Wednesday, May 31, 2006

"Important Safeguards"

An all-in-one radio-phono-cassette-deck, a portable radio, and a portable cassette-player? Who wouldn't be happy?

I found this image in a pamphlet titled "Important Safeguards," which came with my purchase of a "component" system in 1983: a Harman/Kardon receiver, a Dual turntable (maybe the most temperamental turntable ever made), and Infinity speakers (all long-defunct).

A sound of summer

Written in E-flat major in jaunty 6/8 time, the jingle was created by an advertising agency in 1960 for the company's early radio campaigns. Though the trucks play only an instrumental version, the tune does have words:

      The CREAM-i-est DREAM-i-est SOFT ice CREAM

      you GET from MIS-ter SOF-tee.

      FOR a re-FRESH-ing de-LIGHT su-PREME

      LOOK for MIS-ter SOF-tee.
From the New York Times obituary for James Conway Sr., co-founder of Mister Softee.

On my block in Brooklyn, the Mister Softee truck would arrive mid-to-late afternoon. I can't remember a thing about the ice cream, but the Mister Softee jingle is a permanent sound of summer in my head.

Three links

» James Conway Sr., 78, a Founder of Mister Softee, Dies
from the New York Times (registration required)

» Mister Softee Jingle: Not So Sweet?
from NPR, with soundclip featuring the jingle

» "Mister Softee" sheet music

(The Mister Softee homepage plays an abridged version of the jingle if you have the proper Quicktime plug-in installed in your browser.)

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Like hell

Exasperation speaks:

what the hell does simile mean
This Yahoo, excuse me, Yahoo! search led someone to my blog last week, specifically, to a post on a simile from Dante's Inferno. Alas, the post doesn't explain what the hell "simile" means. It offers an example of what the hell is like.

Mark Edmundson tells it like it is

On current tendencies in liberal arts education:

The analysis of great works now often takes place beneath the auspices of Narcissus. The student is taught not to be open to the influence of great works, but rather to perform facile and empty acts of usurpation, in which he assumes unearned power over the text. Foucault applied at industrial strength is an automatic debunking agent. But the process leaves the student untouched, with no actual growth, just a reflexively skeptical stance that touches the borders of nihilism. Such activity, prolonged over the course of an education, is likely to contribute to the creation of what the philosopher James C. Edwards calls "normal nihilists." Normal nihilists are people who believe in nothing (except the achievement of their own advantage), and we may be creating them in significant numbers by not counting the ethical costs of our pedagogy. "It's easy to be brilliant," Goethe said, "when you do not believe in anything." And it's easy, too, to be brilliantly successful.

The sense of superiority that current liberal arts education often instills rhymes with some of the least creditable trends in our culture. It rhymes with a superior and exploitative relation to the natural world, with condescension to the poor, with a sense that nothing in the world matters unless it matters to Me. . . .

What's missing from the current dispensation is a sense of hope when we confront major works, the hope that they will tell us something we do not know about the world or give us an entirely fresh way to apprehend experience. We need to learn not simply to read books, but to allow ourselves to be read by them.

And this process can take time. Describing his initiation into modern literature, into Kafka, Joyce, Proust, and their contemporaries, Lionel Trilling writes: "Some of these books at first rejected me; I bored them. But as I grew older and they knew me better, they came to have more sympathy with me and to understand my hidden meanings. Their nature is such that our relationship has been very intimate." "I bored them," says Trilling. Given the form of literary education now broadly available, it is almost impossible that a student would say of a group of books, "I bored them." No, in the current consumer-driven academy, another word, differently intoned, would be on the tip of the tongue: "Booooooring." We professors have given our students the language of smug dismissal, and their profit of it is that they know how to curse with it and to curse those things that we ourselves have most loved and, somewhere in our hearts, probably love still.
Mark Edmundson, Why Read? (Bloomsbury, 2004)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Letters from Aldo

My friend Aldo Carrasco — Aldo Egbert Carrasco y Febles — died twenty years ago, May 28, 1986. Aldo was an extraordinary guy — wickedly funny, passionate about literature and music, devoutly Catholic (despite all challenges), utterly loyal to his friends, utterly intolerant of bigotry, hypocrisy, and pretension (or "pretension flambé," as we called it — my coinage). He was a "grand guy, period," as he once joked.

