Thursday, December 23, 2004

A post-solstice post

From Jared Sandberg's article "Dark Days of December Leave Many Workers Yearning to See Light," in yesterday's Wall Street Journal:

There's every reason to suspect that our ancestors were as bummed about the disappearance of the sun as we are. Countless sacred sights were designed to align with the solstices--think Stonehenge--and as many cultures performed solstice ceremonies. The driving anxiety behind them? Fear that the sun would never return, says Teresa Ruano, a Web consultant whose research led to a Web site on the solstice.

"Celebration, ritual, bright lights, big feasts--all of those things that have become part of our celebrations at this time of year were considered activities that were important to encourage the sun to come back," she says.

It's thus no surprise that Christmas is so twinkly and candle-lit. Yuletide, a Scandinavian holiday that predates Christmas as we know it, involved giving gifts to the sun god, Balder, who had fallen into darkness. Iranians observe Yalda, a holiday in which fires are burned to help the sun defeat darkness. Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, may have its roots in history, but it's awfully similar to India's Diwali, another festival of lights. Though it means a variety of things in different corners of India, one thing is common: The festival celebrates the renewal of life, which is certainly worth remembering at the time of year when everything is stone dead.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Words for those on the road

[Last words for English 3009, Myth and Culture]

The ancient Greek word for “truth,” alēthia, literally means “that which is not forgotten.” As you make your way down the road, don’t forget about where we’ve been this semester:

As you get older, remember Gilgamesh and the great truth that “There is no permanence.” That recognition will begin to add a poignant significance to countless parts of your life. (Just wait ’til you have children!)

When you lose someone to death, remember Gilgamesh and Enkidu, and recognize that the experience of human grief is much the same as it was 3500 years ago. Loss is no less painful now than then.

When you become caught up in the American pastime of needless consumption, remember Charles Foster Kane, whose life is ample evidence that the one who dies with the most toys doesn’t necessarily win.

When you’re overcome by rage, remember Achilles and the compassion and self-discipline that he’s able to draw upon in his treatment of Priam in Iliad 24. In other words, remember to be your best self and not lose that self in permanent anger.

When you feel put upon by all the responsibilities you have to other people, remember Hector and the way in which dedication to others can mean not losing your identity but finding it. And when you recognize that you need to do the right thing, even if (or especially if) it’s in a losing cause, remember Hector. That you won’t succeed isn’t a reason not to act. And when doing the right thing means sacrificing your own happiness and pleasure for something far more important, remember Rick and Ilsa and Victor.

When you’re headed toward a goal and find yourself surrounded by temptations and dangers, remember Odysseus, who finally perseveres and gets back to where he once belonged. I think this advice is useful for any college student, who has all sorts of possibilities competing for his or her attention. Don’t lose your life to the lotus, whatever form it might take—drugs, Playstation, chat rooms, television. Don’t listen to the song of the sirens (“You goin’ out tonight?”) when you know that you shouldn’t. And if you think you can listen and get away with it, as Odysseus does, remember that he’s a fictional character.

As you move away from your parents’ oikos and toward making one of your own, remember the importance of sharing with family and friends the pleasures of meals and conversation. Sharing food and drink and talk is one of the practices that make us human. (Isn’t it sad that we need television commercials to encourage us to eat together at the family table?)

When you’re around people who are really old (like grandparents), remember that they were once as young as you and that they probably have all sorts of interesting things to say to someone who’s willing to ask questions and listen. Don’t pass up the chance to talk (really talk) to people who will someday be around only in memory. (This piece of advice is loosely inspired by The Best Years of Our Lives and the fading away of the generation that fought World War II, and also by hearing a young adult grandchild at a memorial service speak of his regret about never getting around to calling his grandfather to have that sort of conversation.)

If you’re lucky enough to find someone who is homophrôn, remember Odysseus and Penelope. When you stay up late at night talking with that person, remember Odysseus and Penelope. And when you’ve been in a relationship for twenty years (or as Fred Derry says, “Twenty years!”), remember Odysseus and Penelope.

And when you find yourself, maybe twenty years from now, thinking of how life would be perfect if only you had a different husband or wife or partner or job or house or life, remember Odysseus’ choice to give up his fantasy world with Calypso for the commitments of the imperfect, real world. In other words, live in relation to those who are your real life, and not in relation to some fantasy of who or what is perfect. We live in a culture saturated with images of what for almost all of us is unattainable human beauty and perfection. Real life though is a lot more interesting.

And when you make mistakes, remember Eve and Adam. Live the consequences of your choices, and learn from them so that you can make better choices next time. Pretty simple, right? (Not!)

That’s enough to remember and do—enough for a lifetime, really. As you move toward the fulltime responsibility of making a living, don’t forget to make a life. A lifetime is so small—make yours count.

Not dead yet

[Last words for English 2601, Backgrounds of Western Literature]

When an interviewer asked the poet David Shapiro to name his favorite living poet, he named Wallace Stevens. But Stevens is dead, the interviewer objected. Not to me, Shapiro replied.

It’s still fashionable (merely fashionable, not genuinely illuminating) to refer to the poets we’ve read (with the exception of Sappho) as “dead white men,” as if they were therefore irrelevant to our current understandings of human possibility and freedom. But it doesn’t take very much reflection to recognize that the truth is a lot more complicated. “White”? That’s a category that might say more about our painful American inheritance of the “color-line” (W.E.B. DuBois’ term) than about the writers we’ve read. “Men”? Sure, but what does that mean? Dismissing a work of the imagination on the basis of its maker’s gender seems downright totalitarian. Besides, as the poet Susan Howe has said, the poet is never merely a man or woman, the imagination never reducible to gender.

There’s a tremendous irony in seeing our world as somehow beyond the works of Homer and company. In truth, the world of these “dead white men” is in many ways our own. War is still the way that conflicts between states and peoples are too often settled. We still remember the dead by memorializing their names. We still experience the deep difficulties of returning home and becoming reconnected to people and a place. We still debate whether the penalty of death is or isn’t a form of justice. In our pursuit of desire we still make ourselves and others ridiculous. We still lie awake at night wondering about the ones we love, and we still delight in the miracle of children to carry life forward when we're gone. The continuities between past and present are numerous and specific. Thus the psychiatrist Jonathan Shay finds in Achilles and Odysseus patterns of trauma that help him understand the experiences of the Vietnam veterans with whom he works. Thus a recent production of Euripides’ Medea draws parallels between the dialogue of Medea and the chorus and the dialogue of guest and audience on trash talk-shows. (Like ancient Athenians, we seem to have a penchant for stories about women who have done what’s monstrous—killing their husbands and children, seducing their much-younger students.)

It doesn’t make me happy to draw these analogies, or to point out that we’re still living with patriarchy, slavery, and genocide. But it occurs to me that these ancient writers might be far more honest than we might like in acknowledging these realities. How many mainstream news organizations have shown the grief of mothers, wives, and sisters in war as fully as Homer has in the Iliad? How many have shown the horrors of war and genocide as Homer and Virgil have? (There’s genocide taking place in Sudan as I write these words: have you seen much about it on the news?) And in many ways, these ancient writers seem to be far ahead of us. Homer gives us a partnership of deep, mutual understanding in Odysseus and Penelope; Aristophanes gives us women who make a radical change in the affairs of state. Yet materials in use in federally-funded “abstinence-only” education programs tell young women not to give too many suggestions or too much advice to their boyfriends. Sappho’s “Look at him, just like a god,” was celebrated among the ancients as the poetic representation of the effects of love. How easy is it to imagine a poem of same-sex desire attaining that status in our culture? Who’s more modern than whom?

The ancient world was a complicated place. We’re still living in it, along with Homer, Virgil, Sappho, and all the poets we haven’t read (Hesiod, Horace, Catullus, and so on, all of whom are waiting for your attention). For those of you who will teach, I hope you’ll be able to return to some of these poets, even if you also have to teach novels about young adults who confront painful choices and go on to make self-empowering decisions in their lives. It’s entirely possible: a former student recently persuaded his high school to order several hundred copies of Lombardo’s Odyssey.

In the words of the poet Ted Berrigan, “Not dead yet.”

How to improve writing (no. 1 in a series)

Here's an excerpt from something in my mailbox, inviting employees to participate in a Sick Leave Bank:

The Sick Leave Bank commenced on January 1, 1999. Employee's eligible to participate in the Sick Leave Bank now have the opportunity to enroll or re-enroll in the program. The month of January is the open Enrollment Period for Sick Leave Bank participation.
Obvious changes: Take out commenced, which seems a little pretentious. Began is a good alternative. (I wonder whether anything really began on January 1, since the campus is closed on that day. Hmm.) And fix Employee's, a word that serves as a good example of why you cannot rely upon a spellchecker. It might not be possible to do much about all those capitalized nouns; they might be terms whose capitals are a matter of state bureaucracy. The urgent italics though can go. What's the difference between "eligible employees" and "employees eligible to participate"? Only an unnecessary sort of zeal, as if those who cannot participate are strictly forbidden to try.

