Sunday, December 16, 2007

Why, my beloved....

I was reminded this evening that even in the very early days of our marriage, way back when the earth was cooling and dinosaurs were just starting to check out the new digs, I was a fan and practitioner of the postmodern sensibility. (Cf. this old post and search down the page for postmodernism & the first long quotation.)

What SWMBO reminded me of was the stock answer I used to give anytime her insecure self asked me whether some aspect of her physical person was in order or not. You know the questions: “Does this (article of clothing / haircut / shade of makeup / live badger) make (me / my (body part(s)) / my artificial kidney) look (too big / too small / too hideous / indictable)?”

These questions are always minefields, and, having already lost a limb or two in such places, I refused to crawl in for another go. Instead, I would put on my best dim-witted-son face (and since I was raised in Texas by West Virginians, you know I come by such expressions naturally) and proclaim in a slow, deliberate monotone:

“Why, my beloved, I am so blinded by your feminine pulchritude that I am completely unable to perceive any minor flaws which you may feel that you possess.”

It has worked for me; feel free to try it for your own self.

Constitutional Commas

Yet another developing story about the importance of correct (and correctly understood) punctuation. This one an editorial by Adam Freedman in the Sunday, 16 December 2007 New York Times. N.b. that it also touches on matters particularly dear to the Latin teacher’s heart (**cough** ablative absolute **cough**).

Myself, I want to know about my right to keep and arm bears.

December 16, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor

Clause and Effect

LAST month, the Supreme Court agreed to consider District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down Washington’s strict gun ordinance as a violation of the Second Amendment’s “right to keep and bear arms.”

This will be the first time in nearly 70 years that the court has considered the Second Amendment. The outcome of the case is difficult to handicap, mainly because so little is known about the justices’ views on the lethal device at the center of the controversy: the comma. That’s right, the “small crooked point,” as Richard Mulcaster described this punctuation upstart in 1582. The official version of the Second Amendment has three of the little blighters:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The decision invalidating the district’s gun ban, written by Judge Laurence H. Silberman of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, cites the second comma (the one after “state”) as proof that the Second Amendment does not merely protect the “collective” right of states to maintain their militias, but endows each citizen with an “individual” right to carry a gun, regardless of membership in the local militia.

How does a mere comma do that? According to the court, the second comma divides the amendment into two clauses: one “prefatory” and the other “operative.” On this reading, the bit about a well-regulated militia is just preliminary throat clearing; the framers don’t really get down to business until they start talking about “the right of the people ... shall not be infringed.”

The circuit court’s opinion is only the latest volley in a long-simmering comma war. In a 2001 Fifth Circuit case, a group of anti-gun academics submitted an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief arguing that the “unusual” commas of the Second Amendment support the collective rights interpretation. According to these amici, the founders’ use of commas reveals that what they really meant to say was “a well-regulated militia ... shall not be infringed.”

Now that the issue is heading to the Supreme Court, the pro-gun American Civil Rights Union is firing back with its own punctuation-packing brief. Nelson Lund, a professor of law at George Mason University, argues that everything before the second comma is an “absolute phrase” and, therefore, does not modify anything in the main clause. Professor Lund states that the Second Amendment “has exactly the same meaning that it would have if the preamble had been omitted.”

Refreshing though it is to see punctuation at the center of a national debate, there could scarcely be a worse place to search for the framers’ original intent than their use of commas. In the 18th century, punctuation marks were as common as medicinal leeches and just about as scientific. Commas and other marks evolved from a variety of symbols meant to denote pauses in speaking. For centuries, punctuation was as chaotic as individual speech patterns.

The situation was even worse in the law, where a long English tradition held that punctuation marks were not actually part of statutes (and, therefore, courts could not consider punctuation when interpreting them). Not surprisingly, lawmakers took a devil-may-care approach to punctuation. Often, the whole business of punctuation was left to the discretion of scriveners, who liked to show their chops by inserting as many varied marks as possible.

