Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween

[A view of a child playing in his Halloween costume. Photograph by George Silk, 1960. From the Life Photo Archive.]

“Julia A. Moore” on “Lord Byron”

“Lord Byron” was an Englishman
    A poet I believe,
His first works in old England
    Was poorly received.
Perhaps it was “Lord Byron’s” fault
    And perhaps it was not.
His life was full of misfortunes,
    Ah, strange was his lot.
“Julia A. Moore’s” “Sketch of Lord Byron’s Life” is a wonderfully bad poem. Read it all, if you dare. “Moore,” “The Sweet Singer of Michigan,” was the model for “Emmeline Grangerford,” the teenaged death-poet of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Further reading
“Julia A. Moore” (Wikipedia)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Byron disses “Turdsworth”

A collection of Byron’s letters in which he describes a stormy affair with a servant girl, attacks Christianity and dismisses his rival poet as William “Turdsworth” were sold yesterday for more than £250,000. The price is a world record for a series of letters or a manuscript by a British romantic poet, Sotheby’s said.
Read all about it:

Byron’s vitriolic letters on rivals and religion set auction record (Times Online)

David Levinson Wilk crossword record

If you’re not a regular solver, you might still want to look at the New York Times crossword today (or in six weeks, on December 11, when today’s puzzle appears in syndication). David Levinson Wilk has set a record, constructing a puzzle that contains twelve — count ’em, twelve — full-length, fifteen-letter answers. And for a Friday puzzle, it’s relatively easy to solve.

My favorite answer in this puzzle is for 24 Across, “1974 Rolling Stones hit”: DOODOODOODOODOO. (No spoilers here. Highlight the empty space to see the answer.)

Why no link? The online puzzle requires a subscription.

Of weather

The weather today is inescapable, even indoors. Its mood is my mood. Bleak am I, says the weather. Woe is me, says I.

A tree in front of my house wore its fall colors for a few days and now stands almost bare. The crazy green grass that seemed amusing a few days ago now seems out of place. What, are you still here?

The picture in my window is grey and greyer. I must turn on more lights.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Student e-mail accounts on the wane?

A short piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that the institutional practice of creating student e-mail accounts may be waning:

So says a report issued by Educause, a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of information technology in higher education. The “Core Data Service Fiscal Year 2008 Summary Report” took information from nearly 930 colleges and universities regarding their IT practices and environments.

It found, among other things, that in 2008 nearly 10 percent of associate, baccalaureate, and master’s institutions as well as 25 percent of doctoral institutions were considering putting an end to student e-mail addresses because so many students were already using personal e-mail accounts. That is a large shift from the 1 to 2 percent of institutions that were considering this in 2004.
Of course students are already using personal accounts. But that’s hardly a good reason to drop student accounts, as different accounts serve different purposes. The first piece of advice in my post How to e-mail a professor:
Write from your college or university e-mail account. That immediately lets your professor see that your e-mail is legitimate and not spam. The cryptic or cutesy or salacious personal e-mail address that might be okay when you send an e-mail to a friend is not appropriate when you’re writing to a professor.
More advice for any students reading: if you haven’t yet done so, set up a Gmail account like so —
— or as close to that as you can get. This address will serve you well in the world beyond college, and if your school drops student accounts, you’ll have an appropriate address for academic use.

Ulysses “Seen”

Robert Berry is adapting James Joyce’s Ulysses as a webcomic, Ulysses “Seen.” Above, a moment from the novel’s first episode, “Telemachus.” Buck Mulligan is referencing Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “The Triumph of Time”: “I will go back to the great sweet mother, / Mother and lover of men, the sea.”

U.S. Postal Service sells greeting cards

Not from the Onion: the U.S. Postal Service is selling greeting cards, in “a one-year experiment that may lead the nation's 34,000 postal outlets to eventually sell other goods and services, including banking, insurance and cellphones.” Says Robert F. Bernstock, president of U.S.P.S. mailing and shipping services, “If we can get some energy behind greeting cards, which are incredibly linked to the mail, what better place to sell them and merchandise them than at our post offices?”

That’s a big if. Someone dowdy enough to care about greeting cards is not likely to settle for the selection available in the post office (birthday and get-well cards only). Someone buying on the fly has more convenient options than a separate trip to the post office (going to a drugstore, say). And someone buying stamps or mailing a package is likely to want to get in line and not lose time browsing on impulse. Postal Service, I wish you well, you know I do, but this venture does not inspire confidence.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Pnin’s pencil sharpener

With the help of the janitor he screwed onto the side of the desk a pencil sharpener — that highly satisfying, highly philosophical implement that goes ticonderoga-ticonderoga, feeding on the yellow finish and sweet wood, and ends up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as we all must. He had other, even more ambitious plans, such as an armchair and a tall lamp.

Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (1957)
The pencil sharpener is part of Timofey Pnin’s effort to “Pninize” his office, “Office R.” As this tribute to the Dixon Ticonderoga suggests, Nabokov was a pencil man. And yes, I have a touch of Nabokov fever. The Original of Laura drops, as they say, on November 17.

