Thursday, December 31, 2015

New Year’s Eve 1915

[“New Year Revelers Crowd the Hotels: Largest Throngs in Years Entertained by Costly and Elaborate Programs.” The New York Times, January 1, 1916.]

Bagpipes, auto horns, sirens, fez horns, accordeons, pipes: 1915 knew how to make some noise. But the “fez horn” has me stumped. My best guess is that this term (which appears nowhere else in the Times ) is a bit of awkwardly inventive journalese for a shofar:

Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob Alfasi, a well-known halakhic authority whose life spanned the majority of the eleventh century, blew the shofar on the Sabbath in Fez, Morocco, when it coincided with Rosh Hashanah. He did so despite the fact that this practice was approved only for the Temple in Jerusalem, with a few notable exceptions.

Roberta Rosenthal Kwall, The Myth of the Cultural Jew: Culture and Law in Jewish Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
Or perhaps a fez horn is merely a party hat that doubles as a noisemaker. But only a shofar would be able to go up against bagpipes and auto horns and such. (And only when in the hands of a skilled player.)

I didn’t plan to go down a rabbit hole when I spotted this Times article. But now that I’m back: Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Aretha Franklin at the Kennedy Center Honors

If you didn’t see her performance last night, you should see it now, before it disappears.

How to improve writing (no. 62)

From the bag holding a baguette:

We consider our breads a work of art that honors the traditions and techniques of European bakers. Each of our loaves are baked in small batches and hand crafted to ensure the highest quality crust, flavor and texture.
It’s good bread. But not good writing. The mix of plural and singular words in the first sentence — breads , work , honors — is confusing. The plural loaves would seem to explain the subject-verb disagreement in the second sentence, an instance of what Garner’s Modern American Usage calls “false attraction to noun intervening between subject and verb.” I see at least three more ways to improve that second sentence.

A possible revision, allowing the hype to stand:
We consider each of our breads a work of art that honors the traditions and techniques of European bakers. Each variety is handcrafted and baked in small batches to ensure the highest quality crust, flavor, and texture.
The three more ways: joining hand and crafted to make the usual compound word, placing the cart (the handcrafting) before the horse (the baking), and adding a serial comma. Another possible revision, eliminating much of the hype:
Our bread honors the traditions and techniques of European bakers. We bake each variety in small batches to ensure excellent crust, flavor, and texture.
I’m not sure what counts as a small batch though.

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

[About hand and crafted : Merriam-Webster makes them a solid word. The Oxford English Dictionary joins them with a hyphen. The serial or Oxford comma is much debated, but as GMAU notes, “virtually all writing authorities” outside the world of journalism recommend using it. This post is no. 62 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

Bad news from the MLA

The Modern Language Association reports that the 2014–2015 job market in English and foreign languages was the worst in forty years: fewer jobs than ever, and a smaller percentage of tenure-track positions.

In 1984, when I was job-hunting, the MLA listed 1492 jobs in English, 1442 in foreign languages. The 2014–2015 numbers: 1015 jobs in English, 949 in foreign languages. In 1984, the great majority of listings were for tenure-track positions. In 2014–2015, two-thirds of the English listings (67.3%) and half of the foreign-language listings (50.4%) were tenure-track.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Another Henry gum machine

[Henry, December 29, 2015.]

At the risk of stating the obvious: one can never have too many streetside gum machines.

Related reading
All OCA Henry posts (Pinboard)

And more gum machines
Henry : Henry : Henry : Perry Mason : Henry : Henry : Henry : Henry : Henry

Cooper Hewitt Tupperware

Cooper Hewitt’s Object of the Day: a Tupperware Jel-N-Serve Food Mold.

A related post
Tupperware pencil

Honeymooners notebook sightings

[“You owe me a hundred and seventy-six dollars and thirty cents.”]

[“BEnsonhurst 0-7741.”]

[“Her husband’s busy on Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays, you know. Just make sure you call before six. The phone number is BEnsonhurst 0-7741. Got it? And her name is Alice Kramden.” Click on any image for a larger view.]

The world of The Honeymooners is not rich in stationery supplies. I imagine the Kramden apartment as holding just a pencil or two (sharpened no doubt with a knife) and a “writing tablet” for grocery lists and messages. “The Babysitter” (January 21, 1956) must be the most stationery-rich episode of the (endlessly syndicated) 1955–1956 season, with four — or is it just two? — pocket notebooks playing parts.

They are notebooks, not address books. Norton has been using his to track the cost of Ralph’s phone calls over the last fifteen years. Mrs. Simpson, a neighbor (uncredited), jots down Alice’s number to give to the Bartfelds, a couple in need of a babysitter. Mr. Bartfeld (Sid Raymond) recommends Alice to Harvey Wohlstetter (Frank Marth), who needs a babysitter. Wohlstetter writes down the number first. Granted, he could be making an entry under B (for babysitter ), but I’d rather imagine that he’s using a pocket notebook.

Related reading
All OCA Honeymooners posts (Pinboard)

And more notebook sightings
Angels with Dirty Faces : Cat People : Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne : Dragnet : Extras : Foreign Correspondent : Journal d’un curé de campagne : The House on 92nd Street : 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

Monday, December 28, 2015

Aisle 16

As seen in a Staples store earlier this evening. Should I have told someone? I deferred to Elaine and Rachel and kept my mouth shut. Maybe the store managers already know. Maybe the sign came back wrong and they’re waiting to replace it. Maybe for now they’re hoping no one says anything. The other signs for Aisle 16 were spelled correctly: stationery .

Have you seen this misspelling at your Staples?

