Ineffable

Joan Acocella has written one of the more entertaining paragraphs I’ve read lately:

Japan, curiously, does not have swear words in the usual sense. You can insult a Japanese person by telling him that he has made a mistake or done something foolish, but the Japanese language does not have any of those blunt-instrument epithets – no [doofus], no [sillyhead] – that can take care of the job in a word or two. The Japanese baseball star Ichiro Suzuki told The Wall Street Journal that one of the things he liked best about playing ball in the United States was swearing, which he learned to do in English and Spanish. “Western languages,” he reported happily, “allow me to say things that I otherwise can’t.”

There’s no F in team, Ichiro-san!

 

You may – or, in fairness, may not – be pleased to learn that I recently avoided incineration. I was in a rotary when an entering heating oil truck failed to yield. The driver yelled something I couldn’t make out, but can only assume was pithy endorsement of the Law of Gross Tonnage.

Naturally, this shook me. I want to live in a world where motorists shout “You have made a mistake!”

The Southern Affront

A famous Australian children’s author was detained upon arrival at Los Angeles recently. She described the experience:

I have never in my life been spoken to with such insolence, treated with such disdain, with so many insults and with so much gratuitous impoliteness.

I haven’t read her books, but even if they’re that bad, this is no way to greet a visitor.

 

We Have Always Been At War With Australia

In 1942, the Allies slipped off their axis at the Battle of Brisbane.

(There was also an unfriendly match next door at the Battle of Manners Street. Gotta go with the Kiwis on this one.)

 

Strategic Mercy

When the world knows our fury, no worries, Australia fair:

We’ll save Australia
Don’t want to hurt no kangaroo
We’ll build an all-American amusement park there
They’ve got surfing, too.

 

Tactical Brilliance

American munition, Australian delivery:

 

(Paul Auster on Foster’s would be the converse, I guess.)

Play Ball

I know not with what weapons World War Three will be fought, but World War Four will be fought with sticks and stones.

 

Admittedly, such a progression of events would not be ideal. But a silver lining is that those left might also play with the sticks and stones, and maybe they’d get baseball right.

I’m not talking about speeding up the game. This is what I’m talking about:

C.S. Lewis once said that the decline of English literature began the day Oxford University opened its English literature department. Yogi Berra once grumbled that the worst thing that ever happened to baseball was Little League. When I first heard the Lewis remark, I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about, and when I first heard Yogi’s comment, I dismissed it as the grousing of a cranky but lovable old bastard. I have since come to see the wisdom of what they were saying and to realize that they were both making essentially the same point: those things that exist to be enjoyed do not benefit much from organization and seriousness of purpose.

I am not suggesting that Yogi’s point contains a kernel of truth. I am suggesting that it is quite literally true: the worst damn thing that ever happened to baseball is not the DH; it is Little League.

When I first read these paragraphs, I dismissed them as the grousing of a crank. But I read on, and Bill James persuaded me.

 

Children Playing Baseball, Boston. Peter H. Dreyer

 

 

The Heuristicks

If you need more than one reason to do something, Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, don’t do it. Otherwise, you’re just trying to convince yourself.

I like his reasoning.

 

I’ve been watching ABBA documentaries lately, and Taleb’s wisdom comes to mind. There seems an awful lot of explaining why ABBA are so good. They doth affirm too much, methinks.

Here’s one reason: Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, Benny sits and waits for dragons:

I’m a knight of armor, you know? I have to sit here and wait for the good notes to sort of come from somewhere. And if I’m not here they’re not going to come. It’s like… there’s a dragon in a cave, right? And you know it’s in there, but it’s never coming out, so you have to sit outside and wait for it. And you know if you sit there long enough, it’s going to come out; if you go home and take a nap, you’ll never see it, because that’s when it’s coming out.

 

I got appointments, work I have to do / keeping me so busy all the day through. Necessarily one of my people-sorting tools is “Do you like ABBA?”

“Yes!” means you’re possibly all right, but qualified approval indicates a potentially irreparable defect of the soul.

As for the no-ing you, there is nothing we can do.

 

 

The National Anthem

1. Who’s on First?

Last week it was fractions, and I spent some time trying to explain how “equivalent” differs in meaning from “equal.”

We used currencies and first names as examples. Then we got into national anthems.

I’ll spare you the transcript, but there were several iterations of:

Mr. Sipe: Yes, but what’s the title?
Brazilian students: [with increasing impatience] Hino Nacional Brasileiro!

Finally I understood the Brazilian national anthem was actually called “Brazilian National Anthem.”

I’d hitherto assumed all national anthems had their own titles. God Save the Queen. La Marseillaise. O Canada. But the kids from Colombia and El Salvador and Guatemala affirmed that their anthems were titled like Brazil’s.

If you look at this list, you’ll see it’s a common phenomenon, sometimes to a fairly specific degree, e.g. The State Anthem of the Independent and Neutral Turkmenistan.

 

2. Of Thee I Sing

Now, if I’m going to make fun of other countries’ anthems, I must acknowledge that ours, about a war in which we botched the invasion of Canada and the British captured our capital, is set to the tune of a drinking song.

Still, though:

  • Yumi, Yumi, Yumi (Vanuatu’s got love in its tummy)
  • One Single Night (Disco Stu’s anthem? Nope, Burkina Faso’s)
  • There Is a Lovely Country (and Denmark wants you to guess)
  • The Thunder Dragon Kingdom (don’t mess with Bhutan)
  • William (Het Was Echt Niets)

 

3. Love and Crockets
  • It was honestly very cool when I said, semi-jokingly, “OK, who wants to sing theirs?” and bang, all of a sudden half my first period class were on their feet, belting out Hino Nacional Brasileiro. We were treated to La Dessalinienne, too. (That was it, though. My theory is there had to be a critical mass of at least four students from a country to agree to sing. I mean, if I was the only American and some fool math teacher invited me to sing The Star-Spangled Banner, I would not proudly so hail.)
  • Do check out the lyrics to Brazil’s: “Brazil, an intense dream, a vivid ray… Thou flarest, O Brazil, crocket of America…”
  • I think “valence” is a lovely word, and I think English would be beautified if we all said “equivalence” stressing the third syllable. (Also, I wish everyone would emphasize both the prefix and root in “extraordinary” like Paul Holdengraber does.)

