Monday, August 31, 2015

Word of the day: coster

As Cherry Beamish, Mrs. Allison was a music-hall performer. From Willa Cather’s “The Old Beauty” (1948):

“Remember her in that coster song, Mother? It went round the world, that did.”
The Oxford English Dictionary explains: coster is short for costermonger , from costard , “an apple,” and monger , “dealer, trader”: “orig. An apple-seller, a fruiterer; esp. one that sold his fruit in the open street”; “Now, in London, a man who sells fruit, vegetables, fish, etc. in the street from a barrow.” The Dictionary lists several compound words with coster : coster-boy , coster-ditty , coster-girl , coster-song . An 1892 citation mentions Albert Chevalier: “Long before the days of Mr. Chevalier and his excellent songs, there was a coster-ditty, which,” &c.

Google Books gives further help. A 1905 item from The Ludgate Monthly, “Albert Chevalier and His Songs: A Chat with His Publisher,” by Ernest Alfieri, quotes music publisher R. W. Reynolds:
“Before ‘The Future Mrs. ’Awkins’ came out, ‘Knocked ’em in the Old Kent Road’ had had the largest sale, closely followed by ‘The Coster’s Serenade’; but ‘My Old Dutch,’ which is not a coster song — it belongs to the genus cockney, of which the purely coster song is only a species — bids fair to outrival them all.”
So a coster song is a kind of Cockney song. I’d like to know though how one tells the difference.

You can hear, courtesy of YouTube, two recordings of Albert Chevalier singing “My Old Dutch,”: 1, 2. Also at YouTube, versions by Peter Sellers and Herman’s Hermits. It’s easy to imagine the Beatles trying this song in the Get Back sessions.

Some other Chevalier songs: “The ’Armonic Club,” “The Coster’s Courtship,” “The Nipper,” “Wot cher!,” “Wot’s the Good of Hanyfink? Why, Nuffink.”

“[M]erely everyday life”

Willa Cather, “The Old Beauty,” in The Old Beauty and Others (1948).

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Oliver Sacks (1933–2015)

There is a paradox here — a delicious one — which I cannot resolve: if there is indeed a fundamental distinction between experience and description, between direct and mediated knowledge of the world, how is it that language can be so powerful? Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.

“The Mind’s Eye,” in The Mind’s Eye (New York: Knopf, 2010).
The New York Times has an obituary. Sacks’s three recent pieces for the Times : “My Own Life,” “My Periodic Table,” and “Sabbath.”

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Did ballpoints kill cursive?

Did the ballpoint pen really kill cursive, as Josh Giesbrecht suggests in a piece at The Atlantic ? Giesbrecht finds the strongest support for this claim in the work of handwriting expert Rosemary Sassoon:

She explains that the type of pen grip taught in contemporary grade school is the same grip that’s been used for generations, long before everyone wrote with ballpoints. However, writing with ballpoints and other modern pens requires that they be placed at a greater, more upright angle to the paper — a position that’s generally uncomfortable with a traditional pen hold.
Certainly strain is possible when one writes with a ballpoint — or with a fountain pen, if one writes for a long enough time. But I’m not persuaded by the argument from angles. I just photographed myself writing with a Bic, a T-Ball Jotter, and a Cross fountain pen, and I see virtually no difference between the ballpoints and the fountain pen. If anything, I hold the ballpoints slightly less upright.

I think that declining ability in cursive might be better explained as a matter of writers’ lack of interest in, or lack of care for, the handwritten word.

A sidenote: in the short film The Art of Hermann Zapf , Zapf does calligraphy with a ballpoint pen (at 14:38). Says Zapf, “Maybe I am going a little too far away from calligraphy with a broad-edged pen. But the ballpoint is also a good tool if it is used in the right way.” He goes on to produce some Spencerian script with his ballpoint.

Related posts
Ballpoints, not for writing?
Five pens (My life in five pens)
All OCA handwriting posts (Pinboard)
All OCA pen posts (Pinboard)

“[N]ow I travel with my photographs”

Gabrielle Longstreet speaks:

Willa Cather, “The Old Beauty,” in The Old Beauty and Others (1948).

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

Friday, August 28, 2015

“Is Your Grammar Holding You Back?”

A quiz by Bryan Garner: “Is Your Grammar Holding You Back?” (Harvard Business Review ).

One of the quiz’s ten sentences (I’ll leave it for the reader to figure out which one) is troublesome: the quiz says the sentence is grammatically incorrect, but Garner’s Modern American Usage marks the idiom in question as Stage 5, “Fully accepted.” I’m scoring myself ten of ten.


1:31 p.m.: The sentence that tripped me up is no. 7. I e-mailed Bryan Garner about it, and he changed the scoring. (Is he a diligent guy, or what?) The answer for no. 7 now begins: “This sentence is grammatically correct, but you’ll get a point for either response,” with an explanation following. So ten for ten!

Related reading
All OCA Bryan Garner posts (Pinboard)

Our mutual frown

I was moved to read Our Mutual Friend when someone assured me that it, not Bleak House, is, but of course, the greatest Dickens novel. (It is a truth universally acknowledged, &c.) But no. Our Mutual Friend feels like the work of a tired writer, and it was making us tired. (Falling-asleep-between-sentences tired.) We made it almost halfway through before acknowledging that we just didn’t care enough to continue. Back to Willa Cather, The Old Beauty and Others .

Bleak House is the greatest Dickens novel I’ve read. Elaine, who hasn’t read Bleak House, chooses Great Expectations .

Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Mac app Acorn

John Gruber at Daring Fireball wrote a post yesterday recommending the Mac image editor Acorn, now on sale for $24.99 (half price). Gruber’s closing words: “Just buy it.” I did, and it made editing the advertisements in the previous post a breeze, or a piece of cake, your choice.

To my mind, Acorn is a far friendlier app than the free (and, like Acorn, powerful) GIMP. And Acorn makes it possible to rotate and crop images with greater precision than is available in Apple’s iPhoto and Photos apps. (Those comic-strip panels appear on an angle in the original advertisements.) I’ve barely begun to explore Acorn’s possibilities, but I am already a happy camper.

[The cake is yellow, with chocolate frosting.]

Dressing for school

Another search for homework: five sentences about dressing. I’ll bite.

[Life, June 17, 1940.]

[Life, September 29, 1941. Click for larger views.]

These sentences will also work for five sentences about mayonnaise or real, and they offer at least a start on five sentences about Peg or Clare or starchy filler.

Other “five sentences” posts
Bleak House : The cat : Clothes : The driver : My house : Life : Life on the moon : Orange : The past (1) : The past (2) : The post office : The rabbit : The ship : The sky : Smoking : The telephone : The world

[People of the world: do your own homework.]

Playing policy

Another Mencken footnote, from a brief discussion of Italian loan-words:

The word policy, which was used in the United States from about 1885 to 1915 to designate the form of gambling now called numbers , was from the Italian polizza . But it apparently came in by way of English, though with a change in meaning, and it is now virtually obsolete.

H. L. Mencken, The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States , 4th ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936).
The term policy certainly persisted in African-American culture. Here is an episode of the podcast Uncensored History of the Blues about playing policy.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the gambling sense of policy to the Middle French police, “written proof, certificate.” The Dictionary traces another meaning of policy , “ a voting paper; (also) a voucher,” to polizza.

Also from The American Language
The American v. the Englishman : B.V.D. : “[N]o faculty so weak as the English faculty” : “There are words enough already” : The -thon , dancing and walking : The verb to contact

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

5 sentences of orange

More homework! Here’s a start:

Orange you ashamed to be cheating?

Other “five sentences” posts
Bleak House : The cat : Clothes : The driver : My house : Life : Life on the moon : The past (1) : The past (2) : The post office : The rabbit : The ship : The sky : Smoking : The telephone : The world

Five sentences on the sky

Ever since I wrote a post about five sentences from Charles Dickens’s Bleak House , Google searches for five sentences (that is, for pre-fabricated homework) have been ending up at Orange Crate Art. Recently: five sentences on the sky . Consider it done:

Your thighs are appletrees whose blossoms touch the sky. Which sky? The sky where Watteau hung a lady’s slipper.

The Sky is an immortal Tent built by the Sons of Los.

Surrender Dorothy.

Other “five sentences” posts
The cat : Clothes : The driver : My house : Life : Life on the moon : The past (1) : The past (2) : The post office : The rabbit : The ship : Smoking : The telephone : The world

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

VDP and Harry Shearer

Van Dyke Parks visits Harry Shearer’s Le Show. A smart and funny conversation, with a virtual cast of dozens that includes Ry Cooder, Astrud Gilberto, Eartha Kitt, Randy Newman, Brian Wilson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Paul Revere and the Raiders. Also with lovely performances of “Hominy Grove,” “Jump!,” and “Orange Crate Art,” and a snippet of “Anything Goes.” Also with a Welsh proverb: “Nothing is good when better is possible.” Words to live by there.