I first knew Aldo, very slightly, through mutual friends at Fordham University in the Bronx, New York. After I moved to Boston in 1980 to work on a doctorate, our friendship deepened through the mail. As I remember, we met up at a party in the Bronx and agreed to correspond. Our friendship ran to Aldo's death — my wife Elaine and I last saw him in the hospital just a day before he died.

Aldo was a letter-writer without peer. Knowing that, I'm still astonished to see, going through boxes of correspondence, how many letters he wrote, and the length of those letters — often four or five pages, sometimes handwritten on legal pads, loose-leaf paper, sketchpads, exam booklets, paper placemats; sometimes typed, single-spaced, on a manual typewriter. Some letters are made of separate pages written over two or three days. I was evidently quite the letter-writer too, as many of Aldo's letters begin with thanks for my latest "tome," followed by a commentary on the funniest bits. Nowadays I suppose we would have "kept in touch," as they say, by e-mail, in which case much of what we said to one another might never have been written.

I've preserved all idiosyncrasies of punctuation and spelling in these excerpts. (Aldo picked up my habit of ignoring the Shift key when typing.) All ellipses are in the letters. I've omitted a few names, though those involved are unlikely to read these excerpts. I've added dates and a few notes in brackets. And I've preserved all true confidences: what was private, is private.

If what Aldo wrote on March 14, 1981, holds, I think he'd love the idea of other people reading these passages. Anyone who knew him will hear him in these words. And if, reader, you didn't know him, they might provide a glimpse of a friend whom you would like to have known.

From the earliest letter I have from Aldo:

i did not understand the first cuban idiom you sent me: something about cuchanbe or some such. i have no idea what that word means. if it's a country word forget it the closest i ever got to country living was when ricky and lucy moved to conn. while back home i never saw so much as an arbol in my life. nothing but cement for this groundhog, thank you. [December 15, 1980]
A memorable sentence in the course of a long discussion of attitudes toward love:
Marriages are most definitely not made in heaven; they're made (quite literally, crafted) on earth. [March 4, 1981]
A small slice of the life of a graduate assistant in an English Department:
There was something about __________ that I neglected to tell you and I must get some back-biting in this letter: I asked him if I could sit in to hear the lectures on __________. He said "yes." But when I showed up for the following classes, he asked me not to come any more. Every time I offered a rationale, he said apologetically "No, NO!" This went on 5 times. I got the hint. Then, today, I hear that he was looking for me all day. When I find him later in the afternoon and ask him what he wanted, he says, "I wanted you to mail a manuscript" and after some verbal wordage says, "Well I thought you're the kind of person that wouldn't consider himself put upon if asked to do a favor!" — Sometimes, I don't know what to make of anybody. [March 4, 1981]
On letters:
I for one keep all my friends' letters for a time; one usually knows when the time comes to throw them away, if ever of course. I always wait because I have never regretted throwing anything out when it was done at the right time, so I trust my instincts there where I do usually nowhere else. That's a real frightening thought — my letters roaming Boston (et, le monde!) for all eyes to see. I have a responsibility now to all those voyeurs out there; I just can't give them anything to read. . . . [March 14, 1981]
Aldo and I were given to writing various cryptic remarks on envelopes:
what do you mean by "I are out of patience"? uhm . . . How can you write anything as "personelle" outside the envelope is beyond me. I mean, the man can read, ya nowe? [April 25, 1981]

[Note: I don't know what I meant by "I are out of patience" (probably just exasperation with my life), but I know that it's a takeoff on a pun in James Joyce's Ulysses — "My patience are exhausted."]
On priorities in academia:
How often can you whip out The Tempest and start a mass-reading without being thrown out? — "__________ you wanna take Prospero? uhm? __________? Miranda? — yeah, I know, it's a tuff rôle but try to act innocent, uhm? __________! — you Caliban, you!" —; imagine that mise en scène. Disaster. They're all too busy buying Entenmann's cake for each other to read anything aloud. [May 5, 1981]
Aldo on Aldo:
I have only recently recovered from the spring semester past; I noticed that it had made me extremely vulgar — as my letters will attest to . . . I have finally returned to what was Aldo: gentle, considerate, brilliant, and incredibly attractive. [June 8, 1981]
On deciding not to continue toward a doctorate:
i may not have told you that ive decided not to go for my phd right away. now, dont panic, i didnt say ever but im very certain that i want a break. the thought of going on next sept depresses me beyond belief. id much rather teach in a HS for a while or a community college, id even gladly take my phd part time as i work.

id appreciate it if you didnt treat me as a literary apostate. [November 9, 1981]
On being done with M.A. exams:
Comè si va? "La vita," (that is) not "la nuova," simplemente "la vita," caro! eh! pizza! eh! —— in mezzo del camin di nostra vita . . . eh! — Arturo Fonzerelli! basta, caro! . . . passin' the Comps has made me a little crazy — yes! sì! — I pass 'em, got the letter on Saturday last. [May 10, 1982]
Aldo's letters were often embellished with French, German, Greek, Italian, Latin, and Spanish words and phrases. He routinely spelled the name of a former girlfriend of mine in Greek. (No, she wasn't Greek.) In one letter he wrote out the Apostles' Creed in Latin, from memory, I assume ("Show your friends! amaze your mother!" he added). Here's a funny moment of Aldo being self-conscious about language. It begins with faux lit-crit questions about why I didn't date a letter:
should I interpret this as a signal from the aûteur that I should regard the letter as timeless? or that perhaps, it is an attempt on your part to assert the contemporaneity of the past and future with the present? my but pretension flambé has surfaced mightily this après-midi (that reminds me I must find out what the word for "afternoon" is in some other — that which is "other" —— language!) [June 28, 1982]
Aldo joked about his religious faith (which included great devotion to the Virgin Mary), but he was absolutely serious about it too. On the death of a beloved professor, Paul Memmo:
Don't let Memmo get you down, by the way. We loved him and we can cherish his memory always. I'm truly sorry for those students who'll never know of him, who will never be brought nearly to tears just from hearing him address people in that incredibly touching way he had. Remember also that this is not the last we'll see of him. There'll be a reunion . . . And there — he can't be taken from us again. How wonderful that it serves not only as a consolation, but as a Truth. Angels may not exist, but we'll see Paul again. [August 10, 1982]
On opera:
I spent the entire day reading thro' Wagner's Ring text. It was wünderbar of course but it remains one of the most tragic visions of human existence I've ever seen. I have to read the med. text Der Nibelungenlied which Wagner read and adapted for the cycle and I'm sure that it will be equally depressing. Talk about "tragic ecstasy." Yeats had nothing on these guys, I can assure you! Nothing! It's page after page of betrayal, lost love, agony, murder, injustices, etc. And the bitch of it is: once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down. [August 19, 1982]

wes ooops! well here i am aging tho overdue somewhat (that should be again back there) with reason #1098 to listen to opera: re: le nozze di figaro: because i recently listened to the opera (entire but o'curse) and while i read the libretto i realized that the opera deals with some elemental issues of human existence: to wit: ridicule, incest, transvestism, lesbianism, betrayal, perfidy, intrigue, lust, love, passion, stutters, misogyny, may-october relats., violence, mock trials, forgiveness, revenge, sadism, beatings, prostitution, philandering, fornication, extortion, corruptions, class-struggle, peasant revolt and unrest, happy endings and beginnings and lots of fun!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! [September 6, 1982]

