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


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


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.