Saturday, July 31, 2010

J.D. Salinger puts on his socks

In a 1968 photograph, now in Newsweek.

Related reading
All Salinger posts

Friday, July 30, 2010

Nelson Riddle on the Blackwing pencil

Composer and arranger Nelson Riddle liked the Blackwing:

Pencils should be of very soft lead, so that a minimum of pressure is needed to convey the marks to the paper, but the lead should be dense enough to be able to carry a sharp point, since clarity is essential. My favorite pencil is the Blackwing #602, by Eberhard Faber, but there may be many brands equal or superior to the Blackwing. Another important feature of a pencil is its eraser. It should be firm, though not dry, and since soft lead is quite easily blurred, it should be an eraser that makes a clean sweep. Some arrangers prefer a mechanical pencil with a refillable reservoir for lead, but I find that the lead in these pencils is quite often brittle, and the eraser wears out after a couple of packets of lead have been expended.

Nelson Riddle, Arranged by Nelson Riddle (Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Music Publishing, 1985).
Here’s a photograph of Nelson Riddle holding a pencil that shows the distinctive Blackwing ferrule. (Squint.)

Related posts
Blackwing 2: The Return
The new Blackwing pencil
Proust’s supplies
Stephen Sondheim on pencils, paper
John Steinbeck on the Blackwing pencil

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Van Dyke Parks, getting things done

As Director of Audio-Visual Services for Warner Bros. Records:

“I was directly under Mo Ostin at WB Records (both architecturally and on the Corporate Organization Chart. I answered to only one man. That was Mo). I had memos printed: ‘From the Director of Audio-Visual Services — re: ———,’ and ‘Yes     ’ or ‘No     .’ It got things done, that memo.”

Quoted in Richard Henderson’s Song Cycle (New York: Continuum, 2010), a volume in the “33 1/3” series devoted to Van Dyke Parks’s 1968 album Song Cycle. Here’s a brief review.

Need worked

Signage on a store’s stock cart. Like a couple three and pop (for soda), “need + past participle” is a familiar element in downstate-Illinois speech. And it’s the one of those three that I like. (Omit needless words and all that.)

A related post

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Song Cycle and “That (In)famous Line”

I’m honored to find myself so mentioned in Richard Henderson’s Song Cycle (New York: Continuum, 2010), a brand-new volume in the “33 1/3” series devoted to Van Dyke Parks’s 1968 album Song Cycle.

The reference is to an essay that I wrote in 2004 about a line from Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks’s “Cabinessence,” a song from SMiLE, the album abandoned by the Beach Boys in 1967 and finished as a Brian Wilson album in 2004. The line in question: “Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield.” Beach Boy Mike Love is said to have demanded from lyricist Parks an explanation of this line’s meaning, which demand Parks was unable to honor. Thus the line has come to represent the alleged obscurity of Parks’s lyrics. “Acid alliteration,” Mike Love called it.

Richard Henderson has written a terrific book. He begins by recounting his first acquaintance with Song Cycle as a thirteen year-old in 1968 Detroit. He goes on to track Van Dyke Parks’s youthful work in music, film, theater, and television; his entry into studio work and the folk-music scene in California; the rise of Warner Bros. Records; the varieties of “psychedelic” music; the critical success and commercial disappointment of Song Cycle; and Parks’s subsequent endeavors, among them, a stint at Warners’ Audio-Visual Services, where Parks devised the idea of making short promotional films of the label’s performers: “music television,” he called it. The heart of the book, a song-by-song meditation on Song Cycle, offers no code-cracking: the album remains a beautiful, ineffable work of art (thank goodness). Henderson is especially helpful in identifying Song Cycle’s specific inspirations: among them, the rural American poet Will Carleton and Misha Goodatieff, a Russian violinist who played at a Los Angeles restaurant. Goodatieff’s cousins brought the balalaikas that are heard on the album.

If you’d like to read what I wrote about “Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield,” here it is: “That (in)famous line.” I stand by every word.

[The Beach Boys’ recording, which appeared on the 1969 album 20/20, is titled “Cabinessence.” Brian Wilson’s 2004 recording is titled “Cabin Essence.”]

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Get back the old Google Image Search

If the new Google Image Search — what with its endlessly loading page of images — no, wait, more images — no, wait — is driving you slightly crazy —

In Firefox, install the Greasemonkey extension. Then install the Google Images direct links script. Adding these two items to Firefox will take a minute or two at the most. Now when you do an image search, the crowded, endlessly loading page will switch almost instantly to the old Google Image Search.

If you’d rather skip Greasemonkey, here’s what to do: do an image search, scroll down and click on “Switch to basic version,” and bookmark the resulting page. An image search for a hyphen gives a nice blank page to start with: like so. Adding a keyword to your bookmarked page — e.g., images — makes it easier to call up Image Search.

You can use the bookmark trick in any browser. There’s also an extension for Safari 5, with which I have no first-hand experience.

