The Word Problem From Hell

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“Unimaginable,” like “incredible,” is an adjective that seems seldom employed accurately. This sentence gets it about right, though:

For nine unimaginable months he was one of a group of eighteen prisoners of whom nine were shot dead each morning and replaced by nine others.

It’s from Joseph O’Neill’s investigation of his grandfathers’ (completely unrelated) internments in World War II, Blood-Dark Track. The above probablility-defier is Frank Ryan, whose life is a testament to the, uh, complexities of history.

Also, until I poked around on Wikipedia, I would have thought it incredible that, during World War II, a US invasion of Ireland was imagined.

PS hitherto reading O’Neill’s book I’d only known of Frank Ryan from the Pogues’ The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn:

“The Hitchhiker”

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b1/Hitchhiker%27s_gesture.jpg

I mean, I don’t pick up, I wouldn’t pick up hitchhikers either. I’m not nuts. – Bill James

Last Sunday morning I pulled over to offer a guy a lift – there was a fierce rainstorm, and it was a long stretch of road. He shook his head with an emphaticalness I’ve not seen since my bachelor days and continued walking.

Recounting this to the wife, she said: “I’m sorry. He was a stranger? And this was with our child in the car?” etc & etc. I tried to explain that, as I learned from a Freakonomics podcast, hitchhiking isn’t especially dangerous, it’s just perceived as especially so. Her response could be diplomatically termed “unpersuaded.” (And if this is where you say “Actually, Peter, what you’re describing isn’t an incidence of hitchhiking, but rather one of you accosting a pedestrian,” OK, fair point.)

Coincidentally – to my mind, anyway –  it was only a few days beforehand we’d read Roald Dahl’s excellent short story “The Hitchhiker” in class.

I always stopped for hitchhikers. I knew just how it used to feel to be standing on the side of a country road watching the cars go by. I hated the drivers for pretending they didn’t see me, especially the big empty cars with three empty seats. The large expensive cars seldom stopped. It was always the smaller ones that offered you a lift, or the rusty ones or the ones that were already crammed full of children and the driver would say, “I think we can squeeze in one more.”

Also: while assessing prior knowledge, as we say in the business, it turned out that only about half the kids knew what hitchiking was.

PS yes, I told everyone not to hitchhike.

“All I Ever Meet Is Witty Bastards.”

Last week I did exit interviews with students about the best books they read this year. To model the behavior, as we say in the business, I stood before each class and interviewed myself about The Catcher in the Rye.

To describe its broad appeal, I mentioned an experience reading it for the first time. While I waited for the #34E in Dedham Square one autumn long ago, a passerby poked his head into the bus shelter: “That’s the best book you’re ever going to read!” he said, then walked away.

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On Friday I was wearing the above t-shirt (such are my exertions to build a culture of literacy), and during break went out to get a coffee. As I passed a nearby construction site, a hardhatted gentleman stepped into my path.

“Catcher in the Rye,” he said, grinning. “You remember that scene where Holden sees [bad word] on the wall, when he’s with his sister?”

I replied that I did indeed.

“Once I had this supervisor giving me a hard time about graffiti on a site. I told him, there’s no way you could ever get rid of all the [bad words] in the world, even if you had a million years.”

Chuckles ensued, good days bade, the culture of literacy affirmed. I was damn near bawling, I felt so damn happy, if you want to know the truth.

 

Slap, Memory

French

The other day I asked for a kiss and instead received a slap. Though only a toddler, my daughter’s got a mean open hand, and I see no reason to interpret this exchange as anything but portentous.

That very afternoon, coincidentally, I was passing out laptops for a reading level test, and asked a student of Haitian descent to help. He indulges my attempts to practice conversational French, so I said, “Tu peux m’aider…” and briefly blanked before coming up with “…distribuer?”

The exertion of retrieving “distribute” must have slapped some synapse that in turn recalled this article, about a student attacking a teacher in Bordeaux. What’s memorable to me is its use of “distribute” with “slaps”:

…il a croisé le professeur, l’a roué de coups et lui a distribué des gifles…

Voila l’élégance française!

 

PS slapping teachers is bad in any language. Please don’t.

 

Richards Burton

“Like many noteworthy men, he was slightly nuts.”

Richard_Francis_Burton_by_Rischgitz,_1864

I used to have the same problem with Richard Burton as with Francis Bacon: I knew about the guy who married Elizabeth Taylor twice, and about the funky painter, but I also knew, vaguely, there were other historic men with those same names.