 

T Time

With the opening of Africa’s first fully electrified cross-border railway, getting from Ethiopia’s capital to the Gulf of Aden just got a lot easier.

It also means Djibouti now has a more modern rail system than Boston.

Those Red Line cars you saw in The Friends of Eddie Coyle? They’re still running, sometimes. Check out the Orange Line if you think rust ever sleeps. The 326 bus I rode Friday morning seemed destined for a NHTSA report.

In Boston, you hear the term “world-class city” thrown around a lot. Our public transportation infrastructure is already world-class, just not first world.

And yet.

I’ve been spending a lot of time with Twins 1 & 2 on the MBTA, and they find it genuinely delightful. It’s a refreshing counterpoint to my T disposition, fossilized over decades into sullen resignation.

And I must give a shout-out to T employees, who’ve been extra helpful – and kind – as I wrangle my monkeys aboard buses, subways, and trains. Thanks for keeping us going.

 

PS speaking of thank you, do say it (as per general manners and this excellent AMA with an T bus driver).

 

 

Triumphal Return

With the Patriots back in the Super Bowl, my thoughts naturally turn to Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who ruled Togo for thirty-eight years.*

On the very day of Super Bowl XLII, you see, when the Patriots played some other team, I purchased this book.**

It’s a heck of a tale.

A young farm boy impresses all, not least his teachers…

Learns how to win hearts and minds in Vietnam…

Takes power reluctantly…

Dodges death repeatedly…

Gets reelected bigly…

And the rest is history.

My favorite part? When he pities the fool who tried to assassinate him. And invites him back every year for a drink.

Cheers!

 

 

    * I wish I were making some clever Tom Brady allusion, but all I know about football is you don’t wear skates.

** I’d located it online, and took the subway over to get it. As the bookseller rang up the sale, he said: “Well, every book has its buyer.” He may have intended this in a genial “I’ll be darned!” sense, but I suspect he employed it instead as terse valediction to hasten the obvious lunatic from the premises.

 

Pop Quiz

 

1) What is the all-time bestselling Irish novel?

“In 1955, a Soviet delegation of writers learned that the author, long presumed dead, was alive in New York… living in obscurity, and due to Soviet copyright laws, she was unaware of her legendary status in Russia. The following year, Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson visited Moscow to arrange for payment of her long-overdue royalties.”

 

 

2) What is the second-oldest commissioned ship in the US Navy?

I knew the oldest, having toured it. Tours are available of this one, too, if you’re in the neighborhood…

 

 

 

3) What song charted each decade from the nineteen-twenties to the nineteen-seventies?

A local station plays old American Top 40 shows in their entirety on Sunday mornings. It’s easily my favorite thing on the radio. Last week’s was from 1975, and old Casey dropped the above knowledge before playing the disco version by the (excellently named) Wing and a Prayer Fife and Drum Corps.

Keep your feet on the ground, Gentle Reader, and keep reaching for the stars.

 

Answers:

  1. The Gadfly
  2. USS Pueblo
  3. Baby Face

Reasons To Be Fearful

1. Ooh, My Head

“This is my nuclear nightmare.”

One day a couple of decades ago the science teacher told our class that if a hydrogen bomb were dropped on Boston, it would melt the school. I found this disturbing.

At night I’d lie awake and listen to planes on the flight path into Logan and wonder if they were Soviet missiles. Evidently none was.

As with so much in life, turns out I was worrying about the wrong thing. And if you have five minutes to spare, you’ll hope this former defense secretary is too:

 

2. Damascene Moment

“The problem with luck is that it eventually runs out.”

If you believe wrenches can be dropped without consequence on Titan II missiles, the PBS documentary Command and Control will convert you. It certainly rapped my head in with a ratchet.

 

3. Cold Brew

“I think we can anticipate we’re going to have some very complicated and very difficult problems.”

Fret not, Gentle Reader, it’s not all Boom! Shake the Room.

Errol Morris’ short documentary – not, alas, about Rocky Road – reminds us we should be frightened of quiet stuff too.

I discussed the film with my mother, a biochemistry professor who retired from the National Institutes of Health. She had not seen it.

Now, granted, me explaining the film was probably like an ape dancing to describe city hall. But it’s worth recording that when I asked if the US should destroy its remaining smallpox virus, she said yes.

And it was the way she said it: her objection didn’t seem to be based so much on morality – though I wish to state for the record that my mother dislikes smallpox – but rather on technical obviousness. Her response had a hesitant, perplexed assurance, like she’d been asked if shouting could make rain stop.

On a happier note, Demon in the Freezer added to my vocabulary “synamologous” and to my list of band names The Fully Informed Persons.

 


PS a few months back the post was Reasons To Be Cheerful. Yin and yang, baby.

Oh Quelle Sensation

One of the problems with my French is that I cannot for the life of me keep straight plafond and plancher. Since one means floor and the other ceiling, this can introduce startled disbelief to otherwise mundane exchanges.

Le Lionel Richie de la conversation, c’est moi!

 

Speaking of which – and no disrespect to Lionel – it was only recently I learned his is not the best “Dancing on the Ceiling.”

C’est celui-ci, say me: