Gone till September

 

I see you cryin’ but, Gentle Reader, I can’t stay. I’m going to write some other stuff for a while.

In the meantime:

1) What has four letters and fills your mailbox? That’s right, m-a-i-l! Oh. You were thinking something else? In that case, William Schaff can fix that. I can’t tell you how reliably cheering it is to receive mail like this:

 

2) Put on your cleanest dirty shirt and check out Sunday Morning Sidewalk, hosted by the estimable flightjkt. If you ain’t listening, you better be in church.

 

3) You may be astonished to learn that I occasionally exercise. In fact, in April I ran – well, to be accurate, artlessly lumbered – the James Joyce Ramble, surely one of the loveliest road races out there.

I was distressed to get an email shortly thereafter from the founder, saying that the race is broke and its future in doubt.

We hope to be a part of this mortal coil on April 28, 2019 for Ramble year 36 and perhaps you can help us with that. If you think your company’s marketing VP, advertising executive or eccentric uncle who runs a hedge fund might entertain a conversation about being a Ramble partner, please have them or you call me. [jjramble at gmail dot com]

Obviously, if I had the means, I’d underwrite it personally, asking only that the name be changed to the Pete and James Joyce Ramble. But my readership undoubtably includes those of fabulous wealth. Do partner up, eh?

Happy summer, folks. -PBS

 

Tomboy

 

Sparr’s Drugs, 1960s. Northeastern University Digital Repository Service.

My high school probably had a decent English curriculum, but I don’t recall, because I didn’t read most of the books assigned. I’d buy the Cliff’s Notes at Sparr’s and then read Stephen King novels instead. One day I decided there might be more to literature, so I picked up Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities.

I’ve read it at least ten times now. It’s my third favorite novel. (If you really want to hear about it. The world is what it is.)

As it happened, I’d just finished re-reading The Right Stuff last week, and had been thinking a lot about what a marvelous writer Tom Wolfe is. I haven’t read all of his writing, and some of what I’ve read I haven’t liked. But if you told me I had to go read everything he’s ever written, I’d be happy to. (Except maybe his graduate work.)

He taught me good fiction need not plod. I get my love of the well italicized word from him. (I don’t try my hand at exclamation points, though. You put on a top hat, you best be Slash.) He made me look up “tabescent” and lots else.

I ripped off one of his titles for my second short story.

The very first post on this blog was about him.

The whirl, the whirl, the whirl. RIP, sir.

 

Kick in the Head

 

Image result for us soccer

 

The most embarrassing failure in U.S. Soccer history was consummated on Tuesday night in a near-empty stadium in the Caribbean tropics, culminating in a soul-crushing 2-1 defeat to a last-place opponent in which the U.S. men’s national team had only needed a win or a tie to qualify for World Cup 2018.

Sports Illustrated, October 11, 2017

 

Upon learning the US wouldn’t be in the World Cup, I remember wondering how a population of three hundred twenty-six million could not field a successful soccer team. My conviction that this was indisputable evidence of American decline was tempered only by the comfort that it was soccer, so who cares.

It’s testing season, which has put my schedule in the paint mixer. One day last week – one of those eighty degree days – it worked out that I had the same class for three periods. I could not help but sense some feeling among students that the third was gilding the lily. So I took them outside.

The boys started playing soccer. It was like watching them suddenly break into a choreographed routine. These kids – from Brazil, Central America, Haiti, and the Middle East – had obviously been kicking a ball since they could stand. I began to grasp how the US could be defeated by a country one two-hundred-thirty-thirds its size.

 

Reading Comprehension

 

Image result for rod stewart

Last summer Rod Stewart came through Boston for a private concert. The newspaper mentioned he’d dined someplace downtown. I was surprised because I’d been there once myself, for a fundraiser. It’s one of those shiny Irish pub simulacra.

The thing was, the article said he dined there twice. I remember thinking: Huh? I’d have figured Rod Stewart tours fine restaurants via champagne swilling sediari.

All of this is not to express concern for his standard of living, but rather to illustrate my default state of incomprehension. It’s not just politics or etc that baffles me, I can’t even read the About Town section without scratching my head.

Being, into the bargain, an ESL teacher – a job where incomprehension is not wholly absent – and dad to two four-year-olds, which… well, the other day Twin 2 pointed at a picture of the Eiffel Tower and said it looked like a cowboy hat. You get the idea.