Related posts
Is there a pencil in The House? (Dixon Ticonderogas in film)
Musical-comedy pencils (more Dixon Ticonderogas)
Pnin’s posy
Vladimir Nabokov’s index cards

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pnin’s posy

He worked very slowly, with a certain vagueness of manner that might have been taken for a mist of abstraction in a less methodical man. He gathered the wiped spoons into a posy, placed them in a pitcher which he had washed but not dried, and then took them out one by one and wiped them all over again.

Vladimir Nabokov, Pnin (1957)
These sentences have stuck with me for twenty-five years or so. I often think of Timofey Pnin’s posy (bouquet) when I’m gathering forks, knives, and spoons from the sink.

Monday, October 26, 2009

“A Woman in the House”

[The second of two posts on Father Knows Best.]

Real problems, for men, women, and children, are everywhere in Father Knows Best. Cheating, vandalism, sexual discrimination, rigid class distinctions, divorce, adoption, poverty, even child-abandonment and homelessness figure in the events of the show’s first two seasons. But the strangest problems of all come in what seems to me the strangest episode of those I’ve watched, “A Woman in the House.” Written by Roswell Rogers and directed by William D. Russell, it first aired on September 28, 1955. What happens:

Verg Carlson (Harry Hickox), an old friend of Jim’s, is relocating to Springfield. With him is his new wife, Jill (Mary Webster). For now, they’re staying in a hotel. Meet Jill.

Verg and Jill met at a fiesta in El Paso, when she fell from a tamale wagon into his arms. It’s his first marriage. Why it took him so long we don’t know (though it seems his mother might have had something to do with that). What we do know is that the age difference between Verg and Jill is great. Jill herself is the only character who acknowledges this difference: “You know, I think Verg has a daughter complex. That’s how he treats me most of the time, as if I were his daughter.” Then she giggles. Yes, this episode is not your father’s Father Knows Best.

The cultural differences between Jill and Verg, Jill and the Andersons, seem even greater than the age difference. Jill’s an intellectual, or an existentialist, or a beatnik, or something. Here’s some dialogue from the Anderson living room, as Jim and Margaret get acquainted with the Carlsons. Jill has picked up a book from the coffee table:

Jill: Silas Marner?

Margaret: Well, I think that one of the children is reading that for school. It’s, uh, well, it’s required reading.

Jill: No wonder they don’t learn anything. Oh, say, have you read Kafka?

Margaret: No, I don’t even know who wrote it.

Jill [Laughing wildly.] You’re priceless. Franz Kafka, he's one of my pets. Writes beautifully. You must read The Trial, you absolutely must. I think it compares with Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea.

Jim: That’s a book?

Jill: That’s a book. His first novel, and better than Baudelaire, I think. Of course you’ve read Baudelaire.

Margaret: No, I haven’t.

Jill: You haven’t?

Verg: Honey, everyone doesn’t have the time to read that you do.

Jill: Well, I don’t either, but I make time.

Verg: Jill loves to read. She reads things that I don’t even understand.

Jill: You don’t try. Verg is the kind who reads a story in the New Yorker and asks, “Where’s the ending?” [Laughs.] Oh, poor Verg, he wants everything spelled out for him in neon and in capital letters.

[“Silas Marner?”]
Verg and Jill have no children. Jill cannot cook. Shoes give her claustrophobia, she says. She speaks in nicknames: Jimmy, Marge. As Margaret confesses to Jim at the evening’s end, even Jill’s compliments leave her feeling humiliated: “My home cooking, my home sewing, my home stupidity — a sweet, prim, dumb, little provincial wife.”

Greater difficulties develop when Verg flies off to visit his ailing (and controlling) mother and Jill stays with the Andersons. She reads and smokes, smokes and reads. Margaret refuses to let Jill help in any way, resenting yet insisting upon playing the role of gracious host. When Margaret is alone with Jim, she goes to pieces: Jill’s presence is making her miserable. Margaret even fears that she’s becoming “a repressed neurotic.”

But all shall be well. When daughter Kathy (now "Kath") needs someone to help her wash her hair and no one else is around, Jill volunteers and ends up answering Kathy’s many questions by confessing her loneliness: her mother’s dead, she says, and she has just one friend in the world, “a wonderful one, and I’m married to him.”

Kathy volunteers to be Jill’s friend; Jill runs from the bathroom crying; Kathy shares what she's learned; Margaret softens. She realizes that she’s never given Jill a chance and quickly enlists her help in mashing potatoes. By the end of the episode, Jill has been brought into the zone of domesticity — that is, the kitchen. Here she helps Betty with the dishes and smiles as she recalls her fall from the tamale wagon.

If all the Anderson women were found in the kitchen at this episode’s end, the Stepford overtones would be unbearable. But Margaret is taking time off.

[On the age difference between Verg and Jill: Harry Hickox was born in 1910. The IMDB has no information for Mary Webster. In 1957, she had the lead in the film Eighteen and Anxious. Yes, two years after her appearance on Father Knows Best, Mary Webster was playing a teenager. However old she was in this episode, she looks remarkably young, perhaps twenty-two or so. And to my eyes, Verg looks older than Harry Hickox.]


January 30, 2017: The Hollywood Reporter reports that Mary Webster (b. 1935) has died at the age of eighty-one. Thanks to Scott Lahti for sharing the news in a comment.


July 2020: As I discovered with further viewing, racism and xenophobia come up in later seasons.

