It’s Time Is Now.

I was putting up a set of posters on common misuses (to vs too, etc), and when I came to the it’s vs its one, I hesitated.

Between you and me – not in front of the children – can we just abolish “its”? My objections are twofold:

  1. I don’t see how “it’s” shouldn’t always be valid
  2. “Its” just looks stupid

Also, there’s my reflexive examination of either for misuse (oh, the undeserving brainpower), my unseemly glee when I spot an error (often accompanied by ungracious inklings of superiority), and the annihilating shame when the error is mine (you have no idea).

Can we just accept the possessive apostrophe in all it’s situations? Its’s just not for me.

 

PS Yes, I put the poster up. Yes, I’ll teach… it.

PPS Here’s the poster I’d rather put up:

Buffalo_buffalo_WikiWorld

 

The International Language of Screaming

This occurred several months ago, but I am now ready to talk about it.

It was after lunch, and judging by the general lethargy, I must have been more soporific than usual. So I gave to a (normally exuberant) young man, seated in the back of the class, this note:

IN 30 SECONDS SCREAM WAKE UP!

Writing that now, I can see that its perhaps insufficient punctuation introduces some ambiguity. And then there’s always my scribbly all-caps penmanship, too. Anyway, thirty seconds passed. Grinning, he looked to me for confirmation; I smiled back and held my thumb aloft.

Image result for thumbs up

 

What happened next was a creaking, wordless wail. It sounded like a witch slowly opening a coffin. I mean, I had some indication of what to expect, and was still unsettled. Poe himself would have wept for mother.

It was obvious that the class had been frightened because not one of them stirred. (Speaking from broad experience, if a student causes a disturbance, it is rarely met without reaction.)

The shock wore off, and students turned round to see their (now) exuberant classmate and me laughing, high fiving, etc. This produced insistent objection, e.g. “No. No. Mr. Sipe, that was not funny.

If this is where you’re asking what sort of demented person casually invents such distress, I assure you that I am following best practices. As it says in Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Words and What It Means for the Classroom:

“We all inevitably lose the attention of our students… They will mentally check out. The good news is that it’s relatively easy to get them back. Change grabs attention, as you no doubt know.”

And if you don’t know, now you know, gentle reader.

 

There Goes Rhymin’ Sipe

Of Bez, the Buzzcocks, the bouncing bombs, and the beautiful Busby Babes

One question I have for Song is: why is rhyme such a big deal? Yes, it’s neat when the ends of words sound the same, but it also seems like a strange organizing principle.

Adam Gopnik pointed out that it’s very easy for words to rhyme in French, much more so than in English, whereas English facilitates alliteration, not so felicitously employed in other languages. It is indicative of my idiocy that, despite having studied French for twenty years (and English even longer), this never occurred to me. Le d’oh.

I do wish we could use the lovely St. Anthony: an Ode to Anthony H. Wilson in our poetry unit, because it is a masterpiece of rhyme and repetition and alliteration, and into the bargain we – or at least most certainly I – could break out maracas and do some Freaky Dancin’. But although I don’t hear any French to be pardoned, there’s some Tier 3 vocabulary, and I’ve got a mortgage.

Also: I’ve been a Mancunian music man ever since high school, but apart from Messrs. Osterberg & Glass, I could name maybe five people in this video.

As for rhyme? To misquote Jarvis Cocker: I am not Paul Simon, though I have the same initials.

The Master and Le Guide

Coats_of_arms_of_Zaire_(1971-1997).svg

“‘I’m going to be strict, but fair.’ That’s what all teachers say at the beginning of the year,” a friend once complained to me. Well, this year I’m going to do better than that.

Recently I was out with the wife for Date Night – this is what it’s come to etc – and she was looking at the cocktail list. (I stay away from those things, as I am skeptical of drinks with more than two ingredients.) The list featured the “Freddie Quell,” which she remarked was an odd name for a drink. “Wait,” I said, “I know that name…”

Thus began my recollection of The Master. (If you want to imagine a date with me, just ask a guy to semi-coherently explain a film you haven’t seen while he sips a two ingredient drink.)

Anyway, I decided to watch it again, and quite liked it again, particularly because it provides me half my new Day One Speech:

I am a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist, a theoretical philosopher. But above all, I am a man, a hopelessly inquisitive man…

 

The remainder of my speech comes, naturally, from Mobutu Sese Seko’s address marking the 16th anniversary of the Popular Movement of the Revolution, delivered in Kinshasa on May 19, 1983:

Here is my motto: “Always Serve.” This motto is inscribed on the top of my staff.

