Sunday, November 27, 2011

Poetry in Motion

At a break in my run yesterday, I saw the words "Virgo pede alite volat -- Ovid" across the upper back of the young woman's running shirt. On my inquiring, she explained that she coaches track at Stone Ridge and that a fellow track coach teaches Latin. A bit of checking with Google and Perseus suggests that this is a paraphrase of "passu volat alite virgo", from the story of Atalanta and Hypomenes in Book X of the Metamorphoses. Does Stone Ridge perhaps use the textbook Latin via Ovid?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

I have seen a paper on which a boy of about eight listed what he was grateful for, in all twenty or twenty-five items. Number one was "computers". "My parents" were somewhere around seven or ten.

Others have found other blessings. Henry Adams, for example, writing to Sir Robert Cunliffe on August 31, 1875:
You know that though a democrat and a sceptic, I am not fanatically inclined, but I do occasionally thank God that fate did not make me the younger son of an English country gentleman and put me in the army or the church. Of all the forms of English lunacy I ever saw, those two seem to me the most astounding.
An English younger son, Evelyn Waugh, wrote to Nancy Mitford on 1 May, 1952:
Among the countless blessings I thank God for, my failure to find a house in Ireland comes first. Unless one is mad on fox hunting there is nothing to draw one.
 It is curious how often the formula "thank God" has an ironic use--from the British drill sergeant's "Thank God we have got a Navy" when recruits stumble, to the Texan or Kentuckian "Thank God for Mississippi" when the statistics on social well-being come out. I suppose that one could consider the irony Biblically sanctioned, relying on Luke 18:11. Yet it seldom conveys a sense of piety.

For a poem of thanksgiving, (which does not use the verb "thank"), you may see Hopkins's "Pied Beauty" at the University of Toronto's wonderful "Representative English Poetry" site.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Leaves by the Gallon

My brother has often reported that he raked so many gallons of leaves some weekend. Well, he lives in Stafford County, where one bags the leaves for collection. In Washington, where the city sends crews down to the street with a giant vacuum, the custom is to leave them loose at the curb. I haul them there, usually, in a sheet holding a volume I've never estimated.

But today I noticed that my first pile in the alley was obstructing the way, and decided that it would be more efficient to roll a "supercan" out to the street than to carry it sheet-full by sheet-full through or around the garage. Four trips later, I had quite a pile at the curb, and a reasonable estimate of 360 to 380 gallons--the supercan is marked as holding 96 gallons.

Then it was time for the sheet. We have a retaining wall at the front of the house, meaning that I'd have to wheel the can down and up steps if I used it for the yard's leaves. After quite a few trips, I had more or less doubled the pile.

Our neighborhood has many oaks, and oaks drop their leaves slowly; the scarlet oaks the city has planted at the curb will hold on to theirs until the new leaves are ready to appear in the spring. But most of the leaves are off the big oaks overhanging our lawn. The alley, I'm not so sure.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Modern Discourse

The journalist Jay Matthews some years ago came up with the "challenge index", a ratio of AP exams to the number of seniors in a high school.  It may be a useful indicator of whether a high school is challenging its students to take on more difficult work. US News and World Report uses it to offer a linear ranking of America's best high schools, for which it seems a pretty blunt tool. I hear about it now and then, for friends and acquaintances have had children at schools that ranked high. Any inclination to believe in it died when I read that the magazine broke ties up to the 5th decimal place.

I have read criticisms of the "challenge index" saying that it distorts priorities in schools where the administrators wish to get a higher ranking. Recently in The Washington Post Matthews wrote about the movie "Race to Nowhere" by which offers a more fundamental criticism, that "[t]he rigor they impose is mandated memorization and regurgitation of data at the expense of rigor attained through rich and engaging courses and deep learning."

I don't know; they didn't have AP course at my high school, and I quit supervising the next generation's homework after about 8th grade.But I was struck by the second-last sentence of Matthew's article:
Abeles said people who have watched her film say they feel the same way she does.
Of course, this may just be Matthews being naughty. But then the Post web site handily indexes Opinion by "Left-leaning" and "Right-leaning". Was Abeles preaching to the choir?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Memoirists: Alvin Kernan

The household chores here sometimes include scraping  paint, a messy and in summer a hot task Perhaps advances in technology have changed this, but once the junior seamen of every navy spent a great deal of time at such work. Paint not only looks good, it protects the surfaces it covers, yet it lasts only so long before it fails. On ships, particularly those exposed to salt water, it fails more quickly than on most inland surfaces.

