Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Things I learned on my
summer vacation (2011)

On the interstates, even lunatics seem to be thinking about getting better mileage. Traffic seemed saner and slower.


Rude maneuvering in parking lots bugs me more than I seem to imagine. The evidence: a dream in which I punched out a guy who’d insulted Elaine in a parking lot. Three fast jabs to the side of his head, and he was out. The insult, like the KO, happened only in my dream.


AT&T’s 3G service for the iPad feels like dial-up. 3G: Godawful. Godawful. Godawful.


Tropicana now makes a six-pack: six eight-ounce cartons of orange juice. Each carton comes with a nifty straw that extends like a spyglass.


“You’ve learned about juice.”


Cornstarch and water combine to make a non-Newtonian fluid. Add a subwoofer, low-frequency sound, and a protective sheet, and you have a source of hilarious entertainment.


On May 23, the-world-ends-on-May-21 ads were still all over Manhattan bus shelters and subways.


“Assaulting MTA New York City subway personnel is a felony punishable by up to 7 years in prison”: New York State Penal Code 120.05.


Luthier Mario Maccaferri dabbled in plastic. The plastic guitar I saw looked like something that might have come from the Woolworth’s of my childhood. Maccaferri tried to persuade his friend Andrés Segovia to switch to plastic. No luck.


There is a venerable tradition of Italian-American guitar-making. (I knew that, sort of, but not really.)


Veggie Heaven is an excellent vegan Chinese restaurant in Teaneck, New Jersey. The restaurant appeals to both those who abstain from eating animals and those who keep kosher (and thus do not eat in traditional Chinese restaurants).


New Jersey is a peninsula. (Who knew?)


Toilet paper can be an appropriate subject of conversation at lunch and dinner.


On the Bowery is a 1957 film about life on the Bowery.


Norman McLaren and Claude Jutra made the short film A Chairy Tale (1957). You can watch it on YouTube.


Charles Sheeler was both a painter and a photographer.


It turns out that we know someone who played with Charlie Parker at Birdland: a two-week Parker-with-strings engagement. Parker never repeated himself when soloing.


“Smells Like Teen Spirit” can be heard on at least one “classic rock” station: 105.9 FM, The X, in Pennsylvania. (See this post for context.)


If the language sounds a bit like Arabic, a bit like French, a bit like Portuguese, it might be Lebanese Arabic. (It was Lebanese Arabic.)


The Corner Bookstore (93rd Street and Madison Avenue) is a wonderful Manhattan bookstore. It’s small, not exhaustive, but virtually every book is a good one. Browsing there is a matter of welcome surprises.


Blue Ginger is an excellent East-meets-West restaurant in Wellesley, Massachusetts.


Pho Lemongrass is an excellent Vietnamese restaurant in Coolidge Corner, Brookline, Massachusetts.


The Pewter Pot: that was the now-defunct Coolidge Corner coffeeshop where Elaine and I went with our friend Aldo Carrasco in 1984. Neither Elaine nor I could ever remember the name. I spotted the Pot in a 1983 photograph on display in the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

More things I learned on my summer vacation
2010 : 2009 : 2008 : 2007 : 2006

[Summer: the time between the spring and fall semesters, regardless of season.]

Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

One hundred years ago. From “20,000 in Riverside March: Prospects for the Greatest of All Memorial Day Parades,” New York Times, May 30, 1911.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

A cappella Beach Boys covers

Robert Gotshall covers “Our Prayer,” “Gee,” and “Heroes and Villains.” Thirty-three voices, and just about perfect.

[“Our Prayer” is by Brian Wilson. “Gee,” one of the first rock-and-roll hits, is by William Davis and Viola Watkins. “Heroes and Villains” is by Wilson and Van Dyke Parks. The three songs begin SMiLE.]

Farewell, Liane Hansen

Liane Hansen hosted her last Weekend Edition Sunday this morning. NPR has a timeline of her twenty-two years with the show.

Liane Hansen is one of my favorite radio people. I especially admire her intelligence and tact as an interviewer. You hear that same intelligence and tact when she ventures an answer in Will Shortz’s Sunday Puzzle segments: she never outdoes the contestant playing by telephone.

I was lucky to talk with Liane on one such telephone back in the 1990s, when I got to play the Sunday Puzzle on the air. As everything was made ready for taping, we talked for a minute or two about what it was like having young children in the house. Liane was reminiscing (I think); my kids were playing downstairs.

