Monday, December 30, 2013

But the Green Light Is at the End of Spring Road

3625 16th St. NW, the apartment building once known as The Ricardo, is getting a new name:


As far as I can remember, F. Scott Fitzgerald's only connection to the area is his grave, in the churchyard of St. Mary's, about a dozen miles from here in Rockville, Maryland. And I don't really see how "Gatsby living" works here, The building is in a very convenient location but not at all a glamorous one.

There are other apartment buildings with writer's names attached, directly or at second hand. Directly, there are the Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments on 15th St. NW at about V St. At second hand, there are the Longfellow Arms on Longfellow St. NW, and Whittier Gardens, bounded on the south by Whittier St.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

At the Movies

"Inside Llewyn Davies" struck me as Hieronymus Bosch brought to the screen, the torment of a damned soul by imps including fat women (from the Upper East Side and the Ozarks), fat men (from Seafarers International Union and from the jazz world), urban dirtbags, and pale people from the sticks. It struck me also as a waste of brimstone, for the main character seemed to be armed for no sins but rudeness and sulking. He is said in the film to have impregnated a couple of women, but he has no obvious charms to attract them. He has regular features, a good beard, and a decent voice: still, in the Greenwich Village of 1961 these can hardly have been rare. For that matter, the one of these women that we see projects no sensuality, though of course--this is the movies--she is beautiful, and she does deliver a few minutes of vituperation with some conviction.

There is a nice touch in the matching scenes at beginning and end. Given the rest of the movie, they recalled the Last Judgement painted inside the dome of the cathedral in Florence: one can start at a punishment, follow the action around 360 degrees and return to it

Friday, December 27, 2013

Stendahl on Scott

An immense body of men of letters finds it in its own interest to praise Sir Walter Scott to the skies, together with his method of composition. The doublet and leather collar of a medieval servant are easier to describe than the movements of the human heart. One can either imagine or describe inaccurately medieval costume (we have only a half-knowledge of the customs and the dress worn in Cardinal Richelieu's ante-chamber); whereas we throw down the book in disgust if the author fails to describe the human heart, and ascribes, say, to an illustrious companion-in-arms of the son of Henry IV the ignoble sentiments of a lackey.
... it is infinitely easier to describe in picturesque detail a character's dress than to say what he feels and to make him speak. Let us not forget another advantage which is offered by the school of Sir Walter Scott: the description of the costume and posture of a character, however minor he may be, takes at least two pages. The movements of the heart, which to begin with, are so difficult to discern and so difficult to describe with precision and without either timidity or exaggeration, would scarcely furnish a few lines. Open at random ten pages from on of the volumes of La Princesse de Cleves; then compare them with ten pages from Ivanhoe or Quentin Durward; it will be found that the latter display a historical merit.
Stendahl, "Walter Scott and La Princesse de Cleves", collected in Selected Journalism 

I have recalled this passage a number of times, while watching movies in which the clothes, uniforms, and props are beautifully done, but the dramatic soul seems to derive from the TV shows of the producer's youth, or from the movies he studied in film school.

(Stendhal seems to me entirely correct in speaking poorly of Scott's depictions of love. But the prediction that "In a hundred and forty-six years time, Scott will be less esteemed than Corneille still is a hundred and forty-six years after his death." I have no way of evaluating, for what was Corneille's reputation in 1830? Scott's novels have nothing like the popularity they had through the 1850s, but I think have held up at least as well as those of any novelist then writing in English, Jane Austen excepted.)

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Epstein on WASPs

Friday's Wall Street Journal has an opinion piece by Joseph Epstein, praising the old eastern WASP establishment as against today's meritocracy. I fault his argument for manner, matter, and maker.

Manner: Epstein uses a flexible, not to say sophistical definition of WASP that allows him to exclude Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton:
WASPs were a caste, closed off to all not born within it, with the possible exception of those who crashed the barriers by marrying in.
Well and good, but he lists Dean Rusk, born to modest means in rural Georgia. Carter was born to landed wealth and received an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academ;. Rusk worked his way through Davidson College. He lists George Kennan, born to comfort but not riches in Milwaukee--married as it happens to a Norwegian. He lists Robert MacNamara, born in modest circumstances in California, and with a distinctly Irish name.

Matter:
true WASPs were too upstanding to go in for the unscrupulous business dealings of Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.
Or rather, they had inherited it from an ancestor who had managed the unscrupulous dealings for them. Was John D. Rockefeller more scrupulous than the elder Kennedy?
or the feckless philanderings of him and some of his sons
With all due respect to JFK's track record, this is ridiculous. Can philandering be more feckless than when it leaves a man dead in his mistress's bed (Nelson Rockefeller) or on the sidewalk outside her apartment (Adlai Stevenson)? What of the vestryman J.P. Morgan?  Should a spy run around quite so much as Allen Dulles did?

More to the point, what of their stewardship? Henry Cabot Lodge was not a benign influence on American foreign policy. Who is there now that believes that John Foster Dulles's foreign policy was sensible? The New Frontiersmen led us into an engagement in Vietnam that such downmarket southerners as Richard Russell and Lyndon Johnson wanted no part of. They had second thoughts, but by then Johnson was stuck with the war.

Then there are the obiter dicta on the meritocracy:
the only thing that normal undergraduate schooling prepares a person for is... more schooling.
It is the premise of the liberal arts faculty that undergraduate schooling prepares one for a good deal more. I am confident I went to a worse school and got a a worse education than Epstein, but I did learn a thing or two.
Having been a good student, in other words, means nothing more than that one was good at school: One had the discipline to do as one was told, learned the skill of quick response to oral and written questions, figured out what professors wanted and gave it to them.
That is a different matter, isn't it? We could rephrase the first sentence as "The only thing that a normal undergraduate transcript establishes is that student's fitness for school." The argument then verges on tautology.

Finally,

What our new meritocrats have failed to evince—and what the older WASP generation prided itself on—is character and the ability to put the well-being of the nation before their own.
Well, what if you can convince yourself that your well-being and the nation's are identified? Most of us, with more or less effort and conviction can say something like that now and then; no doubt it is easier if you own a fair bit of the nation as some of these WASPs did. The harm may come from honest error as easily as from self-interest. You might decide the austerity, even deflation, is the proper answer to a depression; that you, as an owner, have only to gain by deflation need not imply insincerity in your views.

Maker: I am not acquainted with Joseph Epstein's biography, but I'm fairly confident that given four guesses I could name the college he attended, and it would not be Davidson College. His mother may have believed that this had nothing to do with his early employment in publishing and in helping him to find a publisher for his first books. I see no reason to believe it. He holds no employment in the government of the United States, nor does he work in the finance industry; other than that, and age, I see small difference between him and the meritocrats he complains of. Well, maybe one--I do believe that he writes his own books, and I give him credit for that.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Cars and Tires

In Will's Boy, Wright Morris gives some pages to a trip from Chicago to California  in 1927. He and his father began with an Essex, purchased used for $125. This lasted them to Springfield, Illinois, where the knock of a bad bearing could no longer be ignored. They sold the car for $60, and took buses to Kansas City, Missouri. There they purchased a 1921 Studebaker for $165, recruited some paying passengers, and set out. On the grade down to the Missouri River, the gearbox fell off. The Morrises immediately swapped this, as is, for a 1919 Buick. The Buick, though not the passengers, lasted until a missed curve in the California desert, where it stuck in the soft sand.

The car purchased for the return trip, a Marmon, took them to Lake Village, Arkansas, where it dropped its transmission. There was no time to consider repairs or a trade in, for it was almost at once swept away in the great Mississippi flood of 1928, when the levee broke upstream. Along the way it required a great deal of improvised tire repair--fitting an old tire, its bead removed, over a flat one--and it cast its right front wheel near Deming, New Mexico. To be sure, they had done a good deal of driving over mule tracks early on the trip.

The cars made since about 1980 tend to be hard to break. Before that, it helped to know a lot about cars, or to know a good mechanic. A friend of my father's chipped in with some friends to buy a used car for the trip back east from a field camp about 1950; they traveled with spare parts, and when a piston shot out through the hood they were ready to replace it. The late 1940s or early 1950s may have been the nadir of auto quality, for civilian production had been suspended for WW II, and only so many American could afford new cars.

Tires have improved a great deal in my memory. Beginning the January after I got my driver's license, I averaged a flat tire a month through August. I was the better prepared, then, when on a summer job I changed a flat tire on a company car, let down the jack, and saw the spare go flat. In the last twenty-five years I recall  changing two flats our cars, one holed by a screw from the Metro construction on Georgia Avenue, one cut by a granite curb at Connecticut and California.


Friday, December 13, 2013

Amazon Reviews, Again

I am a few pages from finishing a pretty bad novel. Yesterday, I found myself thinking of Mark Twain on James Fenimore Cooper:  He saw nearly all things as through a glass eye, darkly." The anachronisms are plenty, the inaccuracies striking, the dialogue often implausible, the plot obvious.

Then I looked at Amazon. In round numbers, there are 1600 reviews with five or four stars, 100 with three or fewer. The ratio of five stars to one star is a bit more than 100 to 1.

It is possible to read by passing one's eyes over the pages, taking in the sense of the words, and perhaps remembering the sense but not at all reflecting on the matter read or referring it to anything beyond the piece read. For reading in this manner, I suppose that the book serves well enough, and deserves its rating. There are elements of the fairy tale in, the families lost and found, which can be moving.

It is also possible to think as one reads, and notice that the author seems not to know that Philip Sheridan was an American general, not an English one; that it was Irish, not British, troops that captured the Four Courts; that in 1943 English speakers called the city Rangoon, not Yangon, and that in any case Burma had only a distant relationship to the Central Pacific theater of operations; that near the mid-century natural childbirth was not popular among the prosperous; that train wheels, pace Tennyson, do not run in grooves; etc. Reading in this fashion, one sides with the one-star voters.

Had I the time and energy, I would write a script to collect Amazon ratings for a range of books, to see how my evaluation of quality correlates with a reasonable number of low ratings. Maybe over Christmas.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

A Snow Day

Snow started to fall about 8 this morning. I think that it began to turn to sleet around 2:30. While it lasted, it added to the festive look:


(The lionesses at the corners of the bridge that takes 16th St. NW over Piney Branch Parkway got their ribbons last week, but no snow until today.)

The snow meant that I could run through the Zoo without dodging or inconveniencing its visitors; probably I saw fewer than twenty other persons in the Zoo, walkers and runners counted together.It did not affect the footing, though.

The statue of Nelson Mandela that stood on an unfinished pedestal at the South African Embassy has been moved forward to the edge of the sidewalk and placed on a higher, temporary platform. People have put flowers on it. I don't run with my phone, so I have no picture to offer.



Friday, December 6, 2013

Terminals

One of the first technical books I ever bought was The RS-232 Solution. It dealt in a clear way with the details of data transmission over serial connections, and in those days I dealt with such connections a lot. The book told me what I was looking at when I opened the cover on a connector, put me on the path to understanding how to use a breakout box, and saved me, my employer, and our customers a great deal of time.

Then I changed jobs, and the details of serial cables were no longer my problem. But presently I spent a lot of time looking at the details of "terminfo" and "termcap" and considering how to make this or that type of terminal behave when connected to this or that type of computer. I believe that I invested in the book Terminfo and Termcap, but perhaps not. I did manage to make some off-brand terminals behave better than they might have.

Then I changed jobs again, and really didn't spend a lot of time thinking about terminal emulation. On the whole, I didn't miss it.

This afternoon, I wasted several hours of my time and a tech support rep's. First, I wasted a few minutes of my own looking for the proper cable--null modem, female and nine-pin (or if you will, nine-socket) at both ends. Then I wasted the hours because I could not get a machine to boot into the proper system,. This was largely, as far as I can tell, because the terminal emulation program was throwing away or otherwise mis-handling my keystrokes. This machine wasn't manufactured--I don't suppose its manufacturer was incorporated--when I last looked at terminal emulations.

I will add that when I first dealt with RS-232, 9600 Bps was considered a fast connection. WiFi can in theory do roughly 700 times that. In other words, for every second a web page takes to load over a good WiFi connection, it would take about twelve minutes at 9600 Bps. I remember the author of The RS-232 Solution writing of 200-Bps connections "but in those days it seemed like magic." Indeed.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Lives of the Saints

This may be the week or month for African and African-descended (St. Martin de Porres) saints at the Sacred Heart Academy building on Park Road, NW. Two got crayon-colored cutouts on the bulletin board, two, Sts. Monica and Augustine, had small pages cut out of some booklet, each page having a drawing and a brief write-up.

I was interested to notice on St. Augustine's the sentence "Partier when young." I couldn't fault that on the facts, but it seemed a strange way to put it.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Airport Bookstores, Again

In September, I complained about the uniformity and lack of selection in airport bookstores. I am happy to report that Portland International Airport (PDX) stands out as an exception, having branches of Powell's Books either side of security. The one outside security was staffed when we arrived about 8 pm; the one inside security on Concourse C was staffed when we were waiting to board our return flight about 7:15 am.

Should have I bought books on each passage to encourage the business? Perhaps, but on the way in, I expected to have a chance to visit the main store downtown; on the way back, I had with me the books from that visit.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Glamour of Air Travel

People Express was one of the many low-cost airlines that appeared following the Carter administration's airline deregulation. People Express carried its emphasis on economy to the point that it did not serve meals on flights, only snacks. Some wit gave it the nickname "Peanut Express" for this. I flew on it once, that I recall, home from Christmas. Knowing its reputation, I arrived at the airport with a container of soup purchased at a Vietnamese restaurant a few miles from National Airport. Now I suppose I couldn't get that through security, and I would hesitate to be gulping down Pho or Bun Bo Hue in a crowded airline cabin. In those days, though, security was laxer and I was less self-conscious.

The proliferation of airlines was followed shortly by a consolidation that swept many of the new ones out of existence--People Express merged with Continental Airlines in 1986. It has continued as even old names have disappeared and merged.

On Wednesday, we took a United Airlines flight across the country for Thanksgiving. It was direct and prompt, which the People Express of 1985 was not. It had our checked luggage ($25 per bag) fairly quickly at the carousel: People's Express got my luggage to the destination at least an hour late, maybe ninety minutes. But United offered nothing free but water, coffee and soft drinks; not a bag of peanuts, not a pretzel. One could purchase snacks and alcoholic beverages, at high prices. Somebody in the row in front paid $28 for a snack including sandwich and drink, whether one or two of each I don't know. I thought with regret of the Nam Viet and its soups. Instead we had sandwiches and soup at the Portland airport before we picked up the rental car. Airport prices are usually too high, but I think that even without the end-of-day discount they would have been less those on the flight.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Alarms

An acquaintance in New England had an unsatisfactory alarm system in his house. After months or years of malfunctions and failed repairs, he asked the alarm company the question, How much would you charge for just the "Protected by" sign? Their answer: the same as for the system.

Most houses in our neighborhood have alarm systems. Their use will not necessarily prevent burglaries, but it may limit the time the burglars have to work; a woman across the street neglected to set hers when she ran an errand a couple of years ago, and the burglars had time to ransack the house thoroughly, and drink some of the household's wine.

We have not so far been burglarized, but the alarms do go off on their own now and then. For example, the alarm sounded in the small hours this morning, showing that the back window in the living room was ajar. In fact, the back window was secured. I wondered whether the wind might have jostled it a bit, but that window is behind a tightly fitted storm window.

The alarm I remember best occurred our first winter in the house, also in the small hours. A steel pot fell from the drying rack, the noise of its landing setting off the kitchen glass-break detector. Not much else would have got me out of a warm bed at that hour, and almost nothing else would have got me downstairs that fast. Wide awake, we have set off the glass-break detectors. I did it once by hammering down the lid on a paint can while the system was still armed; my wife did it more recently by closing a drawer full of kitchen utensils.

The alarm our neighbors remember best occurred when we were out of town--of course also in the small hours. As I recall it, they were treated to at least 45 minutes of noise over a couple of hours, and the police came. We returned to town with apologies and chocolate for those nearest the noise.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Hands Across the Avenue

This afternoon I was heading up Massachusetts Avenue toward Wisconsin Avenue when I noticed a statue of a man raising a clenched fist. On looking at it I realized that this must be a statue of Nelson Mandela, and that the grounds must be those of the South African Embassy. At the moment the grounds are surrounded by chain link fence, the notice boards too far for me to read, and the statue's base is bare concrete.If I understand the embassy web site correctly, the statue was set in place two months ago.

