Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tony Curtis (1925–2010)

[In drag as Shell Oil Junior in Some Like It Hot (dir. Billy Wilder, 1959).]

Tony Curtis, Hollywood Leading Man, Dies at 85 (New York Times)

Carlo Rotella on
laptops in the classroom

Carlo Rotella doesn’t allow laptops in his classroom:

Your money buys you the opportunity to pay attention to the other people on campus and to have them pay attention to you — close, sustained, active, fully engaged attention, undistracted by beeps, chimes, tweets, klaxons, ring tones, ads, explosions, continuous news feeds, or other mind-jamming noise. You qualify for admission, you pay your money, and you get four years — maybe the last four years you’ll ever get — to really attend to the ideas of other human beings, thousands of years’ worth of them, including the authors of the texts on the syllabus and the people in the room with you.

You can spend the rest of your life surfing the web, emailing, texting. You’ve got one shot at college.
Read it all:

Tuition lost on the techno-dependent (Boston Globe)

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Review: Proust’s Overcoat

Lorenza Foschini. Proust’s Overcoat. Translated by Eric Karpeles. New York. Ecco Press. 2010. 128 pages, illustrated. $19.99.

Then he’d ask me to change the hot-water bottles, and he’d put an old fur coat, kept specially for the purpose, over his legs. He had another beautiful coat with a sealskin collar and lined with mink, which he wore going out when it was cold. But the old coat always had to be hanging over the foot of the brass bed.

Céleste Albaret, on Marcel Proust’s efforts to keep warm, in Monsieur Proust, translated by Barbara Bray (New York: New York Review Books, 2003)
Susan Sontag wrote that “To collect is by definition to collect the past,” an observation that seems trite until one thinks about it, as most of the getting we do in life is future-directed: books, clothes, food, lottery tickets. In Proust’s Overcoat, Lorenza Foschini tells the story of one staggeringly lucky and persistent collector of the past, Jacques Guérin (1902–2000), a perfumer and habitual browser of antiquarian shops and bookstores. He appears to have developed into a collector with preternatural speed: at eighteen he purchased a rare first-edition of Guillaume Apollinaire. At twenty he fell under the spell of Marcel Proust’s work. A year later, Erik Satie called Guérin “the charming bibliophile.”

In 1929, seven years after Proust’s death, Guérin had the good misfortune to find himself a surgical patient of Marcel’s brother Robert. Visiting Dr. Proust in his office after the operation, Guérin saw Marcel’s old furniture — a desk and bookcase inherited from his father — and stacks of manuscript pages. In 1935, several weeks after Robert’s death, Guérin happened into a bookstore whose owner had minutes before purchased hand-corrected Proust proofs. Thus began Guérin’s long association with the man who brought the proofs to the store, identified here only as “Werner,” a semi-mysterious dealer in secondhand goods who somehow — how? — had come into possession of Proustian property. Werner seems to have been something of a tormentor with a storage shed, always hinting at Proust items yet to be revealed. Guérin becomes not just a collector but a rescuer of all things Proustian, seeking out old associates in search of private revelations, developing a cordial relationship with Robert’s widow Marthe, and purchasing from Werner drawings, letters, notes, photographs, hairbrushes, rug, desk, bookcase, bed, and, finally, overcoat. With the coat comes the strangest discovery of all.

Foschini tells Guérin’s story with delightful ease and divagation. We meet Guérin’s mother Jeanne-Louise, a crafty capitalist, and learn something of the daily routine in a perfumery. We follow Guérin’s various efforts as literary patron (of Jean Genet, among others) and the dissolution of his collections. Foschini is especially good in pondering the complications and sorrows of the Proust family: father Adrian’s role in arranging his son Robert’s miserable marriage, Robert’s lack of interest in reading his brother’s work, Marthe’s unconscionable destruction of Marcel’s letters, the family’s general refusal to countenance Marcel’s sexuality.

Proust’s Overcoat is a wonderful piece of Proustiana, beautifully translated by Eric Karpeles. Think of this book as an imaginary documentary film, its subjects beyond any interviewer’s reach.

[Photograph from Proust’s Overcoat, courtesy of Eric Karpeles.]

Thanks to Ecco for a review copy of this book.

Related reading
All Proust posts (Pinboard)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Toughbooks and dolphins

In June 2010, I posted some news about dolphins and iPads. Now Jack and Donna Kassewitz at SpeakDolphin have settled on Panasonic Toughbooks, models 19 and 30, for dolphin use. Read and watch:

Panasonic Helps Dolphin Research (SpeakDolphin)
Merlin and a Toughbook (Flickr set)
Merlin and a Toughbook (YouTube)

The Criterion Collection, FBI warnings

David Pogue has a column today about DVDs and FBI piracy warnings:

I absolutely cannot stand those stupid warnings. So typical of the short-sighted, pigheaded, greed-driven video industry, isn’t it? . . .

I don’t understand why some movie studio doesn’t decide to become the Good Guys of the industry. Get rid of all those annoyances, all the lawyer-driven absurdities, and market the heck out of it.
There is at least one such Good Guy, though a quiet one: the Criterion Collection. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a piracy warning before a Criterion film. That absence seems to me a gesture of profound respect, treating the viewer as a viewer (and good customer), not a potential thief.

I wrote to Jon Mulvaney at Criterion this past summer to ask about this matter. No reply. Without watching every Criterion release (not a bad idea), it’s impossible to know if no-warning-before-film is a blanket policy. If anyone at Criterion sees this post, and wants to comment, I’d welcome their words.

