Sunday, April 30, 2017

Orient and orientate

[Thinking about usage.]

Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day today is orientate. A note on usage adapted from The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (1989) accompanies the word. Here is today’s note:

Orientate is a synonym of “orient,” and it has attracted criticism as a consequence. “Orient,” which dates from the early 18th century, is in fact the older of the two verbs — “orientate” joined the language in the mid-19th century. Both can mean “to cause to face toward the east” and, not surprisingly, they are related to the noun Orient, meaning “the East.” Both also have broader meanings that relate to setting or determining direction or position, either literally or figuratively. Some critics dislike “orientate” because it is one syllable longer than “orient,” but you can decide for yourself how important that consideration is to you. Personal choice is the primary deciding factor, although “orientate” tends to be used more often in British English than it is in American English.
I see two problems with Merriam-Webster’s commentary:

~ Casting a preference for orient as a matter of stinginess about syllables is a little misleading. That red, for instance, has one less syllable than orange is not a reason to prefer red. A better reason to prefer orient to orientate is that orientate is, as Garner’s Modern English Usage (2016) calls it, a “needless variant,” doing work that orient already does. Add a dis- and orientate sounds even more ungainly: “I felt disorientated in my new surroundings.”

~ The advice to “decide for yourself” between orient and orientate is, to my mind, wildly unhelpful. On what basis will you decide? What if you hold the mistaken belief that longer words make you sound more intelligent? To think of “personal choice” as “the primary deciding factor” seems to miss the point that your language is for another, for some listener or reader who will be weighing what you say or write. Will orientate strike that listener or reader as intelligent and sophisticated, or as merely pompous? Will it inspire respect for what you say, or will it leave your audience wondering why you can’t just say or write orient?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of Usage supplements its discussion with sample sentences from writers “who obviously saw nothing wrong with orientate”: W.H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, Margaret Mead, Robert Morley, and others. Yes, and one of those writers (Morley) also saw nothing wrong with using the word Chinamen. In 2017, what Merriam-Webster fails to point out is that in British English, as in American English, orient is far more common than orientate. Here’s just one Google ngram to help make the point. Choosing orientate on either side of the Atlantic might mark a speaker or writer as something of an outlier.

NPR, sheesh

“I’m, like, a huge narcissist, so, like, let me get out there, basically.”

Related reading
All OCA sheesh posts (Pinboard)

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Thirty-two questions

In The New York Times, Gail Collins presents “The Trump 100-Day Quiz," parts one and two.

On Duke Ellington’s birthday

Here’s a wonderful scene from the first part of Richard O. Boyer’s three-part profile “The Hot Bach” (The New Yorker, June 24, 1944). It is night. Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (aka Sweepea, or more usually Swee’ Pea) are composing on a train:

“I got a wonderful part here,” Duke said to him. “Listen to this.” In a functional, squeaky voice that tried for exposition and not for beauty, Duke chanted, “Dah dee dah dah dah, deedle dee deedle dee boom, bah bah bah, boom, boom!” He laughed, frankly pleased by what he had produced, and said, “Boy, that son of a bitch has got a million twists.”

Strayhorn, still swaying sleepily in the aisle, pulled himself together in an attempt to offer an intelligent observation. Finally he said drowsily, “It's so simple, that's why.”

Duke laughed again and said, “I really sent myself on that. Would you like to see the first eight bars?”

“Ah yes! Ah yes!” Strayhorn said resignedly, and took the manuscript. He looked at it blankly. Duke misinterpreted Sweepea's expression as one of severity.

“Don't look at it that way, Sweepea,” he said. “It's not like that.”

“Why don't you reverse this figure?” asked Strayhorn sleepily. “Like this.” He sang shakily, “Dah dee dah dah dah, dah dee dah dah dah, boomty boomty boomty, boom!”

“Why not dah dee dah dah dah, deedle dee deedle dee dee, boom bah bah bah, boom?” Duke said.

“Dah dee dah dah dah!” sang Strayhorn stubbornly.

“Deedle dee deedle dee dee!” Duke answered.

“Dah dee dah dah dah!” Strayhorn insisted.

Duke did not reply; he just leaned eagerly forward and, pointing to a spot on the manuscript with his pencil, said, “Here's where the long piano part comes in. Here's where I pick up the first theme and restate it and then begin the major theme. Dah dee dah, deedle dee deedle dee, boom!”

The train lurched suddenly. Sweepea collapsed into a seat and closed his eyes. “Ah yes!” he said weakly. “Ah yes!”
Duke Ellington was born on April 29, 1899.

Related reading
All OCA Ellington posts (Pinboard)

[Boyer’s profile is reprinted in The Duke Ellington Reader, ed. Mark Tucker (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).]

Friday, April 28, 2017

Recently updated

Mystery actor Now with an identification.

Library savings

Our public library has added a nice detail to the receipt that accompanies borrowed materials: “You just saved $47.00 by using your library. You have saved $47.00 since April 14, 2017.” Common practice maybe, but it’s new to me.

Related reading
All OCA library posts (Pinboard)

Mystery actor

[Who? Click for a larger view.]

You may have seen her on television — dozens and dozens of times. Do you recognize her? Leave your best guess in the comments. If necessary, I will add a hint.


A hint: You may have seen her at the Stellar Employment Agency or in a sweltering apartment.


It’s been very quiet today. The mystery actor is Betty Garde, seen here as Wanda Skutnik in Call Northside 777 (dir. Henry Hathaway, 1948). Garde is probably best known to television viewers as Thelma, the maid in the Honeymooners episode “A Woman’s Work Is Never Done,” and as Mrs. Bronson in the Twilight Zone episode “The Midnight Sun.” “Dozens and dozens of times” was meant as a bit of misdirection: I was thinking of seeing that one Honeymooners episode again and again and again. “The chubby one’s gonna be trouble.”

More mystery actors
? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ? : ?

[Garner’s Modern English Usage notes that “support for actress seems to be eroding.” I’ll use actor.]

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Recently updated

Review: Walks with Walser Now that I have the published book and an accurate page count.


Elaine and I have a garden going, for the first time in many years. She is the brains of the operation, the planner and the planter. I do whatever she asks of me — hauling dirt, filling the watering can. We have been trying to figure out a name for my role in this project. Am I “the hired man,” or what?

Elaine came up with a fitting name today: sous-farmer.

A related post
Dream jobs (Including soda jerk and sous-jerk)

Our alphabet and
how it got that way

ABCDEFGHI_KLMNOPQRST_V_XYZ: from The American Heritage Dictionary, it’s a succinct account of the differences between the alphabet the Romans used (twenty-three letters) and our own.

I had to laugh when I began reading: ”As everyone knows, there are 26 letters. . . .” Well, not everyone. I recall a Great Moment in Teaching from the early 2000s, when I was explaining to a class that the Iliad and Odyssey had each been divided into twenty-four parts for the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet. In other words, the episodes had been lettered, not numbered. A hand went up: “How many letters are there in our alphabet?” I didn’t bat an eye: “Twenty-six.” Yes, this was in college.

