Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Mencken on professor

Professor , like doctor , is worked much less hard in England that in the United States. In all save a few of our larger cities every male pedagogue is a professor, and so is every band leader, dancing master, and medical consultant. Two or three generations ago the title was given to horse-trainers, barbers, bartenders, phrenologists, caterers, patent-medicine vendors, acrobats, ventriloquists, and pedagogues and champions of all sorts. Of late its excessive misuse has brought it into disrepute, and more often than not it is applied satirically. The real professors try hard to get rid of 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).
Also from The American Language
The American v. the Englishman : “Are you a speed-cop? : B.V.D. : English American English : “[N]o faculty so weak as the English faculty” : Playing policy : “There are words enough already” : The -thon , dancing and walking : The verb to contact

Nabokov’s orthodontia

In Berlin, orthodontia for Vladimir and Sergey:

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (1966).

The wonders of today: here is Dr. Lowell or Lowen — real name, William Law — at one’s fingertips:

[The Dental Register 60, no. 6 (1906).]

There are other traces of William G. Law in Google Books. Maxillofacial Orthopedics: A Clinical Approach for the Growing Child (2004) notes that Dr. Law was a founding member and first president of the European Orthodontic Society (1907–1909). In the January 1909 issue of The Dental Cosmos, Dr. Law reported that in October 1908 he had been elected secretary-treasurer of the European Orthodontia Society.

If a descendant happens to be hunting, I hope he or she finds this post. To spell it out: William G. Law , dentist , orthodonist , In den Zelten 18a , Berlin . It would be easy to find evidence of this ancestor online by searching for his name. Not nearly as easy, though, to learn that Vladimir and Sergey Nabokov were his patients.

Wikipedia tells us that In den Zelten (“in the tents”) became an official street name in 1832 and disappeared in 2002.

Related reading
All OCA Nabokov posts (Pinboard)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Elsie de Nord

Elaine and I have begun reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Ada, or Ardor (1969), making cautious, limited use of annotations from the (invaluable) website ADAonline. We traveled there today to check on a name in chapter ten, that of Elsie de Nord. Young Ada Durmanov, “[a]rch and grandiloquent,” is described as speaking of “some ludicrous blunder in the current column of Elsie de Nord, a vulgar literary demimondaine.”

Here is what ADAonline says about “Elsie de Nord”:

In part a reference to Elsinore, the site of Hamlet (as suggested by the Kyoto Reading Circle, Krug 3:2, 29), especially in view of the reference to another person from the literary demimonde, the reviewer of Van’s first book, as “the First Clown in Elsinore ” (343.29). Nevertheless the name invites or tantalizes us with the promise of a particular identification, even if there is no specific reference intended. Perhaps a reference to American poet and translator Babette Deutsch (1895-1982), married to Avrahm Yarmolinsky, with whom she translated Pushkin and other Russians (see 64.16n.), perhaps with a dash of the Russian-born French novelist Elsa Triolet (née Ella Kagan, 1896-1970), who in 1965 edited an Anthologie de la poésie russe ?
There is, I believe, another reference suggested, given the resonance that the name Elsie would likely have for an American reader. Elsie de Nord suggests Elsie the Cow, Elsie the Borden Cow, spokescow for Borden dairy products. Elsie de Nord’s last name nearly anagrams Borden . This hapless critic is, as it were, a cow, or at least cow-like. Two chapters later in Ada, orchestra becomes horsecart. One chapter more and Borges becomes Osberg. Caution: VN at Work.

[Elsie at home. From an advertisement in Life, May 22, 1950.]

Related reading
All OCA Nabokov posts (Pinboard)
Elsie’s Cook Book (A book-sale find)

[Full title: Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle . Cow-like , by the way, appears in Lolita: “in specious chat with her cow-like mother.”]

Sushi sardines

Sardines play a part in the 2014 film St. Vincent (dir. Theodore Melfi). Taking on some impromptu work in afterschool childcare, grouchy old Vincent (Bill Murray) prepares a meal of canned fish and crackers for the kid next door, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher). “You’re gettin’ sushi,” Vincent says. But Oliver knows better. Click any image for a larger view.

[One: Locate sardines and crackers. The rectangle top right said to me sardines, maybe . I was hoping.]

[Two: Arrange into festive platter. Add hot sauce.]

[Three: Pour fishy liquid from can into glass. For what? Dipping the crackers? Who in their right mind — filmmakers, that was so tacky.]

[Four: All gone, or nearly so.]

The food is all for Oliver. Vincent sticks to whiskey. As we later learn, he buys sardines for himself and “gourmet cat food” for his, uh, cat. And that’s just one example of his saintliness.

With Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, and Naomi Watts on board, St. Vincent could have been a much more engaging film. As it is, the story is painfully predictable. (For crying out loud: the title gives it away.) The moment when I knew the film was beyond redemption: a wheelchair race through hospital hallways. Unforgivable.

But there are sardines.

Related reading
All OCA sardine posts (Pinboard)

Monday, September 28, 2015


The moon came out from behind the clouds last night, and we were there, or here, on earth, to see it.

How great that every so often — for no reason at all — the moon should turn from green cheese into a tasty port wine variety.

A Nabokov pencil sharpener

How do you know that your father is about to have yet another committee meeting?

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (1966).

That “tawny-brown shag”: I think back to roll-my-own days, and yes, shag is just right.

Related reading
All OCA Nabokov posts (Pinboard)
Pnin’s pencil sharpener (“ticonderoga-ticonderoga”)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Sherry Turkle on our phones and our selves

Sherry Turkle, writing in The New York Times about technology, solitude, and conversation:

In conversation, things go best if you pay close attention and learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is easier to do without your phone in hand.
A related post
Sherry Turkle on the flight from conversation

Calling Henry

[Henry, September 27, 2015.]

In the Henry-world, all telephones are landlines. Henrietta must be calling on a conveniently located pay phone. You can’t see it from this panel, but rain is threatening. So hurry up, kids, and get off the line before it storms.

Related reading
All OCA Henry posts (Pinboard)

[Blue? À la the (non-existent) red telephone? A private line on which Henrietta can reach Henry? But in the Henry-world, telephones should be black.]

Domestic comedy

“He’s the real thing — a total phony.”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Literature and choreography

From The Allusionist episode Architecting about Dance: the choreographer and movement director Steven Hoggett is talking with Helen Zaltzman about what studying literature has meant to his work.

Hoggett: It’s absolutely the bedrock for my choreographic career. I thank my lucky stars I spent many years poring over books rather than being in a studio, because I would have been a terrible pure dancer.

Zaltzamn: That’s really extraordinary. How do you think the poring over books created the modern you?

Hoggett: Because your imagination — I was encouraged to use my imagination way into my twenties, when I was still studying. Somebody was saying, “Don’t just read the book, think about it.” That’s what’s also helped me in every instance of being able to try to communicate and use language and words and reinvent my kind of language every time you do a new piece, because that company is different, that task is different, the show is different. And it does require a choreographer to be responsive to a room, and to find expressions and terms and words, literal phrases, that make sense for each project.
A New York Times article says of Hoggett in his twenties: “[he] studied literature at Swansea University in Wales and had little training in theater or dance.”

I’ve been following The Allusionist since June and recommend it with enthusiasm.

[I’ve made several corrections in this excerpt from the show’s transcript.]

Nancy: “BLOG”

[Nancy, October 19, 1950. From Nancy Loves Sluggo: Complete Dailies 1949–1951 (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2014).]

Related reading
All OCA Nancy posts (Pinboard)

Friday, September 25, 2015

None is , none are

Bryan Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day today is about none. Singular, or plural? Garner offers the clearest explanation I know of how to decide:

None = (1) not one; or (2) not any. Hence it may correctly take either a singular or a plural verb. To decide which to use, substitute the phrases to see which fits the meaning of the sentence: “not one is” or “not any are.”
A further comment:
Generally speaking, “none is” is the more emphatic way of expressing an idea. But it’s also the less common way, particularly in educated speech, and it therefore sounds somewhat stilted. The problem is exacerbated by the unfortunate fact that some stylists and publications insist that “none” is always singular, even in the most awkward constructions.
Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926) recognized that none can be singular or plural: “It is a mistake to suppose that the pronoun is sing. only & must at all costs be followed by sing verbs, &c.” Garner’s comment is likely a tactful criticism of The Elements of Style. The 1959 edition says that none “takes the singular verb,” period. The 1972 edition acknowledges that none can be singular or plural. E. B. White added and then amended the note on usage for none. William Strunk Jr.’s 1918 Elements says nothing about the word.

You can subscribe to the Usage Tip of the Day at Oxford University Press.


[Peanuts, September 27, 1968.]

If only. Instead we have days that begin in a fall-like manner, with temperatures going into the middle eighties by early afternoon. Faill is the new fall.

[Could Charles Schulz have been thinking of “September in the Rain”?]

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Recently updated

Lands’ End: The White Album The company is apparently angling for (so-called) millennials.

On not owning an Apple Watch

Khoi Vinh, on why he doesn’t own an Apple Watch:

Part of the reason why is because I never fell out of the habit of wearing a traditional watch on a daily basis. I own a simple, inexpensive, military-style analog watch with a canvas strap that almost wholly satisfies my expectations for a device worn on the wrist. It tells the time and date and needs almost no maintenance.
But he offers another, more surprising reason: Why I Don’t Own an Apple Watch (Subtraction).

I, too, don’t own an Apple Watch. I have no interest in being tethered to another device (which itself would be tethered to a device). And if I ever even for a moment think about owning an Apple Watch, all I will need to do is look at this image.

[Charlie Rose. Negative reinforcement. I saved it for just this purpose.]

Captioning New Yorker cartoons

Nice: There are three captions that work with every New Yorker cartoon (A. V. Club).

A related post
Phooey , a caption

The Magic Rub eraser

Mary Norris, New Yorker copy editor, in Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen :

I make a lot of mistakes, thus requiring an eraser at least as large as an ice cube. The eraser available from the catalogue is the Magic Rub, which is of grayish-white vinyl in the shape of a domino. I use it to erase the screeds I sometimes feel compelled to write in the margins of proofs and then regret.
She goes on to mention the twelve-packs in the New Yorker supply cabinet.

I had never used a Magic Rub. Not because of its slightly louche name: the eraser and I had just never crossed paths. But I thought, If it’s good enough for . . . , and bought a three-pack. It’s a disappointing eraser, with an unpleasant color, a ghastly smell, and pockmarked sides that suggest unfinished concrete. And it doesn’t erase all that well. I’m a pretty undiscriminating eraser-user, though I will admit to a liking for Papermate’s ultramodern Black Pearl and Staedtler’s Extruded Eraser Stick. The Stick’s stubby shape and paper wrapper make me think of Choward’s Violet Flavored Mints. To my eye, the Magic Rub does not erase as well as the Pearl or the Stick. I haven’t tried it against the Mints.