So I trust you will indulge me when I say how proud I am to have read and understood this sentence:

One of Mexico’s favorite ways to express anger is from a viral 2010 commercial by an Egyptian dairy company called Panda Cheese that features a panda wreaking havoc on an office.

 

 

PS listen to this gem, from a half-century ago. Those horns! PP Arnold! What happened, Sir Rod? I don’t understand.

 

Some Friendly

 

Demolition Class, 1944 (US National Archives and Records Administration)

 

Ten minutes later it happens again. Someone shouts, “Forty-eight!” Then half the room responds “Forty-nine! Fifty!” And everyone bellows, “SOME [RUBBISH]!” They dissolve into laughter. This, I discover, is the Jedburgh tradition reserved for any speaker who dares go on too long. It came from one of the American trainees who, when ordered to do fifty push-ups, counted the last few out loud: “Forty-eight. Forty-nine. Fifty!” then jumped to attention with a very audible “Some [rubbish]!” The British Jeds parodied it and it quickly caught on as a tactic to sabotage boring lectures from visiting officials…

 

That’s from Dadland, Keggie Carew’s memoir of her father, who’d been a British commando in France and Burma in World War II.

Be a lamb and don’t tell my students about this. I much prefer they maintain this disposition.

 

G.I. Blues


 

Concerned about the prospect of a third world war now that China has invaded Vietnam, Maurice, 29, expresses the fear that he could be eligible for an emergency draft call since he is a U.S. resident.

– “The Bee Gees Are Earthly Angels,” Rolling Stone, May 17, 1979

 

It was sixty years ago today that Elvis Presley entered the Army. I knew he’d been drafted, but didn’t know he’d manned a machine gun on the East German border. Turns out he was a very good soldier, as this BBC program recounts.

Now, I say this as a genuine fan of the Gibbous brotherhood, and I don’t wish to impugn the man. But had he been inducted, I’m not sure we’d have seen Maurice serving, à la King, in a scout platoon.

 

 

About that event that preoccupied Maurice:

The Chinese invasion turned out to be a disaster for Beijing, however. Over the course of a month of fighting, China lost almost half as many soldiers as the United States did in all of its war in Vietnam. There is little doubt that if Deng had not decided that the “lesson” for Vietnam was complete, the Chinese losses would have increased even further.

– The Cold War, Odd Arne Westad

 

The lesson may have been complete, but evidently not learned:

“We should go in and give them a bloody nose like Deng Xiaoping did to Vietnam in 1979,” the source said, referring to China’s brief invasion of Vietnam to punish Hanoi for forcing Beijing’s ally the Khmer Rouge from power in Cambodia.

– “‘Give them a bloody nose’: Xi pressed for stronger South China Sea response,” Reuters, July 31, 2016

And the new National Security Advisor is also, alas, an advocate of rhinointervention:

Last month, Bolton made a similar case for launching an attack, known as a “Bloody Nose” strike, against North Korea.

 

Just say no(se).

 

Shortcuts

 

Image result for needle and thread

 

There are no such universally well-dressed people in the world as the Americans. It is not only that more of them than of any other nation have good clothes to their backs, but their garments are better made and adjusted to their persons, and worn with easier grace.

The Bazar Book of Decorum, 1870

 

What is everybody in shorts for?

– Jerry Seinfeld, 2014

 

***

Twin 2 delights in seeing joggers wearing shorts in the winter. “That’s silly!” she exclaims.

“Oh, it’s silly,” I mutter.

Actually, I don’t know why it should bother me. I have a fairly enlightened attitude toward shorts in that I am willing to relax their prohibition in the event of sport or labor.

A couple of years ago cargo shorts were in the news as the subject of sartorial dispute. (As if it were a reasonable position not to find them ghastly.)

What sticks in my mind, though, is that someone had done his PhD dissertation on cargo shorts. Which means they’re not just apparel, they’re a scholarly pursuit.

Athena wept.

