Wednesday, May 23, 2018


Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel, trans. Ruth L.C. Simms (New York: New York Review Books, 2003).

The Invention of Morel is a wonderful novella, literally so. The cover of the NYRB edition — a photograph of Louise Brooks and books — is a bit of a lure: Brooks inspired the novella but plays no part in it. The setting is a mysterious island; the narrator, a man who realizes that he is not alone. No wonder the book appears in Lost, in the hands of James Sawyer.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

They’re back

“Repurposed in imaginative ways, many have reappeared on city streets and village greens housing tiny cafes, cellphone repair shops or even defibrillator machines”: “The Red Phone Box, a British Icon, Stages a Comeback” (The New York Times).

Cake revision

“Congrats Jacob! Summa --- Laude.”

I’m not sure how to phrase it:

A South Carolina grocery store created a graduation cake with the —


A South Carolina grocery store removed the —


A South Carolina grocery store made a cake without —


A South Carolina grocery store created a graduation cake with three hyphens in place of the “cum.”

That’s the best I can do.

Twelve movies

[Just two sentences each. No spoilers.]

Othello (dir. Orson Welles, 1951). A stark, swift version of the story, with Welles — who else? — as the brooding protagonist and Micheál MacLiammóir as the cipher Iago. Othello here seems like a version of Charles Foster Kane in Xanadu, growing estranged from his partner and roaming massive rooms.


The Skin I Live In (dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 2011). A bereaved surgeon decides to settle a score. Insane and insanely great, with echoes of Ovid, Beauty and the Beast, Vertigo, and Eyes Without a Face.


Mystery Street (dir. John Sturges, 1950). A low-budget whodunit, filmed in Boston, Cambridge, and Cape Cod, with a strong story and John Alton’s brilliant cinematography. Ricardo Montalban plays a state-police detective; Elsa Lanchester, a sly landlady; Betsy Blair, a savvy tenant.


The Shape of Water (dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2017). Though I greatly admire Sally Hawkins, I was reluctant to see any film with an inter-species romance. But I found the story compelling enough that my disbelief walked off and hung itself up on a coat rack, no act of my will needed.


Crossfire (dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1947). Post-war America, and as one character says, “The snakes are loose.” A dark story of a murder investigation, with three Roberts (Mitchum, Ryan, and Young), Gloria Grahame, and Paul Kelly.


Up the Down Staircase (dir. Robert Mulligan, 1967). Sandy Dennis as the earnest Sylvia Barrett, graduate of an elite college, teacher at a tough New York City school. I love the music (by Fred Karlin), the hallways and staircases (like those of my elementary school), and Dennis’s voice (like Mary Tyler Moore’s, as I’ve only now realized), and I must agree that “There is no frigate like a book.”


Elmer Gantry (dir. Richard Brooks, 1960). A true believer (Jean Simmons), a vengeful prostitute (Shirley Jones), and Burt Lancaster as “Elmer the great, Elmer the grifter.” Religion and entrepreneurship in the so-called heartland.


Man on the Train (dir. Patrice Leconte, 2002). A retired professor of literature (Jean Rochefort) shares his house with a small-time criminal (Johnny Hallyday). Shades of “The Secret Sharer,” of Borges, of shades.


Summer Hours (dir. Olivier Assayas, 2008). A mother (Édith Scob) and her three adult children (Charles Berling, Juliette Binoche, Jérémie Renier ) in a story about what becomes of our stuff (here, an art collection) after we’re gone. “Memories, secrets, stories that interest no one anymore.”


Maps to the Stars (dir. David Cronenberg, 2014). A tangle of relationships in movieland: a fading actress, a personal assistant, a teenage star, the star’s parents, and several ghosts. Funny, frightening, and truly, deeply, wonderfully strange, with overtones of All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard, Mulholland Drive, and, at least in my head, Nabokov’s Ada.


The World of Henry Orient (dir. George Roy Hill, 1964). A sweet, sad story of the imaginative life of two fourteen-year-old girls in the playground of mid-century Manhattan. This movie has long deserved to be part of the Criterion Collection.


The Enchanted Cottage (dir. John Cromwell, 1945). Robert Young and Dorothy McGuire as a disfigured veteran and a “homely” maid, and you can guess where they fall in love. My mom is right: “I didn’t think she was homely!”

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)

Monday, May 21, 2018

Imitation and parody

From the May 20, 1974 episode of Cavett, available from Hulu. Eudora Welty, responding to Dick Cavett’s question about writing in the manner of another writer:

“There are many writers that I admire. But it doesn’t occur to you to attempt to do anything someone else has done, because you can’t do anything except what you know how to do.”
Cavett goes on to tell a story of Graham Greene entering a Graham Greene parody contest and coming in second. It’s a true story.

Related posts
Against “deep reading” : A Welty self-portrait

In room 19

In a hotel, a younger Jorge Luis Borges meets an older Jorge Luis Borges, already registered in room 19. The older Borges explains that in 1979, the younger Borges will give in to the temptation to write a “great book.” It will be “a masterpiece, in the most overwhelming sense of the word.” The older Borges explains:

Jorge Luis Borges, “August 25, 1983,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1998).

The older Borges adds that when he published this work, under a pseudonym, he was taken “for a clumsy imitator of Borges.”

“I’m not surprised,” says the younger Borges. “Every writer sooner or later becomes his own least intelligent disciple.”

Other Borges posts
Borges manuscript found : Borges on reading : A sentence from “The Aleph” : “Hourglasses, maps, eighteenth-century typefaces”

[Borges was born on August 24, 1899.]

Sunday, May 20, 2018

“Entirely made-up”

From The New York Times:

The special counsel hopes to finish by Sept. 1 the investigation into whether President Trump obstructed the Russia inquiry, according to the president’s lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, who said on Sunday that waiting any longer would risk improperly influencing voters in November’s midterm elections.

