Sunday, December 31, 2006

A poem for New Year's Eve

The ground isn't white with snow. (It's 56°F as I type.) But here's a poem for the day, from Ted Berrigan (1934-1983):


The ground is white with snow.
It's morning, of New Year's Eve, 1968, & clean
City air is alive with snow, it's quiet
Driving. I am 33. Good Wishes, brothers, everywhere

& Don't You Tread On Me.
[From Many Happy Returns (Corinth Books, 1969). In The Collected Poems of Ted Berrigan (University of California Press, 2005), it's in line three is changed to its.]
Related posts
Ted Berrigan, "A Final Sonnet"
Happy New Year (dialogue from the 1954 film Marty)

Saturday, December 30, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

My son Ben told the rest of our family that we had to watch An Inconvenient Truth. We did. The next morning we went out to buy compact fluorescent bulbs. We're also walking whenever possible. My hope is that people everywhere are making the same sorts of changes.

The above image is from a .pdf available from the film's website. I'd urge everyone within the sound of my voice to watch An Inconvenient Truth.

An Inconvenient Truth (

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Gilgamesh travesty

Boing Boing, the website that identifies itself as "a directory of wonderful things," has a link today to something to wonder at -- something so misconceived that it bewilders, and then it bewilders some more. It's a short animated movie from 2004, made by the Department of Veterans Affairs, entitled The Epic of Gilgamesh: Clinical Practice Guidelines for Post-Deployment Health Evaluation and Management (hereafter, GVA). This three-part movie recasts the story of Gilgamesh and his comrade Enkidu (the oldest written story, from ancient Mesopotamia) as a story of war and its sorrowful aftermath. I suspect that Jonathan Shay's work linking Homer's epics and the suffering of Vietnam veterans -- Achilles in Vietnam and Odysseus in America -- prompted this rethinking of the Gilgamesh story. It's indeed plausible to find in Gilgamesh an allegory of the experience of a combat veteran. But this adaptation fails in several ways.

In the original story, Gilgamesh (king of the city of Uruk) and Enkidu journey to the mysterious forest to kill the giant Humbaba and bring back cedar. They behead Humbaba (who, like Homer's much-later Cyclops, turns out to be a rather plaintive character) and cut down every tree in sight. The story seems to combine admiration for human daring with the recognition that it's possible for human beings to go too far (the god Enlil, like the God of Genesis 3, a later story, is outraged by what these creatures have done). Gilgamesh's overarching purpose in going to the forest is to make a claim to fame, to do something magnificent, or die trying, and thereby leave a name that will endure, a name stamped on brick. The hero and his sidekick undertake this journey alone.

In GVA, the journey to the cedar forest becomes a "a great military deployment," the work of an army, a war, an adventure in slaying a demon and acquiring loot in the form of cedar trees (we see one such tree turn into a dollar sign). In the original story Gilgamesh is indeed intent on destroying "evil" and bringing back loot. But in a story about treatment options for American veterans of the present war, these motives look unmistakably like an allegory of the American presence in Iraq. And there's more: early on, we see Gilgamesh reading a to-do list that includes the item "Conquer world." What does such a scene say to American veterans, or to American allies and enemies? What were the makers of this film thinking?

A severe irony-deficiency might explain these problems. Other problems in this movie can be explained in terms of an unwillingness to acknowledge the full truth of the Gilgamesh story, a story that is ultimately about death and the human awareness of death. For slaying Humbaba and for another transgression back in Uruk, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are punished by the gods. Enkidu must die, and Gilgamesh's punishment is to live without his friend, with the knowledge that he too will die. Unable to reconcile himself to the loss of his comrade and to his own mortality, Gilgamesh undertakes a second journey in search of a way out of time. He travels to wise old Utnapishtim, the only survivor (along with an unnamed wife) of a catastrophic, divinely-sent flood (again, the story pre-dates Genesis). Utnapishtim, the great witness to universal destruction, tells Gilgamesh that there is no permanence, that he will never find what he is seeking. After some further complications, Gilgamesh returns to his city and dies.

GVA gives us a war story that shies away from acknowledging loss and grief. In this recasting, Enkidu is inexplicably paralyzed (a vague metaphor for paraplegia? quadriplegia? Gulf War syndrome?) and suffers another unexplained illness before dying. Gilgamesh, wandering, depressed, sleepless, experiencing intrusive thoughts of Humbaba's beheading and his friend's death, suffers from what unmistakably seems to be post-traumatic stress disorder. The profound loss without consolation that we see in the original story (and which, of course, marks the human condition that we share with ancient Sumerians and Babylonians) here becomes the occasion for a grotesquely comic encounter between Gilgamesh and "Dr. Utnapishtim," aka "Dr. U.," a vaguely Einstein-like figure whose name generates lame jokes about me and you. Dr. U. offers no explanation of Gilgamesh's problems, saying only that the diagnosis remains "in doubt," "unexplained," and "unresolved." The acronym PTSD appears on Dr. U's computer screen but is never spoken in the movie. The following image suggests some of the ways in which Gilgamesh can help himself recover:

Or as Dr. U. says while snatching a donut from Gilgamesh's hand, "A few less lattes in the morning." This is the suggestion of a doctor whose patient is tormented by memories of a beheading?

In the final scene, Gilgamesh, now dressed in a track suit and sneakers, goes for a run. The narrator then states that in the original story, Gilgamesh never recovered from his "war-related illnesses," adding that "Perhaps the outcome would have been better if his health-care providers had had access to the new VA/DoD Post-Deployment Health Clinical Practice Guidelines." Perhaps the outcome would be even better if those whose work is to help heal were willing to acknowledge loss and grief as directly as the Sumerians and Babylonians whose story has been turned (with our tax dollars) into a travesty.

Department of Defense remakes Gilgamesh online (Boing Boing)

The Epic of Gilgamesh: Clinical Practice Guidelines for Post-Deployment Health Evaluation and Management (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs)
Update, January 19, 2007: The three-part animation and an accompanying transcript have been taken offline. They are still available (at least for now) from the Internet Archive:
The Epic of Gilgamesh: 1, 2, 3
The Epic of Gilgamesh: Transcript

Monday, December 25, 2006

James Brown (1933-2006)

Butane James
The Funky President
The Godfather of Soul
The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business
The Man Who Never Left
Minister of the New, New, Super-Heavy Funk
Mr. Dynamite
Mr. Please, Please, Please
Soul Brother Number One
Universal James

"Where I grew up there was no way out, no avenue of escape, so you had to make a way. Mine was to create JAMES BROWN."

James Brown
May 3, 1933 - December 25, 2006

[Photographs by Howard Bingham, 1965]

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Ralph Kramden on Christmas

We now join The Honeymooners, already in progress:

"You know something, sweetheart? Christmas is -- well, it's about the best time of the whole year. You walk down the streets, even for weeks before Christmas comes, and there's lights hanging up, green ones and red ones. Sometimes there's snow. And everybody's hustling some place. But they don't hustle around Christmastime like they usually do. You know, they're a little more friendly -- if they bump into you, they laugh, and they say 'Pardon me' and 'Merry Christmas.' Especially when it gets real close to Christmas night. Everybody's walking home; you can hardly hear a sound. Bells are ringing; kids are singing; snow is coming down. And boy, what a pleasure it is to think that you've got someplace to go to. And the place that you're going to has somebody in it that you really love. Someone you're nuts about. Merry Christmas."
From "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," written by Marvin Marx and Walter Stone, broadcast December 24, 1955

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Happy holidays

My dad again. Thanks, Dad. (Note the spelling, as in John Deere.)

[Ink, watercolor, and colored paper, by James Leddy.]

More by James Leddy
Hardy mums

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The "new" Blogger

I switched to the "new" Blogger (no longer in beta) this afternoon. Alas, the tools that Blogger touts as making blog design easier aren't available to me without a new template, something I have no interest in creating right now. But there's one feature of the new Blogger that's surprising and useful: the search box in the upper-left-hand corner, which in the past offered hit-and-miss results, now seems to turn up all posts containing the searched-for text. And the search returns not headers, but the posts themselves, arranged into a blog page. It's exciting to see posts that have been separated by lengthy (or not so lengthy) gaps in time reappear as parts of a rambling chronology. (Type, for instance, brooklyn, and see what you find here.)

Update, December 22: Things will look strange for a while, and many links are now gone while I figure out a new template.


Later that night . . .

I've gone back to my previous template (which, to my surprise, came back with all its links and tweaks). My limited experience suggests that the "new" Blogger, while making some changes very easy, gives the user less freedom in designing the page. I could not, for instance, devise a way to put my name above my photograph without having it also appear below (as part of the text of my "profile").

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Paramus blues

“Rule No. 1 is to avoid Route 17 in either direction.”
A taste of what it's like to live in Paramus, New Jersey, a town of 27,000 with four malls and 2,700 stores.

(Sam Goody's at Garden State Plaza, the largest of these malls, was one of the great culture spots of my teenaged life.)
In This Town, Even a Mall Rat Can Get Rattled (New York Times)

Related post
Record stores

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Richard Rorty on the value of literature

The inspirational value Rorty claims for literature lies in its capacity to "make people think there is more to this life than they ever imagined." He's writing in opposition to what he calls "knowingness," "a state of soul which prevents shudders of awe," that substitutes "theorization for awe."

The following excerpt echoes a passage, quoted earlier in the essay, from Frederic Jameson, who dismissively refers to "prophets, Great Writers, and demiurges," "the distinctive individual brush stroke," and "quaint romantic values such as that of the 'genius'":

Inspirational value is typically not produced by the operations of a method, a science, a discipline, or a profession. It is produced by the individual brush strokes of unprofessional prophets and demiurges. You cannot, for example, find inspirational value in a text at the same time that you are viewing it as the product of a mechanism of cultural production. To view a work in this way gives understanding but not hope, knowledge but not self-transformation. For knowledge is a matter of putting a work in a familiar context -- relating it to things already known.

If it is to have inspirational value, a work must be allowed to recontextualize much of what you previously thought you knew; it cannot, at least at first, be itself recontextualized by what you already believe. Just as you cannot be swept off your feet by another human being at the same time that you recognize him or her as a good specimen of a certain type, so you cannot be simultaneously inspired by a work and be knowing about it. Later on -- when first love has been replaced by marriage -- you may acquire the ability to be both at once. But the really good marriages, the inspired marriages, are those which began in wild, unreflective infatuation.
Richard Rorty, "The Inspirational Value of Great Works," in Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Harvard University Press, 1998)
Related posts
George Steiner on reading
Mark Edmundson tells it like it is
Rorty on Proust
Words, mere words
Zadie Smith on reading

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Pens, quills, and great big typewriters

In the 1944 film Laura, Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) tries to persuade writer and radio personality Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) to endorse a fountain pen. But Lydecker is keeping it old school:

LH: Here's what I wanted to show you. It's for the Wallace Flow-Rite pen. I know my company would be glad to pay you $5000 if you'll endorse the ad.

WL: I don't use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom.
In fact, when we first see Waldo Lydecker, he's working at a typewriter, which sits on a swing-away platform over his bathtub.

The opening scene in Laura, in which detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews) first talks to Lydecker, is a hilarious clash of masculine styles. Lydecker sits in the tub, with his glasses, his scrawny chest, and his big typewriter. McPherson stands in jacket and fedora, with a cigarette and a small black notebook. The next time you watch Laura, watch for the trace of a smirk on McPherson's face as Lydecker gets up from the tub. Would an audience in 1944 have caught it and understood? I think so.

Update, December 23: I watched Laura again last night, and it's a small portable typewriter, which seems more appropriate anyway.

Friday, December 15, 2006


I was watching an episode of Ralph J. Gleason's television series Jazz Casual (1962) featuring the singer and pianist Jimmy Rushing, who was remembering his first encounter with Count Basie:

Rushing: Basie was an actor on the stage when I first saw him. And they used to ballyhoo. You know what that is? That's about fifteen minutes prior to the show, they would take a band -- the band would go out from the show. They'd play a number. And a fella singing. People would gather round. He would explain the show.

Gleason: Oh, out on the street?

Rushing: Yes. . . . See, in those days, Ralph, they did a lot of ballyhoo. Whatever place you worked for, you had to advertise it yourself.
I've always thought of ballyhoo as a close relation of such nouns as hoopla and hype. But Rushing was using the word as both noun and verb, and the word seemed, in his use, to denote the act of performance itself, not mere promotion. I was curious enough to look up the word in the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED's definitions certainly suggest hoopla and hype. For ballyhoo the noun: "A barker's touting speech; hence, blarney, bombastic nonsense; extravagant advertisement of any kind." And for ballyhoo the verb: "To cajole by extravagant advertisement or praise (after the manner of a barker); to advertise or praise extravagantly." But the OED's first recorded use of the word (from World's Work, 1901) jibes with Rushing's use: "First there is the ballyhoo -- any sort of a performance outside the show." (I've omitted the rest of the citation, which uses the racist terms of the time to describe performances by singers and dancers.) By 1914, Jackson and Hellyer's Vocabulary of Criminal Slang marks the word's move toward its still-current associations: "Current amongst exhibition and ‘flat-joint’ grafters. A free entertainment used for a decoy to attract customers." And by 1927, a Mr. Weiner of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission is calling "Dempsey's letter" "mere ballyhoo." (It seems likely that the reference is to the fighter Jack Dempsey, who fought and lost to Gene Tunney in Philadelphia in 1926.)

Neither the OED nor Merriam-Webster offers an etymology for ballyhoo. The Online Etymology Dictionary notes a village named Ballyhooly in County Cork, Ireland and the nautical word ballahou or ballahoo, meaning "an ungainly vessel" (from the Spanish balahú, schooner), but this site too offers no explanation of the word's origin. The American Heritage Dictionary adds a reference to an 1880 Harper's article describing the two-headed, four-winged "ballyhoo bird," which could whistle through one bill while singing through the other. That'd draw a crowd. The scholarly online archive JSTOR holds five articles spanning three decades (1935-1965), covering (with much greater detail) the possibilities I've sketched here. But still, the origin is unknown.

The use of ballyhoo among performers helps to explain what must be its most famous appearance -- in Harry Warren and Al Dubin's song "Lullaby of Broadway":
Come on along and listen to
The lullaby of Broadway,
The hip hooray and ballyhoo,
The lullaby of Broadway.
Jimmy Rushing (remember him, a few paragraphs ago?) recorded that song in 1956 for The Jazz Odyssey of James Rushing Esq., a great LP now available on CD.
Ralph J. Gleason's Jazz Casual (All About Jazz)
The Jazz Odyssey of James Rushing Esq. (

Thursday, December 14, 2006

"I'll take the soup"

The New York Times gets the punchline right:

Because of an editing error, an obituary on Sunday about Sid Raymond, a comic actor, rendered one of his jokes incorrectly. It was about a son who sends a prostitute to his widowed father, still a self-proclaimed ladies' man in his 90s. The prostitute tells the father that she is his birthday present and promises to give him "super sex" (not that she promises to give him whatever he'd like). The father replies, "I'll take the soup."
I'm glad that the Times made this correction, in what it calls one of Sid Raymond's last jokes.
Sid Raymond, 97, Actor With a Familiar Face, Dies (New York Times)

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Eleven pieces for students recently put together a post with links to ten pieces that I've written for students (and one by my daughter).

Lifehack also has a brief interview, with my answers by e-mail to Leon Ho's questions.

And now I must get back to work at the Continental Paper Grading Company.

Roundup: 11 Important Student Tips
Productive Interview Series: Michael Leddy

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


From a conversation in motion, heard through an open window:

"In Europe, a bird landed on my head, by the collar, and I was like . . . ."
Previous "Overheard" posts (via Pinboard)

Reality trumps satire

Is al Qaeda a Sunni organization, or Shi'ite? The question proved nettlesome for Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas, incoming Democratic chairman of the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. "Predominantly -- probably Shi'ite," he said in a recent interview with Congressional Quarterly, a periodical that covers political and legislative issues in Congress.

Unfortunately for Reyes, the al Qaeda network led by Osama bin Laden is comprehensively Sunni and subscribes to a form of Sunni Islam known for not tolerating theological deviation. In fact, U.S. officials blame al Qaeda's former leader in Iraq, the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi, for the surge in sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi'ites.

But Reyes' problems in the interview didn't end with al Qaeda. Asked to describe the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, Congressional Quarterly said Reyes responded: "Hezbollah. Uh, Hezbollah," and then said, "Why do you ask me these questions at five o'clock?"

Reyes' office issued a statement on Monday noting that the Congressional Quarterly interview covered a wide range of topics.
That's from Reuters, not The Onion.
House intelligence chair calls al Qaeda Shi'ite (Reuters)
Update: Here's an interesting article by a Congressional Quarterly editor, first published in the New York Times. The responses therein of FBI officials and members of Congress won't inspire confidence.
Can you tell a Sunni from a Shiite? (International Herald Tribune)

Friday, December 8, 2006

On December 8

On December 8, 1957, CBS aired The Sound of Jazz, whose highlight is Billie Holiday's performance of "Fine and Mellow." I'm happy to say that this performance can be found on YouTube. The version I've linked to below is the one with the best sound- and image-quality.

If you're not a jazz head, here is the sequence of soloists: Ben Webster (tenor), Lester Young (tenor), Vic Dickenson (trombone), Gerry Mulligan (baritone), Coleman Hawkins (tenor), and Roy Eldridge (trumpet). There's also a brief shot of Doc Cheatham playing a muted trumpet obbligato. The other musicians are Mal Waldron (piano), Danny Barker (guitar), Milt Hinton (bass), and Osie Johnson (drums).

Whoever supervised the camera work understood the irrepressible interest we have in looking (no, make that staring) at faces. Watch Ben Webster's quick nod at 1:31 (he seems to be saying "Mmm, that note tasted good"). Watch Holiday's face as she listens to Lester Young, the great friend with whom she'd had a falling out (he had named her "Lady Day" years earlier; she had named him "Pres"). And watch Gerry Mulligan's face as Coleman Hawkins solos.

On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was murdered. Paul Simon wrote of that December 8 (and of the December 24, 1954 death of singer Johnny Ace) in "The Late Great Johnny Ace":

On a cold December evening
I was walking through the Christmastide
When a stranger came up and asked me
If I'd heard John Lennon had died
And the two of us went to this bar
And we stayed to close the place
And every song we played was for
The late great Johnny Ace, yeah, yeah, yeah
And that's what I know about December 8.
Billie Holiday, "Fine and Mellow"
John Lennon (official website)
Johnny Ace (Wikipedia)

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Ambrosia and the deathless ones

From Anu Garg's A.Word.A.Day:

ambrosia (am-BROE-zhuhuh) noun

1. In classical mythology, the food of the gods.
2. Something very pleasing to taste or smell.
3. A dessert made of oranges and shredded coconut.

[From Latin, from Greek ambrotos, from a- (not) + mbrotos (mortal). Ultimately from the Indo-European root mer- (to rub away or to harm) that is also the source of morse, mordant, amaranth, morbid, mortal, mortgage, and nightmare.]
The Greek gods of course, subsisting on their not-mortal food, are athanatoi, deathless or, literally, not-dead.

I cannot hear the word ambrosia without remembering a weird bit of dialogue from the old television series Hazel. It's been stuck in my head since childhood, "Mister B." speaking to Hazel (his maid): "Hazel, your sweet potato pie is sheer ambrosia!" Pies made from potatoes? Ambrosia? Maids? I remember as a kid thinking that here was a world I would never be part of.

Hazel and Mister B., available on DVD (and still perhaps in re-runs somewhere), are now among the deathless ones themselves.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Robert Schneider sees things clearly

Professor Robert Schneider sees things clearly:

Podcasts of university courses are not "every student's dream"; they're totally bogus, a thin surrogate for real instruction, a fig leaf for disengagement, an excuse for lack of commitment from professors and students alike. People who believe in the transformative value of higher education will resist podcastification with a passion.
I hope that he's right.

Professor Schneider is writing in response to a student-journalist's commentary on said "dream." He quotes from her description:
Wake up for school, stumble over to the computer, and download the day's class lectures . . . then crawl back into bed -- iPod in one hand, notebook in the other.
This scene reminds me in some way of the picture of intellectual and emotional isolation near the end of The Waste Land:
We think of the key, each in his prison
Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison
I remember being presented some years ago with the argument that a college course consisting of videotaped lectures was a good "alternative" for students, particularly students who did not seek much contact with professors. "Professor in a can," some of us were calling it (or was it "in a box"?). What would the person "administering" the class (who would not be the professor on tape) do? Give and grade exams two or three times a semester.

As I've written in a previous blog post (about wireless classrooms), technology makes it possible to do things, not necessary to do them. It's possible to be a professor in a can. It's possible to stay in bed and take notes on a voice coming to you through headphones. But there are better ways to teach and learn.

Follow the link for the rest of Schneider's passionate rebuttal of what he calls "dystopian nonsense."
The Attack of the Pod People (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Curiosity and its discontents

My son Ben just came in with some interesting news: he wants to write an article for the high-school page in our local newspaper comparing high-school life in 1956 and 2006. To write this piece, he proposes to study the 1956-57 yearbook (available in the school office).

His teacher told him that "No one would be interested" in reading such an article. He's going to write it anyway, and fight the power that be.

Go Ben!

Another word from the Greek

It's Merriam-Webster's word of the day:

symposium \sim-POH-zee-um\ noun
*1 : a social gathering at which there is free interchange of ideas
2 a : a formal meeting at which several specialists deliver short addresses on a topic or on related topics b : a collection of opinions on a subject; especially : one published by a periodical
3 : discussion

Example sentence: The symposium gave Eduardo and other writers the chance to listen to and share new ideas about literature.

Did you know? It was drinking more than thinking that drew people to the original symposia and that gave us the word "symposium." The ancient Greeks would often follow a banquet with a drinking party they called a "symposion." That name came from "sympinein," a verb that combines "pinein," meaning "to drink," with the prefix "syn-," meaning "together." Originally, English speakers only used "symposium" to refer to such an ancient Greek party, but in the 18th century British gentlemen's clubs started using the word for gatherings in which intellectual conversation was fueled by drinking. By the 19th century, "symposium" had gained the more sober sense we know today, describing meetings in which the focus is more on the exchange of ideas and less on imbibing.

*Indicates the sense illustrated in the example sentence.
I can remember as a (naïve) college freshman being baffled by the drinking in Plato's Symposium. This was philosophy? Huh?
Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day

Monday, December 4, 2006

"Analog geezer"

From the New York Times:

Variety recently published an obituary for the VHS format: "VHS, 30, dies of loneliness." If there's a format heaven, you'd expect VHS to be joining audiocassettes there. At age 42, cassettes predate VHS and have been pummeled by CDs and digital downloads.

But the cassette just won't seem to die.
The article goes on to explain why.
The Analog Geezer That Keeps Working (New York Times)
And a related link, with photographs showing "the amazing beauty and (sometimes) weirdness found in the designs of the common audio tape cassette":

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Readers and writers

L. Lee Lowe went exploring in the NCSA glossary and came back with treasures: ghost icon, passive gateway, shadow widget.

Most interesting of all, Lee says, is the explanation of readers and writers. See what she found by following the link.

Ghost icon and the love of dictionaries (from lowebrow)

Britney Spears and Sophocles

Christie's auction house explains:

A page taken from Britney Spears' junior high school notebook containing her handwritten review of Rex Warner's translation of Sophocles' story Antigone, written in black ballpoint pen on either side of the page, Britney's review annotated by her teacher with corrections to her spelling and comments including Nice cover Organized Watch your spelling and Write more neatly and her grade: 88; and a corresponding piece of yellow card decorated with the book's title Antigone in black felt pen -- 12x9in. (30.5x20.8cm.)
This item was offered in an on-line auction to raise money for the Britney Spears Foundation.

I especially like "He get's scared to he lets her go. NO" "To where" is the horrendous idiom the writer is in search of. Note though that in addition to letting the apostrophe go, the teacher has no offered no suggestion as to how one might reconstruct this sentence. Perhaps the teacher was so tired of grading to where they just couldn't bother. (I can't believe I just wrote that sentence.)

And was it Britney or her teacher who appears to have added Rex Warner's name (not Sophocles') at the top? The ink seems to match the teacher's corrections, and the capital R looks pretty old-fashioned. We'll just have to wonder: the bidding is closed.
Britney Spears' Antigone (Christie's, via Gawker)

Tables for studying

Just in time for final examinations: Anastasia at Lawsagna took the idea of granularity and created tables with which students can plan out their studying by subject and by time available. These tables are quite nifty if you feel at home doing such planning on the computer. You can download the Excel file by following the link to her post.

Strategies and tools to plan your exam preparation (Lawsagna)

Friday, December 1, 2006

Hello, Boing Boing readers

Welcome to my blog. Enjoy your stay, and as the signs say, Please Come Again!

(If you're wondering what this post is about, I've been Boing Boinged.)

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Invitation to a dance

One of the most moving passages in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (1952) is the narrator's careful inventory of the items being put into the street as an old couple are evicted from their Harlem apartment. Here's a sample:

Pots and pots of green plants were lined in the dirty snow, certain to die of the cold; ivy, canna, a tomato plant. And in a basket I saw a straightening comb, switches of false hair, a curling iron, a card with silvery letters against a background of dark red velvet, reading "God Bless Our Home"; and scattered across the top of a chiffonier were nuggets of High John the Conqueror, the lucky stone; and as I watched the white men put down a basket in which I saw a whiskey bottle filled with rock candy and camphor, a small Ethiopian flag, a faded tintype of Abraham Lincoln, and the smiling image of a Hollywood star torn from a magazine. And on a pillow several badly cracked pieces of delicate china, a commemorative plate celebrating the St. Louis World's Fair . . . I stood in a kind of daze, looking at an old folded lace fan studded with jet and mother-of-pearl.

Thinking about this passage made me remember the invitation I've scanned here, which I bought for fifty cents at a flea market a few years ago.

Who might have saved this card for so many years?

A husband and wife who met at this dance?

Their children?

A. Pellegrino?

One of the Syncopators?

A printer (note that it's a union printer) who liked to hold on to copies of his work?

One of the barbers?

Someone who liked the lyrics on the back?

I thought it appropriate to give this invitation a home.

The Lawndale Masonic Temple, I learned tonight, was located at 2300 Millard Avenue in Chicago. The webpage for the Chicago Public Library's Lawndale-Crawford Community Collection describes the neighborhood:
By 1900, Bohemian immigration into the Lawndale-Crawford area replaced the earlier settlers of Dutch, German, Irish, and Scotch extraction. Within a few years, the community was considered the largest Bohemian settlement, outside of Prague, Czechoslovakia. This ethnic group was very politically and socially active throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, which resulted in the formation of numerous civic and social organizations as well as a close-knit community.

As the area continued to develop, the population shifted, and the Bohemians began to move further west and northwest. They were replaced by various other ethnic groups such as the Poles, and finally the Hispanics, who still reside in the area today.
Google Maps shows a large building still standing at 2300 Millard Avenue. It seems to now be home to one or two churches: New Life Christian Church and/or La Villita Community Church.

The songs: "In a Little Spanish Town," music by Mabel Wayne, lyrics by Sam M. Lewis and Joe Young, appeared in 1926. "Thinking of You," music by Harry Ruby, lyrics by Bert Kalmar, was featured in the 1927 show The Five O'Clock Girl. ("'FIVE O'CLOCK GIRL' IS HIGHLY ENJOYABLE" said the New York Times on October 11, 1927. "Thinking of You" isn't mentioned in the review.) Were people dancing to one or both songs on January 15, 1927?

And about the barbers: The only Chicago "F. Carbone" listed in the Social Security Death Index is Frank Carbone (1910-1980), too young to be the man on the card. I wonder if "E. Popp" might be Edward (1879-1965), Ernest (1902-1971), or Edwin (1906-1973) (the last almost certainly too young).

The address where Messrs. Carbone and Popp had their shop seems to no longer exist.

Update, February 2012: Here is a 1925 photograph of Anthony Pellegrino and the Alabama Syncopators.

Lawndale-Crawford Community Collection (Chicago Public Library)

High John the Conqueror (Lucky Mojo Curio Company)

Found (On another bit of ephemera)

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


People who think about hacking their lives and their work often speak of "granularity." It's a curious word. The online Oxford English Dictionary offers only “granular condition or quality” as a definition. A more helpful definition comes from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications: "The extent to which a larger entity is subdivided. For example, a yard broken into inches has finer granularity than a yard broken into feet." To think of tasks and challenges in terms of granularity is to think in terms of breaking them down into smaller and more manageable parts.

Granularity is a tremendously useful strategy for students. The typical spiral-bound student-planner doesn't encourage it; that tool is often little more than a place to store due dates: "research paper due." But no one can just write a research paper. That paper can only be the result of numerous small-scale tasks. It's not surprising that students who think of "write research paper" as one monolithic task are likely to put it off far longer than they ought to. Instead of "write research paper," one could think of these tasks: go to library to look up sources; organize them by call number; read first three sources and take notes; get article from JSTOR; read remaining three sources and take notes; organize notes on computer; check bibliography format; ask professor about endnote form; make rough outline; and so on. Each of these "granular" tasks is far more do-able than "write research paper." Thinking of work in terms of granularity can be one way to overcome the overwhelming dread of getting started. And keeping track of such tasks on paper and crossing them off one by one gives the satisfaction of making progress and getting closer to done.

A student might also apply the strategy of granularity to the work of writing itself. Instead of writing a draft and "looking it over," it's much smarter to break down the work of writing and editing by thinking about one thing at a time. Developing a strong thesis statement: that's one task. Working out a sequence of paragraphs to develop that thesis: another task. Figuring out how to make a transition from one paragraph to another: another task. If you tend to have patterns of errors in your writing, look for each kind of error, one at a time. Noun-pronoun agreement? Read a draft once through looking only for that. Comma splices? Read once through with your eyes on the commas. It might seem that approaching the work of writing and editing in terms of smaller, separate tasks is unnecessarily cumbersome, but breaking things down will likely make it far easier to work more effectively and come out with a stronger piece of writing. No writer can think about everything at once.

Granularity is also a useful strategy for making even a daunting reading project do-able. If you have eighty pages to read, finish twenty and take a short break; then repeat. If you're reading James Joyce or Marcel Proust, a handful of pages might be all that you can manage at one sitting, and sometimes you'll chart your progress by the sentence. But those sentences and pages add up. I just finished Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (À la recherche du temps perdu), averaging twenty pages a day over five months and two days of reading (total: 3,102 pages).

Try thinking of your next major (or even minor) assignment in terms of granularity. You might find that getting started and making progress come far more easily.

Not long after my wife Elaine and I met, we discovered that we each owned a postcard with the above image: "Making Slow Progress." I'm happy to see that this postcard is still available from Hold the Mustard Photo Cards.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

E-mail etiquette

From a New York Times article on signing off in e-mails:

Chad Troutwine, an entrepreneur in Malibu, Calif., was negotiating a commercial lease earlier this year for a building he owns in the Midwest. Though talks began well, they soon grew rocky. The telltale sign that things had truly devolved? The sign-offs on the e-mail exchanges with his prospective tenant.

"As negotiations started to break down, the sign-offs started to get decidedly shorter and cooler," Mr. Troutwine recalled. "In the beginning it was like, 'I look forward to speaking with you soon' and 'Warmest regards,' and by the end it was just 'Best.'" The deal was eventually completed, but Mr. Troutwine still felt as if he had been snubbed.

What’s in an e-mail sign-off? A lot, apparently. Those final few words above your name are where relationships and hierarchies are established, and where what is written in the body of the message can be clarified or undermined. In the days before electronic communication, the formalities of a letter, either business or personal, were taught to every third-grader; sign-offs -- from “Sincerely” to “Yours truly” to “Love” -- came to mind without much effort.

But e-mail is a casual medium, and its conventions are scarcely a decade old. They are still evolving, often awkwardly.
The Troutwine scenario seems tricky. If negotiations are breaking down, wouldn't "Warmest regards" likely sound snotty and sarcastic? And given the frequency with which e-mails fly back and forth, wouldn't even the best-intentioned correspondents soon weary of such repetition?

I'm with Jason Kottke: I think that "Best" is entirely appropriate and courteous when writing to someone other than a friend or relation. "Best wishes" is good too. "Best regards" also seems appropriate. ("Regards" though sounds a bit remote.) "All the best" has long seemed strange to me, probably because I have a book signed by William S. Burroughs that wishes me exactly that. "Thanks" works well if you've made a request. Any variation on "See you next week" is always fine. "Cheers," which is fairly widespread in academia, seems to strike people as either perfectly all right or perfectly pretentious, so perhaps it's best avoided.

It's fascinating to watch the conventions of e-mail evolve. For now, I look forward to developing our acquaintance in the posts that follow.


Michael Leddy

"Yours Truly," the E-Variations (New York Times)

Related post
How to e-mail a professor

Spam names

CNN reports that "as many as 9 out of [sic] 10 e-mails" are now spam. My academic e-mail address ("harvested," like a still-useful organ, from the university's website) brings at least 70 or 80 spam mails a day (probably 7 or 8 of every 10 messages). Some are automatically marked for deletion. Others, I have to look at. Before deleting those (unopened), I sometimes take strange pleasure in noticing the names under which these messages are sent. I especially like the combination of an over-the-top fake name (made, I assume, by randomly joining names and nouns) and a routine subject line.

Here are some of the "people" who have appeared in my mailbox in the last few days, inquiring about drugs, loans, "pos.sib.le mee.tings," and whether I want to be a hero in bed:

Laverne Askew, Dooley Eustace, Dionysius Godsey, Pansy Langston, Petronella Naumann, Wiley Q. Patricia, Snow V. Pius, and Patty Potts.
And best of all:
Smog Q. Carafe,
who might be a distant relation of Rufus T. Firefly.

Related posts
Achilles and stochastic
Introducing Rickey Antipasto
The poetry of spam
The folks who live in the mail

9 out of 10 e-mails now spam (CNN)

Monday, November 27, 2006

Collegiate pastoral

The images of college life found in collegiate promotional materials offer an abiding version of the pastoral in our world. Therein it's always spring; a small group of shepherds and shepherdesses (i.e., students) sit on the grass. There is always grass. The grass is lush and green, so it must have rained, but not so recently as to make the ground unpleasant to sit upon. (Hey, it's pastoral.) The students are speaking to one another, not into cell phones. They may well be speaking in iambic pentameter and rhyme.

Such scenes, minus meter and rhyme, can on occasion be found in reality of course. What photographs of such scenes fail to suggest is how noisy even the most pastoral collegiate moment is likely to be. One student with powerful speakers and open windows can pollute the emptiest, greenest quad with noise. Loud music also comes from official sources: it's increasingly common for athletic teams to practice -- even during final-exam week -- with music blasting from a PA system. A skateboard might be grinding away just beyond the edge of the picture. Not long ago I heard for the first time a minibike going up and down a sidewalk in the middle of campus, the whine of its engine bouncing off the walls of four buildings. (Yes, the minibike was traveling up and down, for sport, not transport.) And at times nothing more than an occasional shout might break the pastoral mood: "Hey, faggot!" I heard one student hail a friend a while back, at a distance of perhaps thirty yards. Some version of pastoral!¹

¹ This last sentence is a tip of the hat to William Empson's critical study Some Versions of Pastoral (1935).

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Archimedes Palimpsest

From tomorrow's New York Times:

An ambitious international project to decipher 1,000-year-old moldy pages is yielding new clues about ancient Greece as seen through the eyes of Hyperides, an important Athenian orator and politician from the fourth century B.C. What is slowly coming to light, scholars say, represents the most significant discovery of Hyperides text since 1891, illuminating some fascinating, time-shrouded insights into Athenian law and social history.

"This helps to fill in critical moments in ancient classical Greece," said William Noel, the curator of manuscripts and rare books at the Walters Art Museum here and the director of the Archimedes Palimpsest project. Hyperides "is one of the great foundational figures of Greek democracy and the golden age of Athenian democracy, the foundational democracy of all democracy."

The Archimedes Palimpsest, sold at auction at Christie's for $2 million in 1998, is best known for containing some of the oldest copies of work by the great Greek mathematician who gives the manuscript its name. But there is more to the palimpsest than Archimedes' work, including 10 pages of Hyperides, offering tantalizing and fresh insights into the critical battle of Salamis in 480 B.C., in which the Greeks defeated the Persians, and the battle of Chaeronea in 338 B.C., which spelled the beginning of the end of Greek democracy.

The palimpsest is believed to have been created by Byzantine monks in the 13th century, probably in Constantinople. As was the practice then, the durable and valuable vellum pages of several older texts were washed and scraped, to remove their writing, and then used for a medieval prayer book. The pages of the older books became the sheaths of a newer one, thus a palimpsest (which is pronounced PAL-imp-sest and is Greek for "rubbed again").
A Layered Look Reveals Ancient Greek Texts (New York Times, registration required)

Archimedes Palimpsest (

Friday, November 24, 2006

Anita O'Day (1919-2006)

“I’d decided O’Day was groovy because in pig Latin it meant dough, which was what I hoped to make.”
Anita O'Day died yesterday in Los Angeles.

Anita O’Day, 87, Hard-Living Star of the Big-Band Era and Beyond, Dies (New York Times, registration required)

Here’s Anita O'Day at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, from Aram Avakian and Bert Stern's film Jazz on a Summer’s Day (1960).

Wednesday, November 22, 2006


I finished reading In Search of Lost Time last night, five months and two days after I started. The final volume, titled Finding Time Again in the Penguin translation, took me only six days, during which I began to have the awful thought that if "anything" were to "happen to me" (that odd euphemism), it could happen before I had finished reading Proust. I had to keep reading! How strange then to find that as In Search of Lost Time nears its end, the work's still-unnamed narrator, after finally coming to understand his vocation as a writer, fears that something might happen to him before he is able to finish his work.

Proust really seems in such ways to be a kindred spirit. He seems to have understood in so many ways what it is that "we" (recurring word in the novel) experience in our relations to people, places, and things in time. He is, for me, the writer of consciousness and memory. His explorations of both, alas, make the stream of consciousness of Ulysses -- e.g., "Sardines. Little things. Good with toast." -- seem a bit like a dated gadget. (That's a made-up sample of Joyce. But if I'm reading correctly, some of the comments in Finding Time Again on the representation of consciousness in fiction appear to be aimed at Joyce's work-then-in-progress.)

I finished reading Proust for the first time: that's what I should've written above. I plan to go back, soon. Before I do, I want to read Pleasures and Days (sketches and short stories), a volume of letters, Céleste Albaret's memoir Monsieur Proust (CA was Proust's housekeeper), Edmund White's short bio, and Howard Moss' The Magic Lantern of Marcel Proust (a used-book find). And I plan to dip, at least, into the large biographies, Gilles Deleuze's Proust and Signs, and, of course, the French text and the earlier translations. And I'm wondering whether I want to read Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life. He already has.

Here's one passage from Finding Time Again, in which the narrator is contemplating what a book might be. I've corrected one typo in the Penguin paperback:

How much better life seemed to me now that it seemed susceptible of being illuminated, taken out of the shadows, restored from our ceaseless falsification of it to the truth of what it was, in short, realized in a book! How happy the writer of a book like that would be, I thought, what a labour awaited him! To give some idea of it, one would have to go to the most elevated and divergent arts for comparisons; for this writer, who would also need to show the contrasting aspects of each character to create depth, would have to prepare his book scrupulously, perpetually regrouping his forces as in an offensive, and putting up with the work like tiredness, accepting it like a rule, constructing it like a church, following it like a regime, overcoming it like an obstacle, winning it like a friendship, feeding it up like a child, creating it like a world, without ever neglecting its mysteries, the explanations for which are probably to be found only in other worlds, while our occasional inklings of them are what, in life and in art, move us most deeply. In books of this scope, there are parts which have never had time to be more than sketched in and which will probably never be finished because of the very extent of the architect's plan. Think how many great cathedrals have been left unfinished! One feeds a book like that, one strengthens its weak parts, one looks after it, but eventually it grows up, it marks our tomb, and protects it from rumours and, for a time, from oblivion. But to return to myself, I was thinking about my book in more modest terms, and it would even be a mistake to say that I was thinking of those who would read it as my readers. For they were not, as I saw it, my readers, so much as readers of their own selves, my book being merely one of those magnifying glasses of the sort the optician at Combray used to offer his customers; my book, but a book thanks to which I would be providing them with the means of reading within themselves. With the result that I would not ask them to praise me or to denigrate me, only to tell me if it was right, if the words they were reading in themselves were really the ones I had written (possible divergences in this regard not necessarily always originating, it should be said, in my having been wrong, but sometimes in the fact that the reader's eyes might not be of a type for which my book was suitable as an aid for self-reading).
Marcel Proust, Finding Time Again, translated by Ian Patterson (London: Penguin, 2003), 342-343

[Pictured, the last manuscript page of À la recherche du temps perdu, via Gallica Proust.]

Proust posts, via Pinboard

Friday, November 17, 2006


While waiting for a concert to begin:

"He said, 'I'm the reason you're gonna be able to buy that cheaper now.'"
"Overheard" posts (via Pinboard)

Proust on perception

Doubtless, objects present man with no more than a limited number of their immeasurable attributes, because of the poverty of our senses. Things are coloured because we have eyes; how many other epithets might they not deserve if we had hundreds of senses? But this different aspect that they could have had is made easier for us to understand by what in life is a minimal incident of which we know only a part, believing it to be the whole, and which someone else perceives as if through a window on the other side of the house giving a different view.
Marcel Proust, The Fugitive, translated by Peter Collier (London: Penguin, 2003), 646

Only (?) 342 pages of In Search of Lost Time to go.

Proust posts, via Pinboard

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Mom, dad, son, hand, thumb

My son Ben and I were playing music -- Sufjan Stevens' "Jacksonville" (Ben, banjo; I, guitar).

"Your hands move the same way when you play," Elaine said.

"We each have an opposable thumb," I said.

"Evolution!" said Ben.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Vanity plates for TCHRS

There's a revealing account in the Chronicle of Higher Education of an assistant professor's experiences at orientation sessions for new faculty. "Graham Bennett" is an assistant professor of English at an American research university. Like many honest commentators on higher education, he is writing under a pseudonym. Here's a sample:

As part of the session on improving classroom discussion, participants were asked to imagine what their teaching philosophy would look like if it were the vanity plate for their car. We were allowed 12 letters with which to represent ourselves. For five minutes, people silently scribbled on -- or, like myself, hostilely stared at -- the sheets of paper that had been given to us for this little exercise.

When the person sitting next to me (who was similarly not writing anything down) asked why I wasn't participating, I explained that this was exactly the sort of activity I loathed as a student, that I found such activities useless and annoying. Two other people at my table sighed with relief and nodded their heads in agreement. It seems I'm not the only one with little patience for "out of the box" exercises (so many of which turn out to be recycled from the same irritating, warm-and-fuzzy, "I'm pretending this activity is original even though it's completely derivative" edutainment box).
Read the whole piece and find out what Bennett wrote for his license plate.

(Dis)Orientation (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Monday, November 13, 2006

Proust: "That's her!"

The narrator is in Venice, about to dine with his mother and Mme Sazerat in a private room in a hotel. He has just told the ladies that Mme de Villeparisis is in the hotel restaurant. Mme Sazerat seems about to faint:

"Couldn't I look at her for a moment? I have dreamed of this all my life."

"Yes, but don't take too long, Madam, for she will soon have finished dining. But why should she interest you so?"

"Because it was Mme de Villeparisis, the Duchesse d'Havré by her first marriage, as beautiful as an angel but as wicked as a witch, who drove my father mad, ruined him, then left him forthwith. And yet! Although she acted like a common whore and caused me and my family to live in straitened circumstances in Combray, now that my father is dead, I console myself with the thought that he loved the most beautiful woman of his day, and since I have never seen her, despite everything it will be a relief . . ."

I led Mme Sazerat, who was trembling with emotion, to the restaurant and pointed out Mme de Villeparisis.

But, like the blind, who direct their eyes everywhere but where they should, Mme Sazerat failed to focus her gaze on Mme de Villeparisis's dinner-table, and sought out another corner of the room.

"Well, she must have left, I can't see her where you say."

And she continued to hunt for the detestable, adorable vision that had haunted her imagination for so long.

"No she hasn't, she's at the second table."

"We must be starting our count from different ends. At what I call the second table there's only an old gentleman sitting beside a horrid little old lady with a red face and a hunchback."

"That's her!"
Marcel Proust, The Fugitive, translated by Peter Collier (London: Penguin, 2003), 598-599

(415 pages of In Search of Lost Time to go.)

Proust posts, via Pinboard

Friday, November 10, 2006

Zadie Smith on reading

[Welcome, Boing Boing readers!]

Zadie Smith tells it like it is. These are useful, useful words for any student of literature:

But the problem with readers, the idea we're given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, "I should sit here and I should be entertained." And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don't know, who they probably couldn't comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That's the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It's an old moral, but it's completely true.
Bookworm interview: Zadie Smith (KCRW FM, Santa Monica, CA, via

Related posts
George Steiner on reading (excerpt from "The end of bookishness?")
Words, mere words (excerpt from Mark Edmondson's Why Read?)

Homer's Rumsfeld

From a brief interview with Robert Fagles, whose translation of the Aeneid was published last week:

"I was asked by a reporter, 'Is there a Rumsfeld in the Iliad?' I said, 'I don't think so, but isn't one enough?'" Fagles said. "He laughed and didn't print it."
That reporter may have been hoping that Fagles would liken the Greek leader Agamemnon to Donald Rumsfeld. The similarities are not difficult to work out: when the Iliad begins, the Greek forces are in an ever-worsening situation, dying of a plague sent by the god Apollo. Is Agamemnon doing anything to change that? No. Moreover, he himself has caused the problems the Greeks are facing, by refusing to honor the priest Chryses' plea for the return of his daughter Chryseis, now Agamemnon's war prize. When the Greek prophet Calchas explains what is happening and what must be done to appease Apollo -- return Chryseis and make sacrifices, Agamemnon is furious. Here's a particularly Rumsfeldian bit of arrogance and cranky complaint about the media (or the medium):
                                                    "You damn
You've never given me a good omen yet.
You take some kind of perverse pleasure in
Doom, don't you? Not a single favorable omen ever!
Nothing good ever happens!"

(Iliad 1, translated by Stanley Lombardo)
A reader interested in exploring broad parallels between Homer's world of war and our own should investigate Jonathan Shay's Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming.

Fagles brings Aeneas into modern world (

Exploring Combat and the Psyche, Beginning with Homer (article on Jonathan Shay, New York Times)

Thursday, November 9, 2006

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.

From a letter by American Lieutenant Lloyd Brewer Palmer, November 15, 1918:

Dearest Mother:

November 11th 1918 will always be remembered by yours truly. We moved out at 4:00 AM in a heavy mist and marched about 4 km. At 9:30 there was a terrific German barrage. I sure thought it was all up.

At 10:45 the order came to cease firing. Rumors started to spread that it was the end and I am sure I was not the only one to utter a prayer that it was true. Then, 11 o'clock, and a dead silence! That was absolutely the happiest moment of my life.
The PBS site for War Letters (an episode from the documentary series American Experience) includes a transcript with the text of this letter and many others.

War Letters (PBS)

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Proust: falling in love

We fall in love with a smile, the look in someone's eyes, a shoulder. That is enough; then during the long hours of hope or sadness, we create a person, we compose a character.
Marcel Proust, The Fugitive, translated by Peter Collier (London: Penguin, 2003), 496

(Only 515 pages of In Search of Lost Time to go!)

Proust posts, via Pinboard


"It's not just like a fall day; it is a fall day!"

"Overheard" posts (via Pinboard)

Tuesday, November 7, 2006

My Election Day post

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark Illinois:

The Carbondale attorney said he wasn’t running as a "spoiler" candidate but as a viable alternative to Blagojevich and Topinka.

"You cannot spoil something that is already rotten," Whitney told reporters during a stop in Springfield.
Rich Whitney is the Illinois Green Party's candidate for governor.

Illinois candidates make final push (Quad-City Times)

Monday, November 6, 2006


There's a wonderful hypothesis making its way through the world -- that Jim Davis' Garfield strips can be improved by removing Garfield's thought balloons. My son Ben and I have been testing this hypothesis by means of the scientific method (i.e., by reading Garfield in the morning). Here's one experiment:

Removing the thought balloon from the final panel removes Garfield's lame quip -- "You'd think staplers would come with a manual." (No, you wouldn't; Jon's just a klutz.) And without the thought balloon, it's not as clear what's happened to Jon, especially as his staple is no longer very recognizable as such. And "THUD," along with Garfield's impassive stare, is a sufficient punchline. Thus the strip becomes funny and surreal and even tragic -- Jon stumbling about, Garfield enduring, like Shakespeare's Gloucester and Lear, or Beckett's Vladimir and Estragon. O agony! O Garfield!

Altered Garfield comics reveal truth about cat's pathetic owner (Boing Boing)

Related posts
Blondie minus Blondie
Garfield minus Garfield

Sunday, November 5, 2006


Tonight, in a restaurant:

"It's not a 'show' show."
"Overheard" posts (via Pinboard)


Seen last night, by the cash register in a restaurant:


Friday, November 3, 2006

Proust's pharmacy

[W]e can find everything in our memory: it is a kind of pharmacy or chemical laboratory, where one's hand may fall at any moment on a sedative drug or a dangerous poison.
Marcel Proust, The Prisoner, translated by Carol Clark (London: Penguin, 2003), 361

Proust posts, via Pinboard

Proust's reality

Reality is the cleverest of our enemies. It directs its attacks at those points in our heart where we were not expecting them, and where we had prepared no defense.
Marcel Proust, The Prisoner, translated by Carol Clark (London: Penguin, 2003), 360

Proust posts, via Pinboard

Thursday, November 2, 2006

Three Virgils

Here's a passage from the Aeneid in three translations. The Trojan hero Aeneas is recounting the fall of Troy to Dido, queen of Carthage. In this passage, Aeneas offers an extended (epic) simile to characterize the Greek warrior Pyrrhus (Achilles' son, also known as Neoptolemus). Pyrrhus is soon seen breaking down doors, hunting down the Trojan warrior Politës, and killing the Trojan king Priam at his own altar. (Virgil spares his reader the details of Priam's beheading.) In this simile, Pyrrhus is a figure of sinister phallic force:

Just at the outer doors of the vestibule
Sprang Pyrrhus, all in bronze and glittering,
As a serpent, hidden swollen underground
By a cold winter, writhes into the light,
On vile grass fed, his old skin cast away,
Renewed and glossy, rolling slippery coils,
With lifted underbelly rearing sunward
And triple-tongue aflicker.