[Yes, I still have my Weekend Edition lapel pin.]


Three-and-a-half years later: found it.

The OED’s first-place verb

In the Oxford English Dictionary, run has overtaken set as the verb with the most meanings: 645.

Friday, May 27, 2011

On where one belongs

Writer, teacher, consultant Peter F. Drucker, on figuring out where one belongs:

A small number of people know very early where they belong. Mathematicians, musicians, and cooks, for instance, are usually mathematicians, musicians, and cooks by the time they are four or five years old. Physicians usually decide on their careers in their teens, if not earlier. But most people, especially highly gifted people, do not really know where they belong until they are well past their mid-twenties. By that time, however, they should know the answers to the three questions: What are my strengths? How do I perform? and, What are my values? And then they can and should decide where they belong.

Managing Oneself (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2008)
When I spotted this well-designed little book, I had to buy it. The text is a Drucker essay first published in the Harvard Business Review in 1999. Managing Oneself would make a great and perhaps surprising gift for a high-school or college graduate.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

“We are locked in history, and they were not”: director Werner Herzog, in his documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), an exploration of the Chauvet Cave in southern France.

This film is a powerful reminder of the vastness of time and of one’s own small place in it. My favorite moments: archaeologist Jean-Michel Geneste speaking of the human impulse to make marks on strange objects, and master perfumer Maurice Maurin seeking out hidden caves with his sense of smell.

Elaine and I saw this 3-D film in two dimensions. I doubt that we missed much. If we did, please let me know.

[Making marks on strange objects: like this screen, for instance.]

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Re: tornadoes

Tornadoes were, in our part of Central Illinois, the dimensionless point at which parallel lines met and whirled and blew up. They made no sense. Houses blew not out but in. Brothels were spared while orphanages next door bought it. Dead cattle were found three miles from their silage without a scratch on them. Tornadoes are omnipotent and obey no law. Force without law has no shape, only tendency and duration. I believe now that I knew all this without knowing it, as a kid.

David Foster Wallace, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (New York: Back Bay Books, 1997)
Related reading
American Red Cross Expands Relief Effort as More Tornadoes Batter Midwest (American Red Cross)
Missouri and Minnesota: how to help (The Maddow Blog)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Telephone exchange names on screen

Though not nearly as baffling as The Big Sleep (dir. Howard Hawks, 1946), Murder, My Sweet (dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1944) is the kind of movie with which I choose to concentrate on atmosphere rather than plot. The atmosphere includes much cigarette smoke and three fine glimpses of exchange names: let’s call them WHitehall, OLympia, and GRidley. Where did I get those names? Not from a hat: from a list of Ma Bell’s Officially Recommended Exchange Names.

Dick Powell really is a fine Philip Marlowe. How did that ever happen?

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 : Side Street

Monday, May 23, 2011

Storybook Gardens

“Storybook Gardens has run its course. What kids know about these characters? Jack and the Bean Stalk, maybe, or Humpty Dumpty. We’re at a new generation now”: in the Wisconsin Dells, Storybook Gardens is no more.

Leonard Kastle (1929–2011)

Leonard Kastle, director of The Honeymoon Killers, has died. The Honeymoon Killers is his one film, and it’s a great one.

A related post
The Honeymoon Killers (my review)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Blues idiom of the day:
dust one’s broom

[From Stephen Calt, Barrelhouse Words: A Blues Dialect Dictionary (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009).]

Many young blues fans of the 1960s identified themselves researchers and specialists. Stephen Calt was and is the real thing — a scholar. He’s written the three best books on blues that I know: Barrelhouse Words, I’d Rather Be the Devil: Skip James and the Blues, and King of the Delta Blues: The Life and Music of Charlie Patton (the last with Gayle Dean Wardlow). Barrelhouse Words is endlessly enjoyable browsing.

[If the Rapture takes place tomorrow, this post will look especially well-timed. Hasty departures indeed. Rapture or no, I plan to be here on Monday.]

June 11, 2011: I just learned that Stephen Calt died in October 2010.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Unusual idiom of the day

Overheard in a used-book store, as the owner delegated tasks to an employee: “I don’t want to burden you out.”

Google Books (a useful informal way to check on words and phrases) turns up nothing. In the Oxford English Dictionary, burden out is obsolete and rare and means “outweigh”: “Whether … they have in them any weight, wherewith to burthen out Opinion” (1668).

I like burden out as an alternative to wear out, though I doubt I’ll ever use it. Reader, have you heard burden out used in this way?

First messy of 2011

Earlier this year I tracked the many appearances of the word messy in Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times book reviews. Today comes the first messy of 2011, in a review of Teju Cole’s novel Open City:

This outlook, combined with Julius’s solemnity about himself, make him a decidedly lugubrious narrator. And Mr. Cole’s failure to dramatize his alienation — or make it emblematic of some larger historical experience, as Sebald did with his displaced characters — impedes the reader’s progress while underscoring the messy, almost ad hoc nature of the overall narrative. What stands out in this flawed novel — so in need of some stricter editing — is Mr. Cole’s ambition, his idiosyncratic voice and his eclectic, sometimes electric journalistic eye.
Yes, that’s an agreement error in the first quoted sentence. In need of some stricter editing, yes.

Related reading
Michiko Kakutani, messy

[One mess in 2011, in a review of Bill Clinton’s Back to Work: “Mr. Clinton lays out various ideas for increasing bank lending and corporate investment, unwinding the mortgage mess and amending tax laws to give corporations incentives to bring more money back to the United States.”]

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

That said,

A modest suggestion to improve early-twenty-first-century discourse: remove that said from the starts of sentences. The phrase is at least slightly pompous, signaling that the speaker or writer has said something and is now about to say something else, something — gosh — contradictory. And the phrase has at least a trace of Richard Nixon’s annunciatory “Let me say this about that.” That said now seems to be everywhere: watch just an hour of CNN or MSNBC if you doubt me.

Sometimes that said is unnecessary or nonsensical, as in this passage from a recent New York Times restaurant review by Stephanie Lyness:

The fish soup was good, too, particularly in combination with the croutons, topped with rouille and grated cheese, that accompany it. (That said, our bowl was delivered without the promised croutons and toppings, but once we requested them, our waitress returned with a newly warmed, fully garnished bowl of soup with alacrity.)
Deleting that said removes nothing of the second sentence’s meaning. If anything, the deletion improves the sentence by avoiding two contradictions: but our croutons and toppings were missing, but we asked for and got them.

In a sentence whose that said is not unnecessary or nonsensical, another word or phrase can more clearly signal the relationship of one statement to another. Consider these excerpts from a recent Times column by Paul Krugman:
Kudos to Mark Weisbrot for saying the unsayable, and making a case for Greek exit from the euro.

I agree with a lot of what he says, but am still not ready to counsel that step, for a couple of reasons. . . .

[The reasons follow.]

That said, Weisbrot is right in saying that the program for Greece is not working; it’s not even close to working.
It’s easy to devise different phrasing:
Still, Weisbrot is right in saying that the program for Greece is not working; it’s not even close to working.

Weisbrot is of course right in saying that the program for Greece is not working; it’s not even close to working.

Weisbrot though is right in saying that the program for Greece is not working; it’s not even close to working.
Is there anything wrong with saying or writing that said? No. But making explicit the relationship between two statements is a good way to make clear what one thinks. And when a phrase becomes overused and tiresome, avoiding it makes sense. See also simply put.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Bob Flanigan (1926–2011)

From the New York Times:

Bob Flanigan, a founding member of the Four Freshmen, the well-scrubbed tight-harmony group begun more than 60 years ago, when all of its members really were undergraduates, died on Sunday at his home in Las Vegas. He was 84.
Bob Flanigan in a 2009 interview: “I sang all the high parts, and I must say, I did it very carefully.” Why? Because everything was too high: “I had to really push it to get it to come out in tune.” The Four Freshmen sound was a profound influence on Brian Wilson and, thus, on the Beach Boys, who covered “Graduation Day” and “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring.”

YouTube has a small sampling of the Four Freshmen. The big treat: a 1964 performance for Japanese television in seven parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. In the first clip, from left to right: Ross Barbour, Bob Flanigan, Ken Albers, Bill Comstock.

Also at YouTube: compare and contrast the Four Freshmen and the Beach Boys.