Related reading
All OCA misspelling and signage posts (Pinboard)

Domestic comedy

“What a riot!”

“What a hoot!”

“Man, I’m bushed!”

[Our daughter Rachel is back for a few days and has spent some time reading through her childhood diaries and notebooks. Rachel was at times a dedicated diarist, one whose writerly voice, we have now learned, was heavily influenced by 1950s chapter books. These exclamations are from Rachel’s twelve-year-old diaristic self, used here with her grown-up self’s permission. That self is still given to saying “Holy Toledo!”]

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

Sunday, December 27, 2015

NPR watch

Heard on NPR this morning: “But years of hot, humid Caribbean weather has taken a toll on the author’s thousands of papers and books.”

And on subject-verb agreement. The years have taken a toll.

Related reading
All OCA NPR posts (Pinboard)

Robert Walser: “Is it Sunday today?”

Hedwig Tanner is speaking to her brother Simon:

Robert Walser, The Tanners , trans. Susan Bernofsky (New York: New Directions, 2009).

Related reading
All OCA Robert Walser posts (Pinboard)
Another Walser Sunday

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas 1915

[“Salesgirls’ Holiday Real Christmas Gift: Trying Season in Stores on Nerves and Muscles Ends with a Big Rush. A Big Year for Buying. ‘Shop Early’ Campaign Not Ineffective and Last Day’s Crush at Counters Has Been Worse.” The New York Times, December 25, 1915.]

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate it.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Toy talk

From The New York Times :

Baby laptops, baby cellphones, talking farms — these are the whirring, whiz-bang toys of the moment, many of them marketed as tools to encourage babies’ language skills.

But in the midst of the holiday season, a new study raises questions about whether such electronic playthings make it less likely that babies will engage in the verbal give-and-take with their parents that is so crucial to cognitive development.
Years ago, when Elaine was on the radio and I did the weekly grocery shopping, a produce clerk complimented me for talking all the time with my children — pointing things out, asking them questions, answering their questions. The clerk explained that he had noticed us over many visits. No doubt he saw all kinds of parents in that store.

The educational future that some envision — every child communing with a device — is not one I favor. Nothing beats talking with people. (Though I am curious about that farm.)

Typewriter repairers

Sean noticed my use of repairmen in a post about typewriters and handwriting. I chose the word repairmen eyes open (that is, aware of -men ), since “the last typewriter repairman” is a recurring bit of journalism. (Try it.)

But I just discovered Nellie Myra Thatcher (d. 1958), who repaired typewriters in New York and was described in 1919 as “the first woman typewriter ‘repairman.’” And I also just discovered that in 2010, Mariana Keller of The Wall Street Journal made a short film about Donna Brady, whom Keller calls a typewriter repairwoman. The workspace we see in that film does not suggest a repair shop (with tools, spare parts, and machines dropped off for fixing): Brady’s business seems to have been a matter of cleaning up and reselling typewriters at flea markets. (I can imagine a courtroom battle over the meaning of repair : does applying machine oil to a moving part count?) At any rate, the business, Type B, now appears to be on hiatus or closed.

And at any rate, I’ve added repairers to repairmen in my post, acknowledging the journalists’ phrasing but acknowledging too that not all those who repair are men. Thanks, Sean, for getting me to rethink it.

Related reading
All OCA typewriter posts (Pinboard)

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Recently updated

The Vinegar Flies Now with more flies.

Domestic comedy

[Elaine made a killer soup .]

“And you didn’t measure anything?”

“I measured two bunches of scallions and one onion.”

“That’s not measuring; that’s counting!”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

[No leeks at the supermarket. So instead: potatoes, scallions, an onion, chicken stock, butter, milk, salt. Elaine added more details in the comments.]

Typewriters and handwriting

A headline, seen by chance: “Could handwriting be going the way of typewriters?” The writer is wondering, of course, if handwriting is moving toward extinction. But it’s just as possible to hear the question as suggesting the rediscovery of a neglected (and perhaps beautiful) means of self-expression and communication.

It is unlikely, though, that there will be newspaper articles about the last handwriting repairmen, or repairers.

Related reading
All OCA handwriting and typewriter posts (Pinboard)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015


Oscar’s Day today is Proustian.

Robert Walser: winter

Robert Walser, The Tanners , trans. Susan Bernofsky (New York: New Directions, 2009).

Related reading
All OCA Robert Walser posts (Pinboard)

[Easy to miss its arrival yesterday. High: 56 °F. Low: 42 °F.]

Monday, December 21, 2015

Bukowski, Gavitsky

[“Slouching Toward Gavitsky,” Zippy, December 21, 2015.]

Dingburg’s Slouch Gavitsky channels Charles Bukowski. The poem in play is “The Shoelace.”

Related reading
All OCA liverwurst posts (Pinboard)
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)
Zippy and Bukowski

A 2016 calendar

[Nancy , December 10, 1955.]

There’s a new calendar from me, too, offered free of charge as a PDF (via Dropbox). It’s three months per page, in black and red Gill Sans Bold. I started making this kind of calendar in 2009, just to see if I could do it. (My inspiration was the Field Notes Calendar: I could not bring myself to spring for three or four of them.) Year by year, getting things right became easier. Now it’s a breeze.

The 2016 calendar contains the elusive “February 29.” Even with an extra day, the calendar comes in at only 34 KB. Stapler, hole punch, thumbtack, hammer, string, nail, wall not included.

[“End of the line, February! You’re through!”]

And while I’m thinking about the means by which I’m making this calendar available: if anyone can use a Dropbox referral code, this one’s mine. It brings extra free storage for any new user and for me.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Clutter, clutter, everywhere

From The New York Times, Paco Underhill on clutter, retail and domestic:

In supermarkets and big-box stores, the strategic placement of goods is essential in building incremental sales. The origins of the “stack it high and watch it fly” mentality come from the way goods were originally brought into big-box stores: via forklift. As a result, the aspirational spaces we all long for in our homes — clean, uncluttered, perhaps with a few white phalaenopsis orchids sprinkled around — are completely at odds with the stores we shop in.
He goes on to offer some good advice for “consumers” — which would be all of us.

[I have only a slight acquaintance with Underhill’s work. But I can recommend his 1999 book Why We Buy .]

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Today’s sponsor

I’d like to thank today’s sponsor, redd . Redd, for all your tidying needs. Sort, arrange, neaten, and reclaim valuable space with redd. Use the special promo code KLUTTA and receive a pair of white gloves with your first order, absolutely free.

[After one too many podcasts. It was Diane Schirf who mentioned redd .]

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Vinegar Flies

Old-timey. Our son Ben is on banjo.

But wait, there's more: “Snake River Reel.”


December 23: And still more: “The Bees” and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning.”

[To think that these two tykes grew up into the terrific adults they are.]

Saturday night dysfunction

“We’re playing the hand we were dealt. I guess Christmas Eve was booked”: Michael Briggs, a spokesman for the Bernie Sanders campaign, on the scheduling of Democratic presidential debates. There’s a debate tomorrow night, the last Saturday before Christmas and the night of a Jets–Cowboys game.

As a veteran of academic life, I am all too familiar with efforts to suppress genuine debate in the interest of pushing through what’s supposed to be a done deal. It saddens me to see the Democratic National Committee so transparently rig the game. I called the DNC contributions number this morning to say so: 877-336-7200.

[Post title with apologies to Duke Ellington.]

Got winter?

Out for a walk. And someone said, “Good morning! It got winter, didn’t it?”

It was 28 °F, so yes, it did. But I’d never heard that idiom before. Have you?

A quick search turned up a handful of examples. From northern California oral history: “it got winter and they built this lean-to or cache or whatever you might call it.” From a novel set in Kentucky: “It was like it got winter all at once.” From a Flickr photograph: “It got winter . . . a little.” Does winter here function as an adjective? Or does the idiom omit to be, as in the common-in-these-parts idiom need + past participle”? As in The car needs washed. Or maybe, soon, The snow needs shoveled.

Robert Walser: small towns

Simon Tanner tells Rosa that he would find employment in a small town “the most beautiful thing imaginable”:

Robert Walser, The Tanners , trans. Susan Bernofsky (New York: New Directions, 2009).

Related reading
All OCA Robert Walser posts (Pinboard)

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Mayberry mash-ups

A mash-up: “Webern in Mayberry,” by Michael Monroe. Which reminds me of another: “Single Ladies (In Mayberry),” by Party Ben.

Thanks, Elaine.

Related posts
Involuntary memory in Mayberry : Mayberry and abstraction : Mayberry and kinship networks

Barton Keyes’s office

[Double Indemnity (dir. Billy Wilder, 1944. Click any image for a larger view.]

Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson) is the claims manager for the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) is an agent. Keyes is Information Central. His vest pockets are crammed with pens and papers (and cigars). His office has three telephones, a Dictaphone, extra cylinders, books, papers, a desk calendar, wall charts, and file cabinets. Oh, those file cabinets.

Related posts
At the Queen Street Police Station (From Niagara)
Keyes on desks, pencils, and papers
Raymond Chandler in Double Indemnity

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

“Resounding words and flowery phrases”

From Bryan Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day:

The tendency to resort to polysyllabic vocabulary is not usually the fault of the user. His high school teachers may have encouraged him to indulge in resounding words and flowery phrases; perhaps because their teachers had never impressed upon them the virtue of simplicity.

Ellsworth Barnard, English for Everybody (1979).
The Usage Tip of the Day is available by e-mail only. Follow the link above, scroll down, and you’ll find the address to write to.

Related reading
All OCA Garner-centric posts (Pinboard)
Beware of the saurus
A wrong-headed “dead words” movement

“The most evil sounds in the world”

The sound recordist Tony Schwartz, in a piece from The Story , “Tony Schwartz: 30,000 Recordings Later”:

“Most people think of evil as the sounds of gunfire or thunder or lightning or something. I found and believe that the most evil sounds in the world are the sounds out of mouths of people.”
Having watched a fair amount of the “debates” last night, I found this observation hitting home when I heard it today.

Robert Walser: thinking while working

Simon Tanner is describing his daily routine:

Robert Walser, The Tanners , trans. Susan Bernofsky (New York: New Directions, 2009).

Related reading
All OCA Robert Walser posts (Pinboard)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mr. Hyphen and e-mail

The Washington Post is dropping the hyphen from e-mail . Bill Walsh, who calls himself “the keeper, more or less, of The Post’s style manual,” isn’t happy about having to make the change. I find his reasoning sound:

While it’s true that commonly used two-word or hyphenated compounds often solidify into single words over time, that had never before happened with a compound based on a single letter. We had T-shirts and X-rays for a long time before electronic mail showed up, but we still aren’t writing about tshirts and xrays .

For whatever reason, though, e-mail quickly became email as America went online.
I started walking through the alphabet: A- and B-list , C-clamp , D-Day , F-hole , G-spot, H-bomb. And, of course, e- words, all hyphenated: e-book , e-commerce , e-reader , e-tail , e-zine . Keeping the hyphen in e-mail seems a logical choice.

The title of the most popular post on this blog, How to e-mail a professor, has always had a hyphen. It’s old school.