Bryan A. Garner’s Twitter

If you’re visiting from Bryan A. Garner’s tweet, welcome. This post explains.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Van Dyke Parks in Chicago (2)

Van Dyke Parks’s performance last night with Clare and the Reasons was part of his first, ever, tour. The audience at Schubas Tavern ranged in age from the old (think canes) to the young (perhaps a third of VDP’s age, which is sixty-seven). These “real quality earthlings,” as VDP called us, assembled for a rare occasion.

I don’t know Clare and the Reasons’ music well enough to have constructed a set list. (That will change, I think, in the near future.) Their songs are beautifully conceived, arranged, and performed, with a surprising array of tonal colors: brass (French horn, trombone, bass trombone, played by guest musicians), violin, cello, clarinet, guitar, keyboard, electric bass, electronica, kazoo, soprano recorder, glockenspiel, whistling, modest percussion, and voices. Clare Muldaur Manchon and the three Reasons — Clare’s husband Olivier Manchon, Bob Hart, Jon Cottle — are exemplary musicians (as were the guest brass). The songs included “Pluton/Pluto” (a lament for the lost planet), “Wake Up (You Sleepy Head),” and, with VDP, Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me.” Most remarkable moment: Olivier Manchon taking a break from guitar to play glockenspiel and soprano recorder, one with each hand. Shades of the Art Ensemble of Chicago!

Van Dyke Parks (at the keyboard) was joined by the three Reasons on violin, guitar, cello, and electric bass, in arrangements that captured the textures of the far larger ensembles of his recordings (no small feat with, say, “Jump!” or “The Attic”). And Clare came back to the stage for a vocal duet on “Heroes and Villains.” Here’s a set list, all compositions by Van Dyke Parks except as noted:

Jump! : Opportunity for Two : Come Along : Orange Crate Art : Black Gold : Delta Queen Waltz (John Hartford) : Danza (Louis Moreau Gottschalk) : The Attic : Cowboy : Heroes and Villains (w/Brian Wilson) : The All Golden : Sail Away

For me, the musical revelation of hearing Van Dyke Parks live is the brilliance and energy of his pianism, foregrounded in the small-ensemble setting. My informed critical response: my God, what a pianist. He is, it turns out, a force of nature, an orchestral player, adding unpredictable and lavish embellishments. As he said, quoting someone (who?), “It only looks easy.”

Two moments that especially stick in my head: Van Dyke’s cry “This is central!” in “Black Gold” (about the Prestige oil spill), and his unaccompanied performance of “The All Golden,” about fellow musician and friend Steve Young. It’s one of my most favorite Parks songs, always suggesting to me a Gertrude Stein “portrait” set to music.

Music is only part of what Van Dyke brings to the stage. His performance was in the tradition of the Chautauqua, with extended episodes of “palaver” (his word) touching on everything from copyright law to beta males (he’s a proud one), to rock critics, to Clare and the Reasons (“Such big hearts”), to what he called “progress for profit”: “Merch, merch, merch along the highway.” I understood last night, in a new way, what it means for a performance to be a gift, something shared, for the betterment of performer and audience alike. I strongly suspect that Van Dyke (a student of the classics) thinks of the work of the performer in Homeric terms: to “lift the great song again,” to bring to an audience the most urgent news of the human story. Indeed, he spoke last night of the work of the songwriter as “epic.”

Van Dyke Parks is as generous offstage as on-. Elaine and I were fortunate to be able to spend the late afternoon with him, as his guests, partaking of afternoon tea at the Drake Hotel. The three of us carried on a conversation that was wide-ranging, allusive, musically informed, and perfectly grammatical. Thank you, Van Dyke! I hope that when we’re in California, we may have the opportunity to return your kindness.

[“[L]ift the great song again”: from Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey (1961).]

Related reading
Clare Muldaur (On Frog Stand Records)
Van Dyke Parks (Official website)
Van Dyke Parks in Chicago (1) (VDP’s card)
Tea at the Drake and More with Van Dyke Parks (Elaine’s take)

Van Dyke Parks in Chicago (1)

[Van Dyke Parks’s card.]

Back from Schubas Tavern, Chicago, where I heard Clare and the Reasons and Van Dyke Parks tonight, or last night. It is very late. Or is it early? A full report will follow soon. (Here it is.)

[VDP’s e-mail address is prominently displayed on his website. No breach of confidentiality here.]

Friday, September 24, 2010

Personal Post Office Scale

The Personal Post Office Scale (aka the MP 4000) is a beautifully dowdy appliance that lets the layperson emulate both Lady Justice and postal worker. Attach the alligator clip to the item to be mailed, hold the scale aloft by its ring, wait for the pointer to steady, and you’re done. The scale weighs up to four ounces of postal matter and comes with an impressive-looking, fold-out “up-to-date rate card” and vinyl case. Only $4.75 plus shipping from Metal Products Engineering, Inc. The case reminds me of the “I.D. wallets” of my espionage-filled youth. (Secret agents always carry I.D., right?)

My only connection to Metal Products Engineering is that of a happy customer.

[Photograph from the PPOS page.]

A tenuously related post
A P.S. 131 class picture, 1966–1967 (with what appears to be an “I.D. wallet”)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Door supervision in the news

Ian Fox, chairman of the UK organization National Doorwatch, has written to the Oxford English Dictionary asking that the “demeaning and inappropriate” word bouncer be replaced by door supervisor. Says Fox, “The term is anachronistic, inappropriate and downright offensive to the new, modern, highly regulated profession of door supervision.” An OED representative replies: “We are not linguistic policemen and our concern is simply the completeness of the historical record. If hardly anyone uses ‘bouncer’ we’ll consider marking it as rare — but that’s not the case at the moment.”

Cf. David Foster Wallace’s 1999 essay “Authority and American Usage” on what Wallace calls the “central fallacy” of “Politically Correct English”: the idea “that a society’s mode of expression is productive of its attitudes rather than a product of those attitudes.”

The It Gets Better Project

Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project: short videos by everyday people telling LGBT youth that life gets better after high school.

If you work with young people, pass on the link.

(Via The Daily Dish)

Adventures in cheating

Dan Ariely and Aline Grüneisen wanted to see what would happen if they ordered papers on cheating from four essay mills. A sample of what they got:

If the large allowance of study undertook on scholar betraying is any suggestion of academia and professors’ powerful yearn to decrease scholar betraying, it appeared expected these mind-set would component into the creation of their school room guidelines.
Even better: the papers that they received revealed substantial plagiarism. Read more:

Plagiarism and essay mills (Dan Ariely)

Related reading
All plagiarism posts

Van Dyke Parks on touring

Van Dyke Parks on touring at the age of sixty-seven (with Clare and the Reasons):

“The die is cast. I tell my kids, ‘There may be snow on the roof but a fire rages within.’ And then they say, ‘Oh, Dad.’”

Van Dyke Parks: Shifting out of park(s) (WCPO)
Related posts
Clare and the Reasons and Van Dyke Parks
“[J]ust like a good flu shot” (Van Dyke Parks on touring)

Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day

Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 2009), offers a free Usage Tip of the Day. You can sign up at

A factoid (named as such) that came with yesterday’s tip (about that and this):

Garner was traumatized in grade school when a student teacher lecturing on contractions insisted that despite Garner’s protestations, “shan’t” is not a word.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Word of the day: boss-A

Listening last night to the beautiful 1964 recording Getz/Gilberto (Stan/João), I thought of a way to account for the compound adjective boss-A, one of the stranger bits of slang from my Brooklyn childhood.¹ Boss is a now-dated adjective of high praise: if, say, a bicycle or walkie-talkie was boss, it was cool, great.² If something was boss-A, it was really, really, really cool.

Last night it occurred to me: could the bossa nova craze of the early 1960s explain the boss of my childhood? Bossa nova = cool = boss? And could boss-A be a bizarre corruption of bossa?

Boss-A more likely had something to do with letter grades, but in the absence of evidence, I prefer to blame it on the bossa nova.

¹ Boss-A is my invented spelling. The a is long. Stress both syllables.

²The absence of these meanings from the Oxford English Dictionary surprises me. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate traces the adjective —“excellent, first-rate” — to 1836.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Don’t ask, don’t tell Don’t discriminate

Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Uruguay: twenty-five countries that allow gay men and women to serve openly in their militaries.

The source for this list: Gays in Foreign Militaries 2010: A Global Primer (Palm Center, University of California, Santa Barbara). Among the conclusions in this primer (a PDF download):

Research has uniformly shown that transitions to policies of equal treatment without regard to sexual orientation have been highly successful and have had no negative impact on morale, recruitment, retention, readiness or overall combat effectiveness. No consulted expert anywhere in the world concluded that lifting the ban on openly gay service caused an overall decline in the military. . . .

Evidence suggests that lifting bans on openly gay service contributed to improving the command climate in foreign militaries, including increased focus on behavior and mission rather than identity and difference, greater respect for rules and policies that reflect the modern military, a decrease in harassment, retention of critical personnel, and enhanced respect for privacy.
For any reader wondering about context:

Move to End “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Stalls in Senate (New York Times)

Monday, September 20, 2010

Streaming music, 1910

[New York Times, May 31, 1910.]

In Wilmington, Delaware, a century ago, the Tel-musici Company was streaming recorded music by telephone:

From a central station at the telephone company’s building the music is transmitted over the regular telephone wires and “voiced” at the subscriber’s end through the customary horn.

The try-out in Wilmington has shown that there is an ever-growing demand for music among telephone subscribers. The music room at the exchange is a large chamber, around the sides of which is a switchboard. The room is equipped with a great number of phonographs and all of the phonograph records are on file.

When a subscriber wants music he calls the exchange and asks for this room. He tells the girl in charge what selection he wishes to hear, making his choice from a catalogue which is supplied by the company. Then the subscriber affixes the horn to the telephone receiver, the music operator puts the desired record on a phonograph which is plugged into the subscriber’s line, and starts the machine. At the conclusion of the music the connection is automatically cut off.

Arrangements may be made for an evening’s entertainment this way, the programme being made up in advance and submitted to the company by telephone, with orders to begin at a given time. Should two or more subscribers simultaneously want the same piece this can be done simply by connecting both lines to the same phonograph.

In Wilmington the company asks music subscribers to guaranteee $18 a year, the charge for records being from 3 cents for the regular records to 7 for those by the great operatic stars.

From “Music By Telephone. Experiment Has Proved Successful In Wilmington — May Be Tried Here,” New York Times, May 31, 1910.
For more information on the Tel-musici Company (unidentified by name in the Times article): “Distributing Music Over Telephone Lines,” Telephony: The American Telephone Journal, 18.25 (1909). Here are two photographs from Telephony, a partial view of the Wilmington Music Room (with phonographs lining the wall) and a home installation.

[Click for larger views.]

Elaine, could that be our Beckwith piano?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Liberace Museum to close

Says Jeffrey P. Koep of the Liberace Foundation, “He had the look that you see the kids doing now that’s very popular.” Well, maybe. No matter: Las Vegas’s Liberace Museum is closing.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Bad heartless analogy of the day

Addressing the Values Voter Summit in Washington, D.C., today, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee likened people with pre-existing conditions to burned-down houses:

“And then a lot of this, it sounds so good, and it's such a warm message to say, ‘And we’re not gonna deny anyone from a pre-existing condition.’ Look, I think that sounds terrific, but I wanna ask you something from a common sense perspective. Suppose we applied that principle, that you can just come on with whatever condition you have and we’re gonna cover you at the same cost we’re covering everybody else because we wanna be fair. Okay, fine. Then let’s do that with our property insurance. And you can call your insurance agent and say, ‘I’d like to buy some insurance for my house.’ He’d say, ‘Tell me about your house.’ ‘Well, sir, it burned down yesterday, but I’d like to insure it today.’ [Laughter.] And he’ll say ‘I’m sorry, but we can’t insure it after it’s already burned.’ Well, no pre-existing conditions.”
Gosh, why don’t sick people just go off someplace to die? And thereby (as another model of human compassion once put it) “decrease the surplus population.”

If you’d like to listen, the audio is at Media Matters.

A related post
Bad analogy of the day (Faculty : students :: waiters : customers)

Signage trouble

[Photograph by Michael Leddy.]

The last word of course should be plural: premissis.

More trouble
“Iceburg Lettuce”
“Proffessional Centre”

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Write five sentences on the telephone

“What? Yeah. Hold on —”

[Uncaps pen. Begins to write.]

The telephone is like having another person right there in your ear. It is a pleasant feeling!

Would you like to have someone in your ear? Would you also like to be in that person’s ear? If so, then you will enjoy the telephone.

“Okay, I’m back. You were saying?”

[Internauts searching for five sentences (that is, their homework) sometimes end up at Orange Crate Art. Write five sentences on the telephone is the latest such search.]

Related posts
Five sentences from Bleak House
Five sentences about clothes
5 sentences about life on the moon
Five sentences on the ship
Five sentences for smoking
Write 5 sentence [sic] about cat
Write five sentences in the past
Five more sentences in the past
Five sentences about life

Edwin Newman (1919–2010)

He was a defender of, like, the English language.

Edwin Newman, Journalist, Dies at 91 (New York Times)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The end of the straw-hat season

According to pianist Stephen Hough, September 15 marks the end of the straw-hat season. Look at what happened on September 15 eighty-eight years ago:

In 1922 a veritable orgy of hat-smashing occurred throughout New York City. Gangs of up to a thousand men, using long sticks with wire attached, would lift off and impale the straw lids from unsuspecting heads. Police estimated that the doorway at 211 Grand Street was crammed with five hundred ruined hats.

15th September: the end of the straw hat season (Telegraph)
Sure enough, the New York Times has an article from September 16, 1922, “City Has Wild Night of Straw Hat Riots.” An excerpt:
A favorite practice of the gangsters was to arm themselves with sticks, some with nails at the tip, and compel men wearing straw hats to run a gauntlet. Sometimes the hoodlums would hide in doorways and dash out, ten or twelve strong, to attack one or two men. Along Christopher Street, on the lower west side, the attackers lined up along the surface car tracks and yanked straw hats off the heads of passengers as the cars passed.
Here at Orange Crate Art, September 30 is the last day to wear a straw hat. That’s what Linda Pagan of The Hat Shop advised when I bought a “straw” (I like saying that) earlier this summer. But I’ll be watching out for the fashion police, or gangsters.

(Thanks, Elaine!)


Later today, Orange Crate Art will turn six. Yes, those are candles above. Which must make this post the cake. Worry not: they are slow-burning exclamation — I mean, candles.

My daughter Rachel, on a Wednesday night six years ago:

“If you’re going to be this uptight and worried about it, you’re not going to be a very happy blogger. Just say ‘This is my new blog; I’m trying it out. Thanks to my son and daughter. I hope it works out.’”
It has. Writing online brings me so much pleasure. And it does so much to make me feel like part of a large and endlessly detailed world. Thanks again, Rachel and Ben, for getting me started with the aitch tee em el. Thanks, Elaine, for your constant encouragement. Thanks, everyone, for reading.

A birthday wish: if you have a moment, please leave a comment on this post. Orange Crate Art has 5700+ subscribers, and I’d love to know: who are you all?

Recently updated

The “pre-production” Blackwing pencil, it turns out, is the finished product. Huh? I’ve updated this post accordingly: The new Blackwing pencil.

Related reading
All Blackwing posts (via Pinboard)

[Note: The comments from “Mark” that follow are the work of an employee of California Cedar, maker of the new Blackwing.]


April 10, 2012: Only in retrospect does it occur to me to wonder: out of all possible names to choose when leaving these phony comments, why did the Cal Cedar employee chose the name Mark? Was he hoping to earn the company some good will by giving the impression that he was the well-known Blackwing fan Mark Frauenfelder?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mark Zuckerberg and the Aeneid

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was a student of the classics, studying Latin in prep school and planning, at one point, to major in classics. (Who knew?) From a New Yorker piece by Jose Antonio Vargas:

Zuckerberg has always had a classical streak, his friends and family told me. (Sean Parker, a close friend of Zuckerberg, who served as Facebook’s president when the company was incorporated, said, “There’s a part of him that — it was present even when he was twenty, twenty-one — this kind of imperial tendency. He was really into Greek odysseys and all that stuff.”) At a product meeting a couple of years ago, Zuckerberg quoted some lines from the Aeneid. On the phone, Zuckerberg tried to remember the Latin of particular verses. Later that night, he IM’d to tell me two phrases he remembered, giving me the Latin and then the English: “fortune favors the bold” and “a nation/empire without bound.” Before I could point out how oddly applicable those lines might be to his current ambitions, he typed back:
again though these are the most famous quotes in the aeneid not anything particular that i found.
The Face of Facebook (New Yorker)
[The most famous words in the Aeneid are those that begin the poem: “Arma virumque cano,” or “I sing of arms and of a man,” in Allen Mandelbaum’s 1971 translation. (These are words in the poem, not a “quote” in the poem.) I wonder whether Zuckerberg knows about the now-gone Aeneid on Facebook project.]

Domestic comedy

At breakfast, re: a difference in pronunciation:

“We have regional dialects: your side of the table, my side of the table.”

[The speaker here was joking. Domestic comedy, not malice.]

Related reading
All “domestic comedy” posts
Need worked

“How to Be ‘Artsy,’ and Mean It”

“Dictionary? I don’t own a dictionary. Fouls the intuitive process.”

And other splendid things to say:

Mark Branaman and David Foster Wallace, “How to Be ‘Artsy,’ and Mean It” (The Howling Fantods)

In other news, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin celebrates the opening of the David Foster Wallace archive with a live webcast tonight, 7:00 Central.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Blackwings on the wing

News from California Cedar: “There are currently 875 dozen Palomino-Blackwing production pencils flying in from Japan,” available for purchase within two weeks. No word yet on changes (if any) from the pre-production models.

Fly hard, young Blackwings!

September 15, 2010: There are no changes. See my review for an explanation.

A related post
The new Blackwing pencil (My review)

Welcome, freshmen

“Have fun. And, uh, I will see you”: a message from Dean Fred Juilliard.

Dinner tables

[Bigger Than Life, dir. Nicholas Ray, 1956. Click for a larger view.]

[American Beauty, dir. Sam Mendes, 1999. Click for a larger view.]

No, I don’t think it’s coincidence either.

Bigger Than Life is the story of Ed Avery (James Mason), a husband and father and teacher who changes in terrifying ways under the influence of cortisone. This film has been characterized as a story of rebellion against the conformity of 1950s America, but I don’t see it that way. Ed Avery becomes, if anything, an extreme embodiment of suburban values: a father who insists that his son work hard, and harder, and harder still; a husband who buys and charges, buys and charges, so that his family can have the best. There’s much more — and much worse — than that. Like Lester Burnham of American Beauty, Ed Avery too “rules.” Lester though rules a kingdom of his mind. Ed rules over his family, a patriarchal tyrant who allows no challenge to his authority.

One great bit of dialogue, as Lou Avery (Barbara Rush) and son Richie (Christopher Olsen) talk about what’s happening to Dad:

“You and I must be very careful not to upset him. Just keep on loving him with all our hearts no matter what he does.”

“Sure, Mom. I just didn’t get it.”
Yes, they’re sinners in the hands of an angry God.

Bigger Than Life, beautifully restored, is available from the Criterion Collection. Film Forum has made available Berton Roueché’s “Ten Feet Tall,” the 1955 New Yorker piece that inspired the film. (It’s long gone.)

One more Blackwing review

Pencil Revolution (back online) has a pre-review of the pre-production Blackwing pencil: “darker than a 4B Faber-Castell 9000, and smoother to boot.”

A related post
The new Blackwing pencil (My review)

Sunday, September 12, 2010

David Foster Wallace

February 21, 1962 – September 12, 2008

[B]ut by then it was too late, when it wouldn’t stop and they couldn’t make it the child had learned to leave himself and watch the whole rest unfold from a point overhead, and whatever was lost never thenceforth mattered, and the child’s body expanded and walked about and drew pay and lived its life untenanted, a thing among things, its self’s soul so much vapor aloft, falling as rain and then rising, the sun up and down like a yoyo.

David Foster Wallace, “Incarnations of Burned Children,” in Oblivion (New York: Little, Brown, 2004).
[Photograph by Gary Hannabarger.]

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

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Another review of the new Blackwing

Pencil talk has a discerning review of pre-production samples of the Palomino Blackwing pencil. Great photographs too.

A related post
The new Blackwing pencil (My review)

Chock full o’Nuts!

Chock full o’Nuts returns to New York!

Related posts
Chock full o’Nuts (Remembrance of things past)
Chock full o’Nuts lunch hour (An Alfred Eisenstadt photograph)
New York, 1964: Chock Full o’Nuts (From Hart’s Guide to New York City)

Irwin Silber (1925–2010)

Irwin Silber, founder and longtime editor of the folk-music magazine Sing Out!, has died:

Mr. Silber borrowed the title from the third verse of “The Hammer Song” (later known as “If I Had a Hammer”), written in 1949 by [Pete] Seeger and [Lee] Hays, with its refrain “I’d sing out danger, I’d sing out a warning, I’d sing out love between all my brothers (and my sisters) all over this land.”

Irwin Silber, Champion of the Folk Music Revival, Dies at 84 (New York Times)

Philippe Petit on the past
and present tenses

Philippe Petit:

Eleven years ago, when my young daughter died without warning, the dean of the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, the Very Rev. James Parks Morton, came to my side. He offered me guidance from his heart, but quite commandingly: “Speak of her in the present; you must not use the past tense!”

When asked today, “Do you have children?” I answer, “Yes, I have a daughter named Gypsy. She is 9 1/2 years old, and no longer alive.”

So are my twin towers, our twin towers, gone, yet still standing tall, made of thin air, yet gloriously defying the sunset on this warm late summer evening.

Look at them!

From “My Towers, Our Towers” (Wall Street Journal, September 13, 2003)

Friday, September 10, 2010

Andrew Sullivan, telling it like it is

At The Daily Dish:

Religious warfare, once begun, is hard to stop; and when it is tacitly endorsed by a political party many of whose members believe that the president is a Muslim and no one in the GOP directly attacks, rebuts and discredits this nonsense, we are in very dangerous territory.

Cheating and psychopathy

From a summary of research published by the American Psychological Association:

Students who cheat in high school and college are highly likely to fit the profile for subclinical psychopathy — a personality disorder defined by erratic lifestyle, manipulation, callousness and antisocial tendencies . . . .

College students who admitted to cheating in high school or turned in plagiarized papers ranked high on personality tests of the so-called Dark Triad: psychopathy, Machiavellianism (cynicism, amorality, manipulativeness), and narcissism (arrogance and self-centeredness, with a strong sense of entitlement).
Read more:

Personality predicts cheating more than academic struggles, study shows (American Psychological Association)

“Barthes’s Hand”

At the New Yorker: four samples of Roland Barthes’s handwriting. (He was using a fountain pen.)

“[A]s Edwin Denby would / write”

After knowing Frank O’Hara’s poem “A Step Away from Them” for thirty years, I woke up this morning and realized (I think) the point of these lines:

                   Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
The key word (I think) is write (not say). Edwin Denby (1903–1983) was a celebrated writer on dance and, in a much less public way, a terrific poet. (He was also a friend of FOH’s.) Denby’s poems are usually sonnets, what might be called American vernacular sonnets, made with a deliberate awkwardness in meter. A few opening lines:
I myself like the climate of New York. (“The Climate”)

The subway flatters like the dope habit. (“The Subway”)

The great New York bridges reflect its faces. (“A New York Face”)
In such company, the seven words from O’Hara’s poem sound like a line of Denby’s pentameter:
Neon in daylight is a great pleasure.
I’d scan the line like so: NEon in DAYlight is a GREAT PLEASure. That’s iambic pentameter, with a pyrrhic in the middle and trochees substituting for iambs at the beginning and end:
/ x  |  x /  | x x  |  x /  |  / x
Or, for emphasis: NEon in DAYlight IS a GREAT PLEASure. That’s a more recognizably iambic line:
/ x  |  x /  | x /  |  x /  |  / x
Part of what makes O’Hara’s homage to Denby itself a great pleasure is that these words appear in the guise of O’Hara lines, so (seemingly) casually enjambed: “a / great pleasure.” I’m reminded of how Ted Berrigan relineates William Shakespeare’s pentameter in “A Final Sonnet” and of how Robert Creeley relineates Emily Dickinson stanzas in his poem “Desultory Days.” Creeley relineates William Wordsworth too, somewhere — where?

It is 6:36 in east-central Illinois, a Friday (as Frank O’Hara never wrote). That’s enough.

Related posts
Minetta Tavern (Neon in daylight)
Saratoga Bar and Cafe (Neon in daylight)
September 10, September 11 (Frank O’Hara’s poem)

Minetta Tavern

[Photograph by Elaine Fine.]

                   Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would

Frank O'Hara (1926–1966), “A Step Away from Them”
Here’s a forty-six-year-old description of the Minetta Tavern, from Harold H. Hart’s Hart’s Guide to New York City (1964).

Related posts
Saratoga Bar and Cafe (Neon in daylight)
September 10, September 11 (Frank O’Hara’s poem)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

How to improve writing (no. 29)

From a form for setting up automatic payments:

By signing below, you authorize Verizon Wireless to electronically debit your bank account each month for the total balance due on your account. The check you send will be used to setup Automatic Payment. You will be notified each month of the date and amount of the debit 10 days in advance of the payment. I understand and accept these terms. This agreement does not alter the terms of your existing Customer Agreement. I agree that Verizon Wireless is not liable for erroneous bill statements or incorrect debits to my account. To withdraw your authorization you must call Verizon Wireless. Check with your bank for any charges.
This passage is a mess, in ways both small and large.

Small: setup should be two words. And it’s the information on the check that will be used in setting up automatic payments.

Large: the sentences are a jumble, and there’s that bewildering shift from you to I (and to you to I to you again). I want to ask: Who’s responsible for this shift? Whoever wrote these sentences needs to cut this shift out. I’m tired of this shift. I really am.

An improved version:
By signing below, you authorize Verizon Wireless to electronically debit your bank account each month for the total balance due on your Verizon account. The information on your check will be used to set up automatic payments. You will be notified each month of the date and amount of the debit 10 days in advance of the payment. To end automatic payments, you must call Verizon Wireless. Check with your bank for any charges.

Verizon Wireless is not liable for erroneous bill statements or incorrect debits to your account.

Your signature below means that you understand and accept these terms. This agreement does not alter the terms of your existing Customer Agreement.
I’ve corrected the problems with setup and the missing information, added Verizon (to distinguish Verizon account from bank account) and a comma, and changed “withdraw your authorization” to “end automatic payments.” And I’ve dropped the capitals from Automatic Payment. (Note that bank account and payment are already fine without caps.) Customer Agreement probably needs its capitals for legal reasons.

More importantly, I’ve reorganized the jumble of sentences into three paragraphs: an explanation of how automatic payments work; a disclaimer; and “Yes, I get it,” followed by the relevant disclaimer.

What follows the above passage is one more sentence in need of repair: “Sign name in box below, as shown on the bill and date.”

If anyone from Verizon happens to be visiting: this work is licensed under a Creative Commons 3.0 License. No commercial use without my permission.

[This post is no. 29 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

Related reading
All How to improve writing posts (via Pinboard)

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Clare and the Reasons
and Van Dyke Parks

Clare and the Reasons and Van Dyke Parks will soon begin a U.S. tour. Bob Hart of Frog Stand Records (Clare and the Reasons’ label) sent me this link to share: Van Dyke (piano), Clare, and the Reasons performing Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me” in Amsterdam earlier this summer. Enjoy.

