Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009, last sentences

My second post in 2009 followed a meme that I found at Robert Gable’s aworks: go through your 2008 blog entries and and collect the first sentence from each month. To end the year, I’ve collected the last sentence from each month of 2009. Doing so involves figuring out an answer to an odd question: what to do about December?

The first sentence below comes from a New York Times obituary for George Schneeman. The second, from David Frauenfelder at Breakfast with Pandora. The third, from a poster about the “r-word.” The others are mine.

He was known in an intimate New York circle for his long, fruitful collaborations with a flock of well-known poets, among them Peter Schjeldahl, Anne Waldman, Larry Fagin and Ted Berrigan. Though no one’s job is perfectly safe, if we all decide we must have two years’ of savings in the bank before we spend again, eventually no one will have a job except the security guard at the bank. Spread the word to end the word.

The group is called Canvas. Et cetera. As they say, “Developing.”

I’m happy to be part of a family in which everybody cooks. Supplies is my word, and has become my family’s word, for all manner of stationery items. Tickets are free. From the Life Photo Archive.

But how could he have left out “I’m Bugged at My Old Man”? But how could he have left out “I’m Bugged at My Old Man”?

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Bagatelle, bag of shells

A few minutes in Google Books this morning let me know that the comic confusion of “bagatelle” and “bag of shells” long predates The Honeymooners. One example:

Matthew M. Colton, Frank Armstrong at College (New York: Hurst & Company, 1914).

James Madison, Madison’s Budget (Washington, D.C.: Department of Dramatic Activities Among the Soldiers, 1918).
Yes, Madison’s Budget is a minstrel show, and my guess is that this play on words has its origins in minstrelsy. Perhaps it went on to a later life in vaudeville. Perhaps Jackie Gleason heard it in childhood, or as a young man in show business.

Would a mid-1950s Honeymooners audience have recognized Ralph Kramden’s “a mere bag of shells” as an old, old joke on “bagatelle”? Or were the shells just shells by then?

A mere bag of poloponies

Tuesday's New York Times crossword taught me something. The clue for 15-Across: “A ____ bagatelle!” I had the answer, MERE, but the words together made no sense to me. And I was puzzled: isn’t the expression “a mere bag of shells”? I’ve known that expression forever, from the television series The Honeymooners. It’s one of Ralph Kramden’s favorites, along with “Baby, you’re the greatest” and “Bang, zoom.”

The Times Crossword Blog helps out:

Bagatelle is a great word (French from Italian) that can mean a trifle, a billiardslike game or a short, light piece of music. In 1827, Alessandro Manzoni used the phrase “una piccola bagattella,” translated to “a mere bagatelle,” in his widely read novel, The Betrothed.
Aha. Ralph’s catchphrase, like Ed Norton’s poloponies for polo ponies, is a mistake, meant, I assume, to be recognized as such. It’s Ralph trying to appear blasé and looking instead slightly ridiculous. Still, I like “a mere bag of shells.” Suggesting brown paper and peanuts and street vendors, it fits the Kramden world well.

Why, you may ask, was Norton talking about polo ponies? He was reading a script while rehearsing a play for the Raccoon Lodge: “I don’t possess a mansion, a villa in France, a yacht, or a string of poloponies.”

A related post
More on “bagatelle,” “bag of shells” (An old, old joke)

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Orange timer art

Elaine gave me this timer. It’s solid, solid as a rock, and accurate, with a mellow tick and stately ring. And perfect for practicing the Pomodoro Arancia Technique.

Thank you, Elaine.

[With apologies to Ashford and Simpson.]

Robert Frost, taking attendance

The city of Methuen, Massachusetts, is seeking a $3,000 grant to preserve an 1893 attendance register. Robert Frost kept the register while teaching at Methuen’s Second Grammar School.

Three details I notice:

The students’ ages appear to be marked in years and months — 12-3, 13-11. Common practice?

Absences appear to be marked by the half-day.

“T” must stand for good old “tardy.”

Methuen seeking $3,000 to preserve Robert Frost document (Boston Globe)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Clifford Hicks’s new Alvin Fernald novel

Clifford B. Hicks. Alvin Fernald’s Incredible Buried Treasure. Cynthiana, KY: Purple House Press, 2009. $17.95.

Alvin Fernald, a brainy, excitable boy with a knack for adventure, is the hero of nine novels published between 1960 and 1986. The second, Alvin’s Secret Code (1963), was the formative book of my childhood. The news that Clifford Hicks, now eighty-nine, has written a tenth Alvin Fernald novel seems to me like news one gets in a dream, though the news came in an e-mail from Mr. Hicks to his many correspondents.

Alvin’s Secret Code seems to have helped inspire this new novel. Here as there, a visitor comes to Riverton, Indiana, with a story from the past. Here as there, a cryptic message points to the location of a Civil War treasure. In Alvin’s Secret Code though, the visitor’s story is contained within a chapter. Here, the past becomes the substance of the novel, in the form of a journal written by Caleb Getme, a (fictional) young man who escaped slavery and went on to live in the White House and later work as a printer. Caleb’s journal is a compelling invention, one that would bring many a young reader into contact with some of the brutality and bravery of the American past. The journal accounts for more than half the novel’s pages, which means that there’s less of Alvin, his family, and his friend Shoie here than a reader might have hoped for. I wondered whether Alvin’s father would still be smoking a pipe in 2009, but Mr. and Mrs. Fernald are nearly invisible. Alvin’s sister Daphne though is an especially bright and lively presence, doing yoga and displaying her knowledge as a dictionary reader. And the novel reveals how Alvin and Shoie met and became best friends, something I don’t recall reading about elsewhere.

What I like most about Alvin Fernald’s Incredible Buried Treasure is its author’s wise refusal to march his characters into the twenty-first century. Alvin’s room has an Inventing Bench, not a computer. No one owns a cellphone. Yet nothing seems to be missing. Mysteries are solved not online but with face-to-face interviews, visits to the local historical society, and kid power. Here's what Professor Liam O’Harra, whose visit sparks the story, says about Alvin, Shoie, and Daphne:

“Your father and several other residents of Riverton have told me you kids know more about the layout of the town and its surroundings than anyone else. You ride your bikes tirelessly around it from one end to the other, day after day.”
The heck with Google Earth. In Riverton, Indiana, kids on bikes still rule. Clifford Hicks thus reinvents both past and present in this novel. I hope that Alvin Fernald’s Incredible Buried Treasure finds its way to Alvin fans both young and nearly young.

Thanks, Rachel and Ben, for such a great gift.

Related posts
Clifford B. Hicks (1920–2010)
Out of the past (On reading Alvin’s Secret Code in adulthood)

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Weekly World News in Google Books

I think of the Weekly World News as a contemporary Metamorphoses. (Sorry, Ovid.) In this newspaper, poodles turn into children; statues walk and talk. Can you prove that it didn’t happen?

Found by chance: many issues of the Weekly World News can be had at Google Books.

“Child Obeys Xmas Text.”

[New York Times, December 26, 1909.]

Brake-beam: “a horizontal beam or rod on a wagon or railroad car that operates the brake shoes” (Webster's Third New International). “Brake-beam tourists” were those riding the rails.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Rocking the home

Our family played music at a local nursing home this afternoon, as we have for many Christmases. I played guitar and soprano uke; Elaine, viola and sopranino recorder; Rachel, violin; Ben, cello. We use a book of Christmas music marked with Post-it Notes and play the songs we like, some sacred and some secular, ending late in the alphabet with “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” As often as I've had this experience, I’m still always amazed to see nursing home residents grow more engaged and animated as they listen to music.

