Tuesday, March 31, 2020

“Pathogen Resistance”

[“Pathogen Resistance.” xkcd, March 31, 2020. Click for a larger view.]

Today’s xkcd is beautiful and moving and hopeful.

[The mouseover text, at the original: “We’re not trapped in here with the coronavirus. The coronavirus is trapped in here with us.”]

Hair and what to do with it

Sooner or later, people are gonna need haircuts. George Bodmer’s Oscar’s Day made the think of recommending the Remington ShortCut Pro Self-Haircut Kit to anyone without a lot on top. It’s the perfect tool for giving yourself a uniformly short haircut. But it’s sold out at the manufacturer’s website and Amazon.


Later this same morning: Elaine has reminded me that she said last week that these gadgets would become hard to find.

Groceries emoji

After going out for groceries last week, I went looking for a suitable emoji and found none. Though the Unicode Consortium lists countless emoji for individual foods, there’s no emoji for the stuff one buys in a grocery store, aka “groceries.” The best I could find: “shopping cart” (🛒) and “shopping bags” (🛍). But the cart is empty, and the bags, also empty, appear to come from a toney mall.

I’m surprised to find nothing for “groceries” on the Consortium’s list of proposed emoji. Though I’m not equipped to propose an emoji, a task that calls for some serious design skills, I can describe what I’d like to see: a brown paper bag, appropriately dented in two or three places, with a loaf of bread, a box (perhaps of cereal), and a head of celery jutting from the open top. A cliché, of course, the groceries people used to carry on television, though the emoji need not be in black and white. But there must be celery.

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Catalina update reminder

If you, like me, have no interest in moving to macOS Catalina, you may want to remove the annoying update reminder from the System Preferences icon in the Dock. I’ve seen various suggestions for how to do so. This one works. It’s easy: uncheck three boxes in Software Update and paste three lines of code, one at a time, into the Terminal. Following these steps also removes the update reminder from the Software Update icon in System Preferences.

If you click on Software Update, the reminder will return. That’s how I got the reminder back to get a screenshot for this post. But you can remove the reminder again. And here’s another reminder: Software Update is not the App Store. Update notifications from the App Store are welcome things.

[Sometimes I have to concentrate on the trivial to cope with the non-trivial.]

“Say, have you got frogs’ legs?”

Magnus Eisengrim describes Charlie Wanless’s monologist routine “on the bottom shelf of vaudeville.” Wanless, Eisengrim says, possessed “little but the self-assurance necessary for the job.”

Robertson Davies, World of Wonders (1975).

Related reading
All OCA Robertson Davies posts (Pinboard)

[“That tribute to motherhood”: the song “M-O-T-H-E-R (A Word That Means the World to Me)” (Howard Johnson–Theodore Morse), imperfectly quoted elsewhere in the novel.]

Sunday, March 29, 2020

No questions

Elaine just told me that Donald Trump* has taken to Twitter to brag about the television ratings for his coronavirus briefings. His ratings. I won’t link, but it’s true.

I will shout into the void a suggestion that I thought of earlier today: When Trump* says that he’ll take questions from reporters, they should remain silent. And after a suitable silence: “We have some questions for Dr. Fauci.” No reporter is obligated to give a narcissist further opportunities to lie, exalt himself, and propagandize.

And a suggestion for the rest of us: Just don’t watch. Read a book. Sing a song. Wash your hands.

Margaret Atwood on pandemics

“So here we are again”: Margaret Atwood writes about pandemics and this pandemic. She offers six possible responses (individual, not institutional) and recommends nos. 1, 3, 5, and 6.

Our household has already picked those four, but I still find it helpful to hear (in my head) what Atwood has written. And we need all the encouraging, helpful words we can get.

Thanks, Stephen.

[I recognize that Atwood doesn’t address the dangers and economic hardship that many people face in this pandemic. And yes, I hear the words in my head as I read. I am a slow reader.]

Fred Hersch pencils

The pianist Fred Hersch writes his music by hand, as seen in the documentary film The Ballad of Fred Hersch. He prefers to keep things analog:

“My life is binder clips. . . . I am kind of a dinosaur in that way. You know, I’m a pencil geek. I buy my pencils — I get these special English pencils. I sort of like the ritual of the whole thing, trying to figure out what kind of paper. I mean, even the copying and taping of the parts is somewhat of a ritual.”
We see a variety of pencils on camera. First, a Mirado Black Warrior.

[Click on any image for a larger view.]

[The titles are from My Coma Dreams (2011), a theater piece, music by Hersch, libretto by Herschel Garfein.]

Next, a Mirado.

Finally, what appears to be a Derwent Graphic. That’s English, yes. The red stripe reveals its identity.

Here and there, a Dixon Ticonderoga and a Staples pencil appear in other hands.

The Ballad of Fred Hersch (dir. Charlotte Lagarde and Carrie Lozanois, 2016) is now streaming, no charge, at Vimeo. And Fred Hersch is playing online, via Facebook, nearly every day, at noon Eastern. I’m more and more taken with his music. My favorite Hersch piece so far: “At the Close of the Day.” When I heard it (unidentified) in the film, it sounded like something I’ve known for years. But no — I had heard it just once before, earlier this week. And here’s a 1999 performance.

[Note: You don’t need a Facebook account to watch and listen.]

Digital vs. analog Nancy

In today’s Nancy, children debate the advantages of reading in pixels and print. Highly inventive stuff from Olivia Jaimes.

Related reading
All OCA Nancy posts (Pinboard)

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Today’s Saturday Stumper

Today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper, by Matthew Sewell, hit the spot. Plenty of challenges, but still a puzzle whose answers fell into place. But almost didn’t in the southeast corner. But finally did. But I still don’t understand one of them: 58-D, three letters, “Whispery direction.” What? Aha: I figured it out when I typed the answer in the comments.

My entry into this puzzle came by way of three three-letter answers: 6-, 7-, and 8-Down, “Successful runners,” “Things ripped and burned,” “Nostalgic division.” Those three gave me two ten-letter answers, 1-, 15, and 17-A, ten letters, “Big word for ‘big-hearted’” and “Ptolemaic Kingdom capital.” And the game, or puzzle, was afoot.

Some clue-and-answer pairs I especially liked:

17-A, ten letters, “Flaubert protg.” I thought protagonist before realizing that protg must be a botched rendering of protégé. There must have been a problem at the diacritics desk. Anyway, I liked seeing the answer.

19-A, four letters, “Round tab.” I see what you did there, Matthew Sewell.

22-A, nine letters, “Ancient Polynesian invention.” For a second time I meet up with this word in a Saturday Stumper, which I know from a short essay about Muhammad Ali and Homeric translation. Thanks to the dictionary.

36-A, seven letters, “Improvised lines.” A nice bit of misdirection for anyone who first thinks of ADLIBS.

48-A, seven letters, “Regular gal or guy.” I like the slight clash between the informal clue and the tonier answer. At least I think it’s tonier. Though possibly in a louche way.

