfo Kaminsky, the subject of The Forger, a great short film from The New York Times.

[The Times went with quill for plume. I chose pen as more appropriate.]

Bad coffee

Maxwell House Instant FTW? Keith Pandolfi makes a case for bad coffee. Found via Matt Thomas’s Submitted for Your Perusal.

A related post
Whiter instant? (A 1972 Instant Maxwell House ad)

[It used to be Instant Maxwell House; now it’s Maxwell House Instant.]

Laden with Hula Hoops

[“Hula-Hoop Craze”. Photograph by Grey Villet. No date. From the Life Photo Archive. Click for a much larger view.]

Behold a woman of the dowdy world, laden with Hula Hoops.

Henrietta’s Hula Hoop

[Henry, April 25, 2017.]

Like this New Math panel, today’s Henry is good evidence that the strip’s reruns date from the 1960s. The Wham-O Hula Hoop became a craze in 1958. By the mid-1960s, not so much. Some evidence from Life:

January 31, 1964: “And don’t forget the Hula Hoop. What American didn’t climb into a colored plastic hoop in 1958 and undulate his torso?” August 20, 1965: “It only ceases to be Pop when it’s as dead as the Hula-Hoop.” December 23, 1966: “Remember the hula hoop? It came and went like a flash.” That last one is from an advertisement for Sylvania Blue Dots.

Related reading
All OCA Henry posts (Pinboard)

[Odd: Henry has been playing with a hoop and stick. Henrietta is nostalgic about a newer toy.]

Monday, April 24, 2017

Proust’s noisy neighbors

At auction this Wednesday, along with many other items related to French literature, a letter from Marcel Proust to his friend Jacques Porel, son of the actress Gabrielle Réjane, Proust’s then-landlady and a model for the actress La Berma in In Search of Lost Time. In the letter Proust complains about the noise he hears in his apartment, or what the auction catalogue calls “bruyants ébats amoreux de ses voisins”:

Les voisins dont me sépare la cloison font d’autre part l’amour tous les 2 jours avec une frénésie dont je suis jaloux.
More or less:
The neighbors on the other side of the partition make love every two days with a frenzy of which I am jealous.
Proust wrote to Porel on July 15, 1919. On October 1, 1919, he moved out. You can find the letter, no. 245, in the spectacular illustrated auction catalogue from Pierre Bergé and Associés. Spectacular: see also, for instance, nos. 81, 133, 153, 258.

In August, New Directions will publish Lydia Davis’s translations of Proust’s letters to another set of noisy neighbors.

Related reading
All OCA Proust posts (Pinboard)

[Sometimes I think that the best thing about the PDF is free auction catalogues.]

Review: Walks with Walser

Carl Seelig. Walks with Walser. 1957. Translated from the German by Anne Posten. New York: New Directions, 2017. 144 pages. $15.95 paper.

                        A famous person must not cause one
                        to forget the unfamous.

                        Robert Walser to Carl Seelig

The Swiss editor and writer Carl Seelig is best known today as Robert Walser’s friend, guardian, and literary executor. In the mid-1930s, Seelig began writing to Walser, wanting to do something for the writer and his work. Wanderungen mit Robert Walser (1957) is Seelig’s memoir of what followed: forty-five visits with Walser over nineteen years. Walks with Walser is this book’s first and long-awaited appearance in English.

In 1929, after “a few bumbling attempts” at suicide, Robert Walser was admitted to a Swiss psychiatric clinic, where he continued to write in microscript on stray pieces of paper. In 1933 he was transferred against his will to a Swiss sanitarium, where he remained for the rest of his life, and where he appears to have stopped writing. In his conversations with Seelig, Walser is doubtful about those who admire his work: he dismisses Kafka’s interest with a wave; he calls Seelig’s praise nothing more than “society lies” (in the tenth year of their friendship); when told that Christopher Middleton is translating his work into English, Walser replies with what Seelig describes as “a curt ‘Really!’” Walser’s response to any mention of seventy-fifth-birthday newspaper and radio tributes to him: “That’s nothing to me!” Walser insisted to Seelig that he was in the asylum to be mad, not to write: his duties there included folding paper bags, sweeping floors, and sorting and unraveling twine.

And he walked. Walser loved to walk, not in the manner of a flaneur, but energetically, sometimes frantically, on mountain paths, across fields and meadows, in all weathers, for hours on end. (One of his greatest works is the novella The Walk.) Whatever was “wrong” with Walser (even his doctors could not agree), he was well enough to leave the asylum in Seelig’s company for day-long excursions on foot or by train. Seelig gives us a vivid picture of Walser as walker: virtually never wearing an overcoat (“I’ve always had a horror of overcoats”), virtually always carrying an umbrella: “It wants to go for a walk too — and besides, umbrellas attract good weather!” The two men’s outings include the occasional swim, many meals, a fair amount of drinking (“That I can do only with you!”), and considerable good feeling: “En avant: to beer and twilight!” Walser and Seelig are often the only figures in the landscape, even when the landscape is a village square. (Not surprising, given Walser’s penchant for walking in even the worst weather.) The two men talk of architecture, history, the war, writers past and present, and the peregrinations of Walser’s pre-asylum life.

It’s when the conversation turns to writing that we first see what Seelig calls “shadows,” signs that something is not right. Walser explains his confinement by saying that he “lacked a halo,” and he describes Hermann Hesse’s admirers as thinking that they can criticize and order him (Walser) around. Editors are “power-hungry boa constrictors,” squeezing and suffocating writers as they please. Writers must stand in opposition to their culture, Walser says, yet he also says that they must learn to conform, striking the theme of obedience and punishment that so often appears in his work. “Writers without ethics,” he declares, “deserve to be whipped.” The signs of trouble become noticeable elsewhere: “Eh, more of this to-do!” Walser exclaims when his sister Lisa is dying, and his only response to news of his brother Karl’s death is (once again) “Really!” Walser thinks that the Second World War makes space “for the beautiful to grow within us again” and that the bombing of Berlin will lead urbanites to “a more intuitive, more natural life.” Always distrustful of doctors and nurses, Walser is at times distrustful even of Seelig, who is, at all points, a model of kindness and patience. Sixteen years into their friendship, Walser seems to suspect his visitor of some sinister intent behind the day’s outing.

But Walser’s delight in the plainest surroundings and his dazzlingly aphoristic conversation are the dominant elements in this memoir. And they’re here in a beautifully conversational translation. Snowy woods: “It’s like a fairy tale.” A village square: “It’s like something from a dream!” The clatter of cash register, china, and glassware in a train-station restaurant: “It sounds like an orchestra of coziness.” Of a cloister-like building, its use unknown:

“Such things are much prettier from the outside. One need not investigate every secret. I have maintained this all my life. Is it not lovely, that in our existence so much remains strange and unknown, as if behind ivy-colored walls? It gives life an unspeakable allure, which is increasingly disappearing. It is brutal, the way everything is coveted and claimed nowadays.”
After seeing clouds, not blue sky, on his sixty-fifth birthday:
“I don’t care a fig about superb views and backdrops. When what is distant disappears, what is near tenderly draws nearer. What more do we need to be satisfied than a meadow, a wood, and a few peaceful houses?”
On Friedrich Hölderlin’s life, which must have reminded Walser of his own:
“Dreaming the days away in some modest quarter, without constant demands, is certainly not martyrdom. People just make it one!”
Yes, Robert Walser in conversation sounds like Robert Walser the writer.

The last walk Seelig describes is one without conversation, and one that he can only imagine. It is a walk that Walser made alone, on Christmas Day 1956. Seelig postponed a planned visit with Walser that day to stay at home with a sick dog. Walser went walking by himself, collapsed, and died on a snowy slope. An appropriate exit for a writer who, says Seelig, “delighted in winter, with its light, merry dance of snowflakes.” And who delighted in walking. And yes, it’s like a fairy tale.

Walks with Wasler will be published tomorrow, April 25. Thanks to New Directions for a review copy.