Today was an especially good day, and after playing what we thought was our last number, we had a request, for “Silver Bells.” We winged it (in D). And then we tried a number we had chickened out on earlier in the afternoon, “Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree,” which Elaine calls as the most persistent holiday earworm of all. We had a blast, in, yes, a new old-fashioned way: uke, viola, slap-cello, and Rachel and Ben’s voices. I can say in all modesty that we rocked the house, or home.

A related post
Music memory

Merry Christmas

[From Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962).]

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, from Ebenezer, the Cratchits, and me.

Related reading
A 166-Year-Old Manuscript Reveals Its Secrets (On the Christmas Carol manuscript, New York Times)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Inappropriate metaphor

My son Ben caught it: “MSNBC just called the midwest ‘the nation’s midsection.’”

Related reading
All metaphor posts (Pinboard)

Father Knows Best Christmas episode

From the first season of Father Knows Best, “The Christmas Story,” first broadcast on December 19, 1954. The Andersons’ strange encounter with old Nick becomes even stranger when you know that the actor playing Nick is Wallace Ford, probably best known as Phroso in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Verizon data charges

I’ve been awaiting our Verizon bill, curious to see if it would include data charges of the sort that David Pogue has been writing about. The bill arrived today, with $5.97 of such charges, all from hitting a key on a new phone by accident. So I called Verizon and asked that the charges be dropped. I was told that accessing the Verizon Wireless Mobile Web homepage incurs no charge, though that’s just how we incurred these charges. A bit of argument back and forth, and our bill is now back to its usual amount.

Verizon’s number: 1-800-922-0204.

A related post
Verizon’s $1.99 typos

Corrections of the Times

From the New York Times Corrections column:

A stollen recipe last Wednesday misstated the amount of active dry yeast in ounces. It is a quarter ounce, equal to one package, not 1 3/4 ounces.

["Pioneer Women," I Love Lucy. March 31, 1952.]

Lucy’s recipe called for three — not thirteen — cakes of yeast.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Fifty-seven business clichés

In an 11 X 17 illustration:

Visual business cliché find-it poster (EXPLANE)

For Seth: “Bandwidth” included.

A related post
Words I can live without

(Found via Coudal Partners)

Pogue v. Verizon, continued

New York Times technology columnist David Pogue responds to Verizon’s response to his recent criticism of the company’s business practices.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Illinois Central Railroad Pencil

Great pencil!


But you’re going to have to say an awful lot to match its length.

Don’t I know it. But where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Wait a minute — you’re an English teacher. Aren’t you supposed to avoid clichés?

Ordinarily, yes. But rules are made to —

Just stop right there. So what’s the story on this pencil?

Wish I knew. I found and bought it at a used-furniture and junk store in an Illinois village some years ago. My guess is that this pencil was made for railroad use. The odd designation “FORM NO. 520” does not suggest a traveler’s souvenir.

And there’s no eraser. Not a very friendly pencil.

Perhaps that’s a reminder not to make mistakes. “Service with safety,” after all.

The Illinois Central — is that important to you as an Illinoisan?

Sort of. Elaine and I —


Excuse me: my wife Elaine. Elaine and I and our daughter Rachel rode on the Illinois Central line (or what once was the I.C.) when we spent a summer in Chicago’s Hyde Park some years ago. And Elaine and I have traveled to Chicago on The City of New Orleans, formerly an I.C. train, now Amtrak. But what really interests and excites me about the Illinois Central Railroad is its place in music.

Yes, of course. [Begins to sing, slightly offkey.] “Good mornin’, America, how are —”

Yes, that’s a great song. But I’m more interested in the role that the I.C. plays in blues lyrics. Here, listen to this podcast about it.

[Twenty-one minutes later.]

That was a good show. I didn’t know that Casey Jones was an Illinois Central engineer.

Well, you learn something new every day. Let me add one more song, full of train effects: Bukka White’s “The Panama Limited.” The Panama was another I.C. train.

Who knew that a post about a pencil would turn into a post about railroads and music?

Not me.

[This post is the seventh in an occasional series, “From the Museum of Supplies.” The museum is imaginary. The supplies are real. Supplies is my word, and has become my family’s word, for all manner of stationery items.]

Also from the Museum of Supplies
Dennison's Gummed Labels No. 27
Fineline erasers
A Mad Men sort of man, sort of
Mongol No. 2 3/8
Real Thin Leads
Rite-Rite Long Leads

More on the Illinois Central
The Illinois Central Railroad, Main Line of Mid-America (American Rails)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

SMiLE, #1

Metacritic lists SMiLE (2004), music by Brian Wilson, words by Van Dyke Parks, as the best-reviewed recording of the aughts (2000–2009). Read all about it:

The Best Music of the Decade (Metacritic)
SMiLE reviews (Metacritic)

Stealing books

From a Margo Rabb essay on book theft:

“It’s mostly younger men stealing the books,” Zack Zook, the general manager of BookCourt in Brooklyn, suggested. “They think it’s an existential rite of passage to steal their homeboy.”

Steal These Books (New York Times)
Even in my little town, the barely solvent bookstore had to keep Charles Bukowksi and Jack Kerouac at the front desk.

Reader, have you ever stolen a book? Me, never.


My friend Linda pointed me to this beautiful story:

Boy Lifts Book; Librarian Changes Boy’s Life (NPR)

(Thanks, Linda!)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Geo-B’s art

Geo-B, a longtime reader of this blog, was in the hospital recently with a broken leg. He turned his stay into sixteen pictures. Take a look:

Two and a Half Weeks at the Rehabiliation Hospital

I especially like the grilled cheese and the ramp.

To George, I offer Duke Ellington’s wishes in such situations: Merry mending.

A related post
“Editor’s Lament” (A poem by the artist)

Domestic comedy

“I wonder how the word nut came to refer to people like me.”

The Oxford English Dictionary has the answer:

7. colloq. (orig. U.S.).

a. A mad or crazy person; an eccentric, a crank.

1908 H. C. FISHER in San Francisco Examiner 23 Nov. 6 (comic strip) They’ll just think I’m some old nut.
Related reading
All “domestic comedy” posts

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Gingerbread film

A short film by Eric Slatkin and Blake Smith: A Gingerbread Home for the Holidays. Very sweet.

(Found via Coudal Partners)

YouTube download script

“Lightweight and unobtrusive,” as its creator says: YouTube Video Download.

This script is the best tool I’ve found for saving YouTube clips. It works with Greasemonkey, Chrome 4, and Opera 10.

Related resources
Greasemonkey (Firefox add-on)
How to run Greasemonkey scripts in Safari (Simple Help)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Library slip (1941, 1992)

Such slips aren’t easy to find: even neglected books (stenography, typewriter repair) seem to have shiny new slips, with no stamped due dates. Library staff no doubt replace the old slips when crawling the stacks.

I’d like to think that the 1992 borrower gave this slip’s book a reprieve from the DISCARD stamp.

A related resource
Catalog Card Generator

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Dylan, Cooder, Parks

From the History Channel’s The People Speak, Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder, and Van Dyke Parks performing a Woody Guthrie song:

“Do Re Mi” (YouTube)

Aunt Maud’s clippings

Commentator Charles Kinbote notes several items in poet John Shade’s Aunt Maud’s room:

Among these was a scrapbook in which over a period of years (1937–1949) Aunt Maud had been pasting clippings of an involuntarily ludicrous or grotesque nature. John Shade allowed me one day to memorandum the first and the last of the series; they happened to intercommunicate most pleasingly, I thought. Both stemmed from the same family magazine Life, so justly famed for its pudibundity in regard to the mysteries of the male sex; hence one can well imagine how startled or titillated those families were. The first comes from the issue of May 10, 1937, p. 67, and advertises the Talon Trouser Fastener (a rather grasping and painful name, by the way). It shows a young gent radiating virility among several ecstatic lady-friends, and the inscription reads: You’ll be amazed that the fly of your trousers could be so dramatically improved. The second comes from the issue of March 28, 1949, p. 126, and advertises Hanes Fig Leaf Brief. It shows a modern Eve worshipfully peeping from behind a potted tree of knowledge at a leering young Adam in rather ordinary but clean underwear, with the front of his advertised brief conspicuously and compactly shaded, and the inscription reads: Nothing beats a fig leaf.

I think there must exist a special subversive group of pseudo-cupids — plump hairless little devils whom Satan commissions to make disgusting mischief in sacrosanct places.

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962)
Used to be a reader went to the periodical stacks in a library to find those advertisements (as I did, last century). But now they may be had via Google Books.

Aunt Maud’s room also holds a clipping of the newspaper headline “Red Sox Beat Yanks 5–4 On Chapman’s Homer.” Yes, Chapman’s Homer.

Pale Fire, a novel in the form of a critical edition of a poem, is one of my favorite novels.

[Pudibundity: bashfulness; prudery.]

Monday, December 14, 2009

Library book returned after fifty-four years

Frank Lancellotti has returned the New Spanish-English and English-Spanish Dictionary to the Jersey City Free Public Library. He borrowed the book as a college student fifty-four years ago — on another patron’s card.

Man returns Jersey City library book 54 years late (Star-Ledger)

A related post
Reading and not reading in Jersey City (Another dictionary gone missing)

Sunday, December 13, 2009


My son Ben’s thoughts about structuring study time and my curiosity about the Pomodoro Technique prompted me to look closely today at Philippe Galmel’s Minuteur, a timer and stopwatch application for the Mac. Minuteur seems especially well suited for trying out the Pomodoro Technique, as the application allows the user to chain alarms in a sequence. Thus someone serving a long stretch at the computer could set up alarms for several Pomodoros: twenty-five minutes, four minutes, twenty-five, four, and so on.

Another nice feature: Minuteur can display time (remaining or accumulating) in the menu bar, as a bar, counter, or ruler. Want to check your stuff (as we say in my house) and spend just ten minutes online without beginning to drift? That timer ticking away (silently or with a tick-tock effect) can help.

[Tick, tick, tick: Minuteur in the menu bar.]

Minuteur is free to try for twenty-one days. The cost of a license: €5.90. My only connection to the application is that of a happy user.

Minuteur (Developer’s website)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

More finals advice

My son Ben passes on two suggestions:

First, I found this great free Timer application for the Mac. You can use it as a stopwatch, to countdown, or as an alarm clock. For instance, I can set it to run for forty minutes; when that time is up, the application starts up my iTunes visual screensaver and I know it’s time to take a break. I do the same thing to time my break. Here’s the link: Apimac Timer.

The second tip is a little alteration of your 45/15 rule about studying. I’ve found it’s fun to increase the amount of time you’re studying and reduce the amount of time you’re taking a break each time. So for instance, one of my first sequences ran like this: 50 minutes studying, 6 minute break. The next one was 55 minutes studying, 4 minutes taking a break. It’s a way to increase your productivity in a gradual way, and it’s very easy to do with the Timer application.
Thanks, Ben!

A recent post at TUAW will lead the curious reader to a variety of Mac (and Windows) timers.

A related post

For finals week

How to do horribly on a final exam
How to do well on a final exam

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

Friday, December 11, 2009

Harvard in Allston

Harvard University in the news:

Harvard announced Thursday that it would indefinitely suspend construction on a high-tech science complex in the Allston neighborhood of Boston because of money problems.

“The altered financial landscape of the university, and of the wider world, necessitates a shift away from rapid development in Allston,” Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard’s president, wrote in a letter released Thursday. . . .

In her letter, Dr. Faust said Harvard would step up efforts to revitalize Allston, a gritty neighborhood wedged between the Charles River and the Massachusetts Turnpike, even as it delayed the science center.
Correction: only part of Allston is wedged between the Charles and the Mass Pike. But all of Allston is gritty. I am happy to have spent three years in that famous ZIP code, 02134.

A related post
Its and it’s (Harvard, Allston, mistakes)

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Walt Mossberg reviews the Nook

His conclusion: “It's not fully baked yet.”

Is Mossberg referencing Benjamin Braddock’s conversation with his father in The Graduate? (“Ben, this whole idea sounds pretty half-baked.” “No, it’s not. It's completely baked.”) Or is this metaphor (completely baked, fully baked, as opposed to half-baked) now just part of everyday language?

A Review of the Nook E-Reader (Wall Street Journal)

David Pogue reviews the Nook

His conclusion: Barnes & Noble has a “bad case of Ship-at-All-Costs-itis.”

Not Yet the Season for a Nook (New York Times)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Buster Cooper

“It was almost like a marriage, really — you understand what I’m saying? It was always there.”
Trombonist Buster Cooper, on the closing of St. Petersburg’s Garden Restaurant, where he has played for fifteen years. Cooper, who spent most of the 1960s with Duke Ellington, is now eighty, and one of the last Ellingtonians. As the clip accompanying the article makes clear, he still sounds great.

Jazz legend Buster Cooper's Garden gig nearing an end in St. Petersburg (St. Petersburg Times)

Uncle Mark 2010

The 2010 edition of the Uncle Mark Gift Guide & Almanac is now available as a free PDF download from Mark Hurst, consumer-experience consultant and creator of Good Experience. The 2010 guide offers single buying recommendations in various categories, along with useful and sometimes surprising tips and tricks. (Turn your index finger into a magnifying glass!)

A related post
Review of Mark Hurst’s Bit Literacy

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

“Dissertation Writing Help”

My post What plagiarism looks like now draws spam comments offering shady URLs for “Dissertation Writing Help,” “Research Assistance,” &c. Sigh. Delete.

A related post
“Plagiarism free” (Purchase your own “plagiarism free” dissertation)

Dentistry at dawn

I like our dentist. He’s eighty years old, an ace, and he’s been our family’s dentist for twenty-five years. He is the only dentist our children have ever known. His workday starts early and ends early. When the phone rings at 6:30 in the morning, it’s his office, wondering if we’d like to come in earlier because a spot has opened up.

Elaine and I have been thinking about how to break it to certain other members of the family that our group visit to the dentist later this month has been scheduled for 7:00 A.M. And thus I have written this post. We’re sorry, kids. It was the best time we could get.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Harlem Children’s Zone

Last night 60 Minutes reported on the Harlem Children’s Zone. Watch here.

The Michigan Theater

Ozymandias alert: the Michigan Theater, a once-glorious theater in Detroit, now houses parked cars. Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

The theater is the subject of a Flickr set by photographer James D. Griffioen.

Update, March 6, 2010: The New York Times reports an effort to save the building: Seeking a Future for a Symbol of a Grander Past.

Related reading and viewing
James D. Griffioen (the photographer’s website)
Michigan Theater (Wikipedia article)

(Thanks, Rachel! And thanks, Shelley.)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Harry Potter and college

High-school senior Lauren Edelson objects to a cynical new strategy in college marketing:

Back when I was a junior, before I’d printed off an application or visited a campus, I had high expectations for the college application process. I’d soak up detailed descriptions of academic opportunity and campus life — and by the end of it, I’d know which college was right for me. Back then, I knew only of these institutions and their intimidating reputations, not what set each one apart from the rest. And I couldn’t wait to find out.

So I was surprised when many top colleges delivered the same pitch. It turns out, they’re all a little bit like Hogwarts — the school for witches and wizards in the Harry Potter books and movies. Or at least, that’s what the tour guides kept telling me.
Read more:

Taking the Magic Out of College (New York Times)

I’ll suggest an acronym for this sort of marketing strategy: TLC. Not “Tender Loving Care” but “Treat ’em Like Children.”