Mr. Giuliani said that the office of the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, shared its timeline about two weeks ago amid negotiations over whether Mr. Trump will be questioned by investigators, adding that Mr. Mueller’s office said that the date was contingent on Mr. Trump’s sitting for an interview. A spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment.
But from Reuters:
Giuliani was quoted by the New York Times later on Sunday as saying that Mueller had said the investigation would wrap up by Sept. 1.

A source familiar with the probe called the Sept. 1 deadline “entirely made-up” and “another apparent effort to pressure the special counsel to hasten the end of his work.”

“He’ll wrap it up when he thinks he’s turned over every rock, and when that is will depend on how cooperative witnesses, persons of interest and maybe even some targets are, if any of those emerge, and on what new evidence he finds, not on some arbitrary, first-of-the-month deadline one of the president’s attorneys cooks up,” said the source, a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Sunday in The Trivium

This sentence came as a surprise:

When is position in relation to the course of extrinsic events which measure the duration of a substance, for example, Sunday afternoon.

Sister Miriam Joseph, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books 2002).
[When, or time, is one of Aristotle’s ten categories of being.]

Saturday, May 19, 2018

From the Saturday Stumper

Today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper crossword, by Andrew Bell Lewis, left me defeated. Defeated by a Natick, or at least what I regard as a Natick, a crossing that calls for knowledge of Florida place names, thoroughbred horses, and surfing, producing one answer that looks plausible and one that looks just plain wrong, and which I didn’t even think to try.

But a clue that I especially liked, 67-Across, ten letters: “Half a Wimbledon match-up.”

No spoilers; the answer is in the comments.

[Natick Principle, a term coined by crossword blogger “Rex Parker” (Michael Sharp): “If you include a proper noun in your grid that you cannot reasonably expect more than 1/4 of the solving public to have heard of, you must cross that noun with reasonably common words and phrases or very common names.” Natick is a town in Massachusetts.]

Friday, May 18, 2018

Words for the day

Mike Rawlings, the mayor of Dallas:

I renew my call for Congress and the president to take substantive action on the mass shooting epidemic in our country. History will not look kindly upon those elected officials who failed to act in the face of repeated mass murders of our children. Spare us your thoughts and prayers and do your job.

”Yow! It’s 1956!”

[Zippy, May 18, 2018.]

If. If only.

These are the first and second panels of today’s Zippy. The model for the third and fourth panels: a 1957 photograph from Huntington Beach, California. Notice Lester’s Variety Store on the right, with hammer.

O dowdy world, that had such stores in it.

Related reading
All OCA dowdy world posts and Zippy posts (Pinboard)

Annals of pedagogy

Henrietta Pastorfield is an English teacher at Calvin Coolidge High School in New York City. Her colleague Sylvia Barrett, writing to a friend from college, describes Miss Pastorfield as a teacher who “woos the kids by entertaining them, convinced that lessons must be fun, knowledge sugar-coated, and that teacher should be pal.”

There’s this testimony from a former student:

In Miss Pastorfeilds class I really enjoyed it we had these modren methods like Amature Hour and Gussing Games in rows with a scorekepper and to draw stick figures to show the different charactors in the different books and Speling Hospital and Puntuation Trafic and Sentence Baseball with prizes for all thats the way to really learn English.
And from the school newspaper, the Calvin Coolidge Clarion: “The teacher who makes lessons most like games: MISS HENRIETTA (‘PAL’) PASTORFIELD.” Yes, Punctuation Traffic and the like are team games.

I’ve been quoting from Bel Kaufman’s 1964 novel Up the Down Staircase. In the 1967 film adaptation, Miss Pastorfield explains her pedagogy in a faculty meeting:
“Kid them along, make it a game. l have a new one this year: Hospital Spelling. Misspelled words are the patients, and the kids are the doctors and the nurses.”
Which prompts rakish Paul Barringer to suggest Punctuation Sex: “l shudder to think what an exclamation point might mean.”

I remember standing in a hallway years ago, listening to a game of Punctuation Football underway in a college classroom. Yes, that too was a team game. I have sometimes wondered if the instructor had read or seen Up the Down Staircase.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

The past plead

I was puzzled by a graphic on MSNBC this afternoon: headshots of miscreants, each labeled Indicted or Plead Guilty. Not Pleaded?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage:

Plead belongs to the same class of verbs as bleed, lead, speed, read, and feed, and like them it has a past and past participle with a short vowel spelled pled or sometimes plead. Competing with the short-vowel form from the beginning was a regular form pleaded. Eventually pleaded came to predominate in mainstream British English, while pled retreated into Scottish and other dialectal use. Through Scottish immigration or some other means, pled reached America and became established here.
M-W goes on to say that after coming under attack in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, pled is now “fully respectable,” and that “both pled (or plead) and pleaded are in good use in the U.S.” In other words, people say and write these words (including, in M-W’s examples, Sinclair Lewis and a New Yorker contributor), so the words are okay.

In contrast, Garner’s Modern English Usage:
Pleaded has always been the predominant past-tense and past-participial form. From the early 1600s, pleaded has appeared much more frequently in print sources than its rivals. Commentators on usage have long preferred it, pouring drops of vitriol onto *has pled and *has plead. . . .

The problem with these strong pronouncements, of course, is that *pled and *plead have gained some standing in AmE. . . .

Still, pleaded, the vastly predominant form in both AmE and BrE, is always the best choice.
In a sentence, the past tense plead may pose no problem for a reader: “Appearing before a judge this morning, he plead guilty.” Even there, though, my first inclination is to read plead as a present tense. On its own, plead guilty may look like an instance of the present tense, or like a mistake for pled or pleaded. And pled itself may look like a mistake for the “vastly predominant” pleaded. To my mind, Bryan Garner is right: pleaded is the best choice.

[Garner on The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage: “I really cannot read a page of that book without having a significant rise in my blood pressure.” In GMEU an asterisk marks “invariably poor usage.”]

Net neutrality in Illinois

For Illinois readers only: Please consider calling your representative in the Illinois General Assembly in support of House Bill 4819, which would protect net neutrality in Illinois. Here is a page with the names of all current House members.

“Hourglasses, maps,
eighteenth-century typefaces”

An excerpt:

Jorge Luis Borges, “Borges and I,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1998).

Related posts
Borges manuscript found : Borges on reading : A sentence from “The Aleph”

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Domestic comedy

“I thought you said ‘Help yourself.’”

“No, I said ‘Laurel.’”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

[If you’re lost: yanny or laurel.]

Separated at birth

[Steven Isserlis, cellist; Pat Metheny, guitarist.]

Thanks to OCA reader Steven for suggesting this pairing and sending links to the pictures.

Also separated at birth
Nicholson Baker and Lawrence Ferlinghetti : Bérénice Bejo and Paula Beer : Ted Berrigan and C. Everett Koop : David Bowie and Karl Held : Victor Buono and Dan Seymour : Ernie Bushmiller and Red Rodney : John Davis Chandler and Steve Buscemi : Ray Collins and Mississippi John Hurt : Broderick Crawford and Vladimir Nabokov : Ted Cruz and Joe McCarthy : Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Gough : Henry Daniell and Anthony Wiener : Jacques Derrida, Peter Falk, and William Hopper : Elaine Hansen (of Davey and Goliath) and Blanche Lincoln : Barbara Hale and Vivien Leigh : Harriet Sansom Harris and Phoebe Nicholls : Ton Koopman and Oliver Sacks : Steve Lacy and Myron McCormick : Don Lake and Andrew Tombes : William H. Macy and Michael A. Monahan : Fredric March and Tobey Maguire : Jean Renoir and Steve Wozniak : Molly Ringwald and Victoria Zinny

[Steven Pinker, charter member of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists, would make for triplets. But Pinker’s hair has prompted sufficient attention and comparisons already.]

FSRC: annual report

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

James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Honoré de Balzac, Eugénie Grandet, Père Goriot

Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions

Thomas Browne, Urne-Buriall, The Garden of Cyrus

Truman Capote, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and Three Stories

Alfred Döblin, Bright Magic: Stories

Shirley Jackson, The Road Through the Wall

Franz Kafka, Amerika (The Man Who Disappeared), The Complete Stories, The Trial

Guy de Maupassant, Collected Stories, Like Death

Alice Munro, Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage; Runaway

Nuccio Ordine, The Usefulness of the Useless

Eleanor Roosevelt, You Learn by Living

W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz

Stefan Zweig, Balzac, Beware of Pity, The Burning Secret, Fear

Credit to the translators whose work gave us access to the world beyond English: Anthea Bell, Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt, E.K. Brown, M. Walter Dunne, Andrew Hurley, Michael Hoffman, Richard Howard, Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins, Alastair McEwen, Breon Mitchell, Willa and Edwin Muir, William and Dorothy Rose, Damion Searls, Jonathan Sturges, Tania and James Stern, Dorothea Walter and John Watkins.

Here are the reports for 2016 and 2017.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Shakespeare’s and snails’

From The Guardian:

In a new study, researchers claim to have made headway in understanding the simplest kind of memory a mollusc might form, and, with a swift injection, managed to transfer such a memory from one sea snail to another.
Key word: claim.

The reason this item caught my attention: yesterday I read Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Shakespeare’s Memory,” in which Shakespeare’s memory is given by one person to another. That is, the contents of Shakespeare’s memory: Anne Hathaway, lines from Chaucer, Ben Jonson’s teasing.

One Borges sentence

Down in the cellar, there’s “a small iridescent sphere,” “two or three centimeters in diameter,” the Aleph. Looking into it, one sees everything:

Jorge Luis Borges, “The Aleph,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1998).

Borges was one of the first writers I discovered on my own, all the way back in high school. I am immensely happy to have now read the Collected Fictions.

Related posts
Borges manuscript found : Borges on reading

[Idle speculation: might this catalogue of things seen have influenced Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”? I’m not the first reader to see a resemblance.]

How to improve writing (no. 76)

From a David Brooks column in The New York Times:

In these places if you become successful, it is expected that you will become active in town life.
Rearranging the elements of the sentence would give proper emphasis to “if you become successful”:
If you become successful in these places, it is expected that you will become active in town life.
But the sentence still feels cumbersome to me, especially when I hear it: If, become, in, it, is, become, in. And then there’s the dire it is expected that. A possible revision:
In these places, people expect those who are successful to participate in town life.
People in these places expect those who are successful to participate in town life.
I didn’t go looking for a sentence to improve this morning: this one presented itself as needing immediate help.

Related reading
All OCA “How to improve writing” posts (Pinboard) : David Brooks and SNOOTs : PBS, sheesh : WHAT?

[This post is no. 76 in a series, dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

Monday, May 14, 2018

From my dad’s CDs

I’m closing in on the end of the recorded alphabet: Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, Ivie Anderson, Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire, Mildred Bailey, Count Basie, Tony Bennett, Art Blakey, Ruby Braff and Ellis Larkins, Clifford Brown, Dave Brubeck, Joe Bushkin, Hoagy Carmichael, Betty Carter, Ray Charles, Charlie Christian, Rosemary Clooney, Nat “King” Cole, John Coltrane, Bing Crosby, Miles Davis, Matt Dennis, Doris Day, Blossom Dearie, Paul Desmond, Tommy Dorsey, Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Erroll Garner, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Stéphane Grappelli, Bobby Hackett, Coleman Hawkins, Woody Herman, Earl Hines, Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Dick Hyman, Harry James, Hank Jones, Louis Jordan, Stan Kenton, Barney Kessel, Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, Peggy Lee, Mary Ann McCall, Susannah McCorkle, Dave McKenna, Ray McKinley, Marian McPartland, Johnny Mercer, Helen Merrill, Glenn Miller, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Thelonious Monk, Wes Montgomery, Gerry Mulligan, Red Norvo, Anita O’Day, Charlie Parker, Joe Pass, Art Pepper, Oscar Peterson, Bud Powell, Boyd Raeburn, Django Reinhardt, Marcus Roberts, Sonny Rollins, Jimmy Rushing, Catherine Russell, the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra, Artie Shaw, George Shearing, Horace Silver, Frank Sinatra, Paul Smith, Jeri Southern, Jo Stafford, Art Tatum, Claude Thornhill, Mel Tormé, McCoy Tyner, Sarah Vaughan, Joe Venuti, and now, composer, pianist, organist, singer, and bandleader Thomas “Fats” Waller. Here is Waller the composer and pianist, in two unembeddable piano solos. I think of these recordings as music to rejoice to. From the George Blood collection of 78s:

