Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Beneficiary

My wife's book club read The Beneficiary, by Janny Scott, for their July meeting. This left the book available when I was in between books, so that I read most of it. I found it moderately interesting, but more depressing.

The Beneficiary traces the fortunes of the Montgomery and Scott families, who over about a century made a fair bit of money in railroads, investing, and banking in Pennsylvania, and hung on to a good deal of the money for some years more. The details of their work are not much fleshed out, but one learns a lot about some of their marriages and about their drinking. The marriages were not always happy or enduring, and the drinking had something to do with that.

The author is of a generation that left the Philadelphia Main Line. Her father necessarily takes up a great  deal of the book. He seems to have been a more than competent museum executive, but what a museum executive does, other than scramble for money, one does not learn. One learns a great deal about his drinking, which shortened his life and helped to alienate some of his family. Robert Scott routinely consumed three liters of wine a day, often with cocktails as well. Montaigne in his essay "On Drunkenness" mentions a nobleman who routinely consumed "scarcely less than ten quarts" at a meal, without losing his acuity: but was his acuity mentioned against that of the sober? Robert Scott apparently was not fit for business after lunch many days.

I ended the book not entirely sure why I should care about the fortunes of the Montgomerys and Scotts, including Robert Scott. That his daughter should is natural. The rest of us need a reason, which I didn't quite find. Yet the book is short enough, and well enough written  that I didn't resent reaching this conclusion.

Friday, August 9, 2019

White-Shoe Boiler Rooms

The other evening I happened to be near the phone when it rang. The display said "Covington Burling". Now, Covington and Burling is a well-known law firm. I would expect it to communicate with such as me via registered letters or process servers. I didn't really believe the display. Still, I picked up the phone..

The voice on the line was looking for "senior homeowners", a class I belong to. But as far as I could tell, this was a cheesy AI voice-response system. Its responses to my questions were inconsequent, and when I said, "Are you telling me that you are calling from Covington and Burling?",  there was silence on the line. I hung up.

I have encountered such calls before, ones that talk right past "Are you a robot?" or will not answer when asked, "Who is the majority leader of the Senate?" But I have not run across any from a source so bold as to pretend to be a white-shoe law firm. I doubt that Covington and Burling can avenge itself on the callers; but I'd pleased to hear that it did.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Summer Class

This summer I spent a number of evenings in a class in Spanish as a Second Language (SSL). This was offered through St. Matthew's Cathedral. As is usual in such classes, volunteers taught, and most of the cost went to the textbook. I learned a certain amount of Spanish, and hope to retain much  of what I learned.

Over the last several years, I have taught English as a Second Language (ESL) one night a week through a parish program. A number of contrasts were obvious:
  • The texts our ESL program has used, most recently the Cambridge Ventures series, are aimed at immediate practical use. The SSL text proceeds in the order familiar from school: here are the conjugations, here the declensions, let us proceed from the present indicative.
  • Those seeking instruction in Spanish are on the whole more prosperous and longer schooled than those seeking instruction in English. Our class included three engineers, a lawyer and a law student, and an employee of the IMF.
I think the text, Complete Spanish Step-by-Step by Barbara Bregstein, pretty good, with some reservations. It lacks a vocabulary of any part of speech but verbs: for a forgotten noun or adjective, one must guess the chapter in which it might have been defined and look through the word lists there, or resort to a dictionary. I encountered a number of words in the exercises that I'm fairly sure never appeared with a translation. The book does not consistently alphabetize the verbs in its lists of regular and irregular conjugations, which is not positively an obstacle, but still a nuisance. It lacks completeness in its lists of exceptions: apparently one is supposed to infer that  the participle for "poner" is "puesto" because the participle for "volver" is "vuelto". And it refers to the subjunctive and conditional as tenses.

The text does have many exercises, with proposed answers in the back of the book. It is meant to be used over a semester or a year, I gather, for it returns to many topics--the subjunctive, the preterit, the imperfect. I find that useful.

Many of us found the pace a bit overwhelming. One man, married to a woman of South American birth, said that he would go home and vent to her. His interlocutor, who may have been one of the students with a Spanish-speaking boyfriend or family, felt much the same. Around the Fourth of July, I found myself thinking of the fellow mentioned in the newspaper for winning hot dog eating contests. Can one suffer indigestion from learning the conjugation of too many tenses too quickly?

I also found myself thinking of The Caine Mutiny, a book I haven't opened in nearly fifty years. Early on, the protagonist, an officer candidate in a Navy program, encounters a lesson on the "frictionless bearing". It means nothing to him, but he reads and reviews the material until he has all but memorized it, and he passes with high marks the test on the bearing. This does much to give him grace when he piles up many demerits later on. But I infer that Willie Keith knew nothing at all about the principles of the frictionless bearing, and that in six months if not six weeks would have had no idea about it.