A related post
“Betty’s Graduation”

Friday, October 23, 2009

Soupy Sales (1926–2009)

How lucky to have been a kid in New York in the days of The Soupy Sales Show. Here’s a sample, with White Fang and Fess Parker, television’s Daniel Boone.

And here’s a complete show from 1965, in three parts.

Soupy Sales, Slapstick Comedian, Dies at 83 (New York Times)

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Today’s Hi and Lois

[Hi and Lois, October 22, 2009.]

No door, no privacy, no surprise.

It is Ditto’s dream: “to be the skipper of the America’s Cup yacht."

Related reading
All Hi and Lois posts

Paper products and The Onion

The grad-school-ruled notebook. Creamsby’s Sheaves. Now, this item. There must be a stationery addict working at The Onion.

Mad Men search results

Via Google, October 22, 2009:

“mad men is great”: 498,000

"mad men is great but": 189,000

“mad men is overrrated”: 55,600

“mad men is underrated”: 1
If the results for “mad men is great” include all instances of "mad men is great but," the unqualified “mad men is great" would appear to yield 309,000 results. If anyone knows how to search for “mad men is great” while excluding "mad men is great but," I’m all ears.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Life in colledge

At East Carolina University:

The destruction of a sculpture outside ECU’s Jenkins Fine Arts Building over the weekend brought disappointment and disgust.

Someone shattered the recently donated sculpture, Song of the Sirens, in a sculpture garden near Fifth Street over the homecoming weekend. The piece, a conception of the creature in Homer’s The Odyssey, was valued at $12,000.

The sculpture was created by former graduate student Adam Caleb Buth as part of a larger exhibition and was left in the sculpture garden on loan by the artist, ECU sculpture professor Carl Billingsley said.

Buth expressed disappointment but not surprise Tuesday from his Wisconsin home, where he continues his work as an artist.

“I expected this would happen at this university, with all the debauchery and excessive alcohol consumption that goes on there,” Buth said. “It’s not the first time artworks have been destroyed or vandalized at the sculpture garden and on the campus.”

Billingsley also expressed disgust at the destruction of Buth’s work. He said disregard for artworks happens fairly regularly, particularly following homecoming football games. He said another piece was destroyed two years ago on homecoming weekend.
Read all about it:

Art destruction stirs ire (Reflector)

A related post
Homeric blindness in “colledge”

[Colledge: “the vast simulacrum of education that amounts to little more than buying a degree on the installment plan.” My coinage. Colledge cheapens the degree of any student who’s really in college.]

“And a cool four thousand, Pip!”

“Well, old chap,” said Joe, “it do appear that she had settled the most of it, which I meantersay tied it up, on Miss Estella. But she had wrote out a little coddleshell in her own hand a day or two afore the accident, leaving a cool four thousand to Mr. Matthew Pocket. And why, do you suppose, above all things, Pip, she left that cool four thousand unto him? ‘Because of Pip’s account of him the said Matthew.’ I am told by Biddy, that air the writing,” said Joe, repeating the legal turn as if it did him infinite good, “‘account of him the said Matthew.’ And a cool four thousand, Pip!”

I never discovered from whom Joe derived the conventional temperature of the four thousand pounds, but it appeared to make the sum of money more to him, and he had a manifest relish in insisting on its being cool.

Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1861)
Why cool? The Oxford English Dictionary is unable to explain the conventional temperature:
colloq. Used to emphasize the size of a quantity, orig. and chiefly a sum of money. Originally preceded by a with hundred or thousand; subsequently also with any numeral.
More helpful: the OED notes a suggestion in the New English Dictionary (1893) that the word meant “perhaps originally ‘deliberately or calmly counted, reckoned, or told,’ and hence ‘all told,’ ‘entire,’ ‘whole.’” The earliest OED citation — “a cool Thousand” (1721) — is from Colly Cibber, now remembered as a target of Alexander Pope’s mockery in The Dunciad (1743).

[Coddleshell: codicil.]

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Disney’s Dickens’s A Christmas Carol

If you watch the trailer or any one of three commercials for the forthcoming Disneyfication of A Christmas Carol, you’ll notice that the name Dickens is neither seen nor heard. The story is now “Disney’s A Christmas Carol.”

This sort of appropriation is offensive, especially when the appropriator is the very corporation that lobbied for the Copyright Term Extension Act (the piece of legislation that now frustrates American readers in search of the final volumes of In Search of Lost Time).

It might be possible to argue that “everyone” already knows of course that this story is Dickens’s, but that seems to me a stretch. What I see here is crass rebranding, with merchandise and promotional tie-ins to follow.

Note to Disney: don’t ever try it with Homer.

Monday, October 19, 2009

“Betty’s Graduation”

I recently made my way through the first two seasons of the 1950s television series Father Knows Best. I borrowed the DVDs on a lark (thanks, library), planning to take in some details of mid-twentieth-century furnishings and technology. I didn’t expect to like the show, which I’d come to imagine as the model for the bland world of Pleasantville (dir. Gary Ross, 1998). Laugh if you will, but I must say it: I like Father Knows Best.