54-D, four letters, “Nickname like Reese.” Wait, Reese is a nickname?

57-D, three letters, “Music from Cremona.” Once again, an answer I didn’t understand until well after finishing the puzzle.

No spoilers: the answers are in the comments.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Intellectual prostration

Catching up on The New Yorker, I paused when I hit this sentence, from the historian Charles Beard, quoted in “In Every Dark Hour,” Jill Lepore’s piece on the prospects of democracy, past, present, and future:

The kind of universal intellectual prostration required by Bolshevism and Fascism is decidedly foreign to American “intelligence.”
Lepore likens this kind of intelligence to “street smarts — reasonableness, open-mindedness, level-headedness.”

And then I recalled this praise of our president:
“He’s been so attentive to the scientific literature and the details and the data. And I think his ability to analyze and integrate data that comes out of his long history in business has really been a real benefit during these discussions about medical issues. Because in the end, data is data, and he understands the importance of the granularity.”
That’s Deborah Birx, Dr. Birx, she of the thousand and one scarves, speaking to the Christian Broadcasting Network this past Wednesday. And if her praise of the president isn’t an instance of intellectual prostration, I don’t know what is.

And I’ll add: when it comes to the coronavirus, there can be no meaningful granularity without sufficient testing. That’e because granularity is “the extent to which a larger entity is subdivided.” I know a little bit about granularity.

[Lepore’s piece is in the February 3 New Yorker. Online, the title is “The Last Time Democracy Almost Died.”]

Feelings and beliefs

“I have a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they’re going to be. I don’t believe you need thirty thousand or forty thousand ventilators. You know, you go into major hospitals sometimes, they’ll have two ventilators”: Donald Trump* speaking to state TV last night. The Delphic orifice can never be wrong.

[I’m not the first person to think up the phrase “Delphic orifice” (Google shows six results), but this post appears to be the first instance of the phrase being applied to Donald Trump*.]

Thursday, March 26, 2020

A National Emergency Library

The Internet Archive has suspended waitlists for all books in its collection to create a National Emergency Library.

The duration of the NEL is tied to the duration of the pandemic in the United States, but the books are available to readers everywhere.

“Pretty smart”

Willard the Wizard of Wanless’s World of Wonders tells “his great joke.” It concerns the naming of his carnival assistant:

Robertson Davies, World of Wonders (1975).

Wikipedia has the poop on Fletcher’s Castoria, now known as Fletcher’s Laxative. The old name can still be seen in fading advertisements: for instance, and for instance. And in full-page advertisements in Life:

[Life, March 25, 1940. Click for a much larger view.]

Related reading
All OCA Robertson Davies posts (Pinboard)

Pitching Ghostwriter

“Ghostwriter rewards the patient, the loyal, the attentive. If that means some fans will reach adulthood without ever learning who Max Mouse is, so be it”: from “The Pitch Meeting for Ghostwriter (The Toast ). Word!

See also “The Pitch Meeting for Wishbone.”

Related posts
Ghostwriter’s identity : My Ghostwriter blurb

[As any Ghostwriter fan will remember, the show’s theme music began with “Ghostwriter — word!” Extra credit if you know who Max Mouse is.]

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

“Dear Mrs. Mermet”

Excerpts from Robert Walser’s letters to Frieda Mermet (n+1 ). Starts weird, gets weirder fast.

Related reading
All OCA Robert Walser posts (Pinboard)

Blackwings on parade

At Blackwing Pages, Sean has invited pencil fans to share photographs of their Eberhard Faber Blackwing collections. I shared a photograph of my modest stash — one box purchased back when any office-supply store could order Blackwings for a choosy customer. (The price: around $10.) Another pencil fan has shared a photograph of a genuine collection, eighteen variations on the Blackwing. Just wow.

Related reading
All OCA Blackwing posts (Pinboard)

Canned fish

“Canned fish is one of the great delights of this shoulder season, as spring begins its ascent — and maybe particularly when so many of us are cooking with the cans in the back of the pantry”: The New York Times looks at sardines and tuna. Mainly at tuna. But the sardines are in there pitching.

Last night we used two cans of tuna in an OCA specialty: pasta with tuna and lemon. Come noon, sardines.

Related reading
All OCA sardine posts (Pinboard)


Elaine and I went shopping this morning, the first time we’ve been in a store, and the first time we’ve been anywhere but on a walk, since March 13th. We went to what grocery snoots would call the “better” supermarket, which now reserves two hours in the early morning for people over sixty, all on the honor system. So we put on our nitrile gloves and shopped.

When the kids flew the nest and we became once again a household of two, we drifted back to the citified shopping habits of our earlier years — picking up a few things every day, a piece of fish for dinner, a lemon, asparagus, and so on. This morning we spent more than $300. Many groceries. I should note that the “better” supermarket is also, by far, the more expensive supermarket. But we were willing to pay for the convenience of shopping in a nearly empty store. And we tipped our cashier and bagger mightily. I suspect that many people are doing so.

What was missing? Only a handful of items: flour, ice cream, toilet paper, American cheese, and frozen vegetables. These items weren’t entirely gone: there were still containers of Ben and Jerry’s, some Kraft Singles, some scattered vegetables. The toilet-paper aisle still had one four-roll package. I’m guessing that many a shopper thought twice and put it back on the shelf for someone who really, really needs it.

Which reminds me of a never-fail comedy moment whenever I did a big shopping expedition with the kids on Sunday afternoons (as Elaine ran the classical hours on the university FM station). As we hit the appropriate aisle, I’d ask, “Who needs toilet paper?” “Me! Me!”

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Adults? Anyone?

The man on the left is out of his fucking mind. The man on the right too, I fear. And they’re standing — what? — less than two feet apart?

The adults in the room must step forward — or, if necessary, leave the room — and tell the truth, plainly and clearly. There’s too much at stake.

[On an unrelated note: you can remove additional content from an embedded tweet by choosing Set Customization Options and checking Hide Conversation. No need for more than one instance of the video clip in the tweet above.]

Rachel and Elaine shining

Holy Toledo: our daughter Rachel, via Elaine’s tweeting, now rules a portion of the Internets. Rachel solved a mystery, and Elaine tweeted the solution. Read all about it: “Adults Everywhere Are Scratching Their Heads at This Confusing Kindergarten Worksheet” (Distractify).

K teacher FTW!

[Like Nissa Ren Cannon, whose tweet started it all, I couldn’t figure out the worksheet either.]

“Big sales”

I hadn’t realized that the the subject of a post I made yesterday morning would be the subject of the next passage from Robertson Davies that I had planned to post. Here Dunstan Ramsay, the author of purported autobiography Phantasmata: the Life and Adventures of Magnus Eisengrim, comments on the book’s success:

Robertson Davies, World of Wonders (1975).

World of Wonders is the third novel of The Deptford Trilogy. It’s an insanely great reading experience, and I don’t use that kind of fancy lit-crit terminology lightly.

Other Robertson Davies posts
“Fellows of the first importance” : “Visible branch establishments” : “Like a duck to water” : “A designer and a manufacturer” : “The intrepid Orph” : “The socks-shorts moment” : Wealth, illusion, corruption : “A fantod when it foamed” : “But still — a travelling showman”

“The Zone”

In today’s Zippy, Dinburgers enter “The Zone” — by filling a fountain pen, riding a train, saying “Parcheesi,” and smelling a kneaded eraser. Small joys.

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)

“Believe in the pencil”

“In the orchestra world, pencils are sacrosanct relics”: the Tampa Bay Times reports on the importance of the pencil in orchestral music. “BELIEVE in the pencil,” says a note on one orchestral part.

Elaine made a post last year with choice-quality annotations from parts in the online archive of the New York Philharmonic. For instance: Symphony Nos4atu. The gray is my attempt at a pencil.

Monday, March 23, 2020

“Opening up”

Donald Trump* just acknowledged that medical experts do not agree with his idea of “opening up” the country just weeks from now.

The mind blanks at the glare, as Philip Larkin wrote.

“But still — a travelling showman”

David Staunton is a guest at Sorgenfrei, home of the master magician Magnus Eisengrim. Eisengrim asks him, “Have you read the book about me?”

Robertson Davies, The Manticore (1972).

Other Robertson Davies posts
“Fellows of the first importance” : “Visible branch establishments” : “Like a duck to water” : “A designer and a manufacturer” : “The intrepid Orph” : “The socks-shorts moment” : Wealth, illusion, corruption : “A fantod when it foamed”

Teaching in a pandemic

Elaine and I were leaving Chicago after visiting our friends Danny and June. As we neared our car, we saw a copy of The New Yorker that we’d forgotten to pack, sitting in a hammock-like depression in the trunk lid. The magazine had been waiting there all that time.

Then it was time for class. “As you know, there’s a pandemic,” I said. One student raised his hand: he wanted to show everyone a photograph of an ornately designed violin, with lines carved or burned into the wood. He handed me his phone, and I in turn handed it to Elaine, sitting next to me in the subway car. We were having class in a subway car.

Then we were in a classroom. A student in the front row began to speak in a preacherly voice about Adam: how Adam was the first president, and how his orders were disobeyed.

This is the nineteenth teaching-related dream I’ve had since retiring. All the others: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, and 18.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Swabs, stocks, and stupidity

Three observations from Donald Trump*’s afternoon propaganda show:

Every time Trump* talks about how difficult and unfun the coronavirus test is, some idiot, somwhere, thinks, If I’m not gonna get a colonscopy, I sure don’t want a coronavirus test.

A revealing slip: Trump* said that although he’s a Republican, he doesn’t believe that bailout money should be used to buy back stock.

Another slip, explaining why the federal government can’t be the clearinghouse for medical supplies: “We don’t know who to call for masks.” But the companies call Peter Navarro or Trump*, so yay.

More on getting books

From New York Review Books: how to buy books in isolation (and support your local indie bookstore).

From The Washington Post: tips on bookstores, library resources, e-books, audiobooks, and online events.

And from Archipelago Books: free e-books. (Robert Musil!)

And speaking of books, if anyone wants to write their own “By the Book,” I’d be happy to post a link. Only two takers so far, one an OCA reader, one a reader of that reader.

A related post
Support your local or not-so-local independent bookstore

Live-streaming music

From NPR: a list of live-streaming performances to watch at home.

I’ll be tuning in today to the pianist Fred Hersch, who plans to perform every day at 1:00 Eastern, here.

[Tuning in? On a computer?]

“Ceci n’est pas un président”

[Zippy, March 22, 2020.]

Hat, valise, eye, president: today’s Zippy offers variations on a theme by René Magritte.

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)

[Yes, that should be ce not ceci.]

Saturday, March 21, 2020

As if 9 were 15

If six days have already gone by, why does Mike Pence continue to say “fifteen days to slow the spread” and not “we now have only nine days”? Instead of urgency, we get a special blend of stupidity and dishonesty.

[Post title with apologies to Jimi Hendrix.]

Mr. Businessmen

It’s surprising but not surprising to hear a president of the United States in 2020 refer to “businessmen,” and not, say, business owners.

[From the White House press briefing now underway.]

Danny Ray Thompson (1947–2020)

From the New York Times obituary:

For the better part of five decades, he was the baritone saxophonist and linchpin of one of the most idiosyncratic and influential ensembles in jazz.
Danny Ray Thompson, baritone saxophonist and flutist with the Sun Ra Arkestra, has died at the age of seventy-two. Or in Arkestra language, he has left the planet.

Here, from Halloween 2014, is a cheerful Tiny Desk Concert by a post-Ra Arkestra. “Queer Notions,” by the way, is a Coleman Hawkins tune, recorded by Fletcher Henderson and His Orchestra in 1933. I’ve always been partial to Arkestral interpretations of good old good ones.

I was looking forward to seeing the Arkestra next month at the glorious Virginia Theatre. Now postponed, but probably canceled.

Today’s Saturday Stumper

Today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper, by Stan Newman, was a relatively easy puzzle. That seems right in a difficult time.

Some clue-and-answer pairs I especially liked:

1-A, seven letters, “Squealing stoppers.” OILCANS? No.

1-D, seven letters, “Holistic notion.” I hadn’t thought of this word in ages.

28-A, nine letters, “Honor for Peter, Paul and Mary.” Mildly clever.

33-D, four letters, “A matter of course.” MEAL? Something to do with golf? Even after getting the answer, I didn’t understand it, until I did.

34-D, three letters, “$2000 appliance, circa 1983.” MAC? No, wrong price, wrong year, and another answer rules out MAC. Where are (at least most of) those appliances now?

39-A, nine letters, “Tabloid fodder.” It took me a while to figure out the last six letters of the answer.

54-A, seven letters, “Part of the erstwhile Microsoft Student suite.” Also part of the Microsoft Works suite. “Suite”?

The funnest thing in today’s Stumper: the nine-letter crossing answers for 34-A, “East side” and 20-D, “Nietzsche, e.g.” My guess is that the puzzle began with that crossing.

No spoilers: the answers are in the comments.

Old squares

In The Atlantic, Natan Last, crossword constructor, writes about “The Hidden Bigotry of Crosswords.” An excerpt:

That crossword mainstays such as The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Wall Street Journal are largely written, edited, fact-checked, and test-solved by older white men dictates what makes it into the 15x15 grid and what’s kept out.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Poor Dr. Fauci

When I saw this moment, I knew what was missing. This version is the best I’ve found.

[And just a thought: when someone makes a movie of this shitshow of a presidency, Jeff Garlin would make an excellent Mike Pompeo.]