Here’s the puzzling part. The Magic Rub’s maker, Prismacolor, describes the eraser thusly:
It’s Latex free, absorbs graphite and erases India Ink. Also comes in a nifty peel-off pencil form to erase dry media in one fell swoop.
And the art-supply company Dick Blick gives this description:
Prismacolor’s Magic Rub is a vinyl eraser for use on polyester-based drafting film, acetate, or tracing paper. It erases delicate drawings cleanly, without smudging.
These descriptions would seem to suggest that the Magic Rub is not well suited for erasing pencil on plain old paper. Maybe that’s why I find this eraser so unsatisfactory.

Related reading
A handful of eraser posts (Pinboard)
Between You & Me, my review
Mary Norris on New Yorker style

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


From The New York Times: “Exploring the Real Roots of ‘Yogi-isms.’” My favorite, not quoted therein: “Little things are big.”

Yogi Berra died yesterday at the age of ninety. The Times has an obituary.

Nabokovian handwriting

Handwriting, father and son:

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (1966).

The index entry for Vladimir Dmitrievich Nabokov in Speak, Memory is telling: “9–16, 19–310, passim .” In other words, every page with printed text. Nabokov’s father’s presence is everywhere.

Related reading
All OCA Nabokov posts (Pinboard)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Domestic comedy

[Not long after dinner.]

“This is the dawning of the Age of Asparagus.”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

Lands’ End: The White Album

[Now with extra whitening.]

The Lands’ End catalogue may never have been a great document of the variousness of Americans, but its recent incarnations appear to have taken a sharp turn to the white. Above, the cover of the Fall Resource Guide 2015, a hefty catalogue with a fold-out cover, an insert printed on thicker paper, two blow-in cards, and 171 pages. And a whole bunch of white people.

I went through this catalogue page by page — three times, for accuracy — checking off every human form. I counted 155. Many, of course, are the same people, appearing again and again. One woman, standing atop a rock, arms outstretched, faces away from the camera, gloved and hatted beyond identification. Of the other 154 men, women, children in this catalogue, thirteen are plainly or possibly not white. That leaves 141 white men, women, and children, making for a catalogue that’s 91.5% white.

It’s a measure of the way our sense of American culture has changed that this catalogue (which fifty years ago might have seemed, at least to a white reader, “normal”) should now look so strangely, aggressively retrograde. Lands’ End, please rethink it.

One thing about these white people: they sure read some interesting books.

[Click for a larger view. Otnajhna Nranfez and Nojatnah Arenzef: friends of the late Vidad Ostref Clewala. Another photograph shows some oversized books with the work of the painter Hen Mati.]


September 24: Here’s an article that helps to account for the change in direction at Lands’ End: How Lands’ End Is Angling for Millennials, and Injecting Luxury into the Midwest (Refinery29). Angling for so-called millennials with a nearly all-white catalogue seems like an especially strange choice.


June 20, 2020: Five years later, the plainest thing to say about this catalogue is that it reflects and bespeaks white privilege. It’s like a gated community for clothes.

A related post
Colgate Optic White

[If you look for this catalogue online, you won’t find it, at least not yet. The cover is there, on Lands’ End’s catalogue page, but the link goes to the Fall Preview catalogue, not the Fall Resource Guide.]

Monday, September 21, 2015

Jack Larson (1928–2015)

“Although he swore off fan events after a 1988 incident in Cincinnati in which Sharpie-wielding autograph seekers permanently stained a white linen suit he had had made in Italy, he came to terms with and embraced the Jimmy Olsen legacy in other ways”: “Jack Larson, Playwright Better Known as Jimmy Olsen on Superman TV Show, Dies at 87” (The New York Times).

Spelling in the news

In Fresno, California, three men posing as police officers misspelled the word sheriff on their costumes. The error, though, does not appear to be what led to their arrest.

The scheme — posing as law enforcement and raiding the residences of marijuana growers — makes me wonder if these fellows took their cue from The Wire’s trickster-god Omar Little. Just a thought.

Related reading
All OCA spelling posts (Pinboard)

Speed-cops on patrol

Another Mencken footnote:

In July, 1932 (News of the World , July 24), the Assistant Bishop of Guildford, Dr. Cyril Golding-Bird, appeared before the Farnham (Surrey) magistrates on a charge of dangerous driving. The policeman who arrested him testified that, on being overhauled, he demanded “Are you a speed-cop ?” His Lordship, evidently in fear that the use of an Americanism would prejudice the bench against him, stoutly declared that he ”was not sufficiently colloquial” to have used it. But the magistrates, taking a serious view of the matter, fined him £10 and costs and suspended his driving license for three months.

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

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Craft vogue

On Weekend Edition Sunday this morning: “now the city is working on crafting a pot-club ordinance.”

When everything from poems to pot to munchies is crafted, it’s time to say vogue word and move on. The verb to craft here accomplishes nothing that to create or to develop or to draft or to work on would accomplish. The work of writing an ordinance implies a degree of care and skill.

Words I can live without
Artisan , artisanal : Bluesy , craft , &c. : Delve , -flecked , &c. : Expressed that : Pedagogy : That said : Three words never to use in a poem

[Google returns 500,000 results for craft and ordinance minus beer. With beer : 939,000 results. Crafted munchies? Yes, really.]

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Domestic comedy

[Coffee. ]

“It’s really good.”

“I know it’s good. It has [reading ] ‘smooth, sweet caramel notes’ and a ‘refreshing citrus-like finish.’”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

A clever c(l)ue

The Newsday Saturday Stumper is a wonderful crossword, harder on average, I think, than the Saturday New York Times puzzle. Here from today’s Stumper is a beautifully tricky clue. 61-Across, eight letters: “Cue for the tenor, perhaps.” No spoilers: the answer is in the comments.

Today’s Stumper is by Brad Wilber, the co-constructor of a puzzle whose TORME left me more than slightly exasperated a while back. (I still suspect though that the inapt clue for that answer was Will Shortz’s work.)

A related post
Newsday ’s Saturday Stumper

Friday, September 18, 2015

“Floss, Floss, Floss!”

It is August in Biarritz. Vladimir is ten. Colette is nine.

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (1966).

Very Proustian, this interlude at the beach.

Related reading
All OCA Nabokov posts (Pinboard)

Force of Evil

Force of Evil (dir. Abraham Polonsky, 1948) stars John Garfield as an attorney involved in a scheme to take over the numbers (policy) rackets in New York City. Martin Scorsese, who introduces the film on DVD, thinks of it as a neglected noir masterpiece. I’m not sure I agree: the scheme and the romantic subplot are not exactly convincing. But George Barnes’s cinematography is aces. And the film has something for everyone, or at least for me. Click any image for a larger view.

[A Phi Beta Kappa key.]

[A locked drawer. Holding what?]

[A private line.]

[A Dixon Ticonderoga.]

[A Chemex coffeemaker. That’s Beatrice Pearson with Garfield. She worked mainly in the theater and appeared in just two films.]

[A pocket notebook. A “bank” is a numbers operation. Check.]

[A telephone booth, as seen from a lunch counter.]

[The same telephone booth and Beatrice Pearson. That’s her white glove above.]

[A notebook in a key case. (Huh?) Left , right , left , right : the combination for a safe.]

[A bakery, open late.]

[Mr. Hooper, moonlighting. This is the second time I’ve seen Will Lee as a bit player.]

[More Ticonderogas!]

Related reading
More Ticonderogas: Bells Are Ringing : Harry Truman : Lassie : The Dick Van Dyke Show : The House on 92nd Street

More notebook sightings: Angels with Dirty Faces : Cat People : Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne : Dragnet : Extras : Foreign Correspondent : Home Town Story : The House on 92nd Street : Journal d’un curé de campagne : The Lodger : Murder at the Vanities : Murder, Inc. : The Mystery of the Wax Museum : Naked City : The Palm Beach Story : Pickpocket : Pickup on South Street : Quai des Orfèvres : Railroaded! : Red-Headed Woman : Rififi : Route 66 : The Sopranos : Spellbound : State Fair : T-Men : Union Station : The Woman in the Window

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Word of the day: guarantor

I went online to make a co-pay for my yearly physical and found a form that asked for "guarantor's name." Were they asking about my HMO? No. After seeing, a few lines later, a request for the guarantor's birthdate, I could guess that the guarantor was me.

A guarantor is “one that gives a guaranty” or “one that guarantees.” And a guaranty is “an undertaking to answer for the payment of a debt or the performance of a duty of another in case of the other's default or miscarriage.”

Perhaps guarantor is a fit word for one who makes a co-pay. Yes, I have to pay, and I’m good for it. But this form’s language is unnecessarily obscure. What’s wrong with patient ?

The “gutticles of the percha”

Mr. Cummings was Vladimir Nabokov’s drawing master:

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (1966).

Webster’s Second defines gutta-percha :

A substance resembling rubber but containing more resin, from the latex of several Malaysian trees of the genera Payena and Palaquium . It is nearly white to brown, hard and rather elastic, softens on heating, and can be vulcanized. It is used esp. as an electric insulator and in temporary fillings in teeth.
The word derives from the Malay. According to the Second : “gëtah gum + përcha the tree producing it.”

I cannot think of gutta-percha without thinking of James Joyce’s “The Dead”:
—Goloshes, Julia! exclaimed her sister. Goodness me, don’t you know what goloshes are? You wear them over your  . . . over your boots, Gretta, isn’t it?

—Yes, said Mrs Conroy. Guttapercha things. We both have a pair now. Gabriel says everyone wears them on the continent.

—O, on the continent, murmured Aunt Julia, nodding her head slowly.
Now when I think of gutta-percha, I’ll think of Speak, Memory, too.

Related reading, via Pinboard
All OCA Nabokov posts
Other words, other works of lit: Apoplexy, avatar, bandbox, heifer, sanguine, sempiternal : Artificer : Expiate : Ineluctable : Iridescent : Magnifico : Opusculum

[Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary gives a different etymology: “gĕtah sap, latex + pĕrcha scrap, rag.” The Oxford English Dictionary agrees with Webster’s Second (and Third ). Gutta owes something to the Latin gutta drop, also the source of the English word gutter .]

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Undergrads and creative writing

From an episode of To the Best of Our Knowledge, “Writing for a Living.” The writer and editor Chad Harbach is talking about the explosion of graduate and undergraduate creative-writing programs. He calls undergrads “the bottom of the pyramid, if you will,” and goes on to describe the University of Virginia undergrads he taught while working on his MFA:

“Some of them were there because they really wanted to do this thing, and some of them had just heard that creative-writing classes were the easiest classes you could possibly take.” [Laughter .]
N.B.: Harbach does not dispute what those students believed.

Pyramid (as in scheme ) is a metaphor often applied to creative-writing programs. David Foster Wallace made the point, minus the metaphor, in “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” (1988):
Creative Writing Programs, while claiming in all good faith to train professional writers, in reality train more teachers of Creative Writing .
Who must of course have students.

[Harbach is the editor of MFA vs NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction (2014). A 2010 piece in Slate gives a shorter version of his argument: “MFA vs. NYC.”]

A teaching dream

I was teaching a college English class in my Brooklyn elementary school, in a corner classroom with a high ceiling, hanging light fixtures, and large windows and shades on two walls. We were reading a Hemingway novel; I don’t know which one. As I collected some in-class writing, we got onto the subject of regimentation and rules in high school. A great spontaneous discussion ensued, during which I realized that I had forgotten to bring my Hemingway. I kept that realization to myself. I mentioned two points about the novel as the time ran out and the room emptied. One point: a description of a tattooed character in Hemingway owed something to Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood . The other point I cannot remember.

All this time I was being, as they say in education, “observed”: a colleague was sitting in the back of the room watching me at work. When the class ended, his only suggestion was that I make greater use of the blackboard, a suggestion that seemed to me wildly irrelevant to what had just gone on (as of course it was). I explained that I had gotten away from using the blackboard in my teaching.

I can think of a number of elements that play a part in this dream: a recent New York Times feature on the first day of school in New York City, a letter to a friend that mentioned the debilitating effects of high school on new college students (who ask where they should write their name on in-class work), a fambly member’s student-teaching, and my liking for Nightwood , a novel I taught several times in lieu of The Sun Also Rises . My reasoning: students could read and make something of The Sun Also Rises on their own at any time. But they probably wouldn’t get another opportunity to read Nightwood , which offers another picture, and to my mind a much more compelling picture, of a lost generation.

Related reading, via Pinboard
All OCA dream posts
All OCA P.S. 131 posts
Smith going backward (from Nightwood)

[This dream marks my first classroom appearance since retiring.]

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A plumbing tale

I came across a version of this story in an old textbook. (I like old textbooks.) The story circulates widely, but it’s new to me. Here is a telling that names a source, though not necessarily an origin:

Dr. William B. Bean, who in the Archives of Internal Medicine often tilted a lancet at the writing operations of his fellow healers, has passed on the story of a New York plumber who had cleaned out some drains with hydrochloric acid and then wrote to a chemical research bureau, inquiring, “Was there any possibility of harm?” As told by Dr. Bean, the story continues:

“The first answer was, ‘The efficacy of hydrochloric acid is indisputably established but the corrosive residue is incompatible with metallic permanence.’ The plumber was proud to get this and thanked the people for approving of his method. The dismayed research bureau rushed another letter to him saying, ‘We cannot assume responsibility for the production of a toxic and noxious residue with hydrochloric acid. We beg leave to suggest to you the employment of an alternative procedure.’ The plumber was more delighted than ever and wrote to thank them for reiterating their approval. By this time the bureau got worried about what might be happening to New York’s sewers and called in a third man, and older scientist, who wrote simply, ‘Don’t use hydrochloric acid. It eats hell out of pipes.’”

Theodore Bernstein, The Careful Writer (1965).
This post is for Fresca, who likes clarity.

[William Bennett Bean was described in 1974 as “a true renaissance man: an articulate clinician, a scholar of the classics, a masterful teller of tales, and a prodigious writer of stories.”]

Eleven years young

Orange Crate Art turns eleven later today. My daughter Rachel, eleven 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.’”

Rachel was (and is) wise beyond her years.

What’s it like to be eleven? Well, there’s “growing maturity and confidence built on the experiences of earlier years,” along with “increasingly advanced cognitive skills and emotional maturity.” Yet one “may still be unsettled by major change.” (True, that.) Do “major bodily and hormonal changes” count as “major change”? I should think so.

As for being “acutely self-conscious in public,” Orange Crate Art has always been acutely self-conscious in public. No wonder: it’s never not been in public. And when it takes along an umbrella and there’s no rain, it feels like a jerk.

Thanks (again) to my fambly: to Rachel, for suggesting Orange Crate Art as a name; to Rachel and Ben, for showing me the basics of HTML; and to Elaine, whose sense of what’s appropriate is always appropriate. And thanks (again) to Van Dyke Parks, who was generous and enthusiastic about my use of his song’s title as this blog’s title.

And thank you, reader, old or new.

[Descriptions of a generic eleven-year-old from WebMD.]

Monday, September 14, 2015

Looking at schools

The xkcd comic University Website captures in Venn and ink “things on the front page of a university website” and “things people go to the front page looking for.”

A good sense of a school cannot really be had from its website, which might present a Potemkin village of excellence and good cheer. Nor can magazine rankings or a tool such as College Scorecard help all that much. My idiosyncratic suggestion: read the student newspaper, which will almost certainly be available online. Are the articles, columns, and editorials the work of students who are capable writers? Does their work suggest a good grasp of current events, culture, and history? Do articles focus on campus problems not mentioned in official sources?

