Saturday, December 31, 2005

Happy New Year

[Marty (Ernest Borgnine) and Clara (Betsy Blair) sit side by side in the dining room. Marty has tried to kiss Clara; she's said no.]

Marty: Well, I'm old enough to know better. Comes New Year's Eve, everybody starts arranging parties. I'm the guy they gotta dig up a date for. I'll just get a pack of cigarettes and take --

Clara: I'd like to see you again. Very much. The reason I didn't let you kiss me was because I just didn't know how to -- handle the situation. You're the kindest man I ever met. The reason I tell you this is because I want to see you again, very much. I know that when you take me home I'm just going to lie on my bed and think about you. I want very much to see you again.

Marty: What are you doing tomorrow night?

Clara: Nothing.

Marty: I'll call you up tomorrow. Maybe we'll go see a movie.

Clara: I'd like that, very much.

Marty: The reason I can't be more definite now is because my Aunt Catherine is probably coming over tomorrow. I may have to help out.

Clara: I'll wait for your call.

Marty: I better take you home now. [They stand.] It's getting late and the busses only run about one an hour.

Clara: All right.

Marty: I'll just get a pack of cigarettes. [Marty walks to the dresser, gets the cigarettes, comes back. He and Clara now stand face to face.]

Marty: What are you doing New Year's Eve?

Clara: Nothing.

[They kiss.]
From Marty (1955), directed by Delbert Mann, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky

What am I doing New Year's Eve? Transcribing this dialogue, before sharing a bottle of wine with my wife.

Happy New Year.

"Serious pencils indeed"

I have a piece of writing (with photographs) at Pencil Revolution, a wonderful site. "Serious pencils indeed" is the story of some A.W. Faber Castell 9000 pencils that I found in an office-supply store, some 45 years or so after their manufacture.

It's appropriate that this piece has appeared before 2005 is over -- as Pencil Revolution points out, 2005 marks the 100th anniversary of the Castell 9000.

My son: "Points out. Ha ha. Please write no pun intended."

Me: "Okay."

No pun intended.

Link "Serious pencils indeed"

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Taste in apes


"Personally, I'm more willing to believe the puppet-apes than the computer-generated apes."

Monday, December 26, 2005

Food for thought

My local newspaper has changed its format to focus on infotainment -- a neverending series of articles on dieting, shopping, budgeting, and so on. But what about the second ad below, from today's paper? Is its presence in the "Foods" category better explained by carelessness, or by a journalist's desire to bring value-added amusement to every corner of the paper? (And while I'm asking questions: who shops for "foods" in the classifieds anyway?)

My friend Joanna Key spotted this ad. Thanks, Joanna, for sharing.

Sunday, December 25, 2005


Seen on the television screen this evening, on a PBS station, no less:

Hark The Harold Angels Sing

Saturday, December 24, 2005

The Christmas truce

Well, we were in those trenches I don't know how long. Then it came, Christmas morning. So we stuck a board up -- "Merry Christmas." They also stuck one up -- "Merry Christmas." So we were saying, Well, I don't think they'll fire today. No, I don't think they will.

Then lo and behold, it was a German coming down out of the trench, run right into the River Lys, he did. And here was a German coming down the riverbank with his hands up above. One of our chaps threw his equipment off. He went out to meet him.

Well, he shook hands. Then we all got out.
In a 1954 interview, Frank Richards of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers remembers the Christmas truce of 1914.

Link: Frank Richards interview (from the BBC archives, requires the RealPlayer)

Link: The Christmas truce (from the BBC)

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Men and women?

I'm still waiting for the New York Times to acknowledge an error in a review of Bob Spitz's The Beatles (see here for the details). Checking the Corrections page today, I noticed this oddity:

Because of an editing error, a television review yesterday about "Isaac: Have a Better Day," a new talk show on the Style network starring Isaac Mizrahi, referred incorrectly to the studio audience, which he addresses as "girls." It is an audience of men and women, not college students.
College students aren't men and women?

I'm sending an e-mail to the Times about this one too.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Kid joke, overheard

Child: It smells like updog in here.

Parent: What's updog?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The gone dead train

I wanna go home and that train is done gone dead
I wanna go, that train is done gone dead

King Solomon Hill, "The Gone Dead Train" (1932)
The bus too.

I remember the New York transit strike of 1980, which kept me from even thinking of getting up to Columbia University to hear Jorge Luis Borges read.

Here's a wish that this strike is settled -- and soon. Good luck, fellow New Yorkers.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Literacy falling

Further confirmation that there's a difference between a degree and an education:

The average American college graduate's literacy in English declined significantly over the past decade, according to results of a nationwide test released yesterday.

The National Assessment of Adult Literacy, given in 2003 by the Department of Education, is the nation's most important test of how well adult Americans can read. . . .

When the test was last administered, in 1992, 40 percent of the nation's college graduates scored at the proficient level, meaning that they were able to read lengthy, complex English texts and draw complicated inferences. But on the 2003 test, only 31 percent of the graduates demonstrated those high-level skills. There were 26.4 million college graduates.

The college graduates who in 2003 failed to demonstrate proficiency included 53 percent who scored at the intermediate level and 14 percent who scored at the basic level, meaning they could read and understand short, commonplace prose texts.

Three percent of college graduates who took the test in 2003, representing some 800,000 Americans, demonstrated "below basic" literacy, meaning that they could not perform more than the simplest skills, like locating easily identifiable information in short prose.
Link: "Literacy Falls for Graduates From College, Testing Finds" (from the New York Times)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The dowdy world on film

I sometimes refer to what I call "the dowdy world" -- meaning modern American culture as it was before certain forms of technology redefined everyday life. The dowdy world is a place with dictaphones, rotary phones, afternoon newspapers, "radio programs," and telegrams. In the dowdy world, a fountain pen is an everyday tool, not a jewel-laden collector's item. And yes, there are pay phones. In the dowdy world, even a crime boss has to drop a nickel to make an important call.

I sometimes like watching a movie just for the pleasure of getting in touch with the dowdy world in all its black-and-white splendor. Few movies have given me as much of this odd pleasure as The House on 92nd Street, a 1945 film about the FBI infiltration of a Nazi spy-ring in Manhattan. It's part thriller, part police-procedural, told in documentary fashion with a solemn narrative voiceover. The movie was recently released on DVD, billed as film noir, which it's not. (But noir sells.)

The House on 92nd Street pleases even with its opening credits -- presented in the form of a typed document, the pages held at the top by a big shiny clasp. As the scenes go by, one sees file cabinets, file trays, card files, desktop blotters, rocking blotters, desk sets, ledgers, teletype machines, typing stands, pencils, fountain pens, and rubber stamps. These objects are sometimes the focal points of scenes, as when a morgue attendant reads through the pocket notebook found on a body and the camera closes in on its pages. At other times, these objects -- which may well have been virtually invisible to a 1945 audience -- take on a curious importance just by virtue of their antiquity. Look at that fountain pen, I say to myself. It's right there, so big that it's easy to identify as a Waterman.

The follow-up movie The Street with No Name (1948) has similar delights. In this film the FBI is after crooks, not Nazis. A teletype machine -- spitting out a directive signed "J. Edgar Hoover" -- is the first speaking character in the movie. An enormous wooden card file sits on the desk of a bail bondsman. Look at that card file, I say to myself. It's the bondsman's database, and he pops the hood and retrieves a card in less time than it would take to point and click. A stapler, the dowdy kind, shiny steel, with a knob to push down on, is strangely prominent in a shot of an FBI staffer. And everyone seems to have a pencil at hand -- or else is gesturing for one, as when Inspector Briggs (Lloyd Nolan), taking a phone call, needs to get down an address. He then speaks the words, telegram-style, as he writes them:

"Anderson . . . Manufacturing . . . Company. Fraser . . . Road at . . . Caron."

In 2008 I made a post with screenshots of the Dixon Ticonderogas of The House on 92nd Street: Is there a pencil in The House?

I shall now click my mouse and send these words from the dowdy world into the future.
All "dowdy world" posts (via Pinboard)

Happy birthday, Clark Terry

Trumpeter and flugelhornist Clark Terry is 85 today. Happy birthday, Clark Terry.

I was lucky to talk with Clark at length some years back, when I did an hour-long interview with him on the FM station at my university. It was a high point in my life -- the chance to ask questions of a great musician and Ellingtonian.

You can learn more about Clark Terry and see his touring schedule at his website:

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Larry David's notebook

From a New Yorker piece on Larry David and Curb Your Enthusiasm:

Like many comedians, Larry David carries a pocket notebook for writing down ideas. "You're in a parking garage, and Larry’s wallet is empty--he forgot to ask his assistant to go to the cash machine," [Robert] Weide, who directs several episodes a year, says. "So he says, 'Shit, I have no money for the valet--could you give me a few bucks?' So you find yourself giving money to Larry David, who has a few bucks. And then out comes the little notebook."

"What would I have done if he hadn’t been there?" David said. "That could have been funny."

The notebook is a ratty brown thing that looks as if it might have cost forty-nine cents at a stationery store. Its pages are covered with David’s illegible scrawl.
Ratty? I think not. The notebook, as seen in Curb Your Enthusiasm, seems to be a Boorum memo book, made by Esselte Pendaflex. The photograph above is of one of mine ($1.55 whenever I bought it, not all that long ago). Sad to say, I can't find one reference to this well-made item online. Has it become, like the Blackwing pencil, a part of the past?

Larry David's notebook is prominent in "The Wire" (first season, episode six of Curb Your Enthusiasm). It's so important to its owner that written inside it is an offer of a $500 reward for its return. Trouble comes when a neighbor finds the notebook and wants Larry to make good on the reward.

Link: James Kaplan, "Angry Middle-Aged Man"
(from the New Yorker, 19 January 2004)

Update: A call to Esselte Pendaflex confirms that these notebooks are still available. The person I spoke with (a fan of CYE who didn't know about the notebook connection) said that they can be ordered from Able Office Products (1.800.870.6872).

Update, July 9, 2008: Reader Steve Windham found brown Oxford pocket notebooks for sale here. Thanks, Steve!

Update, April 5, 2012: Steve Windham has found a Roaring Spring Sewn Memo Book that looks very much like the brown notebooks of yore. He also reports one online source, selling notebooks by the case. Thanks again, Steve.

Update, September 7, 2012: Steve Windham has found an online source for single Roaring Springs Sewn Memo Books. Thanks again, again, Steve.

Friday, December 9, 2005

Red Nose Beaujolais

I was surprised to find tonight that Orange Crate Art is the only page that turns up if you're searching for "red nose beaujolais" with either Google or Yahoo. I happened to mention Red Nose Beaujolais (here) in a moment of Thanksgiving reverie. This single-page result is not exactly a Googlewhack, but it is pretty surprising.

If anyone is wondering, Red Nose Beaujolais is a wonderful wine. When my wife and I sample the three or four varieties of Beaujolais nouveau available from our local "wine-merchant" (aka "the liquor store"), we always seem to agree on which one or ones we like best. This year it was Red Nose Beaujolais. You heard it here first.


Nothing moves me to procrastinate like the prospect of grading dozens of essays. But I've been making great efforts toward getting-things-done instead of putting-things-off. And having just graded 53 essays in a day-and-a-half (yes, I didn't do much else), I can recommend one strategy that's done more than any other to help me get around grading-induced procrastination. Here it is, in all its complexity:

Work for 45 minutes.
Take a break for 15 minutes.
Repeat as necessary.
My 45/15 rule is a variation on a strategy that I saw mentioned by doctoral student Zach Pousman in a MetaFilter thread a few months back on being productive in college. Zach cited PhinisheD, a website for people working on dissertations and theses, and described a 40/20 rule he found there:
Do your work in 40 minute blocks with a twenty minute rest between each. This is a set. Then, if you've got 3 hours between classes or in the afternoon, do 3 sets of work as above. Though you'll only work two hours, you'll get so much more done! Swear.
I didn't like the idea of losing a third of each hour, so I changed things a bit. My 45/15 rule has made grading much more do-able work, by removing the Sisyphean feeling that has always set in when I realize how many papers I still have to grade (20 done, and 33 still to go! O endlessness!). Now I know that in 45 minutes I can take a break.

45/15 also helps by appealing to my left-brained penchant for routine, giving a shape to the blurry hours. Of course, now that I've graded all these papers, I have no routine, and will have to wait until Wednesday, when my first finals come in, to start grading again. Four days with no routine! But I think I can manage.

[If any of my students are reading this post: the essays for the most part were really, really strong. You can get your essay back on Monday or at your final exam.]

Thursday, December 8, 2005

John Lennon

9 October 1940 – 8 December 1980

[I've scanned the photo from my 1968 copy of the Beatles' "white album," scratches and all.]

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Mozart and tenure

Dear Dean:

This is in response to your suggestion that we appoint Mr. Wolfgang Mozart to our music faculty. The music department appreciates your interest, but the faculty is sensitive about its prerogatives in the selection of new colleagues.

While the list of works and performances the candidate has submitted is very full, it reflects too much activity outside academia. Mr. Mozart does not have an earned doctorate and has very little formal education and teaching experience. There is also significant evidence of personal instability evidenced in his resume. Would he really settle down in a large state university like ours? Would he really be a team player?
This piece seems to circulate among musicans on the net. My wife Elaine received it recently in an e-mail. Its author is unknown, at least to us. You can read it in its entirety via the link.

LINK: "Why Mozart Didn't Get Tenure" (from

Tuesday, December 6, 2005

My other blog is a Moleskine

My longer posts to Orange Crate Art tend to begin in a Moleskine pocket notebook. Yes, my other blog is a Moleskine. (And no, I didn't need to draft this post in a notebook first.)

Above, a partial draft of a post about the permanence and impermanence of things.

Monday, December 5, 2005

Cabbage soup

I was seized by the urge to make soup yesterday. Not to open a can or a packet, but to make soup, cabbage soup. My wife Elaine, who makes wonderful soups, assured me that it would be easy to do. She was right.

My recipe is a "veganed" (I just made up the word) version of Julia Child's recipe for soupe aux choux, a soup which is indeed, as JC calls it, garbure. I left out the salt pork -- ditto the lard rance (a very special "slightly rancid salt pork"), bacon, ham, and confit d'oie (preserved goose), any of which could've taken its place. I added the tomatoes and a vegetable-broth base, and changed the seasoning a bit.

To make this cabbage soup, you will need

some olive oil
2 onions, chopped
2 quarts water
1 tbsp. Better Than Bouillon vegetable base
4 red potatoes, peeled and cut in chunks
1 28-oz. can petite diced tomatoes
2 large carrots, cut into discs
1 cabbage, about 2 lbs., chopped
2 garlic cloves, smashed and chopped
10 peppercorns, smashed
1/4 tsp. marjoram
1/4 tsp. thyme
salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large pot, brown the onions in olive oil.

2. Add all the other ingredients, beginning with the water and potatoes. From there on, the order is pretty arbitrary. (It's just soup.)

3. Cover the pot and let everything come to a boil. Then cook on low-to-medium heat for 90 minutes or so. The timing is pretty flexible. (It's just soup.)

4. Stir and taste every so often, and add some salt and pepper if you like. (I like my soup with lots of pepper.)

5. Serve with the best bread you can muster.

It saddens me to think that many people in the United States of Generica have never tasted homemade soup, the ultimate comfort food. The preparation is simple, but you can wow your loved ones (and yourself) by making a homemade soup.

Saturday, December 3, 2005

Smoke Smoke Smoke Smoke

[Spoiler note: There are no great giveaways in what follows. But if you've not seen Smoke and would prefer to know nothing of its content, read no further.]

I just watched Wayne Wang and Paul Auster's film Smoke (1995) four times. I'm teaching it in a class, and I loathe the thought of using class meetings to show a film in 50-minute installments. So I simply scheduled four consecutive nights for students to watch the film, and I ended up watching four times. And in doing so, I noticed details I'd probably never have caught otherwise.

There's a beautifully-made pattern, for instance, in what happens when Paul Benjamin (a novelist, played by William Hurt) answers the door of his Brooklyn apartment. Recently widowed, Paul lives what appears to be a solitary life. Watch what happens when people come to his door.

1. The buzzer buzzes, three times, and Paul continues typing, or trying to type. He finally gets up from his chair--saying "Shit!"--and goes to the door. He speaks into the intercom: "Who is it?" "Rashid." "Who?" "Rashid Cole." It's the young man who saved pedestrian Paul from being hit by a truck not long before. "Come on up," Paul says.

Paul has offered Rashid a place to stay for a couple of nights, but it becomes clear that this solitary man is not happy about sharing his space. After two nights, he asks Rashid to leave. It's clear though that Paul is worried, or at least concerned. From his window, he watches Rashid (who has "seen something he wasn't supposed to see") walk away.

2. There's fervent knocking (the buzzer's broken). Without asking who's there, Paul opens the door, just an inch. The visitor is Rashid's aunt, "sick with worry." She pushes the door open and inquires about her nephew, whose real name, we now learn, is Thomas.

3. A doorbell rings and Paul opens the door--much wider this time. "Ah, it's you," he says. It's Thomas, as he was hoping.

4. Someone is pounding on the door. Paul opens the door wide only to find two hoodlums in search of Thomas, who, luckily, is not in the apartment.

These four small moments show us Paul Benjamin's increasing willingness to let people in, literally--into his apartment, into his life. He checks to see who's there; he opens the door just a bit; and he opens it wide, twice. His openness brings the chance for genuine friendship with a surrogate son (who is himself in search of his father). His openness brings great danger as well (the thugs leave him with a bandaged forehead and an arm in a sling). Nothing in the film works to call attention to these moments--there's no swelling music, no close-up on a hand momentously turning a doorknob. The moments are just there, for a viewer who's paying attention. Once you notice them, you have some new ways of thinking about what happens when Granny Ethel opens her door to "Roger Goodwin" in Auggie Wren's Christmas story.

It's appropriate that Smoke itself should highlight the practice of paying attention, of looking carefully at the same thing again and again. Auggie says when showing Paul his "life's work," "You'll never get it if you don't slow down, my friend." Auggie has been taking a photograph of his corner at 8:00 every morning for the past four thousand mornings. It's appropriate too that the one Paul Benjamin novel we see is titled The Mysterious Barricades. Repeated viewing won't help you to catch that detail, though, or the content of the newspaper page at the film's end. You'll never get those details if you don't use the pause button, my friend.

I'm not sure how many films will reward extended attention in the way that Smoke does. But try with a film that you like--you might be surprised by what you notice.


February 7, 2015: I’ve been wondering how I failed to mention François Couperin’s harpsichord piece Les Barricades Mystérieuses [The Mysterious Barricades]. Did I not know about it in 2005. Did Elaine not tell me about it? Here is a performance by Bruno Procopio. Since 2005, I’ve come to love Couperin’s music, via Angela Hewitt’s three discs of the keyboard music.

The new Sappho poem

For my 2601 students: These two links will clear up the story of the new Sappho poem.

LINK: Martin West, "A new Sappho poem" (from the Times Literary Supplement)

LINK: "What's up with the Oxyrhynchus papyri?" An interesting thread from MetaFilter. (The Internet, it has everything!) At least I'm not the only one who assumed that this poem came to us via new technology.

Friday, December 2, 2005

How to do well on a final examination

Saying the word "final" is usually enough to bring a classroom to dread-filled silence. Exams can be scary. Studying ahead of time and getting a good night's sleep are two ways to defuse stress and do well. Here are five more:

1. Overprepare. That might seem like a poor way to study. But over many years of teaching, I've found it to be sound advice. It's much wiser to take an exam too seriously and find it easier than you expected than to wish — when it's too late — that you'd studied more. Think of the baseball player who swings a weighted bat before stepping up to the plate. On-deck time is what makes the work with a regular bat stronger.

Don't confuse overpreparing with cramming. If you overprepare, do so in advance, so that you can get a good night's sleep before the exam.

2. Bring several writing instruments. If your one pen or pencil fails and you need to borrow a replacement, you'll lose time, annoy others, and look silly.