Support your local or not-so-local independent bookstore

Elaine and I are great fans of the New York City bookstore Three Lives & Company. We visit whenever we visit the city, and we always come away with a pile of books. It seems unlikely that we’ll be able to visit Three Lives, or New York, any time soon. What to do?

Three Lives is currently doing business by telephone and e-mail (also curbside pickup, and hand delivery in the West Village). I e-mailed to say that I wanted to buy some books, and suggested that the store post photographs of their display tables on their website. They were unable to do that (the website is pretty rudimentary), but they sent me photos. So we now have nine books coming our way for further adventures in the Four Seasons Reading Club, our two-person adventure in reading.

I like the idea of supporting an independent bookstore in all seasons. But especially now.


My timing is good: Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York has announced a #SaveNYC Quarantined Cash Mob for Three Lives.


In Chicago, the Seminary Co-op Bookstores are doing business on the Internets. And — gasp! — they have, or had, a copy of Robertson Davies’s The Cornish Trilogy on the shelf.

Also in Chicago: Pete Lit reports that Madison Street Books, a weeks-old bookstore, is doing business on and off the Internets. The bookstore offers curbside pickup, free delivery in the West Loop, and one-dollar shipping in the States.


From The Washington Post: “Independent bookstores survived the rise of online retail. Coronavirus poses bigger challenges.”

[Nine books for two people? Yes, because we already have one copy of William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley.]

“Life was never normal”

I like this statement of resolve from Mark Hurst. He’s taking up something C.S. Lewis said in 1939: “We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal.”

Hurst writes,

Life was never normal, and life certainly isn’t normal now. I’m going to wash hands, sit at home behind this screen, and get on with creating good online.

And we will get through this.
[This passage is in an e-mailed newsletter, so I have no way to link to it. But pass it on with appropriate credit to MH if you think it worthwhile.]

Thursday, March 19, 2020


I think that Deborah Birx is blinking out a coded message from the podium this morning.

“A fantod when it foamed”

David Staunton remembers Grandfather Staunton, “powerful but dim” in his grandson’s past:

Robertson Davies, The Manticore (1972).

Eno’s was and is (as Eno, no possessive) a real antacid. Its main ingredients (at least in our time): sodium bicarbonate, sodium carbonate, and citric acid. Here’s some history. And an advertisement:

[The Illustrated London News, June 9, 1923. Click for a much larger view.]

So now I can add Robertson Davies to my small list of writers and artists who speak fantod.

Other Robertson Davies posts
“Fellows of the first importance” : “Visible branch establishments” : “Like a duck to water” : “A designer and a manufacturer” : “The intrepid Orph” : “The socks-shorts moment” : Wealth, illusion, corruption

Six of them

Asshats, six of them, with their names visible for anyone to reference. Stupid, selfish, utterly irresponsible.

A related post
Homeric blindness in “colledge”

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Social-distancing Q. & A.

“How to Practice Social Distancing,” questions from The New Yorker, answers from Asaf Bitton, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School. An excerpt:

Going outside in and of itself doesn’t increase the risk. It is really proximity to other human beings, and specifically to their secretions — their sneezes and droplets. So the recommendation is to please go outside if you can. Please take walks, please bike, with a helmet. Interact with your family members outside. But really the key is don’t interact with people outside of your home unit — whoever you are already in close contact with.
Dr. Bitton’s “Social Distancing: This Is Not a Snow Day” is now available as a PDF.

Sleep, or the lack thereof

A timely episode of To the Best of Our Knowledge: “Up All Night,” about sleep, or the lack thereof.

Speaking of which: I’ve been trying out melatonin for the past couple of weeks. I was getting tired — npi — of lying awake in the wee small hours of the morning. I bought 3mg tablets, took one, and was up all night. After reading anecdotal evidence that smaller doses can be more helpful, I tried cutting tablets in half and was surprised to find that a 1.5mg dose does the trick. I’ve been sleeping through the night. The strangest part: though the alarm is set for 7:00, I’ve been waking up, ungroggy, every morning between 6:30 and 6:35.

Placebo effect? I don’t know. The NIH is skeptical:

There’s not enough strong evidence on the effectiveness or safety of melatonin supplementation for chronic insomnia to recommend its use.
Then again, I don’t think I have chronic insomnia.

The Mayo Clinic is a bit less skeptical:
Research suggests that melatonin might provide relief from the inability to fall asleep and stay asleep (insomnia) by slightly improving your total sleep time, sleep quality and how long it takes you to fall asleep.
This post is not a recommendation: I’m only sharing my experience. As with any supplement, consult a doctor, the medical kind. I practice only on sentences.

[The acronym “npi” stands for “no pun intended,” from years of correspondence with my friend Aldo Carraso. As for “dose does”: I couldn’t resist.]

Performance review

I woke up with this sentence: “Performance-wise, Al Capone is at the top of the list.”

Capone would probably have given himself a 10, no?

Related reading
All OCA dream posts (Pinboard)

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Rewriting history

“The president tried to rewrite his history with advising Americans about the coronavirus. His own words prove him wrong”: "Trump Now Claims He Always Knew the Coronavirus Would Be a Pandemic" (The New York Times).

Or as a non-Times writer once put it, “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” Yes, that’s George Orwell, in Nineteen Eighty-Four. And here is Orwell on totalitarian history.


And some video evidence:

Two Williams

[William Butler Yeats. Bain News Service, photographer unknown, c. 1915–1920. From the Library of Congress Flickr account. Click for a larger view.]

On this Saint Patrick’s Day, William Butler Yeats reminds us of the importance of social distancing as he holds a volume of William Blake’s poetry to his chest. Stand back, says the Irish William, and don’t you dare try to touch my book.

Please, stand back. No bars. No parties. Stay home if your life and work allow that. Enjoy some Bewley’s or Jameson in your own living room. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

[Bewley’s is tea, Irish; Jameson, whiskey, Irish. The name Leddy, also Irish.]

Hat trick


Monday, March 16, 2020

Wealth, illusion, corruption

Father Gervase Knopwood aims to disillusion young David Staunton about his father Boy Staunton, “a great man of business.” Knoppy doesn’t go so far as to suggest that the elder Staunton was dishonest:

Robertson Davies, The Manticore (1972).

Other Robertson Davies posts
“Fellows of the first importance” : “Visible branch establishments” : “Like a duck to water” : “A designer and a manufacturer” : “The intrepid Orph” : “The socks-shorts moment”

A last autocorrection

I’m done with iOS autocorrection, which has messed up my writing again and again. The last straw: in this post, autocorrect turned Asaf Bitton into Asaf Burton. I didn’t see the change until several hours later. No thanks.

I’m done with macOS autocorrection too. Now all mistakes will be my own.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

A movement for these times

It’s #StayTheFuckHome. Not a joke. With twelve guidelines, in order of increasing difficulty and effectiveness.

Not everyone can stay the, &c. The first nine guidelines are probably within the reach of most readers.

