Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Zippy meets Phil Fumble

Zippy is riding the train to Baltimore.

[“Bushmiller Country.” Zippy, April 30, 2019.]

Venn reading
All OCA Nancy posts : Nancy and Zippy posts : Zippy posts (Pinboard)

The Avital Ronell story, cont.

It’s news: Avital Ronell returns to the classroom this fall, teaching a course titled Unsettled Scores: Theories of Grievance, Stuckness, and Boundary Troubles. My guess is that by semester’s end Ronell will still not understand boundaries but will have settled all scores.

From an advertisement for the course:

This course explores the literature, philosophy, psychoanalysis and political theories of straightjacketed existence. Is the stagnation of being a temptation or necessity? How are we confined within a grievance culture — by whom, to what purpose? Do we have enough agency to pull out of the psychic stalls or political stagnation fueled by misgivings and faltering assumptions? How does fiction manage these questions and reconfigure our being-toward-death?
I will admit: my skepticism about the intellectual content here makes it impossible for me to decide whether straightjacketed is a pun, a misspelling, or a deliberately chosen variant of straitjacketed.


May 13: NYU Local reports that some student-government members have condemned NYU’s decision to put Ronell back in the classroom:
Student Government Assembly (SGA) leaders wrote that the university’s decision to allow Ronell to return is “fundamentally antithetical to the University’s student-centered mission and stated commitment to survivors of sexual violence and abuse. Her reinstatement also reaffirms the status quo that survivors are not to be believed.”
A related post
The Avital Ronell story

Come to the Sunshine
(and pronouns)

Highly recommended: Andrew Sandoval’s Come to the Sunshine, a radio show/podcast devoted to 1960s pop music. It’s splendid stuff. The show, which began in 2006, takes its name from a song by Van Dyke Parks. And yet I’m finding out about this show only now.

A couple of instances of remarkably proper pronoun use from my listening: “You Are She,” by Chad & Jeremy, and “Mister, You’re a Better Man Than I,” by the New Colony Six.

Bonus pronouns: an a cappella version of “You Are She,” and a longer, freakier “Mister, You’re a Better Man Than I.”

One elegant touch: Sandoval often has the songs he’s played running one by one under his voice as he announces them — a nice way to help the audience keep track of what was what.

Monday, April 29, 2019

On Duke Ellington’s birthday

Duke Ellington was born 120 years ago today.

The cornetist Rex Stewart (1907–1967) was with the Ellington band from 1934 to 1945. Stewart played — and wrote — with great wit. Consider “Boy Meets Horn.” And consider this description of Ellington in the recording studio:

After saying hello to any guy who catches his eye, Duke seats himself at the piano and will either rhapsodize lazily, with his thoughts way up in the clouds, or he may break into a fast stomp reminiscent of a cutting session thirty-five years ago at True Reformers Hall in Washington, D.C. This is what he calls his warm-up, and we would know that the first number was to be something swinging, perhaps the still unintelligible tune that he hummed so loudly. Once that is over, the next thing we might hear is Duke saying, “All right, fellows, let’s see if the piano is in tune.” That means everybody tune up, which was the first thing we’d done on arrival, but he has to hear the sound from the various instruments.

Then, the fun begins as Duke reaches into his pocket, and with the air of a magician produces some scraggly pieces of manuscript paper — about one-eighth of a page on which he’d scribbled some notes. I recall one occasion when he’d jotted some notes for the saxophones (Toby Hardwick, Harry Carney, Ben Webster, and Barney Bigard) and each was given a part, but there was nothing for Johnny Hodges. Duke had the saxes run the sequence down twice, while Johnny sat nonchalantly smoking. Then, Duke called to Hodges, “Hey, Rabbit, give me a long slow glissando against that progression. Yeah! That's it!” Next he said to Cootie Williams, “Hey, Coots, you come in on the second bar, in a subtle manner growling softly like a little hungry lion cub that wants his dinner but can’t find his mother. Try that, okay?” Following that, he’d say, “Deacon,” (how Lawrence Brown hated that nickname) “you are cast in the role of the sun beating down on the scene. What kind of sound do you feel that could be? You don’t know? Well, try a high B-flat in a felt hat, play it legato and sustain it for eight bars. Come on, let’s all hit this together,” and that’s the way it went — sometimes.

Rex Stewart, “Duke Ellington: One of a Kind.” 1966. In Jazz Masters of the 1930s (1972).
Columbia University’s WKCR is playing Ellington all day. Right now: “The Feeling of Jazz,” from the album Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (1963).

Related reading
All OCA Ellington posts (Pinboard)
Rex Stewart on Ellington’s composing habits

Out of the past

Revealed in today’s Nancy : the snooty girl from the magnet school is named Mildred. First Esther, now Mildred: Olivia Jaimes is bringing back the names of the past.

Related reading
All OCA Nancy posts (Pinboard)

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Exams approaching

[Nancy, June 13, 1949.]

Poor Nancy. But Sluggo is Mr. Cool, or the emperor of ice cream. He knows how to do well on a final exam.

And for contrarians: How to do horribly on a final exam.

Best wishes to all about to take — or grade — final exams.

Related reading
All OCA Nancy posts (Pinboard)

Iambic laundry

[Zippy, April 28, 2019.]

“Th’ clothes have more personality in the dryer. They cavort & gambol with each other.” I’m guessing that the ka-CHUNK of the machines is what makes Zippy think of iambic pentameter. But look at the meter of that sentence: “All laundry is a blur of static cling.” I think I know exactly what he means.

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)

“I mean the opposite of hatred”

From the “Cyclops” episode of Ulysses. Leopold Bloom is speaking.

James Joyce, Ulysses (1922).

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Today’s Saturday Stumper

Today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper, by Frank Longo, begins with two giveaways: 1-Across, five letters, “1970s subject of a Maddow podcast series,” and 1-Down, five letters, ”Tiny tots with their eyes all     .” And then things get more difficult. But not overly difficult.

The clue that broke the puzzle open for me: 32-Down, four letters, “Burn rubber?” After that, I saw answer after answer and completed with puzzle with surprising 11-Down, five letters (“Expedition”).

Two clues that I especially liked: 40-Across, ten letters, “Place to buy a round.” And 42-Across, three letters, “Casual remarks.” If I were in the habit of wearing a hat indoors, I would take my hat off to you, Frank Longo, for those clues.

But I am baffled by 29-Down, four letters, “Limo wheels, maybe.” Being a member of the 6-Across, nine letters (“They’re not noble”), I may be out of my element when it comes to limo wheels.

No spoilers: the answers are in the comments.

Friday, April 26, 2019

A bookstore in the Bronx

Tomorrow is Independent Bookstore Day. And in The Bronx it’s opening day for a new independent bookstore, The Lit. Bar. The borough has been without a general interest bookstore since 2016. Kudos to Noëlle Santos for bringing a bookstore to The Bronx.

A related post
Bookstore-less Bronx

Politicians and Joyce

At The New Yorker, Kevin Dettmar, Joyce scholar, writes about “the politicians who love Ulysses:

When Joyce surfaces in the tweets of Pete and Beto, it reassures us that these guys are familiar enough, and comfortable enough, with a big, difficult book to just drop a reference, casual-like. At a moment when it’s not clear that our President has ever finished an entire “chapter book” — even the one that he ghost-wrote with Tony Schwartz — these small gestures provide comfort.
Biden’s in there too.

That Pete Buttigieg drew the title of his memoir from Ulysses suggests a deep connection to Joyce. But when I read Beto O’Rourke’s description of Ulysses as “the same story” as the Odyssey, ”just told in what was then modern times set in Ireland,” I cringe a little.


“We’ve had an acorn squash for, like, seven months. It looks okay though.”

