House Rules

 

“Show me a man who’s good at pool,” my mother would say, “and I’ll show you a man who’s wasted his life.”

In my youth I played a lot of pool, and got to be pretty good. Maybe not Minnesota Fats good, but there were games in which I sank two and even three shots in a row.

Part of my youth was also spent – and this, I believe, qualifies as wasted life – studying economics. Try as I might, I never could make heads or tails of that stuff.

One of the terms I remember, however, is “odious debt.” It came to mind as I read two recent articles in the New York Times.

Now, before I get to them, I should say that last spring I cancelled my subscription to the New York Times. Not out of indignance, but rather conviction that reading news daily was deleterious to the soul.

The thing is, my habit was such that each day I’d wind up having to go to the store to buy a newspaper. Finally, through rigorous economic analysis, I determined that it would be cheaper to re-subscribe.

It’s [stuff] like this, however, that makes me want to re-cancel:

 

The US is trying to collect a half-billion dollars from the Cambodian government for a loan made before the Khmer Rouge took power.

The loan was issued under the Food for Peace program. I don’t know if this was during Operation Menu or Operation Freedom Deal; either way, I’d have to fetch my Cray to calculate the irony.

 

Other schools require cafeteria workers to take a child’s hot food and throw it in the trash if he doesn’t have the money to pay for it.

If you want to throw your computer against the wall, read this article.

Maybe a deal could be worked out whereby we forgive Cambodia’s debt if they pay for our kids to eat lunch.

 

Over Here

In a few months, more than 53,000 men died on the front, more than in the Korean or Vietnam Wars… the months of September and October were the deadliest in American military history, including the Civil War and World War II.

 

I read the above in Le Monde and thought: That’s incorrect.

A commenter said the same, but the author replied to confirm the statements. I haven’t the stomach to investigate tallies of combat vs non-combat deaths, so I’ll take his word for it.

 

 

A few years back, suspecting that my high school grasp of World War One (roughly: Somme & Verdun & etc / Lusitania / AEF / Versailles) was perhaps insufficient, I read Hew Strachan’s The First World War. Turns out I was right. Golly, it was complicated.

But what struck me most about the book is that it contained very little mention of the United States. And I didn’t get the sense this was limey insolence on the author’s part; my fear is that – alas – a plausible concise history of the Great War can be written thusly.

Ah, Hew! Ah, Humanity!

 

 

The United States World War I Centennial Commission conceived it as a “heads of state” event and invited foreign leaders from Europe to Australia, said commission member Monique Seefried.

France’s president didn’t show up to Thursday’s ceremony, nor did any other heads of state. Apparently ours didn’t even RSVP.

I know America is not now best placed to instruct others on diplomacy – and that if it weren’t for France we’d be drinking tea, curtsying, and speaking English –  but it’s a shame this is the state of affaires.

 

PS speaking of matters lamentable, I didn’t know about Karl Muck, or that twenty-nine members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra were interned. Plus ça change…

Outtakes

Yesterday morning I found myself in a basement singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” The occasion wasn’t my usual solitary bizarrerie, but rather a children’s concert at a local library.

Twins 1 & 2 knew the song, which surprised me – apparently they learned it at preschool – and the latter was merrily belting it out.

This in turn recalled a happy memory from last summer, going to see the Traverse City Beach Bums with my friend Steve and his friend Martin, who is Congolese.

 

It was Martin’s first trip to the US, and his first baseball game, and I did my best to explain the rules. Given my French, this probably sounded like mediocre beat poetry: “The man on the hill launches the ball at the man who stands at wait with the stick…” But Steve can A1 parley-voo, and Martin mercifully directed further questions to him.

I thought Martin might find odd the American custom of prefacing a game with our national anthem, but he didn’t seem fazed: he stood right up, doffed his cap, and faced the flag.

 

It was the seventh inning stretch that puzzled him.

“What is this?” he asked me as we stood again. (Steve must have been getting beers.) I wondered how best to explain thousands rising to sing the wish to attend a game at which they were already present.

“C’est une pause traditionelle,” I mumbled, and started singing to avoid further questions.

 

Marchpane

March is the month God created to show people who don’t drink what a hangover is like.

– Garrison Keillor

 

Image result for john bonham

This long March was composed by John Philip Sousa for the ball-peen hammer and performed by John Bonham.

Ooh, my head.

 

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

Image result for albert einstein tongue

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

Image result for benny andersson

 

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.

 

Continue reading “The Heuristicks”

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

Image result for djibouti railway

 

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).