3. Use your time wisely. Three ways to do so:

Wear a watch so that you can manage time on your own terms. Many professors and proctors will mark the time on the blackboard, but glancing at a watch is better than depending upon the click of the chalk — distracting at best, stressful at worst — that lets you know that another chunk of time has vanished.

Map out your work. When your professor talks about the exam, make sure that it's clear how each part will count toward the whole. If, for instance, you have two hours and an essay that's worth half the exam, give yourself an hour to plan, write, and review your essay.

It's not unusual for students in the blur of exam week to lose track of when an exam has started and will end. So map out your work not only in minutes but with starting and ending points. Then you can't lose track of where you are. For instance,

2:15-2:45: identifies
2:45-3:15: short essay
3:15-4:15: long essay
You can work out these details beforehand and write them discreetly in the corner of an exam booklet when you begin.

Finally, don't rush. This advice is especially important if your exam falls late in exam week, when many students have already left campus. Just take your time; your vacation will be waiting for you when you're done.

4. Elaborate. If you have a choice between making a point briefly and elaborating, choose to elaborate. A professor reading a final exam is reading to "get to done" — to assign a grade and move on to the next exam in the stack. So you should show your knowledge and understanding in all appropriate ways. As I tell my students, I like reading an exam that lets me say "Okay, okay, you know the material. Enough!"

This suggestion assumes that whatever you're elaborating on is relevant to the question at hand. Irrelevancies won’t help your case. Nor will mere bull, which is altogether different from knowledge and understanding.

5. Don't panic. In the worst-case exam scenario, an exam-taker goes on automatic, misreading questions, skipping key directions (like "Choose one"), and producing verbal babble as the time zooms by. It's important to stay calm enough to focus on the work there is to do. You might visualize yourself sitting down, reading the questions, planning your responses, and doing well. Another way to avoid panicking is to remind yourself how much time you really have. A two-hour exam equals four episodes of a situation comedy — a lot of time when you look at it that way.

Best wishes to all readers (students and faculty) contending with final exams.

[Nancy panel by Ernie Bushmiller. Found while playing Five-Card Nancy.]

A related post
How to do horribly on a final exam

Thursday, December 1, 2005

Beyond category

Duke Ellington always insisted that great art is "beyond category." Here he is, refusing to be categorized by an interviewer:

You've been quoted as saying that you write the music of your people as it sounds to you.


Now, would you like to expound on that a little bit?

Let's see. My people--now which of my people? I mean--you know, I'm in several groups, you know. I'm in--let's see--I'm in the group of the piano players. I'm in the group of the listeners. I'm in the groups of people who have general appreciation of music. I'm in the group of those who aspire to be dilettantes. I'm in the group of those who attempt to produce something fit for the plateau. I'm in the group of--what now? Oh, yeah, those who appreciate Beaujolais [laughs]. And then of course I'm in the--of course, I've had such a strong influence by the music of the people. The people, that's the better word, the people rather than my people, because the people are my people.
[Transcribed from Ken Burns' Jazz. The film footage looks to be from the mid-1960s.]

Fanny Ellison (1911-2005)

From this morning's New York Times:

Fanny McConnell Ellison, who was involved in the theater, politics and civil rights before she married Ralph Ellison and helped him edit his masterpiece, "Invisible Man," died on Nov. 19 at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in Manhattan. She was 93.

The cause was complications of hip surgery, said John F. Callahan, Ellison's literary executor.

The poet Langston Hughes arranged for her to meet Ellison after she said she yearned to meet a man who was interested in books. She had met Hughes while directing a production of his "Don't You Want to Be Free?" in Chicago put on by the Negro People's Theater, which she had founded.

In June 1944, Ellison, then a merchant seaman, and his future wife met at Frank's restaurant on 125th Street in Harlem; both ordered the cheapest item on the menu, and talked until the place closed. They were married from August 1946 until Ellison's death at 80 in April 1994.
LINK: "Fanny Ellison, 93, Dies; Helped Husband Edit 'Invisible Man'" (from the New York Times)

{To read the Times online without a free account of your own, visit BugMeNot.]