Related reading
All OCA “overheard” posts (Pinboard)

[Like Marie Kondo, I must thank the room, which was a café.]


In The Atlantic, John McWhorter writes about why adults are talking like children:

Clearly, kidspeak affords its users certain rhetorical advantages—the way it playfully softens blows is part of why younger people on social media now often couch what they say to one another in the toddler-esque. But what made bright teenagers and 20-somethings start imitating 5-year-olds in the first place? And why are many older Americans following suit?
Bits of our children’s childhood kidspeak long ago entered our household language, but I’ve heard very little of what McWhorter describes. Elaine and I recently used the new all without realizing we were following a trend: “Ayexa, order all  the toys!” And I’ve used the new because just once, because Talia.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

“Does there need to be?”

Pamela Paul, editor of The New York Times Book Review, in an interview about “sliding backward” on technology: “In general, when I hear the phrase ‘There’s an app for that,’ my first question is, ‘Does there need to be?’”

See also Neil Postman’s six questions. The first: “What is the problem to which this technology is the solution?”

Hillary Clinton on how to proceed

Hillary Clinton, writing in The Washington Post;

The debate about how to respond to Russia’s “sweeping and systematic” attack — and how to hold President Trump accountable for obstructing the investigation and possibly breaking the law — has been reduced to a false choice: immediate impeachment or nothing. History suggests there’s a better way to think about the choices ahead.
Clinton’s recommendation: Congressional investigations to fill in the gaps in the Mueller report, an independent bipartisan commission to safeguard elections, and health-care and infrastructure legislation from the Democratic House. Clinton sees the Mueller report as a road map to “the eventual filing of articles of impeachment, or not.”

I think that Clinton’s pragmatism might be the right choice here. I want to see Donald Trump impeached — everything he’s done and not done demands it. But I think of Omar Little’s wisdom: “You come at the king, you best not miss.” Impeachment would be a miss: the Senate will not vote to remove Trump from office, which would likely leave him boasting and gloating and feeling more empowered and reckless than ever. So instead of impeachment: lingchi, death by a thousand cuts, hearing after hearing after hearing. Even if those cuts — just metaphorical ones, please — leave Trump in office, they will likely leave his credibility and chances of re-election in ruins. The idealist in me says Impeach! Because if not Trump, then whom? But pragmatism might make better sense.

[Trump has tweeted and re-tweeted nineteen times today. Imagine what he’ll be like when hearings begin.]

“Realistic underwear”

The newly married couple share a dresser.

Johannes Urzidil, “Siegelmann’s Journey.” In The Last Bell. Translated from the German by David Burnett. (London: Pushkin Press, 2017.)

Also from this book
Apartments : “Well, that’s the Renaissance”

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

“Well, that’s the Renaissance”

Wenzel Schaschek, bank clerk, has stolen from a museum a painting of Eleonor, the Duchess of Albanera. The painted Duchess has begun to tell Schaschek of her life: after killing her first husband, she was determined to forgive her second husband anything. But he betrayed her by taking a lover, so she took that lover for herself, enslaved him to her body, and “worked him” until he plunged a dagger into her husband’s heart.

Johannes Urzidil, “The Duchess of Albanera.” In The Last Bell. Translated from the German by David Burnett. (London: Pushkin Press, 2017.)

Also from this book

Oscar’s (last) Day (of teaching)

Fare forward, George.

Toilet trouble

From WBEZ, Chicago: “Democratic Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker, his wife and his brother-in-law are under federal criminal investigation for a dubious residential property tax appeal that dogged him during his gubernatorial campaign last year.”

Dubious indeed: the scheme involved the removal of toilets from a mansion to render said mansion “vacant and uninhabitable.” Total Pritzker property-tax savings: $331,432.

I was never a Pritzker fan, and I have proof: this post and this one. The last thing our civic life needs is another billionaire.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019


I was standing inside the front room of a narrow two-story house after a meeting of a community group and a taping of The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I called my aunt, who had just moved to Montana, to tell her that a terrible snowstorm was on the way. I reached her secretary, who said that he had too many other things to do to relay the message. “Yes, but” — and we went in circles. I threw the handset into an enormous wastebasket.

Out on the front porch, I met up with our recently retired dentist. He wore a parka and a galero and walked down a long board that had been placed over the five or six steps from the porch to the sidewalk. It occurred to me that this board was a riskier proposition that the steps themselves. Our dentist was highly critical of some of the people at the meeting: they were there, he said, only to be seen.

And then I saw our old friend Margie King Barab. She was parked on the porch in an enormous sedan, the kind of car people once called a boat. I wondered how she had gotten the car up the steps. And how had she turned it around? How could there have been enough room? Margie now had to maneuver the car to drive it back down the steps. I started to push a large table toward the door of the house to free up room on the porch. As I did, a green and white sports car began to back out of the house, right toward the table. “Wait!” I yelled. “She has to get her car out.” “That’s gonna take a lot of time,” said the driver. He looked like Eric Campbell from the silents.

Later, Elaine and I saw the driver standing on the sidewalk. “Look,” I said. “He’s smoking a Gauloise and drinking espresso.” He corrected me: “Garnacha.”

Related reading
All OCA dream posts (Pinboard)

[Possible sources: On Sunday I was listening to the Left Banke compilation There’s Gonna Be a Storm. A friend begins a job today doing a little of everything. Alexander King, Margie’s first husband, was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show in its Jack Paar days. The word prow, from a little crossword I made for Elaine, might have something to do with the car. I saw a little BMW convertible yesterday. Elaine thinks the table could be from If Beale Street Could Talk.]

Senecan advice for travelers

Wherever you go, there you are:

How can the sight of new countries give you pleasure? Getting to know cities and places? That agitation of yours turns out to be useless. Do you want to know why your running away doesn’t help? You take yourself along. Your mental burden must be put down before any place will satisfy you.
Seneca, Epistles 28.2. Quoted in Ward Farnsworth’s The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual (Boston: David R. Godine, 2018). Adapted from an unidentified public-domain translation.

Also from this book
Senecan advice for liberal-arts types : Dunning-Kruger Montaigne

Monday, April 22, 2019

“Or primitives”

My favorite sentence from a profile of Steve Stone, a Chicago White Sox sportscaster who claims psychic powers:

“Let’s say you and I as cavemen, or primitives, we come across a sabertooth tiger.”
That’s the prelude to an explanation of “the inner voice.”

Thanks, Seth.

“Personalized learning”

“I want to just take my Chromebook back and tell them I’m not doing it anymore”: The New York Times reports on students and parents in Kansas protesting the arrival of Summit Learning and its program of “personalized learning,” with a curriculum developed by Facebook engineers and funded by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. The quotation marks are fitting: what “personalized learning” amounts to is a student sitting in front of a screen for most of the day, with teachers devoting their time to “mentoring.” The Summit Learning website, which does not show children sitting in front of screens for most of the day, mentions “weekly 1:1 checkins” with teacher-mentors. Students in Kansas report anxiety, eye strain, hand cramps, headaches, seizures, and stress from lack of contact with teachers and peers.

Irony of ironies: as the Times reported in 2011 and again in 2018, tech types often do all they can to keep their children away from screens.

So many falsehoods at work in the Summit vision of what, really, is depersonalized learning, one child to one machine. And such a mistaken understanding of what it might mean for a teacher to be a mentor. My best teachers were mentors all the time. When they were standing or sitting in front of a classroom, they were teaching me how to think, how to feel, how to communicate, how to be a good human. All of which is much more valuable than “weekly 1:1 checkins.”

Income disparity at Disney

The Washington Post reports that Abigail Disney is calling attention to income disparity at The Walt Disney Company. The specifics: in 2018 Bob Iger, CEO, was paid $65.5 million dollars, 1,424 times the median Disney salary.

For comparison: in 2017 a 333:1 ratio at Honeywell International made news. There too, the ratio measured CEO compensation against median salary.

Also for comparison: the management sage Peter Drucker recommended this ratio for highest and lowest pay in a company: 20:1.

Other Drucker-related posts
On figuring out where one belongs : On income disparity in higher ed : On integrity in leadership : On efficiency and effectiveness : What Drucker might have thought about Trump and Charlottesville

[I am an unlikely reader of Peter Drucker’s work. No management type, I. I caught on by way of the excellent little book On Managing Onself (2008).]

Sunday, April 21, 2019

“Others say”

This morning on Weekend Edition Sunday, Lulu Garcia-Navarro asked Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D, CA-19) about Russian hacking of United States elections:

“I want to talk to you about Florida, because there is, uhm, a difference of opinion on this. On the one hand we have Mueller saying this did happen. There were Democrats in that state like Ben Nelson who reported that there had been an attack on the election infrastructure there. But others say that it didn’t happen.”
Lofgren replied by citing the Mueller report and noting that the Department of Homeland Security was aware of the attack. And Garcia-Navarro left it there, with no follow-up. Here’s the relevant passage from the Mueller report, volume 1, page 51, footnote numbers omitted:
In November 2016, the GRU sent spearphishing emails to over 120 email accounts used by Florida county officials responsible for administering the 2016 U.S. election. The spearphishing emails contained an attached Word document coded with malicious software (commonly referred to as a Trojan) that permitted the GRU to access the infected computer. The FBI was separately responsible for this investigation. We understand the FBI believes that this operation enabled the GRU to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government. The Office did not independently verify that belief and, as explained above, did not undertake the investigative steps that would have been necessary to do so.
There is indeed a debate about what happened in Florida, and it appears to be a matter of semantics, about what must be accomplished for an attack to qualify as an attack, or for an attack to qualify as a hack. But if the GRU sent spearfishing e-mails to Florida county officials, NPR does its listeners no service by presenting “Others say it didn’t happen” as a legitimate point of view.

“Others say” that so many things didn’t happen: the Holocaust, the moon-landing, the Sandy Hook shooting. I could go on. Not every question has two sides.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Today’s Saturday Stumper

Today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper, by Greg Johnson, is a tough one. It’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard. It’s a hard Saturday Stumper, but it was a-gonna fall, I knew it, if I could keep at it. I did. It did. I wonder if Bob Dylan likes crossword puzzles.

A clue that taught me something: 41-Across, five letters, “Word from the Latin for ‘it lacks.’” Another clue that taught me something: 35-Down, eight letters, “Art that can fluoresce.” A third clue that taught me something: 51-Down, five letters, “Work signed on Mary’s sash.”

One bit of snark: 66-Across, ten letters, “Rolls Royce Ghost, e.g.” PRICEYAUTO? Nah. (By the way, that should be Rolls-Royce, with a hyphen.)

An especially odd and inventive clue: 62-Down, three letters, “Treat ‘served’ by Elvis, Gandalf, Glinda, etc., etc.” LSD? Wha?

No spoilers: the answers are blowin’ in the wind in the comments.

“The uh, rhapsody maker”

[Baby Blues, April 20, 2019.]

“What’s this group of stars, Dad?” I like the way Darryl takes his nonsense one step further — not just “Bohemia” but a description thereof.

It’s funny, yes, but an authentic professor would confess to not knowing. And then try to find out.

See also “Keats’ Eremite.”

[A P.S. to S.H.: I remember your presentation on “Rhapsody on a Windy Night,” beginning with the dictionary.]

Friday, April 19, 2019

George Conway
on fiduciary obligations

George Conway, writing in The Washington Post:

The Constitution commands the president to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” It requires him to affirm that he will “faithfully execute the Office of President” and to promise to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.” And as a result, by taking the presidential oath of office, a president assumes the duty not simply to obey the laws, civil and criminal, that all citizens must obey, but also to be subjected to higher duties — what some excellent recent legal scholarship has termed the “fiduciary obligations of the president.”

Fiduciaries are people who hold legal obligations of trust, like a trustee of a trust. A trustee must act in the beneficiary’s best interests and not his own. If the trustee fails to do that, the trustee can be removed, even if what the trustee has done is not a crime.

So too with a president.
A friend with a background in estates and trusts thinks that Conway’s analogy is dead-on. Conway’s conclusion:
White House counsel John Dean famously told Nixon that there was a cancer within the presidency and that it was growing. What the Mueller report disturbingly shows, with crystal clarity, is that today there is a cancer in the presidency: President Donald J. Trump.

Congress now bears the solemn constitutional duty to excise that cancer without delay.

“Because I never. . . .”

“Because I never. . . .” Never what? Never took notes in class?

Oh, wait:

And now it’s been four hours. A . . . long time between tweets. Maybe they’ve taken his phone.

And talk about angry, and talk about conflicted. No collusion, no obstruction, he says, but, he also says, it’s all the work of “Angry Democrat Trump Haters.” He fully cooperated, he says, but, he also says, he never agreed to testify. Donald Trump gives new covfefe to the word incoherence.


Marška’s sister Joška has been snooping around, trying to find the money Marška’s employers have left with her.

Johannes Urzidil, “The Last Bell.” In The Last Bell. Translated from the German by David Burnett. (London: Pushkin Press, 2017.)

From the jacket flap:

Johannes Urzidil (1896–1970) was a German-Czech writer, poet, historian and journalist. Born in Prague, he was a member of the Prague Circle and a friend of Franz Kafka and Max Brod. He fled to England after the German occupation in 1939, and eventually settled in the United States. Best known during his lifetime for the collections The Lost Beloved and Prague Triptych, he won numerous awards for his writing, and even had an asteroid named after him.
I knew nothing about Johannes Urzidil before seeing this book on a table at Three Lives & Company. What swayed me: a page-ninety test and the name of the publisher. Pushkin Press has brought out Stefan Zweig’s novellas and short stories in English translation. Aside from this volume, Urzidil’s fiction is unavailable in English. I hope that more will appear.

Domestic comedy

“Where’d I put it?”

“What’re you looking for?”

“My mind — I think I’ve lost it.”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

Thursday, April 18, 2019

“No matches were found”

[Click for a larger view.]

Leave it to Mr. Barr to make the redacted report available as non-searchable PDF. But someone’s already made a searchable version. Browsing in a cursory way, I found pages 1–2, 8, 156–158, and 182 in Volume II of special interest, along with this scene of On the Waterfront pathos, as recorded by a witness, Volume II, page 63:

“This is terrible Jeff. It’s all because you recused. AG is supposed to be most important appointment. Kennedy appointed his brother. Obama appointed Holder. I appointed you and you recused yourself. You left me on an island. I can’t do anything.”
I believe the word the president was looking for is marooned.

I wonder what accounts for that little artifact in the bottom right corner of my screenshot. It’ll be in your copy of the report too. None genuine without this mark?

[On the Waterfront: “You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit.”]


[Nothing to do with redactions.]

Wipr, by Giorgio Calderolla, is a macOS and iOS app that blocks ads in Safari:

Wipr blocks all ads, trackers, cryptocurrency miners, EU cookie and GDPR notices, and other annoyances, so you can focus on the content that matters to you. It works in Safari and all apps that use Safari to display web pages.
I’ve been happily using Wipr on my Mac and iPhone for several days. On my Mac, Wipr replaces the old reliable Safari extension uBlock Origin, which is no longer especially reliable. (Two problems: uBlock Origin doesn’t keep whitelisted pages whitelisted, and it doesn’t come back on after being temporarily disabled). Wipr works perfectly and unobtrusively, remembering settings for websites, and blocking even the video ads on the Washington Post crossword page. One shortcoming of Wipr in iOS: while it’s possible to reload a site without without content blockers, there’s no whitelisting. But Wipr’s extensive blocklist makes for a reasonable tradeoff. $1.99 for macOS or iOS.

Barr code

“For now the four hues are as closely guarded as the report’s contents” (Los Angeles Times, April 15).

[The proper color for the press conference: white, as in whitewash.]

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Source sans attribution,
attribution sans source

Our household has been hit with an improbable double whammy.

The first whammy: some years ago, my university’s student newspaper published a column about how to e-mail professors. The column was the work of a former student and borrowed without attribution from my post How to e-mail a professor. The column began with links to my post and to a couple of other items online. The column went on to present what purported to be the writer’s own considered advice, with three passages following, very closely, the phrasing of three passages in my post, with no indication of a source. The student writer thought I’d be happy to see his effort. Yikes.

I explained to the student and to the newspaper’s advisors in the journalism department why this column was a problem. I cited the responses of colleagues and friends who had read the student’s column. I quoted statements about plagiarism and paraphrase and attribution from the websites of prestigious college-journalism programs. As Schlitzie would say, “Y’see? Y’see?” I was told in response that one can’t copyright ideas. There’s no arguing with Messrs. Dunning and Kruger.

The second whammy: last week, the university’s student newspaper has published a review of Elaine’s recent recital. One problem: the writer included comments from imaginary audience members. A second problem: the writer included comments purported to be from Elaine (identified as a former English professor), about the difficulty of being a woman in “the music industry.” (The music industry! Lordy.) A third problem: the writer did not attend the recital. Why try to build a résumé with such inane fabulation? It’s beyond me.

To its credit, the paper has removed the review from its website. The paper gets just one or two points partial credit for issuing (in print only) an oddly worded correction. The correction does not acknowledge that the audience members were imaginary, that Elaine never spoke to the writer, and that the writer did not attend the recital. The correction says instead that the names of the audience members quoted cannot be verified and that Elaine says that she did not say the words attributed to her. Thus the paper leaves the truth of the article in the eye of the beholder.

The first whammy was a matter of source sans attribution. The second, attribution sans source. Each absurd. Together, absurder.

Nancy interstice

[Nancy, April 17, 2019. Click for a larger view.]

Snooty nameless girl from the magnet school has reappeared: “Well, well — what a coincidence. Fancy running into Esther’s friend here.”

Olivia Jaimes is rocking the interstice.

Related reading
All OCA Nancy posts (Pinboard)

[I owe my acquaintance with interstice to the poetry of Ted Berrigan. “Interstices” is a one-word poem in In the Early Morning Rain (1970) and the title of a poem in A Certain Slant of Sunlight (1988). I’ve had occasion to use interstice only in relation to comic strips.]

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Brilliant Mac corners

From The Sweet Setup, a guide to using Hot Corners in macOS. I remember being vaguely aware of Hot Corners when I began using a Mac in 2007. I’d long forgotten about them. Very useful for accessing the desktop or finding one window beneath another. Many other uses too.

[Post title with apologies to Thelonious Monk.]

“Whatever people did then”

At the Home for Mentally Handicapped Adults, once known as “the Misses Weir’s house”:

Alice Munro, “Circle of Prayer.” In The Progress of Love (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986).

Also from Alice Munro
“Rusted seams” : “That is what happens” : “Henry Ford?” : “A private queer feeling” : “A radiance behind it” : Opinions : At the Manor : “Noisy and shiny” : “The evening lunch” : “Mr. X and Mr. B” : “Emptiness, rumor, and absurdity”

Monday, April 15, 2019


[Almon C. Whiting (1878-1962). Notre Dame, Paris. “Photograph of a painting signed ‘Whiting, Paris, ’97.’” Between 1897 and 1912. From the Library of Congress.]

I found many images more beautiful — lithographs and photographs — but this image, a photographic negative of a painting, seemed more solemn and appropriate. The cornerstone of Notre-Dame de Paris was laid in 1163.

Twelve movies

[One to four stars. Four sentences each. No spoilers.]

The Player (dir. Robert Altman, 1992). A studio executive (Tim Robbins) is receiving death threats from — whom? And an appropriately noirish plot develops. A brilliant movie about movies, with an extended opening shot that promises many meta pleasures to follow, including cameo after cameo. It’s something like the feeling of walking around Los Angeles — at any moment you might see a star. ★★★★


Private Life (dir. Tamara Jenkins 2018). Paul Giamatti and Kathyrn Hahn play an E. 6th Street couple in their forties, desparately trying to have a baby. Strong performances all around, especially from Kayli Carter as an artsy niece, but the movie feels at times interminable, with too many odds and ends tossed in. Most moving scene: silent contemplation of a wall of baby photos. Jumps the shark near the end on an utterly implausible trip to Yaddo — Yaddo, sheesh, why? ★★★


Let There Be Light (dir. John Huston, 1946). A short documentary, suppressed for decades, about veterans of World War II suffering from “psychoneurosis,” or what we would call post-traumatic stress, with extended scenes of hospitalized veterans speaking with psychiatrists about wartime experiences and hopes for the future. I was struck by the many moments that recalled accounts of combat trauma in Jonathan Shay’s book Achilles in Vietnam. Troy, WWII, Vietnam: all wars are one in the damage they do to the participants. The most painful and poignant element of Let There Be Light is the notion that post-traumatic stress can be solved with eight to ten weeks of treatment: even as veterans prepare to go home, their faces say otherwise. ★★★★


The Two Killings of Sam Cooke (dir. Kelly Duane, 2019). This documentary offers less and much more than the title promises. Though the circumstances of Sam Cooke’s death belie the official account, the film quickly dismisses the hints of a corporate or political murder scheme that the film’s own trailer suggests. What the documentary does offer is a detailed, interview-rich portrait of an immensely talented, charismatic, politically aware, and forward-looking entertainer. Did you know that Cooke refused to perform for segregated audiences, and that he was a pioneer in the movement away from processed hair? ★★★★


Eighth Grade (dir. Bo Burnham, 2018). Elsie Fisher gives a great performance as Kayla Day, a girl in the last days of eighth grade. Kayla makes YouTube videos with tips on being yourself even as she tries desperately to fit in and be liked. I was especially moved by the scene of this resilient outsider watching her pre-middle-school video message to her future self. Only young adults will really know whether this film’s depiction of the phone-driven life is exaggerated, but from everything I’ve heard and read, I think it’s not. ★★★★


The Cakemaker (dir. Ofir Raul Graizer, 2017). An odd segue: here’s a film about being and not being yourself. A German baker travels to Israel, finds his dead lover’s wife, and begins to work his way (literally) into her life. Will she come to learn who he is? A character-driven story with strong echoes of Vertigo and, more recently, of François Ozon’s Frantz. ★★★★


Mr. Symbol Man (dir. Bob KIngsbury and Bruce Moir, 1974). A short documentary about Charles Bliss, originally Blitz, an engineer who survived Buchenwald and went on to create Blissymbolics, an ideographic writing system meant for universal use. Bliss, as the camera presents him, is indefatigably joyful, or joyfully indefatigable. “Never give in!” is his watchword. The most remarkable scenes in the film are those of children with cerebral palsy using Blissymbolics to communicate — an unanticipated boon of Bliss’s work. ★★★


The Small Back Room (dir. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1949). Britain, the Second War: Sammy Rice (David Farrar) is an expert in bomb defusal who suffers chronic pain from a prosthetic foot. Only alcohol helps — until it doesn’t, as Sammy alienates his girlfriend Susan (Kathleen Byron) with his self-pitying and self-destructive behavior. The film is a bit scattered, but becomes its best self when Sammy is brought into the work of defusing German explosive devices, in an utterly harrowing, nearly silent scene. Keep an eye open for the Gregg Toland influence in Christopher Challis’s filming of interiors. ★★★