Related reading
All OCA Van Dyke Parks posts (Pinboard)


A reader left a comment on a post about West Fourth Street and Naked City recalling Asti’s Restaurant. Like Bianchi & Margherita, a restaurant mentioned in that post, Asti’s offered opera-centric dining. From Harold H. Hart’s Hart’s Guide to New York City (New York: Hart Publishing, 1964):

13 E. 12th St.
(bet. Fifth Ave. and University Pl.)

AL 5-9095



If you like opera, you’ll like Asti’s. The hired hands provide the diversion. Whenever the bouncer, barmaid, bus boy, or barkeep feels an aria coming on, the warbler just passes a signal to the pianist and lets go.

And what you’ll hear is surprisingly good, for most of the staff has had professional operatic experience. The singing of the Anvil Chorus from Il Trovatore is a sure-fire tour de force . Accompanying the chorus, there is a tintinnabulation of clinks coming from the glasses on the bar as they are struck rhythmically by the attendants.

Everything here has an Italian accent — the strains from Verdi and Puccini, the cuisine, and the gusto which which with which the staff discharges its chores. The food is adequate. Suffice it to say that it’s worthwhile to come here for the singing which is lusty, continuous, and thoroughly exhilarating. A table d’hote dinner, averaging $6, is served till 10, after which an à la carte supper menu takes over.
Asti’s, or Asti, began as a speakeasy in 1924 or ’25 and closed on December 31, 1999. By the end of its life, the restaurant had 1,200 photographs of opera singers on its walls. The building now houses Strip House, a steak place.

As much as I love the idea of an Asti’s or a Bianchi & Margherita, the relentlessness of it all would leave me exhausted. (I am a highly sensitive person.) This short documentary gives some idea of what an evening at Asti’s might have been like.

Thanks, Jeff, for pointing me to Asti’s.

Related reading
An Asti’s menu (eBay)

[I would have scanned the entry from Hart’s Guide, but I didn’t want to risk damaging the book’s spine.]

Monday, August 24, 2015

John Rabe and David Foster Wallace

John Rabe, the host of KPCC’s Off-Ramp, interviews Dan John Miller, the actor who plays an NPR host interviewing David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt, 2015). That host was Rabe, who interviewed Wallace for Minnesota Public Radio in 1996. Also available from the link above, the 1996 interview itself.

My favorite moment from 1996: “Bayer is a name I trust.”

A related post
My take on The End of the Tour

A joke in the traditional manner

What is the favorite toy of philosophers’ children?

No spoilers. The punchline is in the comments.

More jokes in the traditional manner
The Autobahn : Did you hear about the cow coloratura? : Elementary school : A Golden Retriever : How did Bela Lugosi know what to expect? : How did Samuel Clemens do all his long-distance traveling? : What did the doctor tell his forgetful patient to do? : What did the plumber do when embarrassed? : What happens when a senior citizen visits a podiatrist? : Which member of the orchestra was best at handling money? : Why did the doctor spend his time helping injured squirrels? : Why did Oliver Hardy attempt a solo career in movies? : Why did the ophthalmologist and his wife split up? : Why was Santa Claus wandering the East Side of Manhattan?

[“In the traditional manner”: by or à la my dad. He gets credit for all but the cow coloratura, the squirrel-doctor, Santa Claus, and this one.]

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Domestic comedy



“I feel like I’m signing a contract.”

“You are.”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The End of the Tour

The End of the Tour (dir. James Ponsoldt, 2015) is a likable and unlikable film. I found less bromance than I had anticipated (and dreaded), several moments of high seriousness and emotional darkness, and (via Joan Cusack) some sweetly comic relief. The relationship between interviewer David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) and interviewee David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), which develops over five days of talk and travel, is never without its duplicities. Does Wallace offer Lipsky a “guest-roomish” spare bedroom out of sheer hospitality, or is the interviewee trying to disarm his interviewer early on? Lipsky’s snooping around in medicine cabinets and empty rooms is less ambiguous.

