Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Muellers

As reported in the New York Times this morning, the baseball player Don Mueller died Wednesday at 84. This news made me think of two people: Bill Mueller and Don Miller.

First, the scoop on Don Mueller (pronounced Myooler). He's known for delivering a single right before Bobby Thomson hit The Shot Heard Round the World, which led the NY Giants to the pennant in 1951. Mueller, known as "Mandrake the Magician," had a way of directional hitting that made him difficult to retire. In that famous game, he singled past Gil Hodges, later injured himself sliding into third, and was taken off the field.

"Mueller was lying on the clubhouse table when he heard the crowd erupt. 'I couldn't be certain that it wasn't something good for the Dodgers because there were plenty of Brooklyn fans in that park [. . .] There was no radio in the clubhouse. But I knew pretty quickly what had happened once the players started to pour Champagne over my injured ankle."

Bill Mueller (pronounced Miller) meanwhile, is known for delivering a single up the middle for the Red Sox, sending Dave Roberts homeward in Game 4 of the epic 2004 ALCS.

Don Miller (pronounced Miller) is my mother's father. If we were Swedish, he would be known as Morfar--Rob Strong recently gave me this speech: "Your mother's mother is Mormor; your mother's father is Morfar; your father's mother is Farmor; and your father's father is Farfar."

Don Miller was not Swedish, so I called him Grandpadon, which sounds like a really sweet dinosaur.

When Don Mueller hit his single in 1951, my mom was 25 days old and Don Miller was 32 years old. Bill Mueller was 33 years old when he delivered his single. My own Far, Robert, is 60 and once hit a homerun in Hadley, but this might have been a tale he told me when I was little. Little is known about whether he ever had Champagne poured on him. Dave Roberts once pointed at me on Boylston Street after the 2004 World Series while I was reverently shouting his name.

Little is known about whether Don Miller ever singled or homered or drank champagne. He did break his pinky playing basketball in Hadley, leading to an amputation, but this might have been a tale he told me when I was little. And he did like whiskey sours.

He, like me, was color-blind.

John Ruskin was not color-blind. The greatest art critic of the 19th Century, he often studied the work of J.M.W. Turner. My Mor's initials are J.M.W. (Jean Miller [not pronounced myooler] Wanczyk).

Ruskin said this about art:

"Now, I want a definition of art wide enough to include all its varieties of aim. I do not say, therefore, that the art is the greatest which gives most pleasure, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to teach, and not to please. I do not say that the art is greatest which teaches us most, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to please, and not to teach. I do not say that the art is the greatest which imitates best, because perhaps there is some art whose end is to create and not to imitate. But I say that the art is greatest which conveys to the mind of the spectator, by any means whatsoever, the greatest number of the greatest ideas[.]"

By no means are my Mueller/Miller ideas great, but the thing which brings to mind the greatest number of ideas for me is the New York Times. Is it art? Probably not. But it helps me sink into pattern-making of a Saturday morning, and that is my favorite pastime.

So, thanks to my Mor and my Far, who bought me a home delivery subscription to The Grey Lady, I read for awhile this morning, reconsidered my Morfar and my Mueller, and had a way to pleasantly bandy with the one-page of Ruskin I read on the toilet.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

English Interlude - An Epitaph, Now with Puns

As regular readers know (hey dad!), I've been pulling pieces of paper out of my Milwaukee Brewers hat and those pieces of paper have been telling me what part of the British Canon I need to read next--that meant I spent much of my holiday season thinking about World War I.

Well, I finished Vol. F and felt triumphant, then a little perplexed, then mildly lonely, ecstatic, persnickety, peckish, and finally inspired to cut up more prophetic little slips of paper. So I now have a couple dozen in that old hat, each corresponding to a piece of literature from Volume E (The Victorian Age).

Today I read some Ernest Dowson (1867-1900)--who seems to have coined the phrase "days of wine and roses," and I also took in a spot of William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), who wrote a poem called "Invictus." There was a footnote on the title that suggested that "Invictus" meant "medicated bandages." Hmm, I thought, audibly, and then spent a couple seconds figuring out how the movie Invictus, which I have not seen, could have possibly been about medicated bandages.

Maybe that Rugby team of Matt Damon's was like a medicated bandage for South Africa. Yeah, that's it. I was satisfied.

Of course, as my eight years of Latin (and my toddler's logic) should have made clear to me, "Invictus" means "Unconquered." I'd mixed up the footnotes (Henley's poem "In Hospital," situated above, references "Plasters").

That's the most interesting thing I can think of to write about Henley, who is troublingly jingoistic. I'm troubled by troublingly jingoistic British poems (cf. my late immersion in World War I literature).

N.B.: Two other things I learned today which my eight years of Latin should have made clear to me. 1) I.e. means id est, "that is." 2) Cf. comes from conferre, and means "bring together." (I already knew what N.B. means).

Dowson and Henley having been consumed, I turned to Michael Field, who I assumed to be a straightforward, straight-laced Victorian poet writing about work/god/godlessness/fairies and the like. Turns out "Michael Field" was two women--Katherine Harris Bradley and Edith Emma Cooper (1846-1914; 1862-1913). Ironic enough? Not in the least. These pseudonyminous ladies, who were also romantically attached, were more than pseudo-related! Finding out about this aunt-niece pair shocked me into reading all of their poems.

They insist that they will never be ones "to take heed" of judgment. They want to continually dwell with those who are "Indifferent to heaven and hell."

Even wearing my aesthete, continental, moral-relativist hat, my best analysis of their poetic arrangement is still "ick."

After I considered these relations, I moved to a heavy hitter--Christina Rossetti.

Rossetti's poem "Song" could fit on a gravestone or come out of the mouth of a sedated Fozzy Bear. Such is the moroseness. Such are the puns:

"When I am dead, my dearest,
Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

I shall not see the shadows,
I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming
through the twilight
That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
And haply may forget."

"Wilt" in the first stanza makes us think of the green grass just above it but also of the archaic "will," and perhaps even "will it." It seems like the speaker wants to leave her beloved with two messages: 1) be comforted by forgetting me; 2) don't you dare forget me. 1) Be as natural as the grass, and happy. 2) Be so obsessed with me, and grief-stricken, that you become the grass above my grave.

The second stanza turns on "haply," which I can't help reading "happily." But, literally, the last two lines mean "maybe at the point of death I'll have enough left to think about you and my life, and maybe I won't." But with the pun, that double-message of the first stanza seems to resonate. The speaker seems worried that she will have consciousness and worried that she won't at the same time.

You can still be you, offers death. Only, you'll be dying and then in the ground.

Or, you can be absolutely nothing, no one will remember you, and/but/so you won't even know any better

Both would have their happinesses, Rossetti seems to suggest, with the help of some wordplay. Wokka, Wokka, Wokka!

(This reminds me of Thomas Hardy's poem, "Ah, Are You Digging on My Grave?")

Meanwhile, CR got quite a little bit happier in her poem "A Birthday," during which her "heart is gladder [. . . / ] Because my love is come to me."

The following is just a terrific evocation of loveuphoria, and I can sense Rossetti about to burst into a musical number as she writes (The British are always sitting at a desk on the left side of my imagination, windows at the right, and it's always 11am).

Despite what follows, Rossetti never married, having turned down two proposals for religious reasons. Still, one day when she was around 27, she felt like this:

"Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me."

Bullish on Analogies

While I was preparing my essay today, I got involved in a lengthy back-and-forth with Rob Strong--who has an Economics degree--about Economics. As is often the case, this diversion seemed more interesting to me than what I was straining to work on. So, if you'd kindly wait until tomorrow to see the fruits of that daily strain, and to see further mixed metaphors, I'd be much obliged.

In that strained fruit's stead, I present. . . "Strong and Wanczyk Discuss Investing and Develop Ludicrous and then Incrementally Less-Ludicrous Analogies about Same" (brought to you by Maybelline: "Maybe She's Born with It. Maybe It's Maybelline.")

For a number of years, Rob has been developing a theory that the stock market cannot be intelligently navigated by an individual lay-investor. He believes, correctly, that there are many millionaires who have already outsmarted said lay-investor, that those people-bots have thought, 100 times, whatever clever thing the lay-investor has thought before the lay-investor gets out of his PJs.

But he also believes, perhaps incorrectly, that knowledge is essentially useless for the lay-investor in this context.

One of the great things about this discussion is that neither of us necessarily cares about it. And so it's perfect ground on which to construct analogies. The discussion becomes about whose analogy illustrates the debate more than it is about who's right.

Today, he began his argument with a forward of an article by the very tall libertarian Megan McArdle, a section of which I include here:

(Photo Credit: the awesomely-named David Shankbone)

". . .I am rather skeptical [that] specially clever investment allocations are really possible. We can argue about whether Warren Buffett's results are random chance or inherent genius, but here's one question we probably aren't going to argue about: neither you or I (or almost anyone else) is Warren Buffett."

Rob Strong:

"What I've been saying! (The bit about the impossibility of outguessing the market, that is.)"

Dave Wanczyk:

"I still think someone like me--who's minorly knowledgeable--could probably do better at investing than a dog could. I read this whole article. Please give me a treat."

Rob Strong:

"You know a lot more about roulette than a dog does, but neither of you can calculate the ball's trajectory on the fly. In the meantime, ten thousand millionaires wake up at 5:00 am every day and do nothing but look at balls. "

Dave Wanczyk:

"On the roulette analogy:

Dogs don't know any numbers. So I have a much better chance to win at Roulette than a dog. Just as I could probably make more money by investing in Apple than a dog could if he stepped on a button that indicated Taco Bell or Acer or Enron. He might step on Berkshire Hathaway. Good dog.

(This image will only appear on this blog when I am explicitly discussing canine-gambling).

The millionaires can't guess Roulette's results either. They have more balls perhaps. But unless the house always loses, or always wins, there's still a reason to know marginally more than not.

Entertaining but confusing analogy.

Meanwhile, many people know more about everything than I do, and though you make a provocative and useful point, I think it's hasty to say that I can't be somewhat successful by getting an edge on most people.

If the fix is in, it's in. Assuming the market's not fixed, I'd like to offer another analogy:

1) Adam Schecter [sic] knows much more about football than I do. (Aside: He's also an unbearable ass). But unless there's a deep conspiracy, he doesn't always predict the outcome. 2) I know more about football than my mom. 3) Adam Schecter will predict that the Packers will win. So will I. The Packers will win. 4) My mom believes the Bears are good because the last time she heard about them--1986--they were winning the Super Bowl.

So, if we all put our money in to a bookie, I do well on this bet. Companies are not sports, of course. Things are baked in that I don't know about that favor the Schecters. But, again, unless you're willing to say that the stock market is a total cheat, knowing more always helps.

An effective analogy you might employ: say I attempt to beat Gary Kasparov at chess. It doesn't matter how much I learn. He's going to beat me every time.

However, when I invest, I'm not always playing against G.K. Chessterton (there it is Homer, the cleverest thing you've ever said, and only Rob was around to hear it). I may be investing with Gary Kasparov. So, if I learn The Amazon Gambit, for instance, we will both defeat the investor who's still caught up on The Snackwell's Defense.

The fact that I may be making money at the expense of others is a separate concern. Believe me, I have considered withdrawing my funds on account of the recent Occupy (un)pleasantness. However, I also don't know enough to ultimately decry our brand of capitalism.

Enjoyable discourse."

Rob Strong:

"I love this discussion.

Why does the dog need to recognize numbers at all? He could bet red (or 33) all night and statistically tie every strategy you would devise to beat him.

[Note from Wanczyk: See a forum on dogs in casinos here].

As regards your football analogy: picking the winner of a football game is like picking the winner of, say, global profits. It's just a fact that one company will have the most profits in a given year, and while your mom might have great affection for Chevrolet, people who are paid to know about stocks will know with a high degree of certainty that Exxon will make more profits this year. Your mom uncontroversially loses this wager.

But investing in the stock market is more like wagering on the point spread. You mom picks the Bears for historical reasons, or even based on the color of their jerseys, and she'll win her bet about half the time. Adam Schefter [not sic], with all his expertise, loses his point-spread bets about half the time (I assume). Nobody beats the spread (in the long run), because like the price of a publicly traded stock, it is a product of the hive mind, the Market. In both cases, experts spend their waking hours devoted to figuring out the correct price (or spread), and if the Market disagrees with them, the price/spread will tend to correct towards the "true" value."

[Note from Wanczyk: Rob seems to be putting his faith in experts and in the hive mind. Do the experts beat the hive mind? Schefter doesn't beat the spread].

Dave Wanczyk:

"We have come to a very useful analogy. I think it's still possible, however, to have some sense of what the hive mind will do by knowing more about the hive mind and the hive mind's(') foci.

Say the spread on the Packers-Bears is 10 points in the Packers' favor. Everyone knows the Packers are good. But I've noticed that they will be particularly good against the Bears' passing defense. I assume that most others haven't noticed this, or haven't noticed it enough.

Similarly, Apple is set to sell many IPads. That has helped determine the price of Apple stock. But I believe the Indian economy won't be as bad as the hive mind thinks, so I predict, because of my knowledge, that even more IPads will be sold in India, and the stock will outperform.

I won't beat the spread every time. Apple won't sell more IPads every time.

But that's why they play the game."

Rob Strong:

"But here's the thing: most others have noticed these things about iPads and India, because it's their job to do that. You might happen to be right on any individual bet, but over the course of a year, you will not be right more often than the South Asia Consumer Tech Markets analyst at Goldman Sachs, or the one at Merrill Lynch, or Credit Suisse, and the three dozen at whatever the big Indian bank is.

You might flip 100 coins this year, and get 53 heads, and think that you're really good at flipping coins and that you've earned a 6-head return on your coin flippery. This is a false inference. Next year you will flip 46 heads, and you will blame the Greek public sector for your woes, and you will also be wrong then.

The people who constitute the hive mind also have people who are paid to know about how the hive mind thinks. And those people have computers that respond to hive-movements faster than you can click "confirm trade". "

There's no free lunch, there's no hundred dollar bill on the sidewalk, and there is no slack in the stock market left for non-expert individuals to pick up. (The slack was picked up at 9:30:01 AM by a computer in suburban Connecticut). Any gains from specific trades should be attributed to good fortune and a generally-rising market, no matter what story someone tells himself about how he outsmarted the world."

Dave Wanczyk:

[Then proceeded to offer further analogies about surfing, carnival-barkers, chess (again), and, finally, ITunes. Suggested that he had both won and lost the argument. Realized, as it got dark outside the Athens Public Library, that he spent his day this way instead of analyzing Pork Belly Futures. Rejoiced].

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Postales del Fin de Mundo

On Monday, Zokeler, Megan and I had an End of the World Dinner. We weren't influenced by Mayans or Nostradamus or Y2K12, but by a coincidence of alcohol. Seeking the evening's spirits, I saw La Fin Du Monde, a Quebecois beer Megan likes, over at Village Bakery, and then we remembered that we'd previously had a wine called Postales del Fin de Mundo, Postcards from the End of the World.