This passage might be improved in more substantive ways by combining sentences and placing clear emphasis on what's most important. For instance,
During January 2005, eligible employees may enroll or re-enroll in the Sick Leave Bank. Since 1999, the Sick Leave Bank has helped faculty and staff who have exhausted their available leave time while facing catastrophic illness or injury.
Link » Other How to improve writing posts, via Pinboard


From a New York Times article on the difficulties of returning veterans:

The nation's hard-pressed health care system for veterans is facing a potential deluge of tens of thousands of soldiers returning from Iraq with serious mental health problems brought on by the stress and carnage of war, veterans' advocates and military doctors say.

An Army study shows that about one in six soldiers in Iraq report symptoms of major depression, serious anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, a proportion that some experts believe could eventually climb to one in three, the rate ultimately found in Vietnam veterans. Because about one million American troops have served so far in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to Pentagon figures, some experts predict that the number eventually requiring mental health treatment could exceed 100,000.
Reading this article, I was reminded at many points of Jonathan Shay's book Odysseus in America, which details numerous parallels between Odysseus' story and the stories of Vietnam veterans.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004


From USA Today:

An error at the recently completed Illinois World War II Memorial is carved in stone. The Oak Ridge Cemetery memorial lists major battles, including the Burma campaign. However, it's spelled Berma in the $1.5 million memorial. Committee members expect the correction to be made this spring.
And now back to grading.

Monday, December 13, 2004




Misspellings seen on the walls of the men's rooms in a university building.

(Now it's back to grading.)

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Explorer alternatives

From an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Worried about persistent security flaws in Microsoft's Internet Explorer, officials at the Pennsylvania State University system have taken the unusual step of recommending that students, professors, and staff members stop using the popular Web browser.

"The threats are real, and alternatives exist," the university said in an announcement posted on its Web site this week.
The most obvious alternatives are Firefox (free) and Opera (free with a banner ad, $39 without, and worth it!). Opera is my favorite browser. Both browsers are much faster and much more secure than Internet Explorer. And both allow tabbed browsing, with multiple pages within one program window, another advantage over Internet Explorer.

Saturday, December 11, 2004


From a piece by Nicholas D. Kristof in today's New York Times:

We might recall what happened to ancient Athens, perhaps the greatest flowering of civilization. In just three generations, one small city--by today's standards, anyway--nurtured democracy, became a superpower and produced some of the greatest artists, writers, philosophers and historians the world has ever known.

Yet Athens became too full of itself. It forgot to apply its humanity beyond its own borders, it bullied its neighbors, and it scoffed at the rising anti-Athenianism. To outsiders, it came to epitomize not democracy, but arrogance. The great humanists of the ancient world could be bafflingly inhumane abroad, as at Melos, the My Lai of its day.

Athens's overweening military intervention abroad antagonized and alarmed its neighbors, eventually leading to its defeat in the Peloponnesian War. It's not so much that Athens was defeated--it betrayed its own wonderful values, alienated its neighbors and destroyed itself.

Thursday, December 9, 2004

Hothouse parenting

It's bad enough that today's children are raised in a psychological hothouse where they are overmonitored and oversheltered. But that hothouse no longer has geographical or temporal boundaries. For that you can thank the cell phone. Even in college--or perhaps especially at college--students are typically in contact with their parents several times a day, reporting every flicker of experience. One long-distance call overheard on a recent cross-campus walk: "Hi, Mom. I just got an ice-cream cone; can you believe they put sprinkles on the bottom as well as on top?"
From an article in Psychology Today on "hothouse parenting." This piece reminded me of conversations with students whose roommates get wake-up calls from their parents every morning.

Monday, December 6, 2004

Business writing

i need help i am writing a essay on writing i work for this company and my boss want me to help improve the workers writing skills

hI KATHY i am sending u the assignmnet again. i had sent you the assignment earlier but i didnt get a respond. If u get this assgnment could u please respond . thanking u for ur cooperation.

I wanted to let everyone know that when Jim and I are sending out e-mails (example- who is to be picking up parcels) I am wanting for who ever the e-mail goes to to respond back to the e-mail. Its important that Jim and I knows that the person, intended, had read the e-mail. This gives an acknowledgment that the task is being completed. I am asking for a simple little 2 sec. Note that says "ok", "I got it", or Alright."
Real-world business e-mails, from a New York Times article on writing (and efforts to improve writing) in the business world.

Lost and Found

My friend Chris Cougill mentioned today, which reminded me that I meant to include a link to it here. Anyone who is fascinated by the mysteries of the found fragment (as with Sappho's poetry), will find Found interesting.

Wal-Mart and cultural mores

Some good examples of what we talk about when we talk about cultural mores, from an article in the New York Times on Wal-Mart's expansion into other countries:

[A]n early miss was Indonesia, where Wal-Mart began trying to build a business in 1996. Indonesians turned up their noses at the brightly lighted, highly organized stores . . . and because no haggling was permitted, considered them overpriced. A year later, Wal-Mart packed up and left.

In Argentina and Brazil, an apparent ignorance of local preferences regarding cuts of beef alienated many potential customers . . . . And in Germany, shoppers gave a cold shoulder to the greeters that Wal-Mart uses to lend a friendly atmosphere to its sprawling American stores. "It was viewed as too friendly and disruptive, invading their space."
Another example of a cultural shift: Wal-Mart is permitting its employees in China to organize unions.

Saturday, December 4, 2004


Here's a powerful example of how crucial a word or two can be in the work of translation, from a review by Judith Shulevitz of Robert Alter's translation The Five Books of Moses, New York Times, October 17, 2004:

What Alter does with the Bible . . . is read it, with erudition and rigor and respect for the intelligence of the editor or editors who stitched it together, and--most thrillingly--with the keenest receptivity to its darker undertones.

In the case of the binding of Isaac, for instance, Alter not only accepts a previous translator's substitution of ''cleaver'' for the ''knife'' of the King James version but also changes ''slay'' (as in, ''Abraham took the knife to slay his son'') to ''slaughter.'' Moreover, in his notes he points out that although this particular Hebrew verb for ''bound'' (as in, ''Abraham bound Isaac his son'') occurs only this once in biblical Hebrew, making its meaning uncertain, we can nonetheless take a hint from the fact that when the word reappears in rabbinic Hebrew it refers specifically to the trussing up of animals. Alter's translation thus suggests a dimension of this eerie tale we would probably have overlooked: that of editorial comment. The biblical author, by using words more suited to butchery than ritual sacrifice, lets us know that he is as horrified as we at the brutality of the act that God has asked Abraham to commit.

Homer everywhere

From The End: Hamburg 1943, by Hans Erich Nossack, translated by Joel Agee, an eyewitness account of the firebombing of Hamburg:

A few airplanes caught fire and fell like meteors into the dark. . . . Where they crashed, the landscape lit up for minutes. Once the silhouette of a distant windmill stood out against one such white incandescence. There was no feeling of cruel satisfaction at the defeat of an enemy. I remember that on one such occasion some women on the roof of a neighbor's house clapped their hands, and how at the time I angrily thought of the words with which Odysseus forbade the old nurse to rejoice over the death of the Suitors: "Old woman, rejoice in silence; restrain yourself, and do not make any noise about it; it is an unholy thing to vaunt over dead men."
[The quotation is from Samuel Butler's prose translation.]

Friday, December 3, 2004

Sappho papyri

2601 students: Jon Meyer asked after class where it's possible to see surviving examples of Sappho's poems. Here is a link to one page from POxy (Oxyrhynchus Online), a website devoted to the Oxyrhynchus dumps. You can click to see each Sappho papyrus.

The home page for the site is here. A brief and highly visual history of Oxyrhynchus can be found here.

Alabama in the news

From an article in the Birmingham News:

An Alabama lawmaker who sought to ban gay marriages now wants to ban novels with gay characters from public libraries, including university libraries.

A bill by Rep. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale, would prohibit the use of public funds for "the purchase of textbooks or library materials that recognize or promote homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle." Allen said he filed the bill to protect children from the "homosexual agenda" . . . .

Allen said that if his bill passes, novels with gay protagonists and college textbooks that suggest homosexuality is natural would have to be removed from library shelves and destroyed.

"I guess we dig a big hole and dump them in and bury them," he said.

A spokesman for the Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center called the bill censorship.

"It sounds like Nazi book burning to me," said SPLC spokesman Mark Potok.
Me too. And this story reminds me of what happens in Pleasantville, in which the book-burning scene is meant of course to evoke what the Nazis did.

The article goes on to add: "Allen pre-filed his bill in advance of the 2005 legislative session, which begins Feb. 1. If the bill became law, public school textbooks could not present homosexuality as a genetic trait and public libraries couldn't offer books with gay or bisexual characters." Goodbye Gilgamesh and Enkidu. Goodbye Achilles and Patroclus. Goodbye Sappho.

