I’m reading the second volume of The Arab of the Future: A Childhood in the Middle East, a graphic novel trilogy by Riad Sattouf. The first one, which is excellent, is out in English; I’m muddling through the second, which is excellent, under the power of my four-cylinder French.


These frames are uncanny in their depiction of a typical day in my classroom.





Game On

The recent drop in temperature recalled to mind a reality TV show I once invented: Cold Enough for Ya?!


Premise: The host, who should be suitably disagreeable, drives around in a luxury automobile on a frigid winter day. Upon spotting someone waiting at a bus stop, trudging down an icy sidewalk, or performing manual labor, he pulls up alongside, rolls down the window, and shouts… well, you guessed it, didn’t you! Then he peels out, cackling all the way. Ideally, each episode would end with the luxury automobile being chased out of town by an angry mob. (Obviously the show’s summer season would be titled Hot Enough for Ya?! and maintain a similar spirit.)

Funny stuff, right? And that’s the one that ended up on the cutting room floor! The other one, you ask? Well, it’s in a short story I recently finished. You’ll have to read it there, whenever it comes out. (Unless you’re a network executive, in which case give me a call.)


Now then. Here’s something that wasn’t funny at all. It happened a couple years ago. I’d spent the morning writing that very same short story (the gestational period of my stories averages about a term in the senate; a novel would take me centuries), and came home to find the latest issue of the New Yorker in the mail.

“By gum,” said I, “There’s an article on Guinea!” (For my story is set in Guinea, you see.)

Upon reading the following passage, I threw the magazine across the room. (For, you see, much of that very morning had been spent writing dialogue in which one character addresses another as “Father Christmas.”)

Each time that Cilins flew from France to Guinea, he brought gifts—MP3 players, cell phones, perfumes—which he disbursed among his contacts. They came to think of him as “Father Christmas,” he told Fox. 

I’ll pause while you roll down your window and shout “Coincidence enough for ya?!” But that’s all the head start you’re getting.

Annual Performance Review

As we come to the end of 2015, let us pause to record my triumphs.

  • Happening upon a double rainbow one morning with my friend Steve.


  • Shoveling a ton of snow. (Quite possibly an actual ton)

The Snow Shoveler

  • Changing and wrapping dolls to an extent probably best estimated using scientific notation. (Twin 1 conducts a typical inspection below. She and Twin 2 are known to erupt in Lee Ermey-with-a-case-of-the-Mondays rages if dissatisfied)


  • Upholding a resolution to visit my friend Will in Rhode Island once a month. (About the other resolutions, the less said the better; as for Will, he’s gone and moved to California, dammit. The only one more distraught than I is Roosevelt, who appears as a white dot next to Will in the photo below)

Will and Rosie


May the new year bring you, Gentle Reader, multiple rainbows, minimal snow, and lots of walks to the outdoor rink to throw the ball around with Dinner & Rosie.



Canada Guy

It doesn’t happen as often as it used to, but well wishers still stop me on the street to encourage my candidacy for prime minister of Canada. No amount of protest on my part – I’m happy with my current job, it’s increasingly unlikely I could obtain even a plurality in the House of Commons, etc – dissuades their enthusiasm.

From now on I’m going to refer these good people to Michael Ignatieff’s Fire and Ashes, his account of returning to Canada to enter politics and his subsequent bid to run the place. I really liked it, and would have finished it in one sitting if not for the usual nonsense that interrupts one’s happy reading.

Some memorable points (though not necessarily the most important. E.g. he writes well about persuasion, but go read the book yourself):

  • The most underrated skill in politics? Listening. “Often, listening is all you can do… People will accept you cannot solve their problems if you give them all of your attention, looking into their eyes, never over their shoulder at the next person in line.” (If you watch clips of JFK in action, he was very good at shaking hands and looking back as he continued to the next person, as if to indicate he was only reluctantly moving on. The first few seconds of this one below give the idea.)
  • “…nothing prepares you for the use of language once you enter the political arena… You leave a charitable realm where people cut you some slack, finish your sentences, and accept that you didn’t quite mean what you said. You enter a world of lunatic literal-mindedness where only the words that come out of your mouth actually count.”
  • ” Every community wants recognition of its own distinctiveness but is reluctant to grant it to others… Once you see a country as a sustained, everyday act of will, you understand why politicians matter.”
  • “…the two national debates on television, one in French, the other in English…” (NB that’s “in French” not as in “subtitled in French,” but as in en français.)
  • He also makes a few references to the country’s enormous size. Duh, right? Well, I once got my own introduction to Canada Big while driving from Seattle to Boston. I’d taken Route 2 (highly recommended) to the edge of Lake Superior, then decided to drive around the lake on the Canadian side (less recommended) before re-entering the US. “Hey,” I thought, “maybe I should check out Ottawa!” and asked a motel clerk at a lakeside town how long the drive was. “I think it’s about fifteen hours,” came the reply.  I did not check out Ottawa.


And this story made me chuckle:

My father loved government but he steered clear of party politics, and the stories he told laid bare the difference between the instincts of politicians and of civil servants like himself. He told me about taking notes at a meeting in 1944 between Prime Minister Mackenzie King and a deputation of women – Daughters of the Empire – who were concerned about the impact of pornography (Betty Grable pin-ups and stronger stuff) on the morale of Canadian troops. About a dozen women took their places in King’s office and each proceeded to tell him about the terrible effects of pornography. King listened patiently, then stood and went to each and shook their hands gravely, repeating that he had rarely been privileged to have such an important meeting. When the women had been ushered out and silence descended in the prime minister’s office, my father cleared his throat and asked Mr. King what actions he wished to authorize. “Get back to work,” the PM growled, and waved him out.

All Together Now

1. Irony 101

(Author’s note: this is the earnest, teacher-y part of the post.)

Irony is one of the literary devices I teach my 6th graders, and I keep it to pretty obvious examples: a “no smoking” sign in a cigarette factory, getting run over by an ambulance, etc.

Last year I added to our repertoire this British ad, commissioned for the 100th anniversary of the Christmas Truce:

I showed students the clip with no introduction, then read passages from Jim Murphy’s Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting, then we watched the clip once more.

Next week we’ll do it again. We’ll also listen to this episode of BBC’s Witness, which aired last Christmas Eve.


2: Nobody Beats the Wiz! (Except the Pogues and the Waitresses and some others as well)

Having spent quite possibly years of my life listening to the radio, I was surprised to hear of a popular Christmas song I’d never heard, or even heard of: “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday” by Wizzard.  Nick Lowe mentioned it in an interview, saying it’s on heavy rotation over there.

My Christmas #1 alternates, depending on mood, between “Fairytale of New York” and “Christmas Wrapping,” but I could easily make room in the top ten for this one. And the video is certainly a, uh, treat for the eyes:


PS speaking of Yuletide eyestrain, in the course of writing this post I had occasion to view the video for “All Together Now,” a song I remember dimly from high school, also about the Christmas Truce. (The song, I mean. High school was about unremitting trench warfare.) The video is slightly horrifying, and not in the way you’d perhaps expect, given the subject:


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: