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Greetings

 

There’s also a much-loved tradition of using our landing lights to greet fellow pilots in the world’s most remote skies, where we might cruise for hours without seeing another aircraft. Then, perhaps from 40 miles away or more, we spot the strobe lights of an aircraft approaching at a different altitude. I reach up and flash our landing lights and the other aircraft’s pilots do the same – one of the small, silent courtesies exchanged by pilots who will never know each other, high above the sleeping world.

– “View from the Cockpit,” Mark Vanhoenacker, Financial Times, April 10, 2019

 

I find this among the loveliest of images. It also reminds me of an early morning this past winter.

I’d taken the dog out for a walk, and there was quite a bit of snow on the ground. We were walking down the bike path, all alone. After a while I saw a solitary figure in the distance. As I approached, he began to wildly wave his arms. Gentle Reader, I confess the uncharity of my reaction: just my luck, I thought, to encounter the local lunatic.

Turns out he was trying to warn me that a snowplow was advancing behind me. I stepped to the side and the driver rolled down his window. I figured he was going to say something pithy about having flouted Darwinism; instead he showed me pictures of his dogs.

Well, folks, I’m going to take a break. Be well. Flash your landing lights and I will too.

 

 

Signal Values 4


Got it.

 

Oh, honey…

 

Commonwealth Books: on the road to Damascus.

 

 

If that’s how you want to go.

 

Wouldn’t “one of the most successful of the pantodonts” made for a kinder introduction?

 

(See also: Signal Values 3)

 

Clipperton

 

I got this globe at a yard sale. Whenever I see students looking at it, I ask if they’re lost.

The other day I noticed France has an island off the coast of Mexico. This was news to me, so I looked it up.

It used to be called – ooh la la – Île de la Passion, but then somehow got named after an English pirate. Its history of human habitation is distinctly unhappy, and has evidently inspired novels. Porcine habitation fared little better; verily, The Ornithologist could be a Tarantino short (“He’s back. And this time, he’s gonna totally pig out”).

Personally, I think Clipperton would have made a good Serge Gainsbourg song.

 

 

Shamrocks and Shenanigans

 

The twins have become enamored of making slime. The other day Twin 2 looked up from hers and said: “Did the elf die yet?”

Now, the thing about Twin 2 is, she gets furious if she has to repeat herself more than once. It’s not the Achillean rage of when she was two, but it’s definitely no joke. And sure enough, my attempts to clarify met with her displeasure. I even tried patting my gut and asking if she meant “diet” – not that this would have shed much light – but it’s important to her to perceive engagement.

Finally I realized she meant not an elf but a leprechaun. At her preschool, for Saint Patrick’s Day, the kids would arrive to find chairs upside down, glitter on the floor, etc, for he had visited the night before. Twin 2 had been complaining that whatever color she’d make the slime, it would gradually fade to white overnight. So, you see, she was wondering if the leprechaun had dyed it.

 

***

This in turn reminded me of a classroom visitor about a decade ago, around the time of the previous post. An admissions officer from a college in Scotland came to talk to my 6th graders. (She’d made her pitch at the Lycée Français, where I had a friend working, and graciously agreed to swing by our school in the afternoon.)

So she began her presentation, which was a slide show dispelling myths that Scotland was all haggis and kilts and etc. The problem was, the students didn’t know much about Scotland in the first place. Finally a kid asked if “the little green guy” was from there. After ascertaining that he meant the leprechaun, she gamely flipped her script and used the slideshow to teach Scotland 101: “So, the bagpipe is one of our traditional instruments…” It was gracefully done.

 

***

Less graceful was my interaction with Twin 2 in the supermarket a couple of weeks ago. She’d asked when I’d make chicken salad again. In retrospect, obviously I should have used active listening skills to buy time (“Ah, so you have a question. And what you’re wondering is…”). Instead, I replied that I had never made chicken salad, and never would make chicken salad, because chicken salad is disgusting.

This set her off, and she became so insistent I’d made it many times that she wound up in tears. Finally I figured out she meant salad with chicken in it (one of my gourmet specialties is chicken tenders on lettuce). I tried to explain to her the difference, unsuccessfully. As far as Twin 2’s concerned, her father doesn’t know chicken salad from chicken shawarma.

 

Ned Vizzini

 

Years ago I taught in a middle school in Brooklyn. One afternoon a week the kids would read silently – well, that was the idea – from a classroom library kept in a wheeled locker.

One day a girl held up the book she was reading and said she’d emailed the author, who replied that he’d come visit. Since kids are, in my experience, second only to adults for saying obviously unbelievable stuff, I nodded and carried on. A couple weeks later we were all in the auditorium with the author up on stage.

I must tell you, Gentle Reader, that this school was not overly distinguished by civility. I figured he’d get his head handed to him. But he talked about his book Be More Chill, and the kids loved it. I was impressed.

 

***

A few years later – almost ten years ago to the day – I emailed Ned Vizzini myself. I was then still teaching in Brooklyn, but now at a less chaotic middle school. I invited him to come talk to our students. He readily agreed. When I told him I didn’t know how much we could pay him, he said just to pay whatever we could.

He gave a talk to all the students in the auditorium, then held a smaller writing workshop. The kids loved it. I gave him a check for one (1) hundred dollars. A few days later I received this:

 

Just to recap: he was paid (significantly) under the going rate, gave a talk to all the students and afterward ran a workshop, then developed and sent me pictures, and a thank-you note, and a letter to the students.

 

***

In the years that followed I’d send him stuff I’d had published. He was always very kind and encouraging. In our last exchange we shared the joke about how writing editorials is like wetting your pants in a blue serge suit (you get a nice warm feeling, and no one notices). He took his life a few months later.

Here’s his New York Times obituary.

 

***

That teenagers find Be More Chill relatable is what convinced Gerald Goehring to produce it. That, and some astonishing stats — Goehring says the cast album has received “well over” 160 million streams.

“How do you plan this?” Goehring says. “How do you market to this? You don’t.”

In fact, Goehring says the off-Broadway run sold out without a penny of traditional advertising — just a social media presence.

 

On the strength of its fans, Be More Chill has moved to Broadway.

 


 

If you’re having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline to talk to a counselor: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

 

Cabul

 

One is reading the Bible. It’s frightfully good, you know.

-VS Naipaul

 

I’ve been reading the Bible, and doing it the way they say you shouldn’t do it, reading it straight through.

It’s tough going, and there’s a lot I don’t get. I may break down and get one of those “How to Read the Bible”-type books. I dislike the How to Read genre only slightly more than the How to Write.

I’m well into the historical books and am pretty worn out by the villainy and massacre. If you told me that reading the historical books of the Old Testament made you laugh, I would probably run for my life.

At least until the other day. For there I was, chuckling at this passage. It’s from 1 Kings, when Solomon is building the temple. He’s buddies with King Hiram of Tyre, who’s been a big help. When it was all done, Solomon wanted to say thanks:

10 Now it happened at the end of twenty years, when Solomon had built the two houses, the house of the LORD and the king’s house

11 (Hiram the king of Tyre had supplied Solomon with cedar and cypress and gold, as much as he desired), that King Solomon then gave Hiram twenty cities in the land of Galilee.

12 Then Hiram went from Tyre to see the cities which Solomon had given them, but they did not please him.

13 So he said, “What kind of cities are these which you have given me, my brother?” And he called them the land of Cabul, as they are to this day.

 

The footnote says Cabul means “good for nothing.” I looked it up and, sure enough, it’s still called that. You’d think at some point there would have been a rebrand.

The other thing I like about this story is that it has a happy ending, which, believe me, doesn’t always happen in Kings:

14 Then Hiram sent the king one hundred and twenty talents of gold.

 

 

Doom! Shake the Room

 

Image result for telephone

1. Apart From That, Mr. Brzezinski


At 3a.m. on 9 November 1979, [National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski was telephoned at home by his military assistant, William Odom, who told him that he had just heard on his communications net that 200 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States … He told Odom to put Strategic Air Command on stand-by. A few seconds later, Odom called again. He now said that NORAD had reported that 2200 missiles had been launched. Brzezinski rang off, got out of bed, took a deep breath, and was just about to place his call to the sleeping President and suggest a full-scale retaliation against the Soviet Union when Odom called for a third time. This time he reported that other warning systems had not picked up the launch of any missiles.

 

That, from 1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink, is an amuse-bouche for the tale of Stanislav Petrov, without whose insubordination I’d be writing on a cave wall, if at all.

 

Continue reading “Doom! Shake the Room”

Sandblasted

 

Glances, bases, hearts … That’s what I thought people stole. Who knew this too: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sand_theft

 

***

 

This artist's illustration shows the comet 'Oumuamua racing toward the outskirts of our solar system.
“‘Oumuamua Races Toward Outskirts of Solar System” (Artist’s Concept), NASA/ESA/STScI

 

So, I don’t know how I missed this, but apparently we had an interstellar visitor a while back, ‘Oumuamua. I learned about it from this interview with the chairman of Harvard’s astronomy department. I’ve found myself thinking about what he said a lot, sitting at red lights and stuff. These excerpts should give the idea:

We have no way of knowing whether it’s active technology, or a spaceship that is no longer operative and is continuing to float in space. But if Oumuamua was created together with a whole population of similar objects that were launched randomly, the fact that we discovered it means that its creators launched a quadrillion probes like it to every star in the Milky Way.

***

If to judge by our own behavior, it seems to me that the likeliest explanation is that civilizations develop the technologies that destroy them …The technological window of opportunity might be very small. Sails like these are launched, but they no longer have anyone to broadcast back to.

***

My premise is cosmic modesty … there are more planets like Earth than there are grains of sand on all the shores of all the seas. Imagine a king who manages to seize control of a piece of another country in a horrific battle, and who then thinks of himself as a great, omnipotent ruler. And then imagine that he succeeds in seizing control of all the land, or of the entire world: It would be like an ant that has wrapped its feelers around one grain of sand on a vast seashore. It’s meaningless.

 

As quoth Nigel Tufnel: “It really puts perspective on things, though, doesn’t it?”

 

Special English

 

Years ago I spent some time in Central Africa. I had a shortwave radio, but it was too complicated for me to figure out, and reception wasn’t always that great, so I’d listen to whatever I could pick up. That’s how I learned to dread Voice of America’s Special English. It was like being stuck in a Bob and Ray routine. Two decades later I find myself thankful for its existence.

 

 

Before winter break I had my students read VOA’s abridged version of “The Gift of the Magi,” perfect for English learners. (Seriously: the first few paragraphs of the original are crammed with highfalutin vocabulary.) It’s part of their American Stories series, which offers a canonical sampler, if apparently filtered by expired copyright.

Now, I consider myself passingly acquainted with the literature of my homeland. If you were to demand my immodesty, I would even confess having contributed thereto. But I’ve read only two stories on that list, and “The Gift of the Magi” is one of them. And: Fitz-James O’Brien? Hamlin Garland? Never heard of them. Sheesh.

My one-man book club’s 2019 reading list is shaping up. Yes, I’ll read the unabridged versions.

 

New Year’s Address

 

If you cannot fashion your life as you would like,
endeavour to do this at least,
as much as you can: do not trivialize it
through too much contact with the world,
through too much activity and chatter.

Do not trivialize your life by parading it,
running around displaying it
in the daily stupidity
of cliques and gatherings
until it becomes like a tiresome guest.

 

– “As Much As You Can,” C.P. Cavafy: Selected Poems, translated by Avi Sharon, Penguin Classics, 2008.

 

The Daily Stupidity! How is this not a newspaper? I’d title this blog The Fortnightly Stupidity, but it doesn’t have the same ring, does it.

Anyway, the translator’s bio induced in me powerful jealousy. First, because it says he “works on Wall Street,” which I suspect is a polite way of saying he makes a pile of money. Second, unless there’s more to Wall Street than I’ve understood, poetry translation would not be his day job, and I begrudge those who excel in secondary occupations (present company & Cavafy et al excepted).

I’ve been studying French for twenty-five years and still probably couldn’t translate Hatchimal instructions. I’d certainly lack the grace with which this translator handled “cheat sheet.”

I do, however, know my bas from my elbow.

 

My Christmas Card to You

 

I just got my caroling schedule and, alas, further posting is right out until after the Yule.

Speaking of miraculous births, though. You know that “We got a great big convoy” trucker song? I was surprised to learn it had anything to do with Mannheim Steamroller. Also, to the extent that I ever considered the name Mannheim Steamroller, I figured it was some groovy Manfred Mann/Jefferson Airplane-type concoction. Who knew:

With the cash he’d earned from “Convoy,” Davis decided to start his own band. He took to describing Mannheim Steamroller as “eighteenth-century classical rock.” The outfit was named after the Mannheim roller, an intense melodic crescendo developed by the court orchestra of the German city of Mannheim, in the mid-seventeen-hundreds.

 

Well, Gentle Reader, I leave you with this Christmas story.  If you don’t know it, it’s a good one (NB the tree part, not the preceding event).

As quoth Diamond Dave below: may your days be blessed with the very very best.

 

 

The Dummy

 

Photo of “Harvey” simulator from the Duke Human Simulation and Patient Safety Center, Gene Hobbs via Wikipedia

After Tuesday, Gentle Reader, your attempted expiry in my presence may be less unwise. I’m going for my third CPR training.

The first, about a decade ago, I made a hash of. I couldn’t keep anything straight. The instructor was very nice about it, and easily forgiven if he went home thinking the problem with education in America was idiots like me.

The second time, a few years later, was at the NICU. It was an exit interview of sorts with a nurse who ran through various scenarios with a little fake baby. I don’t remember much; it mostly scared the daylights out of me.

Around the time of my first CPR training, I had a week of jury duty. After the jurors had been selected, a court officer gave us a talk about what to do the next day. This is what happened:

Continue reading “The Dummy”

Scissors!

 

Since neither labor nor Providence has brought me – yet, anyway – wealth, on Saturdays I buy a scratch ticket. Along with it I get copy of the Financial Times, just so I’m prepared.

Granted, the real estate pages give me the devil’s own time deciding where I’d move, but otherwise I like the weekend edition because it always has stuff like this: a profile of the only scissors maker left in the UK. (See what they did there with the title? -ed.)

I try not to talk too much shop here, but among the many things teaching has taught me is to appreciate good scissors. Inferior scissors, man.

 

 

In fact, I looked it up and the very word scissors was, in the mid-19th century, “an expression of disgust or impatience.”

 

Thanksgiving

 

 

Last year, each Friday, I taught a double block of Science class. Early on it became apparent that if our sanities were to be maintained, the students and I would have to find something active and engaging to do.

I put a request on DonorsChoose for some engineering kits. And on Giving Tuesday, a local comic book store stepped up and paid for the whole thing, over five hundred dollars’ worth. For the rest of the year, double block was a joy. The kids were totally into it, as was I.

Thank you, Hub Comics, for making our lives a lot better.

This Friday (and thereafter), Gentle Reader, shop there!

 

Astronaut Training

 

Image result for apollo 11

If I devote just one hour a week to running, I can stay in good shape. I do this by running four times a week on my local track, two miles per outing, and timing myself. In my Gemini days I could make two miles in thirteen minutes, but my time has gradually crept up, and today I feel as if I am going to cough up a lung if I do it in fourteen. This pace can be examined from an Olympic or a geriatric point of view, and is either tortoise-like or spectacularly fast. Personally, I think it’s pretty goddamned swift …

– Michael Collins, Command Module Pilot, Apollo 11

 

I had all but stopped running last year, but when I read the above in February, I started again.

What followed was the brutally unforgiving process of making it up to one mile, then two, and then – more or less – the above routine. I was humbled. Two years before I’d run a half-marathon.

Granted, at some point the digital arrangement on my scale would have educed a similar resumption. I like to think, though, that it’s due to the power of literature to change the reader.

The thing is, I’ve just read this, and it too is powerful:

I believe that the good Lord gave us a finite number of heartbeats and I’m damned if I’m going to use up mine running up and down a street.

– Neil Armstrong, Commander, Apollo 11