Thursday, December 2, 2004

Quiet please

From an article in today's Washington Post on materials used in federally funded abstinence-only programs:

Some course materials cited in Waxman's report present as scientific fact notions about a man's need for "admiration" and "sexual fulfillment" compared with a woman's need for "financial support." One book in the "Choosing Best" series tells the story of a knight who married a village maiden instead of the princess because the princess offered so many tips on slaying the local dragon. "Moral of the story," notes the popular text: "Occasional suggestions and assistance may be alright, but too much of it will lessen a man's confidence or even turn him away from his princess."
It sounds as though the author(s) of "Choosing Best" never read Lysistrata or Odyssey 19 (it's Penelope who gives Odysseus the crucial advantage of a long-range weapon by devising the test of the bow).

Time flies

If you need a reminder that time flies, look at this page. It may take a few seconds to load (if you can spare them).

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

World AIDS Day

Tomorrow is World AIDS Day.

[This post is in memory of my dear friend Aldo Carrasco, 1958-1986.]

The painting in Pleasantville

All the way from Florence, Italy, here is the painting that we see in Pleasantville, Masaccio's Expulsion from Paradise.

When I first saw Pleasantville, something clicked--I knew this painting from somewhere. But where? I turned the pages of every art-history book I own to find the source of the click. I finally found Masaccio's painting in a book that I bought at a Textbook Rental sale (for all of 25 cents). To find the painting on-line, I used (what else?) Google.

And, but, for, nor, or, so, yet

Starting a sentence with a conjunction is a literary device that can be overused. And it can be annoying. But there's nothing inherently evil about it.
From a good book on writing, The Elephants of Style, by Bill Walsh, a copy editor at the Washington Post, available at fine bookstores everywhere and at Booth Library. Call number: PE2827.W35 2004.

A correction

In today's New York Times: "An obituary of the jazz pianist and composer Joe Bushkin on Nov. 5 misidentified the technology used at a recording session in the early 1930's when Mr. Bushkin, who was 14, nearly made a record with Benny Goodman before the scheduled pianist finally showed up. It was a disk cutter and wax disks; magnetic tape was not used regularly for recording music until the late 1940's."

I emailed the Times about the error on November 5. I'm glad that there's finally a correction. It's amazing though that someone writing for the Times (the Times!) would think that magnetic tape was in use in the thirties.

Monday, November 29, 2004

The uses of theater

2601 students: An interesting article on women and theater in Afghanistan.

Allen Ginsberg's laundry

2601 students: Lysistrata's famed wool analogy is almost certainly an inspiration for Allen Ginsberg's poem "Homework," which you can read here. "Homework" first appeared in Plutonian Ode: Poems 1977-1980, published in 1982.

Friday, November 26, 2004


From the Merriam-Webster Word of the Day service:

The Word of the Day for November 26 is:

frenetic \frih-NET-ik\ adjective: frenzied, frantic

Example sentence:

It’s the day after Thanksgiving—a day described by Amber Veverka (Charlotte [NC] Observer, November 10, 2003) as “the official, frenetic kickoff for the Christmas shopping season.”

Did you know?

When life gets frenetic, things can seem absolutely insane—at least that seems to be what folks in the Middle Ages thought. “Frenetik,” in Middle English, meant “insane.” When the word no longer denoted stark raving madness, it conjured up fanatical frenetic zealots. Today we’re even willing to downgrade its seriousness to something more akin to “hectic.” But if you trace “frenetic” back through Anglo-French and Latin, you’ll find that it comes from Greek “phrenitis,” a term describing an inflammation of the brain. “Phren” is the Greek word for “mind,” a root you will recognize in “schizophrenic.”

As for “frenzied” and “frantic,” they’re not only synonyms but relatives as well. “Frantic” comes from “frenetik,” and “frenzied” traces back to “phrenitis.”

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


I noticed these in a catalogue. Of course, they’re online too:

A replica of Rosebud

A replica of Kane’s snowglobe

Casablanca barware

Casablanca poker chips
What is it that bothers me about these items? The idea that we can somehow possess, even in simulated form, what rightfully belongs to “the movies.” (There’s an especially awful irony in the idea of Rosebud, unique in its signficance, being mass-produced.) I also don’t like the implication that one shows real devotion to works of the imagination by buying expensive items designed to cash in on said works. How many owners of a Rosebud sled or Rick's Café Américain barware are likely to have read a single book (or even an essay) on Citizen Kane or Casablanca?

Football : baseball :: Iliad : Odyssey

I woke up this morning remembering one of the lines from George Carlin’s football v. baseball routine and realizing that it provides a good way to think about the contrasts between the Iliad and the Odyssey:

“The object in football is to march downfield and penetrate enemy territory, and get into the end zone. In baseball, the object is to go home! ‘I'm going home!’”
You can find a transcription of one instance of Carlin’s routine here.

Why would such an un-sports-minded guy as me wake up with this thought in mind? Perhaps because I was watching ABC’s Nightline last night, devoted to the basketball brawl in Detroit.

Monday, November 22, 2004

A Frasier Casablanca moment

From "It’s Hard to Say Goodbye If You Won’t Leave" (third season). Niles has brought over a videotape of Casablanca to watch with his father:

Daphne: Oh, I just love that movie. Is there any more heartbreaking moment in all of film than when Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman to get on that plane with Victor Laszlo even though Bogey loves her? What an ending.

Niles: Well, there goes my need to finally see that one.
Not long after, Frasier pleads with a lady friend not to leave Seattle and more or less reverses Rick’s words to Ilsa at the airport (“If you’re on that plane, we’ll regret it”).

Here’s looking at you, doc

Hanging around the house today, I was browsing through Will Friedwald’s Stardust Memories: A Biography of Twelve of America’s Most Popular Songs (2002). Here’s something from the chapter on Herman Hupfeld’s 1931 song “As Time Goes By”:

The Warner Bros. cartoon division was keen to capitalize on “ATGB”’s hit status, especially since their parent company already owned the rights to the song. It appears in one form or another in almost a dozen Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, but gets its best moment in Unruly Hare (1944). That’s the one where Bugs Bunny sings a generous chunk of Hupfeld’s lyrics on screen, and, upon reaching “Woman needs man / And man must have his mate,” the philosophical rabbit turns to the animation camera and directly addresses the audience with the affirmative observation, “Ain’t it the truth?”

Bugs is right, and so is Hupfeld. It’s been seventy years since “As Time Goes By” was first unleashed, and, old-fashioned as it sounds, the world is still welcoming lovers. They may not be traditional lovers circa 1931, they might be men with long hair and women in pants, or they might be of the same sex, as Hupfeld’s own loves seem to have been. But love goes on, and it’s still the only thing that will redeem us all. And that, my friends, is something that no one can deny.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Ted Berrigan

Before too many days go by, a poem from Ted Berrigan, American poet, born November 15, 1934; died July 4, 1983. Here is the last poem from The Sonnets, a landmark in postmodern American poetry. The poem collages a number of earlier sonnets along with Prospero’s words from The Tempest.


                                   for Chris

How strange to be gone in a minute!         A man
Signs a shovel and so he digs         Everything
Turns into writing a name for a day
is having a birthday and someone is getting
married and someone is telling a joke         my dream
a white tree         I dream of the code of the west
But this rough magic I here abjure         and
When I have required some heavenly music         which
    even now
I do         to work mine end upon their senses
That this aery charm is for         I'll break
My staff         bury it certain fathoms in the earth
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I’ll drown my book.
It is 5:15 a.m.                                      Dear Chris, hello.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Survey says

From an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Only about 11 percent of full-time students say they spend more than 25 hours per week preparing for their classes—the amount of time that faculty members say is necessary to succeed in college. Forty-four percent spend 10 hours or less studying.

Yet students’ grades do not suggest that they are unprepared for their academic work: About 40 percent of students say they earn mostly A’s, with 41 percent reporting that they earn mostly B’s.

Those are among the major findings of the latest National Survey of Student Engagement, a summary of which is being released today. In its fifth year, the survey covered 163,000 freshmen and seniors at 472 four-year colleges and universities.

Some of the survey's findings . . . suggest that many students are not taking full advantage of their academic opportunities. Two-fifths of freshmen and a quarter of seniors said that they never discussed ideas from their classes or readings with a faculty member outside of class.

The survey also found that:

About 90 percent of students rated their college experience as “good” or “excellent.”

Approximately 60 percent of seniors and 37 percent of freshmen did volunteer work.

Only 10 percent of students said that newspapers or magazines were their primary source for local and national news, while more than half said they relied on television for such information.

More than 25 percent of students said they had not attended an art exhibit or play during the current academic year.

Twenty percent of students spent no time exercising.

Among the new items in this year's survey was an assessment of “deep learning”: the extent to which students engage in self-reflection, the integration of knowledge and different skills, and activities that require higher levels of mental activity than rote memorization. Students who scored higher on this scale spent more time preparing for class, working on campus, and participating in co-curricular activities than students with lower scores.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

PBS Genesis links

3009 students: Here’s a link to the main page for the PBS series Genesis: A Living Conversation. These pages are badly in need of updating (one of the biographies lists an address for someone who died several years back), but there’s still much useful stuff.

And here’s a link to the page about Genesis 3.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Adventures in grain

Student cooks: Here are a couple of dishes that move away from breakfast cereal into more adventurous grain-based eating. They will also impress any guest (unlike Cap’n Crunch!).

Pasta aglio e olio

1. Cook one box of pasta. (I like angel hair or penne for this dish.) Do the following after you set the water on to boil, or, for less drama, do all the chopping beforehand.
2. Smash and chop up some garlic, as much or as little as you like. I usually use eight or more large cloves (cloves, not heads!).
3. Cut up two or three small zucchinis into small pieces. You can also use yellow squash. The pieces can be disc-like or stick-like.
4. Chop some Italian (flat) parsley.
5. Lightly brown the garlic in olive oil in a pan. Add some red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper.
6. Add the zucchini to the pan. Zucchini has lots of water in it; it’ll take a while to cook. The browner the zucchini gets, the better the flavor. (You don’t want a “steamed” effect.)
7. Add oil and salt and pepper as necessary. If you want to make the dish a bit funky, add a tin of mashed-up anchovies (and omit the salt).
8. When the zucchini is just about done, add the parsley. If need be, you can let everything sit in the pan on low heat until the pasta is done.
9. Drain the pasta and mix it in the pan with everything else.
10. Serve with Parmesan or Romano cheese.
The wonderful thing about this recipe is that the proportions can vary and you’ll still have a wonderful dish. If you like garlic, put in a lot. If you like more oil, add more oil. It’s difficult to go wrong.

Pasta with tuna and lemon
1. Cook one box of pasta. (I like farfalle—bowties—for this dish.) Do the following after you set the water on to boil, or, for less drama, do all the chopping beforehand.
2. Smash and chop up some garlic, as much or as little as you like. I usually use three or four cloves.
3. Open and drain two cans of solid-white tuna in water. (Nothing but the best!)
4. Squeeze the juice from one lemon. If you’re patient, you can scrape some of the zest (the yellow part of the skin) from the lemon to add.
5. Chop some Italian (flat) parsley.
6. Lightly brown the garlic in olive oil in a pan. Add some red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper.
7. Add the tuna, and mash it up. Add more oil if necessary.
8. Add the lemon juice (and zest).
9. Add oil and salt and pepper as necessary.
10. After everything has cooked a bit, add the parsley.
11. Drain the pasta and mix it in the pan with everything else.
12. Serve with—you guessed it—Parmesan or Romano cheese.
These dishes are simple and amazingly delicious. I’ve been making them for years. The first is my memory of a recipe in the Village Voice (a weekly New York newspaper); the second is more or less from a PBS cooking show called Cucina amore.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Food nostalgia

“It's some kind of Freudian childhood regression thing,” said Matthew Lynch, a sophomore at the SUNY-Purchase who favors Froot Loops and Cinnamon Toast Crunch. “It's a comfort mechanism. I remember eating cereal in the mornings with my dad and brother before kindergarten and first grade.”

Industry officials are pleased, of course, that teenagers show such fierce brand loyalty for cereals often associated with early childhood.

“I don't think you can ever outgrow the taste of something you love,” said Mary Dillon, president of Quaker Foods, which makes Cap’n Crunch.
From an article in today’s New York Times on the popularity of breakfast cereals on college campus.

[First ramen and now cereal—could it be that the Times is trying to bring in younger readers? Just a guess!]

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Veterans Day

The first World War ended on November 11, 1918. Armistice Day was observed the next year. In 1954, Armistice Day became Veterans Day.

Today’s New York Times contains excerpts of letters from American soldiers who have died in Iraq. Here is an excerpt from a letter from Christopher Potts, a sergeant in the Army, to his two-year-old son. Sergeant Potts died on October 3.

Hi my big guy. How are you? I miss you bad. I miss things like you calling for me in the morning when you hear me in the kitchen, or when you come home at the end of the day. I also miss cooking for you and Mom. But most of all I miss your big hugs. I enjoy hearing your voice on the phone and seeing the pictures you draw for me. I'm sorry for not writing you till now. But the days are very long here, and we only get about four-and-a-half hours sleep a night. I got up a little early to write this because I know you need your own letter too.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Where's my dinner?

3009 students: Here’s an article on the birth of the “TV dinner.” Trouble in Pleasantville!

The real ramen

In Japanese ramenyas (ramen shops) a bowl of ramen holds a house-made soup, springy noodles, the chef's own tare (a mix of soy sauce, sugar and rice wine to flavor the soup) and exactly six traditional toppings. The wait at top Tokyo ramenyas can be up to three hours.
For all college-age consumers of ramen noodles, an article on the real ramen, as prepared and eaten in Japan.

“There is no permanence”

Utnapishtim’s words to Gilgamesh echo in an article in the New York Times:

The nation's 115 million home computers are brimming over with personal treasures—millions of photographs, music of every genre, college papers, the great American novel and, of course, mountains of e-mail messages.

Yet no one has figured out how to preserve these electronic materials for the next decade, much less for the ages. Like junk e-mail, the problem of digital archiving, which seems straightforward, confounds even the experts.

Tuesday, November 9, 2004

Aeschylus in three translations

Richmond Lattimore, 1953:

I ask the gods some respite from the
of this watchtime measured by years I lie
elbowed upon the Atreidae’s roof dogwise to
the grand processionals of all the stars of
burdened with winter and again with heat for
dynasties in their shining blazoned on the air,
these stars, upon their wane and when the
    rest arise.
Lattimore is making stately lines of iambic hexameter (da DUM, times six). The lines sometimes have a clunky, rough beauty—“ elbowed upon the Atreidae’s roof dogwise,” “and again with heat for men”—but there’s often a lack of clarity. The accumulation of prepositional phrases (twelve in a single sentence) doesn’t help.

Robert Fagles, 1966:
Dear gods, set me free from all the pain,
the long watch I keep, one whole year awake . . .
propped on my arms, crouched on the roofs of
like a dog.
                 I know the stars by heart,
the armies of the night, and there in the lead
the ones that bring us snow or the crops of summer,
bring us all we have—
our great blazing kings of the sky,
I know them when they rise and when they fall . . .
Fagles is translating in a loose iambic pentameter (the final line is the clearest example of the meter). There’s greater clarity than in Lattimore’s translation, but also what seem to me to be gaffes. I can’t help hearing “Dear gods” as a little too campy and histrionic, and a little too much like the start of a letter. Fall is an odd word to describe stars moving through the sky (falling or shooting stars are another matter entirely). As in Fagles’ Homeric translations, characters tend to space out  . . . for no apparent reason (the two ellipses are in the original). Notice that Fagles brings an overt military overtone to the stargazing with his reference to “the armies of the night.”

Peter Meineck, 1998:
Gods! Free me from these labors!
I’ve spent a whole year up here, watching,
propped up on my elbows, on the roof
of this house of Atreus, like some dog.
How well I’ve come to know night’s congregation
    of stars,
the blazing monarchs of the sky, those that bring
and those that bring summer to us mortals.
I know just when they rise and when they set.
Meineck is translating into non-metrical lines, with line breaks following the syntax. Like Lattimore, he is close to the Greek, but with far greater clarity. Here it’s possible really to hear a weary watchman, a hired hand—a man treated “like some dog”—who plays no great part in the affairs of state. His rueful awareness of the house’s sorry history is evident even in his reference to “this house of Atreus.” (I can hear the sardonic quotation marks around house of Atreus.)

Even without knowing each translator’s background, it wouldn’t take much to guess that Meineck is the translator who’s most clearly thinking in terms of translation suitable for performance, would it?

Monday, November 8, 2004

David Shulman, r.i.p.

There’s an obituary for David Shulman in today’s New York Times. Shulman tracked down the origins of countless modern words and expressions, including Big Apple, The Great White Way, doozy, hoochie-coochie, and hot dog.

Tip: You can read the full article on the Times site by typing “mediajunkie” (without quotation marks) as both user name and password. The magic word “mediajunkie” will get you into many free news sites that require registration.

Saturday, November 6, 2004

Harold Russell photos

Here’s a link to what must have been a wonderful event—a showing of The Best Years of Our Lives at a community college, with (it would seem) Harold Russell in attendance. The page has several photos, including a photo of HR in later life (looking much the same as he does in the movie) and what appear to be two stills from Diary of a Sergeant.