“Smashing Thirds” (Waller), recorded in New York City, September 11, 1929.

“African Ripples” (Waller), recorded in New York City, November 16, 1934.

I’ve been listening to these recordings for years via the 2-LP set Fats Waller Piano Solos: 1929-1941 (Bluebird). My dad had these recordings in the 2-CD set Turn On the Heat: Fats Waller Piano Solos (Bluebird), now out of print. I have plenty of other recordings of Waller and his small group (“His Rhythm”), mostly on LP. But listening to my dad’s CDs prompted me to get everything, via JSP’s 6-volume, 25-CD edition of Waller’s studio recordings. Inexpensive (about $6 a CD) and built to last.

I wanted to end this post by suggesting a gateway Waller collection, but I’m not sure I can recommend anything now in print. If you can find it, the Proper Records 4-CD set Handful of Keys would be a good choice.

Also from my dad’s CDs
Mildred Bailey : Tony Bennett : Charlie Christian : Blossom Dearie : Duke Ellington : Coleman Hawkins : Billie Holiday : Louis Jordan : Charlie Parker : Jimmy Rushing : Artie Shaw : Frank Sinatra : Art Tatum : Mel Tormé : Sarah Vaughan : Joe Venuti

And one more related post
Fats Waller’s “Yes!”

Fritzi Ritz is back

[Nancy, May 14, 2018.]

Nancy’s aunt Fritzi Ritz makes her first appearance in Olivia Jaimes’s Nancy. Fritzi hasn’t yet been given lines to speak. If you want to know why musical notes dance around Nancy’s teacher, you’ll have to read today’s strip.

Today’s Fritzi is a decidedly understated version of Bushmiller’s original, who sought to look glamorous even when reading a newspaper.

[Nancy, August 3, 1953.]

Related reading
All OCA Nancy posts (Pinboard)

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Occam’s knife

Scott Goldsmith is the owner of S. Feldman Housewares, our favorite housewares store. I was happy to see him quoted in an New York Times article, “All Those Kitchen Gadgets, But a Sharp Knife Just Might Do”:

Mr. Goldsmith’s long retail career spans decades of gadgetry — including truffle shavers and cherry pitters, Salad Shooters and spiralizers — and traces a history of ingenuity, optimism and sheer whimsy. If the invention of defoliating devices for cruciferous vegetables causes you to think the makers of kitchen gadgets have finally and collectively lost their minds, Mr. Goldsmith will remind you that his store has been in business since 1929.

“Between you and me,” he said, “most of these things you can do with a knife.”


I was listening to NPR with half an ear this morning:

“This is a government that’s lost all of its legitimacy. This is a government that no longer really can be conceived of in conventional political terms. . . . It’s not a government that builds infrastructure. . . . It’s a looting machine. It’s a kleptocracy. It’s a den of thieves.”
And then I realized: Oh, wait, he’s speaking of South Sudan.

Advice from my mom

For some years I’ve posted a photograph of my mom Louise on Mother’s Day. (For instance.) This year I thought to ask her if she had any advice I could share in a post. Here is what she offered:

Always be kind. Be thankful for what you have. Don’t go to bed angry. Always say “I love you.”

Happy Mother’s Day to all.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven

[Photograph by Rachel Raab.]

Talia Ivy Raab is seven months old today.


7:31 p.m.: And she clapped for the first time today. Yay Talia!

From the Saturday Stumper

Today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper crossword, by Frank Longo, is difficult. (Forty-two minutes’ worth of difficulty for me.) I had to go all the way to 64-Across, four letters, to find a way into the puzzle: “It gives an actor visibility.”

A clue that I especially liked, 34-Across, eleven letters: “Stand with tangy products.” And a clue that taught me something: 55-Across, six letters: “First Best Actor/Supporting Actor Oscar winner.”

No spoilers; the answers are in the comments.

Friday, May 11, 2018

A theory

“This account — as bizarre as it may seem at first glance — is actually more plausible than the story leaked to the Journal, the New York Times, and CNN”: “Here’s a Theory About That $1.6 Million Payout From a GOP Official to a Playboy Model” (New York).

Thanks, Elaine.

Wall art

“This crumbling, beer-splotched wall in the back of a sports bar on East 44th Street is one of New York’s more neglected cultural treasures”: “The Sistine Chapel of Comic-Strip Art” (The New York Times).

A Mark Trail revision

[Mark Trail, May 11, 2018.]

Mark, are you reading cue cards? Or are you just a big hunk of clip art? Look at Cherry when you speak to her.

[Mark Trail revised, May 11, 2018.]

That’s better.

Mark and Cherry are vacationing at the Hotel Azyoulik, an “eco-resort” in Tulum, Mexico. “Finally, a legitimate vacation!” Mark exclaimed on April 28. In real life, Tulum’s Azulik Resort is an adults-only, clothing-optional resort. Is the Trails’ chosen vacation spot also adults-only and clothing-optional? Is that why Mark’s eyes are wandering?

[Mark Trail, May 11, 2018.]