Saturday, December 5, 2009

William Meehan update

The Alabama Supreme Court has ruled that charges of plagiarism against Jacksonville State University president William Meehan have no place in a lawsuit over ownership of a plant collection. [Sic.]

Read all about it:

Court stops plagiarism claim against JSU president (Gadsden Times)

Related posts
Plagiarism in the academy
Boening, Meehan, plagiarism
What plagiarism looks like

Friday, December 4, 2009

Google Public DNS

Google at work: “Google Public DNS is a free, global Domain Name System (DNS) resolution service, that you can use as an alternative to your current DNS provider.” According to Google, Google Public DNS provides greater speed and security than the DNS resolution available from ISPs (Internet Service Providers).

I set up Google Public DNS on my MacBook this afternoon (it took no more than ten seconds) and have found that browsing is faster. Much faster. Much, much faster.

Read more:

Google Public DNS (Google Code)
Using Google Public DNS (Google Code)

Jim Lehrer’s journalistic guidelines

He read them tonight, the final night of The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, which on Monday becomes the PBS NewsHour:

Do nothing I cannot defend.

Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.

Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.

Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.

Assume the same about all people on whom I report.

Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.

Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories and clearly label everything.

Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions. No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.

I am not in the entertainment business.
I found these guidelines online in a 2007 commencement address Lehrer gave at Wesleyan University. I’m imagining him reading these guidelines not to college graduates but to fellow journalists. They are for the most part not listening. But I’m looking forward to seeing Jim Lehrer on television again on Monday night.

A related post
Jim Lehrer's Post-it Notes

More on the PBS NewsHour
Launching the PBS NewsHour (PBS)
Stressing the Web, NewsHour Begins an Overhaul (New York Times)

Edward Tufte on PowerPoint in schools

The core ideas of teaching — explanation, reasoning, finding things out, questioning, content, evidence, credible authority not patronizing authoritarianism — are contrary to the cognitive style of PowerPoint. And the ethical values of teachers differ from those engaged in marketing.

Especially disturbing is the introduction of PowerPoint into schools. Instead of writing a report using sentences, children learn how to decorate client pitches and infomercials, which is better than encouraging children to smoke. Student PP exercises (as seen in teachers’ guides and in student work posted on the internet) typically show 5 to 20 words and a piece of clip art on each slide in a presentation consisting of 3 to 6 slides — a total of perhaps 80 words (20 seconds of silent reading) for a week of work. Rather than being trained as mini-bureaucrats in the pitch culture, students would be better off if schools closed down on PP days and everyone went to The Exploratorium. Or wrote an illustrated essay explaining something.

Edward Tufte, Beautiful Evidence (Chesire, CT: Graphics Press, 2006), 161.
This passage is revised from Tufte’s The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint (2003).

Related reading
Edward Tufte’s website

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Words I can live without

A spontaneous list: bluesy, craft (as a verb), critique (as a noun or verb, unless you’re Immanuel Kant in translation), eatery, gravitas (unless you’re a Roman), hereby, hone (as a metaphor), indicate, jazzy, quality (as an adjective), richly, subtle.

These words can annoy one at a time, as in a New York Times headline this morning: “Sundance Tries to Hone Its Artsy Edge.” Several of these words together can make things unbearable. A made-up example:

The poems are already richly crafted, but they still could benefit from subtle critique.
You are hereby invited to craft your own list in a comment.

A related post
Some Enchanted Evening (“words never to use in a poem”)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Christmas Carol manuscript online

[My own, and only MS of the Book / Charles Dickens]

The manuscript of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol is online at the New York Times:

A Christmas Rewrite, as Dickens Edits Dickens
A Christmas Carol, the manuscript

A related post
Disney’s Dickens’s A Christmas Carol

How to try the new Google

Not a joke but a redesign:

How to Try the New Google Search (Gizmodo)

The sidebar is handy, but those blue buttons — yecch.

(Thanks, Rachel!)

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Movie recommendation: Forever

directed by Heddy Honigmann
French with English subtitles
95 minutes

The simplest description of Heddy Honigmann’s Forever: a film about a cemetery, Père-Lachaise in Paris, resting place of Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, among many others. But the film travels elsewhere, to the Louvre, to an apartment where three sightless friends take in a Simone Signoret film (yes, she’s buried in Père-Lachaise), to Stéphane Heuet’s study for a conversation about adapting Proust into comic books, to a mortuary to watch an embalmer at work. The film, Honigmann tells a visitor to the cemetery, is to be “about the importance of art in life.” But it isn’t always: it is sometimes about death, plain and painful. The film makes room for cemetery visitors who speak of their private losses, some with equanimity, one with grief so immediate and painful that one suspects Honigmann could not have anticipated it.

T.S. Eliot, in a preface to his translation of Saint-John Perse’s poem Anabasis (1930):

The reader has to allow the images to fall into his memory successively without questioning the reasonableness of each at the moment; so that, at the end, a total effect is produced.

Such selection of a sequence of images and ideas has nothing chaotic about it. There is a logic of the imagination as well as a logic of concepts.
Forever is a film that seems to have been constructed on that modernist principle of composition by juxtaposition of elements. The elements holding the film together are many: scenes of a pianist at work, first practicing, then performing; stories of exile, from Iran and Spain; stories of forgotten poets and singers; stories from daughters of their fathers; images of flowers and water bottles; contrasts of the famous and unknown. A preternaturally young-looking old woman appears and reappears, caring for the grave sites of those whom she admires (Guillaume Apollinaire, Sadegh Hedayat, Proust). An Ingres fan in the Louvre and an embalmer in the cemetery speak in identical terms of the relationship between paintings and reality. And Honigmann joins in uncanny ways women's faces — the pianist, an Ingres portrait, a Modigliani portrait, a woman being embalmed, life and death and art blurring together.

My favorite moment in Forever: Honigmann’s conversation with a student who has traveled from South Korea to bring cookies to Proust’s grave. Proust, he explains, has been food for his brain. He has been reading Proust for ten years, in Korean, it would seem. He has no French; Honigmann, no Korean. He struggles in English, and Honigmann asks him to talk in Korean about what Proust means to him. And the subtitles disappear. It’s the strangest moment in a strange and beautiful film.

Forever is available on DVD.

[In an interview that accompanies the film, Honigmann explains that she chose to omit a translation of the student’s remarks so that the Korean-less viewer must imagine what’s being said.]

Monday, November 30, 2009

Peculiar Beach Boys songs

A smart list by Keith Phipps: 17 particularly peculiar Beach Boys songs.

(But how could he have left out “I’m Bugged at My Old Man”?)

Repurposed tea tin

As I searched (no luck) for a box to hold index cards width-wise, Elaine came up with an elegant solution. A Twinings tin holds about 250 3x5 cards (enough to brew 250 to-do lists or several lengthy projects).

The repurposed dish drainer in the photograph? That was Elaine’s idea too.

And writing this post? That was also Elaine’s idea: “You should put this on your blog.” Hers is mostly for music.

Thank you, Elaine (again).

Friday, November 27, 2009

Sam Fink’s letters

Shortly before Christmas 2002, I received my first letter from Sam Fink. On the envelope, he had drawn an elephant and colored it with orange, yellow, brown and blue crayons.
Reporter Bob Davis writes about letters from his ninety-three-year-old cousin, illustrator Sam Fink. There’s a short video too. (Don’t miss the garlic.)

Bob Davis, Through Letters, a Family History Unveiled (Wall Street Journal)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanksgiving night

Dear Mom & Dad

Arrived safely — no fog or smog on the way back. Arrived at 11:00. Kim has taken the car over now. Knew you would worry so thought I’d just let you know were safe & sound.

Let us know how youre coming back. Here’s the Greyhound schedule if you need it. Be waiting for you.


Kim and Nina [?]