Often assembled with little or no oversight from full-fledged grown-ups (faculty advisors), a student newspaper may offer an unfiltered (or just lightly filtered) picture of a school and its community. Prospective students and their families would do well to spend time reading.

Contrapuntalism in Japan

Sean at Contrapuntalism visits Tokyo stationery stores, one, and another one. Winning!

AP-Chicago feud

In the “news”: “At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English.”

Thanks to George Bodmer for this story.

Garlic, wild-style

Elaine writes about wild garlic.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Domestic comedy

“You can’t objectify me. You’re too subjectified!”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

Irving’s Toy & Card Shop

Watching the news last night: Brookline! Specifically, a story about Irving’s Toy & Card Shop. Ethel Weiss’s store (founded with her husband) has been in business on Harvard Street since 1939. Our fambly was in there some years ago. Now I want to go again. Watch: Candy shop owner going strong at 101 (CBS Evening News).

Irving’s has a YouTube presence: a report made for a college class by Steve Burns, and a mini-documentary by Brookline Interactive Group.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The World Book Encyclopedia

This Atlantic item makes me miss the World Book Encyclopedia of my childhood. The World Book was great for school reports, and perfect for the reading room, so-called.

“Here’s a post that might make you think of candy cigarettes”

Vinyl for the young: from Light in the Attic and (Jack White’s) Third Man Records, an LP titled This Record Belongs To          and a Children’s Turntable (33, 45, 78!). The LP includes, among others, Woody Guthrie, Ella Jenkins, Harry Nilsson, Van Dyke Parks, Nina Simone, and Miss Abrams & The Strawberry Point 4th Grade Class.

[Post title in the manner of The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd , revised twice for a stronger resemblance.]

September 11

[Thornton Dial, The Morning of the End of the World. 2001. Wood, clothing, carpet, enamel, and spray paint. 82 x 58 x 46 inches. Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio. From the collection of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation.]

Thornton Dial’s art also appears in September 11 posts from 2011 and 2013.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

A Nabokov schoolroom

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (1966).

This post is for my friend Sara, who was just dreaming of an oval mirror.

Related reading
All OCA Nabokov posts (Pinboard)

[The “schoolroom” is of course a room of Nabokov’s family’s own, with a private tutor.]

Domestic comedy

[In the aisle of Crunchy Stuff. ]

“It is my downfall. Also, my uplift.”

Related reading
All domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

[Even if that aisle can indeed be both, it’s best avoided.]

English American English

An English attempt “to do an advertisement in the American manner.” From the London publication Autocar, February 4, 1922:

Say, bud, jest haow do you calculate to buy an automobile? Do you act pensive after you’ve bought, or do you let a few facts form fours on your grey matter before you per-mit the local car agent to take a hack at your bank balance?

F’rinstance, what horse-power class do you aim to get into? Will your pocket bear a 20 h.p., and, if not, will a 10 h.p. bear your family? That’s the first problem, and the best way to answer it is to think what old friend Solomon would have done and cut th’ trouble in half by making your car an 11.9 — safe both ways up.

Wal, after you’ve laid out your cash an’ folded its arms on its little chest, there are just two people who are liable to hold you up for ransom; the tax-collector and and th’ polisman. Per-sonally, I give a polisman just nuthin’ and a tax-collector as little as George and Mary will let me. If I’m in the 11.9 h.p. class I can send the kids to school with th’ tax balance? Get me?

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).
Mencken adds: “Colloquial English is just as unfathomable to most Americans as colloquial American is to Englishmen.”

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

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

NYC schooldays

Today is the first day of school in New York City. The New York Times has a look at the first day in photographs through the decades. I like seeing the classroom windows (1957), the marbled composition-notebook (1961), and the briefcases (1961, 1975). Not book bags: briefcases. In the 1960s nearly every boy in my school, P. S. 131, Brooklyn, carried a briefcase. Was it a New York thing? Moving to New Jersey meant ditching my briefcase — one of many varieties of culture shock.

Here in east-central Illinois school begins in mid-August, with oppressively warm classrooms and early dismissal as the norm. A post-Labor Day start seems to me sane and humane.

The U of Iowa has a new president

His name is Bruce Harreld. Less than three percent of faculty who responded to a survey think he’s qualified. He will be earning $590,000 a year.

You can read more at the Chronicle of Higher Education , the New York Times , and Slate . Harreld’s job talk and answers to faculty and student questions may be found at YouTube. Many Iowa faculty may likely be found working on their exit strategies.


November 6, 2015: The President and The Yes Men. Thanks to Unknown.

Whitman’s last pencil

[“Walt Whitman’s pencil / the last used / Given me by John Burroughs / 1 April 1892.”]

From Walt Whitman at the Lilly, an Indiana University online exhibition: Whitman’s (alleged) last pencil. It’s a Dixon’s American Graphite. Click through for a much larger photograph and Whitman’s thoughts about pencils and their uses. (Hint: spoon .)