Monday, May 16, 2011

What happens in the original
Election ending

All over the Internets this afternoon: news of the discovery of an unlabeled flea-market videotape with the original ending of Alexander Payne’s 1999 film Election. YouTube has already yanked the clip in response to a copyright claim from Paramount Pictures. What happens, briefly:

We see Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) sitting in an office. “Hey, Professor, someone to see you,” someone calls to him. We then see that Mr. M. is working as a car salesman, and he’s been summoned to the showroom floor because a customer has asked for him. That customer is of course Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). She needs a car for college. Where did she get in? Everywhere she applied, but she’s going to Northwestern. Good school, Mr. M. says.

We then see them in the lot. Does Tracy want something practical or something sporty? Sporty. Mr. M. talks up the advantages of the Ford Escort, which is sporty and practical and in Tracy’s price range. It’s also a very safe car. Ford calls it the “world car.” He begins to describe an attractive options package. He asks why Tracy’s doing this, if she’s trying to humiliate him. No, Tracy says. But she asks if there’s someplace they can talk.

They sit in the car, and Tracy says that there’s something she has to ask: was Mr. M. really going to let Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) be president all year and just watch her suffer? Mr. M. explains that he had some personal problems at the time and took them out on Tracy. “Can I take that as an apology?” she asks. Yes.

Then they’re on a test drive. “I have an idea,” Tracy says, and she turns down a street and parks outside what we now figure out is her house. She runs inside. The house is on a rundown street with a row of grain silos at its end. Some of the garbage from the cans in front of Tracy’s house has spilled into the street. Mr. M. steps from the car and picks up the garbage. It’s pretty clear that he’s thinking through the contrast between perky, proper Tracy and her dilapidated surroundings. Tracy returns with a yearbook. “First one I’m not in,” Mr. M. says, or words to that effect. Tracy asks him to sign it. She confesses that she’s scared that she’s not ready for college. Mr. M. assures her that she’ll be fine. Alas, the quality of the YouTube clip is (or was) so poor that what he then writes in the yearbook is unreadable.

Election is my favorite high-school film. If anyone can add to this account or make a correction, please do. I’m working from memory — one viewing before the clip disappeared.


October 7, 2014: The ending has returned to YouTube.

[The film's original ending appears to follow, at least loosely, the ending of Tom Perrotta’s novel. The Daily What has more on why the ending changed.]

The Pale King, making conversation

It’s Russell speaking, in a restaurant, to a woman who’s just removed her chewing gum from her mouth and placed it in a Kleenex:

“Do you suppose it’s so much easier to make conversation with someone you already know well than with someone you don’t know at all primarily because of all the previously exchanged information and shared experiences between two people who know each other well, or because maybe it’s only with people we already know well and know know us well that we don’t go through the awkward mental process of subjecting everything we think of saying or bringing up as a topic of light conversation to a self-conscious critical analysis and evaluation that manages to make anything we think of proposing to say to the other person seem dull or stupid or banal or on the other hand maybe overly intimate or tension-producing?”



“What did you say your name was again?”

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (Boston: Little, Brown, 2011)
The logic of Wallace’s ellipses is a wonderful thing: she says nothing; he says nothing; and then she asks a question. The awkward silence itself becomes a form of conversation.

Other Pale King excerpts
Deskwork : Dullness : Heroism

Saturday, May 14, 2011

“The kids”

This photograph of “the kids” is a sequel to one that Elaine took almost two years ago, when our daughter Rachel graduated from college. Today it was our son Ben’s turn. Our family is now 75% Phi Beta Kappa. Represent! Elaine went to a trade school (Juilliard): no ΦBK there.

Yesterday, I was a mess, scattered and wired. “Big changes in our family,” I explained to my family, who pointed out to me that it’s not our family that’s changing: it’s circumstances. Yes, they are, in a way that makes all of us excited about what’s to come.

Congradulations, Ben!

[Photograph by Michael Leddy, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, May 13, 2011.]

Friday, May 13, 2011

“Death to high school English”

As a high-school student, Kim Brooks loved English class. Now she has second thoughts:

Only now, a decade and a half later, after seven years of teaching college composition, have I started to consider the possibility that talking about classics might be a profound waste of time for the average high school student, the student who is college-bound but not particularly gifted in letters or inspired by the literary arts. I’ve begun to wonder if this typical high school English class, dividing its curriculum between standardized test preparation and the reading of canonical texts, might occupy a central place in the creation of a generation of college students who, simply put, cannot write.
Brooks’s “Death to high school English” would make a provocative first piece of reading for anyone teaching college writing in the fall.

