To the Birds

I recently happened upon the most charming work of art I’ve ever seen:

I say “happened upon” because I got very lost on the way to the restroom in the basement of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

O, that all puzzlement would resolve so happily!


PS O, that all b-sides were as rad as “To the Birds”!


The Minister of Education


I came across this AP story a few years back. I’d used it for a vocab-in-context quiz, then forgot about it until I found the clipping in a file the other day.

This time reading it, I decided it’s a perfect* four-sentence short story:

A man posing as a government official took over a rural high school, where he beat students with a cane and leather belts and arbitrarily changed school hours, the police said Friday. The head teacher and others at Golden Grove High School in eastern Guyana initially accepted the man’s claim that he had been sent by the Ministry of Education to run the school. But they became suspicious when he began using different names and they noticed his poor grammar and spelling, police Commander Gavin Primo said. After two weeks, they called the ministry, and the man, who was not identified, was arrested.

Also, if I ever write under a pen name, it may well be Gavin Primo.


*NB perfect in a literary sense;  it is imperfect in the sense of being consonant with my pedagogical philosophy.

Mimic Men

I went to see a Bee Gees tribute band recently. Pardon? Did they play “Massachusetts”? Well yes, because we’re in… Ah! You were starting a joke.

There was a time in my life when I’d have considered going to see a tribute act indicative of Error, and said time may, in fact, include the present, but let me tell you: I really enjoyed the show. I sang along happily* until intermission, whereupon I went home and straight to bed. (Hypnos demands my daily tribute at about 9pm.)

Stayin’ Alive is the second tribute band I’ve ever seen. The first, years ago, was a Smiths act, Sons and Heirs, whom I saw because 1) they were playing roughly a seventy-five second walk from my apartment, and 2) Gary the Excellent Bartender told me that they were a lot of fun. (Also, the Smiths are my favorite band, and I have neither a DeLorean nor flux capacitor.)

And by gum: Gary was right! The first thing I noticed walking into the hall was that everyone seemed in a really good mood.** And not in a hipster ironic way (it being Brooklyn and all); there was an atmosphere of merry anticipation. I’m not sure what happiness means, but I looked in their eyes… (Smiths joke there!!)

Then the band took the stage, and in roughly seventy-five seconds I was, along with everyone else, singing at Sheila to throw her homework onto the fire (or whatever it was they opened with. I can’t remember because I sang along the whole set). It was revelatory. I went home hoarse.***


*My favorite was “I Just Want to Be Your Everything.” (Fine, OK, it’s an Andy Gibb single. Say, though. You want to read something funny? This line from that song’s Wikipedia entry: “The track is a fairly dramatic love song, with the singer declaring his unending passion and stating that without her, he would die.”)

** Reminds me of something a wise man once said:

*** And here’s where it gets “meta,” as they say in hipster Brooklyn: the Smiths’ bassist was there. Andy Rourke – for it was he! – even took the stage to play “Bigmouth Strikes Again.”**** He was doing a DJ set afterward, but I went home [See: Hypnos, above].

**** Perhaps the Smiths song I like least.


Secret Agent Man

If teaching doesn’t work out, I may offer my services to British intelligence. I’ve been re-reading Maugham’s excellent Ashenden: Or the British Agent and I’m like, I could do that:

He made up his mind that, on getting back to his hotel, he would have a fire lit in his sitting room, a hot bath, and dinner comfortably by the fireside in pajamas and a dressing-gown. The prospect of spending an evening by himself with his pipe and a book was so agreeable that it made the misery of that journey across the lake positively worthwhile.


He spent two or three days visiting Basle. It did not much amuse him. He passed a good deal of time in the bookshops turning over the pages of books that would have been worth reading if life were a thousand years long.


I also am taken with Ashenden’s literary criticism:

It was as unsatisfactory as those modern novels that give you a number of unrelated episodes and expect you by piecing them together to construct in your mind a connected narrative.

Four Seasons

When my children exclaim “Father, tell us of your idiocy!” I shall sit them on my lap and recount how I once declined a ticket to a Nirvana concert. I swear I said, no joke, “Maybe next time.”

Yesterday “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks came on a 70s station I’ve been listening to (apparently I have seasonal Gordon Lightfoot deficiency). For jaunty melody-cum-worrying lyric, “Seasons in the Sun” is up there with “Girlfriend in a Coma”:

As for Nirvana, they’re one of those bands I respect more than like, but if I had to pick their song I like best, it’s “Seasons in the Sun.” Yes, it could stand a tuning, and it does stray a bit from the correct lyrics, but Kurt plays drums, and that they cover it is a testament to his good taste:

I came to understand the excellence of this song via Black Box Recorder, who’ve got my favorite version (of the, who knew, many):

And here is my fourth-favorite Belgian (after him, her, and a lovely gentleman I used to work with) singing the original, from a windowsill:



The Verdured Margarita


I was once offered a ticket to go see Jimmy Buffett. My reply: “Buddy, I don’t sing along about margaritas, I drink ’em.” Then I blew imaginary smoke off my bepistoled fingers. Yippee Ki Yay, my good fellow!

I’ve got somewhat of that attitude toward reading books about books, or books about writing.

However, at the urging of someone whose opinion I esteem, I read Pen of Iron by Robert Alter. It’s about the influence of the King James Bible on American writers, namely Melville, Faulkner, Bellow, and Hemingway.

It’s one of those books that makes me realize that, when I read, I grasp insufficiently what there is to be grasped. Given the amount of my life I’ve spent reading… well, it would sober a Parrothead.

(And you know what else? I’ve never read a lick of Faulkner. And I tried The Adventures of Augie March, and, uh, didn’t get it. But I have read books by the writer Hemingway and they were good books and he wrote them well.)

Now then. I wish to talk about Something They Say, and I’ve resigned myself to Their Wisdom: if you’re reading a translation, you’re reading a different book.

Here’s what Alter has to say about Moby-Dick:

What is robustly odd in the English is regularized in the French: “Hindoo” becomes l’indienne; “wide-slaughtering” is simply destructeur,  and “unverdured” is interpretively translated and sadly flattened as infertile.

Alter’s unhappy verdict on translation:

What usually happens… is that a dutiful, more or less semantically faithful version of the original, employing a rather conventional set of stylistic procedures, erases a good deal of what is most compelling in the original text.

So if you haven’t yet read War and Peace, don’t sweat it. Go learn Russian first.

Resourceful Humans

Quite exciting, this Twitter magic: I just learned the word “educationalist” exists.

I thought “educator” was bad enough, as it combines inflationary titling (“team associate” etc) with a macabre,* Khmer Rouge-esque flair. Next they’ll be calling us “instructional delivery curators.”

It reminds me of a conversation with my dad, who worked for the VA. “Personnel!” he’d say when he picked up the phone, for that’s what his department was called back then. When I was just out of college and looking for a job, I made the error of mentioning that I was going to call a human resources department.

“What are you going to tell them?” he asked.  “That you have 180 lbs of human resources to offer?”

It’s been difficult for me to use that term without wincing since.

And, I just checked… but I won’t have the heart to break it to the old man: now the VA calls it the “Office of Human Resources Management.”


*In the original sense of the word as well as Anthony Blanche’s sense.








Update 1

I liked the look of the old site, but the thing was, the blog page loaded like you were in a Burkinabé internet cafe circa 1998. Now the blog page has been eliminated and the homepage is the blog page. (That sentence doesn’t entirely make sense to me, either.)

If by some e-sorcery you automatically go to “,” you will arrive at a sad little page that is blank but for “Blog.” I’m working on it.

All this throat clearing is to say: to enjoy the benefit of my opinion, henceforth just go to


Update 2



The obituary project now has a website, Last year the focus was stricly local; this year we’ll honor worthy local, national, and international citizens. Please follow our weekly progress on Twitter at @passed_present!



Tell Me What It Takes To Let You Know

“One brand of knowing (scientia) earns a ratty office and a shared secretary at the Heritage Foundation. The other (awareness) brings power, money, fame.”

You know how sometimes an adjective doesn’t so much clarify as call into question what’s going on otherwise? E.g. “real beef” or “sweet lullaby”?

The field of education has a lot of such worrying combos, like “balanced literacy,” “authentic understanding,” “student-centered learning,” etc. (Inducing winces for me lately are “action plan” and “critical thinking.”)

An excellent post by Michael Fordham, “Is ‘understanding’ a thing?”*, led me to recall Richard Ben Cramer’s masterpiece about the 1988 presidential campaign, What It Takes. In the chapter titled “To Know,” he explains how that “bland flapjack of a verb” has multiple meanings:

  • “the sense of acquaintance, of connaissance, but this is only the most basic way To Know.”
  • “knowing in the sense of knowledge, scientia, as in facts or familiarity.”
  • “Then there is the matter of being known, which can be more important than knowing.”
  • “Then there is another shade of the verb. To Know, in the sense of awareness. It is about what’s going on right now, and as such, it is Washington’s highest branch of knowledge.”
  • “a kind of knowing without being known to know, for which there is no word at all.”

If you haven’t read What It Takes, don’t be put off by its doorstoppishness. I read it when my twins were in their infancies, and it made the nights of diaper relays pass more happily. There is much to recommend it, not least the decency of the portraiture of the candidates. By the end I kind of liked them all, which is not how I started the book. It’s worth reading alone to know what Bob Dole went through.

And, waddaya know: Joltin’ Joe might run again.


*Fordham’s conclusion: “We have been conditioned in the field of education to be afraid of the word ‘knowledge’ and, perhaps because of this, to dress it up as something else. It’s about time that we stripped away these confusions and got back to the thing at the heart of teaching: knowledge.” Amen.


Daft Pop

When I was a college lad, I would sell my body – honi soit qui mal y pense – to medicine. There was a hospital across town that regularly needed human guinea pigs, as did I cash.

It was there, stuck in an MRI machine for some experiment or other, that I first heard Boney M, whose Christmas album (accurately titled Christmas Album) was on repeat for what seemed a rather long time.

I then forgot about Boney M entirely until I saw Touching the Void, in which a mountain climber, grievously injured and delirious, gets “Brown Girl in the Ring” stuck in his head. The poor man’s misfortune is increased by the fear that this will be the soundtrack to his death.

Boney M came to mind again as I read the accurately titled War Reporter, whose author describes a horrendous 1978 battle in which Ethiopian and Cuban forces, led by a Soviet general, defeat Somali defenders.

Why in Mary’s Boy Child’s name, you ask, would that make me think of Boney M?

No need to pay for my brain scan; it was, you see, that very same year that Boney M played Moscow. Apparently they were forbidden to perform “Rasputin,” which, if it weren’t for Stevie Wonder playing “Superstition” on Sesame Street, would be my favorite video.


Postscript: the lead singer of Boney M died in St. Petersburg, Russia, on the same day that Rasputin died.