Sunday, July 31, 2016

Prophecy of the day

“By the year 2000 there’ll be thirty-six TV stations, twenty-four hours a day, telling you what to think”: Cyril Bender (Phil Davis), in High Hopes (dir. Mike Leigh, 1988).

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Everybody and his brother is or are

A reader (and writer) asked: “everybody and his brother is ,” or “everybody and his brother are ”?

My answer: is . I consulted Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016), The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms (1997), and The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (1989) and found nothing. My homemade argument for is is that the phrase everybody and his brother is an intensification of everybody , which takes a singular verb. When you think about it, everybody already includes that brother.

Google search results support is — which is not to say that whatever is more frequent is right. But the numbers are telling:

everybody . . . are : 10,400
everybody . . . is : 60,700
everyone . . . are : 32,500
everyone . . . is : 178,000
The Google Ngram Viewer shows everybody . . . is and everyone . . . is as the preferred forms in our time (though from 1947 to 1953, everybody . . . are ruled). For whatever reason, the Ngram Viewer shows nothing for everyone . . . are , and it shows everybody . . . is dropping steadily since 1995 as everyone . . . is rises. My guess is that everyone is winning because it’s the shorter word.

After doing all that looking, I found a post by the linguist Arnold Zwicky about everybody and his — suffice it to say that a naughty comic strip prompts his investigation. Zwicky’s conclusion about is and are: “Either choice is acceptable (and reasonable) — there’s no One Right Way — though there’s often a considerable preference for one choice in practice.”

My correspondent and I agree that is is less likely to call attention to itself than are . I would hope everybody and his brother agrees.

Friday, July 29, 2016

PBS, sheesh

David Brooks, earlier this evening on the PBS NewsHour : “Every pundit, from Mark and I on down . . . .”

From Mark and me . Watch or read here.

Related reading
All OCA sheesh posts (Pinboard)

Compare with or to

Bryan Garner glosses compare with and compare to :

The usual phrase has for centuries been compare with , which means “to place side by side, noting differences and similarities between” <let us compare his goals with his actual accomplishments>. Compare to = to observe or point only to likenesses between <he compared her eyes to limpid pools>.

Compare and contrast is an English teacher’s tautology, for in comparing two things (one thing with another) one notes both similarities and differences.
Persnickety children and young adults: raise your hands and correct your teachers. Do it this fall!

Related reading
All OCA Bryan Garner posts (Pinboard)

[Orange Crate Art is a Garner-friendly zone.]

Weather in the air

“I remember a flat, tinny male voice, most likely not a ‘voice talent’”: Diane Schirf writes about weather radios. Follow the links and you’ll meet up with Mark Trail and the four voices of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Weather Radio: Donna, Javier, Paul, and Tom.

[Diane Schirf has written about a number of “relics”: clotheslines and push mowers, for instance.]

Two Guys

An unexpected benefit of decluttering our laundry room: I was reunited with a bottle of Revere Ware Copper Cleaner bearing a Two Guys price sticker. Two Guys was a discount department-store chain; I worked in a Two Guys housewares department through two or three years of college. I must have brought the copper cleaner with me (along with some familial Revere Ware) when I left New Jersey for Boston in 1980. This bottle traveled around with me, with Elaine and me, with Elaine and Rachel and Ben and me, for thirty-six years.

I have thrown the bottle away, but I had to save the (slightly damaged) sticker. It now stands in a frame with another piece of found ephemera.

I remember well the men and women I worked with at Two Guys. John, who showed me how to use the shrink-wrap machine, treating every step as if it were a matter of life and death. (I understood only later: he was a vet.) Doug, refugee from the Bronx (“I’m bookin’”). Another Doug, who would reprice Farberware boxes for family and friends. Michael, who was surprised that my family had potatoes with dinner, just as I was surprised that his family had rice. Dave, who had lost his dry-cleaning business and couldn’t see well enough to manage the numbers on the pricing gun (everyone helped him out). Vickie, who spent several hours curled up in a garbage can one day. It was a clean can — merchandise, back in the can aisle. (God knows what might have happened had a customer lifted the lid.) Eric, assistant department manager, who would head back to the stockroom for an occasional dose of Southern Comfort. (He was quite open about it.) Don, department manager, with a child on the way, and the company beginning to sink. Elaine, our other department manager, whose chipped front tooth only made her more attractive. All the guys dug Elaine. Yes, she knew it.

Here is a strange, depressing Two Guys commercial. Here is some Two Guys background from Pleasant Family Shopping. And here is an Orange Crate Art post about “going on break.”

[“Elaine and me”: my wife and me, not my manager and me.]

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Lobby doors

From a New York Times article about money and the Democratic elite:

Occasionally, as bellhops leapt to open the lobby doors for another guest, the chants of protesters outside could be dimly heard.
“Lobby doors” — get it? I think that the pun is intended.

[Every time I talk myself into thinking that I have to vote for Hillary Clinton, I read or see something that makes me say no . Hamlet, anyone?]

Recently updated

Waste in education With more from Caroline Pratt.

Zippy Brooklyn

[Zippy , July 28, 2016.]

Only the zippy know Brooklyn. And only those who Zoom In (or keep a magnifying glass by their newspaper) can appreciate the detail in Zippy’s Brooklyn. In today’s Zippy , Zippy narrates, as a Brooklyn pharmacist sets off “on a quest to find stationery supplies & some pickled herring.“

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)

[Only the zippy know Brooklyn? See here.]

“Everything is new”

Joseph Joubert:

Everything is new. And we are living among events so singular that old people have no more knowledge of them, are no more habituated to them, and have no more experience of them than young people.

We are all novices, because everything is new.

The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert: A Selection  , trans. Paul Auster (New York: New York Review Books, 2005).
Also from Joseph Joubert
Another world : Brevity : Form and content : Irrelevancies and solid objects : Justified enthusiasm : Lives and writings : New books, old books : ’Nuff said (1) : ’Nuff said (2) : Politeness : Resignation and courage : Ruins v. reconstructions : Self-love and truth : Thinking and writing : Wine

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Domestic comedy

[The bride wanted to time her entrance for a particular point in the Pachelbel Canon. A very difficult thing for the musicians to work out .]

“Just loop it.”

“The whole piece is a loop.”

“Loop the loop.”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

A joke in the traditional manner

Why did Fred Astaire never drink bottled water?

No spoilers. The punchline is in the comments.