Harold Russell

From the New York Times obituary, by Richard Severo, February 1, 2002:

Harold Russell was born [in 1914] in North Sydney, Nova Scotia. His father was a telegraph office manager who died when Harold was 6. His death caused the family to move to Cambridge, Mass., where Mrs. Russell was a nurse and where Harold started working at odd jobs at the age of 10. After high school he worked in a food market.

Mr. Russell said he “made a rush to the recruiting office” after Pearl Harbor was bombed, not out of patriotism but because he thought of himself as a failure.

After basic training, he volunteered to become a paratrooper, and he learned that skill as well as demolition. The United States Army made him an instructor. On June 6, 1944, while some of the men he trained were involved in the D-Day landing, Mr. Russell was teaching demolition work at Camp Mackall in North Carolina and a defective fuse detonated TNT that he was holding. The next day what was left of his hands were amputated three inches above the wrists.

Walter Reed General Hospital offered him a choice of prosthetic devices: plastic hands or steel hooks. He chose the hooks, proved unusually adept at mastering them and eventually made a training film for soldiers who had lost both hands. The film, “Diary of a Sergeant,” showed Mr. Russell in daily activities.

Wyler saw the film after he had been asked by the producer Samuel Goldwyn to direct “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Wyler urged Goldwyn to hire Mr. Russell, and after some coaxing Mr. Russell, who was then attending business school at Boston University, agreed to appear in the film. The salary—$250 a week, with an additional $100 a week for living expenses—seemed generous, especially when compared with the $25 a week he had earned as a part-time worker at a Y.M.C.A.

The movie won eight Oscars and was a financial success. To show his gratitude, Goldwyn awarded Mr. Russell a bonus of $120 a week for a year, asking that he make promotional appearances.

Later, Mr. Russell was active in Amvets, a veterans’ organization, becoming the national chairman. In 1950 he became a founder of the World Veterans Foundation.

In 1954 “The Best Years of Our Lives” was rereleased and journalists asked why Mr. Russell had made no other movies. “I decided to quit while I was ahead of the game,” he told one reporter.

Mr. Russell received few other offers to act. He had several television roles, and in film he appeared in “Inside Moves” (1980), about handicapped people who congregated in a bar and helped each other, and in “Dogtown” (1997), in which he played a cigar store owner and war veteran in a small town.

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed Mr. Russell as vice chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson made him the chairman, and Richard M. Nixon reappointed him.

Survivors include a daughter, Adele; a son, Gerald; four grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

In his 1949 autobiography “Victory in My Hands,” Mr. Russell recounted his struggle to recover physically and psychologically from his wounds, and to use his prostheses. He became so adept at using his hooks, he liked to joke, that he could do anything but pick up a dinner check.

As a man who would go on to promote veterans’ causes, he wrote: “It is not what you have lost but what you have left that counts.”
[Note: I was lucky to borrow a copy of Victory in My Hands through interlibrary loan a few years ago. Imagine my surprise to find that the book was signed by Harold Russell, in the peacock-blue ink that filled so many fountain pens all those years ago.]

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Ancient Greeks and the avant-garde

[A]n archaeologist might conclude that ancient Greece was a civilization of sensuous narcissists, antiwar activists and ardent feminists that had little patience for convention and little taste for bourgeois life. It was a culture, in other words, that closely resembled some avant-garde movements in the 20th-century United States.
Another Times article. (See tip below.)

All Greek

Greek: something hard to understand. Greek: a language intricate and rich in its powers of evocation, elegant in its archaic form, viscerally expressive in its modern one. Greek: an ancient culture that seems to have influenced everyone.
From an article in the New York Times, “Artistically Speaking, It’s All Greek to Me.”

Tip: You can read the full article on the Times site by typing “mediajunkie” (without quotation marks) as both user name and password. The magic word “mediajunkie” will get you into many free news sites that require registration.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Wheels of fire

When I told him that I was teaching Dante, my friend Rob Zseleczky mentioned that Wheels of Fire, a double-album by Cream, took its title from Dante’s description of Charon the ferryman.

Sure enough—it’s in the description of Charon in Inferno 3:

che ’ntorno alli occhi avea di fiamme rote
[who around his eyes had wheels of flame]
Cream, as anyone of a certain age will remember, was the original power-trio: Eric Clapton (guitar), Jack Bruce (bass), and Ginger Baker (drums). This poetic touch was apparently provided by sometime-lyricist Peter Brown.

Thanks, Rob!

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Digital Dante

Digital Dante is a terrific site, brought to you by Columbia University. Be sure to browse the images, especially the Doré illustrations.

One Dante simile

2601 students: Here’s what I’ve written for tomorrow—

Reading through today's cantos, I found myself paying more and more attention to Dante’s similes. I was most struck by the extended comparison at the beginning of Canto XXI, in which Dante describes a scene at the Arsenal at Venice to convey to his reader the reality of the “tarry mass” (17) of the fifth pouch of the Malebolge.

This simile sparks my thinking in a number of ways. Like Homer (and Virgil), Dante turns to the simile to make an unfamiliar (and, here, supernatural) reality vivid and intelligible. His simile brings this infernal scene up, not down, to earth by invoking a familiar scene from Italian life. (I’d assume that any contemporary of Dante’s in a position to read the Comedy would likely have seen the Arsenal at Venice.)

Like Homer’s most elaborate similes, Dante’s simile grows into a separate narrative moment within the poem. We’re still in hell, but it’s as if we’ve suddenly been transported to a shipyard, as we survey, camera-like, eight different scenes of labor. Notice how much extra “stuff” there is: the simile could simply read “As in the Arsenal of the Venetians, / all winter long a stew of sticky pitch / boils up to patch their sick and tattered ships / that cannot sail,” “so, not by fire but by the art of God,” and so on (7-10, 16), cutting the simile’s length by almost half.

The extended nature of this simile is even more noticeable in the Italian text: Allen Mandelbaum encloses the description of work in parentheses, but in the Italian, it’s set off by dashes as a more marked interruption. The simile really does take on a life of its own, shifting away from the image of boiling pitch (its ostensible focus) to these varied forms of human labor.

Dante may be doing something else that’s remarkable in this simile: he seems to be commenting on the dangerous way in which the extended simile takes both reader and poet away from what’s immediately present. After the simile concludes, Dante continues to stare and stare at the bubbling tar, until Virgil, his master, says “‘Take care! Take care!’” (23). Perhaps that repeated caution is a reminder to Dante (and the reader) that the simile is, in a sense, a daydream, a moment of imaginative reverie that can take over one’s consciousness. I imagine Dante here looking at the tar and, in these terrifying circumstances, beginning to think of a more congenial scene. A similar nostalgia for the ordinary aboveground world appears in a more powerful way at the beginning of Canto XXIV, with its beautiful scene of a shepherd in winter.

Such moments of poetic reverie might help to explain how it is that Dante can suddenly find himself lost at the beginning of the poem. It’s the voice of reason and conscience, his master’s voice, that makes Dante snap back to his present circumstances. Take care!

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

The Sopranos in hell

A really striking image of the cast of The Sopranos in a hellish setting. Please, no New Jersey jokes.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Disco inferno

A New Yorker cartoon from January 2001. The Cartoon Bank is a dangerously addictive website.

A Fine in the Times

There’s a picture of Burton Fine, my father-in-law, in today’s New York Times. He’s in the upper left corner, playing the viola.

Tip: You can read the full article on the Times site by typing “mediajunkie” (without quotation marks) as both user name and password. The magic word “mediajunkie” will get you into many free news sites that require registration.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

All Day Permanent Red

My review of Christopher Logue’s All Day Permanent Red: The First Battle Scenes of Homer's Iliad Rewritten, published in World Literature Today, can be found here. Click on English and there’s a small .pdf file available to open or save. My review is on pages 100-101.

Christopher Logue is a British poet who refashions Homer’s Iliad into stark and startling contemporary poetry:

Think of a raked sky-wide Venetian blind.
Add the receding traction of its slats
Of its slats of its slats as a hand draws it up.
Hear the Greek army getting to its feet.

Then of a stadium when many boards are raised
And many faces change to one vast face.
So, where there were so many masks,
Now one Greek mask glittered from strip to ridge.

Trip of a lifetime

2601: Here are three on-line quizzes to determine where, on Dante’s terms, you’re headed. Warning: These quizzes contain questions that some readers might find offensive. Read at your own peril:

Dante’s Inferno Test, the lengthiest and most lurid of the three.

Which Circle of Hell Are You Going To?, a quiz with a heavy dash of pop culture.

The Sin Quiz, the most amusing of the three.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

A cell-free zone

An AP article about a restaurant with a cell-free zone. My hunch is that in another five or ten years, cell-free areas will be as familiar as smoke-free areas are today.


