Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Fonts in the "news"

From "America's Finest News Source":

The decision to set his résumé in default-font Times–New Roman "deeply, personally, and irrevocably" offended a prospective employer of Seth Hershey Monday.
Link » Résumé Font Offends Employer, from The Onion

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Yo, Professor!

It's fun for me to follow the fortunes of my most-visited post, "How to e-mail a professor," when a semester begins. It received quite a few hits last Monday and Tuesday, and several hundred yesterday. There's been steady interest today too — 67 of the last 100 visits to my blog have been to that post.

Many of these visits are via links in on-line course materials. Other visits seem to be a matter of people having been told what to look for (e.g, a Google search for "orange crate e-mail"). Still others are from students (and some profs, and perhaps a few helicopter parents) starting from scratch (e.g, a Google search for "write email to a professor"). It makes me happy to know that students are thinking about how to engage in the unfamiliar task of writing to their professors. In so doing, they're helping to lift, in countless small ways, the general level of discourse in their academic worlds. Not so far in the future, student e-mails to profs from Hotmail and Yahoo accounts for drunkenbum and thighmaster might seem as quaint as raccoon coats.

A new page that links to "How to e-mail a professor" went online today, from Information Technology Services at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "E-mail how-to's" summarizes most the points I make and adds a few cautions about confidentiality and spam.

Link » How to e-mail a professor, from Orange Crate Art

Link » E-mail how to's, from Inside ITS, UNC at Chapel Hill [Link no longer works.]

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Record stores

The news that Tower Records has filed for bankruptcy has made me think back to my record-buying youth. (I still buy records, only now they're called CDs.)

My first record stores were in New Jersey — The Relic Rack in Hackensack and Sam Goody's at Garden State Plaza in Paramus. The Relic Rack, a long narrow store on Main Street, carried mostly oldies (which back in the 1970s meant 45s from the 1950s, and the Cruisin' reissue series) and a small selection of interesting then-current LPs. I still remember records that I bought there — a Columbia compilation called The Story of the Blues and Taj Mahal's The Natch'l Blues (I still have both). Sam Goody's, perhaps twenty times the size of The Relic Rack, was one of the great culture spots of my teenaged life. Nowadays, the name "Sam Goody's" denotes the sorriest sort of mall outlet — with black-light posters, lava lamps, and oh yeah, some CDs. But thirty years or so ago, Sam Goody's was a record-buying dream. The jazz and blues sections were enormous, with all sorts of offerings on small and foreign labels — ESP-Disk (I bought my Albert Ayler LPs there), French RCA (the Ellington Integrale series), and the various labels that put out music by the Art Ensemble of Chicago and other avant-garde jazz musicians. The Sam Goody's classical section had its own staff, who could offer recommendations — quite helpful when I bought Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, my first classical recording. Mind you, I didn't know whether the recommendation (Georg Solti, Chicago Symphony) was a good one, but it was at least something to go on. The ideal Sam Goody's experience was the all-label sale, advertised via a coupon-ad in the New York Times. That sale could allow one to make a killing, as when I picked up the Art Tatum Solo Masterpieces (a 13-LP set) for $49. I can still tell which of my LPs are from Sam Goody's — the cashiers always sliced the plastic wrap in the bottom-right corner of the back cover and wrote in the purchase price.

[One such corner, from the Albert Ayler Trio's Spiritual Unity, ESP-Disk 1002 ($4.49). If you strain your eyes (or click for the larger version of the photo), you can see the mark of Zorro (i.e., the cashier's razorblade) across the price.]

I also spent a fair amount of time at J&R's jazz outlet, on Nassau Street in lower Manhattan. I'd drive in from New Jersey on a Saturday morning, when the financial district was deserted and parking spaces were to be had. I was always amazed to see so many people shopping for jazz on a Saturday morning. J&R had bins and bins of cut-outs, and I bought many an LP simply to satisfy curiosity — the prices were so reasonable that I could afford to experiment. Nowadays, I rarely buy a CD without having some idea of what I'm going to be hearing (the exceptions, matters of irresistible curiosity, include Nellie McKay, Wilco, and Bob Dylan's Love and Theft).