Jason Segel has an uncanny grasp of Wallace’s speaking voice — or of one Wallace voice, the plain-ordinary-guy voice. (Here is a different Wallace voice.) But in appearance, Segel’s Wallace is grotesque: slovenly, hulking, and slightly crazed-looking. My offhand nominee for a more convincing Wallace: Edward Burns.

The edited transcript of Lipsky and Wallace’s conversations appeared in book form as Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (2010). This film might better have been titled Although of Course You End Up Becoming a Caricature of Yourself.

But worth seeing, even if only to satisfy a reader’s curiosity.

Related reading
All OCA David Foster Wallace posts (Pinboard)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Life and death and Molly Dodd

Elevator operator/doorman Davey McQuinn (James Greene) to Molly Dodd (Blair Brown):

“Life goes on, Miss Dodd. Count on it.”
That’s from The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd episode “Here’s a Bunch of Photos from an Old Album” (April 14, 1988), in which Molly’s father dies.

Our household loves The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.

Related posts
Molly Dodd, Molly Dodd, Molly Dodd
Molly Dodd, Mongol user

How to enter a classroom

[Assuming there’s still a classroom to enter. Advice for college students, for “syllabus week” and beyond.]

1. Put away any devices before entering, so that you can be marked “present” — that is, fully present, ready to engage whatever will be going on. It’s a sad and dopey feeling for an instructor to find a roomful of students intent on their devices.

2. If your instructor has not arrived and the room is dark, turn on the lights. It’s a sad and dopey feeling for an instructor to find a roomful of students sitting in the dark. If an instructor is present and the room is dark, there may be a PowerPoint presentation in the offing. Uh-oh.

3. Don’t sit toward the back. It’s a sad and dopey feeling for an instructor to find a roomful of students sitting toward the back.

The only thing worse than finding a roomful of students intent on their devices is finding a roomful of students intent on their devices and sitting in the dark. And the only thing worse than finding a roomful of students intent on their devices and sitting in the dark is finding a roomful of students intent on their devices and sitting in the dark toward the back. A teacher with sufficient gumption will ask students to put away the devices and move toward the front. That teacher will also turn on the lights, and even ask that students do so in the future.

For the first time since 1961, falltime won’t mean for me the start of “school.” (Even during sabbaticals, life is governed by the academic calendar.) It feels exciting to be back in a pre-kindergarten environment. But I still think about what goes in school.

Related posts
How to answer a professor (Guest post by Stefan Hagemann) : How to be a student a professor will remember (for the right reasons) : How to e-mail a professor : New year’s resolutions : Rule 7 : Seeing professors clearly : Syllabus week

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Universities, hedge funds, and private equity funds

Victor Fleischer writes about “the symbiotic relationship between university endowments and the world of hedge funds and private equity funds”: “Stop Universities from Hoarding Money” (The New York Times).

As The Arthurian pointed out in a comment on a recent post, Fleischer’s observations go well with a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson that Stefan Hagemann quoted in an earlier comment on that post:

Gowns and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit. Forget this, and our American colleges will recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year.

VW punctuation

“It’s important to stop at the right moment”: fun with punctuation in three advertisements for the Volkswagen Passat.

Related reading
All OCA punctuation posts (Pinboard)

[No. 2 though would work better with items in a series: x , y , and z .]

Lassie Ticonderoga

[Timmy (Jon Provost) and Ruth Martin (June Lockhart). And, of course, Lassie. From the Lassie episode “The Owl,” September 28, 1958. Click for a larger view.]

In a farmhouse just outside Calverton, the pencil of choice is the Dixon Ticonderoga. The ferrule gives it away. There’s also an episode in which Timmy sits at the kitchen table and writes a note with a Ticonderoga, but I can find no trace of that epsiode online.

Other Ticonderogas
Bells Are Ringing : The Dick Van Dyke Show : Harry Truman with Ticonderoga : The House on 92nd Street : Pnin

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

New directions in teaching

From The Chronicle of Higher Education, an article on the use of “machine teaching”: “The hope is if we can quantify the student’s learning process, then maybe we can come up with a more efficient curriculum or lesson.”

Two observations:

This model of teaching allows for no possibility of conversation or improvisation or discovery: it is always already clear “what knowledge [the researcher] wants to impress upon the learner.” I think of the “little vessels” in the opening scene of Dickens’s Hard Times , schoolchildren waiting to be filled with facts.

This model of teaching assumes that efficiency is a desirable end. But what counts as “a more efficient curriculum or lesson”? Is it inefficient to spend a semester teaching Infinite Jest ? Is it inefficient to spend a class meeting on a single Dickinson poem? Or two or more hours looking at a single painting? What would a “more efficient” approach to such works require? What would be gained and lost in taking such an approach? And why didn’t Socrates just come out and say what he meant instead of asking all those questions? Not a very efficient philosopher.

Related posts
Models for education (Sages, guides, and improvisation)
New directions in assessment (Scanning brains to determine the effects of college)

[I twice had the pleasure of spending a semester on Infinite Jest, and I spent many a class meeting looking at single poems. But I don’t know how to spend hours looking at a single painting.]

Name the actor

He reminds me of the scholarly gentleman on packs of Club cigarette papers. Can you identify this actor? Take your best shot in the comments. I’ll drop hints as needed. Disclosure: I would not be able to guess correctly.

Here are links to posts with ten more mystery actors, from Naked City , Route 66 , and “the movies”: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. Collect them all!


A hint: The actor is probably best known for his television work.


The answer is now in the comments, courtesy of an eagle-eyed Crow.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


[One teenager to another, on a park bench. ]

“I’m a little too patty-caked out.”

Related reading
All OCA “overheard” posts (Pinboard)

Bertrand Russell on reverence in education

My son Ben pointed me to an essay by Bertrand Russell, “Education as a Political Institution” (The Atlantic Monthly , June 1916). An excerpt:

In education, with its codes of rules emanating from a government office, with its large classes and fixed curriculum and overworked teachers, with its determination to produce a dead level of glib mediocrity, the lack of reverence for the child is all but universal. Reverence requires imagination and vital warmth; it requires most imagination in respect of those who have least actual achievement or power. The child is weak and superficially foolish; the teacher is strong, and in an everyday sense wiser than the child. The teacher without reverence, or the bureaucrat without reverence, easily despises the child for these outward inferiorities. He thinks it his duty to “mould” the child; in imagination he is the potter with the clay. And so he gives to the child some unnatural shape which hardens with age, producing strains and spiritual dissatisfactions, out of which grow cruelty and envy and the belief that others must be compelled to undergo the same distortions.

The man who has reverence will not think it his duty to “mould” the young. He feels in all that lives, but especially in human beings, and most of all in children, something sacred, indefinable, unlimited, something individual and strangely precious, the growing principle of life, an embodied fragment of the dumb striving of the world. He feels an unaccountable humility in the presence of a child — a humility not easily defensible on any rational ground, and yet somehow nearer to wisdom than the easy self-confidence of many parents and teachers. He feels the outward helplessness of the child, the appeal of dependence, the responsibility of a trust. His imagination shows him what the child may become, for good or evil; how its impulses may be developed or thwarted, how its hopes must be dimmed and the life in it grow less living, how its trust will be bruised and its quick desires replaced by brooding will. All this gives him a longing to help the child in its own battle, to strengthen it and equip it, not for some outside end proposed by the state or by any other impersonal authority, but for the ends which the child’s own spirit is obscurely seeking.
“[N]ot for some outside end proposed by the state or by any other impersonal authority, but for the ends which the child’s own spirit is obscurely seeking”: a strong rejoinder to the utilitarian mantra of college-ready and workplace-ready .

Thanks, Ben.

Related posts
Diana Senechal on literature and reverence
Michael Oakeshott on education

Monday, August 17, 2015

Talking ties

My daughter Rachel passes on this observation. She knew I would like it:

Yes, ties take time to tie and sometimes get uncomfortable. However, a tie tells everyone you meet, “I respect you, my job, and myself, and I’m willing to take the time to show it.”

Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong, The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher (2009).
I started wearing a tie in my last three years of teaching, for two reasons. Certain candidates for the Republican presidential nomination had appropriated the elements of my style, making it impossible for me to wear button-down shirts and jeans and sweater-vests in good conscience. And I had come to realize that my old square-end knit ties were now vintage ties and that such ties were once again being made. So I began to buy, tie, and wear. I wasn’t thinking about respect though. I was having fun.

I was once told of a teacher who told his students that teachers who wear ties “think they’re better than you.” He of course wore no tie. I hope that at least some of his students saw his us-and-them strategy for the cheap trick that it was. I know Rachel would have.


[Click for a larger view.]