Willie Keith lacked context for understanding the bearing, which physical intuition should have provided--physical intuition available to the naturally gifted or the well trained. I lack context for Spanish: I guess I will have to get it through the newspapers, radio, and conversation.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

The Commonest and Most Primitive Kind of Competition

A visit to the outside carts at Second Story Books yesterday, mostly in hopes of getting change for a $20 bill, succeeded beyond expectation when a volume on the last cart turned out to be The Bit Between My Teeth: A Literary Chronicle of 1950-1965 by Edmund Wilson. There are a number of very good essays--on the Holmes-Laski correspondence, on books by Dawn Powell and George Kennan, one on "My Fifty Years with Grammars and Dictionaries". But what I must quote is from "Donsmanship", a review of Stephen Potter's Supermanship, or How to Continue to Stay on Top without Actually Falling Apart. Having given a sketch of Potter's work, Wilson moves on to a matter Potter had so far neglected, one-upmanship in academic circles.
The commonest and most primitive kind of competition that goes on among American professors is to top one another in reading. I was once told of a conversation between Irving Babbitt and someone else of equal competence in the field of romantic literature which soon reduced itself entirely to an exchange of the titles of books. In this game, the opponent is supposed to show by a brief appropriate comment that he has read the book named by the other. Of course it is easy to cheat if the opponent does not press too far. One may actually know something about the book without having actually read it, and so risk a  non-committal response that cannot be to far wide of the mark. But if the question is cleverly put and searchingly followed up, it may reduce the opponent to a confession of his ignorance. One of the high scores is driving one's opponent--this is quite difficult to do--to a confession that he has not only not read the book but has not even heard of it. The highest points of all--and I have heard of this happening at Harvard--are scored by inventing a non-existent book and getting the other man to pretend that he has read it. The most reliable way, I should say from my own experience, for the non-academic person to counter a well-equipped scholar, who has scrutinized and read more than he has, is to cut in with some opinion, offhandedly and freely expressed, which is quite outside the scholar's gambits and will cause him to gasp and sulk.... I now exploit these shock tactics deliberately.
 The Library of America offers three volumes of Wilson's work, but so far they end with the 1940s. I suppose it will get around to the 1950s and on someday.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019


We spent about a week in Belgium and the Netherlands, and had a constant feeling of awkward familiarity. Dutch is similar enough to German that I feel I should be able to read and follow it, but of course I can't really. The Antwerp cathedral provides a liturgical pamphlet, and there I was able to spot cognates in the readings: "terug" = "zuruck", "dienaar" = "Diener", 'deel" = "Teil" (and is related to the English "deal"; it is odd to think for a moment that one read that Mary has chosen the better deal). The straight narratives, Genesis and Luke, were almost readable; Paul, with theological reflections, definitely not.

And then there are physical resemblances. Quite a bit of the population of Amsterdam looked like second cousins or shirt-tail relatives that I really should remember. Well, a lot of my ancestors lived in northwestern Germany, not far from the modern border.

The bicycling culture interested us, with persons everywhere on  bikes, sometimes with a dog in the basket, children in a tub, or goods in a locking container. I think it more practical for a city such as Amsterdam,which has no visible grades, than for one like Washington, where one has the flat and fill, then a steep grade up to piedmont. I have not in many years seen so many of what we called "girls' bikes", with the lower crossbar to accommodate a skirt.

It was unusually hot in Amsterdam. It occurred to me one night that the last time I regularly slept in hot weather without even a fan would have been the summer of 1980. Then, though, I was in a suburb under tall trees, not in a built up city. I slept, but would have slept better with a fan.

Friday, July 26, 2019

The Airport Experience

On the way off a KLM flight today, I noticed a screen stating that KLM offered "the aiport experience." It seemed to me that the copywriter, ad agency, and marketing department must all be out of touch to suppose that anyone enjoys "the airport experience". We had worried about making our flight while in the baggage-check and security lines at Schiphol. Then at Dulles, after seeing KLM's offer, we took thirty-some minutes to get through passport control. The queues wound enough that I came to recognize a dozen families or couples as we passed and repassed each other. Our luggage was off the belt before we arrived to look for it.

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Buried Under the Path

Yesterday we visited the Begijnhof in Amsterdam. We saw the small Catholic chapel, and the outsides of residences and the English Reformed Church. We did not see, at least I did not, the marker for the grave of Cornelia Arents, a beguine who arranged for burial under the path to the church, as penance for the conversion to Protestantism of certain relatives. An alternative version says that she considered the church as desecrated by the English Reformed takeover.

An early Catholic bishop of New York supposedly asked to be buried under the pavements, though as a reproach to his flock. The churches of Europe are full of grave markers in the pavement--perhaps the point was to be buried outside.