Can’t be, because their son Rusty is with them, right there in panel three. And there’s nothing I can do to fix his hand.

Related reading
All OCA Mark Trail posts (Pinboard)

[I flipped Mark and his words with the free Mac app Seashore.]

“We never have any sharp pencils”

Beverly and Clarence Cleary, in their newly bought house in the Berkeley Hills:

We had discovered in the linen closet a ream of typing paper left by the former owner. I remarked to Clarence, “I guess I’ll have to write a book.” My ambition, refusing to die, was beginning to bloom again.

“Why don’t you?” asked Clarence.

“We never have any sharp pencils” was my flippant answer.

The next day he brought home a pencil sharpener.

Beverly Cleary, My Own Two Feet: A Memoir (New York: William Morrow, 1995).
Elaine was waiting for well over a year for me to read Beverly Cleary’s memoirs, this one and A Girl from Yamhill. She knew I would love them. She was right.

Related reading
All OCA Beverly Cleary posts (Pinboard)

Thursday, May 10, 2018

“Etc., etc.”

Beverly Cleary (then Bunn) is now a student in the School of Librarianship, University of Washington. It’s noon:

As we ate our meager lunches and watched drama students, scripts in hand, emote over cups of coffee with soggy napkins folded in their saucers sopping up spills, we discussed the finer points of cataloging and invented an imaginary series of books for our instructor to catalog: six volumes, each with a different editor or sometimes two, one of whom wrote under a pseudonym and the other under her maiden name, some volumes translated from foreign languages and requiring translator cards, each volume with a preface by a different author, etc., etc. This sent us into gales of laughter as each of us thought of an addition to make the assignment more difficult. Such is the sense of humor of librarians. We also had earnest discussions on the finer points of grammar.

Beverly Cleary, My Own Two Feet: A Memoir (New York: William Morrow, 1995).
Related reading
All OCA Beverly Cleary posts (Pinboard)

A Gmail problem

If you prefer using plain text in Gmail (as I do),
probably noticed odd line breaks in sent messages.

That sentence, written in plain-text Gmail, illustrates what I’m describing. It’s long puzzled me. But no longer.

In 2014, Mathias Bynens, who works at Google, explained the problem and suggested a solution: Dear Google, please fix plain text e-mails in Gmail. Today, plain text is still a problem in Gmail. But at least I now know why. And I’ll probably switch to rich formatting. With plain text, it’s too likely that an e-mail recipient unfamiliar with the line-break problem will think there’s a strangely sloppy person at the other keyboard.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Brooks Kerr (1951–2018)

Brooks Kerr, pianist and Duke Ellington scholar, has died at the age of sixty-six. The New York Times has an obituary.

There’s a YouTube channel for Kerr’s recordings, but no trace online of the recording I’d like to link to: Soda Fountain Rag (Chiaroscuro, 1975), a wonderful sampling of early Ellingtonia, with Kerr (then twenty-four) accompanied by a spirited Sonny Greer, the Ellington band’s first drummer (then seventy-nine). Instead, here’s a live recording from 1974 of Kerr playing “Soda Fountain Rag,” generally considered Ellington’s first composition.

Robert Johnson, mortgagor

“She got a mortgage on my body now, and a lien on my soul”: Robert Johnson, “Traveling Riverside Blues”, recorded in Dallas, June 20, 1937.

A related post
Mortgagee, mortgagor

Mortgagee, mortgagor

Ogedi Ogu, a lawyer, is suing Oxford University Press over Oxford definitions of mortgagee and mortgagor. Mr. Ogu says that he suffered embarrassment and loss of reputation when he relied on definitions in the Oxford English Mini Dictionary and the Oxford Mini Reference Dictionary. He says that these dictionaries define mortgagee as a borrower and mortgagor as a lender.

I think he may have things backwards. The Oxford Dictionaries website gives this definition for mortgagee: “the lender in a mortgage, typically a bank, building society, or savings and loan association.” And for mortgagor: “The borrower in a mortgage, typically a homeowner.” The Oxford English Mini Dictionary gives these shorter definitions for mortgagee and mortgagor: “the lender in a mortgage,” “the borrower in a mortgage.” I cannot find a dictionary with the title Oxford Mini Reference Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary too defines mortgagee as “a mortgage lender” but adds a second definition: “in popular usage: mortgagor.” And the OED defines mortgagor as “the borrower in a mortgage.” Uh oh. I am reminded of what happens when someone uses the word nonplussed to mean its opposite. I look forward to further news of this case.

Mortgagee and mortgagor seem to me vexed terms, and writing this post about them has made my head spin, more than once, though I was never left nonplussed. Consider these Merriam-Webster definitions: “a person to whom property is mortgaged,” “a person who mortgages property.” Can you tell which definition goes with which word? Garner’s Modern English Usage glosses a similarly confusing pair, lessor and lessee, and suggests a change: “landlord and tenant are simpler equivalents that are more comprehensible to most people.” I would like simple, clear alternatives to mortgagee and mortgagor: lender and borrower or lending institution and borrowing homeowner would work well.

This post is for my friend Norman, who knows the difference between lessee and lessor and wishes that everyone else did.

[Mr. Ogu says that he has a letter from Oxford University Press and the University of Oxford acknowledging the mistaken definitions. The OEMD that I looked up (in Google Books) dates from 2013. Mr. Ogu says that he bought his dictionaries in 2005 and 2006, so it’s possible that in an earlier edition the definitions were switched. But I’m puzzled that no article about this case has a photo of the relevant dictionary page.]

“Plato: Teacher and Theorist”

History of Education, a prerequisite, holds few memories for Beverly Cleary:

What I do recall is the paper the entire class was required to write on one subject, “Plato: Teacher and Theorist.” The paper had to be twenty-four pages long. Not twenty-three, not twenty-five. Twenty-four. Fortunately, I was fresh from Plato the previous semester, but I resented every word of that paper, every footnote, every ibid., every op cit., and longed to add one footnote, “I thought of this myself.” Footnotes in foreign languages, according to the wisdom of Stebbins, always impressed a reader, but I couldn’t work one in on Plato. Someday, someday, I vowed, I would write entire books without footnotes.