2601 students: There’s a long essay by Tony Judt on the idea of American empire in the November 4 New York Review of Books. Here’s the opening paragraph:

Talk of “empire” makes Americans distinctly uneasy. This is odd. In its westward course the young republic was not embarrassed to suck virgin land and indigenous peoples into the embrace of Thomas Jefferson’s “empire for liberty.” Millions of American immigrants made and still make their first acquaintance with the US through New York, “the Empire State.” From Monroe to Bush, American presidents have not hesitated to pronounce doctrines whose extraterritorial implications define imperial authority and presume it: there is nothing self-effacing about that decidedly imperious bird on the Presidential Seal. And yet, though the rest of the world is under no illusion, in the United States today there is a sort of wishful denial. We don’t want an empire, we aren’t an empire—or else if we are an empire, then it is one of a kind.
Judt never mentions Rome, but for someone who’s been thinking about the Aeneid, this essay is especially interesting to read.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Graphic novels in Booth

Booth Library recently purchased a great many graphic novels and comics-related books. “Graphic novel” is a strange term, as graphic novels are often nowhere near novels in their length and narrative complexity. I like the term “picture book,” because it’s straightforward and accurate, but “picture book” usually refers to children’s books, especially those for younger kids who don’t yet read “chapter books.”

Anyway, here are three books that are now back in the library and that I’d enthusiastically recommend. You can find the library’s stash of graphic novels in the New Books area near the Periodicals desk.

Raymond Briggs, Ethel & Ernest: A True Story: You might know Raymond Briggs as the author-artist of the well-known children’s book The Snowman. This book is the story of his parents’ lives, from the 1920s to their deaths in the 1970s. Beautiful art, great honesty, and the happiness and sadness with which life goes on, generation after generation.
GraFX CT788.B7742 B75 1999

Harvey Pekar and David Collier, Unsung Hero: The Story of Robert McNeill: I love Harvey Pekar’s autobiographical American Splendor series and the movie it inspired. This installment of American Splendor is different, documenting not Pekar’s life but that of Robert McNeill, a Vietnam veteran and co-worker. McNeill’s story is one of bravery, fear, and luck, both good and bad. I’m moved by Pekar’s determination to “sing” the story of this unsung hero—the same impulse to memorialize that runs through Homer’s poetry of war. Several panels show Pekar listening to his friend and writing it all down.
GraFX PN6727.P44 467 2003x

Bryan Talbot, The Tale of One Bad Rat: Helen, a young woman in contemporary England, flees her father’s sexual abuse for life on the streets and, later, in the country. All along, her life-story eerily intersects with that of Beatrix Potter, author of Helen’s favorite books. The Tale of One Bad Rat is the most imaginatively plotted graphic novel that I’ve seen.
GraFX PN6727 .T34 1995x

Monday, October 18, 2004

Spelling in the news

Here’s an article from USA Today concerning a mural created for a public library in California. The artist, who was paid $40,000 for her work, misspelled eleven of the 175 names in the mural. Among the misspellings: “Eistein,” “Michaelangelo,” and “Shakespere.” Another $6,000 will now fly her in to make corrections.

New Gilgamesh translation

3009 students: You can click here to read an excerpt from a new translation by Stephen Mitchell, whom we’ll see later this semester in a PBS series on Genesis.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

A Casablanca trivia bit corrected?

From Anthony Lane’s long essay on Ronald Reagan’s film career, in the October 18 issue of the New Yorker:

The one Reagan story that I always found impossible to accept was the “Casablanca” myth—the rumor that he and Ann Sheridan were slated to appear as Rick and Ilsa. Really? Reagan as Rick, eyes brimming with contempt for his own romantic obsessions? . . . Then, at the back of Edmund Morris’s “Dutch,” I found a footnote explaining that the role supposedly waiting for Reagan was that of Victor Laszlo.
[Silent disbelief as I type that sentence.]

Orson Welles sells

If you want to hear the sad and sorry excerpts from one of Orson Welles’ voiceover sessions for television commercials, you can find them at the 365 Days Project, a year-long anthology of improbable and strange recordings.

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Commas and colons, chickens and caulk

Looking at the first lines of the Odyssey in Greek, a student (I’ll call him “Joe”) asked a great question in class: Are there really commas in Greek?

There are four marks of punctuation in Greek:

the comma,
the period,
a point above the line, equivalent to the semicolon and
     colon, and
the question mark, which looks like our semicolon.
So are there really commas in Greek;

Yes, there are· that is my final answer.

I got curious though about what a comma is anyway. The word comes from the Greek, komma, which means “stamp, coinage, clause” and which itself comes from koptein, “to cut off, stamp.” Before comma denoted a mark of punctuation, it denoted “a short phrase or word group smaller than a colon.”

Aha. So I looked up colon, which comes from the Greek kōlon, which means “limb, part of a strophe, clause of a sentence.” Before colon denoted a mark of punctuation, it denoted “a division of an utterance by sense or rhythm that is smaller and less independent than the sentence and less dependent than the phrase.”

I couldn’t leave period a mystery. It too goes back to the Greek, to periodos, which means “way around, circuit, period of time, rhetorical period.” Periodos comes from the Greek peri (to pass through) and hodos (journey). You can see peri- in such words as perimeter and periscope, where it means “all around.” Before the period was the dot in “dot-com,” the word denoted “an utterance from one full stop to another,” in other words, a sentence.

So a sentence is, in a way, a journey. Maybe that’s why Gertrude Stein in How to Write said “A sentence is an interval in which there is a finally forward and back.”

Etymologically, comma and colon have odd relations: koptein also gives us capon, “a castrated male chicken [or] rabbit,” and kōlon gives us calk and caulk.

[My knowledge of Greek punctuation comes from Schoder and Horrigan’s Reading Course in Homeric Greek. All etymologies and definitions are derived from Webster’s Third New International, my trusty unabridged dictionary.]

What it’s all about

From a column in today's Daily Eastern News on behalf of the “Hit-Mix”:

Radio is not about music.
That about sums it up, doesn’t it?

Friday, October 8, 2004

Thank you for not smoking

I smoked my last cigarette on this day in 1989, after fourteen years of smoking. Pall Malls, Camels, Lucky Strikes, Drum cigarette tobacco, Old Holborn cigarette tobacco . . .

What was I thinking?!

A suggestion for any young smoker reading this blog: quit now. You’ll want to do so at some point, and it’ll be easier now than later on. It took me four tries (and many sticks of Wrigley’s Extra peppermint gum) before I could quit.

Fifteen years later, I’m never even tempted to smoke. In fact, I can’t stand the smell. But I still dream at least two or three times a year about cigarettes. I’m usually holding and opening a pack of Camels or Lucky Strikes. But even in my dreams, I’ve never smoked again.

Wednesday, October 6, 2004

Hit and Miss

Here is the text of a guest column I have written concerning WEIU-FM.


The link has long since expired. But here’s what I wrote:

Reasons to oppose the "Hit-Mix" format are at least as numerous as the varieties of musical expression now missing from WEIU-FM's broadcasting day.

I'll limit myself to four:

1. A college radio station should not attempt to duplicate and compete with the offerings of commercial stations. WEIU-FM's "Hit-Mix," its claim to be "Charleston's radio station," and its countless spots for local "sponsors" threaten to blur the line between commercial and public broadcasting. (Anyone who's listened to WILL-AM or -FM can tell the difference between genuine underwriting and these revved-up mini-commercials.)

2. A college radio station should offer its listeners an alternative to what is available on the commercial airwaves. And it should do so in the name of culture -- whether the alternative is classical music, jazz, folk music, world music, indie rock or hip-hop. It seems necessary to point out, again and again, that WEIU-FM's new format sets it utterly apart from other college radio stations across the state (and, I dare say, across the nation).

3. A college radio station should present an appropriate public face. That face need not be somber and scholarly. But the musical dreck that is the "Hit-Mix" gives us a public presence that is laughable and embarrassing. Can you imagine hearing "My Heart Will Go On" on WILL-FM? Or on the University of Chicago station? Or, for that matter, on any college radio station? Yet I recently heard it on WEIU-FM. Consider what people passing through on I-57 might think when they happen to tune to 88.9. Would they ever guess that it's a university station? And when they find out, will they be able to believe it?

4. A college radio station should serve to challenge students and broaden their horizons. In the olden days, working at WEIU-FM was a genuine learning experience. Students worked out their own playlists and maintained solid relationships with record companies by phone and mail. The wide range of programming required students to get beyond their comfort zones and learn about musical traditions that were new to them. Students announcing classical music had to (and in fact did) develop passable pronunciation of names and words in French, German and Italian. Students playing African pop gained an awareness that "Africa" means a myriad of languages and musical styles. The new WEIU-FM, with music pumped in by satellite (as has been the case for several years), makes the student into little more than the pusher of a very occasional button. It's not even necessary for someone to be at "the board" -- the operation of the station is automated.

For me, the changes at WEIU-FM represent a profound loss. I did a weekly two-hour jazz show for five years (1986-1991), during which time I came to know many of the students who worked at the station. Their energy and range of artistic and musical interests represented everything that is great about college radio. My wife, Elaine Fine, was classical musical director until the first effort to reorganize WEIU-FM (with morning "chapel service" and obituary reading). In recent years, a continued reliance on satellite programming began an ongoing decline.

