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.

 

 

Handel With Care

 

 

He was stubborn, astute, determined, cunning, art-loving, gregarious, solitary, humorous and wonderfully compassionate and generous in his dealings with the Foundling Hospital, the Fund for Decayed Musicians and the Lock Hospital for women in distress.

-Review, Handel in London: The Making of a Genius, Financial Times, September 29/30, 2018

 

Fund for Decayed Musicians? I had to look that up. Turns out it’s legit, and has a much nicer name now.

You’ll have to look up the hospital on your own, though.

 

Reading Comprehension

 

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Last summer Rod Stewart came through Boston for a private concert. The newspaper mentioned he’d dined someplace downtown. I was surprised because I’d been there once myself, for a fundraiser. It’s one of those shiny Irish pub simulacra.

The thing was, the article said he dined there twice. I remember thinking: Huh? I’d have figured Rod Stewart tours fine restaurants via champagne swilling sediari.

All of this is not to express concern for his standard of living, but rather to illustrate my default state of incomprehension. It’s not just politics or etc that baffles me, I can’t even read the About Town section without scratching my head.

Being, into the bargain, an ESL teacher – a job where incomprehension is not wholly absent – and dad to two four-year-olds, which… well, the other day Twin 2 pointed at a picture of the Eiffel Tower and said it looked like a cowboy hat. You get the idea.

So I trust you will indulge me when I say how proud I am to have read and understood this sentence:

One of Mexico’s favorite ways to express anger is from a viral 2010 commercial by an Egyptian dairy company called Panda Cheese that features a panda wreaking havoc on an office.

 

 

PS listen to this gem, from a half-century ago. Those horns! PP Arnold! What happened, Sir Rod? I don’t understand.

 

Shortcuts

 

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There are no such universally well-dressed people in the world as the Americans. It is not only that more of them than of any other nation have good clothes to their backs, but their garments are better made and adjusted to their persons, and worn with easier grace.

The Bazar Book of Decorum, 1870

 

What is everybody in shorts for?

– Jerry Seinfeld, 2014

 

***

Twin 2 delights in seeing joggers wearing shorts in the winter. “That’s silly!” she exclaims.

“Oh, it’s silly,” I mutter.

Actually, I don’t know why it should bother me. I have a fairly enlightened attitude toward shorts in that I am willing to relax their prohibition in the event of sport or labor.

A couple of years ago cargo shorts were in the news as the subject of sartorial dispute. (As if it were a reasonable position not to find them ghastly.)

What sticks in my mind, though, is that someone had done his PhD dissertation on cargo shorts. Which means they’re not just apparel, they’re a scholarly pursuit.

Athena wept.

 

Library Edition 2

 

 

There was an institution associated with the festivities of the Middle Ages of a peculiarly interesting description. It was the custom to elect a director or controller of the sports, and he bore the title of the “Lord of Misrule.” It was his business to determine to what extent the hilarity should be carried; at all events, to decide when it should stop. I think the idea is a very good one. We have a modification of it, the modern office of “Master of Ceremonies.” In Scotland, the name given to this functionary was “Abbot of Unreason,” an office prohibited in 1555.

A Few Reflections on the Rights, Duties, Obligations, and Advantages of Hospitality, Cornelius Walford, 1885

 

Lord of Misrule! Abbot of Unreason!

Until the snow day on Thursday I hadn’t known about any of this. (Although, considering my teaching career, I say with confidence that some of my students may have.)

Wonder what went down in 1555 to put an end to it. Bet there’s a historical novel in there for Irvine Welsh.

While the position’s benefits may appear evident, I looked it up and there were also disadvantages:

Roman soldiers would choose a man from among them to be the Lord of Misrule for thirty days. At the end of that thirty days, his throat was cut on the altar of Saturn.

 

***

I found that volume in the Boston Athenaeum. It was the fourth of 133 printed for the members of London’s Sette of Odd Volumes, which is apparently the inspiration for the Club of Odd Volumes in Boston.

The Club of Odd Volumes is limited to 87 members. I’m not sure I could be their Abbot of Unreason, but if they need someone voluminous in oddity, they should sign me up. Either way, I continue to seek the establishment of the Boston branch of this club.

 

Over Here

In a few months, more than 53,000 men died on the front, more than in the Korean or Vietnam Wars… the months of September and October were the deadliest in American military history, including the Civil War and World War II.

 

I read the above in Le Monde and thought: That’s incorrect.

A commenter said the same, but the author replied to confirm the statements. I haven’t the stomach to investigate tallies of combat vs non-combat deaths, so I’ll take his word for it.

 

 

A few years back, suspecting that my high school grasp of World War One (roughly: Somme & Verdun & etc / Lusitania / AEF / Versailles) was perhaps insufficient, I read Hew Strachan’s The First World War. Turns out I was right. Golly, it was complicated.

But what struck me most about the book is that it contained very little mention of the United States. And I didn’t get the sense this was limey insolence on the author’s part; my fear is that – alas – a plausible concise history of the Great War can be written thusly.

Ah, Hew! Ah, Humanity!

 

 

The United States World War I Centennial Commission conceived it as a “heads of state” event and invited foreign leaders from Europe to Australia, said commission member Monique Seefried.

France’s president didn’t show up to Thursday’s ceremony, nor did any other heads of state. Apparently ours didn’t even RSVP.

I know America is not now best placed to instruct others on diplomacy – and that if it weren’t for France we’d be drinking tea, curtsying, and speaking English –  but it’s a shame this is the state of affaires.

 

PS speaking of matters lamentable, I didn’t know about Karl Muck, or that twenty-nine members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra were interned. Plus ça change…

The Southern Affront

 

A famous Australian children’s author was detained upon arrival at Los Angeles recently. She described the experience:

I have never in my life been spoken to with such insolence, treated with such disdain, with so many insults and with so much gratuitous impoliteness.

I haven’t read her books, but even if they’re that bad, this is no way to greet a visitor.

 

We Have Always Been At War With Australia

In 1942, the Allies slipped off their axis at the Battle of Brisbane.

(There was also an unfriendly match next door at the Battle of Manners Street. Gotta go with the Kiwis on this one.)

 

Strategic Mercy

When the world knows our fury, no worries, Australia fair:

We’ll save Australia
Don’t want to hurt no kangaroo
We’ll build an all-American amusement park there
They’ve got surfing, too.

 

Tactical Brilliance

American munition, Australian delivery:

 

(Paul Auster on Foster’s would be the converse, I guess.)

 

The National Anthem

 

1. Who’s on First?

Last week it was fractions, and I spent some time trying to explain how “equivalent” differs in meaning from “equal.”

We used currencies and first names as examples. Then we got into national anthems.

I’ll spare you the transcript, but there were several iterations of:

Mr. Sipe: Yes, but what’s the title?
Brazilian students: [with increasing impatience] Hino Nacional Brasileiro!

Finally I understood the Brazilian national anthem was actually called “Brazilian National Anthem.”

I’d hitherto assumed all national anthems had their own titles. God Save the Queen. La Marseillaise. O Canada. But the kids from Colombia and El Salvador and Guatemala affirmed that their anthems were titled like Brazil’s.

If you look at this list, you’ll see it’s a common phenomenon, sometimes to a fairly specific degree, e.g. The State Anthem of the Independent and Neutral Turkmenistan.

 

2. Of Thee I Sing

Now, if I’m going to make fun of other countries’ anthems, I must acknowledge that ours, about a war in which we botched the invasion of Canada and the British captured our capital, is set to the tune of a drinking song.

Still, though:

  • Yumi, Yumi, Yumi (Vanuatu’s got love in its tummy)
  • One Single Night (Disco Stu’s anthem? Nope, Burkina Faso’s)
  • There Is a Lovely Country (and Denmark wants you to guess)
  • The Thunder Dragon Kingdom (don’t mess with Bhutan)
  • William (Het Was Echt Niets)

 

3. Love and Crockets
  • It was honestly very cool when I said, semi-jokingly, “OK, who wants to sing theirs?” and bang, all of a sudden half my first period class were on their feet, belting out Hino Nacional Brasileiro. We were treated to La Dessalinienne, too. (That was it, though. My theory is there had to be a critical mass of at least four students from a country to agree to sing. I mean, if I was the only American and some fool math teacher invited me to sing The Star-Spangled Banner, I would not proudly so hail.)
  • Do check out the lyrics to Brazil’s: “Brazil, an intense dream, a vivid ray… Thou flarest, O Brazil, crocket of America…”
  • I think “valence” is a lovely word, and I think English would be beautified if we all said “equivalence” stressing the third syllable. (Also, I wish everyone would emphasize both the prefix and root in “extraordinary” like Paul Holdengraber does.)