My quick memories of high-school English: The Bald Soprano, Dandelion Wine, diagramming sentences, The Glass Bead Game, grammar, The Martian Chronicles, grammar, The Metamorphosis, diagramming sentences, Oedipus Rex, grammar, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, grammar. In other words, lit and grammar. What did you do in English class?

Thanks to Daughter Number Three for pointing me to Brooks’s essay.

[I prefer the hyphen in “high-school English.” Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage on hyphens in phrasal adjectives: “Reputable newspaper publishers are as conscientious about this point as reputable book publishers.” Reputable bloggers too. Reposted after the Blogger outage of May 2011.]

Getting my ducks in a row

Day one: Elaine and I watch the film Lord Love a Duck.

Day two: I find a reference to the film in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.

Day three: I begin reading Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: “‘Lord love a duck,’ summarized a boy holding a passkey, and Oedipa decided this was Miles.”

[Reposted after the Blogger outage of May 2011.]

Bananastan Records

Van Dyke Parks’s Banastan label has a website: Bananastan Records: Music with a Peel!

A related post
Van Dyke Parks on Bananastan

[Reposted after the Blogger outage of May 2011.]

Unabomber auction

The Wall Street Journal reports that Theodore Kaczynski’s personal effects will be sold at auction, with the proceeds going to Kaczynski’s victims. A Flickr set of fifty-one photographs shows letters and manuscripts, shoes, sunglasses, tools, and a L.C. Smith & Corona manual typewriter.

No photographs of books, of which there are several hundred. The Smoking Gun has the list. Did you know that Kaczynski owned a copy of The Elements of Style? At least one reader has made much of that fact, characterizing Kaczynski and E.B. White as reactionary makers of primitivist manifestos.

Blogger is back, sort of

Blogger — the service, that is — is back, sort of. I’m waiting for three missing posts to reappear.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

From the National Jukebox

At the Library of Congress, the National Jukebox is open for business. Here are a few items I’ve listened to, every one a winner:

Marian Anderson, “My Lord, What a Mornin’”

Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, “Old Fashioned Love”

The Dizzy Trio, “Hayseed Rag”

Marion Harris, “After You’ve Gone”

Billy Murray and Ed Smalle, “Choo-Choo (I Gotta Hurry Home)” (An early Ellington tune)

Original Dixieland Jazz Band, “Tiger Rag”

Aileen Stanley and Gene Austin, “When My Sugar Walks Down the Street (All the Little Birdies Go Tweet-Tweet-Tweet)”

Fred Van Eps, “Ragging the Scale”

Paul Whiteman, “Fascinating Rhythm”

Rudy Wiedoeft, “Saxophobia”
[If you’re using an iPad, no soap: everything’s Flash.]

Word of the day: subitize

The word-of-the-day from Anu Garg’s A.Word.A.Day is subitize (SOO-bi-tyz):

verb tr., intr.: To perceive, without counting, the number of objects in a small group.

From Latin subitus (sudden), from past participle of subire (to appear suddenly), from sub- (under) + ire (to go). Earliest documented use: 1949.

When you throw a die, you don’t count the number of pips to determine the value of the throw. You subitize. Now here’s a word you want to use when you take part in one of those “How many marbles are in the jar?” contests, though subitizing works only for a small group of items. Estimates of the upper limit of humans’ subitizing capability range from four to seven. Subitizing also depends on the arrangement of the objects.

Try this subitizing test.
Reading about this word (new to me) made me think of a sentence from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Thoureau” (1862):
From a box containing a bushel or more of loose pencils, he could take up with his hands fast enough just a dozen pencils at every grasp.
I suspect though that Thoreau was relying upon muscle memory, not subitizing. Oh well. Here’s a brief intro to Thoreau’s career in pencils.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

DFW Endnote Generator

From the David Foster Wallace Endnote Generator.

Review: How to Write a Sentence

Stanley Fish. How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. New York. HarperCollins. 2011. $19.99.

In the summer of 1979, I taught a remedial writing course for incoming college freshmen. The idea was to get students up to speed in six weeks with the use of a workbook in sentence construction. I was a grad student teaching for the first time; the course design was not of my making. Page by page, we trudged through the workbook, and the students filled in blanks to create sentences of ever-increasing complexity. The students became virtuosi of sentence form, with words, phrases, and clauses falling into place. A typical piece of work went something like this: write a sentence with an introductory dependent clause, a compound subject, a non-restrictive clause, a transitive verb in the active voice, an indirect object, a direct object, and a prepositional phrase. Then came the final work of the course — writing an essay. Without blanks to fill in, the students fell back upon past habits of writing, and the results were disastrous. I remember reading the essays and wondering why my elders thought that constructing single sentences in a void was good preparation for writing.