Beverly Cleary, My Own Two Feet: A Memoir (New York: William Morrow, 1995).
This paper and its footnotes were to become the stuff of a scene in the 1963 Cleary novel Sister of the Bride.

Related reading
All OCA Beverly Cleary posts (Pinboard)

[Stebbins: Stebbins Hall, University of California at Berkeley.]

“Poet voice”

From Atlas Obscura: An Algorithmic Investigation of the Highfalutin “Poet Voice.” You know, that ineptly . . . musical voice? The one that rises? And falls where you least . . . expect it? Poet voice (or as I call, poetry voice) tells an audience that the person reading is a poet, the real thing, because this is what poetry sounds like. One voice fits all.

And now I’m reminded of an observation from the poet David Bromige, posted to the SUNY-Buffalo Poetics List, January 10, 1997. He’s writing about teaching poetry to college students and about the damage done by high school:

They cd only recognize a poem when it was in the missionary position. That a poem might be as opaque as a person, capable of many kinds of caress, much playful laughter, of brooding withholding silences, of orderly thought or persuasive choplogic, of trivial drivel, of witty observations — that it might even be a dreadful machine psychotic — they had not been permitted, though in their years of sturm and drang, to realize.
And now I’m hearing Frank O’Hara in my head: “Lana Turner has collapsed!” Not poet voice: a poet.

Two related posts
Here’s a poem for today : Marjorie Perloff on the “well-crafted” poem

[I’ve borrowed a description of poetry voice from a post about a 2015 Toyota commercial.]

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Imaginary elevator

[Two people recognize each other as they wait for an elevator.]

“Oh. Well, hello. About that joke — I have to admit, it’s pretty dated. And I can see how it must have struck you as offensive. I should have realized that not everyone is going get a joke that relies upon knowledge of department-store elevator operators, and that calling out something about lingerie could sound enormously inappropriate. Believe me, I won’t be making that joke again.”

“Well, I’m glad. Really, it’s not my responsibility to instruct grown men about what’s appropriate and inappropriate in public spaces. But your reference to lingerie did suggest, in a rather crass and public way, a preoccupation with women’s bodies. Still, I’m willing to take you at your word that your joke was meant as an elevator joke, nothing more.”

“It’s good to know that.”

[The elevator arrives, the door opens, and they enter.]

“What floor?”

“Notions and Sundries.”

[They laugh.]

Whatever happens in the aftermath of a recent incident of elevator trouble, it is unlikely to take the form that I’ve presented here. My elevator is entirely imaginary.

The ambiguity about who’s making the joke at the end is intended.

Broadening a point

College English with Mr. Frank Palmer, who sports a Phi Beta Kappa key on his watch fob:

Mr. Palmer guided us through Beowulf and Macbeth, which I had studied in high school, The Mayor of Casterbridge, biography, essays, and modern American poetry. He required us to learn to spell Nietzsche, the name of a German philosopher I have never had occasion to use. Best of all, he assigned original compositions but instructed us never to use the expression “broaden our horizons” because, he said, “the horizon is the point at which the earth and sky meet, and it is impossible to broaden a point.” I never have, even though I am not sure I agree.

Beverly Cleary, My Own Two Feet: A Memoir (New York: William Morrow, 1995).
It’s smart to avoid “broaden our horizons” as a stale, trite expression. But isn’t the horizon better conceived as a line, at least a figurative one? Merriam-Webster: “the line where the earth seems to meet the sky.” The vanishing point, well, that’s a point.

I hope that this post has broadened all your horizons.

Related reading
All OCA Cleary posts (Pinboard)

Proust auction

Coming soon to the Paris Sotheby’s, the Marie-Claude Mante collection of Proustiana:

a major Proustian archive from the library of Proust’s grandniece: 60 lots of letters, books, presentation copies and literary manuscripts. In addition to an unpublished pastiche of Ruskin, galley proofs of À l'ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, a first draft on the source of the river Loir (prelude to a famous part of Du Côté de chez Swann) and an original drawing, the collection includes a very significant collection of letters from Gaston Gallimard to Marcel Proust between 1912 to the author’s death in 1922.
Here’s a more detailed description of what’s for sale.

What I love about this kind of unattainable reality: there is a catalogue of it, in French, filled with photographs, free for the downloading. The Proust material begins on page 125. Thank you, auctioneers.

Related reading
All OCA Proust posts (Pinboard)

Monday, May 7, 2018

Elevator trouble in academia

First reported in The Washington Post. Now also in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed.

The trouble stems from a quip made in an elevator during the conference of the International Studies Association: when a passenger (male in one account, female in another) asked which buttons to press, another passenger, a male academic, requested “Ladies’ Lingerie” or “Women’s Lingerie” (it’s not clear which). A female academic riding in the elevator made a formal complaint to the ISA. An e-mailed non-apology from the offender to the offended has created further trouble. And news of this incident has led to vicious comments and threats posted to the offended party’s webpage.

The joke is old and silly, recalling the days when elevator operators announced department-store departments floor by floor. In 2018, the joke is unmistakably inappropriate. “Haberdashery” or “Linens, please” might be a better joke, if one must make a joke in an elevator full of strangers. And — if one must make a joke that assumes knowledge of a long-past elevator custom, a custom that some of those strangers may not know about.

This sentence from the offended party’s complaint stands out: “It took me a while to figure out that this man thought it was funny to make a reference to men shopping for lingerie while attending an academic conference.” But he wasn’t making a reference to shopping for lingerie while attending an academic conference; he was doing so while riding in an elevator. The academic who filed the complaint was raised abroad and came to the United States in 1989 — which makes me wonder whether she knew about department-store elevator announcements. If she did, a request for “Ladies’ Lingerie” (or “Women’s Lingerie”) would still be unmistakably inappropriate. If she didn’t, a request for “Ladies’ Lingerie” (or “Women’s Lingerie”) would seem bizarre, frightening, unfathomable.