Related reading
All OCA pencil posts (Pinboard)

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Karr and Nabokov

Chapter Three of Speak, Memory, the source of a paragraph I posted earlier today, comes up in a new book by Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir. From a review:

Even Nabokov, whose Speak, Memory is praised extensively and poetically in one full chapter of Karr’s book, comes under fire for his pretentious indulgences later. “Nabokov devotes the third chapter of Speak, Memory to all his family estates and heraldry and his fancy-pants ancestors, Baron von So-and-So and Count Suck-On-This.”
It’s not clear to me that memorializing one’s ancestors is a matter of pretentious indulgence: to collect and recount the details of an aristocratic pedigree might be a gesture of mournful reverence. And the chapter’s brief discussion of heraldry is really about the workings of memory, Nabokov’s memory having at one point distorted the family crest beyond recognition. The estates and ancestors of this deeply Proustian chapter are the places and people of a lost world, now remembered or, at least, evoked. Fancy pants are not the point. As Nabokov writes later in the chapter,
My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property. My contempt for the emigre who “hates the Reds” because they “stole” his money and land is complete. The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.
Karr’s dismissal of estates and ancestors seems to me a form of snobbery in reverse: it’s okay to write your life if you come from a rough or messy background. But fancy-pants aristocrats, Keep Out.

The reviewer adds a parenthetical comment about the sentence from Karr:
(After laughing out loud at this line, I misread Karr’s Nabokov excerpt about “Prince Wittgenstein’s Druzhnoselie” as “Prince Wittgenstein’s Douchenozzle.”)
It’s sad to see such snark passing for lit crit.

Related reading
All OCA Nabokov posts (Pinboard)

A Nabokov digression

Carl Heinrich Graun: Nabokov’s great-grandfather Ferdinand von Korff’s great-grandfather. The “young explorer”: Nabokov’s great-grandfather Nikolay Aleksandrovich Nabokov. “[O]f all places”: because Zembla (not Nova Zembla) is the (supposed) homeland of Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire. This paragraph turns into an amusingly Kinbotean digression:

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (1966).

Related reading
All OCA Nabokov posts (Pinboard)

Monday, September 7, 2015

A letter to Martin Milner

In 2013 Elaine and I wrote to Martin Milner and George Maharis to express our appreciation for Route 66. Here is one of our letters:

Dear Mr. Milner,

We spent a good part of April, May, and June watching the complete run of Route 66 on DVD. We’re writing to thank you — fifty years late — for the terrific work you did as Tod Stiles. We greatly enjoyed the series’s writing, camerawork, and, especially, the acting. Among our favorite Tod-centric episodes are “The Thin White Line” and “The Cruelest Sea of All.”

It is amazing to see a series that can range from tragedy to comedy, even slapstick, while always making room for fisticuffs, poetry, and progressive jazz. We’re both in our fifties — too young to have paid attention to Route 66 the first time around, old enough now to realize how great the series was.

All best wishes, &c.
We received a letter from George Maharis, but we never heard from Martin Milner. I hope that he saw our letter.

Related reading
All OCA Route 66 posts (Pinboard)
Martin Milner (1931–2015)

Martin Milner (1931–2015)

The actor Martin Milner has died. From the Los Angeles Times obituary:

The red-haired, freckle-faced Milner had more than a dozen years of work in films and television behind him in 1960 when he began plying the highways and byways of America on Route 66 , portraying Yale dropout Tod Stiles opposite George Maharis’ streetwise New Yorker Buz Murdock.
Martin Milner is probably better known these days for his role as Officer Pete Malloy on Adam-12, but Route 66 is the better measure of his gifts.

Our household is a Route 66 -friendly zone.

Related reading
All OCA Route 66 posts (Pinboard)
A letter to Martin Milner

Recently updated

James Ward’s supplies Now with a reason why Mr. Ward should send his office supplies to me.

A Nancy Labor Day

[Nancy, September 7, 1953. Those rocks!]

From GoComics, Guy Gilchrist and John Lotshaw’s Random Acts of Nancy reprints single Ernie Bushmiller panels in colorized form. Scott McCloud’s Five Card Nancy is the inspiration.

Also from GoComics, Gilchrist’s Nancy and Bushmiller’s original Nancy strips (the latter running every day but Sunday).

Related reading
All OCA Nancy posts (Pinboard)

Labor Day

[“A. S. Gerdee, of 3251 Maypole(?) Street, working as a switchman at Proviso yard of C & NW RR, Chicago, Ill.” Photograph by Jack Delano. April 1943. Click for a larger view.]

The Library of Congress has made this photograph available via Flickr.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

From Jacob Bijani:, “a piece of paper in the cloud.”

How it works: Go to and you’ll see a white rectangle, suitable for typing. Your page will have its own URL —, followed by randomish letters and numbers. You can change the URL to something more recognizable and add a password if you like.

The advantage of over the also-nifty browser-notepad trick: with, you can compose or access text on any device via your URL. That appeals to the ten-year-old secret agent in me, hugely so. is way cool, and free.

I found my way to via a Daring Fireball link to a page of Safari extensions. I’m surprised that I’d never heard of this service before.


7:05 p.m.:’s bottom-of-the-screen options to change a URL, add or remove a password, and share a link appear to be unavailable in iOS 8.


November 16, 2016: Notepad is defunct. A reader recommends

A related post
Browser notepad

Saturday, September 5, 2015

James Ward’s supplies

“James Ward keeps his collection of office supplies at his mother’s house outside London because his flat in Brixton, which he shares with a roommate, is too small. He says his mother, a former librarian, has ‘come to terms’ with the arrangement”: “A Collector Sees the Potential in a Humble Paper Clip” (The New York Times).

September 7: I just hit page 114 in Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up : “Your parents’ home is not a haven for mementos.” And one page later: “Even if the house is large with rooms to spare, it is not some infinitely expanding fourth dimension.” Mr. Ward, heed Ms. Kondo’s words. Send your supplies to me.