More jokes in the traditional manner
The Autobahn : Did you hear about the cow coloratura? : Did you hear about the mustard-fetching dogs? : Did you hear about the thieving produce clerk? : Elementary school : A Golden Retriever : How did Bela Lugosi know what to expect? : How did Samuel Clemens do all his long-distance traveling? : How do amoebas communicate? : What did the doctor tell his forgetful patient to do? : What did the plumber do when embarrassed? : What happens when a senior citizen visits a podiatrist? : What is the favorite toy of philosophers’ children? : What kind of dogs do scientists like? : Which member of the orchestra was best at handling money? : Why did the doctor spend his time helping injured squirrels? : Why did Oliver Hardy attempt a solo career in movies? : Why did the ophthalmologist and his wife split up? : Why do newspaper editors avoid crossing their legs? : Why does Marie Kondo never win at poker? : Why was Santa Claus wandering the East Side of Manhattan?

[“In the traditional manner”: by or à la my dad. Today would have been his eighty-eighth birthday. He gets credit for all but the cow coloratura, the mustard-fetching dogs, the produce clerk, the amoebas. the scientists’ dogs, the toy, the squirrel-doctor, Marie Kondo, and Santa Claus. He was making such jokes long before anyone called them “dad jokes.” I am now the custodian of his pocket notebook of jokes, from which I’ve chosen this one.]

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Justified enthusiasm

Joseph Joubert:

Nothing is better than a justified enthusiasm.

The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert: A Selection  , trans. Paul Auster (New York: New York Review Books, 2005).
Also from Joseph Joubert
Another world : Brevity : Form and content : Irrelevancies and solid objects : Lives and writings : New books, old books : ’Nuff said (1) : ’Nuff said (2) : Politeness : Resignation and courage : Ruins v. reconstructions : Self-love and truth : Thinking and writing : Wine

Waste in education

Caroline Pratt (1867–1954) founded Manhattan’s City and Country School in 1914. She was a teacher at odds with established practices:

I once asked a cooking teacher why she did not let the children experiment with the flour and yeast, to see whether they could make bread. She said in a shocked voice, “But that would be so wasteful!”

She was no more shocked by my question than I by her answer. That materials used in education should be considered wasted! Ours must be a strange educational system, I thought. And, of course, the more I studied it, the more convinced I became that it was very strange indeed. It was saving of materials, ah yes — but how wasteful of children!

Caroline Pratt, I Learn from Children: An Adventure in Progressive Education . 1948. (New York: Grove, 2014).

8:15 p.m.: And now I remember that City and Country figures in the documentary Nursery University (dir. Marc H. Simon and Matthew Makar, 2008). Yearly tuition at the school ranges from $24,200 to $43,500. What would Caroline Pratt say?


July 28: I didn’t have to read many more pages to get an idea of what Caroline Pratt might think about those numbers. As a young teacher in New York City, she worked three jobs, one in a private school, two in settlement houses. Here is what she says about that work:
The work with [children of privilege] was easier — but it never seemed quite so important as with the others. There was no satisfaction in the private school which compared with the harder accomplishment of offering new opportunities to children who needed them so desperately, and who used them with such intelligence and joy.
I should acknowledge that City and Country does offer need-based financial aid: “A significant portion of our operating budget is dedicated to tuition assistance.”

Joe Gould’s Teeth

Jill Lepore. Joe Gould’s Teeth . New York: Knopf, 2016. 235 pages. $24.95 hardcover.

From a 1945 Harvard Crimson article, quoted in Joe Gould’s Teeth :

One of these days, someone is going to write an article on Joseph Ferdinand Gould ’11 for the Reader’s Digest. It will be entitled “The Most Unforgettable Character I Have Met” and it will present Joe Gould as an unusual but lovable old man. Joe Gould is not a lovable old man.
Joe Gould (1889–1957) is best known as the subject of two New Yorker pieces by Joseph Mitchell, “Professor Seagull” (1942) and “Joe Gould’s Secret” (1964). Flea-ridden, often homeless, possibly autistic, forever losing eyeglasses and false teeth, Gould was a New York Bohemian who claimed to be writing the longest book in the world, an assembling of words he had heard spoken, entitled The Oral History of Our Time . The secret that Mitchell revealed in 1964: as he had long suspected, The Oral History did not exist. But letters that Mitchell received after the publication of “Joe Gould’s Secret” suggested that The Oral History did indeed exist. Readers claimed to have seen and read the composition books in which Gould wrote it. Jill Lepore decided to look into the question.

The result is a scrupulously documented journey down a rabbit hole, or rather, a journey through whole warrens of archival material. Lepore places Gould as a fellow traveler in the world of modernist writing and little magazines, where his associates and patrons included E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams. (As late as 1946, Pound was asking Cummings if together they could get Gould’s work into print.) More disturbing elements in the Gould story include his grim sojourns in mental hospitals (in one, his teeth were removed) and his obsession with the African-American sculptor Augusta Savage. The Harvard students had it right: Gould was not a lovable old man. And it makes a certain sense that Lepore gives up her hunt. Could The Oral History be in the possession in one of the hospitals in which Gould did time? “Shouldn’t someone check?” Lepore asks. Her answer: “Not me.”

Joe Gould’s Teeth is best borrowed from a library. It should prompt any reader to read or reread “Professor Seagull” and “Joe Gould’s Secret,” both of which appear in Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel (1992).

Related reading
All OCA Joseph Mitchell posts (Pinboard)

[The book’s title comes from an untitled E. E. Cummings poem: “little joe gould has lost his teeth and doesn’t know where / to find them.” Why the library? The book is short and fast (151 pages of text, 84 pages of back matter), and it’s unlikely that I’d have reason to read it again.]

Monday, July 25, 2016

Awkward metaphor of the day

David Gregory on CNN earlier today, speaking of the need for Hillary Clinton to appeal to both progressives and possible Trump voters: “She’s straddling both ends of this.”

Related reading
All OCA metaphor posts (Pinboard)


Verlyn Klinkenborg:

“July,” The Rural Life (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2002).

We live in town, emphatically in town. But we’ve had a fox sun itself in our driveway, looking like it was waiting for us to serve the iced tea. Deer in the backyard. A possum knocking at a ground-level window. A mouse in the kitchen. A bird in the downstairs. A dead rat in the toilet bowl. And a family of raccoons once chased Elaine across the driveway. It’s their driveway too.

Related reading
All OCA Verlyn Klinkenborg posts (Pinboard)
Bear in/on tree

Cut, paste, tint

[Mark Trail , April 13, 2015.]

[Mark Trail , July 25, 2016.]

It’s Abbey Powell. Abbey Powell. Cut and pasted and tinted. And tinted. And blow-dried. A close look at Ms. Powell’s eyebrows and glasses will make clear that James Allen, like Jack Elrod before him, is recycling. Is recycling. As am I. I posted the first panel last year, after discovering that Abbey Powell is a real person. A real person. And blow-dried.

Related reading
All OCA Mark Trail posts (Pinboard)

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Stand down, Debbie

Stand down, Debbie, stand down, please. Stand down, Debbie.