And now I’m wondering why Stanley Fish thinks that constructing single sentences in a void is good preparation for writing. How to Write a Sentence though is hardly as programmatic as my 1979 workbook: Fish conceives of a sentence not as an arrangement of grammatical units but as a matter of “structures of logic and rhetoric within which and by means of which meanings — lots of them — can be generated.” A standard strategy in this book: present a sentence that does a certain sort of thing; imitate it; invite the reader to do the same. Here for instance is a sentence from Henry James, one that “filters [an] event through layers of reflection”:

When the porter’s wife (she used to answer the house-bell) announced “A gentleman — with a lady, sir,” I had, as I often had in those days, for the wish was father to the thought, an immediate vision of sitters.
And Fish’s imitation:
As he reached the crest of the hill and saw the house with its imposing spires — they looked like spears ready to impale him — the door, moving it seemed under its own power, opened.
“Not James by any means, but a passable cheap imitation,” Fish says. No, not James. But also just not a good sentence, with a strained and awkwardly sounded simile (spires, spears), a puzzling shift in perspective (as he looks at the spires, he sees the door?), and a perfunctory close. No strange “vision of sitters” here, just a door standing open, like a door. Fish apologizes for his imitations again and again: one “at least gestures in the direction” of Ford Madox Ford; another is “not as snappy and whiplike” as J.L. Austin, “but in the ballpark.” An imitation of Martin Luther King Jr. is “bathetic, even pathetic”; imitations of Jonathan Swift are “so lame.”

A reader might wonder: if this is the best Stanley Fish can do, what hope is there for me? Well, you just have to practice: “if you learn how to master the form, you can employ it ‘naturally’ when you have something important to say.” Become familiar with your tools, and “when an occasion of use turns up, you will be ready.” Keep at it, “and when it comes time to do it for real — to put this style in the service of a point you passionately want to make or an idea you want to champion — you will be ready.” No more ready, I suspect, than my students in the summer of 1979: it defies plausibility that imitating a handful of sentences (and taking up another Fish exercise — expanding three-word sentences into larger wholes) will make for good writing.

“You will be ready”: I’ve yet to figure out the you of How to Read a Sentence. At times, I suspect that the aspiring maker of passionate points and champion of ideas is an upscale middle-aged person. Who else is meant to enjoy Fish’s joking suggestion to use the word parataxis at a cocktail party? Yet HarperCollins is pitching this book as useful for college writing courses. (I have the e-mail to prove it.) And Adam Haslett’s cover blurb presents the book as a worthy successor to an earlier classroom text: “Both deeper and more democratic than The Elements of Style.” I’d welcome such a book, but How to Write a Sentence is nothing of the sort. Its most valuable pages are those where the emphasis on imitation drops out and Fish focuses on reading, performing the close analyses of sentences that one finds in his work on seventeenth-century prose. For sentence-writing inspiration, Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style (Graphics Press, 2006) is a far better choice. It’s a clear influence on How to Write a Sentence: both books begin by taking up the same Anthony Burgess sentence, and Fish quotes from Tufte’s comments on it. The difference is that Tufte presents more than a thousand sentences, patiently, methodically, and not for purposes of direct imitation but to show the reader many, many kinds of things that sentences can do. That’s what I call inspiration.

Related posts
Battling The Elements
Fish on Strunk and White

[There are some surprising mistakes in How to Write a Sentence: phrases identified as clauses (“a man in possession of a good fortune,” “in want of a wife”), parataxis badly explained, four lines from William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” turned into two, and a comma splice (page 73). Does no one check these things?]

Monday, May 9, 2011

“[F]lapping his arms like
Roddy McDowall”

A puzzling sentence:

Lane Dean imagines running out into the field in an enormous circle, flapping his arms like Roddy McDowall.

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (Boston: Little, Brown, 2011).
Such serendipity: the movie Elaine and I watched last night explains it. Alan “Mollymauk” Musgrave, McDowall’s character in Lord Love a Duck, flaps and squawks with abandon. His name? That of a bird.

