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Farewell

After 6,205 days on the job, I’m hanging up my spurs. Which means this blog post (number 1,627, for those keeping track at home) is my last. Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing.

I’m not really one for goodbyes, so I’ll just leave y’all with a little advice from the great Eubie Blake: “Be grateful for luck. Pay the thunder no mind—listen to the birds. And don’t hate nobody.”

Forget Everything You Learned in School, Part 17,593

On a flight home from grading hundreds of the 280,000 five-paragraph essays submitted for the Advanced Placement Test in English language and composition in 2007, an exhausted Edward M. White realized he’d had enough. He wrote a response—a five-paragraph essay on the five-paragraph essay. Here’s the fourth paragraph:

The last reason to write this way is the most important. Once you have it down, you can use it for practically anything. Does God exist? Well you can say yes and give three reasons, or no and give three different reasons. It doesn’t really matter. You’re sure to get a good grade whatever you pick to put into the formula. And that’s the real reason for education, to get those good grades without thinking too much and using up too much time.

Over at Aeon, David Labaree explores the “five-paragraph fetish” and how it came to be. “As so often happens in subjects that are taught in school,” he writes, “the template designed as a means toward attaining some important end turns into an end in itself. As a consequence, form trumps meaning.” Which means content and style are secondary—if not entirely unnecessary.

My Kind of Deadline

The most recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary—the 600,000-word “Victorian phenomenon” that is, in fact, my favorite lexical record—was published in 1989. The plan was to complete the third edition by 2005, reports Pippa Bailey, but “17 years later its editors are just halfway through.” In fact, Bailey adds, “it is unlikely that the third edition will be in some way complete within many of the lexicographers’ working lives.”

Nevertheless, if you’re a writer or aspire to be one, you’ll need some form of the OED. The 20-volume second-edition can be purchased for $1,215; a more practical two-volume “shorter” version (the one I use) is practically a steal at $170—though I found mine for only twenty bucks at a thrift shop. If you’re one of those weirdos who streams music and listens to audiobooks, there’s an online option as well.

But trust me: A good dictionary—even (or especially) one that takes decades to put together—is an indispensable tool for even the most casual of writers.

Miscellany

Elizabeth Corey praises the slow, humble work required of true scholarship: “Though it can be fun to act as an impresario or a firebrand—to write with confidence, erudition, and verbal swagger on the hot topic of the moment—the most meaningful writing takes place when authors do not call attention to themselves, but to truths concealed beneath the busy surface of everyday life. These insights are best conveyed in language that is crafted carefully and at leisure, with the overgrowth of pride and self-concern cut away so that the prose itself stands luminous.”

John Horgan ponders the profound philosophical questions raised by derealization: “Sages ancient and modern have suggested that everyday reality, in which we go about the business of living, is an illusion. Plato likened our perceptions of things to shadows cast on the wall of a cave. The eighth-century Hindu philosopher Adi Shankara asserted that ultimate reality is an eternal, undifferentiated field of consciousness. The Buddhist doctrine of anatta says our individual selves are illusory.”

Alec Marsh explains why the English love lazy sports: “The fact remains that getting out of breath playing cricket is like breaking a sweat on the golf links: it’s your body’s way of telling you you’ve got bigger problems to think about than your batting average. It’s time to visit the GP.”

You Are What You Read

I’m no Art Garfunkel, but I have been keeping track of my reading over the last couple of years. Just for kicks, you understand.

At first I was a little disappointed: I read 24 books in 2020, 27 in 2021, and am currently on track to read 32 this year. It doesn’t sound like a lot. Yet apparently I’m some sort of superhuman super-reader, since the average American adult reads fewer than 13. One in six doesn’t even read a single book over the course of a year.

What are y’all doing in your spare time? No, really. Most of us read around 300 words per minute. The average novel runs somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 to 100,000 words. Which means all you’ve got to do to beat the average is read 12 minutes a day.

Hell, at that rate you could read through the entire Harry Potter corpus in a year—and still have time for The Chronicles of Narnia.

I’m not convinced that more people reading more books is going to solve all our problems or anything like that; I’m just surprised that such a low-barrier pastime—one with fairly well-documented benefits (not to mention, you know…pleasure)—doesn’t get more love these days.

@#$%! social media, probably.

Quote of the Day

From the eminently quotable Cornel West, on the subject of American pragmatism:

We can go all the way back to Plato’s Republic, one of the founding texts of Western philosophy. There we see the battles going on between Thrasymachus and Socrates. Thrasymachus represents power, the idea that “might makes right.” And the younger generation looks to Socrates and says, is this true? Is it true that history is nothing but a slaughterhouse, as Hegel said, is it true that it’s just about might and power and domination? And Socrates says, no. Justice has to do with intellectual integrity. It has to do with philosophical inquiry. It has to do with some moral and even spiritual dimensions that are not reducible to might and power.

And that is the raw stuff for democracy, right? Because democracy says, Of course there is always economic and political and military power, but there’s got to be moral and spiritual dimensions rooted in the consent of everyday people. That’s what self-government is all about.

Travel Report

Had a picnic lunch with the missus last Monday in Lonerock, Oregon. We were on our way home from Redmond, having spent the weekend visiting family, catching the Saturday afternoon performance at the Sisters Rodeo, and taking in the High Desert Museum.

That’s it. That’s the post. Just figured y’all should know. (Is this what social media is for? Asking for a friend.)

Music for Hump Day

Leo Nocentelli turns 76 today. The lead guitarist and co-founder of The Meters was born in New Orleans in 1946.

To celebrate, open up your streaming service of choice—like, I dunno, Bandcamp—and listen to Another Side, Nocentelli’s long-lost solo “roots rock” album and “a remnant of a vital culture constantly in danger of slipping into the past.”

Then marvel at what one of the greatest funk guitarists of all time can do when he’s channeling his inner James Taylor.

Oh, and maybe buy the record, would you? Septuagenarian musicians gotta eat, too.

It’s Come to This

Six years ago, when we first brought to your attention the emergence of curate as a synonym for select, I never would have imagined that we as a society could reach the point at which a chief of police would—without irony, mind you—utter the following: “I think some of us were a bit surprised by not only the level of preparation that we saw, but the equipment that was curated and worn by those individuals, along with a large amount of equipment that was left in the [truck] when the stop happened.”

It beggars belief.

This, dear reader, is why you should care about the words you use. Curate has become so embedded in our vernacular that it no longer means what it used to. And that transition—from a field of study to a pretentious way of saying “here’s a list of things”—was wholly unnecessary.

Think about it: If we remove the phrase “curated and” from the above quote, do we lose anything?

I think some of us were a bit surprised by not only the level of preparation that we saw, but the equipment that was worn by those individuals, along with a large amount of equipment that was left in the [truck] when the stop happened.

No. We lose nothing.

But if you feel so strongly that including the selection process is somehow vital to understanding the menace these knuckleheads presented, then sure, say something like this:

I think some of us were a bit surprised by not only the level of preparation that we saw, but the equipment those individuals chose to wear, along with a large amount of equipment that was left in the [truck] when the stop happened.

Is it stronger? Maybe. I’m not sure most listeners to the chief’s news conference would notice the distinction, but I could be wrong.

So why do people insist on using curate incorrectly? Either ignorance or the desire to sound smarter than they actually are. The former isn’t anyone’s fault; the latter is a choice. Here’s hoping Chief Wright just doesn’t know any better.

Nightmare Fuel

If hell exists—and I’m inclined to believe it must, otherwise the Kardashians would have no place to go when they die—then this is probably what it’s going to look (and sound) like:

Television exists to make money. Which means someone, somewhere, thought that this is what Middle America was craving on Tuesday nights in 1968. (Given that the Red Skelton Hour was the seventh-most-popular show in the country at the time, well…I guess that person wasn’t exactly wrong.)

Art and Devotion

Over at Hazlitt, Matthew Bremner writes beautifully about Justo Gallego Martínez and the cathedral he worked on—largely by himself—for 60 years: “an architectural Frankenstein propped up on mismatched bricks, tires, wheels, food cans, plastic, and excessive quantities of cement” where “rooms erupted with thousands of broken tiles, dismantled cement mixers, motorbikes, rotten wood, oxidized saws, festering ropes, chicken carcasses, and plastic bags fossilized in pigeon shit.”

Locals thought he was crazy. But Justo, writes Bremner, was simply “unwilling to submit to what most people considered normal.”