[Note: The reference to "reason #1098" is a takeoff on then-current television commercials featuring numbered reasons why H&R Block should prepare your taxes.]
After getting his M.A., Aldo took a job teaching 7th-grade boys and girls in a Catholic school. Not as much time for letter-writing then, but he managed to work on letters even during breaks in the school day:
. . . at this very moment, my kiddies are singing "Go Down Moses" in "la classe de musique," taught by a certain Miss Indelicato. I asked her what it was her family had done in the past to deserve such a name. No answer so far. [October 7, 1982]
Aldo's first teaching gig didn't last long — he had to deal with a monstrous nun-principal in what turned out to be untenable circumstances:
It isn't that now I don't know what to do but that I know what I should feel and think before I do anything — whether it be grad. school or carpentry. I simply got a sense of my own mind, of some kind of purpose and have cleared the fog and cobwebs. I've cleaned the room but kept some of the furniture, as it wère. So there it is: most things are back to square one although I carry the benefit of experience (some) and contémplation to that first peg. I hope for the best. The best of all possible worlds. [November 8, 1982]
After leaving this teaching job, Aldo was unemployed for over a year. He knew himself well enough to know that grad school was not his vocation. His letters during this time were filled with difficulties — frayed friendships, doubt, feelings of inertia. He quotes Charlie Brown's "AAUGH!" again and again. But there are still moments of humor:
No, I am not in a Howard Johnson's "motor-lodge," whatever that is. [On Howard Johnson's stationery, February 3, 1983]

im thinking of having a t-shirt made with the following printed on it, "have you accepted the pope as your personal savior?" or maybe "only the bishop of rome binds and unbinds." el fanatico strikes at the heart of the garment industry. besides while the summer lasts such things are great conversation starters. [June 26, 1983]

St. Euphoria
St. Agoraphobia
St. Xenophobia
St. Fulcrum
Eva Marie Saint
This partial list appears in a letter signed
king of spain and portugal,
regent of france,
friend to germany and her high culture,
governor general of the annexed province of england which lost MISERABLY when the glorious spanish armada of 1983 destroyed their pathetic womanish "fleet" and liberated ireland, ever-faithful daughter of the TRUE FAITH, from the yoke of these anglosaxon hoodlums,
liberator of ireland,
grand inquisitor,
grand guy, period [November 15, 1983]
From a Honeymooners trivia quiz:
question three: what did alice sacrifice in order to afford the fishing equip she bought for the raccoon lodges annual fishing trip? question four: what was the amount of ralphs tax refund check that he was going to spend on "one glorious week of fishing at freds landing"? question five: what was the name of the judge who was to award ralph the driver of the year award? part two of question 5: and for what was the judge best known? [November 28, 1983]

[Note: I knew and still know the answers: Going to the beauty parlor for three months. $42 (but it was two weeks of fishing). Hollerin' Hurdle, famous for his $50 fines and 50-minute lectures.]
In February 1984, Aldo got a position in Butler Library, Columbia University. He was very happy to be back in an academic setting:
i went to columbia, filled in my application, took my typing test (gasp!) — and got 44 words a min no less! — and handed in my resume. the ball's in their court now, as it were. i've everyone i know throwing my name before the throne of God. the entire celestial court is rooting for me. [January 21, 1984]

now to matters of little importance. butler library hired me. i start this monday the 13th. i get to take free courses at columbia which is very nice. you may venerate me as one of the gainfully employed. [February 11, 1984]
Aldo's letters during his time at Columbia are quite happy. He took classes in German (with As) and was working with congenial people.
They're giving me a new assignment at work because I've done such a good job on the backlog of deadbeat country books. Got lots of praise that went right to my head and am now insufferable. [April 20, 1984]
He was happy for me too, as in January 1984, I'd met Elaine Fine, whom I would later marry.
if the new moon has brought about all these changes, wünderbar! la tua vita amorosa TAKES OFF!!!!! aside from vous-même, who rests happier than I? [January 21, 1984]

we have both had revolutions in our lives, both for the better. you with élaine, and me with "myself." the situations were always before reversed. i was lost in this sea of strangers without myself and you (for the most part) had nothing but. im glad to see that some kind of grecian mean has been struck. also this strikes me as one of my most substantial letters to date. i never once had to think of what to say. and very little flippancy too, i must have a fever. anyway let it resound throughout the land: aldo is happy and he dont give a flying f--- who knows it. [March 3, 1984]

[Note: It was Aldo who typed the hyphens in "f---," not I.]
Elaine and Aldo first talked when she, at work, called him, at work, and made him guess who she was. He did, right away.
Élaine rang me the other day, npi. I also received several looney post-cards. I did indeed love the work of your post-card idol; never heard of him before tho'. A cp is in the works for Élaine, la très fine, and I think it will please her. [March 21, 1984]

[Note: The abbreviations "pi" and "npi" (pun intended, no pun intended) ran through our letters. Aldo's "cp" must stand for "carte postale." The "post-card idol" might be the artist Glen Baxter, or perhaps Ken Brown, whose work was popular in Boston.]
Aldo was very happy when Elaine and I decided to get married. He offered only one warning, on the back of an envelope:

Remember though . . . . . it's FOREVER! [May 16, 1984]

[Note: "FOREVER" is underscored ten times. It occurs to me now that Aldo was offering not a joke about the woes of monogamy but a reminder that if you're going to get married, you should take it seriously and do it right.]
I can't recall why Aldo left his library job. In December 1984, he took a position with a textile importer. He was responsible for, among other things, all correspondence with European companies, which involved reading and replying to telexes in French, German, and Italian. He also had access to company (i.e., free!) long-distance, which meant fewer letters. (Keep in mind that not so long ago, long-distance calls were an expensive proposition.)

Aldo soon took to sending short telexes to Elaine at her day job (the telex operator there was her friend). Aldo also sent telexes through the mail to our apartment. This one was accompanied by a swatch of a garish fabric named (no kidding) "Aldo":



????????????????????????? [no date]
My decision in spring 1985 to take a tenure-track position in "down-state Illinois" was no match for Aldo's wit. He consulted a map before writing the following:
chicago, local bastion of culture, is quite far far far far far far far far far away . . . so forget it. new york, le centre d'univers (or as husserl (sic) put it, "where it's at") is on venus. boston? what's boston? i'd take heart tho'; for a mere thirty miles, or so, to the west, you have the county of "christian."

during summer vacation, you can both "pop down" to metropolis il. and bid a good day to clark, lois and jimmy. somewhat to the south tho'; on the banks of the charles river, it can NEVERTHELESS BE REACHED BY MULE TRAIN . . . actually the furthest town to the south is cairo. you can take in the sphinx. take white cotton shirts, it be hot in egypt. well so much for the tour of your new home. i'll light a candle or two (poss. five). [April 29, 1985]
Aldo from time to time sent us parcels of beautiful fabrics for curtains and such. He wasn't doing anything unethical; these pieces were all "ends." This warning, sent on company stationery, must have followed several such parcels:
Be advised: __________ has contacted its law firm, the very reputable Ogilvy, Boylston and Appleton of Quincy, Massachusetts, and shall soon take action against Michael Leddy, Chic Interiors of Brookline for non-payment of services and goods. Please refer to invoice numbers 3488001, 636542, and 487760 which total $234,098,988, and that's in good ol' Yankee cash, friend . . . so pay up, or we'll have Harry (Mr. Ogilvy) break both your legs.

Yours in Christ/Abraham

the very reputable AE Carrasco [June 13, 1985]
In the fall of 1985, Aldo went back to teaching, and he finally found his true vocation, at a Catholic school in Brooklyn, teaching sixth-grade boys and girls, if I remember correctly. He loved his students, and they loved him. From one of the last letters I have from Aldo, written after his first day of teaching:
Thanks for great letter. Nice and long and all that wonderful single spacing! And no! you didn't repeat yourself.

Teaching went very well today. Excellently actually. The kids are wonderful.

The school is wonderful. The principal is wonderful. The neighborhood is wonderful. So something's going to go wrong. It has too. This is too good. Of course, it's only been one day. But I'm sure I'll feel comfortable in six months or so, and really "in" next September. Tomorrow there's a faculty luncheon. So I get free food in a yuppie restaurant in Park Slope.

I miss you both terribly and am not thrilled that I just can't indulge myself in the Eastern Shuttle. Damn. Now that Atherton Place [where Elaine and I had lived in Brookline, Massachusetts] is under enemy command anyway, what wld. be the use?

Hope that — sorry, went away for a minute and forgot what I wanted to write!