So I appreciated this one page primer on Richard Burton, “Britain’s most flamboyant adventurer.” I’ve extracted for you three essential biographical details:

  • “the young Burton had brought his music lessons to an end by smashing a violin over the head of his teacher”
  • “he was eventually said to be proficient in an astonishing total of 40 languages and dialects”
  • he “turn[ed] out endless manuscripts (including A History of Farting)”

Forgive my unsolicited candor, but it’s entirely possible he led a more interesting life than you or I ever will. As for the other guy (the one not known as “Ruffian Dick”):

Richard_Burton_1956

It was forty years ago he and Ms. Taylor decided to heed hope instead of experience. In Botswana.

 

6th Grade Netherland

Hotel Netherland, 1893-1927

 
Having thoroughly enjoyed Joseph O’Neill’s novel The Dog, I decided to re-read Netherland.

This time round I was particularly smitten with the narrator’s description of his driver’s ed class. Let’s just say, at this point in the year, it’s hard to read without a certain wistfulness:

…a compassionate understanding tacitly arose among the students that we should do everything to assist this individual, an agreeable and no doubt clever man whose life had plainly come to some kind of ruin. Accordingly we were a well-behaved and reasonably responsive class and, an hour or so later, did our best to abide by his request not to sleep…

 

Help, I’m Stepping into the Twilight Zone

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This sign inspired me to such witticisms as “Shouldn’t they block the road?” and “Ours was in a ballroom.” (Figuring you can’t go wrong with Wild Bill, I submitted this for Twitter’s consideration.) Then I thought: it’s like something you’d see on The Twilight Zone, but if the episode were directed by John Hughes.

The PARCC (as we in the business call the new state exam) is a multi-day testival*, so when the text-weary kiddos get to my Reading class, I’ve been showing them episodes of The Twilight Zone, e.g: Continue reading “Help, I’m Stepping into the Twilight Zone”

Riffing Is Fundamental*

Whenever I unlock my car, the beeps remind me of the last notes of the riff to “Connection.” It was twenty years ago I saw Elastica at the 9:30 Club, and apparently I’m still pining for Justine Frischmann.

 

I was in said car the other day when I heard “My Type” by Saint Motel. I don’t know anything about them, but that riff is pretty good. And extra credit for the handclaps. (Dear Pop: why don’t you have more handclaps?)

 

“My Type” also reminds me a bit of the third movement of “Your Cover’s Blown,” Belle and Sebastian’s opus rifftaculus:

 

*NB this title is a clever nod to Reading Is Fundamental. When I am king, RIF will enjoy lavish patronage, and my fiddlers three will riff most radly.

Vivian Nicholson

 “Sharing cigarettes, just holding one another and loving one another. That was when I had everything.”

 

I got to the Sunday paper only yesterday – such is the vida loca I live – and, upon arriving at the obituary pages, thought “Wait, I’ve seen that face.” Sure enough, it was the cover star of the Smiths’ estimable single “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now.”

If you haven’t heard it, listen at least for the outro alone. I can’t think of a lovelier interplay of guitars on a pop single. (Also, Johnny Marr – for it was he – apparently wrote the song in an hour. How’s your day going so far?)

Continue reading “Vivian Nicholson”

In Which I Discuss A Ghastly Tote Bag As Well As My Habitual Idiocy

This bag makes me want to watch television.
This makes me want to watch television.

As best I can tell, the above logo was designed by sin itself. I got the bag for free with a book order or something. Even this fashion-deficient reading teacher finds it objectionable.

You might then imagine my dismay that the wife has been using it with increasing frequency. Ever the dutiful husband, I sought recommendations for a proper replacement. When my mother-in-law caught wind, she insisted on taking me to her favorite shop.

I was in little position to refuse, as she was helping me with my 20-month-old twins* on Mommy’s First Away Weekend. Moreover, Mother-In-Law was eager to take me to said shop as the proprietress was the mother of twins herself.

While Mother-In-Law set about selecting a proper bag, I chatted with the proprietress (if by chatting you mean trying to respond coherently while preventing my children from vandalizing her inventory). When Mother-In-Law finally selected the proper bag and brought it to the register, the proprietress held it up and said:

“Peter, this is a gift.” Continue reading “In Which I Discuss A Ghastly Tote Bag As Well As My Habitual Idiocy”