My grandfather carved the beef and then a servant handed him a dish of potatoes baked in their skins. There are few things better to eat than a potato in its skin, with plenty of butter, but apparently my grandfather did not think so. He rose in his chair at the head of the table and took the potatoes out of the dish one by one and threw one at each picture on the walls.

The Summing Up, W. Somerset Maugham



[German Foreign Minister] Maas and the ambassador appeared to make small talk at the Bild event, but even that went awry. That same evening, [US Ambassador] Grenell said that, of all people, Maas was a fan of Kid Rock … Maas had never even heard of Kid Rock.

– “German-U.S. Ties Are Breaking Down,” Spiegel Online, August 21, 2019



Standing apart, Major Jaussi said to me, “The mortar is a dangerous weapon if they don’t know where they shoot. They shoot over the troops. If you are in the troop under the fire, you must trust them. We do such exercises, and they have to work.”

“Before they shoot, what do they do to make it safe?” I asked.

Captain Rumpf said, “They go to church.”

La Place de la Concorde Suisse, John McPhee


Three Pointers


Image result for basketball hoop


Need a little Yuletide cheer? Consider these activities.

1. Do You Hear What I Hear?

If you see a kid walking along bouncing a ball, order him to stop. Then say, all stern-voiced, “I need you to understand something. Are you listening to me?” The kid will nod. Hold your index finger to your temple and say, “No, I need you to really listen. Are you listening to me?” The kid will nod. Then merrily cry “You should hold on to the ball!” and slap it out of his hands.

2. Good Tidings to You

Let’s say you see a bunch of kids playing basketball, and a kid misses a shot. Interrupt the game by wading in and demanding a quiet word with said kid. Pull him aside. Lower your voice and say, “You do know…” Then pause, as if unsure how to proceed, so delicate is the matter in question. “You are aware that the ball is supposed to go into the hoop, right?” (It’ll take the kid a second to get the joke but by gum it’s worth it.)

3. Let It Go

This is a good one. Next time you see a pickup game, halt the proceedings and ask for the ball. Walk to some improbably distant point from the basket and say, “Think I can hit it from here?” Dismiss their objections and begin a laborious process of preparation. Roll up your sleeves. Count paces to the rim and back. Scribble calculations in a notebook (this teacher keeps one in his shirt pocket; perhaps you should too). The kids should be getting impatient by now. Ask for complete silence, face the hoop, and take your final stance. Then fling the ball in some other direction.



General Hilarity

Image result for george washington horseback

He knew how to present and preserve his dignity, and when you joined that with his very imposing appearance, his self-command made him a rather intimidating figure. He is someone who many, many people felt intimidated by.


George Washington, folks. Trifle who dares!

These guys, evidently:

Morris and Hamilton always get each other into trouble because they have the same sense of humor and they’re kind of practical jokers and it’s just a bad thing; if the two of them are together bad things happen. So… Hamilton says to Morris, ‘I’ll bet you a dinner you don’t dare go up to Washington and slap him on the back and say, ‘Damn good to see you, Sir.’

You’ll have to listen to Professor Joanne Freeman’s excellent lectures to see how that turned out.



Anyway. You know what’s funny about the current crisis in Korea? That’s right. Nothing.

But I think I can fix that.

I bet you a dinner you don’t dare go up to General Leem Ho-young and slap him on the back.

Image result for leem ho young


(Also acceptable: noogie, tickling.)


Unhappy Birthday 2


With lots of preliminary throat-clearing about how humor is subjective and etc, this is kind of a funny story.

So, for this other thing, I had searched Twitter for the young adult author Walter Dean Myers. Which brought me to this:



Tweet 1: Just found out that my uncle was killed yesterday night. Now I’m devastated. Not really in the party mood.

Tweet 2: My bday is so rough today because of my uncle’s death.

Tweet 3: Dang, my party is all messed up. But rest in peace Uncle Lee.

And that’s it. Three tweets to the account.

My first thought was: “Some poor soul [for the account was obviously not the author’s] took to Twitter, of all places, to voice grief, and met with the void’s embrace.” I found this saddening.

Second thought was: “This is the Twitter version of Hemingway’s six word novel!”

In fact, I even considered publicly directing attention to the account, I found it so remarkable.

Then I thought, ashamedly: “Good heavens, Peter, this is some poor soul’s grief, not a curio.”


Image result for light dawns


Now, though, I think it’s the latter.

The next day – my mind moves as Earth rotates, if at all – I remembered I’d once taught (!) Walter Dean Myers’ Bad Boy, in which he recounts the above incident.

So, some teacher had probably said: “Today, kids, we’re going to use technology! Tweet thrice The Sorrows of Young Walter!”

N.B. in the event I’m wrong this is not at all funny.


P.S. here’s the first Unhappy Birthday. And the one before that:



Idiot Winds

Image result for three stooges


“Giscard considered the Americans ‘a little naive in an involuntary way.'”

Jimmy Carter in Africa, Nancy Mitchell


I read the above and thought “Voilà le shade!” For whatever reason it recalled this verdict on la condition humaine:


“Yet we are chemosensory idiots.”

The Meaning of Human Existence, Edward O. Wilson


Sorry? What does either have to do with anything? Well, you see:


“One way to sum up the stupidity of this phase of my life, a phase I’m afraid is ongoing, would be to call it the phase of insights.”

The Dog, Joseph O’Neill


Reasons to be Cheerful


Author’s note: with all the general ghastliness of late, I thought it worth leavening the proceedings. Grasp your sides in advance.

Part I

My friend has been encouraging me to read this book for years. Having finally picked it up, I sent him this text:


Hilarious, right?

OK, fine, I’m ripping off a Twilight Zone punchline. But, as the saying goes: Talent borrows, Pete steals.

“O! Pete!” you cry. “Share more celestial wit, that we might not be obliged to thieve it!”

Alright. This next one’s pretty good. And anyone can do it, regardless of talent or genius.

Continue reading “Reasons to be Cheerful”

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.

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.