Reminds me a little of Salvation Mountain, just outside of Slab City, California. Here’s how it looked when I visited in 2018, four years after creator Leonard Knight’s death at 82 (not sure he would have approved of the constant stream of wannabe Instagram starlets posing coquettishly beneath the giant cross):

It’s funny how religious devotion, when associated with works like Salvation Mountain, Sagrada Família, and Justo’s homemade cathedral, is generally understood to be a product of mental illness—whereas Bach, who is known to have lived “a life of conservative Lutheran observance” (some three-quarters of his 1,000 works were composed for worship), is rightly considered a genius.

Is it because Bach didn’t approach the uncomfortable degree of fervor that’s so apparent with the others’ work? Or is it because covering straw bales and adobe with half a million gallons of latex paint isn’t actually art?

Despite the varying results, what drove these men—and countless others—was the same thing. And that makes their work all the more meaningful.

Et tu, New Yorker?

I was reading a this story about MSG when I came across the following:

Despite MSG’s image makeover, I’ve found that plenty of people remain resistant to incorporating it into their cooking. They are willing to bring MSG into their homes as a component in other foods—more than happy to accept it as a flavoring powerhouse in Doritos, instant ramen, canned soup, and bouillon cubes, or at least happy to accept its euphemisms, like “hydrolized soy protein” and “autolyzed yeast.” But the notion of buying and using the raw ingredient is often a bridge too far.

The phrase “a bridge too far” comes from the Cornelius Ryan novel (and subsequent film) of the same name.

Published in 1974, Ryan’s book is an account of Operation Market Garden, which Wikipedia helpfully summarizes as the “failed Allied attempt to break through German lines at Arnhem by taking a series of bridges in the occupied Netherlands during World War II.”

“A bridge too far” is a metaphor for overreach; a situation in which ambition trumps capability, often leading to disastrous results. It’s unclear to me how that applies to using MSG in your cooking.

Like “begs the question,” which I’ve addressed previously, “a bridge too far” has taken on an entirely different meaning from what it was originally meant to convey. Whether that’s a natural evolution of the language or millennial ignorance—the latter nearly always a safe bet—is a discussion for another day. But when elite publications like the New Yorker don’t put the kibosh on it, that’s how these things stick.

Miscellany

Researchers estimate that 90 percent of medieval manuscripts have been lost completely.

Florence Hazrat asks the important questions:

Are prescribed grammar rules necessary…or a relic of some fussy conservatism and elitist era? Do we really need apostrophes (or any other mark of punctuation for that matter) or could we get rid of them for the sake of brevity? Is Princes Street rather than Prince’s or even the formidable Princes’ Street really a sign of our careless inattention to detail today? If punctuation can fall away and the words still make sense, why did we need it in the first place?

Ten ways to think about story endings, from George Saunders.

“I am a dilettante,” said Brian Eno. “It’s only in England that dilettantism is considered a bad thing. In other countries it’s called interdisciplinary research.”

Two-for-one bonus! The cigarette as “cinema’s most seductive prop” and Matt Labash comes to the defense of smokers.

Old Man Yells at Cloud

This xkcd comic—from 2010, mind you—remains true today:

I mean, see for yourself: exhibit A, exhibit B, exhibit C, exhibit D.

It’s not just university websites, either. It’s pretty much every website for any government entity and any organization larger than a dozen people.

Case in point: I recently had to update my credit card information for some bills I pay automatically (utilities, electricity, Internet, et al.), and MY GOD is it unnecessarily hard to do. You can’t find what you’re looking for, the naming conventions aren’t even close to intuitive, and once you get there, the Byzantine twists and turns you have to navigate in order to simply update your information and delete the old card are painful.

I’ve got a question for all you website designers and developers out there. Are you sadists? No, really. That’s the only explanation I can come up with.

Here’s some free advice: It doesn’t cost more to make information clear and easily accessible. It does cost more, however, every time someone has to call your customer service line because of bad design and abstruse language.

Quote of the Millennium

I’ve been reading through The Ladder of Divine Ascent by Saint John Climacus, and this paragraph, from the chapter “Step 4: On Obedience,” strikes me as being profoundly true—perhaps even more so today than it was when the book was written 1,400 years ago:

He whose will and desire in conversation is to establish his own opinion, even though what he says is true, should recognize that he is sick with the devil’s disease. And if he behaves like this only in conversation with his equals, then perhaps the rebuke of his superiors may heal him. But if he acts in this way even with those who are greater and wiser than he, then his malady is humanly incurable.

There’s an awful lot of wisdom in these pages. If you’re looking to score a copy, this particular edition is beautifully bound and printed, and is a steal at $35.

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