Store talk

“Go and buy. Enjoy it. Have a nice dinner. Relax”: Donald Trump*, a few minutes ago.

“Not a snow day”

Asaf Bitton, of Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, offers recommendations for social distancing. “This is not,” he says, “a snow day”:

the only strategies that can get us off this concerning trajectory are those that enable us to work together as a community to maintain public health by staying apart.

March 16: The Boston Globe has an updated, expanded version of this piece.

Today’s Zippy

[Zippy, March 15, 2020. Click for a larger view.]

Today’s Zippy feels like a cross between Bill Griffith and Roz Chast. How many boxes can you check? (Me, eight.)

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Flattening the curve

From The Washington Post: “Why outbreaks like coronavirus spread exponentially, and how to ‘flatten the curve.’”

The graphics make the point: “If people are less mobile and interact with each other less, the virus has fewer opportunities to spread.”

Elaine and I stayed inside today, with short trips to the garage to use the elliptical machine. If the weather is better tomorrow, we’ll go for a walk in the open air. And that’ll be it.

Thanks, Rachel.

“Nancy?” “Sluggo!”

[“Dueling Dualities.” Zippy, March 14, 2020.]

Today’s Zippy is a flurry of choices: column A/column B, blue state/red state, iPhone/Android, Nancy/Sluggo.

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

Andreas Brown (1933–2020)

“A bibliophile since childhood who bought the revered Gotham Book Mart in Midtown Manhattan from its idiosyncratic founder, Frances Steloff, and kept it alive as a frowzy literary shrine for four more decades”: from the New York Times obituary.

I’m pretty sure I saw Andreas Brown on one of my trips to the Gotham. He might have been the guy showing me the rare Ted Berrigan stuff — I just don’t know. I know that I saw Frances Steloff at least once, sitting in an alcove back near the tables of little magazines.

Today’s Saturday Stumper

Today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper, by Brad Wilber, was surprisingly easy, aside from the southeast corner. But man oh man that southeast corner. It had arcana: 60-D, three letters, “Onetime North Island herbivore.” It had a tricky spelling: 48-D, six letters, “Trifling.” It had general weirdness: 59-A, eight letters, “Verdict of disapproval”; 64-A, six letters, “Creatively turbulent.” And it had a clue that reminded me of what must be my considerable distance from current trends in entertaining (62-A, eight letters, “Cutlery carrier”). I’m glad that those clues were not the whole puzzle.

Some clue-and-answer pairs I especially liked:

11-D, seven letters, “Boston Public Library muralist.” Because Boston.

16-A, eight letters, “Fashion effect aka ‘manscara.’” Not that I use the stuff.

25-D, seven letters, “108 Odyssey fellows.” I always like seeing Homer in a crossword. The 108 is an extra treat. And that is the number, which a reader can work out by adding numbers as Telemachus gives them in book 16.

36-A, four letters, “‘A nightingale who sits in darkness,’ per Shelley.” I like to think that my late friend Rob Zseleczky is pleased whenever Shelley turns up in a crossword.

46-A, five letters, “Many a paperweight.” Mine are rocks and tile trim.

And another one of the clue-and-answer pairs that baffle me until I begin typing them out: 58-D, three letters, “Fellow from Wheeling.”

No spoilers: the answers are in the comments.

Friday, March 13, 2020


I’m watching Donald Trump* struggle to read what’s been written for him and thinking, Unfit, unfit, unfit. What are those standing behind him thinking?

Recently updated

“By the Book” for the rest of us Now with more childhood reading.

Even in a pandemic

[January 23, 2020.]

Representative Adam Schiff (D, California-18):

“You know you can’t trust this president to do what’s right for this country. You can trust he will do what’s right for Donald Trump.”
Even in a pandemic. Lies, misdirection, and xenophobia (“foreign virus,” “very strong border policy”) to stir the base. Of course.

[The words that might be chopped off by the ad: “The American people deserve a president.” Yes, we do.]

“The socks-shorts moment”

David Staunton remembers:

Robertson Davies, The Manticore (1972).

The Manticore is the second novel of The Deptford Trilogy.

Other Robertson Davies posts
“Fellows of the first importance” : “Visible branch establishments” : “Like a duck to water” : “A designer and a manufacturer” : “The intrepid Orph”

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Jon Batiste FTW

As Sanjay Gupta came on stage on The Late Show tonight, Jon Batiste played a bit of Billy Strayhorn’s “U.M.M.G.” The initials stand for Upper Manhattan Medical Group. Arthur Logan, Duke Ellington’s doctor, was a member.

Batiste has used this medical tag before. See this post for more on “U.M.M.G.”

Allegory redux

I am dismayed to find friends already declaring that they won’t vote for Joe Biden in November. On Monday I voted for Joe Biden here in Illinois. I would have preferred to vote for Elizabeth Warren. But I waited to see what would happen on Super Tuesday, and after Warren brought her campaign to an end, I voted for the candidate who has (as I see it) the best chance of defeating the current occupant of the White House.

I know what it’s like to not want to vote for a candidate. That’s how I felt in 2016 about Hillary Clinton. But I voted for her in the general election, “utterly without enthusiasm,” as I wrote at the time. If Joe Biden becomes the Democratic nominee, I will vote for him with only the mildest enthusiasm. But enthusiasm or no enthusiasm, no one should imagine they have the luxury of not voting in 2020.

Here, for anyone who might find it persuasive, is most of a post I wrote in August 2016. The post title was Allegory:

The restaurant has a limited menu — very limited. There are, for practical purposes, just two dishes, A and B. If you order one of them, you will get it or the other dish. There are other dishes on the menu, but no chance of getting them. If you order one of these other dishes, you’ll get A or B, and you’ll have lost your chance to choose between the two (which, of course, might not have made a difference). There are no other restaurants. So you choose from what’s available: A or B.
In 2016 the other dishes on the allegorical menu included the Green Party. In 2020 the allegory might be altered to include writing in your own choice of entree. But the real choice remains: A or B. In November that will almost certainly mean voting for Joe Biden.

Something else I wrote in August 2016, in a comment on a friend’s blog: “It’s good to know your own mind, but it’s good, too, to know that you can change it.”

Shirley’s whom

“You saw who — I mean, whom ?”: Sara Crewe (Shirley Temple), in The Little Princess (dir. Walter Lang, 1939). A random moment of self-correction that I caught while flipping channels.

Other who s and whom s
Fritzi Ritz : Lucy van Pelt : Mooch

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Miniature Rogers

Miniatures by Lance Cardinal. Behold, Mister Rogers’s television house. And behold, the making of said house.

Thanks, Steven.

Daniel Tiger

[A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (dir. Marielle Heller, 2019). Click for a larger view.]

It’s a beautiful movie. And that’s a replica, not the real Daniel Striped Tiger.

The Neighborhood Archive has the full story on Daniel. I’m happy to be reminded that our that dear friend Margie King Barab, who appeared in two early Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood episodes as Miss Margie Nebraska, has a page in the archive.

Related reading
All OCA Mister Rogers posts (Pinboard)

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

Some version of pastoral

“Where tropes of rural self-sufficiency converge with dainty décor”: The New York Times offers an explanation of cottagecore.

I side with William Carlos Williams: “We cannot go to the country / for the country will bring us / no peace.”

Recently updated

“By the Book” for the rest of us Now with a link to questions and answers from blogger Steve Boyko.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

BBC Radio 4: Great Lives

A great podcast from BBC Radio 4: Great Lives. With 483 available episodes, so there’s no running out anytime soon.

I listened to most of an episode about Montaigne this morning while walking, and immediately pulled the Essays from the shelf when I got home.

“The intrepid Orph”

Dunstan Ramsay recalls Orpheus Wettenhall, lawyer and sportsman — “quite the most dedicated sportsman I have ever known” — and Wettenhall’s visits to Bertha Shanklin and her niece Mary Dempster:

Robertson Davies, Fifth Business (1970).

Also from this novel
“Fellows of the first importance” : “Visible branch establishments” : “Like a duck to water” : “A designer and a manufacturer”

Monday, March 9, 2020

Paranoia and magical thinking

Gabriel Sherman, writing in Vanity Fair:

Stories about Trump’s coronavirus fears have spread through the White House. Last week Trump told aides he’s afraid journalists will try to purposefully contract coronavirus to give it to him on Air Force One, a person close to the administration told me. The source also said Trump has asked the Secret Service to set up a screening program and bar anyone who has a cough from the White House grounds. “He’s definitely melting down over this,” the source said.

But thus far Trump’s private concerns haven’t affected his public response. Pressure from the public health community is mounting on Trump to cancel his mass rallies, but Trump is pushing back. “He is going to resist until the very last minute,” a former West Wing official said. “He may take suggestions to stop shaking hands, but in terms of shutting stuff down, his position is: ‘No, I’m not going to do it.’”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Cf. Captain Queeg: “We’re not in any trouble.” The mix of paranoia and magical thinking is frightening.

130, 130

Driving on Illinois Route 130 yesterday, Elaine and I listened to Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 130. Not by design — 130 was just the next quartet in line. I’m listening to them all, and developing what may be a permanently dropped jaw. Boy, that Ludwig van Beethoven, he sure can write.

Here’s the recording we heard, by the Guarneri Quartet (Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley, Michael Tree, David Soyer): 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.

I wonder if anyone else has ever listened to 130 on 130.

Cole cuts and beer

From Adam Gopnik’s review of The Letters of Cole Porter, in the January 20 New Yorker:

For all Porter’s aristocratic mien, his tastes were rather plain, as those of the American upper classes usually are — high taste is typically simple taste, as anyone who has eaten at a Wasp club knows. His list of requirements for a hotel room in Philadelphia during a tryout included sliced liverwurst, salami, and bologna, and twenty-four cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer.
Related reading
All OCA liverwurst posts (Pinboard)

Sunday, March 8, 2020

The Booksellers

A new documentary about antiquarian booksellers: The Booksellers, directed by D.W. Young. I’d like to be able to see it in a theater. But the trailer alone makes me want to hit Pause again and again and look closely at every shelf on screen.

I like what Fran Lebowitz says in the trailer: “The people that I see reading actual books on the subway are mostly in their twenties. This is one of the few encouraging things you will ever see in a subway.”

[Note that antiquarian means means “dealing in old or rare books.” The or is important.]

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Dunning K. Trump*

Donald Trump*, speaking for the cameras about the coronavirus yesterday:

“I like this stuff. You know, my uncle was a great person, he was at MIT. He taught at MIT for I think like a record number of years. He was a great super-genius, Doctor John Trump. I like this stuff. I really get it. People are surprised that I understand it. Every one of the doctors said, ‘How do you know so much about this?’ Maybe I have a natural ability. Maybe I should have done that instead of running for president.”
Related reading
All OCA Dunning-Kruger posts

[My transcription. John G. Trump was at MIT from 1936 to 1973. A long run, but hardly “a record number of years.”]

Today’s Saturday Stumper

Today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper is by Greg Johnson — yow. A genuine Stumper. I am proud to have solved it, even if it took forty-seven minutes and change. Or especially if it took me that long. The puzzle is a mix of wit, opacity, and odd bits of fact. The clue that most helped me: 10-D, ten letters, “Extracted.” That seems fitting.

Some clue-and-answer pairs I especially liked:

1-A, four letters, “Eyesore.” I was too clever for my own good and started off with STYE. Nope.

5-A, four letters, “Aramaic word for ‘bread.’” An odd bit of fact, right? But easily guessable, I think.

7-D, five letters, “Quite excited, new-style.” I once made a class laugh heartily when I used this word. Note: I was aiming for laughs.

14-A, four letters, “Range alternative.” Aah, opacity. OVEN? No.

17-A, fifteen letters, “What some bylaws include.” Feel the opacity.

20-A, ten letters, “Mast on the move.” Now that’s witty.

28-A, seven letters, “Performance plan.” As is this clue.

28-D, ten letters, “Dining table container.” More opacity.

32-A, four letters, “Hare hunter.” FUDD? No.

54-D, four letters, “Product sold by Fatworks.” What?!

58-A, fifteen letters, “Cause of a rock group breakup.” Groan.

No spoilers: the answers are in the comments.

Friday, March 6, 2020

McCoy Tyner (1938–2020)

McCoy Tyner, a quintessential modern pianist, has died at the age of eighty-one. The New York Times has an obituary. And here’s a solo recital from 2007.

One of the highlights of my dad’s life as a tile contractor: doing work in McCoy Tyner’s house. My dad loved jazz and knew exactly whom he was working for — and getting to listen to through much of the day. And he never forgot Tyner’s saying that he was “going to bag some Z s.”

I get so tired of having to type the words an obituary, as musicians and writers I’ve admired for ages disappear.

“It is worth the effort”

Time as a river seen from an airplane: one can make out “mountain caves of the mammoth-hunters,” “the smouldering ruins of Carthage,” “smoke rising from factory chimneys,” “the guns of the Great War.” Ahead, “nothing but mist” as the river moves toward an unknown sea:

But now let us quickly drop down in our plane towards the river. From close up, we can see it is a real river, with rippling waves like the sea. A strong wind is blowing and there are little crests of foam on the waves. Look carefully at the millions of shimmering white bubbles rising and then vanishing with each wave. Over and over again, new bubbles come to the surface and then vanish in time with the waves. For a brief instant they are lifted on the wave’s crest and then they sink down and are seen no more. We are like that. Each one of us no more than a tiny glimmering thing, a sparkling droplet on the waves of time which flow past beneath us into an unknown, misty future. We leap up, look around us and, before we know it, we vanish again. We can hardly be seen in the great river of time. New drops keep rising to the surface. And what we call our fate is no more than our struggle in that great multitude of droplets in the rise and fall of one wave. But we must make use of that moment. It is worth the effort.

E.H. Gombrich, A Little History of the World, trans. Caroline Mustill (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).
Gombrich’s book was first published in 1936 as Eine furze Weltgeschichte für jungle Leser [A short world history for young readers]. This passage ends (or appears to end) the original text. Translating and revising at the end of his life, Gombrich added a chapter on the later horrors of the twentieth century, with an affirmation of hope for the future.

Related posts
“Betty’s Graduation” : In the Dark Ages

Which knife?

From “Why Do We Meet?,” an episode of the podcast To the Best of Our Knowledge. Priya Parker is talking about how to make gatherings meaningful:

“What I’m arguing against is the sort of the Martha Stewart school of ‘You have to have the right fish knives.’”
Me: “What’s a fish knife?”

This episode is filled with good stuff: about ritual, pointless meetings at work, watching RuPaul’s Drag Race, and ubuntu — the concept, not the Linux distribution.

[Martha Stewart’s video explanation of the fish knife is long gone, even from the Internet Archive. But here’s someone else’s explanation.]

Community spread

From The New Yorker:

A resident of Washington, D.C., has been identified as the source of the community spread of coronavirus misinformation throughout the United States.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday that the man had ignored the advice of public-health experts and spewed a toxic strain of ignorance, potentially infecting millions. . . .

A C.D.C. spokesperson in Atlanta said there are steps that the public can take to avoid becoming infected by the man’s noxious contagion of falsehoods.

“According to the data we have, the most virulent misinformation is transmitted via this man’s oral cavity,” the spokesperson said. “If you turn on your TV and see him open his mouth, move as far away as possible.”

Thursday, March 5, 2020

“You must persist”

From an e-mail Elizabeth Warren sent this morning to donors, announcing the suspension of her campaign for the presidency:

So if you leave with only one thing, it must be this: Choose to fight only righteous fights, because then when things get tough — and they will — you will know that there is only option ahead of you: nevertheless, you must persist.
That sentence brought unexpected tears to my eyes.

[“Donors”: yes, that would be our household. I think Warren’s sentence should read “only one option.” But I didn’t notice until almost twelve hours later.]

“A designer and a manufacturer”

Boy Staunton, sugar magnate, president and managing director of Alpha Corporation, praises the Reverend George Maldon Leadbeater, “a great prophet from a fashionable New York church”:

Robertson Davies, Fifth Business (1970).

I think the Reverend must owe something to Norman Vincent Peale, no?

Also from this novel
“Fellows of the first importance” : “Visible branch establishments” : “Like a duck to water”

[I skipped a line in transcribing. The passage now reads as Davies wrote it.]

Some Beach Boys history

“Warring” is a bit exaggerated, but this account seems largely accurate: “How the Beach Boys became two separate, warring factions” (Fortune).

Rosalind P. Walter (1924–2020)

As in the Rosalind P. Walter Foundation, a great benefactor of PBS. I did not know that Rosalind P. Walter was also the first Rosie the Riveter. The New York Times has an obituary.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020


[“They Must Obey the Cathode Ray.” Zippy, March 4, 2020.]

It’s 1953 in today’s Zippy, and television has arrived. “Gardol” made me think, Oh, dress shields. But no. I turned to Life for help:

[Life, August 8, 1955. Click for a larger floating head, scarier teeth, and more readable text.]

It’s clear to me that Bill Griffith spends time with the print materials of the dowdy world — see, for instance, this Zippy panel — but I suspect that Gardol, like Brylcreem, is something stuck in his head.

Related reading
All OCA Zippy posts (Pinboard)

Recently updated

“By the Book” for the rest of us Now with a link to questions and answers from blogger J.D. Lowe.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Coronavirus advice

Advice from James Robb, pathologist, shared on his Facebook page. I found Dr. Robb’s advice at Gothamist (New York Public Radio), with a note from NYPR in italics. Surely there must be someone out there who hasn’t yet seen these tips:

NO HANDSHAKING! Use a fist bump, slight bow, elbow bump, etc.

Use ONLY your knuckle to touch light switches, elevator buttons, etc. Lift the gasoline dispenser with a paper towel or use a disposable glove.

Open doors with your closed fist or hip — do not grasp the handle with your hand, unless there is no other way to open the door. Especially important on bathroom and post office/commercial doors.

Use disinfectant wipes at the stores when they are available, including wiping the handle and child seat in grocery carts.

Wash your hands with soap for 10–20 seconds and/or use a greater than 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer whenever you return home from ANY activity that involves locations where other people have been.

Keep a bottle of sanitizer available at each of your home’s entrances. AND in your car for use after getting gas or touching other contaminated objects when you can’t immediately wash your hands.

If possible, cough or sneeze into a disposable tissue and discard. Use your elbow only if you have to. The clothing on your elbow will contain an infectious virus that can be passed on for up to a week or more!
Dr. Robb recommends stocking up on several items:
Latex or nitrile latex disposable gloves for use when going shopping, using the gasoline pump, and all other outside activity when you come in contact with contaminated areas. Note: This virus is spread in large droplets by coughing and sneezing. This means that the air will not infect you! BUT all the surfaces where these droplets land is infectious for about a week on average — everything that is associated with infected people will be contaminated and potentially infectious. The virus is on surfaces and you will not be infected unless your unprotected face is directly coughed or sneezed upon. This virus only has cell receptors for lung cells (it only infects your lungs). The only way for the virus to infect you is through your nose or mouth via your hands or an infected cough or sneeze onto or into your nose or mouth. [Note: There are some contradicting statements here, but common sense would suggest you want to wash your hands because of potentially contaminated surfaces, and distance yourself from anyone who appears sick.]

Stock up now with disposable surgical masks and use them to prevent you from touching your nose and/or mouth (We touch our nose/mouth 90X/day without knowing it!). This is the only way this virus can infect you — it is lung-specific. The mask will not prevent the virus in a direct sneeze from getting into your nose or mouth — it is only to keep you from touching your nose or mouth.

Stock up now with hand sanitizers. The hand sanitizers must be alcohol-based and greater than 60% alcohol to be effective.

Stock up now with zinc lozenges. These lozenges have been proven to be effective in blocking coronavirus (and most other viruses) from multiplying in your throat and nasopharynx. Use as directed several times each day when you begin to feel ANY “cold-like” symptoms beginning. It is best to lie down and let the lozenge dissolve in the back of your throat and nasopharynx. Cold-Eeze lozenges is one brand available, but there are other brands available.
Dr. Robb made clear to Snopes that zinc lozenges guarantee nothing:
In my experience as a virologist and pathologist, zinc will inhibit the replication of many viruses, including coronaviruses. I expect COVID-19 [the disease caused by the novel coronavirus] will be inhibited similarly, but I have no direct experimental support for this claim. I must add, however, that using zinc lozenges as directed by the manufacturer is no guarantee against being infected by the virus, even if it inhibits the viral replication in the nasopharynx.