A possible response, spoken in the moment: “Don’t be a sexist jerk.” Or stronger words to that effect. But I don’t think this quip — or even a refusal to apologize for it — should become the stuff of an ISA inquiry. Not every social misfire or misjudgment should lead to sanctions.

[If the offended party didn’t know about the convention of floor requests, she does now. The offender’s e-mailed non-apology says that in the 1950s, asking for the hardware or lingerie department was “a standard gag line” for elevator passengers. Yes, in the 1950s. Not now.]

Pareidolic parking

[Photograph by Michael Leddy.]

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Barnes & Noble & the future

David Leonhardt, writing in The New York Times about saving Barnes & Noble, quotes Owen Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, an association of independent bookstores:

Once the country emerges from the Trump presidency, I hope we will have a government that takes monopolies seriously. Until then, I’ll be rooting for Barnes & Noble. So, it turns out, are some people who once viewed it as the enemy. “It’s in the interest of the book business,” Teicher says, “for Barnes & Noble not just to survive but to thrive.”
In a 2011 post about Barnes & Noble, I wrote that “Bookstore survival-strategy seems to be premised on everything but books.” At my nearby Barnes & Noble that’s still the case, with larger sections of the store given over to toys and games and collectibles. Leonhardt mentions that the chain is planning “smaller, more appealing stores focused on books.” But his link goes to an article about a Barnes & Noble store whose main attractions are a bar and a restaurant. And oh, there are books, seeming like an afterthought: “No Barnes & Noble would be complete without its books.”

Recently updated

One space, two spaces The Washington Post reports on the one-space-or-two research study.

Dowdy finals

Dowdy-world final exams at the University of California at Berkeley:

In those days, before ballpoint pens, we filled our fountain pens, emptied them, and refilled them just to make sure. We self-addressed postcards to enclose in our blue books so readers could send us our grades before official grades came out. Then, as was the Cal custom the first day of finals, the Campanile tolled “An’ they’re hangin’ Danny Deever in the morn’.”

Beverly Cleary, My Own Two Feet: A Memoir (New York: William Morrow, 1995).
As a college student in the 1970s, I routinely turned in postcards with my finals. Students were still doing so when I started on the tenure track in 1985.

Related reading
All OCA Beverly Cleary posts (Pinboard)

[“Readers”: graduate students.]

One more way to do well
on an exam

It’s midterm time in Stebbins Hall, University of California at Berkeley. But this trick should work even better with finals, when it’s more difficult to track down exam takers:

Stebbins circulated a myth that it was possible to outwit a reader by writing “Second Blue Book” on the front and writing one brilliant last sentence inside. This was supposed to make the reader believe he had lost the first blue book, which would fill him with such guilt that, rather than admit to carelessness, he would give the student an A.

Beverly Cleary, My Own Two Feet: A Memoir (New York: William Morrow, 1995).
Related reading
All OCA Beverly Cleary posts (Pinboard)

[“The reader”: a graduate student.]

“You got this”

There’s nothing wrong about trying to instill in college students a non-panicky attitude toward final exams. But there is, I believe, something wrong about the reassurance that’s become ubiquitous before finals: “You got this.”

“You got this” presents an exam as a measure not of knowledge but of trust in one’s ability. The reassurance is glib and condescending, and it’s likely to feed inflated self-confidence. Yeah, I got this, says every victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Better than empty reassurance: practical advice. Many years ago I worked out such advice for my students, and I later wrote it up in a post: How to do well on a final exam. My students tended to do exceedingly well on final exams. But for anyone intent on going in the other direction: How to do horribly on a final exam.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Imaginary Derby

I watched the Kentucky Derby and began to think about assembling a field of twenty horses. Those horses are now approaching the starting gate:

Reflux : Hashtag : Ampersand : Metatarsal : Cohen’s Choice : Dear Landlord : Uncle Petrie : Occam’s Razor : Mister Rogers : Memphis Minnie : Strawberry Fields : Comey’s Dilemma : Waterloo Sunset : Sunset Boulevard : Gluten Intolerant : Montezuma’s Revenge : Mothership Connection : Ineluctable Modality : Kranmar’s Mystery Appetizer : All You Can Drink

This field is in memory of my friend Rob Zseleczky, who always exhorted his friends to watch the Kentucky Derby. I finally have. Rob would have appreciated the silliness of this list.

[Elaine’s horses: Hashtag, Cohen’s Choice, Mister Rogers, Strawberry Fields.]

From the Saturday Stumper

Today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper, by Lester Ruff, is not too difficult, not too easy. As Goldilocks would say, it is just right. And it taught me a couple of things:

2-Down, six letters: “Genericized totwear trademark.” It’s trademarked? I had no idea.

20-Across, seven letters: “Easy undertaking.” At the risk of repeating myself, I had no idea.

No spoilers; the answers are in the comments.


The latest xkcd, “IMHO.” With the two-space, one-space debate.

Friday, May 4, 2018

“God Only Knows”

The BBC Radio 4 show Soul Music now has an episode devoted to Brian Wilson and Tony Asher’s “God Only Knows.” There will be tears.

What I miss though: some discussion of the song’s musical features. And lyricist Tony Asher should be mentioned by name.

The Jazz Ambassadors

On PBS tonight, a new documentary about a U.S. State Department experiment in Cold War cultural diplomacy: The Jazz Ambassadors.

Donald Trump is not a jazz musician

From an Axios item:

Sources close to Trump repeat the cliché that he wants to run the White House like the Trump Organization — an unstructured family business where he woke most days unsure of what lay ahead, and ran his business like a series of jazz improv sets.
Such comparisons are an insult to improvising musicians, who know what they’re doing. They may be working from a set list (of “tunes”). Or they may be engaged in collective free improvisation. Either way, they’re always working with a high degree of sympathetic understanding, attentive to and responsive to fellow players.

