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 the 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.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Lost in Translation, or on the Way There

Last Sunday I was pushing a cart through  the perennials area of American Plant Food on River Road, when I saw a sign for "Helleborus Nigersmithi". After a staring for a moment, I spent much of the rest of the trip trying to remember what the Latin word for blacksmith is, and whether I had ever known it. The household dictionary says "faber ferraria", so evidently I never did. But I admire the eccentricity of wrapping the blatantly Germanic "smith" with a Latin adjective and ending.

I guess one could move on to goldsmith and tinsmith, though in the latter case probably only classicists or chemists would understand.

Monday, May 6, 2013


Michael Pollan has suggested that as we watch more cooking shows on television we cook less. I don't know; I don't watch cooking shows, and cook about as much today as I did 30 years ago. Yet the occasional look at cookbooks suggests to me why this might be so.

I have, I think, enough patience, particularly in the service of dinner. I don't mind peeling ginger, mincing garlic, or stirring broth into a risotto. Still there are cookbook recipes that try my patience, and lead me to think that they are fine for chefs with assistance or home cooks with servants, but not for those of us who are cook, scullion, and washer up all together. I would like to see a number of guidelines remembered:

  1. The word "meanwhile" does not belong in any recipe where it means "while you are doing task x which requires close attention." So "meanwhile" is fine for stews requiring the occasional stir or for roasts needing a look every half hour. It does not belong in recipes for sauteed food or for risottos.
  2. There needs to be a ratio between time and attention expended and the results. The two-hour dish had better be about three times as good as the 40-minute dish.
  3. As a special case of this: zesting citrus fruit will sooner or later bring on a sense of futility. If the recipe is not for a lemon meringue or lemon sponge pie, you had best leave it out.