Found in a book in a secondhand store. The joking reference to smog makes me think this letter might date from the 1960s or ’70s (though the word smog was around long before then). Think of it: a world in which you assured someone that you had arrived safely by writing a letter.

I’m especially thankful today for the roof over my head (new shingles) and the other three people under that roof — Elaine, Rachel, and Ben. We’re together for a few days for the first time in several months. Happy Thanksgiving, family. Happy Thanksgiving, Mom, Dad, Kim, and Nina [?]. And Happy Thanksgiving to all.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


A wristband I’d like to see: WWHD. What would Hamlet do?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Nabokov’s unfinished

Vladimir Nabokov. The Original of Laura (Dying Is Fun). New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. $35.

One sample (transcribed exactly):

Black fans and violet ones, fans like orange sunbursts, painted fans with clubtailed Chinese butterflies oh they were a great hit, and one day Wild came and bought five (five spreading out her own fingers like pleats) for “two aunts and three nieces” who did not really exist, but nevermind, it was an unusual extravagance on his part[.] His shyness suprized and amused FLaura.
I awaited the publication of Nabokov’s final unfinished work with great excitement, but reading The Original of Laura fills me with immense and simple sadness — because Nabokov did not get time enough to finish this work, and because no one will ever know what these fragments would have come to.

There is much twinning in the story these fragments suggest: faithless young Flora (FLaura) is in some sense the original of Laura — as in My Laura, a novel by a man with whom she has had an affair, a writer who now “destroys his mistress in the act of portraying her.” But the original of Laura also has her own originals. Flora’s husband Philip Wild (much older, a neurologist, a lecturer at the University of Ganglia, a man “who had everything save an attractive exterior,” seen buying fans above) sees in Flora his young lost love Aurora Lee. Aurora had a twin brother with whom Philip had one brutal sexual encounter. Flora’s mother’s husband Hubert H. Hubert (his name “no doubt assumed”) sees in Flora his dead daughter Daisy. He also sees in Lanskaya, Flora’s ballerina mother, his dead actress wife. Lanskaya is reborn in My Laura as Maya Umanskaya. Note that in the above passage, Nabokov’s FL turns Flora/Laura into a telephone exchange name: given these shifting identities, I can’t imagine that the pun is unintended. Lolita, Poe’s Annabel Lee, and Petrarch’s Laura are of course originals of Flora as well. And Otto Preminger’s 1944 film Laura hovers somewhere in the background. In that story, the relationship between original and copy is oddly reversed, as a painting of Laura Hunt becomes the original of Laura, the image with which detective Mark McPherson first falls in love.

Most curious and poignant in these fragments is the figure of Philip Wild, a man who despises his body — stomach, legs, feet — and who is engaged in a practice of self-hypnosis or trance whose goal is the obliteration of that body, part by part. Thus the novel’s subtitle, Dying Is Fun: “the process of dying by auto-dissolution,” Wild writes, “afforded the greatest ecstasy known to man.” As Flora’s lover destroys his mistress, Wild destroys himself. And here’s more twinning: Wild visualizes his body as a pronoun, an I, the letter prominent in his name. Like his creator, he is working on a book. Like his creator, he writes with a pencil. But unlike his creator, he finishes before dying. What becomes of Wild’s manuscript, taken from his typist by “that other fellow,” who wants to give it “a place of publication more permanent” than a little magazine, is a mystery whose answer we’ll never have. (My suspicion: the other fellow is Nabokov, incorporating Wild’s manuscript in his own.)

The Original of Laura is beautifully designed by Chip Kidd (yes, that’s a real name), with reproductions on heavy stock of the 138 index cards that hold the text, itself transcribed, card by card, with what appears to be absolute accuracy. Penguin (the book’s UK publisher) has online reproductions of several cards.

A related post
Vladimir Nabokov’s index cards


Tonight the PBS series Independent Lens shows Objectified, Gary Hustwit’s 2009 film about objects and design. If Objectified is anything like Helvetica (2007), it’ll be terrific.

If you visit the Independent Lens site for the film, be sure to take the quiz, "Which Object Are You?" I’m a Vespa scooter. You?

Objectified (the film’s site)
Objectified (at Independent Lens)
Helvetica (the film’s site)

A related post

November 31

I’ve updated an earlier post by adding an explanation from Jim Coudal of Coudal Partners: November gone rogue.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Domestic comedy

“They’re finally fixing the clock.”

“It’s about time.”


“You’re not going to say anything about that remark?”

“I’m trying not to acknowledge it.”

Related reading
All “domestic comedy” posts

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mozy double referral bonus

The online backup service Mozy is offering new users of MozyHome Free (2 GB free backup) an extra 512 MB when registering with a referral code from a current user. The current user gets an extra 512 MB too. (The usual referral bonus is 256 MB.) This Mozy offer expires on January 10, 2010.

I like Mozy, a lot. If you’d like a referral code, reader, please e-mail me. The address is in the sidebar, below the photograph.

[If you’re reading this post in a reader, reader, come by and visit.]

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Morris Reisman

Morris Reisman, inventor of the Silk Away Corn-on-the-Cob Brush and other kitchen items, has died at the age of seventy-six. The Las Vegas Review-Journal has an obituary.

In August 2005, I wrote to Mr. Reisman about a confusion between its and it’s in the text on his corn-brush package. In March 2007, I received a surprising and wonderful reply.

[Thank you, Linda, for your e-mail.]

Friday, November 20, 2009

November gone rogue

The Field Notes Brand 2009 Calendar doesn’t really add an extra shopping day before Christmas: December 1 falls on the same Tuesday as “November 31.”

This calendar is such a beautiful thing that I don’t mind the mistake. Or is it a joke? I can’t tell.

Field Notes 2010 calendars are coming on November 25.

[Update: I e-mailed Coudal Partners about November 31, and Jim Coudal replied. He suggests that we think of November 31 as a “bonus day”: “We’re aware of it and our policy is that people should just relax and do no work on that day!”]

A related post
Economies of time (Hi and Lois)

[My only connection to Field Notes Brand is that of a happy user.]

Shopping with Robert Frost

A 15 oz. can of Café du Monde coffee and chicory at our favorite Asian market: $5.25. The same can at a fancy “mart” a mile away: $12.55.

In the words of the poet (well, not really), “Compare, compare!”

Would Robert Frost have liked this coffee? “Earth’s the right place for Café du Monde”: I can hear almost hear him saying it. No, never mind; he’s signed up with Folger’s.

Café du Monde is great for making Vietnamese coffee.

[No poems were harmed in the making of this post.]

Thursday, November 19, 2009

How to improve writing (no. 25)

From a book on design, a sentence about the look of a royal spouse’s “consort throne”:

It was gilded to look as if it were made of gold, the metal that is still the universal signifier of durability and status in almost every culture.
One way to improve this sentence: trust the reader to know what gilded means.

A second: clear up the inconsistency of “universal” and “almost every.”

A third: find a precise alternative to durability. That word might be associated with, say, long-wearing fabrics. But gold doesn’t resist wear; it doesn’t wear.

A fourth: rethink status. Yes, status does mean “high rank,” but I’d rather see the word with a modifier, for the same reason that I’m opposed to “quality” education.

A better sentence:
It was gilded, as gold still signifies high status and abiding value in almost every culture.
I’ve omitted the names of writer and book: neither should be judged by a single sentence. But many sentences in this book are in need of revision: cuts, breaks, rearrangement of parts, and plain old correction (of subject-verb disagreement, for instance). It makes sense that there is no note of thanks to an editor. W.W. Norton & Company, you’re slipping.

The moral of the story: Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested. And many more are to be borrowed from the library. Try before you buy.

[This post is no. 25 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose. With apologies to Francis Bacon.]

