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.


Bons Mots


Image result for constellation airplane air france


I’m reading this novel Constellation, about a French plane trip gone wrong, but the damn thing is in French, so I have to keep reaching for the dictionary.

I looked up the word estiver and was not helped by learning its definition was “estivate.”

So I looked that up in my Oxford dictionary (where it’s “aestivate,” maybe because they’re British or something) and was enchanted by the definition: to spend the summer in a state of torpor.

How have I gone my whole life without knowing this word?

Image result for eddie cochran summertime blues


I also learned another word flipping through the pages (le YOLO, c’est moi). I honestly don’t understand how we don’t see it all over the place:



Oh Quelle Sensation


One of the problems with my French is that I cannot for the life of me keep straight plafond and plancher. Since one means floor and the other ceiling, this can introduce startled disbelief to otherwise mundane exchanges.

Le Lionel Richie de la conversation, c’est moi!

Speaking of which – and no disrespect to Lionel – it was only recently I learned his is not the best “Dancing on the Ceiling.”

C’est celui-ci, say me:



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.

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.

Slap, Memory


The other day I asked for a kiss and instead received a slap. Though only a toddler, my daughter’s got a mean open hand, and I see no reason to interpret this exchange as anything but portentous.

That very afternoon, coincidentally, I was passing out laptops for a reading level test, and asked a student of Haitian descent to help. He indulges my attempts to practice conversational French, so I said, “Tu peux m’aider…” and briefly blanked before coming up with “…distribuer?”

The exertion of retrieving “distribute” must have slapped some synapse that in turn recalled this article, about a student attacking a teacher in Bordeaux. What’s memorable to me is its use of “distribute” with “slaps”:

…il a croisé le professeur, l’a roué de coups et lui a distribué des gifles…

Voila l’élégance française!


PS slapping teachers is bad in any language. Please don’t.


Ooh La La


I’m sure Arne Duncan’s office is fine and all, but I bet it’s not lined with gold leaf. And in France the top education job is apparently “a prestigious position held by monumental figures,” too. Secretary Duncan may, alas, have better luck installing gold leaf in his office than commensurately elevating its status.

More happily, I like how Madame le (la?) ministre’s mom said, “Don’t worry, life has more imagination than you.” It’s the glass-half-full version of “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.”