When I told recounted this moment to Elaine, she suggested a different response, to be said in a kindly, speaking-to-a-child tone of voice: “You can count them yourself.”

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Life’s “we”

These thoughts don’t belong in a post about comic strips and Hula Hoops, but I don’t want to let them go either. Consider this sentence from an Editors’ Note in Life, January 31, 1964:

And don’t forget the Hula Hoop. What American didn’t climb into a colored plastic hoop in 1958 and undulate his torso?
Life’s question is rhetorical: the editors assume that we all climbed in. But consider how limited that “we” is. Set aside the generic “his” (because it’s 1964), and Life’s sense of an American still fails to account for the very young, the very old, those with disabilities or medical conditions that make movement difficult or impossible, those who might find the Hula Hoop an insult to (or unnecessary supplement to) their own traditions of dance, those living in the kind of privation that might have made Hula Hoops unaffordable or unavailable. Were Hula Hoops for sale in deepest Appalachia? That question too is rhetorical.

My point is not to hate on Life or the year 1964; it’s only to point out that anyone’s sense of who “we” are is informed by countless unexamined assumptions. Mine too.

Risking ruin in a TED talk

A delightful headline that will likely see much attention from the syntax-minded. A better headline: “In TED talk, Pope warns powerful to act humbly or risk ruin.” Or in what sounds to me more like journalese: ”Pope, in TED talk, warns powerful to act humbly or risk ruin.”

[Got a hat tip at Language Log.]

Joubert on Homer

Joseph Joubert:

If a superior intelligence wanted to give an account of human beings to the inhabitants of heaven and to give an exact idea of them, he would express himself like Homer.

The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert: A Selection  , trans. Paul Auster (New York: New York Review Books, 2005).
Also from Joseph Joubert
Advancing without aging : Another world : “As real as a cannon ball” : Being and nothingness : Brevity : Doing something well : “Everything is new” : 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 : Writing, too much or not at all

Odysseus in the North Atlantic

A startling bit of dialogue, from Action in the North Atlantic (dir. Lloyd Bacon, 1943). The speaker is merchant seaman Boats O’Hara (Alan Hale):

“You know what I’m doin’ when this is over? I’m puttin’ into port, I’m gettin’ off the ship, I’m puttin’ an oar on my shoulder, and I’m startin’ inland. And the first time a guy says to me: ‘What’s that on your shoulder?’ that's where I’m settlin’ for the rest of my life.”
That’s Homer. In Odyssey 11, Odysseus recounts what the ghost of the seer Tiresias told him he must do if he makes it home to Ithaca and kills Penelope’s suitors:

There’s no place for winnowing fans or animal sacrifices in 1943. And Odysseus, unlike Boats, would never settle inland. As Tiresias foretells, Odysseus will return to Ithaca after his inland journey, offer sacrifices to the gods, each in turn, and thereby be assured of an easy death in old age.

Related reading
All OCA Homer posts (Pinboard)

[The quoted passage is from Stanley Lombardo’s translation of the Odyssey (Hackett, 2000).]

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Forger

“My pen, my ink, my stamps, and my stapler”: tools of the trade for master forger Adolfo Kaminsky, the subject of The Forger, a great short film from The New York Times.

[The Times went with quill for plume. I chose pen as more appropriate.]

Bad coffee

Maxwell House Instant FTW? Keith Pandolfi makes a case for bad coffee. Found via Matt Thomas’s Submitted for Your Perusal.

A related post
Whiter instant? (A 1972 Instant Maxwell House ad)

[It used to be Instant Maxwell House; now it’s Maxwell House Instant.]

Laden with Hula Hoops

[“Hula-Hoop Craze”. Photograph by Grey Villet. No date. From the Life Photo Archive. Click for a much larger view.]

Behold a woman of the dowdy world, laden with Hula Hoops.

Henrietta’s Hula Hoop

[Henry, April 25, 2017.]

Like this New Math panel, today’s Henry is good evidence that the strip’s reruns date from the 1960s. The Wham-O Hula Hoop became a craze in 1958. By the mid-1960s, not so much. Some evidence from Life:

January 31, 1964: “And don’t forget the Hula Hoop. What American didn’t climb into a colored plastic hoop in 1958 and undulate his torso?” August 20, 1965: “It only ceases to be Pop when it’s as dead as the Hula-Hoop.” December 23, 1966: “Remember the hula hoop? It came and went like a flash.” That last one is from an advertisement for Sylvania Blue Dots.

Related reading
All OCA Henry posts (Pinboard)

[Odd: Henry has been playing with a hoop and stick. Henrietta is nostalgic about a newer toy.]

Monday, April 24, 2017

Proust’s noisy neighbors

At auction this Wednesday, along with many other items related to French literature, a letter from Marcel Proust to his friend Jacques Porel, son of the actress Gabrielle Réjane, Proust’s then-landlady and a model for the actress La Berma in In Search of Lost Time. In the letter Proust complains about the noise he hears in his apartment, or what the auction catalogue calls “bruyants ébats amoreux de ses voisins”:

Les voisins dont me sépare la cloison font d’autre part l’amour tous les 2 jours avec une frénésie dont je suis jaloux.
More or less:
The neighbors on the other side of the partition make love every two days with a frenzy of which I am jealous.
Proust wrote to Porel on July 15, 1919. On October 1, 1919, he moved out. You can find the letter, no. 245, in the spectacular illustrated auction catalogue from Pierre Bergé and Associés. Spectacular: see also, for instance, nos. 81, 133, 153, 258.

In August, New Directions will publish Lydia Davis’s translations of Proust’s letters to another set of noisy neighbors.

Related reading
All OCA Proust posts (Pinboard)

[Sometimes I think that the best thing about the PDF is free auction catalogues.]

Review: Walks with Walser

Carl Seelig. Walks with Walser. 1957. Translated from the German by Anne Posten. New York: New Directions, 2017. 144 pages. $15.95 paper.

                    A famous person must not cause
                    one to forget the unfamous.

                    Robert Walser to Carl Seelig

The Swiss editor and writer Carl Seelig is best known today as Robert Walser’s friend, guardian, and literary executor. In the mid-1930s, Seelig began writing to Walser, wanting to do something for the writer and his work. Wanderungen mit Robert Walser (1957) is Seelig’s memoir of what followed: forty-five visits with Walser over nineteen years. Walks with Walser is this book’s first and long-awaited appearance in English.

In 1929, after “a few bumbling attempts” at suicide, Robert Walser was admitted to a Swiss psychiatric clinic, where he continued to write in microscript on stray pieces of paper. In 1933 he was transferred against his will to a Swiss sanitarium, where he remained for the rest of his life, and where he appears to have stopped writing. In his conversations with Seelig, Walser is doubtful about those who admire his work: he dismisses Kafka’s interest with a wave; he calls Seelig’s praise nothing more than “society lies” (in the tenth year of their friendship); when told that Christopher Middleton is translating his work into English, Walser replies with what Seelig describes as “a curt ‘Really!’” Walser’s response to any mention of seventy-fifth-birthday newspaper and radio tributes to him: “That’s nothing to me!” Walser insisted to Seelig that he was in the asylum to be mad, not to write: his duties there included folding paper bags, sweeping floors, and sorting and unraveling twine.