Which reminds me -- if the "Hit-Mix" is to continue, WEIU-FM can at least do the university community a final kindness by donating the contents of its music library to Booth Library (as Elaine Fine first suggested several years ago), so that people who want to hear other possibilities in music can benefit.
Another WEIU-FM post
WEIU-FM, r.i.p.

“Intercollegiate,” at last

The signs along Fourth Street for the women's rugby field have reappeared with proper spelling. A small thing, sure, but getting the details right is important in countless ways.


In Odyssey 17, Penelope voices her hope for vengeance against the suitors, and her son immediately sneezes. Telemachus’ sneeze is an omen foretelling Odysseus’ triumph over the suitors. (Why? As Ralph Hexter explains in his commentary on Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey, the Greeks thought that because a sneeze cannot be produced at will or suppressed, it must be from the gods. Makes sense, right?)

How do the major American translators of Homer bring the sneeze into our language?

Richmond Lattimore:

She spoke, and Telemachos sneezed amain, and
     around him the palace
re-echoed terribly to the sound.
Amain? Re-echoed? Terribly? Lattimore here seems pretty stilted.

Robert Fitzgerald:
                                               The great hall below
at this point rang with a tremendous sneeze--
“kchaou!” from Telémakhos--like an acclamation.
An almost cartoon-like exclamation: Pow! Bam! Boof! But with a Greek look too--ahchoo would look merely silly here. The Greek verb eptaren is onomatopoetic, as Hexter points out, so Fitzgerald’s humor has a solid basis in the original.

Robert Fagles:
At her last words Telemachus shook with a
     lusty sneeze
and the sudden outburst echoed up and down the
Shook? Lusty? Five of the twenty words are clichéd: sudden outburst, up and down. And do sneezes really echo?

Stanley Lombardo:
Just as she finished, Telemachus sneezed,
A loud sneeze that rang through the halls.
Clarity itself, but I miss “kchaou!”

[Postscript: I just noticed that Lombardo’s lines make the sneeze ring by following sneezed with sneeze.]

Thursday, September 30, 2004

Happy Anniversary to us

Happy Anniversary, Elaine,
"in our prime and flowering years."

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

SMiLE is here

Released today on Nonesuch (Wilco’s label too). It begins with a wordless prayer and ends with the wordless vocal segment of “Good Vibrations.” It journeys from Plymouth Rock to Blue Hawaii, from innocence to experience and back again. It is a work of ambition, humor, and youth. SMiLE is amazing. It is also the number-one-selling item on today. Charleston's Wal-Mart had one copy this afternoon.

“Intercolleg[i]ate,” continued

The misspelled signs that I wrote about last week have disappeared from Fourth Street, and will, I trust, reappear with correct spelling in the near future. Behold the power of blogging? Not really. I wrote to Lou Hencken about the signs and received an immediate reply saying that he’d look into the matter. I will say though that it was writing about the signs here that prompted me to send the email.

Just one look

I’ve always loved the end of Odyssey 16. Odysseus and Telemachus are out in the country when Odysseus (in disguise as a beggar) and Telemachus share a private glance in the hut of the swineherd Eumaeus:

Telemachus smiled, feeling his ancestors’
And glanced at Odysseus, avyoiding the
    swineherd’s eye.
                                    (Lombardo translation)
This passage from a book review in the Christian Science Monitor just gave me a new way to think about the significance of this scene:
The critical concept in The First Idea is what the authors call “co-regulated emotional signaling.” By this they mean the affectionate back-and-forth between baby and caregiver. Mom and Baby make eye contact, and when Mom smiles at Baby, Baby smiles back.

It would be simplistic to say that the authors see games of peekaboo and patty-cake as the foundations of civilization—but it would not be completely wide of the mark. It is just this sort of nonverbal “conversation,” the authors argue, that was essential to the development of language among early humans and remains essential to each child’s learning to talk today.
I’ve always thought of this moment in the Odyssey in terms of the knowing look partners might give each other in a social setting. How interesting though to think of Odysseus and Telemachus as bonding in the way that a father and an infant son would bond. Telemachus is “reborn” as Odysseus’s son at the beginning of Odyssey 2. And Odysseus is, almost literally, a new father, having not seen his son in twenty years. His relationship with Telemachus is less than a day old when they share this moment of silent, eye-to-eye, mind-to-mind communication.

Monday, September 27, 2004

I’m the Teacher . . . (brief review)

I just finished an interesting if ultimately disappointing book by Patrick Allitt, professor of history and holder of the Arthur Blank Chair for Teaching Excellence at Emory University. I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student: A Semester in the University Classroom recounts the ups and downs of one course, an introduction to modern American history. Despite the stern title (designed, no doubt, to appeal to critics of higher education looking for a report from a hard-liner), Allitt’s account too often reveals him to be a happy panderer, dispensing “good” grades to work that by his own admission is outrageously bad while priding himself on his classroom rigor and his refusal to bend to his students’ pleas and demands. He seems not to see the contradictions and ironies in his situation. He insists upon good writing, yet appears unsurprised by the ungainly and error-ridden papers he receives all semester long. (And when a student turns in a much-improved essay, he laments that it isn’t as “entertaining” as an earlier effort that was filled with mistakes.) Grade inflation, he says, is endemic, but it’s too much trouble, he also says, not to go along, what with complaints from parents and pressure from deans. Thus he gives grades of B- to students who deserve (in his judgment) Fs.

I was also put off by Allitt’s breezy and inconsistent handling of procedures. His syllabus (included as an appendix) includes no policies regarding late work, yet he complains when he receives pleading, excuse-making emails from students who must feel that with no clear policy, their only hope is to try everything they can to move the prof. He quotes (and mocks) one at length, and gives us his reply, which never tells the student whether she may turn in late work. Another student, having turned in a wholly plagiarized essay, is given the chance to write another essay and receives “the lowest passing grade.” That’ll teach him, right? Where do grades come from, by the way? “Out of my head,” Allitt writes, “but in a rich social context.” Quizzes, according to his syllabus, count for 10% of the semester grade, but he gives only two quizzes all semester and decides at the semester’s end that “In reality, then, those ten are going to have to be distributed elsewhere.” I wonder what a student who took the syllabus seriously and studied hard for those quizzes might say about that.

I like Allitt’s habit of asking questions of his students and his emphasis on map-making and drawing as ways to understand the past. His descriptions of teaching with slides make me wish I had had a history prof who made significant use of visual materials. But too often Allitt’s attitudes suggest to me everything that I most dislike about academia, not least of which is the sense that college teaching is a really good racket: “It’s a great life being a professor: the benefits are major, the irritants minor.”


You can find Daniel Mendelsohn's astute essay on the movie here.

Sunday, September 26, 2004


Here is a link to a 15-minute-long NPR piece on SMiLE, with comments from Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks and many musical excerpts. This piece gives a good sense of the scope of SMiLE and tracks the human story (of Brian Wilson's breakdown and fragile recovery) with honesty and respect.

[SMiLE is the traditional spelling, as in the original album-cover art by Frank Holmes.]

Saturday, September 25, 2004

No job too small

I see more frequent and more exotic homonym errors than I used to. Maybe the most surprising so far is pros for prose. But sometimes even a familiar error stands out for sheer improbability:

“No job to small.”
That’s the motto (in large bold print) on an advertising flyer for a home handyman. My dad received it in the mail and sent it to me recently, sans comment. He knew I’d catch his point.

I’m not one of those people who equate proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation habits with something akin to moral superiority, priding themselves on their rectitude and looking down their noses at everyone else. I do believe though that spelling counts. There could be many reasons why the flyer quoted above came out wrong, and the guy who sent it out might be an ace of home repair. But reader, if you didn’t already know that, would “No job to small” persuade you to call him? Does his presentation inspire confidence?

A memory: Before my dad retired as a ceramic tile contractor, he received countless compliments from his customers, not only on his tile work but also on the care with which he prepared his written estimates. Truly, no job is too small to do right, and that includes spelling.

[Note: “No job to small” seems to be a remarkably common mistake. A Google search just turned up 5,950 hits. “No job too small” turned up 34,900 hits. And Leddy Ceramic Tile will now turn up at least one.]

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Field of dreams?

Walk along the street, and you’ll see the signs, three in a row:

Intercollegate Women’s Rugby Field.
Intercollegate Women’s Rugby Field.
Intercollegate Women’s Rugby Field.
There’s a fourth sign on the fence at the south end of a field:
Intercollegate Women’s Rugby Field.
Our university is pressed for funds, and making replacement signs with correct spelling might not be the most practical use of money. But these signs make a very clear statement to anyone in or out of the university who sees them—that we either don’t know or don’t care that they’re wrong. Neither possibility reflects very well on a university community.