Yes, Father Knows Best presents a colorless (that is, all-white) world — at least in its first two seasons.¹ And yes, Father Knows Best presents a world in which tradespeople and members of the working class are predictably quaint or wise or deferential or gruff. But Pleasantville it ain’t. Nor is it Leave It to Beaver. The Andersons — Jim (Robert Young), Margaret (Jane Wyatt), Betty (Elinor Donahue), Bud (Billy Gray), and Kathy (Lauren Chapin) — are smart and witty people. They say things that are genuinely funny, often at one another’s expense. They are far from simple and cheerful: Jim is a deeply fallible, poetry-loving father; Margaret, like Jim, is a college graduate, and she struggles with the limitations of life as a “housewife.” The kids are a handful: Betty, histrionically critical; Bud, moody and resentful; Kathy, maniacally energetic and, sometimes, destructive. The Anderson house is filled with books; its residents never (at least in the show’s first two seasons) go to church. I suspect that if Jim and Margaret’s makers had let these characters think about politics, they’d have voted for Adlai Stevenson.

What’s most surprising to me about the Anderson household is the unmistakable attraction between Jim and Margaret. Living in TV-land, they sleep separately, but one often sits on the side of the other’s bed. Away from their beds, they cannot keep their hands or lips off one another. Marriage here is far different from the chaste co-parenting of Ward and June Cleaver or Ozzie and Harriet Nelson. (And no wonder: Jane Wyatt is a looker.)

The most moving episode from these two seasons is the last episode of Season Two, “Betty’s Graduation,” directed by William D. Russell and written by Roswell Rogers. It first aired on May 30, 1956. Betty faces time’s passing and the end of high school with utter angst. She’d like her life to stay as it is: “I’d stop all the clocks. I’d padlock time,” she says. She decides to skip the graduation dance, because there’ll never be another to look forward to. Though she’s the class valedictorian, she misses the graduation rehearsal. Her parents don’t find out until they get a call from the school. And then, as Jim prepares to go out to look for her, there’s another call. It’s Betty. She’s taken a taxi and then walked to a little place along the stream in Sycamore Grove Park, her “thinking spot” whenever she had problems as a child. She’s calling from an emergency phone there. Jim and Betty reminisced about this place earlier in the episode. She used to ask him impossible questions there: “Who started God?” “How do they keep the sun from burning up the sky?”

“Oh, Father, I’m so mixed up," Betty now says. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” The taxi cost all the money she had, so Jim drives out to get her. He finds her by the stream. It looks the same, Betty tells him, but it doesn’t feel the same. It hasn’t changed, she realizes. She’s changed. Here is the dialogue that follows:

Jim: Didn’t it ever occur to you that’s exactly what life is — change? If something stopped changing, it wouldn’t be living anymore. It’s the changing that makes it stimulating, and exciting, challenging. This is nothing to be sad about. This is good.

Betty: Is it?

Jim: Sure. It’s, uh — well, it’s like this stream. Look at it. Watch it. See how it flows free and fast? Like it’s laughing, dancing on the rocks. There’s excitement there. Here the water’s fresh and clear, and alive, beautiful. But look down there at it where that old log has fallen into the water, dammed it up, slowed it down, shackled it. And what happens to the water? Is it fresh and clear? Muddy and murky. There’s no laughter. Lost the excitement of discovering what’s around the next bend, and the next one after that. Stop the water completely, and it becomes stagnant. You don’t want to do that to your life, do you?

Betty: This is all very pretty, Father, but you still don’t understand how I feel.

Jim: Oh?

Betty: Let’s take your pretty little stream. What happens to it when it goes where it eventually goes, into the ocean? What happens then? Gets all swallowed up, mixed up with billions of other drops of water, drops in the ocean, lost forever. Isn’t that right?

Jim: Well — just like the old days, you sitting on this bank, asking me all those darn questions.

Betty: In other words, I’m right —

Jim: Well —

Betty: — and there is no answer.

Jim: Look, let’s face it — I’m no poet, no philosopher. I’m just a guy who sells insurance. But I know you’re mixed up on one point. You think graduation is the end of the line, the point where the stream empties into the ocean. But it’s not. Graduation is back there, one of the first bends. The best part is still ahead.

Betty: How can you say that? Don’t you realize all I’m losing when I walk away from that school for the last time?

Jim: But Betty —

Betty: Things I can never, never regain.

Jim: Of course not. You don’t want to try to regain things. That spoils them. Just be grateful that you have wonderful memories. Now you want to move on, to new things. True, it’s rougher from here on, but that makes it more challenging. The reward’s greater. Look, I know that all this sounds to you just like words. I have something here that means more than anything I can say.

[He takes something from his pocket. It’s a book Kathy found in the attic, a book about a “dairy.” Jim began looking through it earlier in this episode, not knowing what it was.]

Betty: What’s that?

Jim: A book.

[He reads.] “June eighth: Last night I graduated from high school. No, not from high school, from life. I feel so lost it hurts, in the pit of my stomach. It’s all over, gone, all the things I loved, things I can never regain. Could I preserve these things by suddenly vanishing into thin air? Should I climb to the top of the steepest cliff and hurl” —

Betty: Go on.

Jim: The author never completed that sentence. The next entry explains why. [He reads.] “June ninth: Sorry we were interrupted yesterday, diary. But Jim called. We went on a picnic and had the most perfect time. We laughed over the silliest things. I can hardly wait till he calls today.”