(Author’s note: I am grateful to my friend Steve for his recent gift of the volume below, without which, honestly, my recollection of the address would be iffy.)

image

Wild & Rocking Bob

If you are a student wishing to derail my lesson, just ask me about the Challenger, or the Battle of Stalingrad, or the 1986 World Series. Thereafter I will be interrupted only by the bell.

Regarding Game 6, I speak with great warmth (in the 18th-century sense) about the unjust vilification of Bill Buckner. You never hear much about Bob Stanley’s lead-losing wild pitch. Unless, of course, you ask in my classroom.

Now then. Last summer I ordered Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! by Bob Stanley (not him), and still haven’t finished the d–n thing. If ever there were a book that needs embedded videos or Star Wars-style holograms or whatever we can do these days, this is it. I can’t get through a chapter without putting the book down to look up some song, and then another, etc, and since I know that’s how it’s going to be, I won’t pick it up unless I’ve got a solid block of time, and, oh… tempus fugit.

The book – what I’ve read of it, anyway – is a masterpiece. If you think you know a lot about pop music, Mr. Stanley will likely reveal to you horizons of ignorance. Who knew:

  • the Everly Brothers “hardly ever cut a bad record and are maybe the most underrated act of their era.”
  • “It’s impossible to overstate the Shadows’ importance.”
  • this song:

Lest the above give you the impression it’s all pop arcana and sweeping statements, I am here to tell you Mr. Stanley writes engagingly and excellently:

  • “The problem was that Dee-Lite forgot to write another good song. People were willing for them to release something even a fifth as good as ‘Groove Is in the Heart’ but it wasn’t forthcoming. It was a real pity.”
  • “Who are your favorite pop group? It’s not easy, is it? I could plump for the Beach Boys, but there’s always the difficulty of loving Mike Love. The Who? Far too patchy. The Pet Shop Boys? They didn’t know when to quit. The Bee Gees? Oh, too much to explain… the Beatles would be a hard one to argue with, but so would…” [One million pounds if you guess correctly! Conditions apply.]
  • And this isn’t from the book, but rather his tribute to Cilla Black, who died last week. It’s typical of his descriptions, and lovely: “You can hear the cake mix on her fingers.”

Role: Bounce

If you want to think about blinking more than you probably (hopefully?) normally do, may I refer you to this 1992 interview with Michael Caine. He has an intriguing, uh, view. And this is hilarious:

When I was a young lad, I found a book in the public library, How to Teach Yourself Film Acting. The first thing it said is, “You must not blink.” So I walked around this working-class district of London without blinking. I looked like an early serial killer. I’m sure I frightened the life out of people beause I used to have long conversations and never blink.

Reminds me of a conversation with a pal who used to work as a bouncer at Lupo’s. He told me a funny story – well, the way he told it was funny; it was in fact unpleasant – about an unruly patron who became exceedingly agitated at what he considered the aforementioned pal’s insufficient blinking.

Now then:

1) If you find yourself saying “if only there were a short story that could increase my empathy for bouncers,” may I refer you to Nick Hornby’s lovely “NippleJesus,” viz.

I know what people think. They think that if that’s the sort of job you choose, you’re asking for whatever you get, and probably want it, too. Well, bollocks. I don’t like hurting people. For me, a good night at Casablanca’s one where nothing’s happened at all. 

2) Years ago I read about this bouncer trick to induce prompt compliance. The idea is to mix careful politeness with foul language so as to convey potential violence just under control. E.g. “Sir, may I please ask you to put out that cigarette? We can’t have any of that [darn] [stuff] here.”

3) If you’ve never seen Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon do Michael Caine impressions, stop what you’re doing – it’s OK, this post is over – and watch:

 

That Crazy Stagecraft

Like you, of course, I wait for the sold-out house to chant my name before taking the stage. We may be doing it all wrong, though:

He knew how to make an entrance – or rather, he probably didn’t, and it came naturally. Frank Sinatra has the same technique, but in his case it may well be studied: no fanfare, no announcement, simply walking onstage while the orchestra are still settling down, and starting to sing. 

That’s from George MacDonald Fraser’s memoir of combat in Burma, Quartered Safe Out Here*, and admiringly describes (the excellently named) General William Slim:

TNA_INF3-5_General_William_Slim_1939-1946

Fraser adds:

Perhaps the most revealing story, not only about Slim but about what his army thought of him, tells how he was addressing a unit preparing to go into action. The magic must have worked again, for some enthusiast actually shouted: “We’ll follow you, general!” And Slim, with one of his rare smiles, called back: “Don’t you believe it. You’ll be a long way in front of me.”

 

*For irony-challenged Yanks who might think it’s a book about a camping trip, the American edition is helpfully subtitled A Harrowing Tale of World War II. The UK edition calls it A Recollection of the War in Burma. (Both are, in fairness, correct.)