3:06 p.m.: CNN is reporting that Democratic National Commitee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz will step down after this week’s Democratic convention.

[Context here. Inspiration from The English Beat.]

Saturday, July 23, 2016

A strip-mall restaurant recommendation

Another bit of evidence to support Tyler Cowen’s recommendation to seek out strip-mall restaurants: Siam Thai Restaurant in Charleston, Illinois (“east-central Illinois”). The NEW OWNER sign, which has been up since, I think, last winter, is important: the previous owner was a dud. The new restaurant is a two-woman operation: one host, one cook. The food comes in generous portions, beautifully prepared and intensely flavorful, without the sweetness that often dominates Thai dishes made for American tastes.

Hot? If you like, yes, from one to five, but all the flavors come through too. (That’s what happens with an expert cook.) Our host seems to understand our tastes well: one two and one three , which we share. They make a nice burn.

I have been eating Thai food with amateur enthusiasm since the early 1980s. Siam Thai is the best I have ever had.

A related post
Three great strip-mall restaurants

Friday, July 22, 2016


I’m a longtime fan of the web service StatCounter, which I use with Orange Crate Art. (See the orange odometer in the sidebar.) But I’m not a fan of the service’s new offering:

The StatCounter Growth Plan goes the next step and uses sophisticated technology to analyze your data and website for you. It then tells you in simple terms how to grow your traffic and improve your visitor experience with easy-to-understand steps.
Or rather: I’m not a fan of the pitch for this new offering, which appears every time I check my stats, in the form of a banner that clicks open to reveal my “Rank Against [My] Competitors,” or my blog’s grades:

[“Overall Industry Ranking: C+.” The ignominy! But for $29.99 a month I can learn how to improve.]

I wrote to StatCounter with some thoughts about this pitch, which I find more than a little insulting, partly because I’m a paying customer, but mainly because I didn’t ask for my work to be graded. (Sheesh.) I’ll quote from my e-mail:
My blog, which has been going for nearly twelve years, gives me great pleasure without making me a dime. It has brought me into contact with wonderful people I would never have met otherwise. Believe me, I don’t feel that I’m getting a C+ (your overall grade for me). And I have no competitors. I don’t regard other websites as competition. The only person I’m competing against is myself — to stay curious and be the best writer I can be.
I added that not everyone who’s online is looking for increased page hits or profit. There are other forms of satisfaction to be had in creating, as they say, “content.” I received a friendly reply from someone at StatCounter, saying that no insult was intended. I knew that, and wrote back to say so. It would be smart though for the company to realize that giving its users grades is probably not a great way to win their favor.

I suspect that StatCounter has been tweaking its metrics: since taking the above screenshot, I’ve dropped to a D- and moved up to a B-. But I’ve also discovered that I can use the nifty uBlock Origin extension to block the Growth Plan page element. I plan to check it on occasion though, to see if the pitch changes.

[“‘Underachiever.’ And proud of it, man!”]

A related post
Why I (still) blog

[Full disclosure: “How to e-mail a professor” has appeared in two textbooks for college students, bringing me a good number of dimes. And I’ve requested and received review copies of books and music over the years. But my blog is not a money-making proposition.]

Strunk and White fashion

From Grant Snider’s Incidental Comics : Strunk and White’s Writers Style Guide.

This guide is a loose and witty translation of bits of advice from The Elements of Style . The active/passive panel doesn’t attempt to illustrate the difference between the active and passive voices. Only one panel quotes directly from The Elements : “Use figures of speech sparingly.” I especially like that panel.

Thanks, Steven, for pointing me to this work.

Related reading
All OCA Strunk and White posts (Pinboard)

[The title really should be Writer’s Style Guide, or Writers’ Style Guide .]

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Domestic comedy

[Fixing our dryer’s venting .]

“Do you think we can work together without both of us yelling at each other?”

“No, but I think we can work together without each of us yelling at the other.”

And we did (work together that is, minus yelling). The connection between our dryer’s hose and duct was, it turns out, the kind of slipshod job known (at least in our house) as a “homeowner’s special.” Now we have a new hose and new duct, solidly attached, one to the other, both shining above a new laundry-room floor.

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

[The floor is not a homeowner’s special. We know our limits.]

’Nuff said (2)

Joseph Joubert:

What is clear should not be drawn out too much. These useless explanations, these endless examinations are a kind of long whiteness and lead to boredom. It is the uniformity of a wall, of a long piece of laundry.

The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert: A Selection  , trans. Paul Auster (New York: New York Review Books, 2005).
Also from Joseph Joubert
Another world : Brevity : Form and content : Irrelevancies and solid objects : Lives and writings : New books, old books : ’Nuff said (1) : Politeness : Resignation and courage : Ruins v. reconstructions : Self-love and truth : Thinking and writing : Wine

’Nuff said (1)

Joseph Joubert:

Everything that is exact is short.

The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert: A Selection  , trans. Paul Auster (New York: New York Review Books, 2005).
Also from Joseph Joubert
Another world : Form and content : Irrelevancies and solid objects : Lives and writings : New books, old books : Politeness : Resignation and courage : Ruins v. reconstructions : Self-love and truth : Thinking and writing : Wine

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Words and bonds and borrowings

Michelle Obama in 2008:

“Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them.”
“Your word is your bond”: why aren’t those words a matter of plagiarism? Because they’re meant to be recognized as a borrowing. Dictum meum pactum , “My word is my bond,” is the motto of the London Stock Exchange. The philosopher J. L. Austin adapted that motto in his How to Do Things with Words (1962):
For one who says “promising is not merely a matter of uttering words! It is an inward and spiritual act!” is apt to appear as a solid moralist standing out against a generation of superficial theorizers: we see him as he sees himself, surveying the invisible depths of ethical space, with all the distinction of a specialist in the sui generis . Yet he provides Hippolytus with a let-out, the bigamist with an excuse for his “I do” and the welsher with a defense for his “I bet.” Accuracy and morality alike are on the side of the plain saying that our word is our bond.
The poet Geoffrey HIll borrowed Austin’s words in a 1983 essay, “Our Word Is Our Bond.” More recently, Austin’s words showed up in Marianne Constable’s punning book title Our Word Is Our Bond: How Legal Speech Acts (2014).

Austin, HIll, and Constable all intend that their borrowings be recognized: that’s the whole point. There’s a world of difference between a borrowing meant to be recognized — an allusion, and the unacknowledged use of words passed off as one’s own.

I used to think about allusion all the time. This page gives some idea.

A related post
Abby and Austin

[In Constable’s title, speech acts is not a plural noun: acts is a verb. Clever.]

Lend me your ears passages

From Wikipedia, items in an odd and funny series: “Meredith McIver is a staff writer for The Trump Organization, author, former ballerina, and registered Democrat.” And now she has taken responsibility for the appearance of words from a Michelle Obama speech in Melania Trump’s Monday night speech. From Ms. McIver’s statement:

In working with Melania on her recent First Lady speech, we discussed many people who inspired her and messages she wanted to share with the American people. A person she has always liked is Michelle Obama. Over the phone, she read me some passages from Mrs. Obama’s speech as examples. I wrote them down and later included some of the phrasing in the draft that ultimately became the final speech. I did not check Mrs. Obama’s speeches. This was my mistake and I feel terrible for the chaos I have caused Melania and the Trumps as well as to Mrs. Obama. No harm was meant.
This explanation leaves an important question unanswered: did Ms. Trump make clear that she was reading passages from Ms. Obama’s speech? That these passages were from Ms. Obama’s speech doesn’t mean that Ms. McIver knew that at the time . Either way, it’s plagiarism, but it’s not clear to me who really bears greater responsibility for passing off Ms. Obama’s words as Ms. Trump’s own.

“In working with Melania . . . , we discussed,” “First Lady speech,” “the chaos I have caused Melania and the Trumps as well as to Mrs. Obama”: I think Ms. McIver could use some help with her own writing. Here is the text of her statement.

A related post
It’s plagiarism

[It feels odd to me to write “Ms. Obama” and “Ms. Trump.” But since the surnames alone suggest Barack and Donald, I have done so. To me, Ms. Obama is “Michelle.” I met her, back in 2004, here in downstate Illinois. Too bad she won’t run for Senate.]

Trump’s ghostwriter

Tony Schwartz wrote The Art of the Deal for Donald Trump:

If he were writing The Art of the Deal, today, Schwartz said, it would be a very different book with a very different title. Asked what he would call it, he answered, The Sociopath .


If Trump is elected President, he warned, “the millions of people who voted for him and believe that he represents their interests will learn what anyone who deals closely with him already knows — that he couldn’t care less about them.”
Read it all at The New Yorker : Jane Mayer, “Donald Trump’s Ghostwriter Tells All” (The New Yorker).

AHD on singular they

The American Heritage Dictionary has an updated its usage note for singular they .

My thinking about singular they changed in 2009 — a conversion experience — and has remained unchanged since. I think the pronoun is best used sparingly, and best avoided when one’s writing is subject to formal evaluation. Recasting a sentence can be a better choice than a singular they or a cumbersome he or she .

The most interesting part of the AHD note:

The recent use of singular they for a known person who identifies as neither male nor female remains controversial; as of 2015 only 27 percent of the Panelists accepted Scout was born male, but now they do not identify as either traditional gender. With regard to this last sentence, the Panel’s responses showed a clear generational shift: the approval rate was 4 percent among Panelists born before 1945 and 40 percent among Panelists born later.
Singular they as a pronoun for a person who identifies as neither he nor she seems to me to be inherently confusing. As I wrote in a comment on another they post, “If I were not a he and were making this kind of decision for myself, I’d choose singular pronouns.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Cursive Sluggo

[Nancy , April 2, 1953. From Random Acts of Nancy .]

Nice cursive, Sluggo, or Tony.

Related reading
All OCA handwriting posts
All OCA Nancy posts (Pinboard)

Hi and Lois watch

[Hi and Lois , July 19, 2016. Click for a larger, emptier view.]

In Lois and Chip’s absence, Hi has sold most of the furniture to pay for a.) college or b.) living-room expansion or c.) both. I’m not sure which.

Related reading
All OCA Hi and Lois posts (Pinboard)

It’s plagiarism

The New York Times headline is so tactful: “Melania Trump’s Speech Bears Striking Similarities to Michelle Obama’s in 2008.” Striking similarities, yes. It’s plagiarism. The Trump campaign denies it, saying that Ms. Trump’s speech was a matter of “common words and values.” Common words, one after another after another.

Barring sabotage by a disgruntled speechwriter, I can think of three possible defenses:

Ms. Trump (or her speechwriter) had been so moved by Ms. Obama’s speech that whole sentences somehow stuck in memory, to be reproduced as if original.

Because she was giving a speech, Ms. Trump was quoting and paraphrasing without quotation marks or endnotes.

Ms. Trump (or her speechwriter) doesn’t understand persnickety academic or journalistic protocols when working with sources.
Please understand: I have heard some extraordinarily far-fetched defenses of plagiarism. “I read the Cliffs Notes, but I didn’t buy them!” “I was taught to memorize whole pages from this intro text on literary theory!” The three defenses I have imagined here seem to me wholly implausible.

A possible explanation (not defense) of this plagiarism: it’s the Dunning-Kruger effect at work. Many plagiarists lack the competence to understand how easy it is for a discerning audience to detect their plagiarism.

The Times quotes a statement from a Trump spokesman:
“In writing her beautiful speech, Melania’s team of writers took notes on her life’s inspirations, and in some instances included fragments that reflected her own thinking.”
“Included fragments”: well, that’s plagiarism.

Related reading
All OCA plagiarism posts (Pinboard)

About last night

Our trip to hear our state representative speak on funding for our university turned out to be an interesting waste of time. We arrived about ten minutes late — Google Maps gave two locations for the venue, miles apart, and we chose the wrong one first. What we missed: all but a minute or two of someone from state government explaining how to create a household budget. (Metaphor? Parable?) She gave up, saying that she felt that she was lecturing. But we heard every word of our rep’s presentation, a meandering, ill-organized combination of plain-folks talk, high dudgeon, and cynicism. Though the event had been advertised as a discussion of university funding, that subject came up only briefly. The main purpose of our rep’s presentation seemed to be to run down the clock — he even joked that he was leaving about “one minute” for questions. Ha ha.

Key words: billion , billions . Yes, Illinois spends billions and billions of dollars (which, really, are no laughing matter). Our rep failed to mention though that Illinois has one of the lowest rates of per capita spending of all states. Other key words: Chicago , Democrats , them , they . The last two words referred to Democrats.

Low point: our rep holding up and then thumbing through a binder-clipped, printed version of a stack of PowerPoint slides. (He was not using a computer or projector.) As he explained at another point in his presentation, he is “not yet technically savvy.”

I was disappointed to see so few members of my university community in attendance. Perhaps they had concluded that they would be wasting their time. I did my bit by talking (at some length) about our rep’s dubious arithmetic and about public higher education and the national attention that our state’s manufactured budget crisis has drawn. One older man stared at me angrily when I mentioned a recent Daily Show skit and its advice for students: “Get the fuck out of Illinois.” I left the fuck out: I respect decorum, at least at public meetings. This man had turned around angrily at my mere mention of The Daily Show .

Elaine and I had ice cream and strawberries when we got home.

Related reading
All OCA Illinois budget crisis posts (Pinboard)

Monday, July 18, 2016

Work advice

Roger Rosenblatt:

You are likely to work for some company or other, but keep a safe distance. There is no contempt as bitter as that felt by compromised minds for the independent ones that have joined them. Grin broadly at the water cooler, and go home to where you live.

“Speech for a High School Graduate,” Time (June 9, 1997).
Years ago I clipped these sentences and pasted them into a commonplace book. I think they offer good advice for any worker, despite the scornful tone (“compromised minds”), despite the possible absence of a water cooler. It’s necessary to have a life apart.

It just occurred to me that the economy of television storytelling often makes co-workers and social circle just about identical. Think, for instance, of The Mary Tyler Moore Show . You work all day, and who comes over to your house? Mr. Grant, or Ted. Life should be larger than television.

Creative accounting

Our representative in the Illinois General Assembly, a local mogul turned statesman, is proclaiming that he has helped bring to our public university ninety percent of its state funding. Ahem.

For FY 2016, the school received thirty percent of its funding.

For FY 2017, the school has received a little more than sixty percent of its funding.

Thirty plus sixty: ninety! As Elaine observes, this logic would allow a tenant renting from our mogul to pay half the rent one month, half the next, and be all paid up.

Our rep has scheduled a public meeting to discuss university funding. The meeting takes place in a town forty miles away. But guess what? People know how to drive! It should be an interesting time.

Related reading
All OCA Illinois budget crisis posts (Pinboard)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

How to improve writing (no. 65); or, CBS, sheesh

From a CBS This Morning story about Ken Burns:

Fittingly, Burns also released his first children's book this week called Grover Cleveland, Again!: A Treasury of American Presidents , featuring illustrations and “fun facts” about past American presidents. The idea began when he used to drill his daughter, Sarah, now 33 years old, on the commander-in-chiefs.
Make that commanders-in-chief . But notice too that commander-in-chiefs appears in this passage only because its writer, in an effort to avoid repeating the word presidents , has succumbed to the lure of what H. W. Fowler called “elegant variation” (which Bryan Garner has renamed “inelegant variation”). Why not rethink the entire passage? My best shot:
Fittingly, Burns also released his first children's book this week: Grover Cleveland, Again!: A Treasury of American Presidents , an illustrated book of “fun facts.” The idea for the book took shape years ago, when Burns would quiz his daughter Sarah, now 33, on the presidents.
I’ll leave all but one of my changes to speak for themselves: Burns has four daughters, so no comma after daughter .

Thanks to Sean at Contrapuntalism for alerting me to this passage.

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

[Garner’s Modern English Usage points out that commanders-in-chief  is nineteen times more common than commander-in-chiefs . Of course, as The Onion reminds us, the effort to get plurals right can lead in the direction of the daffy. This post is no. 65 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

Saturday, July 16, 2016

David Foster Wallace, Pokémon Go, Trump-Pence

It feels like the Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad, or the Year of Something . In other words, it feels like we’re living in DFW Time. The Pokémon Go fad makes me recall Wallace’s idea of the “spect-op.” In the world of Infinite Jest , ninety-four percent of all entertainment is consumed at home. It’s a world of “Total freedom, privacy, choice”:

Hence the new millennium’s passion for standing live witness to things. A whole sub-rosa schedule of public spectation opportunities, “spect-ops,” the priceless chance to be part of a live crowd, watching. Thus the Gapers’ Blocks at traffic accidents, sewer-gas explosions, muggings, purse-snatchings, the occasional Empire W.D.V. with an incomplete vector splatting into North Shore suburbs and planned communities and people leaving their front doors agape in their rush to get out and mill around and spectate at the circle of impacted waste drawing sober and studious crowds, milling in rings around the impact, earnestly comparing mental notes on just what it is they all see.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996).
But now it’s a matter of standing live witness to virtual creatures on a screen.


The Trump-Pence logo seems like icky icing on the cake of a strange and awful week. In its hilariously crude absurdity, the logo seems to have made for the world of Infinite Jest . (I can imagine an editor: “But David, don’t you think it’s a little far-fetched?”) Trump strongly resembles the novel’s Johnny Gentle, entertainer, germaphobe, and president of the United States, “first U.S. President ever to say shit publicly,” president of “a new-era’d nation that looked out for Uno.” Of course in the novel, the border that concerns the president is the one to the United States’ north.

Related reading
All OCA DFW posts (Pinboard)
A brief explanation of Subsidized Time

Friday, July 15, 2016


Mike at brownstudy wrote last week: “I dread hearing the word ‘another.’” That’s how I feel.

Uni-ball Signo FTW

From an obituary for the cartoonist Michael Crawford, a recollection from his wife Carolita Johnson:

“When one of the doctors at the hospital was trying to assess Michael’s mental acuity she picked up some random pen and asked, ‘Mr. Crawford, what would you do with this?’” Ms. Johnson wrote. “And he replied ‘I wouldn’t do anything with that. I use a Uni-ball Signo.’”
[My favorite gel pen: the Uni-ball Signo RT.]

Van Gogh’s ear

The New York Times has a good article about Vincent van Gogh’s left ear. Unlike the Telegraph article that Arts & Letters Daily recently linked to, the Times article makes clear that there is still no consensus about just what Van Gogh did to his ear.

I must admit though that after reading 500+ pages of Van Gogh’s letters, it never occurred to me to wonder whether Van Gogh severed an ear or part of an ear. Is the second possibility really any less horrifying than the first?

Related reading
All OCA Van Gogh posts (Pinboard)

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Cleary and the critics

[Endpaper. Beverly Cleary, Sister of the Bride (1963).]

It’s pleasure to open a library copy of a children’s book and find traces of previous readers — if only underlined words (“vocabulary words”) or passages marked off, perhaps for reading aloud. This library copy of Sister of the Bride though is exceptional:

A great book



I suspect a Beatle influence in the first and last comments. Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Related reading
All OCA Beverly Cleary posts (Pinboard)

Roguish Gramma

Beverly Cleary, Sister of the Bride (1963).

There’s an occasional kiss in the Cleary First Love series, but nothing else like Gramma’s comment. I imagine that it prompted any number of young readers to look up roguishly , make a puzzled face, and keep reading.

Like Lady Elaine Fairchild’s “Here it is, my lovely can”, Gramma’s comment is a naughty speck in a chaste fictional universe.