Elaine has been tidying, so much so that I have joked that our house is becoming a Kondo-minium. But not everything is tidy, not yet. This end table, for instance.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Fambly music

Rachel and Ben (aka our children) perform Zach Gill’s “Beautiful Reason.” With special guests The Cicadas.

Who would we be without music? Wait — don’t even try to answer that question.


Another Mencken footnote, this one from a discussion of abbreviations:

Under date of March 29, 1935 I received the following from Mr. P. B. Merry of the B.V.D. Company, Inc.: “From the standpoint of business psychology and because of the great public curiosity as to the meaning of our trademark, we would not care to have you publish any information regarding its origin, but for your personal use, if you request it, we will be glad to tell you the history of B.V.D. ” I did not request it.

H. L. Mencken, The American Language: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States , 4th ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1936).
Says Wikipedia: “The brand was founded in 1876 and named after the three founders of the New York City firm Bradley, Voorhees & Day (thus ‘B.V.D.’).” End of mystery.

Also from The American Language
The American v. the Englishman
“[N]o faculty so weak as the English faculty”
“There are words enough already”
The -thon , dancing and walking
The verb to contact

Thursday, August 13, 2015

A belated Louis Armstrong post

[Lewis Louis Armstrong’s draft card.]

Louis Armstrong was born on August 4, 1901. But the mythic July 4 is a better fit.

When I signed up with the National Archives last month as a Citizen Archivist (after reading this interview), I was surprised to find Armstrong’s draft card, or at least its recto, sitting there, just waiting to be transcribed. The verso is still unavailable from the Archives.

To date, I’ve transcribed a grand total of two documents, Armstrong’s draft card and a letter to Muzak asking for free advice about implementing a “music while you work” program at a Naval Air Station. Writing is a much greater pleasure than transcribing.

Related reading
All OCA Louis Armstrong posts (Pinboard)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

On the news

In a comment on a 2014 post, I wrote that “Elaine and I have developed the unfortunate habit of saying ‘fewer’ in unison every time we hear [an inept ‘less’] on the news.” And thus tonight: “ . . . they’ll sell less iPhones.” In unison: “Fewer.” Can’t help it.

[Art by James Leddy.]

My dad had one last surprise for us. When we put together two large feltboards with his artwork, we were puzzled by this item, made from a bread clip. We thought it might have been an brightly striped, abstract fish. It was only after we removed the clip from the feltboard that we figured it out.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Dad words

I was the designated talker at the memorial service for my dad on Saturday. Here, more or less, is what I said:

I have a vivid memory from childhood of my dad explaining death to my brother Brian and me. We were in our living room in Brooklyn. I might have been eight or nine years old. Brian might have been six or seven. My dad was explaining that everyone eventually has to die. Everyone? I thought that surely there must be exceptions, like for our parents. And for a long time I was right.

We almost lost our dad after a harrowing hospital experience in 2013: a knee replacement, followed by aspiration pneumonia. He was not expected to live, but he did. And because he did, he was able to have sixty-one years of marriage to his beloved wife Louise, our mom. He lived to see Brian and Susie celebrate fourteen years of marriage. He lived to see Elaine and me celebrate thirty years of marriage. Though he wasn’t able to attend the wedding, he was able to see his granddaughter Rachel marry her wonderful husband Seth, and he was able to meet Seth via FaceTime. (On the phone our dad would always ask Rachel, “How is Seth?” And she always answered, “Seth is the best.”) Our dad lived to see Rachel become an accomplished teacher and complete graduate coursework in education. He lived to see his grandson Ben become an accomplished teacher and prepare to begin graduate coursework in education. Our dad’s life lasted almost ten days past his eighty-seventh birthday — a good long time.

One of Brian’s earliest memories is of our dad leaving for work early in the morning. The last thing he would do before leaving was to put a handful of change in his pocket for paying busfare or calling our mom. Brian would always try to wake up early to hear the jingle and say goodbye. One of my earliest memories is of being carried around our living room on my dad’s shoulders so that I could reach up and touch the ceiling tiles.

You can see where this is going: our dad was a family man. Suffice it to say that he had found no model for this role in the memories of his own childhood. He figured it out for himself. Our parents had a book for exploring New York, Where Shall We Take the Kids? , and they took us everywhere — to museums and historical sites, and more museums and historical sites. We became the object of our neighbors’ skeptical amusement. Their idea of a good time seemed to be sitting in beach chairs or on parked cars. We were always going somewhere.

Our dad was a generous man in so many ways. He would bring us presents on Fridays, paydays. I especially remember Venus color-by-number sets. On Saturday mornings he would take us to Alan’s Stationery for art supplies. He engaged us in countless games of boxball, countless interludes of catch, countless throws of a Frisbee, countless trips to Owl’s Head Park in Brooklyn and Overpeck Park in New Jersey. He told us stories about Hitchville and Hoonisvooner — mad scientists, I think — and Lucifer the Fly, riding a fast ball in a World Series game. He brought Sgt. Pepper home for me in the summer of 1967, and he took me to my first concert, Pete Seeger, in 1969. Pete Seeger, not Frank Sinatra, because he was willing to honor my interests. (But I like Sinatra too.)

He was a kind and patient man, a gentle man: he never berated us, never made us feel small or ashamed. When I was a horrible failure in my first try at driver’s ed, with an ex-Marine phys-ed teacher for instructor, my dad took me out, night after night, to the empty parking lots in the manufacturing part of town to practice parallel parking and three-point turns. And when I went back for round two of driver’s ed, the ex-Marine told me “Your dad is a good teacher.”

He had an endless supply of his own jokes, some better than others, kept in a little notebook. How do they ship cod to the supermarket? C.O.D. When we had to bring a joke to class in third grade, he gave me one: Why did the doctor tell the expectant mother to drink Schaefer beer? Because she was having more than one. Yes, I stood up and told that joke in third grade.

I virtually never heard him use a four-letter word, not even when he was chopping out a shower stall, work that could lead to the invention of new and unusual curses. I can think of one exception: when he was in rehab after his knee replacement, he asked me on the phone, “Have you ever heard people use the expression ‘______ __’?” (Two words, second word up .) Yes, Dad, I said, but I’ve never heard you use it. Mind you, he was citing it, not really using it, as the only way to suggest his exasperation with a place where they brought him iced tea every morning, after he had asked for hot.

He was an independent man. He married a beautiful, smart, loving woman whose last name was not even remotely Irish-looking. Their courtship and their life together began on the Coney Island boardwalk, with the words “I’ll take the one on the left.” Our dad left his job as a union member for the much riskier prospect of self-employment as Leddy Ceramic Tile, and he succeeded greatly. His work may be found all over North Jersey, in Gloria Crest (where he worked long after Gloria Swanson’s day), in the houses of the great jazz pianists Hank Jones and McCoy Tyner (he got to listen to them practice all day), in Gene Shalit’s house, and in the houses of All My Children actresses Julia Barr and Debbi Morgan, whose autographed pictures made me a total hit with my All My Children-watching students.

Tile work was hard, punishing work, as Brian and I both know from working with our dad in summers, and in Brian’s case, after college as well. When Brian thought about learning the tile business, our dad discouraged him from pursuing such a difficult line of work, a “bone-weary livelihood,” as Brian describes it. As proud as our dad was of his work, and he was, he was also happy that we found other possibilities for making a living.

He was in every way meticulous. Customers would compliment him on the thoroughness with which he prepared written estimates. They would also tell him that their houses were cleaner when he left than before he arrived. He did his own taxes, no small feat for someone who is self-employed. He had beautiful printing and beautiful cursive, which I’ve tried and failed to emulate. His desk was and is amazingly organized, and he never needed to read a book about how to tidy up. He was a meticulous artist too, as you can see today, in pen and ink, in watercolors, in cut paper, and he created beautiful, witty, inventive work to share with his family in the form of cards. In another world, a savvy guidance counselor would have helped him to gain a scholarship to art school. Instead, his work with walls and floors became another kind of art.

Our dad’s greatest happiness, aside from his family and his work and his art, was music. He sang as he worked, leading many a homemaker to ask, “Mr. Leddy, are you a professional singer?” He whistled too, and I remember listening for that sound as he came down the walk at the end of the workday. He loved jazz and the Great American Songbook, especially as performed by Frank Sinatra and Mel Tormé. We talked about Sinatra many times on the phone, always wondering how such a great singer could be a not-always-so-nice person. It’s to my dad that I owe my earliest musical memories: Miles Davis (Sketches of Spain , Kind of Blue ), Count Basie, Anita O’Day, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Erroll Garner, Big Joe Turner. Kind of Blue left home with me in 1980, with my dad’s permission. I still have it, the first pressing.

It’s great to know that my dad heard Billie Holiday at the Apollo, and Lionel Hampton (on a date with my mom) at Birdland. As a boy he attended a radio broadcast where he heard Gene Autry, and he loved WNEW’s Jonathan Schwartz. He had little use for TV but he loved old movies, at least really good ones, and he would often begin a phone conversation by asking if I had ever heard of an actor or actress, always someone obscure. And I would look up the name in Wikipedia and give him a report on the spot.

Our last conversation was on his birthday, July 27. I said something about a birthday being a big deal, and about every day being a big deal, every day a gift. He liked that. He asked if I had ever heard a singer named Pete McGuinness. I later found him on YouTube, and yes, he’s terrific. I was all set to tell my dad about it last Saturday. But when I called, he and my mom were already at the hospital, or on the way.

And speaking of hospitals and not-hospitals: our family is immensely grateful for the compassionate care our paterfamilias received at a not-hospital, Villa Marie Claire in Saddle River, care beyond anything we could have imagined. We are so thankful that this wonderful man was able to come to the end of his life in a peaceful place, surrounded by his family. He was listening to us to the very end. We put on some Sinatra too. His last word, in response to things our mom said, was “Thanks.” Thank you , Dad. And thanks to everyone here, and to those who wanted to be here but were unable to come because of their own struggles.

The poet Ted Berrigan said something about life and death that I like. It’s somewhere in a poetry reading, in the talking between poems. Ted Berrigan said, “There are no dead people.” And he went on to explain: there are people who live outside your heart, walking around and talking, and there are people who live inside your heart. Jim Leddy, James Leddy, is living in our hearts right now, where he will always have a home.

August 8, 2015

Rachel and Ben put together a slideshow as a tribute to their grandfather. Two of his favorite songs played, as sung by his favorite singers, “Don’t Like Goodbyes” (Harold Arlen–Truman Capote), sung by Frank Sinatra, and “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” (Jerome Kern–Oscar Hammerstein II), sung by Mel Tormé.

In lieu of flowers, our family requested that memorial gifts be made to Villa Marie Claire in Saddle River, New Jersey.

And if you don’t get the Schaefer joke, see here.

Another post
James Leddy (1928–2015)

Thursday, August 6, 2015

James Leddy (1928–2015)

[“Truly unbelievable.” My dad, a year or two ago, looking at himself as Elaine records him with her iPad. Note the pen and suspenders: marks of a well-dressed man.]

My dad died earlier this evening, peacefully, free of pain, free of fear. He was listening to us to the very end. (And to Sinatra too.) At some point, I thought of lines from John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning”:

As virtuous men pass mildly away,
    And whisper to their souls to go,
Whilst some of their sad friends do say
    The breath goes now, and some say, No
The passage from life to death was that imperceptible.

My dad’s last word, to my mom: “Thanks.”

[This post is hardly my last word about my dad. Give me time.]


I’ve posted what I wrote for my dad’s memorial service: Dad words.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

On hiatus

Sad and sudden news: after a massive stroke, my dad is nearing the end of his life. Orange Crate Art is on hiatus.

I know that many readers will want to leave their good wishes in the comments. I won’t be keeping up with comments, so I would ask that you send good thoughts instead. They’ll get here. Thanks.

My dad made his most recent appearance in these pages this past Monday, on his eighty-seventh birthday, with a joke in the traditional manner.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

How to improve writing (no. 61)

[Mark Trail, August 1, 2015.]

“Any signs of anything”: ponderous. “In this area”: obviously. Mark has traveled into the Gulf of Mexico, where Mississippi Ken [sic ] and Foxylocks Kelly [sic ] have a dead shark on ice for him. Omit needless words.

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All OCA How to improve Mark Trail posts (Pinboard)

[This post is no. 61 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

“[I]n the middle of his own consciousness”

Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).

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All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

[Much like Godfrey St. Peter at the end of The Professor’s House (1925), but Jean Latour is a serene contemplative.]

Willa Cather on writing

The only reason I write is that it interests me more than any other activity I’ve ever found. I like riding, going to operas and concerts, travel in the west; but on the whole writing interests me more than anything else. If I made a chore of it, my enthusiasm would die. I make it an adventure every day.

From “Willa Sibert Cather,” an interview with Latrobe Carroll, Bookman 53 (1921).
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