I’ll quote something I wrote last year:
There is a marked difference between a resourceful, quick-thinking, practiced improviser and a would-be tough guy who flies by the seat of his pants. We should be careful not to equate improvisation with our president’s reckless bluster.
And by the way, in jazz it’s improvisation, not improv. Jazz is not a comedy club.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Current TV

As Elaine observed at lunch, “This is the sixth season of The Wire.”

[Context: NBC reported that federal investigators had a wiretap on Michael Cohen. The story was corrected to say that investigators were monitoring Cohen’s phone calls.]

Handwriting on display

Coming in June to the Morgan Library and Museum, The Magic of Handwriting: The Pedro Corrêa do Lago Collection:

For nearly half a century, Brazilian author and publisher Pedro Corrêa do Lago has been assembling one of the most comprehensive autograph collections of our age. . . . This exhibition — the first to be drawn from his extraordinary collection — features some 140 items, including letters by Lucrezia Borgia, Vincent Van Gogh, and Emily Dickinson, annotated sketches by Michelangelo, Jean Cocteau, and Charlie Chaplin, and manuscripts by Giacomo Puccini, Jorge Luis Borges, and Marcel Proust.
Related reading
All OCA handwriting posts (Pinboard)

No, chalk

I was listening to a colleague telling stories of his life. I left to go to a stationery store. Those black-and-white-and-yellow boxes: did they hold Eberhard Faber pencils? No, chalk, the owner said. And she began to tell me stories of my colleague’s life. I left to go to a meeting. A deposed provost stood before me: “We must keep our teeth clean.” He began to brush mine. “Eh or ann ow uh ai ow,” I said. And I left.

Related reading
All OCA dream posts (Pinboard)

[“Eh or ann ow uh ai ow”: Get your hand out of my mouth.]

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

One space, two spaces

Matthew Butterick of Practical Typography looks at a research study’s claim that the use of two spaces after a period makes text more readable: Are two spaces better than one? Butterick’s answer: no.


May 6: The Washington Post has noticed the study and pretty much endorses its claim: “One space between each sentence, they said. Science just proved them wrong.” No mention of Matthew Butterick’s analysis.

Domestic comedy

“There’s no getting away from branding. We’re all like race-car drivers.”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

[Context: Carhartt pants, Columbia fleece, New Balance sneakers.]

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Common misspellings

From Oxford Dictionaries, a list derived from the Oxford English Corpus: the hundred most commonly misspelled words.

One of these words always throws me: idiosyncrasy. And when I saw it on the list, I thought, Oh, they’re using British spellings. But no, that’s how the word is spelled: idiosyncrasy, not idiosyncracy. Also spelled quirk.

Review: To Fight Against This Age

Rob Riemen. To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism. Translated from the Dutch by the author. New York: W.W. Norton, 2018. 171 pages. $19.95 hardcover.

I was prepared to learn from and take heart from this book, which contains the essay "The Eternal Return of Fascism" and the allegorical symposium "The Return of Europa: Her Tears, Deeds, and Dreams," both first published in 2010. But I came away unimpressed by Rob Riemen’s thinking about fascism and how to oppose it.

In the early 21st century, the enemy, as Riemen sees it, is indeed fascism: he regards "populism" as nothing more than a euphemism for an array of political movements that feed on fear and ignorance, worship power, and long for "the return of an unattainable past." For Riemen, fascism is “mass democracy,” “the bastard child of democracy.” Yet he never explains the differences between democracy and its illegitimate offspring.

To defend against fascism, Riemen invokes values underlying “the European ideal of civilization”: “absolute spiritual values,” “spiritual absolute values,” “universal timeless values,” “absolute values such as truth, justice, compassion, and beauty,” values he sees as now lost in a chaos of subjectivity. Riemen thinks that without some transcendent basis for values, nothing is true, everything permitted. But what does it mean to call, say, justice or beauty an absolute value? And what do we say to those who equate justice with, say, amputations or beheadings? Those who lay claim to absolute values may be the most intolerant among us.

But Riemen gets into a deeper muddle: while he sees culture as the preserver of “all that is timeless and of spiritual value,” he also says that “because truth is absolute we have to be prepared for the changing shapes of truth.” Thus culture requires “being open to the new, searching for new forms that can stand the test of time.” In other words, truth is absolute and timeless, but its shape changes. What then is it that stands “the test of time”? Riemen would do well to consider the possibilities of contingency: we need not believe our values to be absolute and timeless to argue for them as useful and right. Indeed, how could we ever know that our values are timeless?

As for “the European ideal of civilization,” Riemen’s idea of European culture is selective and at times preposterous. Riemen’s Europe, the true Europe, is devoid of colonial and imperial ambitions, and has always had humanism as its “defining characteristic.” This Europe is no place for people devoted to everyday distractions and gadgets, those who “know nothing of the life of the mind or spiritual values.” Here Riemen sounds a bit like Ignatius J. Reilly.

And Europe, on Riemen’s terms, is unique among the cultures of the world, “‘because it tries to understand the deeper significance of being human.’” This observation is imparted in what Riemen calls “the true story of Europe,” told by a character in “The Return of Europa,” an old man named Radim (ostensibly a fictional character, though he seems to be Radim Palouš, a Czech dissident and philosopher). Someone had better tell the Gilgamesh poet and the Buddha that Europe beat them to it.

An alternative to this book that might lead to a better fight: Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017). Where Riemen dispenses platitudes (we must “live in truth,” “create beauty,” “do what is right”), Snyder offers pragmatic advice grounded in recent history: “do not obey in advance”; “defend institutions.” That kind of advice may prove more useful than platitudes.

Related posts
Rob Riemen’s Nobility of Spirit : “Demagogues and charlatans”