I just can't remember . . . well, I'll take this for an omen and say bye. Have to get up at the ungodly hr of 6 of the a. m.

I miss the little monsters already . . . [September 4, 1985]

Aldo Carrasco
April 24, 1958 - May 28, 1986
[Photo taken spring 1984, New York City]

A related post
A telex from Aldo

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Gilbert Sorrentino (1929-2006)

The novelist, poet, critic, and editor Gilbert Sorrentino died this past Thursday. I have a special affection for his novel Aberration of Starlight (1980), which draws upon details of Depression-era Brooklyn — Ebinger's bakeries, Owl's Head Park — that were still in place when I was a boy roughly three decades later. Like the characters in the novel, my family lived (when I was very young) in the same neighborhood as Johnny Roventini, the famed "Call for Philip Morris" bellhop. But Aberration of Starlight has much to offer a reader who knows nothing of Brooklyn. It's a postmodern narrative of great comedy and great pathos, told in four sections, each focused on one character's perspective. (Yes, like The Sound and the Fury.) Each section is made of ten smaller sections, each employing a different narrative strategy — a tableau, a letter, a fantasy, a catechism, and so on. (Yes, like Ulysses, times four.) Sorrentino puts all this narrative art to a deeply human purpose. The last time I taught Aberration of Starlight, I could barely read its heartbreaking last paragraph aloud.

Sorrentino's poetry is marked by the influence of William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley, but there's a tough, curt quality to his poems that's his own. In a different (better) literary culture, Sorrentino's poetry (and his fiction) would be much more widely read. Here's one short poem:

The Morning Roundup

I don't want to hear any news on the radio
about the weather on the weekend. Talk about

Once upon a time
a couple of people were alive
who were friends of mine.

The weathers, the weathers they lived in!
Christ, the sun on those Saturdays.

[from Corrosive Sublimate (1971)]
Three links

      » Gilbert Sorrentino Dead at 77, from the Center for Book Culture
      » Aberration of Starlight, Dalkey Archive Press
      » Gilbert Sorrentino feature, Jacket magazine

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Words from Charles Van Doren

The name Charles Van Doren will bring to mind the quiz show Twenty-One and scandal. But here's another way in which Charles Van Doren might be remembered -- as a deeply thoughtful student of the sorrows and possibilities of human life.

In 1999, Van Doren was invited to address a reunion of Columbia College's class of 1959. Like these alums, he started at Columbia in 1955 (as an assistant professor); he resigned in 1959. In the course of some remarks on how to live late in one's life, he mentions Aeneas' journey to the world of the dead, which begins at Lake Avernus in Italy, and quotes the Sibyl's words to Aeneas:

"The way downward is easy from Avernus.
Black Dis's door stands open night and day.
But to retrace your steps to heaven's air,
There is the trouble, there is the toil."

(Virgil, Aeneid 6, translated by Robert Fitzgerald)
Van Doren notes (in his own translation) the advice that the shade of Phlegyas gives Aeneas: "Study justice, and do not scorn the gods!" (Phlegyas, enraged after Apollo seduced his daughter, set fire to the god's temple at Delphi.) Van Doren goes on to say that
None of us can take Aeneas's journey, nor, in fact, did he. The story of his descent into the Underworld and his return to the brightness of the sun is a myth, and myths are stories that are so true they can never happen. Something like his journey may happen to anyone. The human name for it may be despair.

Despair -- the Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard called it. As we enter this last part of our time we mustn't forget that bad things can happen. The failure of hopes, the death of friends, the venality of politicians, the manifest cruelty that stalks the world -- these may tempt us to descend from Avernus into that dark place where safety seems to lie. But then we scorn the gods. This great line is from Paul Valéry's "Le cimitière marin":

      Le vent se lève; il faut tenter de vivre!

      The wind's rising; we have to try to live!
You can read a transcript of Van Doren's remarks to the class of 1959 via the link.

       » Charles Van Doren revisits Morningside Heights
      from Columbia College, Columbia University

Mother and child


Mother: "What is a chair used for?"

Child: "Climbing?"

Sunday, May 14, 2006


"It's not fun to watch other people in Hawaii."

