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:



The Verdured Margarita


I was once offered a ticket to go see Jimmy Buffett. My reply: “Buddy, I don’t sing along about margaritas, I drink ’em.” Then I blew imaginary smoke off my bepistoled fingers. Yippee Ki Yay, my good fellow!

I’ve got somewhat of that attitude toward reading books about books, or books about writing.

However, at the urging of someone whose opinion I esteem, I read Pen of Iron by Robert Alter. It’s about the influence of the King James Bible on American writers, namely Melville, Faulkner, Bellow, and Hemingway.

It’s one of those books that makes me realize that, when I read, I grasp insufficiently what there is to be grasped. Given the amount of my life I’ve spent reading… well, it would sober a Parrothead.

(And you know what else? I’ve never read a lick of Faulkner. And I tried The Adventures of Augie March, and, uh, didn’t get it. But I have read books by the writer Hemingway and they were good books and he wrote them well.)

Now then. I wish to talk about Something They Say, and I’ve resigned myself to Their Wisdom: if you’re reading a translation, you’re reading a different book.

Here’s what Alter has to say about Moby-Dick:

What is robustly odd in the English is regularized in the French: “Hindoo” becomes l’indienne; “wide-slaughtering” is simply destructeur,  and “unverdured” is interpretively translated and sadly flattened as infertile.

Alter’s unhappy verdict on translation:

What usually happens… is that a dutiful, more or less semantically faithful version of the original, employing a rather conventional set of stylistic procedures, erases a good deal of what is most compelling in the original text.

So if you haven’t yet read War and Peace, don’t sweat it. Go learn Russian first.


Resourceful Humans


Quite exciting, this computer magic: I just learned the word “educationalist” exists.

I thought “educator” was bad enough, as it combines inflationary titling (“team associate” etc) with a macabre,* Khmer Rouge-esque flair. Next they’ll be calling us “instructional delivery curators.”

It reminds me of a conversation with my dad, who worked for the VA. “Personnel!” he’d say when he picked up the phone, for that’s what his department was called back then. When I was just out of college and looking for a job, I made the error of mentioning that I was going to call a human resources department.

“What are you going to tell them?” he asked.  “That you have 180 lbs of human resources to offer?”

It’s been difficult for me to use that term without wincing since.

And, I just checked… but I won’t have the heart to break it to the old man: now the VA calls it the “Office of Human Resources Management.”


*In the original sense of the word as well as Anthony Blanche’s sense.




Update 1

I liked the look of the old site, but the thing was, the blog page loaded like you were in a Burkinabé internet cafe circa 1998. Now the blog page has been eliminated and the homepage is the blog page. (That sentence doesn’t entirely make sense to me, either.)

If by some e-sorcery you automatically go to “,” you will arrive at a sad little page that is blank but for “Blog.” I’m working on it.

All this throat clearing is to say: to enjoy the benefit of my opinion, henceforth just go to


Update 2



The obituary project now has a website, Last year the focus was strictly local; this year we’ll honor worthy local, national, and international citizens. Please follow our weekly progress on Twitter at @passed_present!



Tell Me What It Takes To Let You Know


“One brand of knowing (scientia) earns a ratty office and a shared secretary at the Heritage Foundation. The other (awareness) brings power, money, fame.”


You know how sometimes an adjective doesn’t so much clarify as call into question what’s going on otherwise? E.g. “real beef” or “sweet lullaby”?

The field of education has a lot of such worrying combos, like “balanced literacy,” “authentic understanding,” “student-centered learning,” etc. (Inducing winces for me lately are “action plan” and “critical thinking.”)

An excellent post by Michael Fordham, “Is ‘understanding’ a thing?”*, led me to recall Richard Ben Cramer’s masterpiece about the 1988 presidential campaign, What It Takes. In the chapter titled “To Know,” he explains how that “bland flapjack of a verb” has multiple meanings:

  • “the sense of acquaintance, of connaissance, but this is only the most basic way To Know.”
  • “knowing in the sense of knowledge, scientia, as in facts or familiarity.”
  • “Then there is the matter of being known, which can be more important than knowing.”
  • “Then there is another shade of the verb. To Know, in the sense of awareness. It is about what’s going on right now, and as such, it is Washington’s highest branch of knowledge.”
  • “a kind of knowing without being known to know, for which there is no word at all.”

If you haven’t read What It Takes, don’t be put off by its doorstoppishness. I read it when my twins were in their infancies, and it made the nights of diaper relays pass more happily. There is much to recommend it, not least the decency of the portraiture of the candidates. By the end I kind of liked them all, which is not how I started the book. It’s worth reading alone to know what Bob Dole went through.

And, waddaya know: Joltin’ Joe might run again.


*Fordham’s conclusion: “We have been conditioned in the field of education to be afraid of the word ‘knowledge’ and, perhaps because of this, to dress it up as something else. It’s about time that we stripped away these confusions and got back to the thing at the heart of teaching: knowledge.” Amen.


Daft Pop


When I was a college lad, I would sell my body – honi soit qui mal y pense – to medicine. There was a hospital across town that regularly needed human guinea pigs, as did I cash.

It was there, stuck in an MRI machine for some experiment or other, that I first heard Boney M, whose Christmas album (accurately titled Christmas Album) was on repeat for what seemed a rather long time.

I then forgot about Boney M entirely until I saw Touching the Void, in which a mountain climber, grievously injured and delirious, gets “Brown Girl in the Ring” stuck in his head. The poor man’s misfortune is increased by the fear that this will be the soundtrack to his death.

Boney M came to mind again as I read the accurately titled War Reporter, whose author describes a horrendous 1978 battle in which Ethiopian and Cuban forces, led by a Soviet general, defeat Somali defenders.

Why in Mary’s Boy Child’s name, you ask, would that make me think of Boney M?

No need to pay for my brain scan; it was, you see, that very same year that Boney M played Moscow. Apparently they were forbidden to perform “Rasputin,” which, if it weren’t for Stevie Wonder playing “Superstition” on Sesame Street, would be my favorite video.


Postscript: the lead singer of Boney M died in St. Petersburg, Russia, on the same day that Rasputin died.


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.


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:




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


“‘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.)



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 because 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:


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.