[And Betty realizes that her mother too must have thought that she was alone in feeling this way.]

Jim: But that was on June the eighth. June the ninth was the important day.

Betty: You know, I feel like somebody just held a big mirror up to me, and suddenly I see this half-grown, awkward, gangling girl with pigtails who can’t see beyond the end of her nose.

Jim: Yeah, you’re a mess, all right.
As by now you’ve guessed, Jim’s stream metaphor becomes the stuff of Betty’s valediction.

I don’t think I’m wrong in finding this dialogue beautiful and moving (and even a bit Proustian). I’m sure my situation in life (as the father of two wonderful twenty-something children) has something to do with my tear-smeary response. But I think too that any reader or viewer willing to set aside preconceptions about 1950s television shows will find this moment surprisingly profound. Jim and Betty’s apparent agreement that individual lives travel toward an ocean in which they’re “lost forever” might be a unique moment in television comedy. I can think of nothing else like it.

[Elinor Donahue and Robert Young.]

¹ In Season Three, Margaret hires Frank Smith, a “Spanish” gardener (Natividad Vacío). In Season Five, an Indian exchange student (played by Rita Moreno) visits. In Season Six, Frank wins the chance to meet the governor at the dedication of a Springfield park, and the members of a city committee object. Jim insists that Frank represent the city. Frank does so, making a speech “in which he explains that people should emulate trees, who, no matter what variety, have all learned to grow together in harmony.”

My source for details of these later seasons: the original Screen Gems Storylines, reproduced as PDFs. The transcription of the Jim and Betty dialogue is mine.

Still to come: a post on the strangest episode from these two seasons. Stay tuned.

[Here it is: “A Woman in the House.”]

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Today’s Beetle Bailey

[Beetle Bailey, October 17, 2009.]

Say what?

Thelonious Monk, off-balance

August Kleinzahler, in a review of Robin D. G. Kelley’s Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press):

Always a sharp dresser and stickler for just the right look, he also favored a wide array of unconventional headgear: astrakhan, Japanese skullcap, Stetson, tam-o’-shanter. He had a trickster sense of humor, in life and in music, and he loved keeping people off-balance in both realms. Off-balance was the plane on which Monk existed.
“Monk’s Moods” (New York Times)

Related posts
Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane

Friday, October 16, 2009

Metaphors for life

A recent poll asked participants to pick the metaphor that best describes their life:

51%  a journey
11%  a battle
10%  the seasons
 8%   a novel
 6%   a race
 5%   a live performance, like a play
 4%   a carousel
 2%   other
 2%   unsure
Yep, Gilgamesh and the Odyssey rule.

(via Andrew Sullivan)

Diane, Nadine

I had a question. I made a phone call. I was told to call again in the morning: “Ask for Diane.”

And then it was morning. I asked, “Diane?”


[Cheerfully.] “Oh, that’s almost the same!”

[Not cheerfully.] “Not at all.”

[More cheerfully.] “I mean the letters of your name!”


And then I tried just asking my question.

[Note to self: reserve anagram thoughts for New York Times crosswords.]

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The parsnip

Its flavor: light, earthy, mellow, sweet. Hail to thee, blithe parsnip!

[Elaine made a glorious vegetable stew last night that reminded how much I like the parsnip.]

Update: Parsnip fans should take a look at the comments for a soup recipe from Julia Ringma, who doesn’t believe in keeping recipes secret.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A cow on the tracks

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele offers an ill-chosen metaphor about impeding progress on health care reform: “I’m the cow on the tracks. You’re gonna have to stop that train to get this cow off the track to move forward.”

Well, no. There is the cow catcher:

A cow catcher is a device attached to the front of a train in order to clear obstacles off the track. . . . A cow catcher is typically a shallow, V-shaped wedge, designed to deflect objects from the track at a fairly high speed without disrupting the smooth movement of the train.
Related reading
All metaphor posts (via Pinboard)

Translations, mules, briars

Dwight Garner, writing in the New York Times:

The most plain, direct and noble translation of The Iliad into English, at least for that generation of college students who had it pressed into their lucky, sweaty palms, has long been Richmond Lattimore’s of 1951, though Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of 1974 and Robert Fagles’s of 1990 have their fierce adherents. Lattimore’s version, once read, doesn’t leave you: it is supple, unvarnished, morally complex and, in a word, thrilling.
It is unusual to find such words as plain, direct, and supple applied to Lattimore’s work. Here is Guy Davenport on Lattimore, in an essay I’d recommend to anyone who reads in translation. Davenport is writing about Lattimore’s Odyssey, but still, the shoe fits:
[H]e is writing in a neutralized English wholly devoid of dialect, a language concocted for the purpose of translating Homer. It uses the vocabulary of English but not its rhythm. It has its own idiom. One can say in this language such things as “slept in that place in an exhaustion of sleep” (for Homer’s “aching with fatigue and weary for lack of sleep”) and “the shining clothes are lying away uncared for” (for “your laundry is tossed in a heap waiting to be washed”).

Professor Lattimore adheres to the literal at times as stubbornly as a mule eating briars.