Related posts
“[J]ust like a good flu shot” (Van Dyke Parks on touring)
Van Dyke Parks in Chicago (My review)
Van Dyke Parks in Chicago (VDP’s card)

Harvey Pekar on WKSU

Who Is Harvey Pekar?: thirty-six Pekar commentaries, from WKSU-FM, Kent, Ohio. A sample:

“Once Good Morning America came to Cleveland, and they invited me to be on their show until they saw my comics. Then they said, ‘These stories are so dark; they’re disturbing.’ What do they want? Hugh Downs?”
Other Harvey Pekar posts
Good advice from Harvey Pekar
Harvey Pekar (1939–2010)
Joyce Brabner, writing, recognition
Harvey Pekar on life and death
Harvey Pekar’s The Quitter
Review: Leave Me Alone!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Happy birthday, Sonny Rollins

Music clip of the day says “Happy birthday” to Sonny Rollins, who turns eighty today.

Related posts
Sonny Rollins and golf
Sonny Rollins in Illinois
Sonny Rollins is seventy-eight
Sonny Rollins on paying the rent

Telephone exchange names
on screen: Side Street

[The Moving Finger looks up an address; and, having looked up an address, moves on.]

I sat down to watch Side Street (dir. Anthony Mann, 1949) expecting a so-so thriller and was surprised to discover a great film. The premise is deeply noir: an everyday Joe (literally: letter-carrier Joe Norson, played by Farley Granger) makes a mistake and finds himself in way over his head. The film has strong overtones of The Naked City (dir. Jules Dassin, 1948): aerial views of New York City; a street-level montage of city life; a Tiresias-like narrator meditating on the lives of city dwellers and Joe’s plight; a blackmail racket; brief moments of brutal, intimate violence; a chase through lower Manhattan. There are fine performances by Granger (bruised and sweaty), Harry Bellaver (a cab-driving thug), Whit Bissell (a skinny bank-teller with a fluffy dog), Jean Hagen (an alcoholic nightclub singer), and Paul Kelly (the police-captain narrator, in a performance that is a model of economy and understatement). It was Cathy O’Donnell’s name that made me curious about this film: O’Donnell’s stagey performance as Wilma Cameron (the girl next door) in The Best Years of Our Lives (dir. William Wyler, 1946) has long seemed to me to be the one false note in that film. As Ellen Norson, Joe’s wife, O’Donnell has little to do here, and her New York accent fades in and out. Her finest moment — no spoilers here — comes when she has almost disappeared from the film. It’s entirely unexpected.

The real stars of Side Street are its New York streetscapes and the cinematography of Joseph Ruttenberg. Ruttenberg is said to have disliked fellow cinematographer Gregg Toland's deep-focus effect, but many of the shots in Side Street are strongly evocative of Toland’s work in Citizen Kane: unusual angles, oddly-placed objects, strong contrasts of light and dark. This shot of Farley Granger is my favorite:

The film’s final chase is a marvel of camerawork, alternating between aerial views (tiny cars moving through impossibly narrow streets) and the interior of a cab. One moment you’re watching from on high; the next, you too have a gun at the back of your neck. Thank goodness the narrator steps in one last time to tell us what to make of it all.

Side Street is available on DVD with They Live by Night (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1949), also starring Farley Granger and Cathy O’Donnell. (Good, but it’s no Side Street.)

[29 W. Eighth Street, the address of the Village Beauty Salon, is now home to Smoke Express and Cafe Underground. Upstairs is L’impasse, selling what one guide to the area calls “quality slutwear.” It’s a pity that the telephone listings in Side Street have only a “BUtterfield 4”: Joseph Ruttenberg was to work on BUtterfield 8 (dir. Daniel Mann, 1960) a decade later. “The Moving Finger” comes from the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, as translated by Edward FitzGerald: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, / Moves on.”]

More exchange names on screen
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse : Baby Face : Born Yesterday : The Dark Corner : Deception : Dream House : The Little Giant : The Man Who Cheated Himself : Nightmare Alley : The Public Enemy

Monday, September 6, 2010

A tree (E.B. White’s) grows in Brooklyn

Recent visits from someone at the New York Times to my post on E.B. White’s willow tree have had me wondering about the tree’s fate. Today’s Times has the news: the tree, “thoroughly bald and rotted,” was cut down in 2009. But the arborist who supervised the work took two cuttings, and one is growing, still, in Brooklyn. Read more:

For Willow in E.B. White Book, One Chapter Ends (New York Times)

Labor Day

[“C. & N.W. R.R., Mrs. Dorothy Lucke, employed as a wiper at the roundhouse, Clinton, Iowa.” April 1943. Photograph by Jack Delano (1914–1997).]

C. & N.W. R.R.: Chicago & North Western Railway Company. The Railway and Locomotive Historical Society Newsletter (Autumn 2003) tells us something of Dorothy Lucke’s life:

The Chicago & North Western hired Dorothy Lucke (1909–1986) and other women as “engine wipers” in Clinton, Iowa, during World War II. That was her only railroad employment. After her husband, Albert Lucke, died in 1948, she went back to work, first at a toy factory and then for 25 years at the Clinton Garment Company, according to her daughter, Diane Johnson, Clinton. Later, she married Isaac Leslie.
The Library of Congress has made this photograph available via Flickr.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Manson H. Whitlock,
typewriter repairman

Manson H. Whitlock is a ninety-four-year-old typewriter repairman in New Haven, Connecticut. He has noticed business picking up:

“It’s been the last few years. I guess they’re listed on computers. I don’t know what you call it when they’re listed on computers, and I haven’t seen it — but they buy them that way and then come in and have them repaired here.”

The oldest typewriter repairman in New Haven (Yale Daily News)
A related post
Martin Tytell, typewriter man

Friday, September 3, 2010

Alan Wilson

[“20. Four great musicians. Left to right, Fahey, Rev. Rube Lacy (P.M. 12696), Blind Aouhl Krishnawhilsan, David (etc.) Evans, in front of Rev. Lacy’s church in Ridgecrest, California.”]

Singer, guitarist, harmonica player Alan Wilson of Canned Heat, third from the left in the above photograph, died forty years ago today. Like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin (both of whom soon followed), he was twenty-seven.

Alan Wilson, or the Blind Owl, as he was called, was a brilliant musician. His Skip James-influenced singing is immediately recognizable (you may know it from “Going Up the Country”), and his reedy timbre is a reminder that blues voices come in many sizes. As a guitarist, Wilson brought the fingerpicking idioms of pre-WWII acoustic blues to electric music. (Who else could take a rhythmic motif from Garfield Akers and a melody from Blind Willie Johnson and turn them into a song of lunar devastation?) Listen to any number of Canned Heat recordings, and you can hear how Wilson’s creativity as a rhythm guitarist shapes and reshapes a tune. As a blues harmonica player, Wilson is unsurpassed. The strongest evidence: his duets with John Lee Hooker on the double-album Hooker ’n Heat, masterworks of musical empathy. (Try “Burning Hell.”) Hooker called Wilson “the greatest harmonica player ever.” Hooker was right.

I remember as a much younger person thinking of Alan Wilson as a kindred spirit. He was a geeky guy: awkward-looking, glasses-wearing, obviously quite shy. I still think of Alan Wilson as a kindred spirit. How I wish he had had many more years in which to grow as a man and musician.

I chose the above photograph for (what I think is) its obscurity. It appears in the liner notes of guitarist John Fahey’s 1967 LP The Voice of the Turtle (Takoma). Also in the photograph: ex-blues guitarist and singer Reverend Rubin “Rube” Lacy and musicologist David Evans. P.M. refers to the Paramount master-number for Lacy’s only released blues recording, the 1928 “Mississippi Jail House Groan” and “Ham Hound Crave.” The photograph is most likely from 1966, the year that Evans located Lacy in California. Evans, Fahey, and the Blind Owl all recorded with Lacy that year.

Related posts
Canned Heat
Hooker ’n Heat

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Tracts, tides, and drunks

Mel Tormé on the vagaries of performance:

“Performing is very tricky,” Tormé said after the set. “It is a good idea to allow some small piece of unhappiness from your life to be a part of your work every night. It gives your singing depth. Standing ovations don’t impress me. I can sing badly and get one. When that happens, I can walk offstage in a deep depression that may last several days. Other times, I get apathetic reactions when I know I have been great. Once in a while, though, that strange silver cord that goes between me and the audience grows taut, and it’s — well, exhilarating. You learn in time that each performance is not the end of the world, that things can go awry because of — what? A faulty digestive tract, a moon tide, a drunk in the house.”

Quoted in Whitney Balliett’s American Singers: Twenty-Seven Portraits in Song (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
(Thanks for the book, Susan!)

Recently updated

Roger Ebert, telling it like it is (Ebert clarifies his meaning in a coda)

Old and unimproved (on life online)

Changing the language of business

“Accelerated emergence of high maturity behaviors” = “faster results.”

“Challenge” = “problem.”

Unsuck It offers alternatives to the jargon and clichés of business-speak.

Yes, “accelerated emergence of high maturity behaviors” is for real.

(Via Coudal.)

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Roger Ebert, telling it like it is

Rogert Ebert, in the Chicago Sun-Times:

Our political immune system has only one antibody, and that is the truth.

The time is here for responsible Americans to put up or shut up. I refer specifically to those who have credibility among the guileless and credulous citizens who have been infected with notions so carefully nurtured. We cannot afford to allow the next election to proceed under a cloud of falsehood and delusion.

We know, because they’ve said so publicly, that George W. Bush, his father and Sen. John McCain do not believe Obama is a Muslim. This is the time — now, not later — for them to repeat that belief in a joint statement. Other prominent Republicans such as Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul also certainly do not believe it. They have a responsibility to make that clear by subscribing to the statement. Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh must join, or let their silence indict them. Limbaugh in particular must cease his innuendos and say, flat out, whether he believes the President is a Muslim or not. Yes or no. Does he have evidence, or does he have none? Yes or no.

To do anything less at this troubled time in our history would be a crime against America.
Update, September 2, 2010: Ebert has appended a brief coda, to leave no question about his meaning:
Many readers have made the same point: What if Obama were a Muslim? What would be wrong with that? There would be nothing wrong. There is no religious test in this nation for holders of office. This is not a “Christian nation,” although you often hear that, because of what is specified in the Constitution. America was founded by refugees from religious persecution, and the Founding Fathers deliberately wrote in safeguards to prevent an Established Religion.
Related posts
Barack Obama on facts
Timothy Egan and Leonard Pitts, Jr. on American ignorance

The Lonely Phone Booth

The Lonely Phone Booth is a book by Peter Ackerman, with illustrations by Max Dalton (Boston: David R. Godine, 2010). The Phone Booth (yes, a proper name) stands at the corner of West End Avenue and 100th Street. It is one of the last outdoor phone booths in Manhattan. From Peter Ackerman’s website:

Kept clean and polished, the Phone Booth was proud and happy . . . until, the day a businessman strode by and shouted into a shiny silver object, “I’ll be there in ten minutes!” Soon everyone was talking into these shiny silver things, and the Phone Booth stood alone and empty, unused and dejected.

The intended audience is four- to eight-year-olds, preternaturally wistful four- to eight-year-olds perhaps. In truth, I think the intended audience is me.

Hamlet in Klingon

taH pagh taHbe’ — that is the question. A performance of Hamlet in Klingon.