Other Pale King passages
Deskwork : Dullness : Heroism

Blackwing sighting

[Harvey Korman and Blackwing pencil. Click for a larger view.]

Lord Love a Duck (1966) is a dark comedy directed by George Axelrod, who wrote the screenplay for The Manchurian Candidate (1962). That alone says watch it. The film mocks beach movies, education (high-school Botany has been renamed Plant Skills for Life), family life, home decor (a living-room conversation pit so deep that it echoes), sexual mores, teenaged in-groups, and everything else. As Axelrod says in a promotional trailer, whatever it might be, Lord Love a Duck is against it.

Even Blackwing pencils. Silly high-school principal Weldon Emmett (“e-double-m, e-double-t”) has a cupful on his desk. He does everything with them but write.

Related reading
Other Blackwing posts (via Pinboard)
Is there a pencil in The House? (More pencils in the movies)

[The Concise New Partidge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (2008) explains “Lord love-a-duck” as “a mild expression of shock or suprise.” The expression turns up in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922): “‘Lord love a duck,’ he said. ‘Look at what I’m standing drinks to!’”]

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Happy Mother’s Day

[Photograph by James Leddy, August 11, 1957.]

That’s my mom, Louise Leddy, and me, smiling at my dad, probably in Owl’s Head Park in Brooklyn. When I look at the photographs in my “baby book,” I kinda suspect that we lived in the park.

Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. And Happy Mother’s Day to all.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Record Service

Founded in 1969 as a record-buying co-op, Record Service stood at 621 E. Green Street, Champaign, Illinois, less than a block from the University of Illinois — “in the heart of Campustown,” as the card’s flip side puts it. Record Service was a very good record store — I always found something unexpected and worthwhile when browsing there. I remember making premeditated purchases too: Robert Johnson’s Complete Recordings (1990 — LPs!), Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (1997), Louis Armstrong’s Complete Hot Five and Hot Seven Recordings (2000). Sony’s Armstrong set was a disaster, with execrable remastering and shoddy cardboard sleeves that left glue all over the discs. The store gave me credit, which I immediately spent on CDs to replace some worn Thelonious Monk LPs. Thanks, Record Service.

You can guess where this post is going: Record Service folded, in 2004. Figaro’s, a sister store for classical records at the same address, one flight up, had folded sometime earlier. Here’s a photograph of the way they were. 621 E. Green now houses a sushi restaurant on its first floor, townhouses above.

It was in Record Service that I first had the feeling that perhaps I was getting a little too old to be frequenting record stores. I never let it stop me. I wish I could still walk in and feel slightly out of place.

Further reading
Profile of Record Service owner Phil Strang (the217.com)
Profile: Record Service (CMJ New Music Report)
Figaro’s a Power in University Town (Billboard)
The end of Record Service (CMJ New Music Report)

Related posts
New York, 1964: record stores
Record stores (Relic Rack, Sam Goody’s, J&R)

[I found the discount card while reaching for an envelope in which to stick the water bill.]

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Van Dyke Parks on Bananastan, cont’d.

In an interview with Mojo, Van Dyke Parks offers some more details about his forthcoming 7"-vinyl singles. And some observations about age and resilience:

“I know my best work is ahead of me. That’s the only thing that gets me out of the decrepitude of my advanced age. Every day the hand is farther from the head! Just to play the things I played when I was a brunette, I want to tell you, it ain’t for sissies! And I beat the shit [out] of the piano!”
A related post
Van Dyke Parks on Bananastan (with Art Spiegelman’s label design)
Van Dyke Parks, two singles (imaginary liner notes)

Word of the day: jalousie

It’s Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day:

jalousie \JAL-uh-see\ noun
1 : a blind with adjustable horizontal slats for admitting light and air while excluding direct sun and rain
2 : a window made of adjustable glass louvers that control ventilation


Etymologists are clear on the source of the word “jalousie” — it’s French for “jealousy” — but the relationship between the emotion and the window treatments originally referred to as jalousies is not something they’ve speculated much about. Is it that those peering out through the original jalousie blinds were jealous of the people outside? Or is it more likely that the jealousy festered in the hearts of those outside, who could see the blinds but not the faces and lives of the people they hid? This excerpt from the October 23, 1766 entry in the Duchess of Northumberland’s diary perhaps provides a clue: “Rows of Seats with Jalousies in Front that [the women] may not be seen.”
Storm doors with glass louvers were common in the Brooklyn of my childhood, where they were called juh-LAU-sees.

You can clear your head of that pronunciation by listening to the Tango Project’s recording of Jacob Gade’s “Jalousie.”

“Doris Day parking”

From the Urban Dictionary:

Any parking spot that seems as though it was meant to be, as evidenced by the spot’s convenience to one’s destination as well as the smoothness with which one can park their car in said spot.

Derived from the sort of parking found by Doris Day in any Doris Day movie.
Read more:

Doris Day Parking Has “Street Cred” (Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

“Street cred?”

[Photograph via A Certain Cinema.]

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Phooey, a caption

[My pairing.]

The first recorded appearance of phooey seems to pair well with David Borchart’s cartoon from a recent New Yorker Caption Contest. No, I don’t understand it either. But I like it.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Re: “distracting little rituals”

In The Pale King, David Foster Wallace calls them “distracting little rituals” — ways to break up deskwork. Mine (from most to least frequent): checking my “stuff” (e-mail accounts and blog stats), making a cup of tea, playing the piano for a few minutes, choosing pens and pencils, removing files and folders from my Mac’s desktop, filling a seldom-used fountain pen.

What are your preferred forms of work-avoidance?

The Pale King, deskwork

IRS newcomer David Wallace is “frightened and thrilled” by his first sight of tax examiners at work, silent, unmoving, wholly focused. The scene doesn’t jibe with his sense of deskwork:

I had spent massive amounts of time in libraries; I knew quite well how deskwork really was. Especially if the task at hand was dry or repetitive, or dense, or if it involved reading something that had no direct relevance to your own life and priorities, or was work that you were doing only because you had to — like for a grade, or part of a freelance assignment for pay from some lout who was off skiing. The way hard deskwork really goes is in jagged little fits and starts, brief intervals of concentration alternated with frequent trips to the men’s room, the drinking fountain, the vending machine, constant visits to the pencil sharpener, phone calls you suddenly feel are imperative to make, rapt intervals of seeing what kinds of shapes you can bend a paperclip into, & c.¹ This is because sitting still and concentrating on just one task for an extended period of time is, as a practical matter, impossible.

¹ For me, the pencil sharpener is a big one. I like a very particular sort of very sharp pencil, and some pencil sharpeners are a great deal better than others for achieving this special shape, which then is blunted and ruined after only a sentence or two, requiring a large number of sharpened pencils all lined up in a special order of age, remaining height, & c. The upshot is that nearly everyone I knew had distracting little rituals like this, of which rituals the whole point, deep down, was that they were distracting.

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (Boston: Little, Brown, 2011)
Other Pale King excerpts

[The Pale King is a novel in the form of “basically a nonfiction memoir” by former IRS examiner David Wallace, “with additional elements of reconstructive journalism, organizational psychology, elementary civics and tax theory, & c.” In the novel, the footnote number is 45.]

Monday, May 2, 2011

“This is the world”

“Irrelevant” Chris Fogle has walked into the “wrong but identical classroom” — not American Political Thought but Advanced Tax, where he hears an extraordinary lecturer. A sample:

He made a gesture I can’t describe: “Gentlemen, welcome to the world of reality — there is no audience. No one to applaud, to admire. No one to see you. Do you understand? Here is the truth — actual heroism receives no ovation, entertains no one. No one queues up to see it. No one is interested.”

He paused again and smiled in a way that was not one bit self-mocking. “True heroism is you, alone, in a designated work space. True heroism is minutes, hours, weeks, year upon year of the quiet, precise, judicious exercise of probity and care — with no one there to see or cheer. This is the world. Just you and the job, at your desk. You and the return, you and the cash-flow data, you and the inventory protocol, you and the depreciation schedules, you and the numbers.”

David Foster Wallace, The Pale King (Boston: Little, Brown, 2011).
Another Pale King excerpt
The Pale King, dullness

Sunday, May 1, 2011

“Justice has been done”

“On nights like this one, we can say that justice has been done”: President Barack Obama, just a few minutes ago, announcing the death of Osama bin Laden.

As exams approach

Exam-takers, take your pick:

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

Best wishes to all for finals week.

DFW in Peoria

Gary Panetta of the Peoria Journal Star writes about David Foster Wallace and the unfinished novel The Pale King.

Other Pale King posts
A Pale King event
The Pale King and commerce
The Pale King, dullness

[The setting for The Pale King is an IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois.]