I asked the cashier what she thought "end of the world food" could be and that conversation got me started. We had a brick of frozen smoked bacon left over from Zokeler's last visit that I wanted to get rid of, and I figured saffron, the spice that once caused "The Saffron War," should be in an apocalyptic meal. Typing in "Smoked Bacon AND Saffron," I found a recipe from the restaurant Per Se (check the headline in the link to see that this was an auspicious stumbling-upon).

After a couple hours and a half-dozen explosions, we ate Lobster Corn Chowder (with pollock, the middle class man's lobster, substituting for the clawed thing--even if the world was ending, I didn't see any reason not to save 16 bucks). The soup was pretty delicious, an A, but nothing to send a postcard from the end of the world home about, per se.

We woke up the next day, thankfully, and ate even more smoked bacon. And that diligence, I think, fully justifies this posted card.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Zany Weather Report

Zany accu-weather Meteorologist Joe Plicka here to tell you that it's 64 degrees and sunny in Athens. Appalachia'll be dreaming of a muddy Christmas. That's it from here. From mine to yours, Happy Holidays.

This is Newschannel True: Count on the Truth.

Money Matters

Dr. True's Soup and Read's film reviewer, JK Zokeler, and I are in the midst of a project to watch all of the Best Picture Oscar-winners that neither of us has seen. These are:

All Quiet on the Western Front (1931), Grand Hotel (1932), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), The Great Ziegfeld (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Ben Hur (1959), Patton (1970), Dances with Wolves (1990).

Each time he visits, we tick one of them off the chronological list. This year we managed to consume Wings, The Broadway Melody and Cimarron, the first three award winners (1928-1930). It's been fascinating to see the change in film-making techniques that occurred during this time. Wings, a movie about WWI pilots, is silent and jumpy, but has a functional plot. The Broadway Melody, camcorder-ish-ly amateur, has nothing to recommend it, but it does include, as you'd expect, lavish musical numbers that must have blown the folks away back in Hoover-times. And Cimarron is both a talkie and a technically astute, if terribly flawed picture that has an impressive stage-coach action scene.

Watching all of these is a chore, a history lesson. They proceed. We feel like we're finishing our homework.

Exponential improvement came in a movie like It Happened One Night, during which there's no hint of silent-era over-acting or technical growing pains. And it seems like movies made after 1934 or so, even though they can be culturally laughable and somewhat foreign have at least a tenuous connection to what we now recognize as coherent visual storytelling.

All of that is to say that during Cimarron, which has been mostly discredited because of its casual racism, we had time for some other discussions. So while the actors blithely overran Cherokee territory to get their hands on prime property, J.K. mentioned that he'd just bought a new bed, and I was curious what he did with the old one. He'd gotten rid of it and I suggested that it could have been donated. He agreed but wondered whether much good--altruistic or practical--comes out of passing along our outworn things, especially items as personal as that.

"I'm not sure that anything you get for free works out in the long-run," he said, in as many words. We'd previously agreed that giving away used stuff can be iffy. Sometimes one man's trash is trash.

But before he'd even finished his talk about long-runs, I countered that my washer and dryer had been attained for exactly zero dollars and that they have been a constant blessing. As the actors laughed patronizingly at their poor, black servant, I thought I had won the argument.

But last night Megan was drying some slippers and our hand-me-down, we-beat-the-system dryer vociferously broke. Estimates suggest it will cost nearly $200 to fix, precisely the amount of the modest raise I secured yesterday on the phone while the actors railed against inter-marriage and its deleterious effect on proper society.

Must all of what I too-confidently profess be undermined by sneering, expensive coincidence? Can't I once outsmart the kind of conventional wisdom Zokeler was repeating? Was there really a joke about watermelons in Cimarron?

(I believe this is our model.)

The dryer, and the effects of my thriftiness, got me thinking about how often I pat myself on the back for beating the money-game, getting a good deal on hummus, skimping on a plane ticket, delaying the purchase of a car and counting that delay as slowly-accruing savings. For me, and maybe for most people, knowing the rules of this game and playing the game well are more than just a hobby. This game becomes an identity. The savings of 40 cents is so marginally important to our well-being, and yet we talk about it because those savings mean we're winning, constantly grinding out the tough yards in our pitched battle against, what, caring a little less about money? (This goes only for the people for whom, like me, 40 cents really doesn't matter. I cop to my lite-elitism on this matter).

But as much as I don't want to be a person who greedily saves on secondhand junk-appliances, I don't want to greedily give up on the idea of making-do, don't want to let my standard of living run away with itself so much that I look cheap-stuff in the mouth and buy spanking-new because I've been duped into believing that's the only proper path.

That I'm always somewhere on this aggravating continuum means that I've lost, doesn't it? That thinking about the proper value of stuff is my real pastime?

The answer may come in one hour when Tri-State Appliances (which states?) arrives at my apartment and determines for me how good an American Consumer (or Resister) I am. Will the repair be cheap? If so, I've won. Something.

Enough to rent Grand Hotel maybe. Though Grand Red Roof Inn would probably be a better deal. It doesn't really matter. I'll talk through both of them.


UPDATE: It was Tri-County not Tri-State. But they couldn't tell me which counties. Meanwhile, $106.69! Free Dryers for everyone!

Curiously, both Mikes who fixed the dryer are in a band called Station Break Psycho Blues Band, and will be appearing at Abrio's in Athens with Conan O'Brien's trumpeter, in March.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Cinema Interlude

I watched A. Hitchcock's spooky-funny "Shadow of a Doubt" the other day and have a good solid crush on its star, Teresa Wright (1918-2005).

Wikipedia (which I donated to yesterday, and for which I encourage your monetary support) has this tremendous nugget on T. Wright:

"[Samuel] Goldwyn immediately hired the young actress for the role of Bette Davis' daughter in the 1941 adaptation of Lillian Hellman's "The Little Foxes," signing her to a five-year Hollywood contract with MGM. Asserting her seriousness as an actress, Wright insisted her contract contain unique clauses by Hollywood standards:

'The aforementioned Teresa Wright shall not be required to pose for photographs in a bathing suit unless she is in the water. Neither may she be photographed running on the beach with her hair flying in the wind. Nor may she pose in any of the following situations: In shorts, playing with a cocker spaniel; digging in a garden; whipping up a meal; attired in firecrackers and holding skyrockets for the Fourth of July; looking insinuatingly at a turkey for Thanksgiving; wearing a bunny cap with long ears for Easter; twinkling on prop snow in a skiing outfit while a fan blows her scarf; assuming an athletic stance while pretending to hit something with a bow and arrow.'"

A(n) hilarious, imaginative list from a no-nonsense woman who seems worthy of my anachronistic flutter.

English Interlude

I'm finishing up my select-an-author-from-a-hat project today, which means I'll have finally completed the Norton Anthology (Volume F). In a strange stroke, the last piece I picked out is the first story in the book, "On the Western Circuit" by Thomas Hardy. So, in order to complete my study of the 20th Century British canon, I'll be reading a story from 1891 later this afternoon.

But since it's Friday and since I plan to lightly tipple tonight, I thought I'd pass along some lines from A.E. Housman's "Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff," an encomium (and criticism) of booze. In it, he's comparing the effect of poetry to the effect of drinking and identifies proper times for both:

"[. . .] Why, if 'tis dancing you would be,
There's brisker pipes than poetry.
Say, for what were hop-yards meant,
Or why was Burton built on Trent?
Oh many a peer of England brews
Livelier liquor than the Muse,
And malt does more than Milton can
To justify God's ways to man.
Ale, man, ale's the stuff to drink
For fellows whom it hurts to think:
Look into the pewter pot
To see the world as the world's not.
And faith 'tis pleasant till 'tis past:
The mischief is that 'twill not last.
Oh I have been to Ludlow fair
And left my necktie God knows where,
And carried half-way home, or near,
Pints and quarts of Ludlow beer:
Then the world seemed none so bad,
And I myself a sterling lad;
And down in lovely muck I've lain,
Happy till I woke again.
Then I saw the morning sky:
Heigho, the tale was all a lie;
The world, it was the old world yet,
I was I, my things were wet,
And nothing now remained to do
But begin the game anew.