 

Pop Quiz

 

1) What is the all-time bestselling Irish novel?

“In 1955, a Soviet delegation of writers learned that the author, long presumed dead, was alive in New York… living in obscurity, and due to Soviet copyright laws, she was unaware of her legendary status in Russia. The following year, Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson visited Moscow to arrange for payment of her long-overdue royalties.”

 

2) What is the second-oldest commissioned ship in the US Navy?

I knew the oldest, having toured it. Tours are available of this one, too, if you’re in the neighborhood…

 

3) What song charted each decade from the nineteen-twenties to the nineteen-seventies?

A local station plays old American Top 40 shows in their entirety on Sunday mornings. It’s easily my favorite thing on the radio. Last week’s was from 1975, and old Casey dropped the above knowledge before playing the disco version by the (excellently named) Wing and a Prayer Fife and Drum Corps.

Keep your feet on the ground, Gentle Reader, and keep reaching for the stars.

Continue reading “Pop Quiz”

Reasons To Be Fearful

 

1. Ooh, My Head

“This is my nuclear nightmare.”

One day a couple of decades ago the science teacher told our class that if a hydrogen bomb were dropped on Boston, it would melt the school. I found this disturbing.

At night I’d lie awake and listen to planes on the flight path into Logan and wonder if they were Soviet missiles. Evidently none was.

As with so much in life, turns out I was worrying about the wrong thing. And if you have five minutes to spare, you’ll hope this former defense secretary is too:

 

2. Damascene Moment

“The problem with luck is that it eventually runs out.”

If you believe wrenches can be dropped without consequence on Titan II missiles, the PBS documentary Command and Control will convert you. It certainly rapped my head in with a ratchet.

 

3. Cold Brew

“I think we can anticipate we’re going to have some very complicated and very difficult problems.”

Fret not, Gentle Reader, it’s not all Boom! Shake the Room.

Errol Morris’ short documentary – not, alas, about Rocky Road – reminds us we should be frightened of quiet stuff too.

I discussed the film with my mother, a biochemistry professor who retired from the National Institutes of Health. She had not seen it.

Now, granted, me explaining the film was probably like an ape dancing to describe city hall. But it’s worth recording that when I asked if the US should destroy its remaining smallpox virus, she said yes.

And it was the way she said it: her objection didn’t seem to be based so much on morality – though I wish to state for the record that my mother dislikes smallpox – but rather on technical obviousness. Her response had a hesitant, perplexed assurance, like she’d been asked if shouting could make rain stop.

On a happier note, Demon in the Freezer added to my vocabulary “synamologous” and to my list of band names The Fully Informed Persons.

 


PS a few months back the post was Reasons To Be Cheerful. Yin and yang, baby.

Rent Jar

 

Last week, due to a poorly constructed funnel, I produced a minor avalanche of peppercorns.

Such events are so routine in La Comédie Pete I wouldn’t normally record this, except that, hours later, I was surprised to read the following non-restrictive clause in the obituary of the UK’s richest landowner:

Its long-term lessees later included the Connaught Hotel and the American Embassy, which paid a peppercorn annually.

Personally, I could have done with a bit of explanation. I guess the Gray Lady agrees with General Yeager.

(Pssst, crib off this.)

Paid the Cost

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I was recently charged one (1) dollar to borrow a DVD from a library. I’m not talking late fine, either: I’m talking cash to walk out the door with it.

O tempora! O mores!

I considered offering to paint over the “Public” on their sign outside; then I figured they might propose I instead erect a sign stating “Public” doesn’t mean “Pete’s personal means of dodging a Netflix subscription,” so I demurred.*

All this reminded me of a Planet Money podcast on why some veterans hold a grudge against the Red Cross. Seriously.

Surprised, I’d asked my daughters’ grandfather – whose wealthy uncle once paid for his trip to Southeast Asia – if it were true.

“Yeah!” he replied, “because of the donuts!”

Continue reading “Paid the Cost”

Sister Act

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Twin 2 said to Twin 1 the other day: “Hey! Be nice to me! I’m your sister!”

I found this hilarious.

I was reminded of it reading this Globe article on Boston’s sister cities. (Wikipedia informs me such municipal relationships are also known as “twin towns.”)