Related reading
All OCA Beverly Cleary posts (Pinboard)

An apple name

Yes, Mr. McIntosh, there was a Granny Smith.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Mark Trail , all too doppelgänger-y

Mark Trail meanders along its bewildering way. Mark turned up in the Rio Grande on June 22 after a long journey through caverns measureless to man. And then the strip went back in time: “Two years ago, not far from Hawaii.” An insipid couple, whom we have come to know as Darling (he) and Honey (she) are sailing to New Zealand. “We’ll be in New Zealand soon!” says Darling. (Good luck with that.) Long story short: Darling and Honey take a break to sleep away the night on a tiny island, “not far from Hawaii.” While carrying firewood from the boat to shore, Darling is bitten by what will turn out to be a red imported fire ant. I’m guessing, but a later strip shows something that looks like an ant, and it’s bright red.

[Mark Trail , June 28, July 1, July 2, 2016. Click for larger views.]

Back in the present, Mark is planning a vacation with Cherry, just the two of them, to Hawaii. Today, however, we’re back on the tiny island. But look: that’s not Honey in a green hat and bikini, two years back in time. It’s Abbey Powell, a real person at the USDA who appeared in a Trail story in 2015. She’s back. Follow that bird!

[Mark Trail , July 13, 2016. Click for a larger view.]

James Allen has given considerable attention to the female form of late, first with Honey and now with Abbey Powell. (Browse for yourself.) It’s a pity that Allen’s artistic imagination allows only one color for bikinis and hats: that makes things unnecessarily confusing. At least Honey and Ms. Powell have been granted different hat bands. But still: it’s all too doppelgänger-y.

Allen has assured his readers in a comment on today’s strip that Abbey is going to tell us what happened to Darling and Honey. I assume that they got in big trouble with the red imported fire ant, aka RIFA, either by bringing ashore the firewood that introduced the invasive species to the tiny island or by being bitten to death, or both.

It’s enough to make someone say “uunngghh.” Cough. Cough.

Related reading
All OCA Mark Trail posts (Pinboard)

Shredded lunch

I took up Berit’s suggestion and made a Shredded lunch. I cut a Shredded Wheat biscuit along the seam and came away with two “nest-like fragile crackers,” just as Berit described them. I put three large pieces of avocado on each (about three-quarters of a large avocado) and added some salt, cracked pepper, and lemon juice, with a chunk of cheddar cheese on the side. Delicious! I plan to repeat this experiment, probably on Friday, by which time the next avocado will have ripened.

Thank you, Berit, for discovering New Directions in Shredded Wheat.

A related post
Shredded Wheat hack

[A truism of the Internets: no one cares what you had for lunch. Well, probably. But people do care about what they might want to make for their own next lunch.]

“How not to write”

Zachary Foster gives advice: “How not to write: 14 tips for aspiring humanities academics” (Times Higher Education). A sample:

The general rule of thumb is to complicate simple ideas. “Living together,” in the words of one scholar, “oscillates between the tone of practical serenity and tragic pathos, between philosophical wisdom and desperate anguish.” It is both “simple evidence and the promise of the inaccessible,” while it opens the possibility of a “unified self” and “synchronous time.” If only this were more widely known, so much domestic friction could be avoided.
Related posts (fake lit-crit)
“Metaphysics’ corrasable bond”
On Rebecca Black’s “Friday”

Not reading

Arthur Schopenhauer:

The art of not reading is a very important one. It consists in not taking an interest in whatever may be engaging the attention of the general public at any particular time. When some political or ecclesiastical pamphlet, or novel, or poem is making a great commotion, you should remember that he who writes for fools always finds a large public. A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.

Essays and Aphorisms (1851), trans. R. J. Hollingdale (1970).
[Bryan Garner tweeted a photograph of this passage. My best book of 2016: so far it’s Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (1915).]

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Turbo Boost Switcher

[For Mac users.]

Rubén García Pérez’s Turbo Boost Switcher is a tiny app that enables or disables OS X’s Turbo Boost. Turbo Boost is the technology that increases CPU speed (and with it, fan speed and temperature). You know what it’s like when your Mac heats up and the fan goes at full blast? That’s Turbo Boost at work. Disabling Turbo Boost lengthens battery life and and allows a Mac to run at a significantly lower temperature. Turbo Boost Switcher is available in free and Pro versions.

Full disclosure: this blog post will get me a modest discount on the Pro version’s already modest price. Further disclosure: I’ve been planning to write a post about this app anyway, for many months now. I learned about Turbo Boost Switcher, more than a year ago, from Marco Arment’s blog, and have been using it ever since.

From Lucy Gayheart

Willa Cather, Lucy Gayheart (1935).

I became acquainted with trade-last , or TL , via an episode of Naked City . Seeing the word again is like receiving an odd and unexpected gift. What am I gonna do with it?

Oh, wait — I know.

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

Little world

Stefan Zweig, The Post-Office Girl , trans. Joel Rotenberg (New York: New York Review Books, 2008).

Lord Elkins, speaking of aristocrats sojourning at a hotel, has given us a perfect characterization of any petty elite, from a junior-high clique to a workplace’s players and plotters.

The Post-Office Girl is a terrific novel. I wish I had known it when I was teaching: it would have offered a great opportunity for students to think about matters of class and poverty, poverty of both means and spirit.

[I have come to think of the New York Review Books imprint as pretty much a guarantee that a book is worth my time: like the Criterion Collection for books. Wes Anderson cites this novel in particular and Zweig’s life and work more generally as inspiration for his film The Grand Budapest Hotel .]

Monday, July 11, 2016

From Lucy Gayheart

Willa Cather, Lucy Gayheart (1935).

Lucy Gayheart! I’m with you in Haverford.

More seriously: I think there are few writers who understand the claustrophobia of little towns as well as Willa Cather does. See for instance the chance meeting of Godfrey St. Peter and Horace Langtry in The Professor’s House .

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

[With apologies to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl .]

Shredded Wheat hack

[Advertisement from Life , March 27, 1944.]

For the past month or more, I’ve been a fool for Post Shredded Wheat. I’m sure there are eaters who place the “pillow-like biscuits” (as Wikipedia calls them) into their cereal bowls whole. Not me. I crush, which leads, always, to stray shreds on the tablecloth. But I have devised a hack:

Materials: two Shredded Wheat biscuits, one bowl, one one-gallon plastic bag, one free hand.

Directions: Place biscuits in bowl. Place bowl in bag. Crush biscuits. Remove bowl from bag. Store bag in cereal box for reuse.

Silk soymilk, a banana or blueberries (“other fruit,” as per the ad), and a teaspoon of sugar are useful accompaniments. Add after removing bowl from bag.

Related posts
Cereals in the hands of an angry blog
How to improve writing (no. 38) (fixing the Shredded Wheat box)

[Shredded Wheat has been a Post product since 1993.]

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Joyeux anniversaire, M. Proust

Marcel Proust was born on July 10, 1871.

My novel is not a work of ratiocination; its least elements have been supplied by my sensibility; first I perceived them in my own depths without understanding them, and I had as much trouble converting them into something intelligible as if they had been as foreign to the sphere of the intelligence as a motif in music.