One annoying thing about the new Google Image Search is that switching to the old (“basic”) version requires scrolling down and clicking a box at the bottom of a page that’s endlessly loading images. A poor, poor choice of design: it’s like having to turn the volume up to eleven before pressing mute. Still worse is that the scroll and click are required (at least for now) with each new search: there’s no defaulting to the old image search. So it’s extensions and tricky bookmarks to the rescue.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The all-in-one room

[Illustration by James Kingsland. Click for a larger view.]

Mary and Russel Wright:

Our main thesis here is that formality is not necessary for beauty. It shows not less, but more, respect for the good things of life to plan an easier, smoother-running meal in a setting that suits its purpose — and to have more time in which to enjoy the meal and its setting.

We look forward to the day when living room, dining room, and kitchen will break through the walls that arbitrarily divide them, and become simply friendly areas of one large, gracious, and beautiful room. We think that day is not too far away.

Guide to Easier Living (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950).
The above two-page spread of the “all-in-one room” follows these two paragraphs. Servantless living at its best!

The parenthetical numbers (35, 36, 37) point the reader to an appendix listing manufacturers and distributors. 35: General Electric. 36: Chambers Range Company. 37: St. Charles Manufacturing Company. As I have just learned, old Chambers ranges are highly prized. (Rachael Ray uses one.) And St. Charles Cabinetry is alive and well.

A related post
Easier living with Mary and Russell Wright

Word of the day: artificer

I woke up this morning from a dream of teaching the first three episodes of James Joyce’s Ulysses to a room of utterly unprepared English majors. Things were pretty bad. At one point I had to run from the room to bring back a student who herself had fled when a peer mocked her poor grammar. Yes, pretty bad: so bad that I never got to mention the name of Stephen Dedalus. But that was okay: I too was unprepared.

I want to say that I wouldn’t dream of attempting to teach three episodes of Ulysses in one class meeting, but of course I just did.

And now the word-of-the-day from Anu Garg’s A.Word.A.Day is artificer. That word means James Joyce. Stephen Dedalus’s friends are calling to him, spinning Greek variations on his name:

— Stephanos Dedalos! Bous Stephanoumenos! Bous Stephaneforos! —

Their banter was not new to him and now it flattered his mild proud sovereignty. Now, as never before, his strange name seemed to him a prophecy. So timeless seemed the grey warm air, so fluid and impersonal his own mood, that all ages were as one to him. A moment before the ghost of the ancient kingdom of the Danes had looked forth through the vesture of the hazewrapped city. Now, at the name of the fabulous artificer, he seemed to hear the noise of dim waves and to see a winged form flying above the waves and slowly climbing the air.

James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916)
A related post
Bandbox (More words and works of literature)

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Easier living
with Mary and Russel Wright

In the New York Times this morning, Alexandra Lange writes about Mary and Russel Wright’s 1950 book Guide to Easier Living. Elaine and I borrowed this book from the library several years ago and in an instant understood that the people who designed our house in the late fifties must have had the Wrights’ ideas in mind. Said the Wrights,

We look forward to the day when living room, dining room, and kitchen will break through the walls that arbitrarily divide them, and become simply friendly areas of one large, gracious, and beautiful room.
Well, that’s our downstairs, gracious as ever.

The twenty-first-century name for this layout appears to be “open concept kitchen/dining/living area.” But our kitchen/dining/living area is an open secret, as our house is built into a hill and looks like a one-story house from the street.

[Note: Comments at the Times seem to be mistaking what the Wrights described for the so-called great room. The great room, with its raised ceiling, is a much later development.]

A related post
Old house, new concept

Friday, July 23, 2010

From a back-pocket beacon to a cog

Bad metaphors of the day, from Michael Robinet, Vice President of IHS Automotive, as quoted in the New York Times:

“This is not some sort of flash-in-the-pan investment strategy. . . . During the bankruptcy process, G.M. China was the beacon in the night that G.M. always had in its back pocket, and China will be a vital cog in G.M.’s machine going forward.”
From a back-pocket beacon (no flash in the pan!) to a cog: here is why metaphor-making should be left to trained professionals.

Thanks to Stefan Hagemann for alerting me to these metaphors.

Related reading
All metaphor posts (Pinboard)

Posting the news

[“Men and a woman reading headlines posted in street-corner window of Brockton Enterprise newspaper office on Christmas Eve, Brockton, Mass.” December 24, 1940. Photograph by Jack Delano (1914–1997).]

A beautiful photograph from the Library of Congress. This window seems to anticipate the layout of Arts & Letters Daily. The Enterprise, founded c. 1881, is still publishing.

Don’t miss the photograph in its original size, with Santa’s schedule and a matter-of-fact announcement of another Brockton earthquake. I like the stenciling on the street lamp and “Society PRINTING” in the upstairs printshop.

Other Jack Delano photographs
Packing oranges
Sylvia Sweets Tea Room (Also in Brockton)

Thursday, July 22, 2010


A magical and revolutionary product at an unbelievable price. Starting at $4.99.

A large, high-resolution display. An incredibly responsive surface. All in a design that’s thin and light enough to take anywhere. iPan isn’t just the best device of its kind. It’s a whole new kind of device.

Tater Tots sold separately.