 

Library Edition 2

 

 

There was an institution associated with the festivities of the Middle Ages of a peculiarly interesting description. It was the custom to elect a director or controller of the sports, and he bore the title of the “Lord of Misrule.” It was his business to determine to what extent the hilarity should be carried; at all events, to decide when it should stop. I think the idea is a very good one. We have a modification of it, the modern office of “Master of Ceremonies.” In Scotland, the name given to this functionary was “Abbot of Unreason,” an office prohibited in 1555.

A Few Reflections on the Rights, Duties, Obligations, and Advantages of Hospitality, Cornelius Walford, 1885

 

Lord of Misrule! Abbot of Unreason!

Until the snow day on Thursday I hadn’t known about any of this. (Although, considering my teaching career, I say with confidence that some of my students may have.)

Wonder what went down in 1555 to put an end to it. Bet there’s a historical novel in there for Irvine Welsh.

While the position’s benefits may appear evident, I looked it up and there were also disadvantages:

Roman soldiers would choose a man from among them to be the Lord of Misrule for thirty days. At the end of that thirty days, his throat was cut on the altar of Saturn.

 

***

I found that volume in the Boston Athenaeum. It was the fourth of 133 printed for the members of London’s Sette of Odd Volumes, which is apparently the inspiration for the Club of Odd Volumes in Boston.

The Club of Odd Volumes is limited to 87 members. I’m not sure I could be their Abbot of Unreason, but if they need someone voluminous in oddity, they should sign me up. Either way, I continue to seek the establishment of the Boston branch of this club.

 

Library Edition

 

I try to avoid any place requiring shuttle buses, but when my friend Keith came up for the day and said he wanted to go to the JFK Library, I said OK.

My favorite part? Freedom 7! Hadn’t expected to see that. It’s on loan from the Air & Space Museum. Holy moly, it’s small:

Hanging with Freedom 7

 

And this is neat. It’s from a state dinner for the French minister of culture. I like the “who is he” next to Allen Tate (had to look him up myself). Also, upon scrutiny it appears that Truman Capote was unmarried. And apparently for some reason J.D. Salinger couldn’t make it.

The exhibits are fine, but given the size of the building, it all felt more like a good exhibition on JFK at some other museum (one probably without shuttle buses). It seemed too brief. Which I sadly suppose is fitting.

 

***

Heading back downtown we had to get on a special commuter rail shuttle, for a Red Line train at the next stop had “basically exploded.” I’m glad President Kennedy wasn’t there for that part:

Kennedy: Why isn’t the subway running?

Pete: Uh, well, it has a lot of problems these days.

Kennedy: I had you put a man on the moon! And – wait, this stop, it’s named after me? Look at it!

Pete: Hey, look what we can do with our phones: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

 

***

Before Keith got back on his train for New York we stopped at the Parker House Hotel for a drink. That’s where JFK had his bachelor party. (Our drink was almost certainly more subdued.) The thing that intrigues me about the Parker House is that both Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh worked there. I’m kind of surprised the hotel doesn’t make more of it, but then again, I guess I should be glad you don’t see a “By Any Means Necessary” or a “Tet Offensive” on the cocktail list.

 

Ill Communication

 

I get ill all the time, but no one wants to hear about that.

– Paul Theroux

 

I was in Dick’s Sporting Goods recently and found myself laughing in the aisle. Twin 2, who has begun to suspect her father is unusual, asked what was so funny.

“They’re playing a silly song,” I told her.

For on the PA system was Run-DMC’s “You Be Illin’,” which contains one of balladry’s more lamentable parables:

Dinner, you ate it, there is none left
It was salty – with butter – and it was def.
You proceeded to eat it ’cause you was in the mood
But homes you did not read: it was a can of dog food!

Image result for can opener

 

This in turn was the Alpo madeleine of a memory from college. I had gone to a department office to drop off a paper. How I laughed at the sign on the door:

Closed Due to Illness

 

***

 

Now then. Your help, if I may: would you please let me know what’s your favorite idiom?

One of my resolutions is to teach my students an idiom a week.

My favorite is “barking up the wrong tree.” That combination of ardor and error – I do believe it captures something essential about la condition humaine. (Don’t worry, I just tell the kids it means you’re mistaken.)

NB a previous colleague left a book filled with pages of idioms, more than I can teach, so I don’t need suggestions – rather, I want your favorite one.

 

PS it does not go without saying – there are scoundrels among you – that I request your favorite idiom appropriate for children.

 

Master and Command Module Pilot

 

 

Michael Collins, who went to the moon with Neil Armstrong, is also a first-rate prose stylist with a natural feel for detail and a light touch for humor; his book sounds a lot like what you would expect if E.B. White had qualified as an astronaut and flown to the moon.

 – Margaret Lazarus Dean, Leaving Orbit

 

I’m only halfway through Collins’ memoir Carrying the Fire, but I’m here to tell you he writes better than lots of people for whom the pen is the day job.

E.g. on being the new guy thusly assigned the unwanted task of testing devices to slow jets upon landing:

Arriving at the appointed spot, a deserted runway ending at the lake bed’s edge, the new test pilot is quickly strapped into the oldest, most dilapidated jet he has ever seen, a model long since abandoned by even the South American air forces. Peering down through cobwebs and birds’ nests, he is shown the one and only shiny new gauge in the cockpit – the airspeed indicator, all-important in delivering a precise reading of the amount of kinetic energy (one half the mass times velocity squared) the engineer demands for a given test run. The engineer has consulted his slide rule, charts, computer, and astrologer, and screams up to the cockpit over the whine of the engine, which the sweating pilot has finally managed to start with laconic advice from a disgusted mechanic who obviously feels personally insulted by having been sent this imbecile. “Say… er… er… is it Collins? O.K., Collins, we need eight-two knots on this one, no faster please, Collins.” They need the name to put on the accident form.

 

Speaking of laconic, here’s what he has to say about the mortality rate of pilots during training (NB his prior stateside training for combat in Korea, not to be a test pilot):

Continue reading “Master and Command Module Pilot”

March of Folly

 

Embed from Getty Images

 

Some years ago I spent three happy weeks in a town outside Paris. There was a tourism office, and as it was July, I stopped in to ask if there were festivities for Bastille Day.

Now, in French the word for parade is défilé. So it is possible that, what with my accent, the lady at the desk was maintaining admirable sang-froid in the face of a shockingly indecent request. Still, though, it seemed like I’d asked when the next school committee meeting was.

“Well,” she replied. “There is something in the town square…”

So on July 14th I showed up and there were bleacher-style benches erected. I did not have trouble finding a seat. What followed was, by gum, solemn. Military units marched by, and the mayor or whoever gave a speech, and that was that. No one ate cotton candy.

 

***

 

File:2014 Fremont Solstice parade - What Cheer Marching Band 02 (14324212029).jpg

 

My friend Will served a decade in the estimable What Cheer? Brigade. He’s probably marched in more parades than you, Gentle Reader, have had hot dinners.

“You know the thing about parades?” he once told me. “Most people watching look miserable.”

 

Continue reading “March of Folly”

The Nimrod Variations

 

Image result for nimrod

 

Jules, if you give that… nimrod fifteen hundred dollars, I’m going to shoot him on general principle.

-Vincent Vega, Pulp Fiction

 

Listening to Radio Free Amazon the other day I was all: But soft, this is my jam! But the thing was I didn’t know what it was. So I lifted myself off the couch to investigate. Such are my sacrifices to Apollo.

It was “Nimrod” from Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Nimrod was once Merriam-Webster’s word of the day. Check out the accompanying brief podcast. Maybe I’ve spent too much of my life in middle school, but I defy you not to crack up when the guy says “the legendary nimrod.”

Anyway, this documentary on the legendary Elgar is aces. Success did not come easy for E, but he had that Growth Mindset.

 

 

Sic Transit

 

Image result for chicago transit authority crash

 

I watched a documentary on Chicago the other night. Quite a career, transforming from a rather terrific horn band – with Hendrix-approved guitarist – to earnest power ballad millers.

I did spill my bedtime tea when I saw Peter Cetera wearing, in this video, a Bauhaus t-shirt. It’s got the artwork from their “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” single:

 

 

Admittedly, not as shocking as learning Serge Gainsbourg once autographed a copy of “Je t’aime… moi non plus” for Albert Speer, but still.

Here are some other melon-twisting musical facts I have of late accumulated:

  • The guitarist for the Police is 75
  • Pete Townshend was an editor at Faber & Faber
  • The drummer for Culture Club auditioned for the Clash

Well, that’s enough to lay on you for now. Until next time, Gentle Reader, know this: you’re the meaning in my life.