“Another Odyssey,” in The Geography of the Imagination (Jaffrey, NH: David R. Godine, 1997), 35.
My favorite translations of Homer: those of Robert Fitzgerald and Stanley Lombardo.

Related reading
All Homer posts (Pinboard)

Pocket notebook sighting

Policeman: What do you know about this?

Pharmacist: I never saw him before.

[Angels with Dirty Faces, dir. Michael Curtiz, 1938.]

More notebook sightings
Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne
Journal d’un curé de campagne
The House on 92nd Street
The Palm Beach Story
Pickup on South Street
Red-Headed Woman
The Sopranos

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Thought for the day

The road to the health-food store is paved with good intentions.

Moleskine 2010 desktop calendar

The Moleskine 2010 desktop calendar is on sale at Amazon for $3.74 (list $19.95). I wonder whether anyone thought about marking down to $3.65.

(via Notebook Stories)

[6:51 PM: Boing Boing spotted this deal, and now it’s gone. The calendars are still available via Amazon from various sellers, for $19.99 and other prices. MoleskineUS is asking $20.95.]

Monday, October 12, 2009

F train

For the worst ride in New York City: take the F train.

“Why E-mail No Longer Rules”

Because of Facebook and Twitter:

Instead of sending a few e-mails a week to a handful of friends, you can send dozens of messages a day to hundreds of people who know you, or just barely do.
Yes, you can. But as I’ve written in a previous post, technology makes it possible to do things, not necessary to do them.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Lester Bowie interview

“I’ve been a researcher — I consider the stage as my laboratory”: trumpeter Lester Bowie (1941–1999), interviewed by Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air, explaining why he wore a lab coat when performing.

I am fortunate to have heard Lester Bowie on six occasions — five times with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and once with the New York Hot Trumpet Repertory Company, aka Hot Trumpets. Five trumpets, that was all: Bowie (the group’s founder), Olu Dara, Stanton Davis, Wynton Marsalis, and Malachi Thompson, up from New York to Boston’s Emmanuel Church for an hour of music, then back to the airport, circa 1981 or so. I remember the Dizzy Gillespie tune “Groovin’ High” and “When the Saints Go Marching In.” Yes, it really happened.

A related post
Some have gone and some remain

[Photograph of Lester Bowie circa 1989 by John Kelim, licensed under a Creative Commons license. Thanks, John, for sharing your work.]

Friday, October 9, 2009

Peace, music, and notebooks

Gimme an M. Gimme an O. Et cetera.

My daughter Rachel gave me a Woodstock Moleskine notebook.

Thank you, Rachel!

Love, Dad

[Image borrowed from Moleskine. It’s too rainy to take a nice photograph outside.]

Plaid really warmer

Good to remember as it gets colder:

From Here’s to Warmth! (Sheboygan: Plaid Manufacturers Council, 1954).

Barack Obama wins Nobel Peace Prize

Remember the spin in the wake of Rio’s Olympic victory? “WORLD REJECTS OBAMA,” yelled the Drudge Report. But Norway has gone rogue. From the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s press release:

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.

Obama has as President created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama’s initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.

Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.
Yes, this award seems to be as much about the forty-third president as about the forty-fourth. But if the world (or even one rogue nation) is seeing the United States in a different way now, that’s something to celebrate. Congratulations, President Obama.

“Poor Moon”

Oh well, they might test some bomb
Oh well, and scar your skin
Oh well, I don’t think they care
So I wonder when they’re going to destroy your face
Alan Wilson’s 1969 song turns out to have been prophetic. You can listen to Canned Heat perform “Poor Moon” via YouTube. The song was released on July 15, 1969, one day before the Apollo 11 launch.

For the blues fanatics among us: “Poor Moon” borrows from Garfield Akers’ “Dough Roller Blues” and Blind Willie Johnson’s “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed.”

[On October 9, 2009, NASA bombed the moon.]

Thursday, October 8, 2009

George Gershwin and Brian Wilson

The big news that was rumored to be coming from Brian Wilson:

In a surprise union of two quintessentially American composers from different eras, one the 1960s mastermind of “Good Vibrations,” the other the Jazz Age creator of Rhapsody in Blue, former Beach Boy Brian Wilson has been authorized by the estate of George Gershwin to complete unfinished songs Gershwin left behind when he died in 1937.

He plans to finish and record at least two such pieces on an album of Gershwin music he hopes to release next year.
It’s no stunt: Wilson’s love of Gershwin and the Rhapsody is well known. Read all about it:

Brian Wilson to finish some George Gershwin songs (Los Angeles Times)

(Thanks, Elaine! Thanks, Rachel!)

John Ashbery not awarded Nobel Prize

Well, he’s only eighty-two.

At a poetry reading several years ago, I had a conversation with someone who reported that Ashbery has been short-listed for the Nobel several times. (I know, there’s no official short list.)

No disrespect to Herta Müller, of whose work I know nothing.

“The circus tent is open”

Wikipedia has a fine array of euphemisms from around the world with which to speak of an open fly. Are they all real? I hope so.

The benefits of quitting

A timeline of the benefits of quitting:

When Smokers Quit (American Cancer Society)

Today for me marks twenty years minus cigarettes. Yes, I’m still proud of myself.