Robert Fitzgerald, 1983


Framed by the portal to the entrance court
Pyrrhus stood in his glory, haloed in bronze,

    As a snake raised on poison basks in the

    After a cold winter has kept him

    Venomous and swollen. Now, having

    His old skin, glistening with youth, he puffs

    His breast and slides his lubricious coils
    Toward the sun, flicking his three-forked

Stanley Lombardo, 2005


There at the very edge of the front gates
springs Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, prancing in
aflash in his shimmering brazen sheath like a
buried the whole winter long under frozen turf,
swollen to bursting, fed full on poisonous
and now it springs into light, sloughing its old
to glisten sleek in its newfound youth, its back
coiling, its proud chest rearing high to the sun,
its triple tongue flickering through its fangs.

Robert Fagles, 2006
A few details that strike me: Fitzgerald's "sprang" instantly makes Pyrrhus a figure of frightening energy. "Writhes into the light" has an eerie beauty but seems at odds with the sudden movement of "sprang." Lombardo's Pyrrhus is more a warrior who's ready for his close-up, basking in the spotlight and puffing up with pride. "Venomous and swollen" stands out as choice phrasing. (Here, as in his translations of Homer, Lombardo sets off epic similes with italics.) Fagles' translation is striking in its over-the-top alliteration but sometimes bewildering in its diction. "Prancing in arms" seems unintentionally funny (is Pyrrhus camping it up?), and "sheath," which might suggest a sheath dress or, alas, a condom (British slang), seems like a very oddly chosen word.

Reader, which version(s) do you prefer?

Related posts
Aeschylus in three translations
Robert Fagles' Aeneid
Whose Homer?

Variations of Virgil (New York Sun, article with two excerpts from the Fagles translation)

Wednesday, November 1, 2006


It's Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day:

rhadamanthine \rad-uh-MAN-thun\ adjective
often capitalized : rigorously strict or just

Example sentence:
The judge took the maliciousness of the crime into account and decided upon a rhadamanthine punishment.

Did you know?
In Greek mythology, there were three judges of the underworld: Minos, Aeacus, and Rhadamanthus. Minos, a son of Zeus and Europa, had been the king of Crete before becoming supreme judge in the underworld after his death. Aeacus, another son of Zeus, was king of Aegina before joining the underworld triumvirate. Rhadamanthus, brother of Minos and king of the Cyclades Islands, was especially known for being inflexible when administering his judgment -- hence, the meaning of "rhadamanthine" as "rigorously strict or just."

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

"Radios, it is"

"An' after he studies at night, why -- it'll be nice, an' he tore a page outa Western Love Stories, an' he's gonna send off for a course, 'cause it don't cost nothin' to send off. Says right on that clipping. I seen it. An', why -- they even get you a job when you take that course -- radios, it is, nice clean work, and a future."
That's Rose of Sharon speaking of her hopes for the future with her husband Connie, in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Above, part of an ad from Popular Mechanics (June 1938).

From the same issue of Popular Mechanics: Alkalize with Alka-Seltzer, "MONEY MAKING FORMULAS," A mystery EXchange name.

Steinbeck on migrant camps

For my students reading The Grapes of Wrath -- an excerpt from John Steinbeck's 1936 account of migrant camps in California:

Here is a house built by a family who have tried to maintain a neatness. The house is about 10 feet by 10 feet, and it is built completely of corrugated paper. The roof is peaked, the walls are tacked to a wooden frame. The dirt floor is swept clean, and along the irrigation ditch or in the muddy river the wife of the family scrubs clothes without soap and tries to rinse out the mud in muddy water.

The spirit of this family is not quite broken, for the children, three of them, still have clothes, and the family possesses three old quilts and a soggy, lumpy mattress. But the money so needed for food cannot be used for soap nor for clothes.

With the first rain the carefully built house will slop down into a brown, pulpy mush; in a few months the clothes will fray off the children's bodies, while the lack of nourishing food will subject the whole family to pneumonia when the first cold comes. Five years ago this family had 50 acres of land and $1,000 in the bank. The wife belonged to a sewing circle and the man was a member of the Grange. They raised chickens, pigs, pigeons and vegetables and fruit for their own use; and their land produced the tall corn of the middle west. Now they have nothing.
Death in the Dust (Guardian Unlimited)

Robert Fagles' Aeneid

Robert Fagles' translation of Virgil's Aeneid will be out in a couple of days. From a New York Times article:

"I usually try not to ride the horse of relevance very hard," Mr. Fagles said recently at his home near Princeton University, from which he recently retired, after teaching comparative literature for more than 40 years. "My feeling is that if something is timeless, then it will also be timely." But he went on to say that The Aeneid did speak to the contemporary situation. It's a poem about empire, he explained, and was commissioned by the emperor Augustus to celebrate the spread of Roman civilization.

"To begin with, it's a cautionary tale," Mr. Fagles said. "About the terrible ills that attend empire -- its war-making capacity, the loss of blood and treasure both. But it's all done in the name of the rule of law, which you'd have a hard time ascribing to what we're doing in the Middle East today.

"It's also a tale of exhortation. It says that if you depart from the civilized, then you become a murderer. The price of empire is very steep, but Virgil shows how it is to be earned, if it’s to be earned at all. The poem can be read as an exhortation for us to behave ourselves, which is a horse of relevance that ought to be ridden."
Translating Virgil's Epic Poem of Empire (New York Times, free registration required)

And here's a link to a related post, with one passage from the Aeneid, as translated by Robert Fitzgerald, Stanley Lombardo, and Robert Fagles:

Three Virgils

Reader, which translation do you prefer?


[Construction paper, ink, colored pencil, twine, by James Leddy]

Monday, October 30, 2006

Sonny Rollins in Illinois

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we are here tonight, and we must remember that music is the -- one of the beautiful things of life. So we have to try to keep the music alive some kind of way. And maybe music can help. I don't know, but we have to try something these days, right? [Sonny Rollins, Without a Song: The 9/11 Concert, recorded September 15, 2001]
Sonny Rollins at the Tryon Festival Theatre
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
University of Illinois, Urbana
October 29, 2006

Sonny Rollins, tenor saxophone
Clifton Anderson, trombone
Bobby Broom, electric guitar
Bob Cranshaw, electric bass
Victor Lewis, drums
Kimati Dinizulu, percussion

Salvador (Rollins)
Serenade (Mario - Drigo)
Why Was I Born? (Kern - Hammerstein II)
They Say It's Wonderful (Berlin)
Global Warming (Rollins)
Sonny, Please (Rollins)
Don't Stop the Carnival (Rollins)

I heard Sonny Rollins 17 years ago -- the greatest musical performance I've ever heard. When I read that he was coming to the Krannert Center at the University of Illinois, my first impulse was not to go. Nothing, I thought, could match the performance I'd heard. But go I did, and I'm very glad.

Sonny Rollins is 76, but the only visible evidence of his age is a Fred Sanford gait. Rollins' long face and full beard make him look like a Biblical patriarch or a figure from an El Greco painting. His sunglasses, loose dark-blue shirt, and red pants make him look like Sonny Rollins. His performance last night was filled with countless bright moments of excitement and surprise, spread across two hours of music: three calypsos ("Salvador," "Global Warming," and "Don't Stop the Carnival"), two great standards, a funky modal piece ("Sonny, Please"), and a beautiful out-of-the-way treasure, Riccardo Drigo's "Serenade," from the 1900 ballet Les Millions d'Arlequin.

"Serenade" was for me one of the great moments from this concert. In an online interview, Rollins remembers this melody as introducing "some kind of radio show" from his youth; last night he described it as "an old Italian folksong" that someone "on the wrong side of 40" might know. (I didn't.) "Serenade" is a beautiful waltz melody; like Dvorak's "Humoresque," it sounds as though it was made for jazz musicians to play on (especially with Rollins' reharmonization of the first eight bars). Another favorite moment from last night: "Why Was I Born?" I've listened to the performance of this song from The 9/11 Concert many times in the last few weeks and was thrilled to hear an even more exciting performance of it last night.

Rollins' solos are like entries in the Oxford English Dictionary: lengthy, thorough, discerning, leaving no nuance unexamined. And like OED entries, they are filled with bits of cultural history. Rollins quoted "Oh! Susanna" several times (as on The 9/11 Concert); "52nd Street Theme," "Lester Leaps In," "My Romance," "Rhythm-a-ning," and "Scrapple from the Apple" also turned up in his solos. "They Say It's Wonderful" had a honking moment from "Here Comes the Bride" (the "Bridal Chorus" from Wagner's Lohengrin).