Therefore, since the world has still
Much good, but much less than ill,
And while the sun and moon endure
Luck's a chance, but trouble's sure,
I'd face it as a wise man would,
And train for ill and not for good.
'Tis true the stuff I bring for sale
Is not so brisk a brew as ale:
Out of a stem that scored the hand
I wrung it in a weary land.
But take it: if the smack is sour,
The better for the embittered hour;
It should do good to heart and head
When your soul is in my soul's stead;
And I will friend you, if I may,
In the dark and cloudy day.


Housman also ends "The Chestnut Cast His Flambeaux" with this solid stanza:

"The troubles of our proud and angry dust
Are from eternity, and shall not fail.
Bear them we can, and if we can we must.
Shoulder the sky, my lad, and drink your ale."

Will do, Alfred Edward, sir.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


My friend's daughter is doing a high school project on Iceland, and when she told a group of folks about it the other day, we all stammered off our "facts" about the island nation in the Atlantic Ocean whose capital is Reyka-something-vek-spelled-who-knows-how. All of us made fun of our lack of Iceland-knowledge by spouting off about pretend national heroes, fake imports, fantastical international skirmishes, the Icelandic space program, Bjork.

And then I blurted, with exaggerated pompousness, "You know, Iceland has a population of 343,000." Everyone stared. I stared at myself. What had I just done?

"How--Wait, do you know that?" they asked.



I'd derailed the "we know nothing" joke to make the "I know ridiculous things" joke.

I like that joke better, and I think I made fun of myself sufficiently afterward, but I see where I might have curtailed the fun.

Here now could follow an essay on my slight discomfort with group-joking, my obsession with population figures, my desire to journey to Iceland, which--like Wisconsin, Oregon, New Zealand, Mauritius, and Belgium--is pleasantly under the radar. There'd also be a place in that lengthy composition to discuss the untraceability of what's eventually gotten trapped in our brains like so many Icelandic prisoners (there are about 104 of them). About how and from where we've gleaned our mental dust.

But I don't really know anything about that stuff.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

English Interlude - Ford Madox Ford

A few years ago, I taught a class called "Love/War" in which I tried to look with my students at the love stories within war novels. I picked the wrong books, though, so we mostly watched movies with that mix: "Cabaret" being the one I remember most.

The following passage from Ford's A Man Could Stand Up--, a 1926 novel set at the end of WWI, could have qualified the book for that class.

What's excellent about this series of Ford novels (Parade's End, it's called) is that I'm never sure if I'm supposed to respect the main character, who's also a strong influence on the narration. So, I find myself nodding my head and then wondering whether the book is actually criticizing this straightforward, brave, intelligent, stuffy, emotionally-stunted statistician-turned-captain.

A little set-up. Tietjens (whose name I have great difficulty pronouncing in my head) has an awful wife and a lovely young friend named Valentine. The wife's main goal is to destroy and humiliate him, while Valentine is completely on his level, a complementary intellect and temperament. While Tietjens is away in France, he mostly ignores his longing for Valentine, but when he's (shell) shocked--and sometimes when he's not--she flits into his mind:

"The beastly Huns! They stood between him and Valentine Wannop. If they would go home he could be sitting talking to her for whole afternoons. That was what a young woman was for. You seduced a young woman in order to be able to finish your talks with her. You could not do that without living with her. You could not live with her without seducing her; but that was the by-product. The point is that you can't otherwise talk. You can't finish talks at street corners; in museums; even in drawing rooms. You mayn't be in the mood when she is in the mood--for the intimate conversation that means the final communion of your souls. You have to wait together--for a week, for a year, for a lifetime, before the final intimate conversation may be attained. . .and exhausted. So that. . .
That in effect was love."

See what I mean? I'm pretty sure there's something deeply incorrect about this vision of love. Then again, Tietjens is all about moderation, patience, communication, and there's no immediate sense that we're supposed to dislike him.

He just wants someone to understand (I mean that sentence in both ways). It reminds me of a line about Mr. Ramsay in Woolf's To the Lighthouse:

"It was sympathy he wanted, to be assured of his genius, first of all, and then to be taken into the circle of life, warmed and soothed, to have his senses restored to him, his barrenness made fertile, and all the rooms of the house made full of life [. . .]."

Why am I so stirred by needy, icy (selfish in Mr. Ramsay's case) Brits from the first quarter of the 20th century? The above would suggest that I want someone to understand me and be understood by me, but that's not necessarily a deep concern--Megan already gets and laughs at my half-asleep improvisations; I mostly understand and laugh at hers; neither of us seems trapped in an, ahem, modernist jailhouse of the self with the inadequacy of language as our bars and unceasing isolation as our faceless warden.

But I guess that's the fear.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Built Like a Brick Idiom

Last week, I was eating lunch with a friend who said an early car of his had been "built like a brick-shithouse." Obviously, I knew this meant it was built solidly, but "brickhouse," thanks to Lionel Richie, also inexplicably means sexy (I get the "built solidly" part of being good-looking, but it's no compliment to be compared to an outhouse).

So, I wondered, did "Brick Shithouse" originally mean strong, sexy, neither, both?

I posited that the phrase probably came from World War I, when outhouses might have been built stronger to resist shrapnel; but also that "brick shithouse" might have become colorful, memorable language because a permanent structure like that in a war zone could have become an symbol of absurdity. Therefore, I wondered if "built like a brick shithouse" actually meant built unnecessarily or disproportionately.

But the phrase has been evolving for awhile and things are less clear than that. Some history, then a theory.

The ur-reference to "Brick Shithouse" (to be henceforth called B.S.) comes from 1922. Jim Tully, "a vagabond, pugilist, and American writer" from Ohio--this is an epitaph I'd enjoy having, if not earning--had his character, a boxer named Emmett Lawler, say, "Every time I fight him my hands are swollen for a week. He's built like a brick schoolhouse."

Tully, an odd literary figure known for writing about the early-Hollywood scene, was a master of hard-boiled American idiom, but it seems unlikely that he coined the metaphorical brick line.

Here's the tremendous(ly sexist) dedication in Tully's Emmett Lawler.

Even if Tully did coin it, "brick schoolhouse" clearly refers to a man here, a solid, probably unattractive man.

Tully again used a variation, "built like a brick barn," in a 1936 novel, Bruiser, but the Canadian writer, Earle Birney employed the genuine article in his book, Turvey: a Military Picaresque. (aside: Birney's most famous poem is called "David" and is widely anthologized in Canada). In the following, we can see some solid World War II lingo and then the B.S. insult:

Once used to refer to a strong man, brick buildings are here used to refer to ugly, perhaps mannish women. But Turvey is the main character and we learn elsewhere that he likes plump ladies, so Boggs's fat jokes are probably meant to seem jerky. Either way, somewhere between 1948 and 1977, Brickhouse further evolved.

So here's my theory. The brick metaphor had been percolating for awhile. Then came the Great Depression. As I've learned today, the Works Progress Administration "trained an entire workforce" of folks to build up and repair outhouses to a higher standard during that time (thanks to the authors of Outhouse for the scoop).

Jokes about government waste aside, many people worked to construct stronger privys in the 30s, which now had to have concrete foundations. My guess is that don't-tread-on-me types would have seen this as an unnecessary improvement and an intrusion (Keep your hands off my toilet paper!). Disproportionately-built outhouses, then, might have become tantamount to showiness and monstrosity.