A related post
Nineteen years later

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


John Gruber of Daring Fireball explains:

ClickToFlash is an open source web content plugin for Mac OS X that blocks all Flash content on web pages by default. As the name implies, if you do want to load a Flash element, just click it. I give ClickToFlash my highest recommendation — everyone should install it.
ClickToFlash does for Safari what the Flashblock extension does for Firefox, making webpages less distracting and helping your computer to run at lower temperatures. ClickToFlash is free for Tiger, Leopard, and Snow Leopard.

ClickToFlash (“your web browsing prophylactic”)

[Of the last 500 visitors to Orange Crate Art, 133 — 26.6% — are using OS X.]

A headstone for James P. Johnson

Duke Ellington on pianist and composer James P. Johnson (1894–1955):

James, for me, was more than the beginning. He went right on up to the top. . . .

James he was to his friends — just James, not Jimmy, nor James P. There never was another.

Music Is My Mistress (New York: Doubleday, 1973), 94–95.
The James P. Johnson Foundation is raising funds to buy a headstone for Johnson’s unmarked Queens grave. Twelve pianists just performed in Manhattan for the cause.

Here, from the YouTube vaults, are two James P. Johnson performances: a 1921 QRS piano roll of his “Carolina Shout” and a 1944 Blue Note recording of “After You’ve Gone” (Turner Layton–Henry Creamer) by James P. Johnson’s Blue Note Jazzmen: Sidney DeParis (trumpet), Vic Dickenson (trombone), Ben Webster (tenor saxophone), Johnson (piano), Jimmy Shirley (guitar), John Simmons (bass), Sidney Catlett (drums). I first heard this “After You’ve Gone” as a reel-to-reel transfer, twenty-five or more years ago, at Bill Youngren’s house, with the volume turned to eleven. It was, and is, glorious.

[Personnel listing via the Blue Note Records Discography: 1939–1944.]

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Comments problem

As Known Issues reported in September, Blogger has a problem with comments. Today the problem hit Orange Crate Art. If you’ve made a comment today and are wondering what has become of it, there’s the answer. Right now I can neither read or approve comments.

7:11 PM: Comments are back. I found a workaround that seems, for now, to work. Thanks, Google employee Gatsby.

Carnival of Pen, Pencil, and Paper

At Office Supply Geek, there’s a carnival of pens, pencils, paper, and supplies.

The highlights, for me: Diane Schirf’s Please Mr. Postman, a meditation on letters and mailboxes, and George Fox’s Scripto collection. And I’m honored to see that my September post on Eraser Matches is part of the fun.

Notebook Stories assembles this monthly carnival.

The Third Carnival of Pen, Pencil, and Paper (Office Supply Geek)

Monday, October 5, 2009

On “On the New Literacy”

So you finally got around to reading the piece in Wired about college students and writing?

If you mean Clive Thompson’s On the New Literacy, I read it some time ago.

So how come haven’t you written anything about it?

Well, I’ve been really busy, mostly grading student essays. That takes a lot of time. I've been putting in long hours at the Continental Paper Grading Co.

So you’ve haven’t been able to write something about students’ writing because you’ve been grading your students’ writing. Pretty ironic.


So what do you think about the claim that “online media are pushing literacy into cool directions”? Thompson quotes Andrea Lunsford, the director of the Stanford Study of Writing, who says that “we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization.”

I, uh, don’t see it.

Because of the essays you’ve been grading?

Not really. More because of overall impressions developed over several years.

Can you elaborate?

I just haven’t see any remarkable development in students’ writing ability. To the contrary: I see much evidence of a long, sorry decline. It’s not unusual to read entire essays with no punctuation beyond the period. It’s not unusual to find confusions about spelling that not long ago were pretty much beyond my imagining: and for an, pros for prose.

What more concerns me is an overall decline in the ability to develop a coherent line of thought in an essay. What I find most urgently missing in student writing is skill in developing an overarching argument, within an essay and even within paragraphs. Much of the blame here goes not to the Internets but to the rigid list-oriented model of essay-writing that students are required to follow in their earlier schooling: “There are three foods that I like. First. Next. Last, but not least. In conclusion, there are three foods that I like.” By the time students get to college, the possibility of the essay as an adventure in thinking, a trying out of ideas, is largely gone. And without the reliable “three points,” the work of writing an essay becomes analogous to driving without a steering wheel.

But you have to admit, students are writing more than ever before.

Here too, I don't see it. Here’s what Thompson says, expanding on Lunsford’s claim that today’s college students do more writing than any previous generation:

Before the Internet came along, most Americans never wrote anything, ever, that wasn’t a school assignment. Unless they got a job that required producing text (like in law, advertising, or media), they’d leave school and virtually never construct a paragraph again.
This generalization about the past is laughable, as anyone aware of the diaries, journals, and letters of earlier generations can attest. But the claim about today’s students can be plausible only if we count as writing any words made as marks by hand. Here are three of my recent texting efforts:


Check yr email
And a recent shopping list:
Blue Silk


sun-dried tomatoes

These are examples of written language, but they’re hardly examples of the sustained thought that more typically defines that which we call writing.

What were you doing shopping for silk in the supermarket?

No, Silk, with a capital S, soymilk. Good stuff.