What I most miss about record stores is the joy of browsing. I miss the soft thunk of flipping through LPs in their bins. Used LPs, minus their plastic wrap, aren't the same, and CDs, which spell out their contents on their top edges and clatter like a drawerful of junk, lack all magic. I miss the chance to read liner notes while trying to make up my mind. And (save for the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago) I miss the feeling that a great record store always held — of containing, just like a library or museum, things I wanted to know more about.

While looking around online today, I learned that Sam Goody's filed for bankruptcy in January 2006. I hadn't noticed.

[Endnote: My wife Elaine tells me that the Solti/Chicago Rite of Spring was an excellent recommendation.]

Link » Relic Records, with background on the Relic Rack

Link » The World of Sam Goody, Part One, Part Two, Matthew Lasar's recollections of working at Sam Goody's flagship store in Manhattan, with a great story of shopping with Rahsaan Roland Kirk (from RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities )

Friday, August 25, 2006


Noticed on both sides of a printed sign in a supermarket:

Maybe the S came loose from DEBRIS and ended up on the FLOOR?

Thursday, August 24, 2006


Drinking four or more cups of tea every day could be more beneficial than drinking water, scientists have said.
That's my kind of science.

Link » Four cups of tea a day "better than drinking water," from the Daily Mail

Pluto gets the boot

Nachos, anyone?

Link » Pluto gets the boot, from

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Proust: "This is the operator speaking"

The telephone was not so commonly used then as it is today. And yet habit is so quick to demystify the sacred forces with which we are in contact, that, because I was not connected immediately, my only reaction was to see it as all very time-consuming and inconvenient, and to be on the point of lodging a complaint: like everybody nowadays, I found it too slow for my liking, with its abrupt transformations, this admirable magic that needs only a few seconds to bring before us, unseen but present, the person to whom we wish to speak, and who, seated at his table, in the town he inhabits (in my grandmother's case, Paris), under another sky than our own, in weather that is not necessarily the same, amid circumstances and preoccupations that are unknown to us and which he is about to reveal, finds himself suddenly transported hundreds of miles (he and all the surroundings in which he remains immersed) to within reach of our hearing, at a particular moment dictated by our whim. And we are like the character in the fairy tale at whose wish an enchantress conjures up, in a supernatural light, his grandmother or his betrothed as they turn the pages of a book, shed tears, gather flowers, very close to the spectator and yet very far away, in the place where they really are. For this miracle to happen, all we need to do is approach our lips to the magic panel and address our call — often with too much delay, I agree — to the Vigilant Virgins whose voices we hear every day but whose faces we never get to know, and who are the guardian angels of the dizzy darkness whose portals they jealously guard; the All-Powerful Ones who conjure absent beings to our presence without our being permitted to see them; the Danaids of the unseen, who constantly empty and refill and transmit to one another the urns of sound; the ironic Furies, who, just as we are murmuring private words to a loved one in the hope we are not overheard, call out with brutal invasiveness, "This is the operator speaking"; the forever fractious servants of the Mysteries, the shadowy priestesses of the Invisible, so quick to take offense, the Young Ladies of the Telephone!
Marcel Proust, The Guermantes Way, translated by Mark Treharne (New York: Penguin, 2002), 127

Link » Proust posts, via Pinboard

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Gilgamesh in translation

In my mailbox not long ago appeared a brochure from The Free Press, publisher of Stephen Mitchell's 2006 translation of Gilgamesh. Along with the usual rave reviews (Harold Bloom's is quoted twice), there is, more interestingly, a gathering of well-known English versions of the poem's first lines—from N.K. Sandars (1960), Herbert Mason (1970), and David Ferry (1992). "Compare the same passage as translated in other versions," the brochure says, "to Mitchell's clearly rendered and striking lyricism."

I like the publisher's willingness to put this new translation up against the competition. I like clearly rendered and striking lyricism too. And I prefer Mitchell's version of these lines to Mason's and Ferry's. But I still prefer N.K. Sandars' prose rendering, which is itself not a fresh translation but a "straightforward narrative," as she calls it, synthesized from various source materials. Here's Sandars:

I will proclaim to the world the deeds of Gilgamesh. This was the man to whom all things were known; this was the king who knew the countries of the world. He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labour, returning he rested, he engraved on a stone the whole story.
And Mitchell (the ends of lines one, two, four, and five are indented so as to accommodate various font sizes):
He had seen everything, he had experienced all
from exaltation to despair, he had been granted a
into the great mystery, the secret places,
the primeval days before the Flood. He had
to the ends of the earth and made his way back,
but whole.
My thoughts about these lines don't have to do with fidelity to fragmentary cuneiform texts. I'm thinking instead about the ways in which each version gives a reader (most likely a high-school or college student) ways to engage the narrative. Here Sandars' version has at least three advantages. It foregrounds the role of the poet as memorializer and cultural spokesman; it shows Gilgamesh as the bringer of knowledge to his people ("he brought us a tale"); and it makes good use of biblical repetition, drawing the reader into the context of an ancient story.

Mitchell's version, in contrast, seems lacking. To my ears, the first line has the overblown tone of a movie-trailer voiceover. The reference to "the great mystery" (is there only one ?) also seems overdone. And the cliché "ends of the earth" seems odd; Gilgamesh's journey could be said to go beyond the ends of the earth, beyond the limits of human life, beyond the limits of reality itself.

There's more to consider than just this opening passage, but for now, I'm sticking with Sandars.

Stanley Lombardo reads Homer

One of my projects this summer was to listen to and write about Stanley Lombardo's recordings of his Iliad and Odyssey translations. I ended up writing an essay that touches on various questions of voice and translation and performance. It's now online, with links to samples of the recordings.

Link » Wonderland of voices, from Jacket

(Jacket, edited from Australia by the poet John Tranter, is the best resource for contemporary poetry I know of.)

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Signage, misread

I've been told that children who are learning to read will sometimes introduce mistakes when reading aloud to make mind-numbing classroom texts more interesting.

Perhaps that helps explain what happened when my wife Elaine and I were shopping today. I saw DRESSPANTS and read DEPRESSANTS. She saw FREE WIFI and read FREE WIFE. I'd say our signage was more interesting.

Friday, August 18, 2006

New year's resolutions

People in academic life, teachers and students alike, get a curious bonus — while everyone else trudges from January to December, we have a chance to begin anew with each semester, term, or quarter. In a wonderful passage from his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), Thomas Merton evokes the feeling of possibility on a college campus when everything is about to begin again:

October is a fine and dangerous season in America. . . . It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all. You go to college, and every course in the catalogue looks wonderful. The names of the subjects all seem to lay open the way to a new world. Your arms are full of new, clean notebooks, waiting to be filled. You pass through the doors of the library, and the smell of thousands of well-kept books makes your head swim with a clean and subtle pleasure. You have a new hat, a new sweater perhaps, or a whole new suit. Even the nickels and quarters in your pocket feel new, and the buildings shine in the glorious sun.
Here’s a suggestion for the beginning of an academic year: Make and keep a resolution or two to address what’s really urgent in your academic life.

If, for instance, like J. Alfred Prufrock, you tend to think that “There will be time, there will be time” and endlessly defer getting to work, resolve to work as though the first weeks of class are already the last few. Every semester I talk with students who acknowledge that they could benefit from this resolution — they begin with Ds and Cs and sometimes, much later in the semester, when they make a real effort, they get Bs and As. Alas, their semester grades reflect all their work, not just what happens when they get going.

If you’ve felt invisible in your classes, you might resolve to bring your invisibility to an end. Don’t sit in the back of the room or off to one side, as far away as you can be without being elsewhere. Contribute to class discussions, even if you feel uncertain about doing so. Ask questions after class, and seek out your professors during office hours. Faculty are sometimes too willing to lump all students together as iPod-toting consumerists who want nothing more from their education than a good grade-point average. If that’s not you, make your professors see who you are.

Your resolution doesn’t have to be complex. It might be a matter of simple, direct action — placing an alarm clock at a significant distance from your bed (and remembering to turn it on), or buying and using a datebook to keep track of what you need to do. (I’m always amazed to see students who have no reliable means of planning — no datebook, no PDA, no hipster PDA.)

The academic year is an almost magical construction. Here in my corner of the northern hemisphere, I always marvel that when the leaves are changing color and the calendar year is running out, everything is also beginning again.

Link » Odes to autumn (A related blog post)

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

McDonald's [sic] goes vegan

In India, that is:

It may come as a surprise to many that McDonald's, the company known worldwide for its meat burgers and milkshakes, celebrated "Meatout", an annual affair by advocates of vegetarianism, at select outlets here [Bangalore] and [in] Thane by offering a "Vegan Meal" for two days this week. . . .

McDonald's Vegan Meal promotion in the country consisted of a regular iced tea and medium fries which could be used to complete a meal of one of the many McDonald's India vegan dishes including "McVeggie McAloo Tikki" and "Cripsy Chinese."
McDonald's India also offers McCurry [sic].

Link » McDonald's goes "vegan" (from The Hindu)

Link » Menu card for New Delhi McDonald's, featuring McCurry and other vegan items

Link » McDonald's Settles Beef Over Fries, on fries, beef tallow, and a $10 million settlement (from CBS News)

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Heard on NPR, a mnemonic for the names of the planets:

My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas.
I somehow made it way past twelfth grade without hearing this charming sentence.

Thinking ahead: If Pluto loses planet status, nine can turn into nachos, and the kids won't go hungry.

Update: More than pizza is at stake: new planets may be on the way, as an AP article describes. The possible lineup: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Charon, "and the provisionally named 2003 UB313." Which might yield
My very educated mother Ceres just served us nine plump chicken tacos.
Link » Mnemonic (Wikipedia article with an amazing array of mnemonic devices, including some for remembering the early digits of pi)

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Things I learned on my summer vacation

Long car trips are far more enjoyable when the driver refrains from gratuitous "stress-busting" profanities.


Pete Seeger is the best driving music, at least for my family. (For a related post, see here.)


My children love Bob Dylan's song "Farewell."


Taco Bell is perhaps the best road-food choice for vegans. In second place: Subway.


Edward Hopper's sketches are as terrific as his paintings.


Blaise Cendrars' Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jeanne de France (1913), with stencil designs by Sonia Delaunay, is on display at the New York Public Library (in an exhibit of French book art). It's an extraordinary work, printed accordion-style, and measuring 6' 6 5/16" when unfolded. A Parisian bookseller appears to have a copy for sale, with a vibrant photograph thereof. The colors of the NYPL copy are far more delicate.


Changing strings on a six-string guitar should take twelve minutes, tops.


"Ramblin' on My Mind" is great to sing and play, no matter how many times you've done so.


It's very difficult choosing among varieties of excellent dark chocolate.


The shape of the glass can change the taste of the wine (especially if it's good wine).


A dowdy-world tradition for ladies: when you buy a new pocketbook, you drop in a shiny new penny.


Theodore Roosevelt's wife and mother died on the same day (February 14, 1884.)


To counter the effects of various drugs and thereby stay awake, Marcel Proust would drink seventeen consecutive cups of coffee.


"New Jersey is a diner."


We are stardust, just as Joni Mitchell says in "Woodstock." (There's an explanation here.)


Sufjan Stevens' Illinois sounds especially good when heading west out of Indiana.


Somewhere in Pennsylvania is a driver whose license plate reads "THE PURV."

Pete Seeger synchronicity

In the car in upstate New York with my family, a Pete Seeger tape running. The Vietnam allegory "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" began:

It was back in 1942,
I was a member of a good platoon.
We were on maneuvers in Lou'siana,
One night by the light of the moon.
The captain told us to ford a river,
That's how it all begun.
We were knee deep in the Big Muddy,
The big fool said to push on.
Within two or three seconds of the song's start, we saw a sign for the town of Westmoreland. Readers of a certain age (or of any age) will recall that General William Westmoreland commanded American military forces in Vietnam War from 1964 to 1968.