When soldiers from all over the country (and the continent) got together for the war--and when they felt like cursing--they might have thought back to those unnatural shithouses. The women they were with in France, instead of being yellow roses of Texas, might have seemed out-of-place to them, unpleasant, overly-strong, like that damn government-issue brick shithouse. Later, though, as the soldiers thought back to their war-time glories, maybe these Helens seemed ideal.

And that's how a Brickhouse can be a man, a beast, a beauty, and a cliche that, like an outhouse itself, is both useful and a little uncomfortable.

This is a stretch, I admit, but no less likely than any of the other improbable journeys this bizarre idiom must have taken to become what it is.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Sunday, December 11, 2011

English Interlude - in Partial Defense of Jewel

In her song "Kiss the Flame," the singer Jewel took some liberties with a particular word, "casualty," in the phrase "with such casualty." This malapropism led Kurt Loder to respond, curtly, "'Casualty' doesn't mean that." He suggested that Jewel might have meant "casualness," which, though it is a word, is about as poetic as "propriety" or "associative" or "malapropism."

I found some slight vindication for the lovely Jewel yesterday morning. Who will sa-a-ave your literary reputation, Jewel? Surprisingly, Thomas Hardy will. In his poem, "Hap," he writes about his anger at the force he sees controlling the universe. Why can't that force just be straight with him? Why can't life be purely rough instead of pock-marked by what he sees as distorting joys?:

If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: 'Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love's loss is my hate's profiting!'

Then would I beat it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
--Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan. . . .
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

These last two lines could mean "Would that these purblind had. . ." Then the message would be I wish chance/fate/God/"These-purblind-doomsters" had doled out joy in as many parts as pain. But I think he's really lamenting joy itself because joy continues to fool him into something--comfort--that is illusory.

Meanwhile, my hands are small, I know, but they're large enough to type the never-before-realized Hardy-Kilcher connection. So, "casualty" almost always refers to the dead or wounded of war, but both poets use it differently here, Hardy to refer to chance and Jewel to refer to a casual nature.

Before we get carried away, I should say that Hardy has history on his side while Jewel only has her yodelly voice. Around 1500, the writer J.O. Halliwell (related to Geri Halliwell?--the late-90s music connections continue) wrote, "I have seyn men bothe ryse and falle, hyt ys but caswelte!"

Thinking about it this way, I see that "casualty" as it's commonly used is a strangely archaic , Ecclesiastean euphemism. Shakespeare used it as a pun to mean both chance and injury--"Augward casualties, bound me in seruitude"--but when we say There were four casualities, are we still saying there were four victims of circumstance? And isn't that an odd way to think about war deaths, especially, considering that those circumstances have been imposed?

Is Jewel similarly anti-war? Unsure. She does sing for the troops with such casualty, as pictured below.

And she would be glad to know that, though she has much less history on her side, there is a reference in the Oxford English Dictionary that would have helped her in her Loder-skirmish. In 1886, a magazine referred to a place as "Casualty corner," and it's possible that they intended that to mean both Bad-Fortune Corner and Congregating/Hanging-Out Corner: "A Cas'alty Corner is a feature of every district of outcast London, is to be found wherever the poor of the great city most do congregate."

Casualty Corner also refers to a spot in France, within The Sausage Valley, during World War I. The Sausage Valley was so-called because Germans flew sausage-resembling zeppelins near the valley in order to survey, probably not with casualty.

As we ultimately evaluate Jewel in the context of "Hap," I say she should get some criticism; but I also defend the poetic license, even for someone who probably deserves to have hers suspended. She could, after all, very well be equating casualness with leaving it up to fate:

There are nightmares on the sidewalk
There are jokes on TV
There are people selling thoughtlessness
With such casualty.

Well, maybe that's a stretch. But my real problem is with the next line:

Oh where for art thou, Romeo?
Where've all the brave men gone?
Show me one man who knows his own heart
With him I shall belong.

Where for? I think it's wherefore, your Jewelness. And that means "Why are you Romeo?" not "Where are you Romeo?" Loder focused on the wrong literary mishap. Wherefore, Kurt? (Also, where are you, Kurt?)

But Jewel is pretty great anyway. At least Thomas Hardy thought so:

"Love is long-suffering, brave,
Sweet, prompt, precious as a jewel."



Incredible coincidence, as Bobby Moynihan plays an English Professor with a very specific interest in last night's SNL (which I missed):

Thursday, December 8, 2011


I've been working on a project lately to write down all of the movies I've ever seen, a lark that's taken about six hours up to now, spread over 12 or so days. I've been greatly aided by Wikipedia, which lists, by year, most, if not all of the movies I'm likely to have witnessed.

Some of the statistics I've gathered:

15: Number of movies released in 2011 that I've watched (all of them in the theater). Best so far: The Muppets, Moneyball, Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, Captain America.

47: Number of movies from my most prolific year, 2001, though that includes movies released in that year that I've since watched on video. 2001 was my freshman-sophomore year at Holy Cross and I went to the Kimball Theater movie every Wednesday at 1pm in what I called (pathetically) my only leisure time. Best: Waking Life, Wet Hot American Summer. Worst: Say It Isn't So.

I've seen 89 movies with R. Strong, including, in one day: Remember the Titans, Chocolat, Shadow of the Vampire, The House of Mirth, Billy Elliot, and Enemy at the Gates, the film from which the concept, "Crazyrussianwarsex" derives. I have seen 0 movies with Glen, pictured in the background.

7: Number of movies from 1981 and 1983, the low end so far (my study goes back to 1980 at this point). I've seen 8 from my birth year, 1982, including E.T., which my brother had just seen when I was born, leading him to declare that I looked like E.T. and that he wanted to go to McDonald's. Best: The Return of the Jedi (1983).

302: Number of movies I've seen in the theater, approximately, from 1987 to 2011. 25 years. 12 per year. 1 per month. According to the National Association of Theater Owners, the average ticket during that time cost $5.42 ($3.91 in 1987 to about $8 in 2011). My attendance, then, probably ran about $1,635.75, and, assuming each movie was about 100 minutes, I've spent a little over 21 days in the theater. If I'd spent a month, my cinematic rent would have run about $2,400.

3: Number of movies I've been to in the theater twice. They are Big Daddy, Mean Girls, and Meet the Parents. I went to Big Daddy twice because I twice tried to sneak into American Pie, in 1999, and twice failed. Though it seems I'd seen R-rated movies before that (Jerry Maguire on a New Year's Eve), Greenfield Cinemas had a real hang-up about American Pie, as did a movie theater in Atlanta that I later attended with my friends Dan Tirrell and Dave Goodman. They were both 17. I was a week or two short. Big Daddy it was.

I saw Mean Girls for the second time during a strange limbo, after Megan and I started dating but before I was her boyfriend. That period of time was 28 days. During that time, I saw You Can Count on Me, The Rookie, and Mean Girls, twice. No reason to believe that was indicative of any bitterness, since there was none.

I saw Meet the Parents twice during a strange limbo, after my first girlfriend and I stopped dating but before I believed it. That period of time was between 28 days and 1 year. That year, when I had very little leisure, I saw 47 movies. That 28 days, I saw Meet the Parents twice, and Dan Tirrell was there again for the second. Big Daddy and Meet the Parents may have been the only two movies I saw with Dan Tirrell. So, if I'm romantically unsure, and if Dan Tirrell is around, I might see Cowboys and Aliens in the theater again. Otherwise, no way.

816: Number of movies I've seen, approximate, that were released between 1980 and 2011. That total depends on whether or not I've seen Species, Mimic, both, or neither.

In scanning, I suspect that of these 816 I've seen The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Short Circuit, Flight of the Navigator, Spaceballs, and Wet Hot American Summer more than 10 times each. Short Circuit may take the ultimate cake. We had it on video back when I only went to school for half a day (Pre-School and Kindergarten, 1986-1988), and I feel like I watched it pretty much every morning. Unless I have a particular memory on a strange, glitchy loop, which is always possible.

Short Circuit was a Tri-Star production. I really enjoyed the flying Unicorn (redundant?).

The most troubling thing about this list, besides the fact that I've created it, is that I have a sneaking suspicion that the first movie I ever saw in public was Ernest Goes to Camp.

I'd love to add more to this, but I'm seeing Margin Call in 20 minutes.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011


What is the difference between over-thinking and sufficient thinking? Having been wrongly accused of the former, I'll use the latter to answer the question and offer a rebuttal.

The case is this: Rob S. (no, that's too obvious, let's call him R. Strong) believes I over-think my aversion to Facebook (a website on which I may or may not have a nebulous, negligible presence). He writes, "You are a classic over-thinker, and you are over-thinking this 1,000%." I, of course, believe I sufficiently think about my aversion and then follow that thinking by maintaining and strengthening my aversion.

First, we both agree that under-thinking is a scourge. Those who under-think their own country will be given to jingoism. Those who under-think advertisements will be driven further into impulse purchases, including holiday Lexi, over which purchases they have decreasing control. Those who under-think the food they eat will continue to consume dangerous amounts of orange, leading to degraded health.

Those who under-think about their partners will likely become boorish towards them. And those who under-think about their own lives and time, who are unexamined, will behave in ways they don't understand for reasons they don't understand, confusing themselves and others along the way, and playing out the clock as they engage in activities they don't want to engage in.

Because I have committed myself to battling ignorance and because I'd prefer not to be a jingoistic, boorish purveyor of confusion--with Cheetos powder festooning my cheeks--I am whole-brainedly against under-thinking and bristle whenever I hear the phrase, "You're over-thinking" or "You're thinking too much."

"No matter the scourge of under-thinking (which you know I agree with you concerning)," writes Strong, "the remedy to that is not over-thinking; it is sufficient thinking." More on that later.

Now, the negatives of under-thinking having been amply laid out--and amply apparent in our droopy-eyelidded poleis--let's look at the negatives of so-called over-thinking.

Over-thinking takes longer. Is that it? If so, I'll gulp that medicine any day of the week.

But that's not quite it. One can be said to be over-thinking if one spends too much time thinking about something that is not complex. 'Why does cheese taste good?' may not require an hour. 'Should I buy this dish soap or that one?' can almost never warrant more than a few minutes, environmental impact aside. Over-complicating is to be criticized because it takes us into the same muddle as under-thinking--the amount of time and energy spent considering an issue is not commensurate to the topic, and that effort, or lack of, leaves us confused.

But if something is complex, and if its effects on the whole of our contemporary society seem to be complex, is over-thinking that thing even possible? I would say the threshold is high and that it would take a truly enormous amount of thought to become an intellectual-extremist.

Certainly, we can't be completely consumed with one topic--Facebook, for instance--because that will lead to under-thinking other topics, and proportion is key. But why shouldn't we be able to mentally chew on a powerful, consuming entity that, to my mind, has been all-too-readily accepted as a dominant mode of communication--and a dominant mode of being if my experience with teenagers in the public library yesterday can be allowed to show me anything--by all-too-many people who have ceded their critical thinking skills in its bluish glow?

Why shouldn't a website that seems, I emphasize seems, to encourage inauthenticity and false intimacy and that may insidiously enable isolation be worthy of a couple minutes, or hours, of my analysis?

Socrates said about rhetoricians and dictators that they are "the least powerful members of their communities, because they almost never do what they want, rather than what they think it's best for them to do." Those in power don't really have power if they do things they don't want to do.

So why shouldn't it justify some of my inner discussion when people I respect seem to be swallowed into an online activity more than they would otherwise like, when they're sapped of power and time, and when they act unconsciously to continue that sapping activity, admitting that they've been swallowed, magnetized, etherized, enveloped by something they don't want to do? (Note: this is not Strong's professed experience, but it is an experience I've heard professed).

(A few moments of sufficient[?] thinking on the benefits of Facebook, which benefits include in-touch-ability, networking, efficient sharing of information, crowd-wrangling, and the encouragement of non-digital society (questionable). Those benefits may also include harmless, distracting fun, and the website may allow the shy to be more socially comfortable, the voiceless to be more politically active, and so on. It may let us stay more connected to our past acquaintances as well, and therefore to our past selves.

Additionally, if there used to be French salons and bowling leagues, and those were eventually replaced by postmodern, home-bound alienation, couldn't Facebook be said to be a reconstituted salon and/or bowling league in which ideas are shared, countered, and revised, and bowling balls are bowled? Yes. And the movement from Public-Square Life before Television to Overly Private, Withdrawn Life with Television to Reinvented Social Engagement after Television, via and post-Facebook is an interesting one. Possibly we've gained and regained. But there have been losses, mostly ignored, and those who talk about those losses--for one, the fact that my 18-year-old students seem less and less able to have actual, unstunted conversations and feel sad about that--are vigorously shouted down as over-thinkers.

I vigorously shout up!)

On thinking: Descartes believed it made him human. I don't recall any Cartesian worries about over-cogito-ing.

Hamlet thought, "Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Is my over-thinking actually giving something value it doesn't inherently have? No. Hamlet is way too stoic for me here, morally relativist, adolescent even. It's a tempting way of being--solipsism--but isn't it better to believe, "There are good and bad and thinking makes them clear?" Though that's not iambic (or is it--I'd want to over-scan it), and though my clarity idea may be philosophically-flawed, it seems practical and necessary to wrestle ethically with the major forces we encounter and ask whether they are good, bad, neutral. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" seems closer to the truth, and because of this multitude in heaven and earth, I prefer to over- and to sufficiently think than to risk under-thinking.

T.E. Hulme said: "I always think that the fundamental process at the back of all the arts might be represented by the following metaphor. You know what I call architect's curves--flat pieces of wood with all different kinds of curvature. By a suitable selection from these you can draw approximately any curve you like. The artist I take to be the man who simply can't bear the idea of that 'approximately'. He will get the exact curve of what he sees whether it be an object or an idea in the mind." I prefer, though I know I have oodles of rotten wood in this brain, to be an artist-carpenter of over-thinking rather than give in to unmeasured approximations.

(When hanging pictures, however, speed is to be valued, and though a level is sometimes useful, I prefer to wing it).

Meanwhile, isn't what is taken to be over-thinking actually just a willingness to express what one thinks? No one looks at me staring into space and says, "You're over-thinking." But when I say, "Here's why J.J. Abrams is tiresome, in three parts," my company counters that I'm over-thinking. No. I'm over-saying maybe. I'm misjudging possibly. But I'm probably not over-thinking.

It's the case that my thinking is either mis-expressed or my company doesn't want to muster the energy to delve into the issue I've chosen. So, "You're overthinking" must mean, "I've judged that your topic doesn't require as much of my energy as you think it does."

Which leads us to the difference between sufficient thinking and over-thinking. It is subjective. One man's over-thinking is another man's sufficient thinking. Nothing is over- or sufficient but thinking makes it so. (Wait. . .Okay, no, that construction works here better than it does for Hamlet because he's positing an amoral world and I'm just saying that we each have to judge what's a sufficient amount of study for each of us, and that the only two options are over- and sufficient.)

When this charge of excessive mulling--"You're over-thinking"--is leveled by Jamie Samuelson--a made-up, genderless, vapid person I sometimes meet in a coffee shop--well, I don't suffer that kindly. When it's leveled by the prodigious thinker, R. Strong, I'm given pause. Is he right?

In this case, it has been leveled by a person who's often known as an over-thinker himself. (Full disclosure: I admit that even I said, "You're over-thinking" to JK Zokeler a year ago when he questioned whether a Jeff Bridges' comic monologue was funny or not. In some cases, it seems that we do just have to accept a premise, especially in comedy, but JK Zokeler had the same reaction to me that I'm having to R., so I'm not sure yet--except to say that that particular sketch seemed inconsequential enough--and that was what made it funny--to let slide without too much criticism, but I could be wrong).

So, now that I've thought about all of this--sufficient thinking, Facebook, Jeff Bridges, bowling (these last two go nicely together)--here's the flesh of the cow. My friendship with Rob is largely based on thinking about things in a way that non-Us's regularly deem to be over-thinking. So when he says, "You're overthinking" it is somewhat like Megan telling me, "You know, you're a bit too married." Now, I haven't been hurt by this at all, just prodded to more thinking, so that's great.

But I also wonder whether my arguments about Facebook with Rob are particularly vexing to me because the most consistent, vocal, in-my-literal-face friend I have continues to argue for a mode of friendship--status updating and homogeneous glibbery--that is wholly different from the one we most heartily enjoy.

If friendship is eggs and Facebook friendship is Tabasco, then bring it to my table please, and promptly. But if Facebook friendship has the potential to be Egg-beaters, as I suspect it does, then I will continue to say "No Thank You."

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


My eyes are going--and it feels like fast--so much so that I'm drifting in highway lanes when I switch focus between my ever-weakened left and o'erstrained right; I'm royally squinting whenever I've had fewer than four cups of tea; and I'm entertaining, finally, the prospect of a life with pesky glasses and the pesky shift in identity those will bring about.

The newest insult has been the floaties. As I read, head tilted weirdly to counteract e'er-weakened left, a tiny little eye-mote bounces jauntily over each syllable as though my brain is teaching itself how to sound-out words again. This floating feature of fatigue has become much more common, and it's got half a mind--my floaty does--to organize into a colony of floaties (also known as floatators).

To taunt me, this new group will no doubt begin spelling out the number 30.

Last time I had an eye appointment, the doctor found a freckle in my right eye. I thought I'd been sun-screening my retina properly, but maybe I should have been using a higher SPF. As it is, my multiplying floaties are making me wonder if that sunny freckle-island is breaking up into mole atolls.

So while I'm trying to contemplate the deep complexities of British poetry, I'm forced to think concurrently about freckle-projection, brain trickery, eye blotching, and, very occasionally, I've been known to consider an imaginary young girl, dressed in an over-sized fairy dress, conjuring a tiny insect into my field of vision with her awful wand while softly singing, "Hey ho, Watch the fly, Hey ho, You're going to die."

This image is by Victorian fairy-painter Richard Dadd who, in an improbable verbal coincidence, murdered his father.

British Poetry + Increasingly Magnified Ocular Freckle = Odd Daydreams.

When I do die, I want to make sure there is some reading material in there with me. And some burrowing tool. I'd also like my Ohio University sweatshirt. Some smelling salts (just in case I'm still alive). Raisins. A Ham radio. Two golden chocolate coins for Charon.

And by next year, I'll have added glasses to that list, glasses with quarter-hipster frames and enough wideness to de-emphasize the huge size of my aging face.

Monday, December 5, 2011

English Interlude

Today in compulsory reading I've drawn Samuel Beckett's Endgame, but I also did a Ted Hughes poem, which is more excerptable.

I don't necessarily like Ted Hughes poems, and the fact that he is connected to Sylvia Plath and her suicide makes him feel like he's a steely, cruel, freezing-rain kind of presence. But this poem about Plath and Daffodils, called "Daffodils," is warmer, and though the surface message--stop and smell the daffodils--is familiar, I think he's really talking about the naive feeling that we'll be able to accomplish something over and over again, that we'll keep repeating good times, and have, in a term I coined the other day, Wednesdays that are Neverendsdays.

The plot of the poem is this: Hughes and Plath are picking daffodils (a classic and parodied British poetry trope--This response is written by a guy named David Martin, not me). But instead of musing about their beauty or engaging in other Romantic drifts, Hughes and Plath sell them:

"[. . .] Besides, we still weren't sure we wanted to own
Anything. Mainly we were hungry
To convert everything to profit.
Still nomads--still strangers
To our whole possession. The daffodils
Were incidental gilding of the deeds,
Treasure trove. They simply came,
And they kept on coming.
As if not from the sod but falling from heaven.

Our lives were still a raid on our own good luck.
We knew we'd live for ever. We had not learned
What a fleeting glance of the everlasting
Daffodils are. Never identified
The nuptial flight of the rarest ephemera--
Our own days!
We thought they were a windfall.
Never guessed they were a last blessing
So we sold them [. . .]

On Paying My Debts

In my ongoing need to repay debts my creditors have most likely forgotten about--and might I hasten to say that I hope God is this kind of creditor--I'm still trying to read books that I'd blown off in high school.

Unfinished books cause one minute of anxiety for: (every year they're not finished) X (the number of hundreds of pages in the book) X (1 + the percentage of the book finished). Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim is the pinnacle of what I'm calling the Anxiety of the Unfinished. Festering for 12 years. 300 pages. And I'd nearly completed it when I was asked to leave my senior year English Class on account of conduct unbecoming a preppy: I ventriloquized my teacher in a creative writing assignment, and since I'd wrongly convinced myself that I couldn't ever hurt anyone--being mostly inconsequential and good-natured--I failed to see how sharp I'd been.

C'est l'adolescence.

At that point, I never read anything I didn't have to, so I didn't finish Lord Jim, and, until yesterday, it remained nothing but a bookshelf-straining taunter, dog-eared up to the end, contemptible, contemptuous.

Lord Jim. 12 X 3 X 1.95 = 70.2 minutes of anxiety (plus at least two extra hours because of the circumstances of my chagrin). And I didn't know what was happening in it anyway! So, I was unmotivated to go back in, and yet after I'd spent a full few hours of light to moderate anxiety thinking involuntarily about its tiny, annotated arial, its baffling story-within-a-story, and its troubling imperial undertones, I finally took my medicine.

Because I've had it with saying "eventually," especially when it comes to small tasks. For too long I said I was going to re-read Lord Jim without any intention of actually doing so, and I finally figured out that this pose is useless.

I call it the Mom-in-the-Attic Conundrum, after my mom's consistent declaration that she will finally empty the attic when summer rolls around. Now, my mom is not a dishonest person. Maybe she believes she will clean out the attic each June 21st. (Maybe she's hinting that I should help her; meanwhile, if I say, especially in this context, that I will help her, I'll have to follow-through, so I'll hedge).

Anyway, I found myself falling too often into that pattern of anticipated achievement followed by prolonged procrastination followed by ultimate abandoning.

Now, I've swung around to the opposite extreme in some ways. Last summer, I told an old friend at a wedding that I would definitely see him the next time I was in Washington; his girlfriend looked at me with the "I know you're full of crap" eyes--we'd mostly fallen out of touch, and my banter was of a recognizable wedding genre: blustery bonhomie.

But I took her look as a deep challenge. I'm not the kind of person who fair-weather promises only to normal-weather back out. I sought him out in D.C. and we ate Ethiopian food. Because I will not be called a fibber. And because I love cardamom.

Then two weeks ago, after one beer too many at a poker game, I said that I would do an eating challenge with two other guys--the kind of empty-boast-bluff that used to sit in my stomach like a rock. But having boasted, I needed to carry out the deed; and the carrying-out-of-the-deed then sat in my stomach like a rock, but a nourishing rock of truth (and pork).

Lord Jim I also consumed. And so I've paid my debt to high school, as I paid my debt to college when I read The Adventures of Augie March, as I paid my debt to Central One Credit Union after I bought too many unread books, as I'll eventually pay my debt to my mom by buying her a lighthouse--which will not have an attic.

And then on to God (no anxiety equation), who isn't easy to re-read, keeps my credit score hidden, and has really weird, unliftable urns in his attic.

Thursday, December 1, 2011


This morning at midnight, Megan and I officially made it through November without turning on our heat--due in some part to unseasonable warmth and in some part to a recognition that our tiny future-pod of an apartment somehow gets up to 75 degrees even when it's chilly outside.

There are a lot of people to thank. First, my loving family. And all the folks at CAA, my agent, my scheduler. The wonderful designers of this airtight people-holder, which surrounds the two of our 98.6 degree bodies with a low volume of cooler air and has no window-leakage (not an industry term).

Thanks to our 95-year old downstairs neighbor who undoubtedly ups her heat at the first sign of a fear-mongery local news weather report. My father, who instilled in me an aversion to Thermostat-cranking. The good folks at Twinnings tea, who've marketed a warm beverage so delicious that we're compelled to turn on our stove every couple hours. Jimmy Carter. And Russell Athletic, which keeps me in hoodies.

Now the question is, How stubborn will I be? This morning, it had gotten down to 62 in here. There was a frost outside that had crystalized some spiderwebs on our deck, leading me to comment on "the frozen spiderweb of my heart." (I promised Megan as she left for work that I would not write that poem today, but the webs were awesome).

The short of it is that, Appalachian Warming aside, it's about to get butt-cold around here.

But I don't want to give in easily. So I think I'll turn on the heat when it gets below 59. That'll be the equivalent temperature of my old Grosvenor Street House, which, though it would rub its feet together, just couldn't figure out how to get warm.

Syd was a good roommate, if a little noisy.

In the winters of '06-'07 and '07-'08 (not '32), though the "heat" was pumping and the radiator smelled chocolate-y, I customarily slept in my dockworker's coat and orange winter hat, lovingly crocheted by my sister.

These sleepytime necessities combined with my scraggly beard to make me feel like kind of a tough-guy, and I enjoyed that, but Megan can't grow a good beard and doesn't have an orange hat, so we'll have to make the switch soon.

Next challenge, a December without hot water! No? January without Internet? Probably not. February without Walnuts? March without music? April without chard? C'mon, guys, let's do it! No-sandwich May? Baseball-free June?

July without arbitrarily-imposed restrictions adopted for the sake of providing some whimsical, possibly-deranged structure to my life? Never!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


Among the obvious falsehoods I've taken to be truth--this: when I was in fifth grade or so, around the time I started getting homework assignments that might take more than an hour, and around the time I started working past my bedtime to finish those assignments, I believed that any human problem could be solved by staying up all night.

I distinctly remember pondering this and deciding that the scientists at NASA must, with concentration and caffeine, design all of their rockets at around 3am, a magical time of creativity I'd never consciously known. Failing that, I decided that even if they didn't design their rockets in schematic-strewn somnambulant sessions, they certainly could.

Staying up into the wee hours and beyond was the ultimate dedication, and I think my faith in the all-nighter was akin to my faith in America's inherent problem-solving abilities. There were people staying up all night--I would soon be one--and there were people making world-altering (and correct) decisions--I would be one of those too--who succeeded through acts of will and sleep deprivation. That was all.

Maybe I picked this up from my brother, who, at 17, was embarking on his all-nighter era. A prolific procrastinator, he'd been known to write 25-page term papers during just a few late-night hours, accompanied by Letterman and, later in the evening, by a mustard sandwich. As I fell asleep and he set off to work, my confidence that we would both be awake-and-okay at 7am was unshakable. He'd polish off an A-paper; I'd get my rest; Cheerios for everyone!

Thus, if I stayed up all night, I told myself, I could surely finish the 63 pages of reading I'd put off on the first female doctor, Elizabeth Blackwell. (Before I zonked out at 10pm, 40 pages short, I might have learned that she had a glass eye, and I mightn't've, I can't quite remember).

Glass eye or no, my Blackwell failure only served to reinforce my idea about all-nighters. Sure, I hadn't tried hard enough, but if I ever did try hard, and if I ever worked through the witching hour and all the way to the finish line, dawn, I'd succeed.

This sort of idea is still a tempting fallacy. Someday, when I've expended all of my effort, done my very-stretched-best, then, yes, on that fair day my pumpkins will turn to carriages (I still tell myself that it wouldn't be that hard to write a novel in a month, or even over night, if someone was threatening me with death or aggressive tickling).

Incidentally, I also remember half-days from school (Wednesdays) seeming like periods of time during which the greatest things could be accomplished. One Wednesday, my friend Cheese and I vowed to complete the most difficult task we could think of. We would beat the video game Destiny of an Emperor (was there such a thing as Beating a Game before Nintendo? Did one beat Badminton, or Solitaire? Did the idea of Beating a Game change my generation's conception of fun? I, certainly, seem more drawn to the accomplishment of leisure than the diversion of it).

Though we reached the final battle, it was not our destiny to Beat the Game. I remember feeling disillusioned about half-days after that; they weren't afternoons of invincibility after all, even if I drank four cokes.

I had four cokes the first time I stayed up all night too, at the Sophomore Lock-in, a slumber party of sorts at my high school's gym. I didn't reverse any universal catastrophes that night, but I did watch Beverley Hills Cop and I did hit five straight 3-pointers as morning came on--a first and last for me.

It was quite something, and though the all-night experience lost some of its imagined luster, it did still seem exceptional, a feeling enhanced by out-of-body fatigue and the sense that those four hours between 1:30 and 5:30 were stolen, were never meant to have been a part of my life at all, sneaked.

2. When Mark McGuire hit his 62nd homerun, I switched channels all night to watch high-lights of the low line-drive over the left field wall.

McGwire's 62nd HR from David Levine on Vimeo.

Stupid Cardinals.

3. When the 2000 election got called and recalled and I kept declaring to my college hallmates, "I'm not going to sleep until there's a president." (As an aside, I don't remember much college-fervor for either candidate on campus, and that seems strange to me, as though that year is way, way in the past, back when it might have still been possible to avoid the forceful inanity which now demands a response).

4. Various scattered daybreaks which evade my memory and me, suns-under-the-clouds; but which I also know--from their small, residual warmths--to have existed.

5. Two all-night drives, one with Rob and Riley, one with Kaufmann. Saw the morning in the rearview.

6. And then there was a night rehearsing a play with Megan, after which rehearsal I tried to design the most glorious rocketship by asking her out, thought I'd failed, and learned that, though I couldn't do anything overnight, I could get big projects going full steam.

Meanwhile, I seem now to over-realize the limits of a day. At age 11, I felt infinity + 1 was a reasonable concept to be reasonably attained. I would do everything in life, and maybe I would do all of it in one, charmed, moonlit stretch. Wednesdays were Neverendsdays. 2am was a clock-stopped playground of achievement and productive mischief.

But as small tasks (like taking care of myself) expand to fill most of my time, and squandering fills the rest, I have to remind foot-dragging me to just start, just build the propulsion system. Figure out the insulation. Brainstorm the anti-gravity boots, though they'll eventually fail--those stupid boots, stupid sketches, stupid words I use to describe those stupid boots!--even if that failure takes more than an overnight.

I try to coax myself to keep imagining--even as they fade out--and keep designing--even as they sputter--my contrails.