Related reading
All How to improve writing posts (Pinboard)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sue Shellenbarger on time-management

Sue Shellenbarger tried three time-management strategies: FranklinCovey’s Focus, GTD, and the Pomodoro Technique. Her conclusion: borrowing a bit from each might work best. Read all about it, or them:

No Time to Read This? Read This (Wall Street Journal)

I’d never heard of the Pomodoro Technique, but I’m already thinking it would be appropriate to get the nifty timer, Technique or no.

T - U - I - T - I - O - N

The Strike Committee of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has voted to suspend its strike. The strike won protection for tuition waivers for graduate employees (a basic element of graduate education). As they say on the Internet, GEO FTW!

I’m proud of those grad students (at least one of whom is a former student of mine) and of my undergrad son Ben, who picketed, drummed, and contributed a chant:

T - U - I - T - I - O - N, waive it and we’ll teach again.
A related post
Grad employees on strike at UIUC

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Orange Caroline’s Crayons art

From Caroline’s Crayons, a lovely story, in words and pictures: Orange.

Reinventing the wheel

My friend Stefan Hagemann spotted a familiar metaphor put to new use in two articles in Monday’s New York Times. An article about teachers who buy and sell lesson plans online quotes Alice Coburn, a vocational education teacher, who explains her purchases like so: “I hate reinventing the wheel.” And an article about members of the House of Representatives whose House speeches on health care were written, in whole or in part, by corporate lobbyists quotes Stanley V. White, chief of staff for Representative Robert A. Brady (D, Pennsylvania-1): “There’s not much reason to reinvent the wheel on a Congressional Record entry.”

There can of course be great value in reinventing the wheel, in thinking through a matter and coming to conclusions for oneself. The saddest thing to me about Coburn’s statement: its unstated assumptions that such effort is of no value and that whatever a teacher might come up with would be mere repetition, no better than or different from what anyone else has done. As for White’s explanation, its implicit contempt for the Congressional Record is astonishing.

Says Stefan Hagemann, “I guess the next time a student hands me an essay lifted from SparkNotes, I can nod approvingly. No sense reinventing the wheel.”

Monday, November 16, 2009

Grad employees on strike at UIUC

From the GEO press release:

The strike committee of the Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO), American Federation of Teachers/Illinois Federation of Teachers Local 6300, AFL-CIO, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), has authorized a strike against the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois to begin at 8am on Monday morning. After six hours of negotiation on Saturday afternoon, the GEO and administration bargaining teams managed to reach mutually agreeable terms on all aspects of the GEO contract except tuition waiver security. The administration’s refusal to guarantee the continuation of its current tuition waiver practice not only means that the majority of graduate employees could be forced to pay thousands of dollars in additional tuition charges, but also indicates its plans to implement such a change. By making graduate education untenable for all but the most affluent students, the administration is abandoning its responsibility to ensure access to the highest level of public education for all. This is contrary to the University of Illinois’ mission as a public land grant institution. By calling a strike, the Graduate Employees’ Organization is holding the University of Illinois administration accountable to its stated commitment to excellent and accessible higher education.
The arrogance and contempt in the University’s refusal to guarantee tuition waivers might not be immediately evident to a reader outside academia. Briefly: a graduate assistantship typically provides a tuition waiver and a modest (or very modest) salary. To refuse to guarantee tuition waivers is to threaten that graduate employees may have to underwrite their studies with their salaries (and with their savings, and with loans, loans, loans). That refusal thus threatens to remove the very possibility of graduate study, as the GEO says, “for all but the most affluent students.”

The University’s latest effort in brinksmanship and intimidation follows months of stalling in negotiating a contract. (The stall is a favored administrative strategy at other schools too.) The GEO is fighting the good fight in its effort to make the University of Illinois treat its graduate employees with dignity and pay them a living wage. I hope the GEO wins.

[Update, November 17, 2009: GEO FTW!]

Further reading

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Steven Pinker reviews Malcolm Gladwell

From a New York Times review:

The common thread in Gladwell’s writing is a kind of populism, which seeks to undermine the ideals of talent, intelligence and analytical prowess in favor of luck, opportunity, experience and intuition. For an apolitical writer like Gladwell, this has the advantage of appealing both to the Horatio Alger right and to the egalitarian left. Unfortunately he wildly overstates his empirical case. . . .

The reasoning in Outliers, which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle.
Another reason books are better than e-readers: easier to gnaw.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A kitchen girl and a restless corpse

Our son Ben Leddy and his friend Claire Johnson play a medley of the traditional “Kitchen Girl” and their own “Restless Corpse.”


Friday, November 13, 2009

The Coen brothers and typos

Peter Stormare played Gaear Grimsrud in the Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo (1996). Here he comments on his second line in the film, “Where’s Pancakes House?”:

I said, “It’s gotta be Pancake House.” And then when we were doing the scene, I was saying "Where’s the Pancake House?" And Ethan: “Peter?” “Yeah?” “What were you saying there?” "Where’s the Pancake House?" “No, it says Pancakes House.” “Oh, I thought it was a typo.” “No, no, there’s no typos in our scripts.”

From Minnesota Nice (dir. Jeffrey Schwarz, 2003), a short documentary on the making of Fargo

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Verizon’s $1.99 typos

Press the wrong key on your phone? That’ll be $1.99. David Pogue explains:

Verizon: How Much Do You Charge Now? (New York Times)

I’m really disliking Verizon right now.

[A simple way to fight back, as I discovered in the comments on Pogue’s column: go into your phone’s settings and change the behavior of the cursor keys, or whatever keys ring up at $1.99.]

Van Dyke Parks in Germany

Van Dyke Parks is playing Germany. Google Translate steps in to explain, sort of:

The U.S., as well as idiosyncratic legendary arranger, producer, songwriter, keyboardist and vocalist takes on his first ever Tour of Germany on 15 November in der Passionskirche in Berlin und zwei Tage darauf im Mousonturm in Frankfurt/Main auf. November in the Passion Church in Berlin and two days later in Mousonturm in Frankfurt on.

Seliger presents Van Dyke Parks ago (MusikWoche, via Google Translate)
“U.S., as well as idiosyncratic” is an excellent characterization of Van Dyke Parks. As is “ago.”

Sonny Rollins and golf

Tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, in an interview with The Guardian:

I do yoga, I eat right, and my enthusiasm and energy are still there. When I don’t have that, I’ll know it’s time to take up golf.
Rollins is seventy-nine.

Related posts
Sonny Rollins in Illinois
Sonny Rollins on paying the rent

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Umberto Eco on lists

Umberto Eco, in an interview with Der Spiegel:

Q: Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can’t be realistically completed?

A: We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don't want to die.
Two list-related posts
To-Do List
Whose list?

November 11, 1919

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, two minutes of silence:

[“All London Silent at Armistice Hour.” New York Times, November 12, 1919.]

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Jim Kaler on Earth

“This lovely thing”: Jim Kaler, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy at the University of Illinois, commenting on Earth as seen in the photograph Earthrise, drawing a contrast between the barren moon and our beautiful blue home. This comment came in the course of a talk on “Other Stars, Other Planets.”

The final speculative thought from Professor Kaler’s talk: since new planets, as we now know, are forming all the time, it may be that we are early witnesses to the life of the universe.

Further reading
Jim Kaler’s website

Monday, November 9, 2009

Germaine Greer hates on Proust

If you haven’t read Proust, don’t worry. This lacuna in your cultural development you do not need to fill. On the other hand, if you have read all of À la recherche du temps perdu, you should be very worried about yourself. As Proust very well knew, reading his work for as long as it takes is temps perdu, time wasted, time that would be better spent visiting a demented relative, meditating, walking the dog or learning ancient Greek.
And that’s just the first paragraph. Hoo boy.