“California Gurls,” “California Girls”

My daughter Rachel passes on the news that Brian Wilson has commented on Katy Perry’s “California Gurls” (featuring Snoop Dogg):

“I love her vocal,” the Beach Boys’ creative mastermind said Monday through his manager. “She sounds very clear and energetic.”

Wilson also liked the version that includes a guest rap by Snoop Dogg that makes a nod to the original.

“The melody is infectious, and I'm flattered that Snoop Dogg used our lyric on the tag,” Wilson noted. “I wish them well with this cut.”
A generous if slightly odd response. (Your song has sold millions: good luck with it.) Never to be outdone by “cousin Brian,” “California Girls” co-composer Mike Love has also now commented, but you’ll have to read the article (via the link above) for his response.

If you haven’t listened to the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” in a while, listen. Listen. Listen. Here are ten things to listen for:

1. The instrumental intro. (Were Nelson Riddle’s intros for Sinatra songs an influence here?)

2. The skating-rink organ.

3. The cowboy-movie bass line.

4. Mike Love’s “hip” and “dig.” Very hip. Dig?

5. Mike Love’s pointing upward when singing about “the northern girls.” North is up! (Oops: you’ll have to watch for this one.)

6. The chord changes in the chorus: B C#min7 A Bm7 G Am7 B.

7. The vocal harmonies in the chorus.

8. The high background harmonies in the second verse.

9. “I seen all kind of girls.”

10. The instrumental break before the final chorus (mimicking the bass line), and the “oh-bee-doo” as the break ends.

11. The four vocal lines of the outro: surpassed perhaps only by the round that ends “God Only Knows.”

[“Katy Perry’s ‘California Gurls’ (featuring Snoop Dogg)”: names and words I never thought I’d type. “Listen. Listen. Listen”: from “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” (Brian Wilson–Tony Asher).]

A related post
I am a California girl.

(Thanks, Rachel!)

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Richard Wollheim on looking at art

Philosopher Richard Wollheim knew — learned — how to pay attention:

I evolved a way of looking at paintings which was massively time-consuming and deeply rewarding. For I came to recognize that it often took the first hour or so in front of a painting for stray associations or motivated misperceptions to settle down, and it was only then, with the same amount of time or more spent looking at it, that the picture could be relied upon to disclose itself as it was.

I noticed that I became an object of suspicion to passers-by, and so did the picture that I was looking at.

From Painting as an Art: The A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts (1987), a series talks given at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1984.
A related post
Joe Brainard on looking at art

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Infinite Jest, sadness

Avril Incandenza, “the Moms,” is explaining to her son Mario that “‘There are, apparently, persons who are deeply afraid of their own emotions, particularly the painful ones. Grief, regret, sadness. Sadness especially, perhaps’”:

“I am saying that such persons usually have a very fragile sense of themselves as persons. As existing at all. This interpretation is ‘existential,’ Mario, which means vague and slightly flaky. But I think it may hold true in certain cases. My own father told stories of his own father, whose potato farm had been in St. Pamphile and very much larger than my father’s. My grandfather had had a marvelous harvest one season, and he wanted to invest money. This was in the early 1920s, when there was a great deal of money to be made on upstart companies and new American products. He apparently narrowed the field to two choices — Delaware-brand Punch, or an obscure sweet fizzy coffee substitute that sold out of pharmacy soda fountains and was rumored to contain smidgeons of cocaine, which was the subject of much controversy in those days. My father’s father chose Delaware Punch, which apparently tasted like rancid cranberry juice, and the manufacturer of which folded. And then his next two potato harvests were decimated by blight, resulting in the forced sale of his farm. Coca-Cola is now Coca-Cola. My father said his father showed very little emotion or anger or sadness about this, though. That he somehow couldn’t. My father said his father was frozen, and could feel emotion only when he was drunk. He would apparently get drunk four times a year, weep about his life, throw my father through the living room window, and disappear for several days, roaming the countryside of L’Islet Province, drunk and enraged.”

She’s not been looking at Mario this whole time, though Mario’s been looking at her.

She smiled. “My father, of course, could himself tell this story only when he was drunk. He never threw anyone through any windows. He simply sat in his chair, drinking ale and reading the newspaper, for hours, until he fell out of the chair. And then one day he fell out of the chair and didn’t get up again, and that was how your maternal grandfather passed away.”

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996).
Snopes has the scoop on Coke and coke. As for Delaware Punch, it’s a (not the) real thing, now owned by Coca-Cola, and still sold in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas.

Infinite Jest is in truth infinitely sad.

Other Infinite Jest posts
Attention : Description : Loveliness : “Night-noises” : Romance : Telephony : Television

Monday, July 19, 2010

“R. Crumb’s Depression Graph”

Tracking time, place, age, appearance, activites, and mood: “R. Crumb’s Depression Graph.” It reminds me of Charles Joseph Minard’s map of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian campaign.

A related post
R. Crumb’s supplies

Penguin Books postcard

Penguin is celebrating seventy-five years of publishing. My daughter Rachel (whose only relation to Penguin is as a reader) sent us this nifty postcard, one of several marking the occasion. Thanks, Rachel!

