The Pugilist at Rest

“For me it was easy: Produce text that was so good, an editor could not reject it,” he said.

Every couple years I search the internet to see if there’s any news from A Girl Called Eddy or Thom Jones. Tuesday’s obituary unhappily halves this task.

I owe much to Thom Jones. Although today regarded as astonishingly erudite, there was a youthful spell where I read no fiction. Then one day I was instructed – by a good woman who did what she could for my improvement – to read his short stories. Now not a week passes without me reading made up stuff.



Years ago I had the great fortune to attend one of his readings. He began it by apologizing for his (perfectly fine) appearance and dedicating the event (with raised fist and no explanation) to his “homeboys in Attica.”

The line for book signing afterward was long, and the slowest I’ve ever seen. Thom Jones was talking to – as in “having a conversation with” – everyone. When my turn came, I was struck by how genial he was, and how interested he seemed. I don’t remember what we said, except that we talked about Africa, where we’d both spent time.


I met Thom Jones as a reader. Later, when I decided to try writing stories, he was my discouraging inspiration: half “You know, maybe I could do this,” and half “Yeah, but it ain’t gonna be this good.” I’m still right.

Rest in peace, sir. Glad I met you.


PS Erin, if you’re reading this, pretty please: we want You Get the Legs You’re Given, not your obituary. Or at least one well before the other.

Man and Zimmerman

Recent news – and that’s “recent” in both the hebdomadal and geological sense – recalls this exchange:

Cliff: I’m ashamed God made me a man.

Carla: I don’t think God’s doing a lot of bragging about it either.


I haven’t heard all men talk, but I’m inclined to take a Menckenist view: No one ever went broke underestimating the decency of men.



Other recent news has been poetry for the ear.

Granted, when it comes to Bob Dylan, I take a Remnickist view: “I will concede that there are imperfections on the Christmas album.” But as far as I’m concerned, He could be awarded the Stanley Cup and all objection would be idiot wind.




The Unforgettable Fire

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.

The above quote is probably a metaphor or something, which should have occurred to me before I started lighting matches in the classroom.

I had, you see, intended to vividly demonstrate that “igneous” is related to the word “ignite.”


With characteristic attention to safety, I’d had on hand a cup of water in which to douse the burned-out matches. But the thing is, it’s kind of a small classroom, and the matches produced a surprising amount of smoke. I very quickly began to wonder how sensitive the fire alarms and sprinklers were. I flung open the windows and ordered a student to swing the door back and forth.

Mercifully, nothing happened. The last thing I need is people going around wondering if I’m an ignicolist.

You know, a fire worshiper.

Preparing for the lesson, you see, brought me to this most rad page of the the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary:


Igniferous! Ignipotent! Ignis fatuus! How had I been unaware of these words?

My head must be full of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks.


PS Speaking of ignipotentates, it was 43 years ago today that the guy on the right met with The All-Powerful Warrior Who, Because of His Endurance and Inflexible Will to Win, Goes from Conquest to Conquest, Leaving Fire in His Wake.

“Le rat-QUOI?”




Phantom Power

Valentine Strasser seized power in Sierra Leone when he was twenty-five years old.

At that age I ruled nowhere, perhaps because I was busy listening to Super Furry Animals’ Radiator.


Its track “Placid Casual” discusses the coup:

Freetown rocked in Sierra Leone / When Valentine Strasser danced his way to the throne / Gunpowder smoke took a heavy toll / But they weren’t placid casual and so they lost control.

This might not be the most perceptive analysis of Strasser’s reign, but it’s probably the best in modern Welsh psychedelic rock.



Continue reading “Phantom Power”

Dahl’s Tiger


Years ago I had to read an assigned novel with 5th graders. The book – which I refuse to name, but will allow was written by a famous children’s author – began excellently. On the very first page, two children find a tiger in a cage.

Pause to imagine what Roald Dahl would have done with the next hundred pages.


Well, here’s what the unnamed author did with the next hundred pages: the two kids dwell on personal problems while the tiger remains caged. The tiger is finally set free (p. 102) only to be shot dead three pages later. The book takes eleven more pages to expire.

I bet if I told Roald Dahl “Hey, I’ve got an idea for a story! Two kids find a caged tiger, but the caged tiger will just be a metaphor for their feelings!” he’d tell me to walk to an open field and stand still while he fetched his Hawker Hurricane.


He recently turned one hundred. Eat a piece of cake, skaal your Bestemama, and please, for Boy’s sake:

If you say in the first chapter that there is a tiger in a cage, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must be set free. If it’s not going to be freed, it shouldn’t be there.



Rock of Ages


I saw a kid in the hallway wearing a t-shirt with a c. 1983 Def Leppard graphic. I got such a kick out of this I told her I love the band (not exactly true, but also considerably distant from untrue).

It later occurred to me that her wearing a Def Leppard t-shirt would be the equivalent of me, as a kid, wearing a Bill Haley and the Comets t-shirt.


I mentioned the above encounter to Missionjmk, who has forgotten more than I will ever learn about music. He shared with me a splendid anecdote – StoryCorps Hall of Fame-worthy, if you ask me – about U2’s singer and bassist hitchhiking in America. They were picked up by a young man blasting his car stereo.

Rise up, gather round for Bono’s account:

It sounded like the end of the world, it sounded like Godzilla was stomping right alongside the car. There was the most incredible bass drum and snare sound I’d ever heard… I looked at Adam, and Adam looked at me. We had never heard anything so loud. It was Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and it sounded about twice as loud as “Where the Streets Have No Name.” We took note! I think we both made a mental note that next time we had better go after a more sonic experience on our records.

(From U2: A Diary, by Matt McGhee)

Bono shouldn’t be too hard on himself, at least about that. “Where the Streets Have No Name” forever dwells – along with Def Leppard’s “Photograph” – on Intro Olympus.


PS it’s also pretty much how I enter the classroom:

Clear Cut


It is not so easy to run again when you have been ejected from office by a clear majority of voters (he lost to Mr. Hollande by more than three percentage points).

It’s statements like the above that make me think I don’t understand democracy, or math.

I mean, yes, I can calculate that fifty-one is greater than forty-eight without creating two piles of pebbles. But to my mind you should be able to assemble ten people and demonstrate a clear majority without having to fetch a saw.


Although, to be fair, in American presidential elections “landslide” is often used for what might be better described a “clear majority.” (I’m talking popular vote, not the Electoral College, which I still don’t understand.)

I am, of course, with Sir Winston on democracy, but I can see this guy’s point too:

In the hazy heat Tata Ndu paused to take off his hat, turn it carefully in his hands, then replace it on the high dome of his forehead. No one breathed. “White men tell us: Vote, bantu! They tell us: You do not all have to agree, ce n’est pas nécessaire! If two men vote yes and one says no, the matter is finished. À bu, even a child can see how that will end. It takes three stones in the fire to hold up the pot. Take one away, leave the other two, and what? The pot will spill into the fire.”

– The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver

Real Estate


Johnny Marr’s displeasure with a certain philosophical declaration* got me thinking about another one you hear a lot these days: “The reality is…”

This makes me either want to ask which simulacrum of life I’ve hitherto inhabited, or gratefully embrace its utterer for having dispensed the red pill.


Mostly, alas, I find it creeping into my speech.

I was confronted with reality the other day when I read a word I’d forgotten.

Upon first encountering realia, years ago in a teacher textbook, I thought: C’mon. That’s not a real word. Because, if you know anything about Education, you’ll concede it’s not always kind to the English language. The most I’d have been willing to concede is that it’s a word, but in the way “Schweppervescence” is a word.


Per usual, I was wrong again. Realia is even Latin and all.

Now I’m kind of taken with the word. It has a nice Brasilia-esque ring to it, evoking a domain of the authentic.



*I still think it is what it is, but he’s Johnny Rootin’-Tootin’ Marr and I’ll shine his shoes whether they are or aren’t.


Rent Jar

Last week, due to a poorly constructed funnel, I produced a minor avalanche of peppercorns.


Such events are so routine in La Comédie Pete I wouldn’t normally record this, except that, hours later, I was surprised to read the following non-restrictive clause in the obituary of the UK’s richest landowner:

Its long-term lessees later included the Connaught Hotel and the American Embassy, which paid a peppercorn annually.

Personally, I could have done with a bit of explanation. I guess the Gray Lady agrees with General Yeager.

(Pssst, crib off this.)

Unhappy Birthday


One guy was a quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. The other was the singer for R.E.M.

What do they have in common?

Who knows. Bipedalism and probably lots of other stuff. And this too: I am occasionally asked whether I’m related to either.

I am related to both Brian Sipe and Michael Stipe, as far as I know, only by the brotherhood of man.

But something else connects them, at least in my mind: boredom.

Granted, I’m not much of a sports fan, but I regard football as one of the more tedious phenomena to which one may bear witness. And I’ve never forgiven R.E.M. – once my favorite band – for managing to bore me as much as football does.*


Continue reading “Unhappy Birthday”