Then it struck me that the (much older) statue of Winston Churchill must be right across the avenue. It is, about 20 yards uphill, the statue showing him striding forward and holding up his right hand with the V-for-victory gesture. The statues look past each other, Churchill could  be encouraging or defying a small monument to Kahil Gibran, Mandela could as easily be inspiring Bolivia as the United Kingdom.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Fire Down the Street

Monday night we heard shouting and thumps outside. The shouts were DC police officers yelling that everyone should get out of a house, the thumps were the officers trying to force the front door with a ram. When we stepped out to look, we could see flames coming out the attic windows. The fire trucks were there in about five minutes, and within a couple more minutes a fireman was up at roof level in a cherry picker spaying water in the east window. Next, another fireman was breaking a hole in the roof with what looked like an ice spade. The visible flame disappeared quickly When we looked out a little later, a fireman had a smaller stream of water playing about ground level on the east side of the house: that proved to be a pile of charred stuff thrown out of windows.

The owners showed up when the last of the crews was stowing the hose to leave. They were there conferring with the police or fire authorities when we went upstairs. Another neighbor says that she could hear saws running in the small hours as somebody cut plywood for the doors and windows.

I had supposed that the police arrived first because of an alarm. Apparently, though, a neighbor heard a window explode, supposed it was a burglar breaking in, and called the police. Another neighbor says that the smell of smoke was very strong when he got home from work, a bit before this; the fire must have had many minutes' start before it showed outside.

The emergency services did well. The police showed up expecting a crime, and quickly turned to trying to alert and evacuate any residents. The fire department arrived in force--four trucks--and quickly put out the fire.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Chateaubriand and Chapman on Patronage

In Chateaubriand's memoirs, Book XXIII, Chapter 5, I noticed a couple of sentences:
 Perhaps nothing conduces more to attachment and gratitude than to find oneself under the patronage of the friendship with one who by virtue of her influence in society can make one's faults pass for virtues, one's imperfections for a charm. A man promotes you by virtue of what he is worth, a woman by virtue of what you are worth; that is why of the two powers one is so odious, the other so sweet.
That is charming, but is true? Never having been in the position to push a protegé by my influence, or to be pushed by a patroness, I can't say. And if true, it is helpful? I can think of women who have made their clients' faults pass for virtues, and the result has not always been good. John Jay Chapman writes of a Boston hostess
 Mrs Whitman was surrounded by geniuses. I didn't always believe in the rest of them, but I believed that somehow I must be a good one--not so great as she believed, but still something quite considerable in my own way.
("Mrs. Whitman", collected in Memories and Milestones.) But I imagine that Mrs. Whitman's influence was mostly social and disrupted nobody's work.

Chateaubriand was writing of the Duchess de Duras, whose influence had procured him the ambassadorship to Sweden under the Restoration, despite Louis XVIII's distrust of poets, and Blacas's general indifference. At the moment, though, the Restoration has adjourned to Ghent while Napoleon enjoys his Hundred Days, and Chateaubriand is with it.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Leaves Falling

This morning the gingko trees at 16th and Spring Streets NW were dropping leaves in a steady shower that caught my eye from across the street. At this time of year, leaves fall steadily, and a patch of raked lawn will be sprinkled with leaves while you carry the raked pile to the curb. But this was an unusual rate of all, like a snowstorm that is more than flurries but not yet at full speed. I stopped to take a picture


and then crossed 16th to try to take a better one



If you look below the level of the branches, you should be able to see something of what I saw. Clearly I should have walked another block east to get the sun behind me.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Cliches

In A Cloak of LIght: Writing My Life, Wright Morris reflects on how he came to write The Field of Vision:
It was not possible, it occurred to me, to make such an observation about McKee except in the clichés to which he was accustomed. In his nature, which I found appealing, they acquired the luster of a finer metal. His character, indeed, took the clichés of his life and fleshed them out in a way that made them appealing. Slowly I came  to realize that these clichés were my subject, and my problem was how to use them, rather than abuse them. As I sometimes felt ambivalent about the character of Boyd—where he overlapped and where he departed from the character of the writer—so I was sometimes troubled by the ambiguous nature of many clichés. How was it possible, I wondered, the they could be at once the truth of the matter and its parody. But so it was I often found them.  Later I would ponder the astonishing fact that the truth of clichés contradicted the truths of more sophisticated language, and that the character of a people had its source in their speech more than in their customs 
From reading the novel I can see how this worked in the cases of McKee and Boyd; I prefer Ceremony at Lone Tree, but they think and speak the same way there.

Does the character of a people have its source in its speech more than in its customs? I should have thought that on the whole the customs manifested themselves through the speech, with the speech modifying, perhaps by reinforcing, the customs. Flann O'Brien reflects on this toward the end of "Myles na gCopaleen Catechism of Cliché", collected in the The Best of Myles:
A cliché is a phrase that has become fossilised, its component words deprived of their intrinsic light and meaning by incessant usage.Thus it appears that clichés reflect somewhat the frequency of the incidence of the same situations in life. If this be so, a sociological commentary could be compiled from these items of mortified language.
Is not the gun-history of  modern Ireland to be verified by the inflexible terminology attaching to it? A man be be shot dead but if he survives a shot, he is not shot but sustains gun-shot wounds.... And the whole affair is, of course, a shooting affray. You see, there is no other kind of affray. If it is not a shooting affray, it is not an affray at all. But it might be a fracas.
The reflection on McKee and Boyd appears on page 184. On page 241, Morris wins the National Book Award for The Field of Vision. On page 249, having driven to California, he trades in his Studebaker for a used Jaguar:
Lacking the panache that went along with the car, I spent several days, and long evenings, explaining why it was that I had bought it, I, of all people, when it was apparent to my friends that I had struck it rich, having written a best seller. Why didn't I play the role that was thrus upon me, life- and dream-enhancing as everybody found it? I was an ignoramus. In explaining my folly to others I hoped to explain it to myself.
And on page 251, he meets the woman who will be his second wife, a matter he takes some considerable time to announce to the incumbent. It struck me on reading this sequence that there are clichés of situation as well as of speech; but I don't know what to make of that insight or even if it is one.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

La Rochefoucauld,and Social Media

In looking into La Rochefoucauld, I noticed maxim 268, which the Gutenberg Project's version gives as:
We credit judges with the meanest motives, and yet we desire our reputation and fame should depend upon the judgment of men, who are all, either from their jealousy or pre-occupation or want of intelligence,opposed to us--and yet 'tis only to make these men decide in our favour that we peril in so many ways both our peace and our life.
(The first clause is probably better rendered "We recuse judges for the smallest biases".) This sounded not unlike the way social media can work, even before I read a piece in the New York Times on a college course on the topic, which included the sentences
A small but growing body of evidence suggests that excessive social media use can lead to an unhealthy fixation on how one is perceived and an obsessive competitiveness. Perhaps not surprisingly, this angsting can also lead to an unhealthy quest for perfection, a social perfection, which breeds an aperture-narrowing conformity.
(Is the angstrom the proper unit of measure for angsting? And doesn't "angsting" look as if it should be at least cousin to "agenbyte"?)

 One of the characteristics one notices immediately on looking in the Maxims is their brevity. A slopped-together script shows that about 70% of the maxims (in French) are 140 characters long or shorter, ergo suitable for sending over Twitter. Clearly, La Rochefoucauld was a man ahead of his time.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween

The first costume I saw today was on a beagle in my neighborhood. It had a slug costume, with eyes on stalks, strapped to its back. The beagle did not appear to be discomfited by this.

The second costume I saw was on a boy about a year old, who wore a pirate hat. He was in a stroller on K St., looking about alertly.

The best costume was worn by a girl on our street, soon to be three years old. She was "a ballerina monster not a scary one a friendly one." She gets credit for coming up with the notion, and her mother for figuring out how to bring it about: short dress, full and frilly below the waist; a goatee draw in, and dark circles around the eyes.

The drizzle that set in about 7:30 may have reduced the number of trick-or-treaters. We gave generously, and have candy left.

Our jack o'lantern:


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Seen Downtown, Tuesday October 29

First about 8 am at 16th and K Sts. NW,, a man about 60, neatly dressed, with cane or walking stick, and a sign hung from his neck:

POETRY
FOR LOVE + ROMANCE
$5 A POEM

Probably I should have stopped and spent $5 to see what the goods were like, but I was in a hurry.

Second, at lunchtime, a hawk, probably a red-tailed hawk, in Lafayette Square. It flew low across the park from the southeast corner to perch in a tree overlooking 16th and H Sts. I walked back that way for a better look, but the hawk flew out southwest.