I grew up in Boston, and have a MA in international studies, but even if you’d threatened me with baked beans, I’d have been unable to name a single sister city. The article provides introductions. (Sekondi-Takoradi! Who knew. Don’t act like you did, either. And, Wikipedia informs me that their pro soccer team is the most excellently named Eleven Wise.)

Sekondi_Wise_Fighters_logo

I also found this hilarious:

Other than the fact that Kyoto and Boston have been sister cities since 1959, for example, “We do not know more than that,” a spokesperson for Kyoto’s Prefectural Government Tourism Division said. “Thank you for your understanding.”

Per the city’s website, Boston seems to know a bit more about her Japanese sister, but then again, per the article, “seems to have forgotten Beira, Mozambique.”

C’mon, twins! Be nice to each other.

twins

Soft Landing

“I live on an air force base. I know what I’m talking about. If a plane manages to avoid radar detection up to its landing, it could land and come to a quiet halt at the end of a runway without anybody noticing.” -Major Ido Embar, Israeli Air Force

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When I first started living near railroad tracks, passing trains would awaken me. Now they almost never do. Still, I can’t imagine how anyone could not notice a large plane landing nearby.

I just finished Operation Thunderbolt by Saul David, a heck of a tale about the Israeli rescue of hostages in Uganda. Major Embar’s above declaration is but one of many memorable details.

Others include:

 – One of the hijacked passengers had once decided to kill Klaus Barbie, and had a “gun hidden under a poncho when Barbie stopped three yards in front of him.”

– Henry Kissinger’s phone call to Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz upon hearing that Israel was prepared to negotiate for the hostages’ release:

Dinitz: [Idi Amin] would have slaughtered them: men, women, and children.

Kissinger: I wonder if that would not have been better. Then you could react.

Continue reading “Soft Landing”

Problems of Leadership in a Submarine

 

“If the Nazis had started the war with as many submarines… as they had in March 1945… they might have won it.”

Andrew Roberts, The Storm of War

 

Last night I watched Black Sea, a heist movie about a multinational crew in an old Russian submarine attempting to retrieve gold from a sunken Nazi submarine. I liked it. The crew’s, uh, difficulties – radix malorem and all that – led me to recall a lecture I once came across.

Problems of Leadership in a Submarine* was lectured by Captain Wolfgang Lüth, a U-Boat ace. I found it intriguing for a few reasons, one of them being that his remarks seem to indicate he was not wholly inhumane.

E.g. he’s quite compassionate when talking about discipline:

  • In almost every case the purpose of punishment is to educate the man, not to destroy him. The chance to redeem himself is often a strong incentive for such a man.
  • After you have had a heart to heart talk with them you reproach yourself for not having talked with them before to help solve their problems.

Wolfgang_Lüth

Then there was some stuff I just found amusing:

  • The officers must be inventive in order to keep up the men’s enthusiasm, particularly on long trips. (The examples are entertaining, my favorite being: a lying contest, and everybody had to tell the story over the loud-speaker that he would tell at home at his father’s beer table… We got some really wonderful tall stories, some of them fit to print.)
  • I had an officer who had such a dry sense of humour and was so calm that he fell sound asleep during a depth-charge attack. He only woke up when the instruments started to fall on his head. Since this was his off-duty period, he actually went right back to sleep and only mumbled something about ‘turbulent times.’ When we surfaced and found ourselves in a minefield, I asked him whether he thought we should keep more starboard or port. He gave me an honest answer. ‘It doesn’t matter; if we wake up tomorrow we have steered right.’

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Lüth gave the lecture in the final days of 1943, by when it should have been clear – at least to someone so evidently wise – that the war would not end in Nazi victory.

You know what else surprised me? The circumstances of his death. According to Wikipedia:

Returning blind drunk in the night of 13/14 May 1945, Lüth failed to respond to the sentry’s challenge and was shot in the head by 18-year-old Matrose (seaman) Mathias Gottlob, a German guard. 

Live by the Kriegsmarine, die by the Kriegsmarine, I guess.

And who knew: a U-Boat commander could still have a state funeral eight days after the Third Reich’s surrender.

 

*This title reminds me of Lt. Aldo Raine’s line in Inglourious Basterds: “You know, fightin’ in a basement offers a lot of difficulties. Number one being, you’re fightin’ in a basement!”