“By the Book” for the rest of us

I’m beginning to suspect that the “By the Book” people at The New York Times are never going to call. Perhaps it’s because of my snarky posts about Michiko Kakutani’s too-frequent use of the word messy. Sigh. So I’m making my own “By the Book” column, or post, with questions pulled from a couple of Times columns. Why should such questions be the province of the well-known alone?

What books are on your nightstand?

As Gertrude Stein might have said, There ain’t any nightstand, there ain’t going to be any nightstand, there never has been any nightstand, that’s the nightstand.

But I have many books yet to read on shelves or in piles. A few: James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain; Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight; W.G. Sebald, A Place in the Country; Gabriele Tergit, Käsebier Takes Berlin.

What’s the last great book you read?

Robertson Davies, Fifth Business, the first novel of The Deptford Trilogy. Elaine has been praising these novels for years. Now we’re reading them together, and I second her emotion. I’d say that if you like Steven Millhauser’s fiction, you’ll love Robertson Davies.

Describe your ideal reading experience.

A printed book. A chair or sofa that’s comfortable enough but not too comfortable. (Zzz.) A cup of coffee or tea nearby. A pencil. Post-it Notes. My iPhone for looking up words on the fly.

What’s your favorite little-known book?

Many of my favorite books are little known. I’ll pick one: Ted Berrigan’s A Certain Slant of Sunlight, late poems written on postcards, published posthumously. Berrigan’s use of the postcard has a lot to do with the way I’ve come to think of the blog post: a small but extremely flexible space.

Another: Works and Days, an several-hundred-page issue of the Quarterly Review of Literature devoted to the poet David Schubert: all his poems, published and unpublished, and a running commentary on his life and work by those who knew him.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

I think highly of Roger Angell, Rae Armantrout, Clark Coolidge, Bryan Garner, Steven Millhauser, and Alice Munro, among others. But most of my reading is of the dead, and really, any writer whose work is being read is working today. John Ashbery and Toni Morrison are working today.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

The story of the Bollandists, an association founded by Jesuits and devoted to hagiography. The work of the group is part of Fifth Business.

How do you organize your books?

Not as well as I once did. There’s one bookcase of ancients. Another with works running from Gilgamesh to Thomas Hardy. Two more with modern poetry. Another with modern fiction. Another with art and music. Two more with non-fiction prose and reference works. Two more with books recently read and books on tap. As my reading interests have expanded, it’s not as easy to find things as it used to be.

What book might people be surprised to find on your shelves?

I have almost two dozen books by or about Thomas Merton. What can I say? I am a devout non-believer and Thomas Merton fan. I admire his humanity, his humor, and his ability to change his thinking: having found the answer, he discovered that there were others. Reading Merton’s journals has taught me a lot about my own world of work. An academic department, with people (mostly) in for the long haul, is in some ways much like a monastic community. Better hope you can get along with your abbot (chair).

What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?

I read mostly comic books, How and Why books, and the World Book Encyclopedia. The book that made a reader and re-reader of fiction: Clifford Hicks’s Alvin’s Secret Code, which I borrowed again and again from the public library. I still re-read it once a year (now as an ex-library copy of my own). The only “classic” I can recall reading in childhood is Treasure Island, in sixth grade, for school.

[March 13: A “classic” I forgot: Great Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. I also bought A Tale of Two Cities, but I don’t think I ever read it. I bought these books in a department store, 45¢ each.]

How have your reading tastes changed over time?

My formal eduction was almost entirely about Anglo-American lit. Now I read more and more in translation from French and German and Spanish. I am back to my high-school self in a way, when I was reading Borges and Kafka. And I’ve become much more generous toward the nineteenth century. Not everything needs to be modernist.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

I’m sorry, but I really have no reason to think that anyone I might invite would show up. I’d rather spend an evening with true friends. But I’d give anything to speak, through an interpreter, with Homer and Sappho, whoever they were.

What do you plan to read next?

The Manticore and World of Wonders, the next two novels of The Deptford Trilogy.

An invitation in the spirit of the open Internet: Reader, why not post your own responses to such questions? Add some, omit some, make up your own. If you write such a post, let me know, and I will link to it here.


March 4: At 30 Squares of Ontario, J.D. Lowe offers what he calls a tongue-in-cheek “By the Book”: “By the Book” — Miniature Buildings Edition.


March 11: At Traingeek, Steve Boyko offers “By the Book” — Railfan Edition.


May 4: Pete Anderson offers his responses to The Guardian ’s “Books that made me” prompts. And, inspired by Pete’s effort, Elaine Fine offers her responses to those prompts. (I think I prefer those prompts to the NYT questions.)

Monday, March 2, 2020


“His business card is seven inches long”: Brian Williams, introducing a guest on The Eleventh Hour just now.

Bob Drylie, reader of Proust

Bob Drylie was a home-repair contractor, reader, writer, and artist. From a beautiful appreciation by one of his customers:

“Whatcha readin’?” he called, descending the ladder. I told him of my New Year’s resolution to read all seven novels of Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. This was the second.

“When you read them all, you will join me in a select group,” he said, grinning broadly.
Related reading
All OCA Proust posts (Pinboard)

Canteen Canteen Canteen

[He Ran All the Way (dir. John Berry, 1951). Click for a larger view.]

On their way to the scene of their crime, Norman Lloyd and John Garfield walk right past Canteen Canteen Canteen. Gentlemen, you would have been better off stopping for a snack and exiting the garage. But then, no movie.

[Click for a still larger view.]

The snacks on hand: “Delicious Fresh Nuts,” 1¢; candy, 5¢; gum, price unknown. A Hershey bar stands in the center candy slot; Wrigley’s Spearmint is on the right in the gum offerings.

The same vending-machine triptych can be seen in They Live by Night (1948). I doubt it’s this very set of machines: there, the shiny letters above the mirror are gone, and the stickers on the middle machine differ. And besides, the machines in He Ran All the Way appear to be working in a genuine garage.

Merriam-Webster has a puzzling etymology for canteen :

French cantine bottle case, sutler’s shop, from Italian cantina wine cellar, probably from canto corner, from Latin canthus iron tire.
The Online Etymology Dictionary traces more or less the same history but adds a helpful gloss on the word:
Thus is perhaps another descendant of the many meanings that were attached to Latin canto “corner;” in this case, perhaps “corner for storage.”
If a canteen is, as M-W says, “a small cafeteria or snack bar,” this canteen is a pretty poor one. But wait: Canteen, capitalized, is also the name of a vending-machine company, still vending today. You can see the name on a sticker on the center machine. Here’s a timeline that accounts for the company name and answers a burning question: why do vending machines have mirrors?

As an example of the art of the vending machine, Canteen Canteen Canteen is undeniably impressive.

Related posts
The gum machines of Henry (Many with a mirror)
Mid-century cigarette machine