Ode to Billy Joe

Due to a risotto mishap, a few mornings ago I was unable to use my kettle. Well, I could have used it, but I would have had to have first scrubbed it, and I was in no mood for labor. So I walked up to the Target, where there’s a Starbucks.

I went in and was promptly stopped by an employee. I couldn’t get what she said, because of the mask and all. She was polite, but her words definitely had a “go away” vibe to them. Which was fine; there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts up the street, too.

But I try to lift my fog of incomprehension when I can, so I asked her to repeat herself. She said her spiel again, and I finally understood: it was vulnerable guests hour. I walked up to the Dunkin’ Donuts, pleased to have impressed yet another lady with my invulnerable physique.

***

I found myself thinking about that curious trio of words. I’d not ever heard their combination before. Sounds like an Arctic Monkeys EP, no? But it isn’t, so I’ve requisitioned it for my fantasy band. It shall be our live album, the one where, for an encore, we tear up “Honky Tonk Heroes.” I bet its writer would approve of Vulnerable Guests Hour. That guy had a way with words. Indeed, it was his charm that persuaded Waylon Jennings to give the song a shot:

The story goes that Jennings had promised Billy Joe Shaver, then an unknown songwriter from Texas, that he’d do a full album of Shaver’s songs… But everyone agrees that, after Jennings forgot about the promise and blew Shaver off, Shaver showed up at the studio one night and threatened to beat him up. “Waylon, you said you were going to do a whole album of my songs,” Shaver writes in Honky Tonk Hero. “I’ve got those songs, and you’re going to listen to them—or I’m going to kick your [hindquarters] right here in front of God and everybody.”

 

Hindsight


Yes, there’s always the unexpected, isn’t there?

 – Major Warden, The Bridge on the River Kwai

 

In February a friend came to visit. I hadn’t seen him in a while. As we caught up over drinks he asked what we were listening to. That’s the Brandenburg Concertos, I told him. To emphasize my sophistication I also told him I was really getting into classical music.

It is December and, by far, the artist I’ve listened to the most is Taylor Swift. I have a perfectly good explanation for this, but there it is. Pete proposes, Pandemic disposes.

This year, man. As quoth Dr J, “its style is capable of great improvements.” But there were some improvements, which you perhaps overlooked, so I will direct your attention to them now.

 

BER

The new Berlin airport opened. I became fascinated by this years ago. To describe its construction as a total mess would be to gloss over the unpleasant reality. I listened to this very interesting podcast about it, and by the end was convinced they’d have to tear it down and start over. But whaddaya know, it’s now open.

 

A Girl Called Eddy

Back in 2004 I had her debut on heavy rotation. I’d keep checking every few years to see if she was working on anything new. There was word of a second album, but not ever much more than that. And then lo! it appeared. I like it, though I’m not quite sure it merits the lengthy delay. (I’m not saying she had to go all Please Please Me, but neither should one’s timetable be Chinese Democracy.) Here’s the song she wrote with Paul Williams, who wrote “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “Rainbow Connection.”

 

American Exceptionalism

Janan Ganesh, a Financial Times columnist, recently wrote something that shocked me. He said that America is “a culture that tends to underrate how polite it is by world standards.” I was like: the world is in worse shape than I’d thought.

Given the state of the world, this year I sought solace in rock bios. I was reading Russell Senior’s – he was, you will recall, the guitarist/violinist for Pulp – and he said of Americans, “I’ve realised that they are really the friendliest people in the world.”

So there’s that. And it’s not nothing, right?

And on that note, Gentle Reader, I’ll close for the year. I shall do so with the sign-off of an email one of my former students sent me in October. Unlike 2020, it is unimprovable: “I hope you’re having a productive time and enjoying life.”

 

Hello, Goodbye


Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.

– Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus

 

One of my habits is to look at Wikipedia’s on-this-date page. That’s how I learned of the Arecibo Message. On November 16, 1974, the Arecibo Observatory sent a greeting to the M13 star cluster.

The message was kind of a radio version of the Golden Records on the Voyager probes. It had numbers, scientific formulas, graphics of humans and the solar system, etc.

M13 is about 25,000 light years away, so it’s unlikely we’ll be around if there’s a response. Still, I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking this was the neighborly thing to do.

 

 

Now then. You know that thing where you’ve only just learned of something, then you promptly encounter it again? Well, three days later I read this:

Arecibo, a giant radio observatory nestled in the lush mountains of Puerto Rico, did some of the dreamiest work in astronomy. But it was forced to stop operations this year after suffering unprecedented damage, and officials now believe that it is beyond repair. Instead of trying to fix it, they’re going to tear it down.

 

Look at the photos. It looks like a post-civilization relic. It’s a damned shame.

 

Burying the Lede

 

John Noble Wilford knew that he was writing one of the most important stories of the century: The first human landing on another world. His article — for the front page of The New York Times on July 21, 1969, needed to begin with a sentence that conveyed the immensity of the moment. And so, after the launch on July 16, but before the landing, he spent a sleepless night trying to come up with [this] opening sentence, known in the journalism business as a lede: Men have landed and walked on the moon.

The Story of 8 Unforgettable Words About Apollo 11

 

I got around to reading Jill Lepore’s These Truths: a History of the United States. It’s good, but that’s not my point. My point is this: nowhere in its 933 pages will you find the moon landing. Nor the Apollo program. Nor anything, really, about America in space. I find this incredible.

(NASA is referred to briefly in describing the federal role in science research. Which… Yes…)

Obviously, if you write such a book, you’re going to have to pick and choose. Still. Alex Jones is mentioned four times. John Hinckley twice. Linda Tripp once. Neil Armstrong? Nope.

I’m an Apollo fanboy, so it’s an affront. But I’m also a history teacher, so I find it genuinely curious. Imagine the responses you’d get if you went back to July 1969 and asked historians and journalists – or hell, anyone – if it would ever be possible to write a good history of the United States with such omission.

Perhaps Mr. Wilford is to blame:

Another thing he did not want was “to have ‘historic’ in the lede,” he said. “It’s a lame way to say something is important.”

 

November Surprise

Earlier this year I volunteered for a primary campaign up in New Hampshire. On occasion I’d chat with other volunteers about the state of the race. We were, obviously, all in for our candidate, but we also were – or appeared – able to analyze the race with dispassion. The consensus was that the race was a toss-up, and it might well go down to the convention.

And whenever Joe Biden was mentioned, we’d solemnly say it was a shame he had to go out like this.

 

***

A few days after the 2016 election, I picked up an iPad and found the browser open to this:

 

One of my many regrets about the 2016 election is the time I spent following it. Boy, did I read a lot of articles, and listen to a lot of podcasts, about how Trump wouldn’t win. All that came to mind when I saw this the other day:

 

Whatever surprises await, I leave you with my favorite headline of the 2020 campaign.

Arrhythmia

 

There’s a French term, le rhythme scolaire. Predictably, it’s more elegant than its English translation. I like it because it sounds like a dance or something. Also, it calls to mind circadian rhythm.

Monday found me back in the classroom for the first time in six months. I’m back with a few other teachers, and students who are in the high-needs category.

It’s a strange experience. Most of the classrooms are empty. You see March dates on sign-out sheets. I keep having to ask students to speak up, what with the masks and the ventilation system.

It feels good to be back. It was really hard trying to teach remotely kids who don’t speak English. Now that we’re in the classroom together, I can solve in seconds problems that would have taken hours just to diagnose. (You try and figure out someone’s login issue when you can’t see what they’re doing, and don’t speak their language.) It’s like being a pianist allowed to face the keyboard and take off the oven mitts.

My rhythm scolaire isn’t biologically hardwired like my circadian rhythm, but it might as well be. I’ve spent almost four decades going to school, either to sit at desks or stand before them. Being away for six months really threw it out of whack.

Que vous aussi reprenez votre rhythme!

Registered Displeasure

 

The Bureaucrat, José Guadalupe Posada, Smithsonian American Art Museum

 

In February I drove a friend to Portsmouth, NH so she could buy a car. The other day I drove a friend to Naugatuck, CT so he could buy a SUV. I would now like to tell all my friends that automobiles are sold in Massachusetts.

Speaking of the Commonwealth, I’ve got a story about the Registry of Motor Vehicles. This was also back in February, but my fear is that what with the subsequent pandemic, my inconvenience may have gone unremarked.

It happened like this. I bought a used car off a friend, and went in to transfer the title. But the friend had written the mileage on the wrong line. I was told that I’d have to obtain from her a notarized letter that she did so in error. So I went and got that – which was, believe me, no bagatelle – and returned that afternoon.

This time the gatekeeper asked if I had proof of insurance. I pointed to the insurance certification stamp on the paperwork. “An insurance certification stamp is not proof of insurance!” she said.

I did not know how to reply. It seemed to me this declaration would be acceptable only in a philosophy seminar. But I stood there and nodded slowly, hoping to convey both that I recognized the import of what she said, and that I was a simpleton in need of charity. Happily, instead of dismissing me again, she sent me to a computer terminal to print out the necessary proof.

Once there I was of course promptly flummoxed, and sought the assistance of another employee, who, after informing me that my previous interlocutor didn’t know what she was talking about, bade me take a number and sit. An hour later I was out with the necessary documents.

I was reminded of this passage in Joseph O’Neill’s estimable Netherland, about a trip to the Herald Square DMV that concludes less satisfactorily:

Continue reading “Registered Displeasure”