Marcel Proust, in a letter to Antoine Bibesco, November (?) 1912. From Letters of Marcel Proust, translated by Mina Curtiss (New York: Helen Marx Books / Books & Co,, 2006).
Related reading
All OCA Proust posts (Pinboard)

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Adagio for Strings

Elaine posted it this morning. I want to post it too. The musician is Cremaine Booker, also known as That Cello Guy.

“Music is the healing force of the universe”: Albert Ayler.

[It’s YouTube: the ads seem to be unavoidable.]

An inefficient nurse

“Heather is not brisk or efficient, as nurses in hospitals are. She is purposely inefficient, in fact.” From Larissa MacFarquhar’s portrait of hospice nurse Heather Meyerend: “A Tender Hand in the Presence Of Death” (The New Yorker ).

Cartoon ink

At George Bodmer’s Oscar’s Day: a well-behaved ink.


10:04 a.m.: And a new cartoon for the news.

Friday, July 8, 2016

“Three Terrible Days of Violence”

“What began as a lethargic return to work following a holiday has devolved into an American crucible”: Jelani Cobb, writing in The New Yorker .

“The Reliable Parker Jotter”

[Life , March 22, 1963. Click for a larger view.]

I like this advertisement, mainly because I like the Parker T-Ball Jotter, but also because I have done what Mrs. Beatrice Sopot did, albeit with cold water and without bleach. The Jotter and the shirt came through undamaged.

The Jotter was my first real (non-disposable) pen. I started using one again in 2012. It’s my favorite (and only) ballpoint.

Other T-Ball Jotter posts
Five pens (My life in five pens)
Last-minute shopping (1964 Jotter ad)
“Make My Jotter Quit!” (1971 Jotter ad)
Thomas Merton, T-Ball Jotter user
Watch, lighter, pen (1963 Jotter ad)

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Evangeline and me

Lines recited by a character in Willa Cather’s One of Ours (1922) brought me back to eighth-grade English:

Ever thicker, thicker, thicker,
Froze the ice on lake and river;
Ever deeper, deeper, deeper,
Fell the snow o’er all the landscape.
I didn’t recognize the words. But that meter: it’s Longfellow. These lines in trochaic tetrameter are from Henry Wadsworth’s Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha .

And now I’m back in eighth-grade English, where we read Longfellow’s Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie (1847), all of it, in dactylic hexameter. That really was the forest primeval, and we were stuck in it. I remember how old the little hardcover looked in my young, irreverent hands.

A question: what would you regard as the strangest or most inappropriate or most sadly dated assigned reading of your elementary or high-school education? This post gives my answer: hands down, Evangeline .

Pocket notebook sighting

[From Mr. Holmes , (dir. Bill Condon, 2015). Click either image for a larger view.]

Sherlock Holmes’s doctor has given him a datebook and has asked him to make a dot every time he is unable to remember the name of a person or place. The filmmakers have been thoughtful enough to create a two-days-per-page datebook — to my mind, the dowdiest of formats. Yet they’ve been careless enough to leave out the red lines that should border each date. They’re missing from the first two dates in the first shot and from the first three dates in the second. These shots fill the screen: did no one notice? Bewildering.

I think Holmes is supposed to be writing with a miniature mechanical pencil or leadholder, though it looks more like a ball-point refill.


9:22 a.m.: Could it be that red borders are for Saturdays and Sundays only? I have never seen a datebook, old or new, that marks off dates in that way.

More notebook sightings
Angels with Dirty Faces : Ball of Fire : Cat People : City Girl : Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne : Dragnet : Extras : Foreign Correspondent : Homicide : The Honeymooners : The House on 92nd Street : Journal d’un curé de campagne : The Last Laugh : 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 : Pushover : Quai des Orfèvres : Railroaded! : Red-Headed Woman : Rififi : Route 66 : The Sopranos : Spellbound : State Fair : T-Men : Union Station : Where the Sidewalk Ends : The Woman in the Window

Domestic comedy

[In the voice of Jim Nabors, or Gomer Pyle. ]

“Shiraz, shiraz, shiraz!”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

[If you’re puzzled, see here.]

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

A PBS qua

Heard this evening on the PBS NewsHour , a reference to David Petraeus sharing classified information with “his mistress qua biographer.” An arresting characterization, one that I doubt I’ll ever hear repeated.

Bryan Garner has an excellent discussion of qua (meaning “in the capacity of; as; in the role of”), a word he characterizes as “often misused” and “little needed.” Garner quotes H. W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926):

The real occasion for the use of qua occurs when a person or thing spoken of can be regarded from more than one point of view or as the holder of various coexistent functions, and a statement about him (or it) is to be limited to him in one of these aspects.
That’s it exactly: Petraeus was sharing information with his lover in her role as his biographer. Here, I think, qua works well. Garner’s recommended alternative — as , as in “his mistress as biographer” — would not work nearly as well here.

Of course, not having a mistress and not sharing classified information would work even better.

Black inks

Jet Pens compares black inks for fountain pens.

I long used Pelikan ink before switching to Aurora, which Jet Pens ranks as one of the four darkest blacks.


From the Los Angeles Times: “At one point, boos erupted when Sanders told the Democrats ‘the goal is not to win elections,’ but to ‘transform America.’”

Because who would want to change the status quo?

[There’s some debate about whether there were boos. The straight-facedness of the quoted sentence is what prompted me to post it.]

“The innervation of commanding fingers”

Walter Benjamin on handwriting and the typewriter:

The typewriter will alienate the hand of the man of letters from the pen only when the precision of typographic forms has directly entered the conception of his books. One might suppose that new systems with more variable typefaces would then be needed. They will replace the pliancy of the hand with the innervation of commanding fingers.

“Teaching Aid,” in One-Way Street , trans. Edmund Jephcott (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2016).
Commanding fingers: more prescient than Benjamin could have imagined. ⌘P.

Related reading
All OCA handwriting posts (Pinboard)
Benjamin on collectors : Metaphors for writing : On readers and writers : On writing materials


Barbara has agreed to type a few pages of Rosemary’s paper “Plato: Teacher and Theorist.” There are lots of footnotes, because professors like footnotes, Rosemary explains, especially if they’re in French or German. Rosemary’s, alas, are in English.

Beverly Cleary, Sister of the Bride (1963).

A show of hands: who remembers working out footnotes with a typewriter? I did it with at least one undergrad paper, after making the mistake of asking the professor whether he preferred endnotes or footnotes. The trick, as I remember it, was to count the number of characters and spaces in the text of the note, turn that number into lines, and measure up from the bottom margin. It was all very approximate. I must have ended up retyping one or more pages.