 

Author’s Note: Yes, I did think about titling this post in clever homage to a certain Troy McClure film, but the Chairman told me not to spoil it all by saying something stupid. (What the General told me… well, let’s just say, it wasn’t nice, and certainly not easy.)

Hello Madrid

One aspect of my philistinism is a lack of rapport with poetry. (Apart, I suppose, from an increasingly temperamental and tonsorial inclination toward Philip Larkin.) I mostly don’t get it.

Image result for philip larkin

 

So I was surprised to like very much Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. It’s the story of a young man struggling to write poetry in Madrid. I know, I know, if that’s how you pitched it to me, you’d have to snap fingers to regain my attention. But it’s full of astute perceptions about art, language, and… whatever, this is not a book review.* My point is, as I read it, I kept thinking:

This Is Spinal Tap : Rock : : Leaving the Atocha Station : Poetry

Here’s how the protagonist writes verse:

I opened the Lorca more or less at random, transcribed the English recto onto a page of my first notebook, and began to make changes, replacing a word with whatever word I first associated with it and/or scrambling the order of the lines, and then I made whatever changes these changes suggested to me. Or I looked up the Spanish word for the English word I wanted to replace, and then replaced that word with an English word that approximated its sound (“Under the ark of the sky” became “Under the arc of the cielo,” which became “Under the arc of the cello”).

Tufnelesque, no? And consider this depiction of his conversational skills:

He said that he had recently been to New York or that he was going to New York soon. For what, I asked. He answered for a musical performance, or to perform music, or for some sort of performance art.

Reminiscent of this exchange, yes?

And when, at a reading, he’s asked which Spanish poets have influenced him? It’s like a Mach piece, really:

Finally I thought of two famous poets I’d barely read… but the names collided and recombined in my head, and I heard myself say: “Ramón Machado Jiménez, which was as absurd as saying “Whitman Dickinson Walt,” and a few people tittered. I corrected myself, but it came out wrong again… and now those who were baffled understood my unforgivable error, so extreme they might have at first suspected it was an ironic gesture.

But hey, enough of my yakkin’…

 

*I’d call it a comic novel, but in my experience that term is up there with “light refreshments” for reliably predicting disappointment. I will say that the first ten pages are up there with Day of the Jackal for strong starts. Also, blessed are the sub-two hundred page novels.

 

 

Macabre Revisited

Brandy_Alexander

A colleague whom I like and otherwise respect recently told me she’d attended a concert by [surpassingly detestable band*].

I declared this band “macabre.”

Puzzled, she asked if I meant “maudlin.”

Nope. I meant “macabre” as said by Anthony Blanche. That’s the epithet he uses to damn, and it indisputably deserves broader currency.

If you don’t know who Anthony Blanche is, do take sixty-seven seconds to watch him drink Brandies Alexander: one, two, three, four!

And if you don’t know who Brandy Alexander is, this article will happily acquaint you, even in July. I could use more friends like the author:

I shook up the first brandy Alexander I had made, or even drank, in years, and declared it my official house cocktail of that whole interminable winter. For the next few months, I took great pleasure in greeting visitors with a drink at the ready and my nutmeg grater in hand.

Funnily enough, the surpassingly unmacabre Feist has songs titled “1234” and “Brandy Alexander.”

 

*Honor forbids me to name the band, but I will say that its name has five letters, begins with “T,” and is a method of rail transportation.

Independence Days

477px-Flag-map_of_Zaire.svg

I’m reading Congo: the Epic History of a People by David Van Reybrouck. I learned of it from this intriguing New York Times review, which opens with Maréchal Mobutu’s “both Pythonesque and distressing” foray into space exploration:

(The above uncharitably reminds me of the joke about the proposed subtitle for the film about Wernher von Braun, I Aim at the Stars: “But Sometimes I Hit London.”)

I was quite taken with Van Reybrouck’s insight about Congo’s struggles at independence:

As in theater, tragedy in history here was not a matter of the reasonable versus the unreasonable, of good versus bad, but of people whose lives crossed and who – each and every one of them – considered themselves good and reasonable… History is a gruesome meal prepared from the best of ingredients.

Jason Stearns reviews that gruesome meal in Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: the Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa. It is very readable, but relentlessly saddening, with passages I couldn’t finish. It is also highly informative, and I don’t say that casually. I watched the rebels take Bukavu in 1996 and didn’t really know what the hell was going on. Could have used this book then.

But don’t worry, gentle reader, we shall end on a high note! If you haven’t heard – or seen – this authentic Congolese ballad from the 1970s, well, get ready to rumble: