Wednesday, December 31, 2014

A Mystery Solved

Over the last several years, I have walked home on an average of one or two days every month, usually on a route that includes 17th Street NW from K Street to Florida Avenue. On many of those days, passing by at roughly 5:30  I have seen a queue of about 20 persons at a downstairs door, and wondered idly why they were there. They look too healthy to be there for a clinic. They are too public and disorganized to be there for subversion, too public and confident to be there for crime. They have no (or not many) yoga mats and gym bags, so I doubted they were there for yoga or exercise.

We have friends who live in that neighborhood, whom we see at least three times each year, but I have been consistent in forgetting to ask them. On Christmas Eve, I did remember to ask, probably because I had recently passed the queue. Our friends knew.

The downstairs door, which has no sign, gives entrance to an exclusive and expensive restaurant. I forget whether the restaurant takes reservations, and I'm pretty sure I didn't ask the name. I hope that one must say "Swordfish" to be admitted, but I doubt this is so.

There was nobody there this afternoon, more likely because I was by about 4 pm than because it is New Year's Eve.

Friday, December 26, 2014


I might have reached my middle thirties without encountering the word "artisanal". "Artisan" I knew, though it seems to me chiefly through Yeats's "Meditations in Time of Civil War". Then some column in a magazine referred to the making of artisanal bread: I think that the writer might have used wild yeast. I did not think much about this, but on a vacation to Europe a year or two later, I noticed "artisanal" on signs.

Now one sees it everywhere. Bread has long been artisanal, beers and wines are artisanal. A month or so ago, The New York Times wrote up an actress who has retired upstate to practice artisanal motherhood. That suggests to me that we have reached "peak artisanal" and that another adjective is on the way to supplant it. What will it be?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Role of Poetry in Polar Expeditions

Having picked up a copy of The Hall of Uselessness by Simon Leys as part of a friend's Christmas present, I see that it is the book I should have taken along on the last vacation, and that I was negligent in putting it back on the shelf when I first noticed it at Kramerbooks last summer.

In the essay "On Readers' Rewards and Writers' Awards", Leys offers the observation that
In the darkest depths of disaster, when all members of his expedition had to abandon every piece of superfluous luggage, [Shackleton] refused to abandon his beloved copy of Browning's collected poems. One day some scholar should write a doctoral thesis on "The Role of Poetry in Polar Expeditions"--but right now I had better not wander too far away from my subject.
The polar explorers I grew up reading of were Robert Peary and Richard Byrd,  They were brave and efficient, but, as far as I could tell from what I read of and by them, prosaic. If Peary brought Browning along on his sled or Byrd on an airplane, I have not read of it.

But Robert Graves's story "Old Papa Johnson" offers a British officer in middle age who knows by heart Shakespeare's sonnets, the Psalms, St. Mark's Gospel, and the Book of Ruth, all memorized while "expeditioning". He says that he memorized the last to distract himself from the likelihood of imminent death during a violent storm on "Desolation Island", In the preface to the volume, Graves identifies "Old Papa Johnson" as one H.H. Johnson, and Desolation Island as South Georgia Island. I regret to say that I have given away the collection of essays and stories that contained it.

I regret still more that Pierre Ryckmans, who published under the name Simon Leys, is no longer with us to write that thesis on the role of poetry: he died this August.

Friday, December 12, 2014

You Go Right Ahead

Flannery O'Connor wrote to Cecil Dawkins on April 25, 1962:
[Eudora Welty] told a story about a beauty parlor operator in Jackson who writes novels about the Northwest Mounted Police. She sent one of her love scenes through the mail to Faulkner for criticism and when she didn't hear from him she called him up and said, "Mr. Faulkner, what did you think of that little love scene of mine?" He said, "Honey, it isn't the way I would do it, but you go right ahead, you go right ahead."
I have no aspirations to write fiction, let alone at the Faulknerian level. But I thought of this passage the other day when I was working my way through an ASP web page and the VB code behind it. Once I might have relished the challenge of rewriting the files. Now I murmur, "It's not the way I'd do it, but ... " and I make the fewest changes needed to accomplish my task.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

O Christmas Tree

My late mother-in-law had a neighbor with a number of quirks, one of which was the habit of setting up three Christmas trees every year. It took three trees to hold all the ornaments and lights his family had, I gather. I never saw them, but heard that there were two on the main floor, and one in the finished basement. Now and then I wonder whether we will end up like that family, for example when I find us putting fourteen strands of lights on the tree.

We drove out to River Road last Saturday afternoon to get our Christmas tree. I was interested--astonished--to see what some of the trees cost, and also to see the dump of trees in reserve from the display area. It appeared to me that reserve area was about fifteen yards each way, piled maybe six feet deep. Last Saturday we had drizzle and rain all day long, but while we examined trees, we were under a roof.

On the way back, K told me that I would probably not be able to get the tree into the house by myself, for it had taken two employees to lift it onto our car. Now, it seemed to me that this proved only so much. The store management might have set a two-employee policy to keep somebody from underestimating the difficulty and damaging a customer's car, say by snapping off a mirror. However, it turned out that the essential point, that the tree is heavy, was correct. Still, I lugged it onto the porch, and we got it set up.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Brand Names

In Rome, I was a little surprised to see someone in a Franklin & Marshall sweatshirt, and then astonished to see a storefront with the Franklin & Marshall name, which I knew only as the name of a well thought of college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The offspring explained that it is an Italian clothing company, the founder of which had discovered that the Franklin and Marshall name was not trademarked in the European Union. Apparently the clothiers pay an honorarium to the school, though not what a licensing agreement would bring in.

And then in Siena we saw a store called "Original Marines". Apart from an abstract Stars and Stripes in the sign, I saw nothing to call to mind the United States Marine Corps. The next day it occurred to me that this may be somebody's variation on the US brand "Old Navy".

Finally, at Schiphol, I found myself looking at a shelf of Penn State pretzels. Though I think of Pennsylvania State University in many connections, none directly has to do with pretzels. I suppose I could have bought a bag to find out whether they were up to Pennsylvanian standards, which are high.