In 1967, CBS would not allow Seeger to sing "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Seeger finally got the chance in 1968. He writes about the song and its history in a 1983 piece available from the link below:
Of course, a song is not a speech, you know. It reflects new meanings as one's life's experiences shine new light upon it. (This song does not mention Vietnam or President Johnson by name.) Often a song will reappear several different times in history or in one's life as there seems to be an appropriate time for it. Who knows.
Link » How "Waist Deep in the Big Muddy" Finally Got on Network Television in 1968 (from, a fan site)

[Note: The lyrics quoted in this piece differ slightly from those of the 1966 recording. I've followed the recording in typing the verse given above.]

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Duke Jordan (1922-2006)

From today's New York Times:

Duke Jordan, a pianist whose work with the saxophonist Charlie Parker endures in the jazz canon, died on Tuesday in Valby, Denmark, a suburb of Copenhagen. He was 84, and he had lived in self-imposed exile from the United States since 1978, continuing to perform in the musical tradition he helped create. . . .

His work with Parker, recorded for the Dial and Savoy labels, soared with a lilting intensity. It was hard-driving and lyrical, heady and heartfelt, said Ira Gitler, a jazz critic who heard Mr. Jordan and Parker in 1947, at the Onyx Club and the Three Deuces, two long-vanished nightclubs on West 52nd Street in Manhattan.

A handful of recordings from 1947 and 1948 featuring Parker, along with Miles Davis on trumpet, Mr. Jordan on piano and Max Roach on drums, are considered masterpieces. They include "Embraceable You," "Crazeology," and "Scrapple From the Apple."

Mr. Jordan’s "beautifully apt introductions," in the words of Phil Schaap, curator of Jazz at Lincoln Center, lasted only seconds. But they set the stage for three-minute explosions of creativity.
If you've never heard the Parker quintet's "Embraceable You," pick up the Ken Burns Charlie Parker CD and listen — to the beautiful introduction and all that follows.

Link » Duke Jordan, 84, Jazz Pianist Who Helped to Build Bebop, Dies (New York Times)

Thursday, August 10, 2006


Heard while walking down the street (Madison Avenue, NYC, to be exact):

"It was like a perfect high school reunion — no red wine."
Link » "Overheard" posts (via Pinboard)

Friday, August 4, 2006

I am in the Wall Street Journal.

That's something I've never had occasion to say before today. (And I may never have occasion to say it again.) I'm quoted in the Wall Street Journal, in "Lost in Translations," an article by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg on recent translations of great literature. In a sidebar listing various translations, I comment on Lydia Davis' translation of Swann's Way: "Extremely readable in all its complexity, that complexity being the complexity of Proust's sentences." I'm proud to have used the word complexity three times in a single sentence.

Link » Lost in Translations: Flood of Re-Translated Classics Hits Shelves, Igniting Debate (Wall Street Journal)

Link » Proust posts, via Pinboard

Thursday, August 3, 2006

What not to wear: Back-to-school edition

I find myself shifting among various personae with regard to dress. Sometimes I want to feel my connection to the late sixties, to the radical politics that inspired me as a student. I wear jeans on those days, and sometimes even dig an old blue work shirt from the closet. I also have a few billowing shirts like those worn by Russian peasants, and I wear these whenever I lecture on Walt Whitman, considering them as a kind of teaching aid. Whenever I lecture on T.S. Eliot, I try for a more formal manner of dress. Eliot, after all, was a London publisher by profession, and he favored traditional suits with a bowler hat and rolled umbrella as accessories. Last year when teaching The Waste Land I put on an old pinstripe, and it felt right in that context. For the most part, I find myself most comfortable in something from the L.L. Bean catalogue.

Jay Parini, The Art of Teaching (New York, Oxford University Press, 2005)
Ah, academia.