Third, a few minutes later, on fences along the north side of the Ellipse:

     THIS AREA CLOSED
     FOR PERMITTED ACTIVITIES

I'm guessing that this means that the National Park Service is not now issuing permits for activities here; the graders at work beyond the fence support this interpretation.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Bagehot, Babbage, La Rochefoucauld

A visit to Carpe Librum turned up a Folio paperback of La Rochefoucauld, and about the first dip into it showed me the maxim that the Gutenberg Project's version gives as
304.--We may forgive those who bore us, we cannot forgive those whom we bore.
 Quite so, but something about the form of it brought to mind a passage of Bagehot's in his remarks on Sidney Smith:
A great deal of excellent research has been spent on the difference between "humour" and "wit", into which metaphysical problem "our limits", of course, forbid us to enter. There is, however, between them, the distinction of dry sticks and green sticks; there is in humour a living energy, a diffused potency, a noble sap; it grows upon the character of the humorist. Wit is part of the machinery of the intellect; as Madame de Stael says, "La gaiete de l'esprit est facile a tous les hommes d'esprit". We wonder Mr. Babbage does not invent a punning-engine; it is just as possible as a calculating one.
("The First Edinburgh Reviewers", collected in Literary Studies)

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Junior HIgh, Etc.

Back in August, the New York Times carried an article about the star pitcher of the Grosse Pointe team in the Little League World Series: at the age of 12, he was 6'3" and 216 lb. He was only the second biggest player in the tournament.

This reminded me why junior high school could be alarming. It covers grades 7 through 9, roughly ages 12 through 14, years during which boys typically grow a lot, but at different rates. A man I know says that he turned out for freshman (9th grade) football at Gonzaga weighing just under 100 lb. During his first and only practice, a well-meaning coach took him aside, and told him that there were boys on opposing teams weighing nearly four times that, leaving him to infer for himself the possible results of a collision. Now, I was never one of the smaller boys, but it was late in 8th grade when I started to get my height. A few other boys in my grade appeared to be the size of NFL linemen.. Considered at this distance--from the halls they dominated--probably they were sized only for high school football.  Even so, they could have easily been half again my weight. Most were benign, but only most.

Earlier this year I saw a young woman signing a friend into our office building. The young man had on a tee shirt reading
            Dodgeball
America's Twist on Stoning
This also brought junior high school to mind. The usual projectile in dodgeball is a volleyball, but at my junior high we played with what I later learned to be a "Chicago softball". This is a little larger than a regular softball, and a good deal softer: I understand that Mike Royko considered it decadent to see fielders wearing gloves for them. They deform noticeably on impact against a wall or a body, so that it is merely unpleasant to be hit with one, not dangerous. They have less wind resistance than a volleyball, and more mass; they are also more easily grasped to throw, ergo leave the hand at a higher speed and fly straighter. In the hands of a 180 lb. eighth grader, they are intimidating.

Well, we survived, most of us anyway.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Carpe Librum Is Back, Indefinitely

A co-worker I introduced to Carpe Librum last spring returned the favor last week by telling me that it is back. It is in the spring location, on the west side of 17th St. NW, between K and L Streets. One of the back rooms it had is no longer open. There is less stock, and less room to show it.

But there are books worth buying. It is strongest in the General Fiction heading. It has many books in the biography and memoir section. To be sure, it is down to a couple of copies of Eat, Pray, Love from the spring's 30. But it had, till I bought it, a book with letters and diary entries by Barbara Pym, and it has The Road From Coorain. The history section has Becoming Charlemagne, and an odd-looking book proposing that Homer understated the scale of the Trojan War. I will shortly unload on Carpe Librum three or four books I have been meaning to give away.

I suspect that reappearance of Carpe Librum at such a location has as much to do with a weak market for commercial real estate as with a thirst for used books or a will to support reading programs in the Washington, DC, public schools. But those wishing to support the efforts of its sponsor, "Turning the Page", can attend Carpe Noctem this Friday at the Washingon Post building on 15th St. NW.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Prose

About 30 years ago, I happened to be reading two books at the same time, one The History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson and Madison by Henry Adams, one a memoir by a writer then well thought of. Eventually I put the second book aside and gave it away. It was moderately interesting, but badly written. The contrast with Adams's prose emphasized the faults of the memoirist's. Reading Adams was like watching an excellent carpenter drive nails; reading the memoirist was like watching a duffer, myself perhaps, bend them.

During the past few weeks, I have been reading a book on the teaching of English as a second language, grateful for some of the advice, but struggling with the prose. There are sentences such as
In weighing in on the benefits and drawbacks to using assigned textbooks, the most promising practice is to select a text that corresponds as closely as possible to the needs of your learners, the program, and the teacher, and supplement it with activities from teacher resource books, authentic materials, or learner-generated texts as needed.
(I should remark that "authentic texts" are any not written for use in teaching English; a driver's manual is an authentic text and so is A Million Little Pieces.)

Last night I opened a book just given to me by friends, Thucydides: The Reinvention of History by Donald Kagan. A few pages in I was distracted by the feeling that something unusual was happening. After another page or two, I knew what it was: I was reading lucid prose. Any paragraph I have seen so far can serve as an example. A sentence most of the way down page 11 runs
The student of social behavior--that is, the historian--has a dual responsibility: first to seek out with diligence and accuracy the truth of what has taken place, and then to interpret the events with wisdom and understanding, in this way making a permanent contribution.
Since I am reading the book on ESL for instruction rather than amusement, I will finish it. But I had much rather read Kagan.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Socks and Seasons

The sailors of Annapolis, Maryland, celebrate the Spring Equinox with "The Burning of the Socks", a ceremony I have never seen, and am grateful never to have found myself downwind of. The notion is that one does not wear socks on a sailboat during the warm season, understood to run from the Spring Equinox to the Autumn Equinox. I have sailed on the Chesapeake Bay only seldom, and long enough ago that I can't say whether I honored this rule.

Still, there does come a point in the spring when my costume around the house becomes shirt, shorts, and no socks. I don't suppose that point is just at the equinox, for I consult comfort above calendar, which might mean late April or even May. As the fall approaches, I find it cool, and wonder whether the season is over. Lately, I've tried to make it to October. This year, I felt almost uncomfortable for the last week of September, and began to wonder whether I was carrying the notion too far. But I was out of the house the first of October, and about that time it turned warm again, even hot.

We are back to October weather, though, and I guess that the socks are here to stay.






Tuesday, October 1, 2013

For the Happy Warrior?

I could not quite understand this sign


when I saw in 17th St. NW yesterday. On a second look, I suppose that "aggressive" might describe the early start and the length of happy hour.

But it recalled a passage from Evelyn Waugh's letters:
Randolph [Churchill] dined with the Lampsons the other evening & Lampson sent a pompous and jaggering cable to Winston 'Your son is at my house. He has the light of battle in his eye'. Unhappily the cypher group got it wrong and it arrived 'light of BOTTLE'. All too true.
(Letter to Laura Waugh, 2 June 1941)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Patrick Welsh's Valedictory

Patrick Welsh, having taught English for 43 years at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia, retired in June, and summed up some of the difficulties he encountered in an article in The Washington Post. These difficulties were those brought on by educational fads.

Owing to the chances (and by now remoteness) of my schooling, I missed a lot of fads. I was of an age to see the New Math for a year or two, but I don't think that I paid close enough attention for it to cause me any harm. Welsh's unfortunate students suffered through Effective Schools, SPONGE, SBE, the seven Cs, and probably three or four more fads he lacked room to mention. (Of course these did not all occur together; most students were in school only long enough for one or two fads.)

The article also reminds me that the position of school superintendent can be as chancy and itinerant as any in America above the status of day laborer, athletics coach excepted. Coaches the boosters tire of seem to get better buyouts, but I have heard of district superintendents doing pretty well.

I trust that Welsh will enjoy his retirement. I have always enjoyed his articles in the Post.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Luciano Vincenzoni, RIP

This week, the New York Times carried an obituary of Luciano Vincenzoni, a screenwriter best known for the spaghetti westerns "For a Few Dollars More" and "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." He was not wholly pleased with this renown, wishing that he were better known for more serious work. I was not surprised to read in the obituary that the critic Renata Adler thought poorly of "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." My brother's judgment seems about right:
... it really is campy, over-done, and morally relativistic.  Of course, next time it's on, I'm sure I'll be glued to the set.
In honor of Vincenzoni, I include this link to an unusual performance of the theme music for that movie.

Friday, September 27, 2013

English as a Submerged Language

This week, I borrowed a book on teaching English as a Second Language (ESL). Though there is good advice in it, the writing, particularly early on, makes for slow and irritating reading. The good sense is buried in jargon, and found myself thinking of having to dig for tools. For one example of many,
[Communicative Language Teaching] sees fluency and the ability to communicate in a variety of settings ... at the core of teaching and learning.
There are many sentences like that, in which words appear to be piled together in the notion that they mean something, but without later examination of whether they do mean it. The cumulative effect is numbing.

Much of the introductory matter seems to call for a treatment such as Graves and Hodges gave to a number of paragraphs by famous writers in the "Rough Drafts and Fair Copies" section of The Reader over Your Shoulder.  Such treatment, applied to the whole book, would probably shorten it by 10%.

One can write well about the learning of languages. The essay "Tongues and Areas" in Jacques Barzun's Teacher in America says a good deal of what this author says in her introduction, but in fewer, more pointed, and far clearer words. There must be someone who can write a book on the teaching of English as a second language, in clear English. Where is that person and where is that book?

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Robert Farrar. Capon, RIP

Sunday's New York Times carries an obituary of Robert F. Capon, Episcopal priest, theologian, and food writer. He lived to be 87.

His best-known book was The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection. Twenty years ago, a friend gave us a copy, which I looked through. I don't think we've ever cooked from its recipes, but I admired the common sense and clear prose. The counsel I most admired appears toward the end of chapter 12, "The Mysterious East":
Woks and iron skillets should be rinsed and wiped, never washed. If someone comes along and tells you that cleanliness is next to godliness, the proper answer is, "Yes--next." Right now I'm working on godliness."
I've never found occasion to us the retort, not least because it would require a reasonable appearance of working on godliness to keep the audience from laughing.

The book has the marks of its time, 1962. New York wines no longer run only to Concord grapes; more Americans spend more time cooking and thinking about cooking. But at $18, I think it still worth a look.

Airport Bookstores

In the late 1980s, I traveled probably seven or ten days most months, and spent a good deal of time in airports. I decided then that they were something like the debtors prisons of Dickens's day, uncomfortable places that one arrived at not wholly through one's fault, and where one could obtain the elements of comfort but at high prices. The elements of comfort I did obtain mostly ran to beer--if I were on a homeward leg--and reading matter.

National Airport (not yet Reagan National Airport) had a fair bookstore. I know that I bought Aksyonov's The Burn there, I'm pretty sure that I bought Amis's The Old Devils there, and I suspect that I bought Fatal Shore there. Milwaukee's airport had a used bookstore, which seems hardly probable now; coincidentally or not, it also had about the best beer selection I noticed in my travels then.

The stores have fallen off. When I arrived early to meet a flight at Reagan National last year, I saw very little in the bookstore that I'd care to buy. There were the reliable Penguins in the classics shelf, but for newer matter there was a biography of Bonhoeffer to balance an otherwise weak selection--the sort of history that seems industrialized, 150+ shades of something, etc.

In Schiphol last month I couldn't fault the linear measure of the bookstores, but the three I saw all had the same stock, at least in English. Despite the prospect of the long flight back to Washington, I couldn't settle on anything. There was Stoner, but in a format less handy than NYRB's. There was Anthony Beevor on World War II, but I know how that one ends, and I do have a fair number of books on the subject. I left without a book. Perhaps if I could read Dutch I would have thought the selection better and left with a book, in which case it is provincial of me to complain of those stores.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Schools, Bake Sales, Volunteering

Amanda Ripley, writing in Slate, proposes that we "Ban School Bake Sales". That anyway is the title: the text of the article suggests low or no correlation between parents volunteering and children learning more.

When I was very young, I would have voted for banning bake sales. We were in the heart of the baby boom, the school had 50 children to the classroom, and there was always somebody with a nervous stomach. Invariably, on bake sale day, some child would vomit on his desk. The janitor would come, clean up, and spread sawdust on the floor. Ammonia and sawdust made up the characteristic smell of bake sale day. I did not look forward to it.

When grown, I did now and then volunteer for activities at schools, and now and then was volunteered by my wife. We did not do this because we thought it enhanced the offspring's learning, but rather because a) somebody asked us, and b) I had the time. Almost none of this had anything obvious to do with education. I

  • Called other parents to ask for donations.
  • Took tickets at the fall festival moon bounce.
  • Made popcorn at the spring "Family Fun Day".
  • Directed traffic in the parking lot during the open house.
  • Tied Christmas trees on to cars a few December evenings.
  • Made sure that students who had promised to serve as guides at the open house remembered their promises.
There certainly were parents who volunteered less, and there were those who volunteered more. Some of the latter seemed odd, for they did not confine their involvement to the bake sale category. There was the fifth-grader's mother who badgered a teacher about her daughter's grade on a quiz. There was the dad who had reservations about the way Latin was taught, and and raised them on 7th-grade back to school night.

To the student between about 12 and about 17, any parental activity can seem odd. He will have a very sharp eye for the behavior of those in authority, and more or less skill at detecting absurdities. Often he will prefer not to be reminded that he has parents, and will much prefer that his friends not be reminded that he does. Socially if not academically, the helicopter parent will be a liability.


Saturday, August 31, 2013

Jerusalems

Anna Comnena's Alexiad contains many interesting stories, among them those concerning Robert Guiscard and his son Bohemond. The death of the former in 1085 she recounts as follows:
... while he was still waiting near Ather (a promontory of [Kephalonia]), he was attacked by a violent fever. Unable to bear the burning heat, he asked for some cold water. His men, who had scattered everywhere in search of water, were told by a native: 'You see the island of Ithaka there. On it a great city was built long ago called Jerusalem, now in ruins through the  passage of time. There was a spring there which always gave cold drinkable water.' Robert, hearing this, was at once seized with great dread, for a long time before some persons had uttered a prophecy (the kind of prediction sycophants usually make to the great): 'As far as Ather you will subdue everything, but on your way from there to Jerusalem, you will obey the claims of necessity.' Whether it was the fever that carried him off, or whether he suffered from pleurisy, I cannot say with certainty. He lingered on for six days and then died.
This sounded curious familiar, like something I had read before. And of course I had, in Henry IV, Part 2, Act IV, scene 5:

KING HENRY IV
Doth any name particular belong
Unto the lodging where I first did swoon?
WARWICK
'Tis call'd Jerusalem, my noble lord.
KING HENRY IV
Laud be to God! even there my life must end.
It hath been prophesied to me many years,
I should not die but in Jerusalem;
Which vainly I supposed the Holy Land:
But bear me to that chamber; there I'll lie;
In that Jerusalem shall Harry die.
Exeunt
I suppose the pattern falls more generally into the deceptive prophecy pattern--Macbeth invincible until Birnam Wood should come to Dunsinane, and so on.

Anna Comnena is well worth reading. Her accounts of the campaigns of her father Alexius I recall now and then Musil's observation that (like every other state) Austria-Hungary had won every war it had ever engaged in, but unfortunately most of them had ended with it giving up some territory. Yet one can look at the results and make allowances.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Committed to Memory

In the essay on Gianfranco Contini in Cultural Amnesia, Clive James writes that
Even before my first celebrated classroom appearance as Lady Macbeth shrilly demanding that her milk be taken for gall, I had the shape, weight, and length of iambic pentameter in my mind, as a sort of sonic template. A long time later, in Cambridge, I abruptly realized what a blessing this early inculcation had been. In the practical criticism classes, the American affiliated students were incomparably better informed than the locals--incomparably more intelligent all round, to put it bluntly--but the one thing the Americans could not do to save their lives was recite the verse in front of them. Whether it was by Donne, Herbert, Fulke Greville, Lovelace, Marvell or Dryden, it came out like a newsflash being read sight unseen by Dan Rather. They had no feeling for a line of iambic pentameter whatever. On their being quizzed about this, it transpired that they had never been required to remember one.
I don't know that I was ever required to learn any poem by heart other than "Sea-Fever" by John Masefield. Yet there are a number of poems I did so learn, some of which I remember better than "Sea-Fever". Whether my recital of "Whoso List to Hunt" (which I find would be inaccurate here and there) would be up to Cambridge standards, I can't say.

The American poet John Hollander, who died this week, published in 1996 the anthology Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize. Hollander divided the poems as Sonnets, Songs, Counsels, Tales, and Meditations. I bought the book at a school book fair; another father, to whom I pointed it out, said the he'd buy it if it contained "If"; it did, under Counsels. As I recall, it was was "Mnemosyne" that sold me. Committed to Memory is a fine book to have around the house; unfortunately it seems to be out of print.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Seen in Helsinki

According to the guidebooks, the Three Smiths statue in downtown Helsinki commemorates the Finnish workers who contributed the money needed to build the university's student union:


But since the smiths are naked, it seems to be me suited to illustrate Job 5:7, "but man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward."

And at St. John's Church, I noticed some gargoyles. In honor of Jeff Sypeck, here they are--




Friday, August 16, 2013

Signs in Helsinki

For the editors among us:


Implying that there's a difference?


I'm not sure what Food Philosophy is. E.W. Dijkstra's "dining philosophers"  problem does involve a plate of spaghetti, but a) would the restaurant tolerate five philosophers around one plate, and b) would the local health authorities tolerate such utensil sharing?



Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Stoner Boom

A couple of years ago, I was pleased to see that NYRB had brought John Williams's novel Stoner back into print. I have since seen items here and there indicating that the book is admired elsewhere in the English-speaking world. But I was surprised, the other week at Schiphol to find


that is to say, a Dutch translation, and still more impressed to find on the other side of the table

Th

the English version. There were about 50 titles on the table, two thirds Dutch, one third English. Baldacci and Brown had more titles, but I thought it a very good showing.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Travel Writing

The "Criticism" chapter of Further Cuttings from the Cruiskeen Lawn includes Flann O'Brien's review of Frank O'Connor's book Irish Smiles. A bit came to mind today:
    Mr O'Connor's book is good in parts, and in parts very good. Some of it is interesting, for reasons unknown to Mr O'Connor....
    Mr O'Connor's is a clinical attitude. He tries to suggest that his relationship with these people is that of a scientist examining his specimens. Personally I am by no means so persuaded. I think the specimens have analytic powers at least as good as Mr O'Connor's but functioning much more efficiently, since the specimens are at home in their own kitchen, dressed soberly according to their station, quite at ease and with judgment unimpaired by superciliousness. What was said after Mr O'Connor left?
    That is the snag in all egocentric writing. Its incompleteness is mortifying. Having read the book, why cannot the reader read the Other Book?
Further Cuttings is not consistently as good as The Best of Myles, but bits and pieces--some of the criticism, the monologues and dialogues are.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Noticed in Coleridge

This week I happened to open Biographia Literaria to the end of Chapter XI, "An affectionate exhortation to those who in early life feel themselves disposed to become authors". The chapter closes with a quotation from Herder, in German but translated in a footnote. The English runs
With the greatest possible solicitude avoid authorship. Too early or immoderately employed, it makes the head waste and the heart empty; even were there no other worse consequences. A person, who reads only to print, to all probability reads amiss; and he, who sends away through the pen and the press every thought, the moment it occurs to him, will in a short time have sent all away, and will become a mere journeyman of the printing-office, a compositor.
It sounds to me a fine argument against blogging, particularly the last clause. Oh, dear.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Tee Shirts

In the last several days I have seen a number of odd tee shirts:
  • One listing the seven deadly sins, by their Latin names. The young woman wearing it said that she had bought it at Urban Outfitters. 
  • A blue tee shirt with the Union Jack, and underneath it the word GREECE. We were heading out of the farmers market and I did not have the chance (and might not have had the nerve) to ask the wearer. Perhaps it was a commentary on the origins of Prince Philip.
  • A gray tee shirt with the words "Girls Go For Guys With Mustaches". Since the wearer appeared to be about six months pregnant, I glanced around for the Guy, but did not see him.
  • Fifteen minutes later, a tee shirt headed "Styles of the Indian Mustache". This wearer was male, probably in fact of subcontinental descent, and skinny.  The shirt appeared to indicate many styles, and might have been very funny to those in the know, but it disappeared into a store before I could make out more than the heading.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

You Only Think You Dislike That Translation

Various remarks in Cultural Amnesia about bad translations of Scripture brought to mind something I had read of 30 years ago in a book since lost, the Athens Gospel Riots of 1901.  I find that I must have thoroughly forgotten what I read, for it was my impression that they arose when a translation from Koine into Demotic was imposed on unwilling congregations. According to a most interesting article by Philip Carabott, this is not so.

In fact

  • The translation at issue was not used in liturgies. It was a translation of St. Matthew's Gospel, serialized in the newspaper Akropolis that provided the excuse for the demonstrations.
  • The anxieties about translations had been stimulated by another that had appeared shortly before, one sponsored by Queen Olga.
  • Two Patriarchal Encyclicals of the 1830s, responding to concerns about Demotic translations provided by Protestant missionary organizations had  in fact condemned the use of any translations, even those previously undertaken by the Orthodox church.
  • The dispute was part of the quarrel between the Purists, adherents of the "katharevousa" or literary Greek, and the Demoticists.
  • That anxieties about the encroachments of Pan-Slavism, not only because of Queen Olga's Russian origin, played a part.

The upshot, though, was certainly riotous. Akropolis had its windows broken on November 5, 1901. On November 7, "half a dozen" mounted police were wounded, and some number of demonstrators, three seriously. On Thursday, November 8, between 25 and 30 thousand demonstrators turned out. The demonstration was peaceful until late afternoon, when some number tried to break through the police cordon. Apparently shots were fired from the crowd: the police and military opened fire, killing eight and wounding about 60. The prime minister, Theotokis, resigned, though his government had survived a vote of confidence.

In the aftermath, the ban on translations was reaffirmed, and read from pulpits. When Parliament reconvened in January 1902, opposition deputies challenged the oaths of two new members as being taken on a translated Gospel. The book turned out to be foreign, but not a translation. The 1911 Constitution included a ban on such translations without the Patriarchate's sanction; this was modified in 1975.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Neither Flowed Through Them

This past weekend, I picked up a copy of Cultural Amnesia, a book I fell in love with at the first word of the essay on Margaret Thatcher, namely "Solzhenitskin", but had never bought for myself. I have been dipping into it here and there, enjoying it. Along the way, I encountered sentence or two I had seen quoted:
I don't want the teachings of Jesus taken from me. He might not longer be my redeemer, but still he is my master. If I no longer know that my redeemer liveth, I know that he speaketh not like Tony Blair.
I have little good to say about bad modern translations and liturgies, but this reminded me of a passage in Santayana that the sight of Harvard Yard a few weeks ago had also brought to mind:
On the whole, it was the architecture of sturdy poverty, looking through thrift in the direction of wealth. It well matched the learning of early New England, traditionally staunch and narrow, yet also thrifty and tending to positivism, a learning destined as it widened to be undermined and to become, like the architecture, flimsy and rich. It had been founded on accurate Latin and a spellbound constant reading of the Bible; but in the Harvard of my day we had heard a little of everything, and nobody really knew his Latin or knew his Bible. You might say that the professor of Hebrew did know his Bible, and the professors of Latin their Latin. No doubt, in the sense that they could write technical articles on the little points of controversy at the moment among philologists; but neither Latin nor the Bible flowed through them and made their spiritual lives; they were not vehicles for anything great. They were grains in a quicksand, agents and patients in an anonymous moral migration that had not yet written its classics.


Sunday, July 14, 2013

Pitting Proceeding Parallel by Parallel

In Maryland, one can count on about ten weeks of  local corn and tomatoes, maybe a bit fewer of peaches. But small fruits come and go quickly. You will not see strawberries much past the beginning of June, and the cherries that have been at market the last two weekends may not be next weekend.

Strawberries require only so much preparation, blackberries none but rinsing. Cherries to be cooked will need to be pitted though, and that takes time. Yesterday I pitted something close to a quart of loose cherries. Even with a chair to rest my knee on, I found it a little tiring to the back. I suspect that even those with better small-muscle coordination would have found it a slow business.

There are machines to pit cherries. Friends have one, but they make trips to pick their own fruit, they cook more desserts, though very moderate drinkers they infuse vodka with the flavors from crushed fruits. I can't see cluttering the kitchen with a tool that I might use three times in an unusually busy year.

But what if one could arrange to share a pitting device with households where the cherries ripen earlier or later? A household in Henrico County, Virginia, might be able to share a pitter withAdams County, Pennsylvania, and one in Montgomery County, Maryland,  with one in Sullivan County, Pennsylvania. As a form of social networking, the sharing of cherry pitters would be more useful than many. Someone would have to arrange that the devices arrived at the southern limit of growing with a sheaf of two or three UPS tags for the northerly households; and at the end of the year, the northernmost would have to return them to the depot. I don't imagine that anyone would make a lot of money from the scheme, though. Maybe some college alumni association could take it up.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

That Cat

On April 19, 1956, Flannery O'Connor wrote to J.F. Powers
This is a review [of The Presence of Grace] from the backwoods and it is very backwoodsy of me to send it to you but I would like you to know that I admire your stories better than any others I know of even in spite of the cat who, if my prayers have been attended to, has already been run down.
My best wishes to you and your family.
The cat evidently is the "favorite" in the story "Death of a Favorite". He is in fact run over late in the story, but having the canonical nine lives returns in triumph. It would have been a shame to lose him, for that would have been to lose the progress of the hard-luck priest Fr. Burner in "Defection of a Favorite." But O'Connor wasn't one to take "sass" from anyone, and as a fowl breeder might not have sympathized with cats.

The two stories, along with one Fr. Burner has to himself (or at least doesn't share with a cat), "The Prince of Darkness", can be found in the NYRB collection The Stories of J.F. Powers.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Pictures From an Institution

At Kramerbooks some weeks ago, I happened to notice that Pictures from an Institution is back in print, part of the University of Chicago Press's Phoenix Fiction series. I was glad to see this, though I won't just yet be buying a copy--the hardback that I bought forty years ago is in good shape.

Pictures from an Institution is thought by some to be the classic academic novel. It is set at Benton College, a lightly disguised version of Bennington: the students are all women, the curriculum progressive. Most of the novel involves a handful of people: the president, a novelist brought in to teach, a sociology professor and his family, a couple of European emigres. Flannery O'Connor wrote to a friend that she considered a chapter of it in the Kenyon Review to be "good Randall Jarrell but not good fiction", and it is true that not much happens.

Most of the interest in the book is in the writing, largely the descriptions of the characters. There is the president
About anything, anything at all, Dwight Robbins believed what Reason and Virtue and Tolerance and a Comprehensive Organic Synthesis of Values would have him believe. And about anything, anything at all, he believed what it was expedient for the President of Benton College to believe. You looked at the two beliefs and lo! the two were one.  (Do you remember, as a child without much time, turning to the back of the arithmetic book, getting the answer to a problem, and then writing down the summary hypothetical operations by which the answer had been, so to speak, arrived at? It is the only method of problem-solving that always gives correct answers--that gives, even, the typographical errors in the back of the book.)
and his wife, South African born but English raised
For her mankind existed to be put in its place. She felt that the pilgrim's earthly progress is from drawer to drawer, and that when we are all dead the Great Game will be over. Mrs. Robbins poured tea as industrial chemists pour hydrofluoric acid from carboys.
Benton has brought in the novelist Gertrude Johnson to teach creative writing:
Gertrude pointed at the world and said, her voice clear and loud: "You see! you see!" But as you looked along that stretched shaking finger you didn't see, you saw through.... People who were affectionate, cheerful, and brave--and human too, all too human--felt in their veins the piercing joy of Understanding, of pure disinterested insight, as they read Gertrude's demonstration that they did everything because of greed, lust, and middle-class hypocrisy. She told them that they were very bad and, because they were fairly stupid, they believed her.
She is the second teacher of creative writing after the old, Southern, genteel Camille Turner Batterson, who
was a diffused, Salon photograph; and yet she must have had in the depths of her wistful soul a Gift or Daemon that once or twice a year awoke, whispered to her a sentence she could repeat--to the world's astonishment--and then turned back to sleep. Dr. Rosenbaum had first been aware of this Daemon when Miss Batterson retorted, to a colleague's objection that all Benton students read that in high school: "There is no book that all my students have read. Dr. Rosenbaum knew that it is in sentences like this, and not in the pages of Spengler, that one has brought home to one the twilight of the West. He gave a brotherly laugh and agreed: "Ja, dey haf de sense dey vere born vidt."
Gottfried Rosenbaum, a composer, and his wife Irene, a retired singer, have a house that
was full of the works of man: there were, badly arranged on its rarely dusted bookshelves, books in English, German, Russian, French, Latin, Greek--all the languages of he earth, Constance felt; and there were printed scores, photostats of scores, sores in manuscript, scores in Esperanto, almost. In the living room, over the fireplace, there was a copy of Cro-Magnon painting of a buffalo: Gottfried said that it showed how American they had become.... There was no end to the confusion and richness of the house. Constance felt that it was in some strange way the world: that just as there are Sea-Cucumbers and Sea-Anemones and Sea-Horses, so there was at the Rosenbaums' the shadow of everything in the world.
There is Art Night, with Gertrude laying waste to the professors of art and to the guest speaker. The painter is second to get the treatment:
To Gertrude's extended, unfavorable, but really quite brilliant comparison of his jungles with those of Max Ernst and the Douanier Rousseau, he retorted: "I'm not interested in other painters' paintings."
Gertrude looked at him with delight, and said: "You're from the West Coast, aren't you?"
"What do you mean?"
"Well, aren't you?"
"How did you know?"
Gertrude said modestly, "Oh, I just knew."
And yet at the end, the sculptor who came in for similar treatment has produced an impressive piece of art. "And yet" is a refrain with Jarrell--he insists on seeing not through but all around, and leaving it open to question whether he has seen all round.

As fiction, Pictures from an Institution is slight. As a document, it is plausible, but the academic world of the early 1950s has disappeared as thoroughly as if it had been the 1590s. Still, Jarrell's writing makes it worth reading and rereading. I am pleased to see that the University of Chicago Press has brought it back into print, and I will try to find someone to buy it for.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Mules and Mulch

There is a story that I have read of an early Greek philosopher, probably Thales. The man was also merchant, and during one of his trading journeys a mule happened to slip and fall while crossing a stream. The mule was loaded mostly with salt, some of which dissolved and washed away. The mule, having noticed the lightened burden, made sure to fall into the next stream also. The philosopher put a quick end to this by loading the mule with sponges for the next trip.

I don't suppose that mulch absorbs water to the extent that sponges do, but then none of the sponges I have dealt with have been measured in cubic feet. Today I fetched four bags of mulch back from the garden center, and was disappointed to hear that I should stack them back by the fence for fall use; they'd be sure to soak up water in that time, and be heavier to haul. As it turned out, a couple of the bags had already got their soaking, and are unlikely to be worse.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Things I Learned in Boston

We were in Boston at the end of last week. Having no duties to perform, I got to walk around and look at what interested me. I learned

  1. Why Kendall Square Research, the long-closed supercomputer company was so named: Kendall Square in Cambridge is bordered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, so it is a fine place to locate a company that needs excellent engineers.
  2. That for some years I must have confused this with Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, "The Mushroom Capital of the World". I ceased to confuse them when I forgot about Kendall Square Research.
  3. What William James's house looks like. Now, though, I can tell you only that it has a blue plate on the fence out front, giving the dates of his residence.
  4. What the window of Ralph Waldo Emerson's dormitory room on Harvard Yard looks like. (A second-story window in a red brick wall.)
  5. That the Institute of Contemporary Art looks far better from the water side than from the street.
  6. That the T "Charlie Card" machines will not accept $5 bills of the older design.
  7. That you must press the touchscreen "CASH" button on these machines before dropping in the five $1 coins it gave you in change for the last transaction; otherwise those coins are gone for good. (The next traveler who dropped in coins has my apologies.)
  8. That Cambridge has more better bookstores close together than I remember to have seen, at least in some years. I don't now remember for sure whether the old Foreign Language Books on Dumbarton Street in Georgetown was comparable to Schoenhof's on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge, but I think it must have been smaller. And Foreign Language Books is long gone from  Georgetown.
  9. That Boston's humidity toward the end of June is nothing to Washington's.
I'd happily visit again soon, but point 8 has increased my backlog of reading by several weeks.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Vanishing English Major

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes in The New York Times of The Decline and Fall of the English Major. He has four points:
  1. His students do not write well.
  2. That were they better grounded in the humanities, they would write well, or at least better.
  3. That the teaching of the humanities (or perhaps the learning) has fallen on hard times.
  4. That this is in part because of societal pressure on students to study more profitable fields.
I agree with much of what he has to say, but would add a fifth point: the societal pressure on students to study more profitable fields is strongly correlated with the cost of college. Mr. Klinkenborg writes
In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science.
Well, the freshmen of the Yale class of 1991 paid about $17 thousand in tuition, room and board; those of the class of 2012 paid about $47 thousand. Adjusted for inflation, the difference is smaller, for 1987 tuition in 2008 dollars is about $32 thousand: call it an 88% increase. Between the 1991-1992 school years and the 2010-2011 school years, average pay for a teacher in a secondary school increased in 2011 dollars from $54,615 to $55,241. A discrepancy like that in rates of increase could make a student think harder about majors.

(The inflation calculator is provided by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, as are the statistics for teachers' salaries. The Yale tuition figures are from the Yale University Office of Institutional Research. Calculating the costs over four years, or the probability of a Yale graduate becoming a teacher in a secondary school, I leave as an exercise for the reader.)

Monday, June 17, 2013

Ratios

A friend, just returned from Barcelona, said that he had heard that they are many more women than men there in fact three to one. He apparently found the estimate plausible. His companion thought that this might be because he just doesn't notice the men.

When I first moved to Washington, DC, I heard that there were many more women than men here. I believe that the ratio I heard was 2 to 1. In Thomas Pynchon's V, set in 1956, the ratio is given as 8 to 1. I can't say that I ever noticed any such disproportion, unless maybe once in the salad line at a lunch spot. Probably between 1942 and 1946 there were many more women than men, since the government was growing rapidly and the armed services were drafting any man who was fit to serve. The 2010 census found 100 women to every 89 men, a ratio not far off the national one.



Sunday, May 26, 2013

Listening Backward and Forward

One of the minor annoyances of advancing middle age is that I can no longer read over shoulders on public transportation. A book on the lap next to me I can read, but over the shoulder I can tell The Da Vinci Code from The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini only by bulk.

Yesterday, though, it occurred to me that there is a compensation in outdoors eavesdropping. My closing and overtaking speed, never elite, has diminished over the years, and so I spend more time in earshot of others on the routes that I run. On the trail about Porter St., I passed two women who were walking up the park as I ran down it. One had just uttered the word "amicable", a word unusual enough to catch my attention. I realized as I went on that I had heard "process", and before that "when I met him he was in the". This provided the word that I did not hear as we traveled away from each other, and I had the whole sentence, or at least clause: "when I met him he was in the process of an amicable divorce."

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Variable Winds

Today I ran down the park to the Zoo and on towards P St.  The wind was steadily against me, and I thought this was all the better, for I would have it at my back on my return. As I struggled up Massachusetts Avenue toward Wisconsin, the wind in my face, I wondered at my naivete.

It is not, after all, as if I were new to the area and its weather. In 1980, at the Two Bridges run, I ran (as I thought) into persistent headwinds down to Mount Vernon, consoling myself with the thought that I would have it behind me on the return leg. I can hardly have been out of the Mount Vernon gates before I understood how wrong I was. I plodded on, until the lead woman in the race overtook me at National Airport. She and the man running with her looked so much stronger than I felt that the energy went out of me, and I had to walk a quarter of a mile or so before I could start running again.


Thursday, May 23, 2013

Wilson and the Diplomats

In The Evolution of Diplomacy by Harold Nicolson, I find in the fourth chapter (lecture originally)
President Wilson was an idealist and, what was perhaps more dangerous, a consummate master of English prose. He shared with Robespierre the hallucination that their existed some mystic bond between him and "the people"--by which he meant not only the American people but the British, French, Italian, Rumanian, Jugo-Slav, Armenian, and even German peoples. If only he could penetrate the fog barrier of governments, politicians and officials, and convey the sweetness and light of his revelation to the ordinary peasant in the Banat, to the shepherds of Albania, or the dock-hands of Fiume, then reason, concord, and amity would spread in ever widening circles across the earth. He possessed, moreover, the gift of giving to commonplace ideas the resonance and authority of biblical sentences, and like all phraseologists, he became mesmerised by the strength and neatness of the phrases that he devised. During the long months of the Paris Peace Conference, I observed him with interest, admiration and anxiety, and became convinced that he regarded himself, not as a world statesman, but as a prophet designated to bring light to a dark world. It may have been for this reason that he forgot all about the American Constitution and Senator Lodge.
Nicolson being not only a career diplomat but a diplomat's son, the next paragraph begins
I have no intention of denigrating President Wilson, who was in many ways inspiring and inspired.
William Bullitt, later the first US ambassador to the USSR, about that time negotiated a convention with the Bolshevik government for the withdrawal of American troops from Russia. Wilson repudiated the convention. Bullitt's revenge was to collaborate with Sigmund Freud on a book psychoanalyzing Wilson.

The case of the Versailles Treaty and the case of the convention both point to a principle that Nicolson credits Cardinal Richelieu with establishing:
... that the most essential of all the components of sound diplomacy was the element of certainty. It was not only that the negotiation must result in agreements, the wording of which was so precise as to leave no scope for future evasions or misunderstandings: it was also that each party to a negotiation should know from the outset that the other party really represented the sovereign authority in his own country. Unless some certainty existed that an agreement once signed would be ratified and executed, then the give and take of negotiation became impossible, and international conferences degnerated into assemblies for the exchange of entertainment, platitudes or propaganda.
 Of course, under the US Constitution, this certainty can be harder to come by, for the Senate must ratify treaties. The difficulty was not wholly new with Henry Cabot Lodge and Woodrow Wilson: Jay's treaty with the United Kingdom, one of the first concluded under the constitution, was in danger of repudiation

Monday, May 20, 2013

Represented by Llamas

The Russian Orthodox church around the corner had a used book sale today. By the exercise of some will power, I managed to buy only three books, all slim. Along the way, though, I looked into a Russian-English dictionary, and a sentence caught my eye:


"The ruminants are represented in that country by llamas."

Now, it must be difficult to find or make specimen sentences to  illustrate usage. Yet this sentence seems to me to have the quality of those one hears in dreams, that make perfect sense then but leave one puzzled on waking.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Persian Style

Herodotus, Book I, Ch. 132, sections 3 and 4:
Moreover, it is their custom to deliberate about the gravest matters when they are drunk; and what they approve in their deliberations is proposed to them the next day, when they are sober, by the master of the house where they deliberate; and if, being sober, they still approve it, they act on it, but if not, they drop it. And if they have deliberated about a matter when sober, they decide upon it when they are drunk.
Was  the master of the house then not allowed to drink, or did he take notes, or was he chosen for having a harder head? Or, if he was as drunk as the rest, how often did they deliberate sober (and I imagine seriously hung over) on something never actually discussed the night before?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Carpe Librum is Over

Carpe Librum wrapped up Friday evening, after operating for more than a month. During the last couple of weeks, no book cost more than $2. Today I noticed a young woman filling a box, and then saw a sign: bags $11, boxes $20. The box looked to weigh at least 40 pounds, but she lifted it smoothly.

In all, I bought 11 books between the first day and the last. A co-worker, a young woman of quick decision, bought as many over one lunch hour. She likely has more shelf space and more time. I directed another co-worker there for books for her grandson and her foreign born daughter in-law. And I directed other friends there Friday afternoon, but they couldn't make it.

The fattest book was The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh. A casual look recalled Paul Fussell's dictum that the letters were far better, for Waugh wrote the diaries at night after drinking but the letters in the morning sober. It is easy to open the book at random to pages of dull trivia; the matter of the letters is not so different, but their manner makes all the difference. On the other hand, the account in this book of the Battle of Crete, written up shortly after the battle ended, is fascinating.

About he slimmest  book was Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, by Larry McMurtry. It has its moments, as all of McMurtry's books do. Still, I prefer the more focused memoirs Books and Literary Life.

The surprise was two volumes of Edmund Wilson's essays and reviews in the Library of America edition. I bought one because I wanted to read the essay "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd", and the second because why not. I think only so well of Wilson as literary critic, but at $4 I won't complain.  "Who Cares" is worth the price, and many other essays repay reading, notably the one on John Jay Chapman.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

A Gatsby Tribute?

Noticed this week in front of the Sacred Heart Academy building in the 1600 block of Park Road NW:


I haven't seen the movie yet, though, and don't know whether the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg appear in it.

Monday, May 13, 2013

What the Young Can Eat

The offspring, back in town for a visit, showed us a picture from a graduate student party: a young woman holding a skewer, on the end of which is something of irregular shape, about the size of a walnut, apparently fried. This was fried butter. The barbaric splendor aspect was I thought a bit damaged by the can of Pabst Blue Ribbon in her other hand. If you're consuming fried butter, shouldn't you wash it down with absinthe, vodka, or at least a heavier beer? But these are all persons in their early 20s, slim and fit, and they probably have at least fifteen years in front of them before their MDs give them the cholesterol talk. And, judging from the review of it from another consumer, one's first fried butter does not encourage one to have a second.

The young woman is from the Midwest, where a lot of ingenuity goes into finding things to fry, perhaps to show off at state fairs. My own butter consumption--which never ran to butter per se--has fallen off drastically since I got the cholesterol talk. I'm not sure that my system, arteries apart, could manage fried butter.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Oak Flowers

At the beginning of May there were drifts of oak flowers in the alley, and the back lawn was brown with them.  Last Saturday's mowing took care of the latter, though this week I still saw them, below the blades of grass rather than on them.. A week of on and off rains has turned the drifts into damp clumps. By June, the tires will have pulverized them.

But while they lasted, they were a sight to see:


I wonder whether the number of acorns in the fall is in proportion to the number of flowers in spring. If so, it could be another big year for acorns.