A related post
THE MAIN TITLE (Penguin cover-layout by Jan Tschichold)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Newsstand paperweights

“Though they were once as omnipresent as phone booths, the heyday of the cast-iron weights has come and gone”: a New York Times slideshow of newsstand paperweights.

And in Fluence, an illustrated interview with collector Harley Spiller. (Go to the May-June 2010 issue.)

[Toronto Star newsstand paperweight. Photograph by Micki Watanabe Spiller, from the New York Times slideshow.]

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ben Leddy is blogging

My son Ben has begun blogging at Good Reason (“thoughts on philosophy, music, law, and everything else”). An excerpt from his first post:

Perhaps publishers ought to begin selling ‘great books’ with the pages blank. This would remind us that when we reach for an interesting title, we’re not always after great thoughts, but rather, the great challenge of thinking and creating. If you find yourself caught in a cycle of checking out books and returning them a few days later in defeat, ask yourself whether you’re looking to read, or if you’re actually looking to create something new.

“A degree is a degree”

My friend Stefan Hagemann pointed me to a choice bit from a New York Times article about Pakistani politicians accused of claiming fraudulent degrees. Says Nawab Aslam Raisani, chief minister of Baluchistan Province:

“A degree is a degree. Whether fake or genuine, it’s a degree. It makes no difference.”
(Thanks, Stefan!)

Friday, July 16, 2010

Semi-mysterious J.D. Salinger Boxed Set mystery deepens, perhaps

Re: the semi-mysterious J.D. Salinger Boxed Set: I called Little, Brown’s Customer Service number yesterday morning to ask the simplest question: how many volumes? The person on the other end looked up the boxed set and found no answer (and sounded puzzled about that). She took my number and promised to get back to me. No one has returned my call.

So the mystery deepens, perhaps.


The Merriam-Webster Word of the Day is bandbox:

bandbox   \BAND-bahks\   noun

1 : a usually cylindrical box of cardboard or thin wood for holding light articles of attire
*2 : a structure (as a baseball park) having relatively small interior dimensions

Example sentence: “Baseballs flew out of there at a record pace for a while, and everyone had theories about why this stadium was behaving like a bandbox, despite similar dimensions to the old place.” (Filip Bondy, Daily News [New York], November 8, 2009)

Did you know? In the 17th century, the word “band” was sometimes used for ruffs, the large round collars of pleated muslin or linen worn by men and women of the time period, and the bandbox was invented for holding such bands. The flimsy cardboard structure of the box inspired people to start using its name for any flimsy object, especially a small and insubstantial one. But people also contemplated the neat, sharp appearance of ruffs just taken from a bandbox and began using the word in a complimentary way in phrases such as “she looked as if she came out of a bandbox.” Today, “bandbox” can also be used as an adjective meaning “exquisitely neat, clean, or ordered,” as in “bandbox military officers.”
The word bandbox sticks in my head because of Gilbert Sorrentino’s novel Aberration of Starlight (1980). The word appears twice in Marie Recco’s interior monologue, first in Marie’s mother Bridget McGrath’s description of Marie, then in Marie’s description of her ex-husband Tony:
He worshiped the ground she walked on. Went out for chow mein and came back with little red embroidered slippers. Chinese apples. Bouquets of flowers. In January. Why not? her mother said. You always looked like you stepped out of a bandbox. Where did their kind ever see a girl with your looks and breeding?


What happened? Red silk slippers. Bouquets and boxes of chocolate. Coming out of the hold of that ship like he just stepped out of a bandbox.
Is it unusual to associate a word with its appearance in a work of literature? Apoplexy has meant Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island to me since sixth grade. Since college, sempiternal has equalled T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding. Avatar: William Faulkner’s Light in August. Sanguine: Willa Cather’s The Professor’s House. And heifer: John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” though I had to teach the poem in east-central Illinois to learn the proper pronunciation. (Thanks, Sally.)

What words have these sorts of literary associations for you?

A related post
Gilbert Sorrentino (1929–2006)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Buster Keaton in the rain

[Buster Keaton as Ronald, in College (dir. James W. Horne, 1927).]

There’s an explanation: young Ronald has been sharing that umbrella with his mother (played by Florence Turner, formerly the Vitagraph Girl of early silents).

College has many delights, including a spectacular scene of soda-jerkery. The film’s ending is extraordinarily funny and extraordinarily grim, tracking two lifetimes in just ten seconds. Life’s short.

Eighty-three years later, it’s still raining.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Semi-mysterious J.D. Salinger Boxed Set

This news that an uncollected 1945 Salinger story is about to be reprinted makes me wonder about the contents of the hardcover J.D. Salinger Boxed Set forthcoming from Little, Brown in November 2010. Borders lists it as retailing for $99. Chapters Indigo lists it with must be the dimensions of an individual volume: 7.24 x 9.41 x 0.98 inches. As you might have guessed, there are no photographs of this set.

More interesting: there is no indication as to how many volumes this set will contain. Will there be four — The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters / Seymour: An Introduction? Or will there be a fifth volume with the uncollected stories? The reprinting of a 1945 story would seem to suggest that the Salinger estate has been negotiating with publishers. And the lack of information about this boxed set makes me suspect that something’s being kept quiet, for now. (If that turns out to be the case, you read it here first.)

If the boxed set includes only the four previously published books, it’d be nice to see, say, a Library of America volume with the uncollected stories. I’m optimistic, always. And yes, the uncollected stories can already be had as bootlegs. But a book is better, no?

Update, November 2, 2010: The semi-mysterious boxed set is no longer semi-mysterious. The Borders and Chapters Indigo pages now list the set’s contents — the four books, nothing more.

Related reading
All Salinger posts
Roger Lathbury, Betraying Salinger (New York)

Saturday Evening Post
to reprint 1945 Salinger story

The July/August 2010 issue of The Saturday Evening Post will reprint J.D. Salinger’s story “A Boy in France,” first published in The Post in 1945. Says Joan SerVaas, chief executive officer and publisher:

This evocative tale of a young solider struggling to maintain his sanity during the madness of war is just one of the many Salinger short stories tucked away in our archives. We think readers will find this one is as fresh and meaningful now as when it was first published.
[Did you have any idea that The Saturday Evening Post is still publishing?]

Related reading
All Salinger posts

Domestic comedy

After a stint of mowing:

“I don’t think I could ever really say ‘Farm livin’ is the life for me.’ Maybe a farm with hired hands.”

“And feet.”

[With apologies to Green Acres.]

Related reading
All “domestic comedy” posts

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Infinite Jest, television

There is no broadcast television in the near-future of Infinite Jest, only cartridges and disks and “Spontaneous Disseminations” from InterLace TelEntertainment. Orin Incandenza misses the old days:

“I miss commercials that were louder than the programs. I miss the phrases ‘Order before midnight tonight’ and ‘Save up to fifty percent and more.’ I miss being told things were filmed before a live studio audience. I miss late‐night anthems and shots of flags and fighter jets and leathery‐faced Indian chiefs crying at litter. I miss ‘Sermonette’ and ‘Evensong’ and test patterns and being told how many megahertz something’s transmitter was broadcasting at.” He felt his face. “I miss sneering at something I love. How we used to love to gather in the checker‐tiled kitchen in front of the old boxy cathode‐ray Sony whose reception was sensitive to airplanes and sneer at the commercial vapidity of broadcast stuff. . . . I miss summer reruns. I miss reruns hastily inserted to fill the intervals of writers’ strikes, Actors’ Guild strikes. I miss Jeannie, Samantha, Sam and Diane, Gilligan, Hawkeye, Hazel, Jed, all the syndicated airwave‐haunters. You know? I miss seeing the same things over and over again.”

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996).
As Orin goes on to explain, the freedom to watch something on disk again and again is not the same: “‘The choice, see. It ruins it somehow. With television you were subjected to repetition. The familiarity was inflicted.’”

Other Infinite Jest posts
Attention : Description : Loveliness : “Night-noises” : Romance : Telephony

Monday, July 12, 2010

Harvey Pekar (1939–2010)

Harvey Pekar was — is — one of the great chroniclers of dailiness in these United States.

I felt like cryin’; life seemed so sweet an’ so sad an’ so hard t’let go of in the end. But this is Monday. I went t’work, hustled some records, came home an’ wrote this. T’night I’ll finish A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Life goes on. Every day is a new deal. Keep workin’ an’ maybe sump’n’ll turn up.

From the story “Alice Quinn,” words by Harvey Pekar, art by Sue Cavey (1982).
Cleveland comic-book legend Harvey Pekar dead at age 70 (Cleveland Plain Dealer)

Other Harvey Pekar posts
Good advice from Harvey Pekar
Joyce Brabner, writing, recognition
Harvey Pekar on life and death
Harvey Pekar’s The Quitter
Review: Leave Me Alone!

[Photograph uncredited, found at the Dallas Observer.]

Svend Asmussen, doing very well

Violinist Svend Asmussen, answering the question “How are you doing?”: “I do very well, considering my extremely advanced age.”

He’s ninety-four and still playing.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Rock the mic

[From the Oxford English Dictionary.]

First M.C. to rock (“To handle effectively and impressively; to use or wield effectively, esp. with style or self-assurance”) the mic: Melle Mel, says the OED. Ben Zimmer explains:

When Did We First “Rock the Mic”? (New York Times)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Joyeux anniversaire, M. Proust

Marcel Proust was born on July 10, 1871.

The philosophers have certainly persuaded us that time is a process of reckoning that corresponds to no reality. We know that, but the ancient superstition is so strong that we cannot escape it, and it seems to us that on a given date we are inevitably older, like the government, which finds that because it should be warm the 1st of April, after that central heating is no longer needed. For a long time we have found this ridiculous of the government, but for age we don’t find it so.

Marcel Proust, in a letter to Geneviève Bizet Straus, October or November 1912. From Letters of Marcel Proust, translated by Mina Curtiss (New York: Helen Marx Books / Books & Co., 2006).
Thanks, Mari, for reminding me of the date.

Related reading
All Proust posts (Pinboard)

Charlie Rose and David Foster Wallace

March 27, 1997: Charlie Rose interviewed David Foster Wallace. These thirty-two minutes (edited from who-knows-how-many-more) appear to have been, to borrow a Wallace phrase, “hellaciously unfun.” Samples:

Rose: I want to talk about David Lynch, who after I read your piece in Esquire — was it Esquire? — no, Premiere, Premiere — I interviewed David Lynch. You never got to interview David Lynch.
More discussion of movies:
Rose: English Patient.

Wallace: You’re seriously asking me for my view on English Patient?


Rose: How about Shine? I’m going to go down [a list of] three, David.

Wallace: This is — a lot of this is going to get cut out, right?

Rose: Perhaps. But I’ll make the decision as to what’s cut out.
The best exchange:
Rose: Quit worrying about how you’re gonna look and just be.

Wallace: I’ve got news for you: coming on a television show stimulates your what-am-I-gonna-look-like gland like no other experience.
I’ve never been a fan of Charlie Rose, who often seems more interested in laying claim to authority and expertise than in listening to what his interviewee has to say. (Is it an interview, or is it a competition?) If you watch this interview, you’ll see that the David Lynch bit interrupts Wallace’s patient taking-apart of Rose’s out-of-nowhere assertion that respect is very important to Wallace.

Note too Wallace’s comment about his knowledge of “elementary arithmetic” (he knows that many people praising Infinite Jest could not have had time enough to read it) and his observations about belligerent questions coming out of nowhere after readings.

Me, I finished reading Infinite Jest last night. That’s all I can say right now.

Charlie Rose interviews David Foster Wallace (March 27, 1997)
Charlie Rose talks with David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, and Mark Leyner (May 17, 1996)

[“Hellaciously unfun”: from the 1996 conversation, Wallace’s characterization of contemporary avant-garde fiction.]

Friday, July 9, 2010

Toy Story 3

Here’s a brief but heartfelt recommendation: go see Toy Story 3 (dir. Lee Unkrich, 2010). And if you or your children grew up with the first two Toy Story films and you think you’re too old: go see Toy Story 3.

Our daughter Rachel and son Ben urged Elaine and me to see 3. We are glad that we did. The film enters deeply emotional, even philosophical territory: objects and their associations, remembrance of things past, and identity. We are ourselves, this film seems to say, only in relation to others.

Most unexpectedly moving moment: holding hands. Meant, I think, to evoke a matter of recent history.

Telephone Brand Agar-Agar

[Photograph by Michael Leddy.]

Agar-agar! The substance so nice, they named it twice. (Like New York, New York.) I long knew agar only as a word in crossword puzzles. I noticed the thing itself (derived from red algae) in a market this past weekend.

Wikipedia says that agar-agar can be used “as a laxative, a vegetarian gelatin substitute, a thickener for soups, in jellies, ice cream and other desserts, as a clarifying agent in brewing, and for paper sizing fabrics.” I have verified none these uses: I take agar-agar’s versatility on faith. I do know from experience that agar-agar can be used in blog posts, at least when it’s packaged in such a striking way.

On the back of the package, a glossy woman speaks. Listen: do you hear what she is saying? Yes, she is telling a friend about Telephone Brand Agar-Agar Powder.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Found tombstone

From the New York Times, the story of a tombstone found on a Lower East Side sidewalk.

Studying on the decline

It’s not exactly news that studying is on the decline. But still:

According to time-use surveys analyzed by professors Philip Babcock, at the University of California Santa Barbara, and Mindy Marks, at the University of California Riverside, the average student at a four-year college in 1961 studied about 24 hours a week. Today’s average student hits the books for just 14 hours.

The decline, Babcock and Marks found, infects students of all demographics. No matter the student’s major, gender, or race, no matter the size of the school or the quality of the SAT scores of the people enrolled there, the results are the same: Students of all ability levels are studying less.
The greatest decline: between 1961 and 1981, from 24.4 to 16.8 hours a week.¹ As to why: Murray Sperber, quoted in this article, seems to me to hit the mark. See what you think:

What happened to studying? (Boston Globe, via Arts & Letters Daily)

¹ Jeez, I spent way too much time studying in college.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

R. Crumb’s supplies

R. Crumb has just explained that he uses crow-quill pens for drawing: “An old steel-point nib, that’s what I use to draw with — for my artwork, I have to use antique, archaic tools.”

What kind of paper do you use, what kind of pen and ink?

Well, I use the old Strathmore vellum surface paper, which is the best paper you can get in the Western world for ink line drawing. It has a good, hard surface. I have it mailed from the New York Central Art Supply in New York. For a while I was using this old Strathmore paper from fifty years ago that some guy sent me, it had bad comic art on one side, hacked-out comic work from 1959, 1960, but the paper is superior to anything you can get now. It just holds the ink better. I ran out of that and now I use this new stuff that’s not quite as good.

And how about the ink?

I use Pelikan black drawing ink, and the crow-quill pen nibs. And you stick them in a handle. They’re all getting harder to find, all these antique art instruments. The companies that have made them are dying off one by one. But I got lucky. One day about six or seven years ago, my daughter, Sophie, bought a box of old pen points at a flea market in France. She found a box of about a hundred drawing pen points, and they’re the best ones I’ve ever used. They last and last, everything about them is fine, the point, the tensile quality, even the metal, the glass. The metal was just better, back then. I’ve still got maybe fifty of those. I think they’ll probably last me the rest of my life.
On notebooks and sketchbooks:
I lived out my youth on paper, basically. I am a bookmaker. I see blank books, I want to fill them — notebooks, sketchbooks, blank pages.

From “The Art of Comics,” an interview with Ted Widmer, in the Summer 2010 Paris Review.
Related posts
Proust’s supplies
Stephen Sondheim on pencils, paper

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Infinite Jest, “night-noises”

A great descriptive passage:

The night-noises of the metro night: harbor-wind skirling on angled cement, the shush and sheen of overpass traffic, TPs’ laughter in interior rooms, the yowl of unresolved cat-life. Horns blatting off in the harbor. Receding sirens. Confused inland gulls’ cries. Broken glass from far away. Car horns in gridlock, arguments in languages, more broken glass, running shoes, a woman’s either laugh or scream from who can tell how far, coming off the grid. Dogs defending whatever dog-yards they pass by, the sounds of chains and risen hackles. The podiatric click and thud, the visible breath, gravel’s crunch, creak of Green’s leather, the snick of a million urban lighters, the gauzy far-off humming ATHSCMEs pointing out true plumb north, the clunk and tinkle of stuff going into dumpsters and rustle of stuff in dumpsters settling and skirl of wind on the sharp edges of dumpsters and unmistakable clanks and tinkles of dumpster-divers and can-miners going after dumpsters’ cans and bottles, the district Redemption Center down in Brighton and actually even boldly sharing a storefront with Liquor World liquor store, so the can-miners can do like one-stop redeeming and shopping.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996).
TPs: teleputers, which have replaced broadcast television. “Green’s leather”: Bruce Green, out on a walk with Randy Lenz, wears a leather jacket. ATHSCMEs: “Air-Displacement Effectuators,” giant fans that blow pollution north to Canada. Brighton: one half of Allston-Brighton, the Boston neighborhoods that serve as the setting for much of Infinite Jest.

Infinite Jest is filled with acronyms, but with under 200 pages of the novel to go, I’ve yet to see an explanation of ATHSCME. I suspect (and suspect that I will continue to suspect) that the name is a joke on the Acme Corporation of cartoondom and on the words “Ask me.” What does ATHSCME stand for? Athsc me. I think of ATHSCME as a distant relation of an acronym from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath: IITYWYBAD?

I remember a similar acronym from Allston-Brighton — YOADTMD, more or less, which hung above the bar of the El Phoenix Room in Brighton. Infinite Jest names several now-defunct Allston-Brighton landmarks: Bunratty’s (a bar, aka Scumratty’s), Ellis the Rim Man (an auto-parts store), Marty’s Liquors (previously Macy’s Liquors, located at the center of the universe, the intersection of Commonwealth Avenue and Harvard Avenue), Play It Again Sam’s (a bar), Purity Supreme (a supermarket). No mention though of the El Phoenix, still unrisen.

Other Infinite Jest posts
Attention : Description : Loveliness : Romance : Telephony

Monday, July 5, 2010

Colleges catching cheaters

From a New York Times article, a few details of life at the University of Central Florida:

No gum is allowed during an exam: chewing could disguise a student’s speaking into a hands-free cellphone to an accomplice outside.

The 228 computers that students use are recessed into desk tops so that anyone trying to photograph the screen — using, say, a pen with a hidden camera, in order to help a friend who will take the test later — is easy to spot.

Scratch paper is allowed — but it is stamped with the date and must be turned in later.

When a proctor sees something suspicious, he records the student’s real-time work at the computer and directs an overhead camera to zoom in, and both sets of images are burned onto a CD for evidence.

To Stop Cheats, Colleges Learn Their Trickery (New York Times)
If you click through to read the article, note that the accompanying photograph — of a man monitoring cameras at a “testing center” — suggests not “college” but “prison.”

Bedbugs of New York

At Abercrombie & Fitch. At Hollister. At the movies.

Related reading and listening
“Ambercroombie & Flitch”
Furry Lewis, “Mean Old Bedbug Blues” (YouTube)


From today’s xkcd, Analogies:

“Is that simile itself a metaphor for something?”

“Maybe it’s a metaphor for analogy.”
Related posts
All metaphor posts
All simile posts (Pinboard)
Bad analogy of the day (Faculty : students :: waiters : customers)

Domestic comedy

“You know, I think competitiveness is a default male setting.”

“It is not.”

Related reading
All “domestic comedy” posts

Sunday, July 4, 2010

American ones

Ivie Anderson : Louis Armstrong : Clarence Ashley : Fred Astaire : Joan Baez : Mildred Bailey : Tony Bennett : Dock Boggs : James Brown : Chester Burnett (Howlin’ Wolf) : A.P. Carter : Betty Carter : Bo Carter : Maybelle Carter : Sara Carter : Johnny Cash : June Carter Cash : Ray Charles : Patsy Cline : Bing Crosby : Bo Diddley : Bob Dylan : Sleepy John Estes : Ruth Etting : Ella Fitzgerald : Slim Gaillard : Tess Gardella : Art Garfunkel : Judy Garland : Inara George : Lowell George : Clifford Gibson : Ronnie Gilbert : Al Green : Woody Guthrie : Bill Haley : Annette Hanshaw : Johnny Hartman : Screamin’ Jay Hawkins : Lee Hays : Fred Hellerman : Al Hibbler : Bob Hite : Billie Holiday : Judy Holliday : Buddy Holly : Son House : Alberta Hunter : Mississippi John Hurt : Mahalia Jackson : Skip James : Al Jardine : Blind Lemon Jefferson : Robert Johnson : Tommy Johnson : Rickie Lee Jones : B.B. King : Carole King : Tom Lehrer : Matthew and Mark (The NuGrape Twins) : Mike Love : Randy Newman : Laura Nyro : Anita O’Day : Van Dyke Parks : Charley Patton : Wilson Pickett : Elvis Presley : Gertrude “Ma” Rainey : Otis Redding : Malvina Reynolds : J.P. Richardson (The Big Bopper) : Jimmie Rodgers : Jimmy Rushing : Pete Seeger : Joya Sherrill : Paul Simon : Frank Sinatra : Bessie Smith : Jo Stafford : Sufjan Stevens : Koko Taylor : Elvie Thomas : Mel Tormé : Joe Turner : Ritchie Valens : Tom Waits : Thomas “Fats” Waller : Ethel Waters : Muddy Waters : Gillian Welch : Geeshie Wiley : Lee Wiley : Joe Williams : Alan Wilson : Brian Wilson : Carl Wilson : Dennis Wilson : Jackie Wilson

One-hundred American voices for this Fourth of July.

[Title borrowed from Clark Coolidge’s American Ones (Noise & Presentiments) (Bolinas, CA: Tombouctou, 1981).]

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Corrections of the Times

From the Corrections page in today’s New York Times:

The Political Times column on Wednesday, about the role of ethnic identity in politics, misstated the subject of an ethnic joke that the biographer Lou Cannon said Ronald Reagan frequently regaled crowds with while campaigning. The joke, which most likely would destroy a promising candidacy today, centered on a monkey and an organ grinder — not Polish and Italian participants at a cockfight.
Related reading
All Times corrections posts

Thomas Jefferson’s handwriting

[Image from the Library of Congress.]

Looks kinda Warholian, no?

Hyperspectral Imaging by Library of Congress Reveals Change Made by Thomas Jefferson in Original Declaration of Independence Draft (Library of Congress)

Friday, July 2, 2010

Dowdy mug

[Photograph by Michael Leddy.]

This dowdy mug (distressed by design) is a gift from my son. For use in and out of “the dowdy world.” Thanks, Ben!

Related reading
All “dowdy world” posts (via Pinboard)
Dowdy cup and saucer
From Lady Killer (1933) (Another dowdy beverage receptacle)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

“House on Loon Lake”

From This American Life, a New Hampshire story: “House on Loon Lake.” It is as described, “a real-life Hardy Boys mystery.” Listen online, or download for 99¢.

(Thanks, Rachel!)

The Old Trading Post,
Lisbon, New Hampshire

Elaine Fine found this postcard in a library book. Paul Drake is busy on a case with Perry Mason, so Elaine asked me to investigate.

The Old Trading Post was the work of Janet and Paul Rothenburger. The earliest reference to the Post that I can find is in a 1945 issue of Publishers Weekly. An item about the bookstore appears in the April 15 and July 15, 1950 issues of Billboard, in the unsigned columns “Dealer Doings” and “Merchandising Ideas Increase Disk Sales.” So the Post sold both books and records:

In the 1950s, the bookstore ran small classifieds in the New York Times. From April 1, 1951:

In 1967, the American Book Trade Directory (New York: R.R. Bowker), lists Janet Rothenburger as the sole proprietor. The Social Security Death Index lists a Paul Rothenburger, 1900–1967, with Lisbon, New Hampshire as his last residence. The last reference to an active store that I’ve found is from 1968, a listing in Book Dealers in North America (London: Sheppard Press, 1968). No SSDI record for Janet Rothenburger.

The Old Trading Post closed in 1968. A 1970 New York Times article on rural bookstores explains in passing the Post’s passing, in an account of Donald and Georgene Wattses’ Coventry Bookstore, which opened in Coventry, Connecticut, in 1968:

[Lewis Nichols, “Speaking of Books: Rural Byways to Bookshops.” New York Times, October 4, 1970.]

No sign of the Coventry Bookstore anywhere. That’s a case for Paul Drake.

[Sources: Google Books, the New York Times archive, the Social Security Death Index.]

A related post
Invitation to a dance (An old invitation, investigated)