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”