April 27: I now have a copy of the published book, which has 144 pages if you count the blank ones at the end (as The Chicago Manual of Style says you should). No photographs except for the one by Carl Seelig on the front cover. The New Directions website still says 200 pages.

Related reading
A review of Walser’s Looking at Pictures
A review of Walser’s Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories
All OCA Robert Walser posts

Friday, April 21, 2017

Cooper-Moore in Illinois

Gelvin Noel Gallery
Krannert Art Museum
Champaign, Illinois
April 20, 2017

Cooper-Moore, ashimba, balloon, three-string fretless banjo, diddley-bow, mouth bow, horizontal hoe-handle harp, wind chimes, voice

Cooper-Moore’s performance at the Krannert Art Museum was part of the Sonified Sustainability Festival, devoted to ecologically minded music and art. Cooper-Moore (who took his name from his grandmothers’ surnames) is a pianist who also performs on instruments of his making, created from found and repurposed materials (a piece of a sofa frame, say) and inexpensive Radio Shack electronics. His performance on Thursday was part music-making on these instruments, part storytelling, part question-and-answer session.

Cooper-Moore began by singing “Roll, Jordan, Roll” while playing wind chimes placed horizontally on his lap, with two more chimes as mallets (adding a note and overtones to every note struck). The words of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” returned briefly as he made music on a balloon as one would play a glass harmonica — with fingers dipped in water). But this instrument (held close to a microphone) sounded like a drum kit, a running crowd, a noise guitar. “Where would they put that in Downbeat?” Cooper-Moore asked. “Under ‘Miscellaneous’?”

Cooper-Moore’s performances on ashimba, banjo, diddley-bow, and mouth bow (the last three amplified) recalled instrumental legacies both African and African-American. The ashimba, an eleven-note xylophone made from found wood, provided a dense accompaniment to the words of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round.” (The instrument’s name combines Cooper-Moore’s original surname Ashton and marimba.) Cooper-Moore’s banjo playing was rich in blues inflections. (From the spoken-sung story that went with it: “I’m not afraid of death. It just don’t suit me to be lookin’ at it.”) The pieces for diddley-bow — a monochord that figures in the origin stories of many blues guitarists — were especially virtuosic, as Cooper-Moore played the instrument with hands and drumsticks, and sometimes with drumstick on drumstick, sounding at times like a bottleneck guitar, at times like a bass, at times like a rhythm section unto himself. The sound of the mouth bow — a bowstring played with a half-size violin bow — is one that Cooper-Moore associates with the name Yahweh, the mouth opening and closing while producing vowels. His performance on horizontal hoe-handle harp (an instrument he built after hearing the Paraguayan harp and then pricing harps) began and ended in serene lyricism, with funkier and sharply percussive moments in the middle.

Between instrumental performances, Cooper-Moore told stories of finding materials, building instruments, and traveling the world, and he sang a bit of what sounded like an old and slightly risqué song about aging. I remember the line “But it don’t rise.” Through it all was the spirit of what Cooper-Moore says his work as a musician is about: play.

Thanks to Jason Finkelman, who continues to bring the news of the world to east-central Illinois.

[Mouth bow, diddley-bow, ashimba, water and balloon, horizontal hoe-handle harp, wind chimes, three-string fretless banjo. Click for a much larger view.]

Related reading
Cooper-Moore biography and partial discography (AUM Fidelity)

And from YouTube
Cooper-Moore plays fretless banjo, diddley-bow and mouth bow (with Digital Primitives); horizontal hoe-handle harp (with Subway Girl); and solo piano

[Don’t quit on the piano performance.]

Walser on ruins

Robert Walser in conversation:

“Aren’t ruins more beautiful than something that’s been patched up?”

Carl Seelig, Walks with Walser, trans. Anne Posten (New York: New Directions, 2017).
See also Walser on ruins and “former beauty.” And Joseph Joubert on ruins and reconstructions.

Related reading
All OCA Robert Walser posts (Pinboard)

[A review of Walks with Walser is coming soon.]