Related reading
All OCA Beverly Cleary posts (Pinboard)

[Don’t boo me: I was out in the hallway when I asked the question, not in class. There was never a directive to the class, and I never again made the mistake of asking.]

Typography terms, A–Z

The A–Z of typographic terms, by Phil Garnham, is available as a free PDF from Fontsmith. Did you know gadzook as a typography term? Me neither.

Related reading
All OCA typography posts (Pinboard)

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Silver and china

Greg’s mother has taken the young couple to lunch. And now Rosemary is beginning to bend.

Beverly Cleary, Sister of the Bride (1963).

Is this the same Rosemary MacLane who said no to silver, not very many pages before? It is. As in a Jane Austen novel, people accommodate themselves to the institution of marriage, and it accommodates itself to them. There’s still room for books and records and pottery.

Related reading
All OCA Beverly Cleary posts (Pinboard)

Noel Neill (1920–2016)

The New York Times has an obituary for Noel Neill, who has died at the age of ninety-five.

I spent a good chunk of my boyhood around the offices of the Daily Planet — enough to know that Noel Neill was the real Lois Lane.

Twelve more movies

[No spoilers.]

Secrets & Lies (dir. Mike Leigh, 1996). A young black Londoner (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) discovers that her birth mother (Brenda Blethyn) is white. More to follow. Family dysfunction and class distinctions, with many Leigh regulars. Best lines: “We’re all in pain. Why can’t we share our pain?”


Vi är bäst! [We Are the Best! ] (dir. Lukas Moodysson, 2013). I like the cheerful Dunning-Kruger confidence of the title. Three Stockholm girls (only one of whom can play an instrument) form a band. But — they insist — they are not a “girl group.” They are a punk band, complete with suitable haircuts. Their one song is inspired by their gym teacher: “Hate the Sport!” But in the film’s crucial scene, they show a gift for improvisation.


Vera Drake (dir. Mike Leigh, 2004). Working-class London in 1950. Vera Drake (Imelda Staunton of Leigh’s Another Year ) cleans houses and performs abortions (without charge) for women in need. A secondary plot concerns a wealthy young woman (played by Leigh regular Sally Hawkins) and the means by which she ends her pregnancy. The 2004 Academy Award for Best Actress should have gone to Imelda Staunton.


I’ll Cry Tomorrow (dir. Daniel Mann, 1955). Susan Hayward as stage and screen star Lillian Roth, who sank into alcoholism and found a way to sobriety through Alcoholics Anonymous. If the name Lillian Roth is new to you (as it was to me), here are just four samples from YouTube: 1, 2, 3, 4.


Mr. Holmes (dir. Bill Condon, 2015). Ian McKellen as a ninety-three-year-old Sherlock Holmes, living with a cranky housekeeper (Laura Linney) and her sweet son (Milo Parker), fighting memory loss as he tries to solve an old case. The plot is less than coherent, the ending dippy, but there are good meta elements: the Holmes stories are the work of John Watson, really, and Holmes finds himself measured against both print and film versions of himself. (The pipe and deerstalker cap are Watson’s embellishments, Holmes says: he prefers cigars.) The one reason to see this film: Ian McKellen.


Weiner (dir. Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg, 2016). Anthony Weiner, disgraced Congressman, disgraced mayoral candidate, on camera: “I still have this virtually unlimited ability to fuck things up.” Scenes from a mayoral campaign, scenes from a marriage (to Huma Abedin), and scenes from medialand, whose sanctimonious talking heads quote Pascal and Shakespeare from memory (yeah, right) as they take Weiner apart. The best (worst) moments: Weiner offering to come on MSNBC every night and kick Lawrence O’Donnell’s ass, Weiner responding (at length) to a Brooklyn man who insults him. (Here’s footage from someone on the scene.) We then see Weiner dismayed when he watches the encounter on the news, not because he made an ass of himself but because the camera caught his bald spot.


Dry Wood (dir. Les Blank, 1973). Louisiana Creole culture. Mardi Gras festivities, Ash Wednesday ashes, hog butchering, sausage making, children at play. Music by accordionist Alphonse “Bois Sec” Ardoin and fiddler Canray Fontenot.

[A masked reveler.]


Hot Pepper (dir. Les Blank, 1973). Accordionist in a landscape: a portrait of zydeco musician Clifton Chenier. Best line, from a man in a barbershop: “Whatever you is, be that.”

Dry Wood and Hot Pepper are both included in Criterion’s 5-DVD set, Les Blank: Always for Pleasure . Does Les Blank exoticize his subjects? I don’t think so. It’s those of us watching other people’s daily lives on DVD who are the strange ones.


On Dangerous Ground (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1951). Film noir in a snowy countryside, if such a thing is possible. A rogue cop (Robert Ryan) is sent away to help solve a murder in the sticks, where he falls in love with the killer’s blind sister (Ida Lupino). Lupino’s performance and the Bernard Herrmann score are good reasons to see this film. In 2008 Elaine wrote about Herrmann’s use of the viola d’amore in this film.


Sabrina (dir. Billy Wilder, 1954). Audrey Hepburn as a chauffeur’s daughter, in love with her father’s employer’s thrice-married playboy son (William Holden, hair dyed blond). But then there’s another brother, the Homburg-hatted fuddy-duddy Humphrey Bogart.

Hey, Sabrina: you’ve just spent two years in Paris, you’re a dead-ringer for Audrey Hepburn, and these guys are your only options? An unfathomable fairy tale.


Paris When It Sizzles (dir. Richard Quine, 1964). William Holden and Audrey Hepburn in Paris. He is Richard Benson, a hard-drinking screenwriter; she is Gabrielle Simpson, his typist. As he works out a script for The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower , we see its story play out on the screen, false starts and all, with Holden and Hepburn in the starring roles as Rick (“Monsieur Rick”) and Gaby. Many meta moments, beginning with Sabrina , the name Rick, and Holden’s previous turn as a screenwriter in Sunset Boulevard . Several cameos, unannounced in the opening credits, make for fun in the film within the film.

[Two characters in search of a screenplay. Click for a larger view.]


Party Girl (dir. Nicholas Ray, 1958). Prohibition days. Nightclub dancer Vicki Gaye (Cyd Charisse) falls in love with lawyer Tommy Farrell (Robert Taylor), who works for gangster Rico Angelo (Lee J. Cobb). When Tommy is no longer willing to follow orders, Rico threatens the two lovers. Party Girl looks at first like a bit of CinemaScope song-and-dance fluff. But it has moments of deliriously theatrical violence. This evidently obscure film is a true surprise.

What have you seen lately that’s worth watching?

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)
Fourteen more : Thirteen more : Twelve more : Another thirteen more : Another dozen : Yet another dozen : Another twelve