And he walked. Walser loved to walk, not in the manner of a flaneur, but energetically, sometimes frantically, on mountain paths, across fields and meadows, in all weathers, for hours on end. (One of his greatest works is the novella The Walk.) Whatever was “wrong” with Walser (even his doctors could not agree), he was well enough to leave the asylum in Seelig’s company for day-long excursions on foot or by train. Seelig gives us a vivid picture of Walser as walker: virtually never wearing an overcoat (“I’ve always had a horror of overcoats”), virtually always carrying an umbrella: “It wants to go for a walk too — and besides, umbrellas attract good weather!” The two men’s outings include the occasional swim, many meals, a fair amount of drinking (“That I can do only with you!”), and considerable good feeling: “En avant: to beer and twilight!” Walser and Seelig are often the only figures in the landscape, even when the landscape is a village square. (Not surprising, given Walser’s penchant for walking in even the worst weather.) The two men talk of architecture, history, the war, writers past and present, and the peregrinations of Walser’s pre-asylum life.

It’s when the conversation turns to writing that we first see what Seelig calls “shadows,” signs that something is not right. Walser explains his confinement by saying that he “lacked a halo,” and he describes Hermann Hesse’s admirers as thinking that they can criticize and order him (Walser) around. Editors are “power-hungry boa constrictors,” squeezing and suffocating writers as they please. Writers must stand in opposition to their culture, Walser says, yet he also says that they must learn to conform, striking the theme of obedience and punishment that so often appears in his work. “Writers without ethics,” he declares, “deserve to be whipped.” The signs of trouble become noticeable elsewhere: “Eh, more of this to-do!” Walser exclaims when his sister Lisa is dying, and his only response to news of his brother Karl’s death is (once again) “Really!” Walser thinks that the Second World War makes space “for the beautiful to grow within us again” and that the bombing of Berlin will lead urbanites to “a more intuitive, more natural life.” Always distrustful of doctors and nurses, Walser is at times distrustful even of Seelig, who is, at all points, a model of kindness and patience. Sixteen years into their friendship, Walser seems to suspect his visitor of some sinister intent behind the day’s outing.

But Walser’s delight in the plainest surroundings and his dazzlingly aphoristic conversation are the dominant elements in this memoir. And they’re here in a beautifully conversational translation. Snowy woods: “It’s like a fairy tale.” A village square: “It’s like something from a dream!” The clatter of cash register, china, and glassware in a train-station restaurant: “It sounds like an orchestra of coziness.” Of a cloister-like building, its use unknown:

“Such things are much prettier from the outside. One need not investigate every secret. I have maintained this all my life. Is it not lovely, that in our existence so much remains strange and unknown, as if behind ivy-colored walls? It gives life an unspeakable allure, which is increasingly disappearing. It is brutal, the way everything is coveted and claimed nowadays.”
After seeing clouds, not blue sky, on his sixty-fifth birthday:
“I don’t care a fig about superb views and backdrops. When what is distant disappears, what is near tenderly draws nearer. What more do we need to be satisfied than a meadow, a wood, and a few peaceful houses?”
On Friedrich Hölderlin’s life, which must have reminded Walser of his own:
“Dreaming the days away in some modest quarter, without constant demands, is certainly not martyrdom. People just make it one!”
Yes, Robert Walser in conversation sounds like Robert Walser the writer.

The last walk Seelig describes is one without conversation, and one that he can only imagine. It is a walk that Walser made alone, on Christmas Day 1956. Seelig postponed a planned visit with Walser that day to stay at home with a sick dog. Walser went walking by himself, collapsed, and died on a snowy slope. An appropriate exit for a writer who, says Seelig, “delighted in winter, with its light, merry dance of snowflakes.” And who delighted in walking. And yes, it’s like a fairy tale.

Walks with Wasler will be published tomorrow, April 25. Thanks to New Directions for a review copy.


April 27: I now have a copy of the published book, which has 144 pages if you count the blank ones at the end (as The Chicago Manual of Style says you should). No photographs except for the one by Carl Seelig on the front cover. The New Directions website still says 200 pages.

Related reading
A review of Walser’s Looking at Pictures
A review of Walser’s Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories
All OCA Robert Walser posts

Friday, April 21, 2017

Cooper-Moore in Illinois

Gelvin Noel Gallery
Krannert Art Museum
Champaign, Illinois
April 20, 2017

Cooper-Moore, ashimba, balloon, three-string fretless banjo, diddley-bow, mouth bow, horizontal hoe-handle harp, wind chimes, voice

Cooper-Moore’s performance at the Krannert Art Museum was part of the Sonified Sustainability Festival, devoted to ecologically minded music and art. Cooper-Moore (who took his name from his grandmothers’ surnames) is a pianist who also performs on instruments of his making, created from found and repurposed materials (a piece of a sofa frame, say) and inexpensive Radio Shack electronics. His performance on Thursday was part music-making on these instruments, part storytelling, part question-and-answer session.

Cooper-Moore began by singing “Roll, Jordan, Roll” while playing wind chimes placed horizontally on his lap, with two more chimes as mallets (adding a note and overtones to every note struck). The words of “Roll, Jordan, Roll” returned briefly as he made music on a balloon as one would play a glass harmonica — with fingers dipped in water). But this instrument (held close to a microphone) sounded like a drum kit, a running crowd, a noise guitar. “Where would they put that in Downbeat?” Cooper-Moore asked. “Under ‘Miscellaneous’?”

Cooper-Moore’s performances on ashimba, banjo, diddley-bow, and mouth bow (the last three amplified) recalled instrumental legacies both African and African-American. The ashimba, an eleven-note xylophone made from found wood, provided a dense accompaniment to the words of “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ’Round.” (The instrument’s name combines Cooper-Moore’s original surname Ashton and marimba.) Cooper-Moore’s banjo playing was rich in blues inflections. (From the spoken-sung story that went with it: “I’m not afraid of death. It just don’t suit me to be lookin’ at it.”) The pieces for diddley-bow — a monochord that figures in the origin stories of many blues guitarists — were especially virtuosic, as Cooper-Moore played the instrument with hands and drumsticks, and sometimes with drumstick on drumstick, sounding at times like a bottleneck guitar, at times like a bass, at times like a rhythm section unto himself. The sound of the mouth bow — a bowstring played with a half-size violin bow — is one that Cooper-Moore associates with the name Yahweh, the mouth opening and closing while producing vowels. His performance on horizontal hoe-handle harp (an instrument he built after hearing the Paraguayan harp and then pricing harps) began and ended in serene lyricism, with funkier and sharply percussive moments in the middle.

Between instrumental performances, Cooper-Moore told stories of finding materials, building instruments, and traveling the world, and he sang a bit of what sounded like an old and slightly risqué song about aging. I remember the line “But it don’t rise.” Through it all was the spirit of what Cooper-Moore says his work as a musician is about: play.

Thanks to Jason Finkelman, who continues to bring the news of the world to east-central Illinois.

[Mouth bow, diddley-bow, ashimba, water and balloon, horizontal hoe-handle harp, wind chimes, three-string fretless banjo. Click for a much larger view.]

Related reading
Cooper-Moore biography and partial discography (AUM Fidelity)

And from YouTube
Cooper-Moore plays fretless banjo, diddley-bow and mouth bow (with Digital Primitives); horizontal hoe-handle harp (with Subway Girl); and solo piano

[Don’t quit on the piano performance.]

Walser on ruins

Robert Walser in conversation:

“Aren’t ruins more beautiful than something that’s been patched up?”

Carl Seelig, Walks with Walser, trans. Anne Posten (New York: New Directions, 2017).
See also Walser on ruins and “former beauty.” And Joseph Joubert on ruins and reconstructions.

Related reading
All OCA Robert Walser posts (Pinboard)

[A review of Walks with Walser is coming soon.]

Joubert on writing

Joseph Joubert:

One ruins the mind with too much writing. — One rusts it by not writing at all.

The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert: A Selection  , trans. Paul Auster (New York: New York Review Books, 2005).
Also from Joseph Joubert
Advancing without aging : Another world : “As real as a cannon ball” : Being and nothingness : Brevity : Doing something well : “Everything is new” : 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

Thursday, April 20, 2017

It’s the Office Of Thesecretary

In December 2014, a student asked me whether it was acceptable to end a sentence with the word it. She had been told not to. Here was a zombie rule I’d never heard of, for which I (finally) discovered a source in an influential book of grammar instruction from 1795. Suffice it to say: it’s perfectly acceptable to end a sentence with it. And I was happy that my student believed me about it.

The post I wrote about ending a sentence with it continues to get visits every day, from all over. Even, yesterday, from someone in the Department Of The Interior, Office Of Thesecretary:

[They need to work on capitalization and proofreading.]

My thoughts about this detail in my blog stats:

It’s saddening that someone in a position of authority should be in the dark about it.

It’s reassuring that someone in a position of authority should be willing to look into it.

It’s alarming that someone in a position of authority (a staffer, no doubt) is relying on the Internets in such a free and easy way. (Notice that I’ve blotted out the IP address.) I wonder what else they might be looking up in the Office of Thesecretary.

It’s chilling to imagine the Interior sentences that might be ending with it. “We will eliminate it”? “We will destroy it”?

It’s disturbing to see something I’ve written prove useful to someone in the Trump administration. But public writing is public writing. One never knows, do one?
A related post
Were and was (Visits from the House and Senate)

[The #3 in the stat info makes it clear to me that the Google search had to do with terminal it and not, say, one or more of the proper names in the post. I don’t read stats closely — it’s luck that I happened to spot this visit.]

Nationalism, patriotism,
and possible futures

From the historian Timothy Snyder:

Democracy failed in Europe in the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, and it is failing not only in much of Europe but in many parts of the world today. It is that history and experience that reveals to us the dark range of our possible futures. A nationalist will say that “it can’t happen here,” which is the first step toward disaster. A patriot says that it could happen here, but that we will stop it.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017).
Also from this book
“Believe in truth” : Distinguishing truth from falsehood

[Sobering and inspiring. And only $7.99.]

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

“The individual who investigates”

From the historian Timothy Snyder, writing about the importance of distinguishing between truth and falsehood:

“What is truth?” Sometimes people ask this question because they wish to do nothing. Generic cynicism makes us feel hip and alternative even as we slip along with our fellow citizens into a morass of indifference. It is your ability to discern facts that makes you an individual, and our collective trust in common knowledge that makes us a society. The individual who investigates is also the citizen who builds. The leader who dislikes the investigators is a potential tyrant.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017).
Also from this book
“Believe in truth”

[Widely available on the Internets: an earlier short list of twenty lessons.]

Willa Cather’s “picture writing”

Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918).

The image of the plough against the sinking sun has long made me think of a Chinese ideogram conspicuous in Ezra Pound’s poetics: 東 dōng, “east,” made of 木 (tree) and 日 (sun); thus, as Pound explains, “sun tangled in the tree’s branches, as at sunrise, meaning now the East.” Chinese ideograms only rarely function as pictures, but Pound’s wholesale misunderstanding of the language confirmed his sense of poetry as a matter of vivid, sharp, direct presentation of images: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.”

Cather’s “picture writing” suggests so much: painterly selection and arrangement of colors and forms; the ancestral labor of tool-making and agriculture; the human trace, or more than trace, on the landscape, with the plough “heroic in size,” made larger, at least for a moment, by the light; the smallness and impermanence of human traces, all going into the darkness; the preservation of those traces in memory and art. The “forgotten plough” is not, after all, forgotten, or not yet.

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

[The traditional ideogram 東 figures in Pound’s ABC of Reading (1934) and Ernest Fenollosa’s The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry (1936), edited by Pound from Fenollosa’s notes. Pound shared Fenollosa’s misunderstanding of Chinese. The poem quoted is Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro.”]

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

If ever there was a need
for misinflammation . . .

Confidential to Anthony J. Blinken: your opinion piece in today’s New York Times cries out for use of the timely word misinflammation, coined in these pages last year.

“Believe in truth”

From the historian Timothy Snyder, the tenth of twenty lessons on tyranny:

Believe in truth.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017).
I wish I’d begun reading this book before reading yesterday’s New York Times piece politics and critical theory.

A related post
Politics and theory

Houses, homes, legs, limbs

Lena Lingard and “small-town proprieties”:

Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918).

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

Monday, April 17, 2017

Domestic comedy

[Upon flipping to the last minute or so of Jeopardy.]

“What’s a good question for that? ‘What is something I’ve never heard of?’”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

Politics and theory

In The New York Times, Casey Williams, a graduate student in English, writes about “theory” and Donald Trump:

Call it what you want: relativism, constructivism, deconstruction, postmodernism, critique. The idea is the same: Truth is not found, but made, and making truth means exercising power.

The reductive version is simpler and easier to abuse: Fact is fiction, and anything goes. It’s this version of critical social theory that the populist right has seized on and that Trump has made into a powerful weapon.
I’m not sure that there is much difference between the two versions: if making truth is an exercise in power, then “anything goes” — or anything we say goes — would seem to be an exercise in absolute power. It’s what I call postmodernism with a vengeance.

Williams loses me when he argues not for an insistence on fact but for the continuing usefulness of “critique”:
Some liberals have argued that the best way to combat conservative mendacity is to insist on the existence of truth and the reliability of hard facts. But blind faith in objectivity and factual truth alone has not proven to be a promising way forward.

Even if we felt comfortable asserting the existence of something like “truth,” there’s no going back to the days when Americans agreed on matters of fact — when debates about policy were guided by a commitment to truth and reason. Indeed, critique shows us that it’s doubtful that those days, like Trump’s “great” America, ever existed.
Notice how Williams frames the argument: an insistence on fact is turned into mere “blind faith in objectivity and factual truth alone.” (With no appeal to values?) And that blind faith, Williams asserts, “has not proven to be a promising way forward.” Not proven how? By whom? By what standards can we agree or disagree about that?

And if I doubt the reality of Donald Trump’s lost “great” America, it’s not because of “critique.” It’s because I’m aware of too many elements in our history — call them facts — that contradict any simple claim to greatness.

A joke in the traditional manner

What was the shepherd doing in the garden?

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? : How do worms get to the supermarket? : 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 Fred Astaire never drink bottled water? : 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. He gets credit for all but the cow coloratura, the mustard-fetching dogs, the produce clerk, the amoebas, the worms, the scientists’ dogs, the toy, the squirrel-doctor, Marie Kondo, Fred Astaire, and Santa Claus.]

Sunday, April 16, 2017

NYT morgue

“I’m about 10 years behind in my refiling”: a visit with the caretaker of The New York Times morgue. Or as the Times calls it, the “morgue.”

Definitions and politics

Kory Stamper, writing in The New York Times about dictionaries, politics, and Merriam-Webster’s tweets:

It made no difference how dispassionately we tried to present the data (“Lookups for ‘wiretapping’ are up 98,000 percent after Spicer told reporters that Trump wasn’t using the term literally”). We were accused of abandoning our job of writing definitions and subtweeting, trolling and owning members of the administration.

“I literally pasted a definition to Twitter,” said my colleague Lauren Naturale, the social media manager at Merriam-Webster, “and somehow that’s political now.”
Well, yes, that’s political now. The surprised tone here seems to me disingenuous, especially because, as Stamper goes on to say, “the writing of dictionaries in the United States has always been political.”

Insisting that a word means something, and not something else (or that one word, and not some other word, describes reality), can be political. Just as insisting that two plus two make four, not five, can be political.

A related post
A review of Kory Stamper’s Word by Word

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Lucy, hygge

[Peanuts, April 18, 1970.]

Yesterday’s Peanuts is today’s Peanuts. Nearly forty-seven years ago, Lucy appears to have anticipated the recent North American interest in the Danish idea of hygge.


At Animal Adventure Park in Harpursville, NY, a giraffe is about to be born. Like, soon.

“Spare the finger-bowls!”

Wycliffe “Wick” Cutter is a member of the “fast set” in Black Hawk, Nebraska: gambler, money-lender, ruiner of hired girls. Mrs. Cutter (no first name) has other interests:

Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918).

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

Friday, April 14, 2017

“This is the truth”

Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918).

There’s a similar but much bleaker passage in the third part of Cather’s The Professor’s House (1925). There, Godfrey St. Peter is the voice of the darkest, deepest truth: ”Desire under all desires, Truth under all truths.“ As St. Peter observes the setting sun or a tree root or the changing leaves, he says, “merely,” “That is right” or “That is it” or “That is true; it is time.”

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)


I went to a seder the other night. (I’m a non-believer among friends.) A passage from the Haggadah, listing contemporary plagues, “the plagues that threaten everyone everywhere they are found, beginning in our own hearts,” resonated strongly with me, so strongly that I took out my phone to take a picture so that I could share the words here:

The making of war,
the teaching of hate and violence,
despoliation of the earth,
perversion of justice and of government,
fomenting of vice and crime,
neglect of human needs,
oppression of nations and peoples,
corruption of culture,
subjugation of science, learning, and human
the erosion of freedoms.

From A Passover Haggadah, ed. Herbert Bronstein (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 1982).
And now it’s thirty-five years later.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Hours of outage

Our cable and wireless were out for many hours today. The outage was widespread. Instead of switching the box back on (again and again), I called the tech-support number (again and again) to check if the problem had been solved. And each time, before I could hear the recorded report that the outage continued: “Please enter the ten-digit telephone number you are calling in reference to.”

So highfalutin. Better: “Please enter the ten-digit telephone number you’re calling about.”

Does anyone else remember when people on the telephone used to ask, “May I ask what this is in reference to?” And “Whom should I say is calling?”

Related reading
All OCA telephone posts (Pinboard)

[Yes, that should be who.]

Aah, incompetence

John Dean, former White House Counsel, talking to The New York Times about the Trump administration: “The incompetence is the only thing giving me comfort at the moment.”

A related post
“If Trump were more rational and more competent”

Nebraska all day long

Willa Cather, My Ántonia (1918).

Related reading
All OCA Cather posts (Pinboard)

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Los Angeles Times on Trump

The Los Angeles Times recently published an extended editorial feature on Donald Trump’s presidency, in six parts, with a explanatory coda: “Our Dishonest President,” “Why Trump Lies,” “Trump’s Authoritarian Vision,” “Trump’s War on Journalism,” “Conspiracy Theorist in Chief,” “California Fights Back,” and “Why We Took a Stand.” It’s all worth reading, as both a reminder of past outrages and a spur to vigilance about what’s to come.

I’ll quote just one passage from “Our Dishonest President” concerning what the Times calls Trump‘s “utter lack of regard for truth”:

Whether it is the easily disprovable boasts about the size of his inauguration crowd or his unsubstantiated assertion that Barack Obama bugged Trump Tower, the new president regularly muddies the waters of fact and fiction. It’s difficult to know whether he actually can’t distinguish the real from the unreal — or whether he intentionally conflates the two to befuddle voters, deflect criticism and undermine the very idea of objective truth. Whatever the explanation, he is encouraging Americans to reject facts, to disrespect science, documents, nonpartisanship and the mainstream media — and instead to simply take positions on the basis of ideology and preconceived notions. This is a recipe for a divided country in which differences grow deeper and rational compromise becomes impossible.
What I find most dangerous about Trump and those around him, beyond any particular executive order or policy position, is that “utter lack of regard for truth.” See, for instance, Sean Spicer’s most recent performance.

Hallmark is a bleep

It was late. Frasier was on. Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Susanna (Allison Janney) have been arguing the merits of an imaginary painter. And now Susanna is about to storm out. From the episode “Three Blind Dates” (March 5, 2002), her parting shot:

“For your information, Benjamin Locklear is as overrated as your [   ].”
The Hallmark Channel bleeped the word: ass. Hallmark censors its reruns.

It’s Frasier, for Pete’s sake. Grown-Up City. Innuendoville. Sexytown. Let us hear the words.

“мы веселиться еще?”

[Zippy, April 12, 2017.]

More Russian hijinks. “мы веселиться еще?” is the Zippy catchphrase “Are we having fun yet?”

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

PBS, sheesh

From tonight’s PBS News Hour : “There is confusion over conflicting advice about whom should get tested for the disease.” No, who.

Though fading, whom hangs on, ready to step in as a hypercorrection.

Related reading
All OCA sheesh posts (Pinboard)

“Хорошая идея!”

[Zippy, April 11, 2017.]

Agatha has traveled to the White House to meet a mysterious masked stranger (and newly hired low-level White House employee) who is working to subvert the Trump administration.

How could you read Zippy and not want to know what Agatha is saying in Russian? It’s “Хорошая идея!” A good idea!

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)

[I don’t know Russian. I used Google Translate and checked against the Internets.]

Review: Word by Word

Kory Stamper. Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries. New York: Pantheon, 2017. xiv + 302 pp. $26.95 hardcover.

The dictionary is in troubled and exciting times. That is, dictionaries of the English language are in troubled and exciting times, because there is no such thing as “the dictionary.” Funk & Wagnalls, Random House, and other publishers have either closed up shop or stopped making dictionaries. It seems likely that a third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (projected for the 2030s) will be available only online. Fifty-six years after the publication of Webster’s Third New International, a fourth edition is underway — but only online. In the closing pages of Word by Word, Kory Stamper notes that Merriam-Webster, where she works as a lexicographer, had just undertaken large-scale layoffs.

But amid financial difficulties, dictionaries of the English language are having a moment (“a time of excellence or conspicuousness”), due in large part to publishers’ efforts in social media: Word of the Year announcements (e.g., post-truth), lists of newly added words (e.g., twerk), and, most recently, Merriam-Webster’s pointedly political tweets (e.g., a definition of fact, corrections of Trumpian misspellings). Merriam-Webster has also been tracking words most frequently looked up (e.g., fascism). As the lexicographer James Sheidlower suggests, people in stressful times seek out authoritative answers: in alcohol, in the Bible, in a dictionary. But it’s just as plausible to think of the turn to the dictionary as resulting from skepticism about some other versions of authority. Looking up a word like fact might be, in its own quiet way, one form of resistance in the (so-called) post-truth era.

Word by Word is partly an account of a life dedicated to words, partly an introduction to the history of lexicography, partly an explanation of the many kinds of work that go into the making of a dictionary entry, and partly a meditation on the relationship between dictionaries and culture. The title suggests not only the one-word-after-another march of lexicography: Word by Word is elegantly organized by means of individual words. Irregardless, for instance, occasions a discussion of “wrong” words; posh, a discussion of etymologies, true and false. And then there’s Hrafnkell, a name from Icelandic saga: Stamper found her way to lexicography via a major in medieval studies. She describes her work at Merriam-Webster (whose only formal requirements are a college degree and English as a first language) as “less like a job and more like a calling,” “as much a creative process as a scientific one,” a process that relies heavily on sprachgefühl, a feel for language. Lexicography for Stamper is craft, not art, a matter of “care, repetitive work, apprenticeship, and practice.”

Much of that craft involves — shades of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King — sitting in silence, “reading and marking,” applying one’s sprachgefühl to books, popular magazines, scholarly journals, looking for and marking new words, new uses of words, regionalisms, and bits of dialect, all of which find their way into Merriam-Webster’s citation files. A lexicographer is always on the lookout for what might be needed: Stamper recounts photographing a cosmetics display to document a sense of the word nude. Creating a dictionary entry at Merriam-Webster is the work of various people, who define (following a style guide known as “the Black Books,” the work of W3’s editor Philip Gove), trace etymologies (relying on both learnedness and hunches), date first appearances in print, choose example sentences, and puzzle out pronunciations (e.g., “nucular”).

It’s instructive to ponder the difficulty of creating entries for small words, entries that few, if any, dictionary users are likely to consult. (One exception would be the poet Louis Zukofsky, whose Poem beginning “The” and much longer poem “A” are evidence of a lifetime thinking about and looking up small words.) Just one detail of the complications: as Stamper points out, the word a can function as article, adverb, and preposition. And here I begin to realize that despite my love of dictionaries and rabbit holes, I could likely never muster the patience to do this kind of work.

It’s instructive too to ponder what Stamper has to say about dictionaries and culture — that dictionaries reflect rather than foment culture change. How sobering to realize that as recently as 2004, bitch appeared in the Collegiate without a usage label, and that among the definitions of nude was this one: “of the color of a white person’s flesh.” (Both entries have been revised in the online dictionary.) Stamper writes in considerable detail about Merriam-Webster’s relationship with marriage. When some readers discovered that Merriam-Webster had added a subsense to its definition (“the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage”), hate mail and threats followed. More recently, other readers have complained that the word marriage now merits a single, gender-neutral definition. But the dictionary isn’t there yet. “Language,” Stamper writes, “always lags behind life.”

I have two criticisms of this book. One applies to its treatment of Standard English, which Stamper calls “a convenient fiction” or a dialect based on a “mostly fictional” ideal of usage. While Standard English may be a concept with blurred edges, beyond exact definition, it’s relatively easy for anyone at home in it to know it by ear or eye. It is, of course, a dialect in which Stamper and every other lexicographer is at home. I think that what Bryan Garner says holds true: “Standard English: without it, you won’t be taken seriously.” Like Geoffrey Pullum and Steven Pinker before her, Stamper is too quick to catch out prescriptivists (or pedants and peevers, as she sometimes calls them) in imagined errors. Yes, E. B. White cautions against certainly and uses the word himself in an essay. Gotcha? No, because White cautions against the overuse of the word. Here is what The Elements of Style says about certainly:

Used indiscriminately by some speakers, much as others use very, in an attempt to intensify any and every statement. A mannerism of this kind, bad in speech, is even worse in writing.
And yes, David Foster Wallace uses literally to mean figuratively, but it’s not Wallace who makes the mistake; it’s a character in The Pale King. (As for Lynne Truss, whose errors are her own, informed prescriptivist opinion is against her.) I’m not sure what to make of Stamper’s arguments from the authority of past writers, arguments that seem strangely at odds with a recognition that language is always changing. Yes, Shakespeare used double negatives and Austen used ain’t and the possessive it’s. But so what? Try using them in a letter of application to Merriam-Webster and see how far you get.

A second criticism: Word by Word is rich in casual profanity that a reader might begin to find tiresome. (Stamper describes herself as “unrufflable” around taboo words.) Example sentences, Stamper says, are “a pain in the ass.” Words (in a remark from a colleague) are “stubborn little fuckers.” Among the things that are damned or goddamned in Word by Word: a coffeemaker, electrical sockets, a mockingbird, an English poet laureate, and the front matter of the dictionary. The goddamned front matter of the dictionary! (Holden Caulfield, are you listening?) I reached my limit on page 210, where Stamper describes the care with which readers write letters to Merriam-Webster: “This is a question sent to the dictionary, after all. This is serious shit.” Yes, it is, and I’m entirely comfortable reading, speaking, and writing profanities. (Goddamned right!) But there’s no need to loosen or lively up the presentation with so many of them.

No need, because the story Stamper tells is already lively and compelling in itself. Word by Word does for lexicography what Mary Norris’s Between You & Me does for copyediting: it makes visible the work, the worker, and the workplace. For anyone who cares about the evolving English language, Word by Word is necessary reading. And when you get to page 260, or even if you don’t, look up Emily Brewster’s Merriam-Webster entry for build-out. “I worked really, really hard on the definition,” Brewster tells Stamper, “but I’m sure no one has ever really looked at it.” Look at it and honor the lexicographer’s craft.

Thanks to the publisher for a review copy.

Related reading
All OCA dictionary posts (Pinboard)
A review of Between You & Me

[The definition of “moment” is Merriam-Webster’s. About being at home in Standard English: it is often a home, not a first or only home. For informed responses to Lynne Truss, see Bryan Garner (in Garner on Language and Writing) and Louis Menand.]

Monday, April 10, 2017


[Mark Trail, April 10, 2017. Mark Trail writes for Woods and Wildlife. James Allen is having some fun at Mark’s expense.]

This shiny man represents a new direction in evil: bad guys in Mark Trail used to sport facial hair. (For instance.) But what draws me to this panel is the end of the shiny man’s question: “hungh?”

Urban Dictionary has one (2004) entry for hungh, with three definitions. The entry is the work of one Slackerking, and it is his or her only entry. The definitions (see for yourself) suggest comic intent. The word hungh is nearly non-existent elsewhere online. As a Twitter hashtag accompanying photographs of tasty-looking food, hungh is likely meant to signal enthusiastic approval. You know — the sound people might make when they’re stoked. (Huuhh!) As a hashtag accompanying tweets that register puzzlement or surprise, hungh appears to be a misspelling of the word that James Allen, too, is going for: hunh. The Oxford English Dictionary identifies the word as an interjection, “used as an intensifier after a question.”

What I didn’t know: the OED identifies hunh as “U.S. dial. (esp. in Black English).” (Or what most people would now call “African American English.”) The first citation for the word comes from Zora Neale Hurston, Of Mules and Men (1935): “You got mo’ poison in yuh than dat snake dat wuz so poison tell he bit de railroad track and killed de train, hunh?”

I wondered whether the disapproving interjection humph, which I recall from Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), might also might originate in African American English. But no. My son Ben made considerable use of humph in his early years, and long after his childhood, it remains part of the fambly lingo. Humph!

This post is an example what can happen when I read the comics.

Related reading
All OCA Mark Trail posts (Pinboard)

Tea “in times like these”

[Life, September 25, 1950. Click either image for a much larger view.]

“Stress, strain and worry from morning to night,” says the Tea Council. “People are finding that tea does wonderful things for them in times like these,” says the Tea Council. “It helps relieve your mind of any thought that you won’t sleep well,” says the Tea Council. I’d go further: tea helps relieve your mind of any thought. It is second only to the lotus in its erasing power.

What was I just saying?

Related reading
All OCA tea posts (Pinboard)

Sunday, April 9, 2017

How to improve writing (no. 71)

From an appreciation of a poet:

[O]f course the codex form was a primary affinity, as all of his work and life indicates.
This partial sentence made me stop and want to improve it. Notice the inflated diction: “the codex form,” “a primary affinity.” I’ve used the word codex when teaching about ancient texts. It’s a fine word. But there’s no question here of preferring codices to scrolls. As for “a primary affinity,” notice that a form of to be precedes the words, removing any strong sense of agency. The form was an affinity? And a primary not secondary affinity?

And now I think of Richard Lanham’s command in Revising Prose (2007): “Find the action.” And I think of Michael Harvey’s explanation of basic sentence structure in The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing (2013): “who (or what) does what.” And I realize that “a primary affinity” is not only an instance of inflated diction but a decidedly indirect nominalization. Who did what?

A possible revision:
As his life and work attest, he loved the printed book.
I chose “the printed book” to suggest a love of the object, rather than a love of reading. I think that’s what the writer means to suggest.

Which sentence do you find more convincing?


An afterthought: I now realize that it seems odd to think of someone’s life as attesting to that person’s affection for x. I can’t see any difference between, say, “As his life attests, he loved his family” and “He loved his family.” The second sentence clearly implies that the evidence of love is to be found in the content of the person’s life. So a better revision:
As his work attests, he loved the printed book.
Related reading
All OCA “How to improve writing” posts (Pinboard)

[This post is no. 71 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

[Your headline here]

The New York Times explains how to write a New York Times headline. For the Times, a bad pun is “a mortal sin”:

Obvious wordplay, such as Rubber Industry Bounces Back, “should be tested on a trusted colleague the way mine shaft air is tested on a canary. When no song bursts forth, start rewriting.”
Related reading
All OCA New York Times posts (Pinboard)

[The passage I’ve quoted quotes from the paper’s Manual of Style and Usage. As for bad puns, consider the cover of today’s New York Post: “Putin on the Pressure.”]

Saturday, April 8, 2017

“Some Other Time”

When On the Town moved from stage to screen, many of Leonard Bernstein’s songs disappeared, including “Some Other Time,” easily the best and most moving song in the show. Oh, well. I guess they wanted to keep things light.

Here is an unembeddable, unforgettable recording of “Some Other Time.” Music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Blossom Dearie, piano and vocal; Kenny Burrell, guitar; Ray Brown, bass; Ed Thigpen, drumes. From the album Blossom Dearie Sings Comden and Green (Verve, 1960).

Blossom Dearie is a musician I’ve discovered by way of my dad’s CDs. There’s one previous post with her music.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Shittown coda

[No spoilers, unless the post spoils Shittown itself.]

Having listened to the seven-episode podcast Shittown, I feel shitty. John B. McLemore is quite a story: an Ignatius J. Reilly come to life, with a far greater measure of tragedy. Whether McLemore’s life should have become a story is another matter. Shittown, I’ve concluded, is a public-radio version of the more grotesque forms of reality TV, registering compassion for those under examination while nonetheless turning them into spectacle — or the aural equivalent of spectacle.

As Elaine says: next time, we won’t get in line.

Holy war, noble peace

It has been reported that the Kaiser has fled Germany for the Netherlands. Gack, a former student planning on the priesthood, doesn’t believe it:

Hans Herbert Grimm, Schlump. 1928. Trans. Jamie Bullock (New York: New York Review Books, 2016).

Also from this novel
Food fight : “Headed for the Front” : “A few sacks of peas” : “Just poems about spring and that”

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Protasis trouble

From a partial transcript of an interview between Donald Trump and Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush of The New York Times:

Trump: Elijah Cummings [a Democratic representative from Maryland] was in my office and he said, “You will go down as one of the great presidents in the history of our country.”

Haberman: Really.

Trump: And then he went out and I watched him on television yesterday and I said, “Was that the same man?”


Trump: But I said, and I liked him, but I said that was really nice. He said, in a group of people, “You will go down as one of the great presidents in the history of our country.” And then I watched him on television and I said, “Is that the same man that said that to me?”
Of course, what Trump claimed that Cummings said is not what Cummings said. Cummings gave The Washington Post an explanation:
During my meeting with the president and on several occasions since then, I have said repeatedly that he could be a great president if . . . if . . . he takes steps to truly represent all Americans rather than continuing on the divisive and harmful path he is currently on.
Donald Trump apparently suffers from protasis trouble. His distortion of Cummings’s remarks puts me in mind of a disgruntled student: “You said I’d get a B!” “No, I said that this could be a B paper — if you improve the third and fourth paragraphs, and if you clear up the documentation problems, and if you add,” &c.

Gleanings from Maira Kalman

Are things normal? I don’t know. Does life go on? Yes.


I go home and wash the dishes. Washing dishes is the antidote to confusion. I know that for a fact.


On the wall was a dress that I embroidered. It said “Ich habe genug.” Which is a Bach cantata. Which I once thought meant “I’ve had it, I can’t take anymore, give me a break.” But I was wrong.

It means “I have enough.” And that is utterly true. I happen to be alive. End of discussion. But I will go out and buy a hat.

From Maira Kalman, The Principles of Uncertainty (New York: Penguin Press, 2007).
Related posts
Maira Kalman on her daily routine : Strunk and White and Kalman

[I’ve ignored line breaks and spacing.]

“Without aging”

Joseph Joubert:

One can advance a long time in life without aging.

The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert: A Selection  , trans. Paul Auster (New York: New York Review Books, 2005).
Also from Joseph Joubert
Another world : “As real as a cannon ball” : Being and nothingness : Brevity : Doing something well : “Everything is new” : 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, April 5, 2017

Review: Duke Ellington,
An Intimate Piano Session

Duke Ellington. An Intimate Piano Session. Storyville Records. 2017.

Storyville’s latest Ellington release includes sixteen recordings from the “stockpile,” music recorded at Ellington’s expense and never released in his lifetime. Ten of the recordings are of the piano player (as he called himself), alone at the keyboard. One is with a mystery drummer (“Loco Madi”); five are with the band’s singers, Anita Moore and Tony Watkins. These sixteen recordings, all made on August 25, 1972, are a considerable addition to the body of Ellington’s work as solo pianist and accompanist. There is gold here, beginning with “The Anticipation,” the previously missing first section of The Uwis Suite, a work Ellington wrote for his 1972 residency at the University of Wisconsin. “The Anticipation” establishes a mood of urbane introspection that runs through many of these performances. We hear Ellington taking liberties with tempo and harmony in his compositions (“The Single Petal of a Rose”) and Billy Strayhorn’s (“Lotus Blossom”). He plays (twice) a relative rarity, Strayhorn’s “A Blue Mural from Two Perspectives.” Most striking to me is “Melancholia,” first recorded in 1953. The deliberate hesitations and silences in this performance recall Thelonious Monk’s 1957 recording of “I Should Care.” It’s the best “Melancholia” I’ve heard.

Ellington never liked arranging for singers, but he excelled as an accompanist, so it’s a treat to hear him as the sole support for Anita Moore and Tony Watkins. Moore is persuasive in her ballad performances (“I’m Afraid” and “I Didn’t Know About You”). Watkins is commanding in “The Blues Ain’t,” but in “Come Sunday” and “My Mother, My Father and Love,” his heavy vibrato is just not to my taste. I’m hardly alone: in 1973, an audience booed Watkins and prompted a disgusted Ellington to cut short a concert.

And speaking of concerts, happier ones: the last four performances on this CD are encores from the November 7, 1969 concert released last year as Rotterdam 1969. Most of the band has left the stage, but Ellington keeps going, with Wild Bill Davis (organ), Victor Gaskin (bass), and Rufus Jones (drums). Here too there is gold. Ellington announces ”The Lake” as a piece this quartet had never before performed. “Satin Doll” has an especially exuberant version of the finger-snapping bit. And in “Just Squeeze Me,” the interplay of the two keyboards goes on for chorus after chorus. “I like that, one more time,” Ellington says, again and again. So much good feeling in that hall.

A recent biography of Ellington trades in cheap suggestions that he was, well, a lazy and irresponsible fellow. At the time of the 1972 recordings on this release, in his seventy-third year, Ellington was nearing the end of a four-week engagement with a small band at New York’s Rainbow Grill, playing two sets a night, with Sundays off. He twice went into the studio during that engagement to record for the stockpile. On a Sunday off, he traveled to Boston for a concert with the full band. On a Saturday, he traveled to Tarrytown, New York, for a benefit concert with a starting time of 6:00 p.m. — early enough to get to the Rainbow Grill for the night’s first set. We should all be so lazy.

The program:

The Anticipation : Le Sucrier Velours (1) : Lotus Blossom (1) : A Blue Mural from Two Perspectives (1) : I’m Afraid (Of Loving You Too Much) : I Didn’t Know About You : Loco Madi : Lotus Blossom (2) : New World A-Comin’ : Le Sucrier Velours (2) : Melancholia: The Single Petal of a Rose : The Blues Ain’t : Come Sunday : My Mother, My Father and Love : A Blue Mural from Two Perspectives (2) : Black Swan : The Lake : Satin Doll : Just Squeeze Me

Related reading
All OCA Ellington posts (Pinboard)

[Ken Vail’s Duke’s Diary, Part Two (2002) has the details of Ellington’s itinerary, 1950–1974.]

No New York Times ever!

Agatha is worried about Carlos:

[Zippy, April 5, 2017.]

Subscribing to The New York Times is a smart thing to do in these times. I finally started a digital subscription in February, after years of reading online for free. There’s no paper Times delivery here in the sticks.

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)

[Post title with apologies to Joan Crawford.]

Tuesday, April 4, 2017


In case you’ve missed it: Shittown (or more politely, S-Town) is a new seven-episode podcast from Serial and This American Life, hosted by Brian Reed. All episodes are available now. I’m three episodes in. To paraphrase what someone once wrote about James M. Cain’s fiction: No one will ever stop listening in the middle of Shittown.

“Maybellene,” General Tso’s chicken, and “cultural appropriation”

Jonathan Zimmerman, “On ‘Maybellene’ and General Tso’s Chicken” (The Chronicle of Higher Education):

we continue to imagine that every current-day practice descends from some kind of cultural Garden of Eden, where each ethnic or racial group existed in unalloyed form. . . .

Indeed, the mostly left-wing quest for cultural purity bears an eerie echo to the right-wing fantasy of national purity.
Don’t overlook the link to Ralph Linton’s “One Hundred Percent American.”

[As far as I can tell, Linton’s essay was published in 1937, not 1936.]

Imaginary word of the day

I dreamed the word and its definition:

fequid / ˈfe-kwəd / adjective

: of, or characteristic of, a dictator

Sample sentence: His fequid remarks were at odds with democratic principles.
The etymology is unknown, at least to me. The adjectives fetid and liquid may lurk behind fequid.

Other dream words
Alecry : Misinflame : Skeptiphobia