Germaine Greer, Why do people gush over Proust? (Guardian)

[I’ve corrected the French title, mangled in the original.]

Brother Blue

“I bring Homer to the streets. I bring Sophocles. To tell stories, you should know Chaucer. You should know Shakespeare. You should know Keats. You have to be constantly reading. You read, you think, you create. You have to know the new moves: You must be able to rap and be able to sing the blues!”
Boston/Cambridge storyteller Brother Blue has died at the age of eighty-eight.

Elaine once danced with Brother Blue in Harvard Square. He seemed to be a constant presence there. We’re almost certain that we saw Brother Blue this past summer on Brookline’s Harvard Street. But the man we saw was in civilian clothes, and we thought it best to give him his privacy.

Brother Blue (His website)
Brother Blue (Elaine’s post)
Brother Blue, a Cambridge icon, dies at 88 (Boston Globe)
Brother Blue, Cambridge’s Street Storyteller, Dead At 88 (WBUR)
Street Performer, Storyteller Dies at 88 (Harvard Crimson)
Brother Blue does King Lear (YouTube)

Review: Mark Garvey’s Stylized

Mark Garvey. Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2009. $22.99.

Mark Garvey’s Stylized is a deeply affectionate, well reseached, and, yes, slightly and frankly obsessive account of The Elements of Style: its sources, its beginnings, its 1959 reincarnation as “Strunk and White,” its several editions, its place in American culture.

Stylized offers what most readers coming to The Elements of Style lack: relevant contexts. Garvey places Strunk’s original 1918 Elements in relation to the work of other early-20th-century writers — James P. Kelley, John Lesslie Hall, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch — who argued for clarity, concreteness, plainness, and “the right use of words” (Kelley’s phrase) in writing. Garvey also helps us understand the shape of things forty years later, when White revised Elements for reissue. Extensive excerpts from letters between White and Macmillan College Department editor Jack Case show both men anticipating the criticisms of so-called descriptivists impatient with anybody’s declarations about right use. Case’s suggestion that White loosen up some Strunkian proscriptions met with a powerful rejoinder. A sample:

I was saddened by your letter — the flagging spirit, the moistened finger in the wind, the examination of entrails, the fear of little men. I don’t know whether Macmillan is running scared or not, but I do know that this book is the work of a dead precisionist and a half-dead disciple of his, and that it has got to stay that way. . . . If the White-Strunk opus has any virtue, any hope of circulation, it lies in keeping its edges sharp and clear, not in rounding them off cleverly.
The Case-White letters document a extraordinary working relationship — more than mere professionalism, less than intimate friendship, an intellectual camaraderie of a high order. Working with E.B. White must have been the highlight of Jack Case’s career in publishing. Neither man could have imagined the sort of frenzied diatribes that The Elements now seems to incite.

Stylized is also a deeply affectionate look into the intersecting lives of William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. Garvey reveals Professor Strunk as a charming, courtly, humorous, kind, learned fellow — hardly a rule-bound zealot chanting “Omit needless words!” A surprising bit: Strunk’s highly successful and pleasurable sojourn in Hollywood as literary consultant for the 1936 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production of Romeo and Juliet. But the great surprise here, at least for me, is an account of the decades-long friendship between Strunk and White. The story of the revised Elements of Style becomes more emotionally complicated when one understands that the gift to White in 1957 of a 1918 Elements evoked not a college class almost forty years in the past but a former professor who had died just eleven years earlier, a professor who had kept in touch through postcards and letters, who had followed White’s post-graduation false starts, recommended him for a job in advertising, and took great pleasure in his work at the New Yorker. Why White chose not to mention these matters in his sketch of Strunk in the revised Elements is a question Garvey leaves unasked.

So much of the story in Stylized runs on letters: Strunk and White, White and Case, and White’s replies, some no longer than a sentence, to readers of The Elements. A long and kind letter from the late 1970s seeks to steady an unsteady reader whose emotional anxieties led to a fixation on sentence fragments:
I have been through hard times myself with my head and my emotions, and I know the torture that they can cause. But I have discovered that it is possible to stay afloat and to get on top of the small and surprising things that bother the head.

I suspect that you should disentangle yourself from the so-called rules of grammar and style and get back to writing, if writing is what you like to do.
The one less than satisfactory element in Stylized: the pages given over to conversations with writers — Nicholson Baker and Frank McCourt, among others — on matters of style and voice and writing. It’s not that what they have to say isn’t worthwhile. It is. But it’s said — spoken, not written, and thus filled with words and phrases — kind of, really — that seem strangely out of place in a book about The Elements of Style. Mark Garvey’s own prose itself is ample evidence that The Elements works as advertised. Here, from the final paragraph, is a passage that sums up Garvey’s sense of “Strunk and White”:
The Elements of Style invites us to remember that we can trust in our ability to think things through and set our thoughts down straight and clear; that with a little effort we can hope to sight a line of order in the chaos; that things will improve as we simplify our purposes and speak our minds; and that we must believe, as E.B. White put it, “in the truth and worth of the scrawl.”
Notice that Garvey gives White the last word: an elegant tribute, writer to writer.

Related posts on the Style wars
Pullum on Strunk and White
Hardly (adverb) convincing (adjective)
More on Pullum, Strunk, White
Strunk and White and wit
I dream of Strunk and White
The Elements of Style, one more time

[Thanks to Touchstone/Simon & Schuster for a review copy of this book.]

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Happy birthday, Mr. Piletti

You know how long ago I graduated high school? June 1937. Holy cow! June 1937? What is that, fifteen, seventeen years ago. Holy cow! Sev — let’s see, is that right? Seventeen, that’s right. Where’d it all go? I’m gettin’ old; I’m gonna be thirty-five years old November the eighth. Thirty-five! Wow, time goes on, boy.

[From Marty (1955), directed by Delbert Mann, screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky.]
Marty Piletti celebrates his ninetieth birthday today. If you’ve wondered what’s happened since 1954:

Marty and Clara Snyder married in 1955, after a nine-month courtship. They bought a house in the Bronx. Marty’s mother Theresa and Aunt Catherine stayed on in the old place.

Marty bought his boss’s butcher shop, which is still in business on Arthur Avenue, now Piletti’s Fine Meats. It was Clara who convinced Marty in 1962 to change the name: “You’re a good butcher,” she told him. “People like coming to your shop.” Today, Piletti’s serves both the Arthur Avenue Italian community and faintly bohemian customers from Manhattan.

Clara went on teaching chemistry in the New York City schools. She passed up the job in Portchester, but she did become the first female head of a science department in the New York City school system, at Theodore Roosevelt High School, Marty’s alma mater.

Marty and Clara have a daughter, Diane (b. 1956), and a son, George (b. 1958). Diane graduated from New York University (as did Clara), went to the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University, and became a surgeon. She lives and works in Englewood, New Jersey. George went to Fordham University. He studied briefly for the priesthood (like his father’s cousin in Chicago) but then became a history teacher at the Bronx High School of Science. In 1988, he left teaching to take over the butcher shop and has never looked back. He still makes his home in the Bronx.

Clara retired in 1990; Marty, in 1991. A year later, they moved to Englewood to be closer to Diane, her husband Ranesh Singh (a pediatrician), and their two daughters, Linda and Stephanie, now in college. Remembering his mother’s disapproval of Clara, Marty used to joke with Diane, asking her why she couldn’t bring home “a nice Italian boy.” Mrs. Piletti and Clara, by the way, became very close. “You picked such a fine girl,” Marty’s mother once told him.

Both Marty and Clara (now eighty-five) are active and alert. They enjoy reading, shopping, and watching the Food Network, the History Channel, and Turner Classic Movies. They have no interest in DVDs. When they’re out walking, they still get stopped by people who ask if they’re that nice couple from the movies.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Whisky, hold the e

In a press release from the Scottish National Party, Angus MacNeil MP mocks the Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy for spelling whisky with an e:

“This is more than a bad spell for Jim Murphy; it represents the lack of care his government shows to our whisky industry. He claims to want a distinct Scottish whisky brand but uses the Irish/American spelling. He also calls for clear labelling but his department can’t even spell the name of the product itself.”
Whisky is beginning to look like a silly adjective to my eyes, and I’ve taken not a drop yet today.

Related reading and viewing
Whisky: Names and spellings (Wikipedia)
McMule, Whiskey Before Breakfast (YouTube)

Friday, November 6, 2009


Mac users: MacHeist is offering five (soon, perhaps, six) commercial programs as free downloads. I know nothing about five of the six, but I do know and really like WriteRoom, a distraction-free writing (not word-processing) program.

A related post
WriteRoom (my review)

Singular they

I have long disliked the use of singular they, partly because I associate it with banality (“Each person has their own ideas”), and partly because I find in he or she a still appropriate rejoinder to the language of patriarchy that permeated my undergraduate education. My first undergraduate philosophy course: “The Problem of Man.” The professor was a woman. A key text: William Barrett’s Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy (1958). And then there was William Faulkner: “Man will not merely endure; he will prevail.” Man oh man. I like humankind.

And I like he or she, while acknowledging that my insistence upon using these pronouns often leads me to recast sentences to avoid the clutter of too many he or she, his or her, him or her pairs. But in appropriate circumstances, he or she is far better than singular they. Consider these sentences, from a 2008 post, Reliving our learning:

Does the student bring to the task a history of accomplishment that fosters confidence in the face of difficulties? Or does he or she relive a history of failure and near-failure that fosters a hopeless fatalism?
Try it with singular they
Does the student bring to the task a history of accomplishment that fosters confidence in the face of difficulties? Or do they relive a history of failure and near-failure that fosters a hopeless fatalism?
— and the passage’s parallelism looks and sounds dumb. I like he or she.

Still, I found myself yesterday realizing that I can make a little room in my life for singular they, seeing as I had already made such room without realizing it. Earlier this week, I gave a class a few pages from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to read. Here’s a passage from a page of questions and context-setting that I wrote to accompany the reading:
This excerpt is from one the novel’s greatest scenes, the Bal des têtes [masked ball]. The narrator, who has been away from society for many years because of long illnesses and hospital stays, is attending a party, sometime after the end of the Great War (which we know now as World War I). Upon entering, he thinks he’s attending a costume party and that everyone has been made up to look old. And then he realizes: no, they are old.
The singular they in the final sentence seems entirely appropriate, entirely reasonable. “And he then begins to realize: no, he or she is old” makes, of course, no sense. Thus singular they found a way to make me rethink a pretty firm habit. Pretty wily of them.

In 2003, the Vocabula Review published a long essay by Joan Taber Altieri, “Singular They: The Pronoun That Came in from the Cold.” If it weren’t behind a firewall, I’d be linking to it now.

Update, April 21, 2010: The essay has been online for years just not at the Vocabula Review. (Now the essay is for invited readers only.)

[Note: Changing everyone to the guests in the Proust example would make they plural and make everyone happy. What interests me here is that I used singular they without thinking of it as a mistake.]

Thursday, November 5, 2009

“Remedial Civility Training”

William Pannapacker:

I sometimes feel stung by students’ rudeness. I try to make my classes interesting and relevant, and I care about their learning. I try to conduct myself in a kindly but professional manner. But, more and more, I think the student culture of incivility is a larger impediment to their success than anything they might fail to learn about Western civilization or whatever it is I am teaching.
Pannapacker’s widely cited essay “Teaching Remedial Civility” disappeared behind the Chronicle of Higher Education firewall some time ago. Now the essay is again available to all. To my mind, it’s required reading for anyone involved in higher education in the United States.

Remedial Civility Training (Chronicle of Higher Education)

Make your own academic sentence

Like so:

The culture of post-capitalist hegemony functions as the conceptual frame for the legitimation of the image.
You too can make an academic sentence of your own with the Academic Sentence Generator, courtesy of the University of Chicago Writing Program. Advanced degrees not required.

The scary thing is that this kind of sentence makes sense to me, still. Old habits of reading (not writing).

Beeps in the night

At 2:15 this morning, our upstairs smoke alarm began to beep the intermittent beep that means “low battery.” A low battery seemed unlikely, as we had just changed our batteries when we (or rather the nation) switched to Standard Time.

I got up, got up on a chair, and looked at the alarm. I’m not sure what I expected to see. But the alarm stopped beeping. I took a look around the house, had a drink of water, and went back to bed. It was then that the beep recommenced. I got up, got up on a chair, pulled out the battery, and went back to bed. The alarm beeped one more time. I have a corroborating witness.

This morning, we found the almost certain cause of the beeps: a ladybug, walking in circles around a ceiling light fixture a few inches from the smoke alarm. Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home. My house is not on fire.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009)

What makes a steel ax superior to a stone ax is not that the first one is better made than the second. They are equally well made, but steel is quite different from stone. In the same way we may be able to show that the same logical processes operate in myth as in science, and that man has always been thinking equally well; the improvement lies, not in an alleged progress of man’s mind, but in the discovery of new areas to which it may apply its unchanged and unchanging powers.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009), “The Structural Study of Myth” (1955)
Claude Lévi-Strauss, 100, Father of Modern Anthropology, Dies (New York Times)

Van Dyke Parks in the Cool Hall of Fame

He’s #179, right behind Sean Connery.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

My dad in 1942

[James Leddy. Union City, New Jersey, 1942.]

My dad at the age of thirteen or fourteen, from a scan of a photocopy of a 1942 photograph. The photograph recently came into his hands via an old chum. Reproduced here with permission. (Thanks, Dad!)

Worcestershire secrets revealed

“From the recipe of a nobleman in the county”: handwritten notes from the mid-1800s, some in code, contain what appears to be the secret formula for Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce. Read all about it:

Recipes for secret sauce emerge (BBC News)

That nobleman, his county, and the design of the Lea & Perrins bottle fascinated me in kidhood. Worcestershire Sauce seemed like the most sophisticated stuff imaginable.

Monday, November 2, 2009


I keep this metal sign on a bulletin board in my office. I find “PUSH” a useful reminder when it comes to teaching and reading and writing: not to give up, not to settle, not to quit. PUSH, to be interesting, to be better, to do more.

I bought this sign in the 1980s at Benedict’s Well-Worth, a variety store that was going out of business. The price was 88¢. The lethal corners, dowdy lettering, and ancient-looking price sticker on the back suggest that this sign was already many years old when I found it. Also in my collection, from the same source: “NO Admittance” and “ROOMS FOR RENT.”

For anyone who doesn’t remember variety stores: they were wonderful places, literally. One could find all sorts of notions and sundries there. As a kid in Brooklyn, I bought my first Silly Putty at a variety store — Woolworth’s (the name that Benedict’s was aping). I remember buying Christmas presents for my grandparents at Woolworth’s: handkerchiefs, combs, pocket mirrors. I remember the colorful thread display and candy counter. I must have been six or seven.

I wish I had the “PULL” that once must have been for sale alongside “PUSH.” PULL too would be a good reminder for teaching and reading and writing: to draw all one can from the available material.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

“Trailing-edge technology”

“We’re interested in trailing-edge technology,” says photographer Karl Kessler, who collaborated with Sunshine Chen to document the work of men and women in vanishing trades: felting, typewriter repair, watchmaking, and so on.

“Hands On: Matters of Uncommon Knowledge” opens November 3 in Kitchener, Ontario. Read all about it:

Exhibit honours disappearing jobs and traditions (

A related post
“Old-world skillz”