Related reading
All OCA supplies posts (Pinboard)

[James Ward is the author of The Perfection of the Paper Clip: Curious Tales of Invention, Accidental Genius, and Stationery Obsession (2015).]

Big fish, little fish

[Field and Stream, May 1977. Click for a larger view.]

This advertisement makes me think of a novel I read this summer. Moby -something.

The thought of eating fish while fishing seems a little odd to me. But the thought of carrying sardines around in shirt pockets is a thought I am willing to entertain.

Time for lunch.

Related reading
All OCA sardine posts (Pinboard)

Friday, September 4, 2015

A Nabokov pencil

Vladimir is sick in bed, suffering from one of his “numerous childhood illnesses.” His mother has gone out to buy the daily present that went with illness. He visualizes her traveling down the street by sleigh and stopping at Treumann’s “(writing implements, bronze baubles, playing cards).” She leaves the shop, still in his mind’s eye, with her footman, who carries what appears to be a pencil. Why is she making the man carry a thing so small? And now she returns, and it turns out that the present had been, in Vladimir’s mind’s eye, “greatly reduced in size — perhaps, because I subliminally corrected what logic warned me might still be the dreaded remnants of delirium’s dilating world.”

Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory (1966).

Related reading, via Pinboard
All OCA Nabokov posts
All OCA pencil posts
All OCA Nabokov and pencils posts

Abdul-Jabbar on Sanders and Trump

An essay by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: “This is the difference between Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders” (The Washington Post). And Trump’s reply.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Word of the day: Waldeinsamkeit

Ella Frances Sanders, Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2014). Click for larger woods.

I wanted to post something from this book (thank you, Elaine), and this word seems to go well with today’s post about man-going-off-to-wooded-island. You can find ten more Sanders-illustrated words here.

Lost in Translation is a charming and imagination-provoking book, though its scholarship is sometimes amiss: at least one of its words has been called non-existent. Waldeinsamkeit is, of course, real. Ralph Waldo Emerson even wrote a poem about it. But if I hadn’t looked up the word elsewhere, I wouldn’t have known to capitalize it. (Sanders draws all words in all caps.) Lower-case lettering would be helpful, as would a pronunciation guide.

A related post
積ん読 [tsundoku]

From “Before Breakfast”

Henry Grenfell, a business man, is preparing for a solitary retreat to an island off the coast of Nova Scotia, “a bit of wooded rock in the sea.” His son Harrison, “a distinguished physicist at thirty,” enters as Grenfell is packing.

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

Such a slight story, and yet it contains so many elements of Cather’s fiction: a desire for permanence set against the inevitability of change, human finitude measured against cosmic time, a clash of cultures (humanist and scientific), and the drama of “the double life,” as Cather calls it elsewhere:

One realizes that human relationships are the tragic necessity of human life; that they can never be wholly satisfactory, that every ego is half the time greedily seeking them, and half the time pulling away from them.
Right now Grenfell is pulling away, moving toward his “private, personal, non-family life.” Like Godfrey St. Peter in The Professor’s House (1925), Henry Grenfell is outward bound.

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

xkcd survey

The latest installment of xkcd takes the reader to “a search for weird correlations.” It’s fun.

Word of the day: zucchini

[Shrouded in mystery.]

This file-folder label recently appeared in the breezeway between our house and garage. The label is almost certainly ours. It probably found its freedom during a recent garage-decluttering spree.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces zucchini to the Italian: “plural of zucchino (small) marrow, diminutive of zucca gourd.” The Dictionary calls zucchini “The usual word for the vegetable in N. America and Australia.” In British English, the vegetable is the courgette , from the French: “diminutive of courge gourd.”

As for marrow:

(Chiefly Brit .) any of various kinds of squash or gourd which are chiefly the fruits of varieties of Cucurbita pepo , eaten as a vegetable; esp . one of the larger round or cylindrical kinds with green, white, or striped skins and greenish-white or (occas.) yellowish pulpy flesh; (also) the plant producing these, a trailing or sometimes bushlike annual with deep yellow flowers.
So that explains the curious term vegetable marrow . The Dictionary says of this use of marrow that “It is unclear . . . whether the primary sense is ‘pith, inner pulp’ . . . or ‘richness (as of bone marrow).’”

What did the label label? I have no idea, but I am hoping that one of the younger members of the fambly might remember what this zucchini is all about. Note the backward z .

Idealists and ridicule

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

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

A Metropolis wink

[Brigitte Helm as the Maschinenmensch, the machine-human, the false Maria, in Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang, 1927).]

Wikipedia lists various Metropolis elements in pop music. I begin to wonder, at least semi-seriously, if Miley Cyrus’s wink isn’t one more bit of Metropolis.

The 2010 restoration of Metropolis , which I’ve finally gotten around to watching, is dazzling. Unlike, say, Miley Cyrus.

[The musical Miley of interest to me is Bubber.]

Hi and Lois watch

[Hi and Lois, September 1, 2015.]

It’s the dreaded wrong-way window-writing glitch. Sometimes Hi-Lo Amalgamated gets it right. Sometimes. But again and again things go wrong. And again. In Beetle Bailey, too. Am I looking at a meme, or at evidence of carelessness? I think it’s carelessness — as in “I could care less,” which is a careless way of putting it.

Related reading
All OCA Hi and Lois posts (Pinboard)