Stan & Ollie (dir. Jon S. Baird, 2018). Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly are uncannily convincing as Messrs. Laurel and Hardy, found here at the end of their performing partnership, playing to sparse audiences in provincial theaters on a tour patched together by a distracted promoter. A lovely portrait of friendship and genius and determination, Stan ever at the typewriter working up new material, Ollie getting on stage despite rising health troubles. The arrival near the tour’s end of “the wives,” Ida (Nina Arianda) and Lucille (Shirley Henderson), adds another element of comedy and humanity. A beautiful, sentimental film, and if you can’t be sentimental about Laurel and Hardy, well, it’s your loss. ★★★★


Hello, Criterion Channel

My Name Is Julia Ross (dir. Joseph H. Lewis, 1945). A cross between Gothic fiction and film noir. A young Nina Foch plays Julia Ross, who takes a job as a personal secretary and wakes up in a grand cliffside house where everyone calls her by another name. Fine turns by Dame May Whitty and an ultra-creepy George Macready. Excellent cinematography by Burnett Guffey. ★★★★


So Dark the Night (dir. Joseph H. Lewis, 1946). A mild-mannered Parisian detective (Steven Geray) leaves the city for a much-needed vacation at a country inn — and murders beginning piling up. I cannot decide if the twist in this story is an improbable possibility or a probable impossibility. Either way, I accept it, sort of. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is especially imaginative here: watch the windows. ★★★


Human Desire (dir. Fritz Lang, 1954). Burnett Guffey is on the job again in this highly sanitized version of Zola’s La Bête humaine (which was also adapted by Jean Renoir). Jeff (Glenn Ford), Korean War veteran and train engineer, returns to the States, takes up his old job, and becomes involved with Vicki (Gloria Grahame), who’s already involved in a triangle of her own with her husband Carl (Broderick Crawford) and yet another man — and yes, this is a sanitized version. Grahame and Crawford are the reasons to watch this movie: with Vicki and Carl, as with Cora and Nick in The Postman Always Rings Twice, you have to wonder what they were thinking when they married. You have to wonder about Jeff too, who seems to take everything in this film a little too much in stride. ★★★

Related reading
All OCA film posts (Pinboard)

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Defending the thesaurus

B.D. McClay defends the thesaurus: “The thesaurus is good, valuable, commendable, superb, actually” (The Outline). What I notice though is that the defense offers not one example of a writer’s work being improved by means of a thesaurus.

Related posts
Beware of the saurus : Rogeting

The politics of cursive

“Lawmakers and defenders of cursive have lobbied to re-establish this old-school writing pedagogy across the country, igniting a debate about American values and identity and exposing intergenerational fault lines”: The New York Times reports on the politics of cursive writing.

I am happy to see that this article distinguishes between handwriting and cursive writing. Cursive is just one way to write by hand.

Related reading
All OCA handwriting posts (Pinboard)

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Today’s Saturday Stumper

Today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper, by Andrew Bell Lewis, had me thinking that I’d never finish. “Why, you’d have to be some kinda 8-Down, fifteen letters, ‘One who’s always up,’ to think you’re going to finish this puzzle,” I would have thought, had I figured out 8-Down early in my solving. But had I figured out 8-Down early on, I would not have been thinking that I’d never finish. Let me just say that I solved the puzzle.

I found a way into the puzzle in a bottom corner, with 52-Across, three letters, “Smucker-filled lunch, perhaps,” and 54-Down, four letters, “Top grosser before ‘Star Wars.’” Not much of a start. But then a word here, a word there. I’m an 8-Down, always.

Three clues that I especially liked: 30-Across, “Mob rule.” 61-Across, ten letters, “Smooth talker’s supply.” 14-Down, ten letters, “Rumination stations.” GOATSTALLS? No. And no spoilers: the answers are in the comments.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Go, third-graders, go

“We think they are ignoring us because we are kids”: students in a third-grade class spot an error in a math textbook, write three times to the publisher, wait five months for a response beyond a form letter, and start a petition to get the correction made. A cheering story of persistence from The Washington Post.


From Human Desire (dir. Fritz Lang, 1954). Jeff (Glenn Ford) and Vicki (Gloria Grahame) are having a conversation about their conversation. Jeff speaks first:

“Hey, this is some conversation we’re havin’.”

“I’m sorry. It’s my fault.”
At long last, the joys of the Criterion Channel are here.

“Th’ 24-hour puke cycle”

[“Up the Alimentary Canal.” Zippy, April 12, 2019.]

I quit in November 2016 and again in February of this year. And several more times in between. I try to watch no more than an hour a day.

“Horrific visions of Sean Hannity”: for me, it’s Stephen Miller. But either way, “horrific” is redundant.

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Bad design, Apple

Say that you’re moving to and fro among web pages on a MacBook:

With the Magic Mouse: To get to the previous page, swipe left. To get the next page, swipe right.

With the trackpad: To get to the previous page, swipe right. To get to the next page, swipe left.

And just as the black MacBook cost more than its white counterpart ($200 more in 2006), the space gray Magic Mouse costs more than its silver counterpart ($20 more).

None of it makes sense.

Review: Bill Griffith’s Nobody’s Fool

Bill Griffith, Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead. New York: Abrams ComicArts, 2019. 248 pages. $24.99.

If you’ve seen Tod Browning’s Freaks, you’ve seen Schlitzie. The plainest facts of his life are a blur, from date and place of birth (The Bronx, 1901?) to birth name (Simon Metz?). Schlitzie’s sideshow billings blur his origins (“Last of the Aztecs,” “Last of the Incas”), his gender (“Princess BiBi,” “Julius, the Missing Link”), and his very humanity (“Half Monkey, Half Human”). What is certain: a microcephalic child was consigned by his parents to the owner of a traveling sideshow. At some point the child became Schlitzie, and later, Schlitzie Surtees (the surname is that of a couple who managed Schlitzie and adopted him). Aside from a harrowing late-life episode in a psychiatric ward and a few years of peaceful retirement, Schlitzie spent his life performing (or being exhibited). He traveled with sideshows and appeared in a handful of films, most notably Tod Browning’s Freaks. Schlitzie’s appearance in that film inspired Bill Griffith to create Zippy the Pinhead. And now Griffith has honored his inspiration: his graphic biography of Schlitzie is a work of scholarly imagination, working with the facts of Schlitzie’s life to create an affectionate portrait of a remarkable human being.

Nobody’s Fool shows us humanity at its worst and best: the cruelty of so-called “normal” people (“Freak!” they shout) and the unstinting kindness of sideshow folk (“Come with me, little one — it’s time for supper”). It’s a sideshow performer, the sword swallower Bill Unks, working as an orderly at the Los Angeles County Hospital, who gets Schlitzie released from the psych ward. We learn of Schlitzie’s fondness for hats, music, dishwashing, and the occasional short beer. We follow his career as he crosses paths (or nearly so) with Charley Chase, Chester Morris, Norma Shearer, Jackie Cooper, Tom Mix, the Three Stooges, the Beach Boys, and Ed Sullivan. And we see the work of the sideshow as a matter of daily routine for those whose work it is: “You feel up to a show tonight, Schlitz?”

In Freaks Schlitzie’s speech is unintelligible, but he is said to have spoken clearly, and here he often seems to be channeling Griffith’s Zippy, with a repertoire of genially surreal remarks: “Boffo!” “Aw, go on!” “Is he married?” “Seven is my favorite flavor!”¹ I like this exchange:

“So how do you like Hollywood, Schlitzie?”

“With mustard!”
But there’s great pathos here too, in the trauma of Schlitzie’s separation from his family and the ever-uncertain series of caretakers and guardians who follow.² Griffith has given the story a Rosebud of sorts, a beloved Campbell’s Soup dish that Schlitzie must leave behind when he’s taken away to the circus. Thus for Griffith’s Schlitzie, dishes and dishwashing are forever associated with a lost family life: “My mother let me do the dishes. She says I’m a good boy.” (Does Schlitize identify with the cute Campbell’s Kid on the dish?) Griffith includes portions of a conversation he had with Wolf Krakowski, who as a teenager in 1965 ran a bumper-car concession and got to know Schlitzie:
“Like all children, Schlitzie craved tenderness and affection. He would snuggle up to me and I would put my arms around him. This simple contact and warmth caused him to moan and weep. I was too young and inexperienced at the time to grasp the totality of what he must have been feeling.”
Griffith’s art in this book is beautiful, detailed, and expressive: circuses, cityscapes, movie studios, scenes from Freaks, fantasias with beatniks, Bela Lugosi, Felix the Cat, and a sideshow of “normal” people (“Plays golf on weekends!! Alive!”). And, always, Schlitzie: angry (“Y'see?”), blissful (“Dishes!”), star-struck (“Will I see Sonny Bono?”), dancing to music from a transistor radio, talking to the ducks and pigeons in MacArthur Park. A caretaker reports that Schlitzie called each duck Tame Robert; each pigeon, Alan Barr Alan.

Bill Griffith’s current work in progress: a biography of Ernie Bushmiller. Yow!

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)
A review of Bill Griffith’s Invisble Ink

¹ The academic inside me insists on calling attention to apophrades, “the return of the dead,” a term from Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry (1973). Bloom uses this word to describe the uncanny phenomenon of a precursor poet’s work seeming to resemble the work of a later poet.

² Griffith gives Zippy a far happier family life: he is married to Zerbina, with two children, Fuelrod and Meltdown. The Cast of Characters page at the Zippy website notes that Zippy’s parents Ebb and Flo “may have sold him to the circus sideshow when he was born. Who remembers?”

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Block those metaphors

I heard this sentence on television a short time ago. The source is Politico:

Even as Democratic contenders are well into the process of courting high-ranking and local labor officials, union leaders plan to delay their endorsements as they take the temperature of members on the ground in an attempt to avoid the top-down approach that caused so much heartburn.
All those metaphors — they just lead to heartburn. So much heartburn. And such a strange courtship.

Related reading
All OCA metaphor posts (Pinboard)

Another Cabinet change

The New Yorker reports that Donald Trump has named Lori Loughlin as his new secretary of education, replacing Betsy DeVos:

In making the announcement, Trump praised Loughlin for her “disruptive approach” to college admissions and expressed hope that she could bring the same brand of innovative thinking to the Department of Education.
Gives new meaning to the term “acting secretary.”

Charles Van Doren (1926–2019)

The New York Times has an obituary for Charles Van Doren, who has died at the age of ninety-three. The snarky Times headline calls Van Doren “a quiz show whiz who wasn’t.” Yes, the quiz-show scandals.

But here’s another way to think of Charles Van Doren: as a deeply thoughtful student of the sorrows and possibilities of human life. And now I’m borrowing from a post I wrote in 2006:

In 1999, Van Doren was invited to address a reunion of Columbia College’s class of 1959. Like these alums, he started at Columbia in 1955 (as an assistant professor); he resigned in 1959. In the course of some remarks on how to live late in one’s life, he mentions Aeneas’s journey to the world of the dead, which begins at Lake Avernus in Italy, and quotes the Sibyl’s words to Aeneas:

“The way downward is easy from Avernus.
Black Dis’s door stands open night and day.
But to retrace your steps to heaven's air,
There is the trouble, there is the toil.”

[Virgil, Aeneid 6, translated by Robert Fitzgerald]
Van Doren notes (in his own translation) the advice that the shade of Phlegyas gives Aeneas: “Study justice, and do not scorn the gods!” (Phlegyas, enraged after Apollo seduced his daughter, set fire to the god's temple at Delphi.) Van Doren goes on to say that
None of us can take Aeneas’s journey, nor, in fact, did he. The story of his descent into the Underworld and his return to the brightness of the sun is a myth, and myths are stories that are so true they can never happen. Something like his journey may happen to anyone. The human name for it may be despair.

Despair — the Sickness Unto Death, Kierkegaard called it. As we enter this last part of our time we mustn’t forget that bad things can happen. The failure of hopes, the death of friends, the venality of politicians, the manifest cruelty that stalks the world — these may tempt us to descend from Avernus into that dark place where safety seems to lie. But then we scorn the gods. This great line is from Paul Valéry’s “Le cimitière mari”:
Le vent se lève; il faut tenter de vivre!

The wind's rising; we have to try to live!
Related reading
“All the Answers” (Van Doren’s 2008 New Yorker piece on the quiz-show scandals)
Two accounts of Van Doren’s talk — 1, 2 — from members of the class of ’59

“What’s a parvenu?”

A nice bit of dialogue from Stan & Ollie (dir. Jon S. Baird, 2018), with Stan Laurel (Steve Coogan), Oliver Hardy (John C. Reilly), and Hal Roach (Danny Huston):

Laurel: He's a cheapskate, a skinflint, and a — and a parvenu.

Hardy: A parvenu?

Laurel: He thinks because my contract's up and yours isn't that I won't be able to go anyplace else and I'll have to take what he's offering.

Roach: Wait, wait, wait, wait — what's a parvenu?

Laurel: Well, it's someone who started out with nothing, got rich, but has no class. Look it up in the dictionary, Hal. There's a picture of you.
Or there was. Here’s Merriam-Webster’s entry.

How to improve writing (no. 82)

From a New York Times article on funny stuff at the Friars Club:

Former staff members described questionable spending and sloppy bookkeeping, including a $160,000 loan to the executive director without interest that was never written down.
“To the executive director without interest that was never written down”: that’s an awfully clumsy string of sentence elements. Better:
Former staff members described questionable spending and sloppy bookkeeping, including an unrecorded interest-free $160,000 loan to the executive director.
When I read the news, I don’t go looking for things. They present themselves, and my sentence-repair alarm goes off. Elaine gets credit for “interest-free,” which she suggested when I read the sentence aloud.

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

[This post is no. 82 in a series, dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

Tuesday, April 9, 2019


Dane has told Aunt Violet and her husband Wyck that someone named Theo is moving in with him.

Alice Munro, “Queer Streak.” In The Progress of Love (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986).

Also from Alice Munro
“Rusted seams” : “That is what happens” : “Henry Ford?” : “A private queer feeling” : “A radiance behind it” : Opinions : At the Manor : “Noisy and shiny” : “The evening lunch” : “Emptiness, rumor, and absurdity”

“Emptiness, rumor, and absurdity”

Violet is home in South Sherbooke Township, writing a letter to her boyfriend in Ottawa. Violet’s father has been receiving anonymous threats to his life. Violet writes as she guards the household while the rest of her family sleeps.

Alice Munro, “A Queer Streak.” In The Progress of Love (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986).

Also from Alice Munro
“Rusted seams” : “That is what happens” : “Henry Ford?” : “A private queer feeling” : “A radiance behind it” : Opinions : At the Manor : “Noisy and shiny” : “The evening lunch” : “Mr. X and Mr. B”

Monday, April 8, 2019

PBS, sheesh

“. . . between he and Hillary Clinton . . .”

Related reading
All OCA sheesh posts (Pinboard)

Pete Buttigieg on being gay
and being married

Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, addressing the LGBTQ Victory Fund brunch in Washington, D.C., this past Sunday:

“When I was younger, I would have done anything to not be gay. When I began to halfway realize what it meant that I felt the way I did about people I saw in the hallway at school or the dining hall in college, it launched in me something I can only describe as a kind of war. And if that war had been settled on the terms that I would have wished for when I was fifteen, or twenty, or, frankly, even twenty-five, I would not be standing here. If you had offered me a pill to make me straight, I would’ve swallowed it before you had time to give me a sip of water. It is a hard thing to think about now. It’s hard to face the truth that there were times in my life when, if you had shown me exactly what it was inside me that made me gay, I would have cut it out with a knife.

“And the reason it’s so awful to think about isn’t just the knowledge that so many young people struggling to come to terms with their sexuality or their gender identity do just that — they harm themselves, figuratively or literally. But the real reason that it’s so hard to think about is that if I had had the chance to do that, I would never have found my way to Chasten [Chasten Glezman, Buttigieg’s husband]. That the best thing in my life, my marriage, might not have happened at all. My marriage, this thing I can’t even describe without going into clichés, like talking about how my world went from black and white to color the moment we held hands toward the end of our first date. The thing that made it possible for me to get through the loss of my father this year, this man who lifted up not just me but dad and mom through those last awful days. How dark the thought that the man that I admire and care about and love sharing with the rest of the country, and even more importantly, can’t wait to share one day with raising children, might not have been part of my life at all. Thank God there was no pill. Thank God there was no knife.

”People talk about things like marriage equality as a moral issue. And it is certainly a moral issue as far as I’m concerned. It’s a moral issue because being married to Chasten has made me a better human being, because it has made me more compassionate, more understanding, more self-aware, and more decent. My marriage to Chasten has made me a better man. And yes, Mr. Vice President, it has moved me closer to God.

“And speaking only for myself, I can tell you that if me being gay was a choice, it was a choice that was made far, far above my pay grade. And that’s the thing that I wish the Mike Pences of the world would understand. That if you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my creator.”
[My transcription and paragraphing. The passage I’ve transcribed begins at 8:35.]

Kirstjen Nielsen and Dante

What might Dante devise for Kirstjen Nielsen? I imagine an endless cage, one whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere. I think this punishment possesses the Dantean element of contrapasso, whereby punishment fits the crime, often by means of a bitter, mordant wit. Here the offender wanders alone, never able to find an exit, never able to find asylum.

But there’s no need for Dante: I would suggest that Nielsen has made a cage of her own. She will always be known for abetting the cruel xenophobe who employed her. No exit from that cage.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

How to improve writing (no. 81)

Only a month ago Kirstjen Nielsen was insisting that cages for children are “sub-parts” of “facilities.” But now she’s out. The New York Times could have taken more care with this paragraph from an article reporting the departure of Kirstjen Nielsen from the Department of Homeland Security:

Mr. Trump enjoyed Ms. Nielsen's television appearances, administration aides said. But despite several stories about how much better her relationship with Mr. Trump was, Ms. Nielsen never learned how to manage him, people familiar with their discussions said. He often felt lectured to by Ms. Nielsen, the people familiar with the discussions said.
“Better” raises questions that the article doesn’t answer: better than what? better than when? There’s ungainly repetition: “people familiar with their discussions said,” “the people familiar with the discussions said.” And a horribly awkward passive verb: “He often felt lectured to by Ms. Nielsen.” Imagine speaking words to that effect: “I often feel lectured to by you.”

Mr. Trump enjoyed Ms. Nielsen's television appearances, administration aides said. But despite stories of an improved Trump–Nielsen relationship, people familiar with the relationship said that Ms. Nielsen never learned how to manage Mr. Trump, and that he often felt that she lectured him.
Even “breaking news,” as they call it, can wait another minute for writer(s) to get the sentences right. Three writers for this article.


April 8: Now there are four writers credited.

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

[This post is no. 81 in a series, dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

Domestic comedy

“Look, a boy weatherman!”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Today’s Saturday Stumper

The work of “Garrett Estrada” and “Ernesto G. Prada” made me wonder if this week’s Newsday Saturday Stumper would reach some greater height of difficulty. No soap. Today’s puzzle, by Lester Ruff, was pretty simple stuff.

A few clues that I thought novel: 15-Across, nine letters, “Climbed all over.” 20-Across, six letters, “With integrity lost.” 41-Across, four letters, “An aerophone.” 38-Down, eight letters, “Trying inductions.” 50-Down, six letters, “Clears for the road.”

No spoilers: the answers are in the comments.

Hard copies

Peter Funt:

For more than a century, baseball fans in Chicago have saved ticket stubs to preserve memories, both fond and frustrating, of their beloved Cubbies. . . .

That’s over. This season the Cubs have joined more than a dozen other Major League teams in eliminating paper tickets in favor of digital versions, downloaded to apps and displayed on phones.

And so ticket stubs join theater playbills, picture postcards, handwritten letters and framed photos as fading forms of preserving our memories. It raises the question, Is our view of the past, of our own personal history, somehow different without hard copies?
Of course it is.

I’m down to one ticket stub, Brian Wilson performing SMiLE, Auditorium Theatre, Chicago, October 2, 2004. I have the dates from other stubs in a text file. But I keep every letter.

[Peter Funt: son of Allen.]

Friday, April 5, 2019

No ticket to happiness

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek will engage in a public debate about whether capitalism or Marxism leads to happiness. Two remaining tickets, $1500 each. Neither one a ticket to happiness.

Or 1937?

[Click for a larger view.]

We took the car in for a software update and took a walk while we waited. Things began to feel fairly old and industrial. Before long it was 1951. Or 1937? I don’t know. I’m fairly certain though that this building is no longer in use.

Dunning-Kruger Montaigne

From Montaigne, “Of Presumption” (1580):

It is commonly said that good sense is the gift Nature has distributed most fairly among us, for there is no one who is unsatisfied with the share he has been allowed — and isn’t that reasonable enough? For whoever saw beyond this would be beyond his sight. I think my opinions are good and sound, but who does not think the same of his own?

Quoted in Ward Farnsworth’s The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual (Boston: David R. Godine, 2018). Adapted from an unidentified public-domain translation.
Farnsworth’s gloss: “Our limited capacities prevent us from perceiving our limited capacities.”

Related reading
All OCA Dunning-Kruger posts (Pinboard)

Thursday, April 4, 2019

“Mr. X and Mr. B”

Sam likes business college:

Alice Munro, “The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink.” In The Progress of Love (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986).

Also from Alice Munro
“Rusted seams” : “That is what happens” : “Henry Ford?” : “A private queer feeling” : “A radiance behind it” : Opinions : At the Manor : “Noisy and shiny” : “The evening lunch”

“The evening lunch”

Life in a boarding house:

Alice Munro, “The Moon in the Orange Street Skating Rink.” In The Progress of Love (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986).

Also from Alice Munro
“Rusted seams” : “That is what happens” : “Henry Ford?” : “A private queer feeling” : “A radiance behind it” : Opinions : At the Manor : “Noisy and shiny”

“Like, for sure!”

The New Yorker (February 4) has a short piece about Valley Girl Redefined, an art exhibition then at the Brand Library & Art Center in Glendale, California. I like this passage:

Erin Stone, who curated the exhibition, said, “The idea of the Valley girl has expanded past this geographic area, to the point where people know about her, but they don’t know where she actually comes from.” The show was inspired, in part, by a trip that Stone took to Kathmandu. When she told a Nepali man where she was from, he responded, “Like, for sure!”
[Getting through a stack of New Yorker s takes time.]

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Hyphens in the news

Or disappearing from the news. In The New Yorker, Mary Norris writes about the 2019 American Copy Editors Society Conference. New directions in hyphenation for the AP Stylebook: No hyphen in terms such as “African American.” No hyphen in “third grade teacher” and “chocolate chip cookie.” And:

The hyphen has been removed from double-“E” combinations, such as “preeclampsia,” “preelection,” “preeminent,” “preempt,” “reenter,” etc. If you find these difficult to read, The New Yorker has a solution: next year, consider the diaeresis.
Reëducation, I guess.

[I for one will always hyphenate “third-grade teacher.” And “high-school student.”]


“Saint Mary of Klobuchar.”

What I think Douglas Brinkley really said: “Same area as Klobuchar.” But I like my version better.

Related reading
All OCA misheard posts (Pinboard)

[Brinkley was speaking on MSNBC. It’s easy to quit watching cable news. You can finish the joke.]

Some Gorey rocks

[Edward Gorey, “The Stones.” 4 3/4″ × 2 1/2″. A card from The Fantod Pack (Portland, OR: Pomegranate, 2007). Border added.]

Re: fantod : George Bodmer mentioned Edward Gorey’s Fantod Press and Fantod Pack. Which made me remember that I have the pack, or at least the 2007 reproduction of the 1995 Gotham Book Mart publication. The Fantod Pack consists of twenty cards and a tiny book explaining the use of the deck and the meanings attached to each card, as “interpreted by Madame Groeda Weyrd.” For “The Stones”: March, loss of teeth, a forged letter, paralysis, false arrest, falling sickness, evil communications, estrangement, a sudden affliction, anemia, strife, distasteful duty, and misconstruction.

Photographing this card was difficult: the card is slightly warped and printed off-center; its surface is glossy. The photographer’s equipment and ability are sharply limited. What matters, as my mom and dad would point out, is that I did the best I could. I picked this card from the deck for obvious reasons.

Thanks, George, for thinking of the Gorey connection.


Department of Wow!: George Bodmer appears in Mark Dery’s recent biography of Gorey, Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey (New York: Little, Brown, 2018). He’s on page 202, commenting on Gorey’s alphabet books.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Word of the day: fantod

Before the day is done: Merriam-Webster’s Word of the Day is fantod. The dictionary speaks:

“You have got strong symptoms of the fantods; your skin is so tight you can't shut your eyes without opening your mouth.” Thus, American author Charles Frederick Briggs provides us with an early recorded use of fantods in 1839. Mark Twain used the word to refer to uneasiness or restlessness as shown by nervous movements — also known as the fidgets — in Huckleberry Finn: “They was all nice pictures, I reckon, but I didn't somehow seem to take to them, because . . . they always give me the fantods.” David Foster Wallace later used “the howling fantods,” a favorite phrase of his mother, in Infinite Jest. The exact origin of fantod remains a mystery, but it may have arisen from English dialectal fantigue — a word (once used by Charles Dickens) that refers to a state of great tension or excitement and may be a blend of fantastic and fatigue.
Here’s an Infinite Jest example, spoken by the French-Canadian terrorist Rémy Marathe: “‘The U.S.A. fantods are meaning fear, confusion, standing hair.’” Yep.

A related post
From Edward Gorey’s Fantod Pack

A review of Dreyer’s English

Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. New York: Random House, 2019. xviii + 291 pages. $25.

The first two sentences of the book’s introduction made me wonder what I was in for:

I am a copy editor. After a piece of writing has been, likely through numerous drafts, developed and revised by the writer and by the person I tend to call the editor editor and deemed essentially finished and complete, my job is to lay my hands on that piece of writing and make it . . . better.
That second sentence: shouldn’t we expect better of a copy editor? I see several problems: The break between “been” and “developed” makes the sentence difficult to navigate. “Developed and revised”: already implied in “numerous drafts.” “Essentially finished and complete”: also redundant, and “essentially” is, essentially, an empty modifier. And besides, if a writer and an editor know that the manuscript is going to a copy editor, how can it be finished? It’s ready for the next step toward publication.

I am not a copy editor, but I began rewriting, first in my head, then on paper:
I am a copy editor. After a writer and an editor have seen a piece of writing through numerous drafts, my job is to take that writing and make it better.
I am a copy editor. After a writer and an editor have seen a piece of writing through numerous drafts, I take that writing and make it better.
I think I just did.

Dreyer’s English is a disappointing and not especially useful book. Its design finally became clear to me when I hit the chapter “Notes on Proper Nouns,” devoted to the proper spelling of several dozen proper nouns — “the germ of the book,” as Dreyer, copy chief at Random House, calls it. Dreyer’s English is something of a chatty in-house style guide. Dreyer writes about non-rules (yes, you can begin a sentence with and or but); the rudiments of punctuation; the proper handling of numerals, foreign words, and titles; a few points of grammar; and a few points for fiction writers. He offers a Twitter-sourced array of pet peeves, and he lists words that are often confused and misspelled. And then there’s that list of proper nouns: Stephenie Meyer, Froot Loops, &c. There’s no vision here of what constitutes good prose, only a miscellany, made, mostly, of technicalities.

As a reference, the book fails. Imagine that you’re a true naïf who needs to know how to render a title. The details appear in passing, in a discussion of quotation marks in a chapter about punctuation. If the title is that of, say, an art exhibit or symphony, you’re out of luck. And if it’s the title of a play? Plays are in a footnote, separate from books, recordings, and television series, all of which take italics. (We’re now quite a ways from quotation marks.) A movie title? Movies, for some reason, aren’t mentioned, but the treatment of television shows suggests italics. Or imagine that you’re trying to find what Dreyer says about changing a capital letter to a lowercase letter at the start of a quotation. The index won’t help. (This answer too is in the chapter about punctuation.) Or imagine that you’re trying to recall whether it’s “Brussel sprouts” or “Brussels sprouts.” There too, the index won’t help. Nor is the answer in the chapter about words often confused or the chapter about words often misspelled. The answer is in a chapter called “The Miscellany.”

But no reasonable reader would check on the sprouts by going back to this book. That’s what a dictionary is for. And a reader who is serious about the work of writing would do far better to buy and refer to what Dreyer calls (four times) “big fat stylebooks.” (He names The Chicago Manual of Style, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, and Words into Type.) Such books wear their authority easily and un-self-consciously. Dreyer, in contrast, plays his authority down and up, telling us at one point that he hates “grammar jargon,” at another that “hopefully” is a “disjunct adverb.” He has several moments of Lynne Truss-like indignation: “For a modest monthly fee I will come to wherever you are, and when, in an attempt to pluralize a word, you so much as reach for the apostrophe key, I will slap your hand.” And: “Only godless savages eschew the series comma.” “Series comma,” by the way, is Dreyer’s name for what’s better known as the Oxford or serial comma. Why? Because Dreyer is “a patriotic American” and because “serial” makes him think of “killer.”

Dreyer would do well to consider a maxim from E.B. White’s “An Approach to Style,” a chapter in The Elements of Style (a book that, according to a blurb, Dreyer’s English is about to replace):
Place yourself in the background.

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work. Therefore, the first piece of advice is this: to achieve style, begin by affecting none — that is, place yourself in the background.
In Dreyer’s English, the writer is everywhere, in the kidding/not kidding subtitle, and most insistently in 208 footnotes that digress in all directions. The first note, for instance, refuses to name a famous name from a party on the Upper East Side: “It’s not name-dropping if I don’t drop the name, right?” The second footnote names the name and recommends the name’s “svelte little memoir.” “Seek it out,” Dreyer says. A little of this stuff goes a long way. And Dreyer’s English is going right back to the library.

Here are some books that do more than this one to further the possibilities of writing. For general inspiration: Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several Short Sentences about Writing and Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. For revision: Claire Cook’s Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing and Bruce Ross-Larson's Edit Yourself: A Manual for Everyone Who Works with Words. For authoritative and extensive guidance in usage: Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern English Usage. These are books that a writer can read and learn from again and again.