My mistake. I’m guessing that you’re also not persuaded by the claim that students are “remarkably adept at what rhetoricians call kairos — assessing their audience and adapting their tone and technique to best get their point across.”

No, I’m not persuaded. Or yes, I’m not — I’ve never figured out how that kind of question works. I don’t doubt that students texting friends are adept at kairos (as are debt collectors, extortionists, and political operatives, at least sometimes). But I’m not convinced that a grasp of kairos in socializing with peers transfers readily to other contexts. Consider, for instance, the lack of kairos evident in many student e-mails to professors, beginning, often, with the infamous “Hey,” or with no greeting at all, ending with no signature, and sent from unseemly addresses. Or consider the lack of interest many students show in following directions for written work. A strong sense of kairos would make unstapled pages, misspelled authors’ names, and “In the book it says” things of the past. But they’re all still with us, or at least with me, despite cautions and reminders galore.

Well, you finally got your two cents in. Do you think your readers know that you picked up the idea of the self-interview from Thomas Merton’s journals?

I’m sure of it.

Related post
How to e-mail a professor
Writing, technology, and teenagers

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Time’s passing, an example thereof

“Time just seems to get quicker. You look in the mirror in the morning and you think, ‘I’m already shaving again!’”
Terry Jones of Monty Python, quoted in an article on the fortieth anniversary of the BBC series Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Read all about it:

On Comedy’s Flying Trapeze (New York Times)

I Love Lucy

“A blowtorch?!”

If you live in the United States, have cable television, and need to get things done today, you may not benefit from knowing that there’s an I Love Lucy marathon now playing on the Hallmark Channel (through Monday, 3:00 AM EDT).

As I type, Lucy has a loving cup stuck on her head.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Blob and I

I recently watched The Blob (dir. Irvin S. Yeaworth, Jr., 1958) and communed a bit with the material culture of the dowdy world.

[Click for a larger view.]

That desk could be mine, almost: I too have an inbox, fan, and lamp, though they look nothing like these. (I have a rotary telephone too, at work.) Note the stapler, bottled ink, cigarettes, and ashtray, and the safety-themed placard in the background. The drawer seems filled with stuff, which suggests to me that this scene, like many scenes in the film, was shot on location. (Perhaps a school office?)

[Click for a larger view.]

Note the battered bookcase and the polio-themed placard. And that calendar!

[Click for a larger view.]

Did I mention that calendar? 1957 was a very big year.

The beautifully designed 2009 Field Notes calendar has something of the same feel, on a smaller scale.

[A previous post defines “the dowdy world”: “modern American culture as it was before certain forms of technology redefined everyday life.”]

Related reading
All “dowdy world” posts (Pinboard)
Time passes (Calendar pages, 1930)
Is there a pencil in The House? (Pencils in The House on 92nd Street)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Montblanc’s Gandhi pen

Could there be a pen more ill-conceived than Montblanc’s “Yes We Can” pen? Yes, Montblanc’s Mohandas Gandhi pen:

Just 241 commemorative fountain pens will be sold — a nod to the number of miles Gandhi walked in his famous 1930 “salt march,” a mass protest against salt taxes levied by the British that dealt an early blow to their control over the subcontinent.

The pens are hand-made, adorned with Gandhi's signature and a saffron-colored opal. They come with an eight-meter (26-foot) golden thread that can be wound around the pen to invoke the spindle Gandhi used to weave plain cotton cloth each day. The pens also come with a commemorative booklet of inspiring Gandhi quotes.
Says Oliver Goessler of Montblanc, “It’s not an opulent pen. It’s a writing instrument that’s very pure."

Montblanc’s $25,000 Gandhi pen sparks controversy (Forbes) The link is dead.

In Gandhi's land, a $25,000 Montblanc (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)


Update, February 24, 2010: Montblanc has suspended sales of the pen while awaiting a court ruling on whether the pen may be sold in India:

India court snub for luxury Gandhi pen (BBC News)

(Thanks to Stephen at pencil talk for pointing me to this news.)

A related post
Proust's supplies (Montblanc’s Proust pen, also ill-conceived)

Princeton students and the Kindle

Princeton students have been trying Amazon’s Kindle:

“I hate to sound like a Luddite, but this technology is a poor excuse of an academic tool,” said Aaron Horvath ’10, a student in Civil Society and Public Policy. “It’s clunky, slow and a real pain to operate.”

Horvath said that using the Kindle has required completely changing the way he completes his coursework.

“Much of my learning comes from a physical interaction with the text: bookmarks, highlights, page-tearing, sticky notes and other marks representing the importance of certain passages — not to mention margin notes, where most of my paper ideas come from and interaction with the material occurs,” he explained. “All these things have been lost, and if not lost they’re too slow to keep up with my thinking, and the ‘features’ have been rendered useless.”
Another problem: no page numbers, which makes citations a challenge. Read more:

Kindles yet to woo University users (Daily Princetonian)

Related posts
From the Doyle edition
No Kindle for me

Red Cross

The American Red Cross International Response Fund

“Exclamation marks not trademarks!”

In the news:

An exclamation mark cannot be registered as a trademark, the European Court of First Instance has ruled.

The German clothing and perfume company Joop! applied to register the punctuation mark both on its own and inside a rectangle.
Read all about it:

Exclamation marks not trademarks! (BBC News)