Clifton Anderson -- who when I last saw him played opening and closing themes and only the most modest solos -- has become a worthy second horn, playing with great authority. Bobby Broom is an inventive guitarist, but his sound was often lost in the sonic mud of Bob Cranshaw's bass (whose amp must've been turned up to eleven). Victor Lewis is a drummer of great energy and taste, and Kimati Dinizulu's tuned percussion added detail and texture. Dinizulu contributed the most unexpected moment to the night's proceedings -- an long, understated, melodic solo on "Serenade."

What made this concert especially wonderful for me was the chance to go to it with my daughter Rachel. She was a tyke stuck at home with a babysitter the last time Sonny Rollins came our way. And now she can dig jazz! (Thanks for coming, kiddo.)

Sonny Rollins' new CD, Sonny, Please, is not yet in stores but is available online and at Rollins' performances.

Sonny Rollins (website)
Sonny, Please (CD)

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Firefox 2.0 space-savers

Lifehacker has a second terrific post about improving Firefox by minimizing its "chrome" -- the various thingamajigs and whatnots that take up screen space. The comments too offer useful suggestions.

Geek to Live: Consolidate Firefox's chrome

[This post, which first appeared in duplicate, disappeared when I added "Broken, broken, dream." So here it is again.]

Broken, broken, dream

Blogger is broken, at least for now. I have a duplicate post ("Firefox 2.0 space-savers"), which appeared after repeated attempts to publish came back with errors. Now each instance of this post returns a "Page not found" error and cannot be deleted.

Technorati is broken too (as is the case with many blogs). Neither my posts nor links to my posts show up.

A bit of dialogue from a dream last night (whose context vanished when I woke): "I am in baloney recovery." The inspiration here must be Nellie McKay's "Suitcase Song":

try and tempt fate
get pneumonia
recuperate with soy bologna
Technorati tags (Ever the optimist!)
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Friday, October 27, 2006

Firefox 2.0 tweaks

Lifehacker has a tremendously helpful post for anyone using the new Firefox 2.0. Don't be put off by the words "Geek to Live"; anyone smart enough to use Firefox should be able to negotiate the tweaks described.

I've been using Firefox 2.0 since Tuesday and find it fast and stable. My only dissatisfaction is with the new, washed-out theme, but -- lo! -- the Firefox 1.5 theme is now available for use with 2.0.

Firefox 2.0
Geek to Live: Top Firefox 2 config tweaks (Lifehacker)
Winestripe (default Firefox 1.5 theme for Firefox 2.0)

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Proust: fashionable parties

There is no fashionable party, if one takes a cross-section of it at sufficient depth, that is not like those parties to which doctors invite their patients; the patients talk very sensibly, display excellent manners, and would give no sign of being mad if they did not whisper in your ear as an old gentleman passes, "Do you see him? That's Joan of Arc."
Marcel Proust, The Prisoner, translated by Carol Clark (London: Penguin, 2003), 223

Proust posts, via Pinboard

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Tower Records

Anthony Tommasini remembers:

Older record collectors have memories of wonderful, quirky independent stores run by managers who were passionate, if opinionated, about the music they sold. I remember when Pamela Dellal, a good mezzo-soprano based in Boston, worked as a saleswoman at the Harvard Coop in Cambridge in the early 1980’s. I used to call her the czarina of classical music at the Coop because she was so informed, efficient and forceful in her recommendations.

For many years Tower Records at Lincoln Center has been the closest New Yorkers have had to those small shops of earlier times. This is a paradox, I know, since the company, which opened its first store in 1960 in Sacramento, grew into a bullying retail chain that pushed out independents. Still, because of its location, Tower Records at Lincoln Center was a mingling place for classical aficionados. There, music students, opera buffs, contemporary-music devotees, everyday concertgoers and, now and then, well-known artists would bump into one another and talk shop.
Requiem for a Store’s Dying Classical Department (New York Times, registration required)

Related post
Record stores (The Relic Rack, Sam Goody's, J&R)

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

"[I]n my own hand, in my own notebook"

Q. How did you work on the translations?

A. I had this whole routine worked out while doing the Homer. I wrote out every line of Greek in my own hand, book by book, a big notebook for each book. One line to two blank lines. As I went through the Greek and copied it out in my own hand, I would face the difficulties -- any crux that turned up, questions of interpretation -- and try to work them out. I accumulated editions with notes and so on as I went along. So before I was through, I had acquired some of the scholarship that was relevant to my problems. But always, in the end, it was simply the Greek facing me, in my own hand, in my own notebook.
Robert Fitzgerald, "The Art of Translation," interview with Edwin Frank and Andrew McCord, Paris Review (Winter 1984). Reprinted in The Third Kind of Knowledge: Memoirs and Selected Writings, ed. Penelope Laurans Fitzgerald (New York: New Directions, 1993).

The image above, showing the opening line of Iliad 3, is a small part of a reproduction of a manuscript page accompanying the interview. (In the Greek, the episodes of the poem are lettered, not numbered; 3 is gamma.) Fitzgerald's Odyssey appeared in 1961; his Iliad in 1974.

Related post
Words from Robert Fitzgerald

Ethiopian spicy tomato lentil stew

Here's a link to a recipe for something that tastes much better than smoked chicken water. Isa Chandra Moskowitz is the host of The Post Punk Kitchen and the author of Vegan with a Vengeance. Her recipes rule.

My wife Elaine wants me to mention that fenugreek (which the recipe calls for) might be most easily found in an Indian grocery store. The word fenugreek derives from the Latin fenum Graecum, "Greek hay."

Ethiopian Spicy Tomato Lentil Stew, from The Post Punk Kitchen

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Vegan nightmare

Or perhaps anyone's nightmare. I was standing in the supermarket, reading the ingredient list on a carton of Silk soymilk:

and that's as far as I got. Silk really is the soymilk of my dreams -- and nightmares.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Homeric blindness in "colledge"

I've been thinking about Homeric blindness today -- not the legendary blindness of the perhaps non-existent poet nor the literal blindness of the Cyclops Polyphemus but the figurative blindness of Homer's egomaniacs.

Odysseus is one such egomaniac. When he makes his escape from Polyphemus in Odyssey 9, he shouts back to the Cyclops to let him know just who has blinded him and stolen his animals:

"Cyclops, if anyone, any mortal man,
Asks how you got your eye put out,
Tell him that Odysseus the marauder did it,
Son of Laertes, whose home is on Ithaca."
That's a wonderful moment for thinking about Odyssean strength and weakness: having made his tricky escape from the Cyclops' cave, which involved the anonymity of being "Noman," Odysseus can't resist the desire to tie his name and line to his deeds. His desire to be known blinds him to the practical necessity to get away; he's like a pickpocket who stops to announce that he's lifted your wallet.

The suitors in Odysseus' household suffer from another form of blindness, a cluelessness as to the ways others might see them. In Odyssey 21, they're concerned that they will be shamed if the old beggar (Odysseus in disguise) is able to succeed in the test of the bow (bending and stringing Odysseus' bow and shooting an arrow through the sockets of twelve axe-heads). They want to maintain their reputation and fear being shown up by an old tramp. But as Penelope points out to them, men who have done what they have done "'cannot expect / To have a good reputation anywhere.'" Their names are already mud.

I thought of both Odysseus and the suitors today when reading a newspaper article about a student "organization" called War on Sobriety. The group's purpose is to drink (deeply) during each day of homecoming week. Saturday (the day of the Big Game) is devoted to all-day drinking, beginning with a beer breakfast. "It's our fight for the people who like to drink," one leader of the group is quoted as saying. He is identified by name in the article; I'm omitting his name here.

This student is also quoted as saying "It's really underground. We don't want to get a bad reputation." Yet he's giving an interview to a newspaper reporter (and leaving tracks that any potential employer will be able to find via a search engine). There it is: Odysseus and the suitors combined. Duh.

One question that this article doesn't address: Wouldn't a week of sustained drinking create some sort of difficulty with the responsibilities of being a college student? I suspect though that the members of this group aren't in college. They are, rather, in what I call colledge, the vast simulacrum of education that amounts to little more than buying a degree on the installment plan.

If I sound cranky, it's because the so-called War on Sobriety (front-page news in a college newspaper) serves to cheapen the degree of any student who's really in college.

(Odyssey passages are from Stanley Lombardo's translation.)