Saturday, May 13, 2006

John Hicks (1941-2006)

John Hicks was a brilliant pianist, one who (like Jaki Byard) ranged freely across styles. I've heard him on many records and was lucky to hear him in person, about 20 years ago, at a club in Central Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was playing in a quartet with David Murray (tenor sax, bass clarinet), Fred Hopkins (bass), and Ed Blackwell (drums). For a reader who knows jazz, that should be all I need to say.

      » Pianist John Hicks Dies, from JazzTimes

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Good advice for students

Anders Ericsson is a professor of psychology at Florida State University. His and his colleagues' work, as described in the New York Times, holds some lessons for any student:

Their work, compiled in the Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers -- whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming -- are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect. These may be the sort of clichés that parents are fond of whispering to their children. But these particular clichés just happen to be true.

Ericsson's research suggests a third cliché as well: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love -- because if you don't love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don't like to do things they aren't "good" at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don't possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practice that would make them better.

"I think the most general claim here," Ericsson says of his work, "is that a lot of people believe there are some inherent limits they were born with. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that anyone could attain any kind of exceptional performance without spending a lot of time perfecting it."
So often I've heard students say that they're "not good" at writing essays or at reading poetry, as if their present skills were beyond improving. The way to get better at these things, as I always say, is to work on them.

      » A Star Is Made, from the New York Times

Saturday, May 6, 2006

Breakfast with William B. and Edna St. V.

William Butler Yeats and Edna St. Vincent Millay read their work in distinctive voices -- highly musical, highly theatrical, or, if you prefer, totally over the top. Hugh Kenner tells a story of Yeats reading "The Lake Isle of Innisfree":

[H]e read it as he read everything, in a peculiar half-chant in which Ezra Pound heard keening, and other Americans heard Celtic melancholy, and Dublin heard Willie Yeats putting on airs. A no-nonsense American lady asked him to kindly infarm the audience (he recalled the sound she made as "infarm") why he read his poetry in that fashion. He replied that every poet since Homer had read in that fashion. She asked him to further infarm them how he knew that Homer had read in that fashion. He replied that the ability of the man justified the presumption. [From A Colder Eye: The Modern Irish Writers, 1983]
My wife Elaine, our daughter Rachel, and I were recently talking about Yeats and Millay. (Rachel worked on a group project about Millay and has now read enough of her work to last a lifetime, thank you.) Elaine suggested that we ponder the idea of Yeats and Millay talking over breakfast. My imagination went to work (or play, really) developing a scenario.
[William B. announces his plans for the morning.]

I will arise and go now, and go to the grocery
And a carton of milk I will buy there, and a dozen
      eggs or more,
And I will buy some bread there, for the bread
      truck comes today.

[Edna St. V. replies.]

I shall forget you presently, my dear,
So make the most of this, your little trip.

[At this point, Elaine directed Katherine Hepburn to enter the dining room and ask if they'd be needing anything else this morning. Curtain.]
All this silliness is curiously appropriate, given Yeats' 1937 remark on the work of the poet:
[H]e never speaks directly as to someone at the breakfast table, there is always a phantasmagoria.
Yes, and there is even a phantasmagoria of the breakfast table.

I'm no fan of Millay's delivery, I'll admit, and my passion for Yeatsian loftiness waned some time ago. My favorite readers of poetry are William Carlos Williams, Robert Creeley, and Ted Berrigan, vernacular Americans all. And here's another odd connection: Ted Berrigan appropriated "[T]here is always a phantasmagoria" as a tongue-in-cheek shorthand statement of his poetics.

If you'd like to hear Yeats, here's a link. I'm unable to find a recording of Millay online.

      » William Butler Yeats reads "The Lake Isle of Innisfree"

Update: I found two Millay recordings.

      » Edna St. Vincent Millay reads two poems

Thursday, May 4, 2006

Inquiring minds want to know

Do you have to be on a certain floor?

Do you have to have money to eat lunch?

If you are on a break, do you get to play on the Internet?
From a wonderful bunch of questions.

      » What do fourth-graders want to know about college?
      From the University of Houston-Victoria