The young Alvin Kernan encountered this task when he arrived at the USS Hornet in Pearl Harbor, being assigned at once to chip paint off the anchor chain and repaint it. Once the war started, he spent many hours scraping paint off the metal surfaces inside the ship; Pearl Harbor and early battles had taught the Navy that burning paint produces toxic fumes.

Kernan was exemplary of a generation of young men who came from families that were poor or of modest means, and who having survived the war went through college on the GI Bill. Not all of them got so far as Kernan did--professor and administrator at Yale and then Princeton. Yet one of the best of my teachers in college was a farm boy in Texas before he was a signalman in the Navy, and another had flown a B-17.

Nor did that many of them write about their experiences. Kernan wrote two excellent memoirs: Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket's Odyssey in World War II, and a memoir of his academic career, In Plato's Cave.

Kernan saw about as much of the war in the Pacific as one man could. He saw Pearl Harbor the day after the attack. He watched Doolittle's B-25s fly off for their raid, armed torpedo bombers at Midway and watched some of them return. He was on the USS Hornet when it was sunk in the Solomon Islands, and was nearly shot down at Tarawa. For a night action in the Marianas, he received a Navy Cross. His pictures of life on shore--at Pearl Harbor, on home leave in Wyoming, or enjoying Polish hospitality in Milwaukee while on pass from Great Lakes Naval Training Center--are also memorable. I gave a copy of Crossing the Line to an uncle who had served on carriers during and after World War II; he thought very well of it.

After the war, Kernan made his way through Williams, Oxford, and Yale. Somebody told him that Yale gave him tenure because the department thought that he would make a good administrator--one sees in this that he had learned from his Navy service to understand systems. Yet he was a good critic and sound scholar. It sounds as if he was an excellent teacher, if one that could be hard on the unprepared or careless; he gave a student in his composition class a -16 on a paper, having marked him off four points per misspelling. In the early days, he writes, "What, are you stupid?" was an acceptable gambit in the classroom.

Kernan saw the New Criticism at the peak of its influence, when Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks were on the Yale faculty. He saw it fade, considering one of his books to be after its time. As an administrator he helped to bring co-education to Yale, though not quite in the way Kingman Brewster imagined, by absorbing Vassar. He also dealt with federal and state officials when the Black Panther trials were on and rioting seemed likely. Having taught A. Bartlett Giamatti, he watched the presidency of Yale wear Giamatti down.

I am no authority on the academic life, having seen it only from the outside and from a level not up to Yale or Princeton's. Kernan's picture of it strikes me as plausible, consistent with what I observed or guessed. In Plato's Cave is as worth reading as Crossing the Line, and gains from being read with it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Oxford University Press has a wonderful list and a maddening web site. In looking for a Christmas present for a relative, I requested the Oxford World's Classics, sorted in reverse alphabetical order by author. When the page loaded, I remembered that I had seen on my previous visit that OUP gives one books in order by author, but without the author's name. This is all right, if one can remember a name here or there, but unfortunately
  • In a few cases, the database puts a "de" into the last name--for de Stael, de Maupassant, and de Camoes, but not for de Montesquieu or de Lafayette.
  • the program provides a straight character-comparison sort, using the default comparison by which lower-case letters sort after upper-case letters, and so de Camoes follows Zola. No doubt this leads to some trouble among the Macs and Mcs also.
I would not necessarily expect the programmers to think through the question of comparisons, for they can be tricky, particularly when one deals with foreign languages. However, I do think that somebody might have noticed the silliness of providing a sort on author's name when that name itself is not displayed.

After the Marathon

When we got to New York on Sunday afternoon, there were quite a few marathon runners to be seen. My wife remarked that she thought some liked to walk around in shorts after the race, presumably to make sure that one knew that they had run. It has been long enough since I ran one that I really couldn't say. Many more one could tell by the finisher's medal, the orange bag, or the blue marathon shirt--or the hobbled gait that goes oddly with the appearance of fitness and strength. There were something around 47 thousand starters, nearly all of whom finished.

On Monday I heard a Norwegian woman tell a couple of Italians that some store up the way had given her a discount because of her marathon paraphernalia. By Tuesday the runners were less conspicuous, but I saw a man dressed for the office with his finisher's medal hung about his neck; this medal is quite large, about 4 inches in diameter.

Most impressive, though, were the two wheelchair athletes we saw at Penn Station today--they rode the escalator down to the platform, which looked anything but safe. Evidently the approved method is to to ride backward, with the center of mass over the large wheels. I suppose somebody who can wheel a chair 26 miles in a few hours has a grip he can trust on escalators.