Another way to look at the problem: Don’t the women who play intercollegiate rugby on this field deserve signage that doesn’t detract from the dignity of their sport?

Translators at work and play

Here’s the Phaeacian princess Nausicaa in Odyssey 6 asking her father for the wagon so that she can go down to the river and do the laundry.

Richmond Lattimore:

“Daddy dear, will you not have them harness me the
the high one with the good wheels”
“Daddy dear” doesn’t ring true to me, and it’s not because I’m judging by 21st-century standards. The words don’t ring true to me as mid-20th-century American English. “[W]ill you not have them” seems unnecessarily cumbersome; “harness me the wagon” simply awkward.

Robert Fagles:
                                                              “Daddy dear,
I wonder, won’t you have them harness a wagon for
the tall one with the good smooth wheels? . . . “
Yikes! “Daddy dear” all over again. The ellipsis is Fagles’, not mine. In his translations of Homer and Aeschylus (and perhaps elsewhere too) his speakers tend to . . . zone out, for no apparent . . . reason. For me, the cumulative effect is tedious. And would anyone really interrupt such a simple request by adding the words “I wonder”? Why would Nausicaa wonder whether her father would act? Fagles’ attempts to suggest natural speech here seem stilted. Still, this translation is less cumbersome than Lattimore’s.

Stanley Lombardo:
“Daddy, would you please hitch up a wagon for me—
A high one that rolls well”
Now I really hear the voice of a daughter. As a teenaged princess, Nausicaa doesn’t need to wonder whether her father will do what she asks. As the father of a daughter myself, it occurs to me to ask: Is Nausicaa making a request, or is she simply telling her father what she expects him to do? Hmm.

“[H]itch up” is a nice American touch.

Robert Fitzgerald:
“My dear Papà, could you not send the mule cart
around for me—the gig with pretty wheels?”
Fitzgerald’s version of these lines is my favorite among the four. “My dear Papà” seems just right for a princess addressing her father. Such easy elegance! What a wonderful way to bring the charmed, magical world of the Phaeacians into our language. Fitzgerald is departing from the sense of the Greek with pretty, but pretty wheels do seem right in the Phaeacian world of aesthetic pleasures.

Monday, September 20, 2004

A poem for Hector

The Greek Anthology is a collection of more than 4,000 short poems written over roughly 1,700 years (beginning in 700 BCE). The best source for selections in translation is Dudley Fitts’ Poems from the Greek Anthology (1938). Fitts is a brilliant translator and presents the poems in sharp, terse, perennially modern English. If you’ve read Oedipus in a classroom setting, you’ve probably read the translation by Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald.

Here is Fitts’ translation of an epitaph for Hector, from a poet known as Archias the Macedonian:

Stone, who was his father that lies beneath you?
What was his name? His country? What was his death?

His father was Priam. Ilion his country. His name
Was Hektor. He met death fighting for his land.

Saturday, September 18, 2004

Cave bling

Our concern with material wealth and status and the Homeric world’s preoccupation with τιμη seem to have deep, deep roots. Here are some excerpts from an Ananova news service article, concerning a piece in the British journal New Scientist:

Beads, jewellery and ornaments found at a cave in Blombos, South Africa, are thought to be status symbols dating back up to 77,000 years. Until now it had been thought that an interest in fancy accessories only started around 40,000 years ago.

The New Scientist report says the earliest nomadic hunters were far more civilised than thought previously. And the lust for bling led to an early pecking-order in which people with the right gear seemed more important: “Prestige goods could be the first step on the road to modern civilisation, paving the way for agriculture and urbanisation. No one believes the guy who spends £670,000 on a Bugatti Veyron does so because he needs to travel at 250mph. We all know he is buying an exclusive status symbol. But don't knock it—he is just being civilised.”

WEIU-FM, r.i.p.

Here’s the text of a letter to the local paper:

Ten years ago, anyone in our community could tune to WEIU-FM and hear music from the rest of the world. Only listeners who knew WEIU-FM in its glory days can fully appreciate the cultural resource that’s been lost in the shift to “Hit-Mix” programming. It’s grimly ironic that a university whose mission statement claims a commitment to “free inquiry” in “a diverse world” should feature a radio station whose main selling point is that every song is already familiar. Familiar to whom?

When I was a teenager, listening to old blues recordings on Columbia University’s WKCR-FM changed my musical life. Many EIU students have been introduced to and have grown to love classical music and jazz via WEIU-FM. Now jazz has been cut to a mere four hours a week. Classical music, indie rock, and hip-hop have been eliminated altogether. And so the cultural life of our community moves further toward bland homogeneity.

The whole point of college radio is to provide alternatives to the commercial airwaves, not more of the same. The “Hit-Mix” format makes WEIU-FM an embarrassing anomaly in the world of college radio.
WEIU-FM was indeed a local treasure: classical music in the morning, jazz in the afternoon, indie rock and specialty shows on weeknights (world music, country-folk-bluegrass, blues, and hip-hop), free-form shows on weekends. No station in the area (and probably no station in the state of Illinois) provided a comparable range of music. Mi esposa Elaine Fine did the classical programming for many years, and I did a weekly jazz show (and an occasional free-form show) for several years, so to me the end of the real WEIU-FM is a very personal loss.

Another WEIU-FM post
Hit and miss

Thursday, September 16, 2004

The Sims, the gods, and us

From a New York Times article on Sims 2:

Sims 2, a much enhanced version of the life-simulation game from Maxis, is the video-game answer to reality television shows like “The Real World” and “Big Brother.” Like these shows, Sims 2 allows the lives of its characters to unfold in moments of chaos and carnality. But unlike television, in which the audience is confined to the role of passive viewer, the game puts you into the action in the role of a god. And not a distant, magnanimous god, but one of those petty Roman gods who amuse themselves by toying with people.
I wish the writer had said Greek gods, but you get the idea.

Tip: You can read the full article on the Times site by typing “mediajunkie” (without quotation marks) as both user name and password. The magic word “mediajunkie” will get you into many free news sites that require registration.

Paris, pretty-boy

“Paris, you desperate, womanizing pretty boy!”

What is Hector really saying when he rebukes his brother in Iliad 3? I got curious enough this morning to look at the Greek.

That sounds scary, but figuring out the Greek is relatively easy, even if (like me) you don’t know Greek. There are books that help you to go word by word, and there’s a remarkable website, the Perseus Digital Library, where you can zero in on any passage in an ancient Greek or Latin author and click word by word to get a sense of what’s said.

For Lombardo’s line, I stuck with books. Here’s how Hector addresses his brother, word by word (with the Greek words transliterated into our alphabet):

“Duspari, eidos ariste, gunaimanês, hêperopeuta”

The line might be literally translated like this:

“Unhappy Paris, best in figure, mad for women, deceiver”

Duspari = unhappy Paris
eidos = form, shape, figure
ariste = best
gunaimanês = mad for women
hêperopeuta = deceiver

Desperate is an inspired way of bringing Duspari (which sounds like desperate) into English.

Gunaimanes combines the Greek words for women and mad. Paris is literally mad for women. We might say that he's girl-crazy, which would go well with his immaturity, but girl-crazy is probably too light-hearted for the context.

There’s no pretty boy in the Greek, but Hector’s praise of his brother’s looks makes sense only if it’s bitter sarcasm. Pretty boy suggests the right sort of contempt. I wonder if the sound of hêperopeuta inspired Lombardo to think of pretty boy.

It’s amazing what you can find when you go back to the Greek.

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Stanley Lombardo interview

3009 and 2601 students: You can find the text of an interview with Stanley Lombardo here.

How did this interview come about? Stanley Lombardo came to our campus in November 2001 as a special guest at a conference for high-school teachers who teach the Odyssey. When he was taking questions (after a great reading of Book 5), he was saying wonderful things about Homer and translation. Later in the day I asked him if he'd ever been interviewed about such stuff. He hadn’t. So I asked if he’d like to do an interview. He was very generous with his time, and we were both very happy with what resulted.

I think anyone who’s started reading Homer can get something from this interview--you don't have to be an “expert.” I'm reluctant to point brand-new readers of Homer to it, but students who’ve read this interview after reading Homer for a while have told me that they wish they’d read it earlier on. If you read the interview, e-mail me and let me know what you get from it.

For anyone interested in contemporary poetry, Jacket, the home of this interview, is an indispensable resource, edited and published by John Tranter in Australia.

(Thanks to Rachel for showing me how to do italics and links.)

A place to start

“If you’re going to be this uptight and worried about it, you’re not going to be a very happy blogger. Just say ‘This is my new blog; I’m trying it out. Thanks to my son and daughter. I hope it works out.’”

Good advice.

This is my new blog. Thanks to Rachel and Ben for getting me started (and to Rachel for telling me what to say).

“Orange Crate Art,” by the way, is the title song of a 1995 album by Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson. The song was my introduction to each man’s music and is, to my mind, one of the great American songs.