Related posts
Bad hyphens, unhelpful abbreviations : “Every generation hyphenates the way it wants to” : Got hyphens? : The Hammacher Schlemmer crazy making hyphen shortage problem : Living on hyphens : Mr. Hyphen and Mr. Faulkner : One more from Mr. Hyphen : Phrasal-adjective punctuation

[Mr. Hyphen: protagonist of Edward N. Teall’s Meet Mr. Hyphen (And Put Him in His Place) (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1937), the subject of several of these hyphen-centric posts.]


[Mini Puzzle, The New York Times, December 15, 2015.]

It’s difficult to say that this clue-and-answer pairing is plainly wrong. Merriam-Webster’s discussion of disinterested notes that the word was first used to mean “not having the mind or feelings engaged, not interested” and that this meaning reappeared in the early twentieth century:

The revival has since been under frequent attack as an illiteracy and a blurring or loss of a useful distinction. Actual usage shows otherwise.
Garner’s Modern American Usage thinks a distinction between uninterested and disinterested is
still best recognized and followed because disinterested captures a nuance that no other word quite does. . . .

A disinterested observer is not merely “impartial” but has nothing to gain from taking a stand on the issue in question.
I like (and honor) the distinction. If disinterested describes an observer with nothing to gain, why use the word in place of a word that has a much wider application?

But there’s a Higher Authority that has a bearing on this clue-and-answer. “The New York Times” Manual of Style and Usage (2015) distinguishes between disinterested and uninterested: “Disinterested means unbiased or impartial; uninterested means bored or indifferent.”

So by Times standards, clueing BORED with disinterested is

Monday, December 14, 2015

At the Queen Street Police Station

[O Canada! Click for a much larger view.]

Elaine and I both loved this glimpse of office life from Niagara (dir. Henry Hathaway, 1953). Map. Advertising calendar, I think. Rolling chair. Outgoing Mail. And those file drawers. The desk may be a shared one: there’s a framed picture facing away from Sam. Yes, his name is Sam. He’s played by Sean McClory (uncredited), whom I know as Mr. Grace in John Huston’s The Dead (1987).

Niagara is a gripping film, even if its trajectory is easy to foresee. Vacationers George and Rose Loomis (Joseph Cotten and Marilyn Monroe) are a horribly mismatched, tragically fated couple. Fellow vacationers Polly and Ray Cutler (Jean Peters and Max Showalter) are all daylight, laughter, and healthy sexuality. I think of Cotten as a cool, composed presence on screen: but not so here. The early scene in which he pauses in his model-car building to finger an empty Chesterfield pack (as Monroe showers) speaks volumes.

Thanks to Chris at Dreamers Rise for mentioning Niagara .

Domestic comedy

[Elaine observed that this Christmas season has been her busiest as a musician .]

“Is that all Christmas is to you? A great big dollar sign atop a tree?”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

[Elaine too has succumbed to the fatal attraction of Hallmark. So she immediately understood what I was up to with this bit of fake indignation.]

Sunday, December 13, 2015


Checking Twitter for the various acronymic hashtags that go with the life of my university, I see things I’d rather not see. A case in point: a house-party announcement with the slogan Fuck Finals . Finals week starts tomorrow.

As a student, I found finals a source of tremendous stress, never having any idea what they’d look like. I always secretly anticipated that a final might take the form of a single trivia question: What is the name of the third courtier in act 3, scene 2? So I can understand not liking finals. I can understand hating finals. But I can’t understand conspiring to make a travesty of your own educational endeavor.

I used to tell my students: When you tweet to proclaim how stupid your classes are or how drunk you are or to show someone passed out on a floor, you cheapen your degree and the degree of every student from our school. When you add a university-related hashtag, it’s worse.

Related posts
Homeric blindess in colledge (Stupidity and social media)
How to do well on a final exam
How to do horribly on a final exam


Listening to Frank Sinatra’s 1954 recording of “Sunday,” I was slightly startled to realize that the song depicts American life before the institution of the weekend. Here is my transcription of the lyric, from the first recording, by Jean Goldkette:

I’m blue every Monday, thinking over
That one day when I’m with you
It seems that I sigh all day Tuesday
I cry all day Wednesday
Oh my, how I long for you

And then comes Thursday
Gee it’s long, it never goes by
Friday makes me feel
Like I’m gonna die

But after pay day, that’s my fun day
I shine all day Sunday
That one day when I’m with you
See? Saturday is pay day, the end of the workweek.

Wikipedia has a brief account of the development of the American two-day weekend, which began with a New England mill in 1908. The first union contract with a five-day workweek was negotiated in 1929. But “it was not until 1940, when a provision of the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act mandating a maximum 40 hour workweek went into effect, that the two-day weekend was adopted nationwide.” “Sunday,” by Ned Miller, Chester Conn, Jule Styne, and Bennie Kreuger, comes from the 1926 revue The Merry World.

Related reading
All OCA Frank Sinatra posts (Pinboard)

[Why Goldkette? Sinatra takes liberties with the lyrics here and there.]

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Recently updated

A small press v. the Salinger estate Now with more details.

Here’s a good way to reduce a college classroom to rapt silence

Post title from experience — and it was a classroom in which no student had ever heard the song, by anyone. The guitarist is Tony Mottola.

Related reading
All OCA Frank Sinatra posts (Pinboard)

Mark Trail revised

[Mark Trail , December 12, 2015.]

[Mark Trail revised, December 12, 2015.]

At least Frank would be home more often.

Related reading (via Pinboard)
All OCA Mark Trail posts
All OCA Frank Sinatra posts

[Now playing: “I Won’t Dance.”]

Frank Sinatra centenary

[Photograph by John Dominis. 1965. From the Life Photo Archive.]

Frank Sinatra was born on December 12, 1915.

This photograph appears to come from the work John Dominis did for the Life feature “The Private World and Thoughts of Frank Sinatra” (April 23, 1965). This photograph did not make the magazine. It’s a curious image: Sinatra looks both young and scrawny (front) and old and pudgy (back). You can see the bald despite the towel around his head. Such a photograph might seem to suggest that Sinatra was just an ordinary guy: he shaved himself one cheek at a time, just like the rest of us. But I say no: because when Sinatra looked into the mirror when shaving, he saw Frank Sinatra looking back.

Sinatra’s voice is among my earliest musical memories. (Thanks, Dad.) I listen often and will be listening today.

Related reading
All OCA Frank Sinatra posts (Pinboard)

[The plastic container on the left? “W. H.”: witch hazel.]

Friday, December 11, 2015

Recently updated

A small press v. the Salinger estate Devault-Graves ends its lawsuit.

Age and happiness

From an interview with Dilip V. Jeste, M.D., a geriatric neuropsychiatrist. He is talking about age and happiness and wisdom. He recently turned seventy:

Q: Are you happier now than you were, say, ten or twenty years ago?

A: Absolutely. I feel that I know myself better, both my limitations and strengths, and I don’t pay as much attention to what others might think of me. So there’s less peer pressure.

For example, the research I am doing right now on successful aging and wisdom, I’ve been doing that now for the last ten years or so — I don’t think I would have done that when I was younger, because it is risky to do research in these areas. . . . Thirty-five years ago, I would have worried about my reputation and so on. Now I feel that I am well-established, and if somebody doesn’t like that, so be it. And now I feel confident enough to continue working on them.
From “Late Bloomers,” a episode of the radio show To the Best of Our Knowledge . I’m happy that I’m giving the show a chance again.

[Transcription mine.]

Robert Walser: “Ah, how lovely”

Robert Walser, “The Metropolitan Street,” in Berlin Stories , trans. Susan Bernofsky (New York: New York Review Books, 2012).

Related reading
All OCA Robert Walser posts (Pinboard)

[Shades of Frank O’Hara.]

New directions in housing

An NPR commentator: “We lived in a two-story house in the basement.”

That must have been some basement.

A possible revision: “We lived in the basement of a two-story house.”

Related reading
All OCA NPR posts (Pinboard)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Hallmark ex machina

“Guys, guys, guys, okay, listen to this. My trusted producer Monica just gave me the most amazing news in the world. Apparently, while we were broadcasting, affiliates across the country were inundated with phone calls from people who want to donate to the Arts Center. Monica set up a Kickstarter fund, and we have raised $264,000 and counting. And they want to know where they can buy your paintings. It’s unbelievable. Apex has met its match. We're going to keep the Arts Center!”

“That’s awesome!”
Awesome and unbelievable, which might be the same thing. Dialogue from The Christmas Parade (dir. Jonathan Wright, 2014). It’s at YouTube, at least for a little while, which saved me from having to wait until tomorrow to watch again and record this bit of dialogue. Yes, I am a prisoner of Hallmark Movies and Mysteries. Seek help I shall — but not before Christmas.

[“And they want to know where they can buy your paintings”: that is, the hunky guy’s paintings.]

Robert Walser: “nothing less than ghastly”

Robert Walser’s first novel The Tanners (1907) begins with Simon Tanner entering a bookstore and pleading for the chance to work there. The bookseller gives him a one-week trial. That’s long enough for Simon to make up his mind:

Robert Walser, The Tanners , trans. Susan Bernofsky (New York: New Directions, 2009).

The Tanners is a deliriously funny and odd novel. Walser’s prose takes on a special strangeness in an extended narrative: characters speechify for pages on end; they undertake difficult, interminable walks; crucial events come out of nowhere and pass with no further mention. It’s something like reading a novel that has lost the ability to remember its narrative line from chapter to chapter. I love it.

I count Robert Walser and David Schubert as two great lucky finds in my life of reading. In other words, writers whose names might prompt a “Who?” (Though Walser was and is now far better known than Schubert.)

Related reading
All OCA Robert Walser posts (Pinboard)

Phrases to confuse

From Oxford Dictionaries, a quiz: American phrases to confuse Brits. For example (and note the single quotation marks):

If something ‘jumped the shark’, then it:
○ Escaped from a dangerous situation
○ Began a period of inexorable decline in
    quality or popularity
○ Avoided payment of overdue loans
○ Went down to Florida for the winter
There’s also an Oxford quiz with British phrases to confuse Americans. That quiz is more difficult, objectively speaking.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Willa Cather on light and shade

The sky for the past few days has been grey or white. This morning it’s blue, with sharp low sun, as if a desk lamp were shining on the streets. The only grey and white today are faint clouds on the horizon, the prairie version of mountains. Out on a walk, I thought of Willa Cather:

Nobody can paint the sun, or sunlight. He can only paint the tricks that shadows play with it, or what it does to forms. He cannot even paint those relations of light and shade — he can only paint some emotion they give him, some man-made arrangement of them that happens to give him personal delight — a conception of clouds over distant mesas (or over the towers of St. Sulpice) that makes one nerve in him thrill and tremble. At bottom all he can give you is the thrill of his own poor little nerve — the projection in paint of a fleeting pleasure in a certain combination of form and colour, as temporary and almost as physical as a taste on the tongue.

“Light on Adobe Walls,” in Willa Cather on Writing: Critical Studies of Writing as an Art . 1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1988. First published 1920.
Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

William Maxwell on his habit of work

From his 1982 Paris Review interview:

I like to work in my bathrobe and pajamas, after breakfast, until I suddenly perceive, from what’s on the page in the typewriter, that I’ve lost my judgment. And then I stop. It’s usually about twelve thirty. But I hate getting dressed. The cleaning woman (who may not approve of it, though she’s never said), my family, the elevator men, the delivery boy from Gristedes — all of them are used to seeing me in this unkempt condition. What it means to me is probably symbolic — you can have me after I’ve got my trousers on, but not before. When I retired from The New Yorker they offered me an office, which was very generous of them because they’re shy on space, but I thought, “What would I do with an office at The New Yorker ? I would have to put my trousers on and ride the subway downtown to my typewriter. No good.”
Other William Maxwell posts
On childhood and familiar objects : On “the greatest pleasure there is” : On Melville and Cather : On sentences

[Gristedes: a New York supermarket chain.]

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Trump, go home

In today’s New York Times, a reporter travels to Donald Trump’s old neighborhood in Queens :

“People always ask, ‘Where are the moderate Muslims?’” Ali Najmi, 31, a defense lawyer and a co-founder of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, said during a discussion after prayers at the Arafa Islamic Center. “We’re right here; we’re right in Donald Trump’s neighborhood. He needs to come back home.”
In a little corner of my imagination, I sometimes wonder whether Trump’s candidacy is an elaborate thought-experiment, something like Jane Elliott’s blue eyes–brown eyes classroom exercise. But I know I’m just imagining things.

The pompous style in Nancy

[Nancy , April 18, 1966. Via Random Acts of Nancy .]

He must be an Honors student.

“The pompous style” is a key term in Michael Harvey’s The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2013):

So accustomed are we to the pompous style as the voice of authority that students can’t be blamed for thinking it the way they should write in school. Indeed, our educational institutions — ahem, schools — do much to encourage this belief. Children learn to read and write short, plain sentences — “See Spot run” — then grow older and begin to write as if “Observe Spot in the process of running” were somehow an improvement. By the time they arrive at college, almost all revere formality in and of itself as the mark of good writing. And by and large they learn to write like George Eliot’s self-important man of business, Borthrop Trumbull, talked: “Things never began with Mr. Trumbull: they always commenced.”
A related post
A wrongheaded “dead words” movement

[The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing was my favorite book for teaching college writing: small, inexpensive, beautifully written, sane. I recommend it to all students and teachers.]

Monday, December 7, 2015

I am a prisoner of Hallmark Movies and Mysteries

[A plucky young mom is about to be evicted, or fired, or something. ]

“But it’s Christmas Eve!”

Of course it’s Christmas Eve, you fool. But what were you expecting — a drop of human kindness? Forget it: you’re on the Hallmark Movies and Mysteries Channel. But all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well, in another ninety minutes or so.

I am a prisoner of Hallmark Movies and Mysteries, and I’m not proud of it. The blame though rests with my daughter Rachel: it was her enthusiasm that got me started. We both love the awfulness.

HMM: for those times when you don’t want to think very hard. Or at all.

[With apologies to Julian of Norwich.]

Comics synchronicity

“Breaking news”: Mutts and, more darkly, Oscar’s Portrait .

And here’s another recent installment of Oscar’s Portrait about watching the news. That’s how I feel when I put the news on.

A baker’s dozen

Thirteen films I recommend with enthusiasm, more or less in the order of viewing:

Berlin Alexanderplatz (dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1980) The fifteen-and-a-half-hour-long story of the fall and fall of Franz Biberkopf (Günter Lambrecht), a Weimar everyman, by turns brutish and tender. His release from prison (the story’s beginning) is a reëntry into another prison. Fassbinder’s epilogue (“My Dream of the Dream of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Döblin, An Epilogue”) is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a film.


Black Angel (dir. Roy William Neill, 1946). Amateur sleuths Catherine Bennett (June Vincent) and Martin Blair (Dan Duryea) attempt to clear Bennett’s husband of a murder charge before he is executed. With Peter Lorre as a sinister nightclub owner.


Der Anständige [The decent one] (dir. Vanessa Papa, 2014). A portrait of Heinrich Himmler that draws upon diaries, letters, memoranda, and photographs. Himmler’s letters to his wife sound like those of a husband traveling on business. But this husband is traveling to ghettos and death camps. In a conversation with the director (included on the DVD), Errol Morris calls Der Anständige “one of the most disturbing films I’ve ever seen.”


Duke Ellington: Love You Madly (dir. Ralph J. Gleason, 1965). Ellington in public and in private — playing a club and a festival, visiting Grace Cathedral (the site for the first of his three Sacred Concerts), lying down in a bathrobe backstage, playing a tape of work in progress. With a glimpse of Ellington walking through a hotel lobby with a woman I’m almost certain is Beatrice Ellis (aka Evie Ellington), his many-years, rarely photographed partner.


For Your Consideration (dir. Christopher Guest, 2006). We saw it when it came out and were unimpressed. We gave it a second chance and loved it, perhaps because we now know a little more about “the business.” With Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Harry Shearer, and other Guest players.


Love and Mercy (dir. Bill Pohlad, 2014). Paul Dano and John Cusack are persuasive Brian Wilsons. Elizabeth Banks is a compassionate and gentle Melinda Ledbetter (later Wilson). Paul Giamatti is a terrifying Eugene Landy. Not a bad film, as I feared it would be. An aside: given the YouTube clips of recent live shows, I think that love and mercy for Brian Wilson right now would mean an end to touring.


The Man Who Never Was (dir. Ronald Neame, 1956). What might be called a military procedural, tracing the development of Operation Mincemeat, whose goal was to mislead German forces about the Allied invasion of Sicily. Perhaps Clifton Webb’s finest 103 minutes.


The Mortal Storm (dir. Frank Borzage, 1940). Family ties and friendships dissolve in the aftermath of Hitler’s rise to power. With Frank Morgan, James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Robert Young, and a memorable turn by Maria Ouspenskaya.


Possessed (dir. Curtis Bernhardt, 1947). Joan Crawford as an obsessive rejected lover. That is all ye need to know.


True Story (dir. Rupert Goold, 2015). The relationship between a journalist and a man accused of murder who (briefly) assumed the reporter’s identity. The relationship is a mutual exploitation society: a reporter in search of a great story and a defendant in search of — what? Based on a memoir by the former New York Times writer Michael Finkel, with Jonah Hill as Finkel and James Franco as Christian Longo.


Spotlight (dir. Thomas McCarthy, 2015). The effort of Boston Globe journalists to determine the full extent of priestly abuse and Church coverup is inspiring. This film reminded Elaine and me of The Wire : like that series, this film focuses on institutions and a small band of investigators. I think Spotlight is a good bet to win Best Picture.


Beyond the Mat (dir. Barry W. Blaustein, 1999). A documentary about professional wrestlers, in and out of the squared circle. Funny, grotesque, and often deeply moving. A reader named Frank recommended this film in a comment on a 2014 post about documentaries. I’m glad I watched. (And I will admit to having watched Andre the Giant, Pedro Morales, George “The Animal” Steele, Chief Jay Strongbow and all the rest on UHF television in my teenaged years. I loved it.)


The Daytrippers (dir. Greg Mottola, 1996). A woman finds what appears to be a love letter to her husband. She travels with her family from Long Island to Manhattan to ask him about it. With Hope Davis, Pat McNamara, Anne Meara, Parker Posey, Liev Schreiber, and Stanley Tucci. Great writing (by Mottola): “Would you like some Entenmann’s?” Yes, that’s the way we roll, or rolled. According to the New York Times review, this film was shot in sixteen days. It would appear to be a largely unknown treasure.

Reader, what have you found that’s worth watching?

A related post
A baker’s dozen, plus one

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Leaving empty-handed

I dropped Elaine at her Nutcracker and drove through an end-of-Casablanca fog to browse in a chain bookstore, the one I (perversely) call Barnes and Nobles. No Mrs. Dalloway . No William Maxwell. No gaps to suggest that they’d recently left the shelves. No Robert Walser’s Looking at Pictures . That one I just wanted to see in a store.

If the book scene is sad, the music scene is sadder still. No Ellington. No Miles Smiles — an arbitrary absence, I admit. (There were just two Miles Davis CDs.) No Concert by the Sea . That one, too, I just wanted to see in a store.

It’s sad when leaving a bookstore empty-handed becomes routine.

The New York Times : “End the Gun Epidemic in America”

The New York Times has a front-page editorial today, the first since 1920: “End the Gun Epidemic in America.” An excerpt:

It is a moral outrage and a national disgrace that civilians can legally purchase weapons designed specifically to kill people with brutal speed and efficiency. These are weapons of war, barely modified and deliberately marketed as tools of macho vigilantism and even insurrection. America’s elected leaders offer prayers for gun victims and then, callously and without fear of consequence, reject the most basic restrictions on weapons of mass killing, as they did on Thursday. They distract us with arguments about the word terrorism. Let’s be clear: These spree killings are all, in their own ways, acts of terrorism.

Opponents of gun control are saying, as they do after every killing, that no law can unfailingly forestall a specific criminal. That is true. They are talking, many with sincerity, about the constitutional challenges to effective gun regulation. Those challenges exist. They point out that determined killers obtained weapons illegally in places like France, England and Norway that have strict gun laws. Yes, they did.

But at least those countries are trying. The United States is not. Worse, politicians abet would-be killers by creating gun markets for them, and voters allow those politicians to keep their jobs. It is past time to stop talking about halting the spread of firearms, and instead to reduce their number drastically — eliminating some large categories of weapons and ammunition.
I have just discovered, via this helpful website, that my representative in Congress, John Shimkus (R, Illinois-15), has in the course of his political career received $31,050 from the NRA. Representative Shimkus is up for reëlection in 2016. He may be best known for saying that we don’t need to worry about rising sea levels, because “God said the earth would not be destroyed by a flood.” In my household, Shimkus is also known for unwittingly likening Bruce Rauner to Benito Mussolini. I have called Representative Shimkus’s office before; I will be calling again on Monday.

On a brighter note, Illinois senator Mark Kirk was the only Senate Republican to vote this week to prohibit people on the F.B.I.’s terrorist watchlist from purchasing guns or explosives. I will be calling Senator Kirk’s office on Monday, too.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Repurposeful art deco

Cooper Hewitt’s Object of the Day: Ruth Gerth’s 1931 “Glow Lamp,” a beautiful piece of repurposeful art deco. (Click through: I’m keeping its secret.)

My dad liked to repurpose: sardine tins as stamp holders, shaving-cream caps as paper-clip cups. Our household likes to repurpose, too, in all sorts of ways: bakeware as a laptop stand, a cardboard box as a blog post (really), a cork and a doorstop as iPad stands, a dish drainer as a file tray, tea tins as index-card holders, a thermostat as a paperweight.

Reader, what household objects have you repurposed?

James Schuyler reads

James Schuyler’s first public poetry reading, at the age of sixty-five, Dia Art Foundation, New York, November 15, 1988.

My favorites among the poems here: “Salute” (8:43), “February” (16:00), “A Stone Knife” (27:12), “A Man in Blue”(29:30), “December” (33:13), “Money Musk” (37:31), and “What Ails My Fern?” (42:28).

And courtesy of Google Books, here is the 1894 source for the title of that last poem.

Other Schuyler posts
From Alfred and Guinevere : Mildred Bailey, the stars, and us : A poem for the day : Willa Cather and James Schuyler

William C. Gerrity (1929–2015)

The Hollywood Reporter reports that William C. Gerrity, assistant director for the television series Naked City, has died at the age of eighty-six. Gerrity worked on 118 of the show’s 138 episodes. He also worked on A Face in the Crowd, The Boys in the Band, The French Connection, and other films.

Regular readers are likely to know that our household is hugely devoted to the Naked City series.

Related reading
All OCA Naked City posts (Pinboard)

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Art Store

Art Store , by the artist Barry Fellman, recreates the now-defunct Pearl Paint flasgship store (308 Canal Street, New York, New York):

The installation pays homage to this icon of the art community which provided both the great and the novice artist with their canvas, paint and brushes from the time of the Great Depression in 1933 to the closing of its last store earlier this year.

Art Store also highlights the ever dwindling support for art education in schools today as a result of budget cuts and the reallocation of funding from arts to other areas. Many public school teachers are left to purchase supplies out of their own pockets.
I am fortunate to live within driving distance of an independent art-supply store, the Art Coop in Urbana, Illinois. Like bookstores, record stores, and stationery stores, art-supply stores are an endangered species.

[Via Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York.]

“Lush Life” plus

Chris Albertson (writer, producer, Bessie Smith biographer) has posted the 1964 recording of Billy Strayhorn performing “Lush Life.” But it’s a recording with a difference: preceding the performance is a conversation between Duke Ellington and the radio personality William B. Williams. As their conversation makes clear, this performance was being broadcast on WNEW. Oh 1964 airwaves.

Related reading
Billy Strayhorn centenary

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Days and shootings

In the United States in 2015, mass shootings are outnumbering the days of the year: 336 days, 355 mass shootings. And we still do not have a majority of legislators willing to stand up to the NRA and enact stricter gun-control laws.

A wrongheaded “dead words” movement

“The goal is livelier writing. The result can be confusion”: “‘Use More Expressive Words!’ Teachers Bark, Beseech, Implore” (The Wall Street Journal ).

Removing empty words such as really from formal prose is a good thing. But for teachers to ban, say, I , it , said , see , walk , and why as “dead words”: that way madness lies. Such teachers fail to understand that putting in “better” words is not the way to better writing, and that plain words typically offer the most intelligent way to say what needs to be said. Dressing up in an awkward costume doesn’t make a writer look smart. It makes a writer look awkward — and dumb. Did I peruse the tome? No, I read the book.

The dumbness of one board of education’s “Said is Dead” list may be seen in its details: spieled , whistled , and verbalized, for instance, are preposterous substitutes for said. And miffed is not a substitute at all. (“Dumb list,” he miffed.) At least they were smart enough to leave out ejaculated .

From The Elements of Style, fourth edition:

Inexperienced writers not only overwork their adverbs but load their attributives with explanatory verbs: “he consoled,” “she congratulated.” They do this, apparently, in the belief that the word said is always in need of support, or because they have been told to do it by experts in the art of bad writing.
Note especially the last sixteen words.

Related posts
Beware of the saurus : Ending a sentence with it

Nabokov: “Dixon Pink Anadel!”

Dr. Van Veen has been summoned to England to investigate a “teasy problem,” “a singular case of chromesthesia” in one Spencer Muldoon, forty, and blind from birth:

Vladimir Nabokov, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle (1969).

I first thought that Anadel might be an invented anagram (it’s that kind of novel), but Anadel Colored Pencils were a genuine Dixon product.

Has any writer had more to say about pencils than Nabokov? I don’t think so.

Related reading
All OCA Nabokov posts (Pinboard)

Henry hat

[Henry , December 2, 2015.]

It’s been a long time since I last saw a pirate hat made of newspaper. Or, more lawfully, a sailor hat. I am happy to know that this hat is still a “thing.”

Related reading
All OCA Henry posts (Pinboard)

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A note to the Google Maps lady

It’s “Easton, Pennsylvania,” not “Easton Pa.” Pa is down at the Crayola factory, picketing to bring back Raw Sienna.

At the Museum of the City of New York

After just two visits, the Museum of the City of New York, or the City Museum, has become one of our household’s favorite museums. We visited last week for the Folk City and Jacob Riis exhibits. A surprise: an exhibit of photographs by Carl Van Vechten. One reason I like smaller museums: they change the pace of museum-going. With less schlepping about, I find it easier to take my time. Elaine and I spent a good two-and-a-half hours in the Museum and could easily have spent more. (There are at least seven other exhibits now on view, three of which we had already seen.)

Even getting around the City Museum has its attractions. A spiral staircase is likely to wow younger and older visitors alike. A plain old stairwell is an exhibit in itself, with photographs and observations about New York on its walls. (The entryway reads: “This Is New York’s Most Exciting Stairwell.”) From Lewis Mumford (1979): “New York is the perfect model of a city, not the model of a perfect city.”

Here’s a photograph that gives a good idea of the stairwell. And here’s an OCA post from 2014, also singing the Museum’s praises.


[On the 6 train headed downtown. Three young men discuss boxing promotion as they share a package of Gummi Bears. ]

“I think about it synergistically.”

Related reading
All OCA “overheard” posts (Pinboard)