Another problem with trying to find meaning in the Second Amendment’s commas is that nobody is certain how many commas it is supposed to have. The version that ended up in the National Archives has three, but that may be a fluke. Legal historians note that some states ratified a two-comma version. At least one recent law journal article refers to a four-comma version.

The best way to make sense of the Second Amendment is to take away all the commas (which, I know, means that only outlaws will have commas). Without the distracting commas, one can focus on the grammar of the sentence. Professor Lund is correct that the clause about a well-regulated militia is “absolute,” but only in the sense that it is grammatically independent of the main clause, not that it is logically unrelated. To the contrary, absolute clauses typically provide a causal or temporal context for the main clause.

The founders — most of whom were classically educated — would have recognized this rhetorical device as the “ablative absolute” of Latin prose. To take an example from Horace likely to have been familiar to them: “Caesar, being in command of the earth, I fear neither civil war nor death by violence” (ego nec tumultum nec mori per vim metuam, tenente Caesare terras). The main clause flows logically from the absolute clause: “Because Caesar commands the earth, I fear neither civil war nor death by violence.”

Likewise, when the justices finish diagramming the Second Amendment, they should end up with something that expresses a causal link, like: “Because a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.” In other words, the amendment is really about protecting militias, notwithstanding the originalist arguments to the contrary.

Advocates of both gun rights and gun control are making a tactical mistake by focusing on the commas of the Second Amendment. After all, couldn’t one just as easily obsess about the founders’ odd use of capitalization? Perhaps the next amicus brief will find the true intent of the amendment by pointing out that “militia” and “state” are capitalized in the original, whereas “people” is not.

Adam Freedman, the author of “The Party of the First Part: The Curious World of Legalese,” writes the Legal Lingo column for New York Law Journal Magazine.

BTW, if you haven’t already signed up for free access to the NYTimes online, you really should do so. It’s free, and very informative. And for a nominal fee, you can do the Times crossword online. Beats the heck out of all that time you’re wasting playing solitaire.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

It’s all in the Synopsis, pt. 2

This from SWMBO, who heard it on the radio:
On December 2, 1859, Mr. John Brown died during an important civic event being held in his honor, when the platform upon which he was standing gave way suddenly.
Now that’s spin.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Pasta e Fagioli

Fall is here, good soup weather, and only a month late.

Some students are coming over this weekend, and I’m thinking that it’s time for some pasta e fagioli.

A recipe that I’ve used before is one from the Food Network’s Everyday Italian. This is the one that looked most like what Vincent Bruno used to make, although he added ceci (chickpeas) and tended to use rotini or fusilli. He also used a LOT more garlic. So I tried it out, to good effect, and then thought I’d see what the show was like.

I like the recipe. I really do. But I have real trouble watching the show. She is just so wide-eyed, so effusive, so isn’t-this-marvelous. I can’t take it. But the recipes (yes, I’ve tried a couple of other things from the show’s archive) are pretty good.

And here’s the soup:


Pasta e Fagioli

Recipe courtesy Giada De Laurentiis
Show: Everyday Italian
Episode: Italian Ladies

  • 4 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 large sprig fresh rosemary
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 3 ounces pancetta, chopped
  • 2 teaspoons minced garlic
  • 5 3/4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 2 (14.5-ounce) cans red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 3/4 cup elbow macaroni
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • Pinch red pepper flakes, optional
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

Wrap the thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf in a piece of cheesecloth and secure closed with kitchen twine. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil and butter in a heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, pancetta, and garlic and sauté until the onion is tender, about 3 minutes. Add the broth, beans, and sachet of herbs. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to medium and simmer until the vegetables are very tender, about 10 minutes. Discard the sachet. Puree 1 cup of the bean mixture in a blender until smooth*. Before putting the puree back into the soup, add the macaroni and boil with the lid on until it is tender but still firm to the bite, about 8 minutes. Return the puree to the remaining soup in the saucepan and stir well. Season the soup with ground black pepper and red pepper flakes.

Ladle the soup into bowls. Sprinkle with some Parmesan and drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil just before serving.

*When blending hot liquids: Remove liquid from the heat and allow to cool for at least 5 minutes. Transfer liquid to a blender or food processor and fill it no more than halfway. If using a blender, release one corner of the lid. This prevents the vacuum effect that creates heat explosions. Place a towel over the top of the machine, pulse a few times then process on high speed until smooth.


When I made this for a lunch at work, I pre-cooked the pasta about 3/4 of the way to al dente and put it in a big ziplock. The soup I put in a big crock pot at work, and about 20 minutes before serving time, I put the pasta into the crock pot. It warmed up, finished cooking, and was the right texture without me having to do any of the cooking at the office.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

“The Dead”

A while back a friend was headed on a trip with an older relative. I encouraged my friend to ask questions, probe family history, and steal some stories. The inevitable reply, and my response to it, are here:

“How do you steal a story?”

By taking it from its owner and making it your own. Whether it lay in a dusty old box, forgotten until some quirk of fate and time cause them to stumble across it, lift the lid, and remember; or whether it be worn down from innumerable gentle handlings over the years; their stories will have a meaning for them, will have a use for them. And often, when that story finds receptive ears, its meaning changes and the story finds a new owner.

I think here, especially, of Gabriel stealing Gretta’s story, the story of Michael Furey’s mortal love for her, at the end of Joyce’s “The Dead” (last story in Dubiners). “He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.” And now that story of hers becomes for him, perhaps too late, the story that opens his heart, unlocks his own capacity for love at the very moment he becomes acutely aware of mortality — the mortality of the universe, the mortality of his country, the mortality of himself.

“The air of the room chilled his shoulders. He stretched himself cautiously along under the sheets and lay down beside his wife. One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. He thought of how she who lay beside him had locked in her heart for so many years that image of her lover’s eyes when he had told her that he did not wish to live.

“Generous tears filled Gabriel’s eyes. He had never felt like that himself towards any woman, but he knew that such a feeling must be love. The tears gathered more thickly in his eyes and in the partial darkness he imagined he saw the form of a young man standing under a dripping tree. Other forms were near. His soul had approached that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead. He was conscious of, but could not apprehend, their wayward and flickering existence. His own identity was fading out into a grey impalpable world: the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling.

“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward. Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

The best form of fabulous theft is like that. The stolen story becomes a sort of grace in the life of the thief. There are other, more mundane, sorts of theft -- a grandmother’s story that becomes grist for cocktail chatter -- but even then, which stories we choose to lift will tell us something about ourselves. And, as we claim them, they claim us and change us. The stolen story becomes ours to tell, to shape, and to change, but to a degree, we also become the story’s, to be changed by it.


P.S. “The Dead” was lovingly crafted into a movie by a dying John Huston, and stars his daughter Angelica. We have a nearly worn-out VHS of the thing, and I eagerly await a Region 1 DVD (so far, there has only been a release in Spain -- region 2).

P.P.S.S. A Region 1 DVD finally hit the market in November of 2009. I snapped it up (at less that $10) and am delighted to find it a wide-screen edition. No scan & pan here.

For comparison sake, here is the final voice-over from the film:

One by one, we’re all becoming shades. Better to pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age. How long you locked away in your heart the image of your lover’s eyes when he told you that he did not wish to live. I’ve never felt that way myself towards any woman, but I know that such a feeling must be love. Think of all those who ever were, back to the start of time. And me, transient as they, flickering out as well into their grey world. Like everything around me, this solid world itself which they reared and lived in, is dwindling and dissolving. Snow is falling. Falling in that lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lies buried. Falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living, and the dead.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Graham Greene & The Heart of the Matter

Three conversations (one in person and two via e-mail) in the last month have convinced me to search the old hard drive and some thoughts from days gone by. I’m here repurposing something sent to a discussion list back before the millenial shift. Actually, it was originally two somethings and has here been slapped together as if it were originally a single thing. I hope it’s still useful.


...with regard to Greene’s faith. I know he was a Catholic (obviously), but not having read a great deal of his work (only P&G and ”Heart of the Matter”), his seems a rather dark, bleak outlook. Any comments?
Jim B

and the B doesn’t stand for Beam....

P&G was, according to Greene, the only one of his novels written to a thesis; he set out to demonstrate that the sacrament is valid despite the state of the one administering that sacrament. My own take was that it was much more a demonstration of just how worthy one could be despite all one’s flaws and self-doubt; the overwhelming impression the novel left me was just how heroic this degraded little whiskey priest really was when it came down to it. Beyond doubt one of Greene’s best. And as a polemic, it covers the same ground as the Donatist controversy. Which makes Greene seem rather more orthodox than I think he actually was.

For instance, the other book you mention is my personal favorite (primarily because I recognize Scobie’s besetting sin as a variant of my own and I read the thing just after I had given up on suicide (because I could think of no way to do it that would be fairly considerate and wouldn’t just seem ridiculous to the uninvolved observer)). I have a couple of times posted to this list sections from the dialog between Scobie’s priest and his widow at the end of the book (I’ll quote it again at the end of this post). In this dialog, Greene’s take on God’s mercy, while attractive, is clearly heterodox.

And in some of the interviews collected in Conversations with Graham Greene, Greene speaks quite frankly about his continued and illegal use of opium. E.g., this from V.S. Naipaul, originally The Daily Telegraph Magazine, 8 March 1968, 28-32:
….I [Naipaul] said I enjoyed tobacco less and less but didn’t know what to replace it with. Mr. Greene said, “I think you are ready for opium.” He added: “The fuss about opium and marijuana is absurd. The Battle of Britain was won on benzedrine.” He goes on to talk about how restful an opium nap is and to recommend that opium be made “available to everyone over fifty; there need be no bureaucratic complications; there can be properly supervised fumeries.”

You’re more or less right about Greene’s bleak outlook. I think it comes from doing so much political work in the times and places he did. On the other hand, he developed a fine sense of the absurd, on display in his comic novels like Travels With My Aunt and Our Man in Havana (Once while in a motel I saw the end of a movie version of the latter; B&W with Alec Guinness; I easily recognized the plot within two minutes and enjoyed watching it while we packed up).

His pessimism is usually directed at bureaucracies and the overly innocent (check out The Quiet American for a prophetic look at how American can-do optimism would go seriously awry Vietnam). The Comedians is as good a look into the black heart of Haiti as ever you’ll want to see, and was on my mind a few years back as I watched news footage of people normally shown happily beaming in friendly fashion butcher each other in the same carefree, offhand manner. If you want to see just how far his pessimism would go on an individual level, in the very short novel Brighton Rock, Greene tried to create a character absolutely beyond the reach of redemption. The denouement of this novel also includes an interview with a priest. It is interesting to note that his pessimism is not quite complete.

And while I’m at it, The End of the Affair is told from the point of view of a man whose lover has left him. He never really understands what she tells him plainly, that she has broken off their relationship because it was sinful and she has found God. It’s an interesting study in religion, superstition, and what might count as real faith.

Well, I don’t think I’ve answered your questions, but I’ve enjoyed rambling on here. Greene is one of my favorites, and I intend to read HotM again before too much more time goes by. Here are some quotations to show you why. I’ve tried to cull from my marked passages only the ones that will make a bit of sense without their larger contexts. If it doesn’t give a fair representation of the thought of the book, it will probably reveal more than I would like about my own reactions to the book.


Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim. It is, one is told, the unforgivable sin, but it is sin the corrupt or evil man never practices. He always has hope. He never reaches the freezing-point of knowing absolute failure. Only the man of good will carries always within his heart this capacity for damnation.

“We’d forgive most things if we knew the facts.... A policeman should be the most forgiving person in the world if he gets his facts right.”
--Asst. Police Commissioner Scobie

...for the first time he realized the pain inevitable in any human relationship--pain suffered and pain inflicted. How foolish one was to be afraid of loneliness.

--------------------------------------- the confusing night he forgot for the while what experience had taught him--that no human being can really understand another, and no one can arrange another’s happiness.

He said the Our father, the Hail Mary, and then, as sleep began to clog his lids, he added an act of contrition. It was a formality, not because he felt himself free from serious sin but because it had never occurred to him that his life was important enough one way or another. He didn’t drink, he didn’t fornicate, he didn’t even lie, but he never regarded this absence of sin as virtue.

What an absurd it was thing to expect happiness in a world so full of misery. ... Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, evil--or else an absolute ignorance.
Outside the rest-house he stopped again. The lights inside would have given an extraordinary impression of peace if one hadn’t known [of the shipwreck victims who lay dying inside], just as the stars on this clear night gave also an impression of remoteness, security, freedom. If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets? if one reached what they called the heart of the matter?
--the musings of Major Scobie

It seemed to Scobie later that this was the ultimate border he had reached in happiness: being in darkness, alone, with rain falling, without love or pity.

[The young widow] thought that she wanted to be alone, but what she was afraid of was the awful responsibility of receiving sympathy.

“I’ve always envied people who were happy [at school].... To start off happy,” Harris said, “It must make an awful difference afterwards. Why, it might become a habit, mightn’t it?”

It seemed to him for a moment that God was too accessible. There was no difficulty in approaching Him. Like a popular demagogue He was open to the least of His followers at any hour. Looking up at the cross he thought, He even suffers in public.
--Scobie, musing after confession

The word “pity” is used as loosely as the word “love”: the terrible promiscuous passion which so few experience.

--------------------------------------- wasn’t madness: he had long since become incapable of anything so honest as madness: he was one of those condemned in childhood to complexity.
--a description of Wilson

He thought: I’ll go back and go to bed. In the morning I’ll write to Louise and in the evening go to confession: the day after that God will return to me in a priest’s hands: life will be simple again. Virtue, the good life, tempted him in the dark like a sin. The rain blurred his eyes, the ground sucked at his feet as they trod reluctantly towards the Nissen hut.
--Scobie, on his way to see his mistress

Leaning back against the dressing-table, he tried to pray. The Lord’s Prayer lay as dead on his tongue as a legal document: it wasn’t his daily bread that he wanted but so much more. He wanted happiness for others and solitude and peace for himself. “I don’t want to plan anymore,” he said suddenly aloud. “They wouldn’t need me if I were dead. The dead can be forgotten. Oh God, give me death before I give them unhappiness.” But the words sounded melodramatically in his own ears. He told himself he mustn’t get hysterical: there was far too much planning to do for an hysterical man, and going downstairs again he thought three aspirins or perhaps four were what he required in this situation--this banal situation. He took a bottle of filtered water out of the ice-box and dissolved the aspirin. He wondered how it would feel to drain death as simply as these aspirins which now stuck sourly in his throat. The priests told one it was the unforgivable sin, the final expression of an unrepentant despair, and of course one accepted the Church’s teaching. But they also taught that God had sometimes broken his own laws, and was it less possible for him to put out hand of forgiveness into the suicidal darkness than to have woken himself in the tomb, behind the stone? Christ had not been murdered--you couldn’t murder God. Christ had killed himself: he had hung himself on the cross as surely as Pemberton from the picture-rail.

“Why do we go on like this--being unhappy?”
“It’s a mistake to mix up the ideas of happiness and love,” Scobie said with desperate pedantry....
--Scobie and his mistress making chitchat

Wilson felt sick; he wanted to sit down. Why, he wondered, does one ever begin this humiliating process: why does one imagine that one is in love? He had read somewhere that love had been invented in the eleventh century by the troubadours. Why had they not left us with lust?

“ must have a real purpose of amendment. We are told to forgive our brother seventy times seven and we needn’t fear that God will be any less forgiving than we are, but nobody can begin to forgive the uncontrite. It’s better to sin seventy times and repent each time than sin once and never repent.”
--Father Rank

She said drearily, “Father, haven’t you any comfort to give me?”
Oh, the conversations, he thought, that go on in a house after a death, the turnings over, the discussions, the questions, the demands--so much noise round the edge of silence.
“You’ve been given an awful lot of comfort in your life, Mrs. Scobie. If what Wilson thinks is true, it’s he who needs our comfort.”
“Do you know all that I know about him?”
“Of course I don’t, Mrs. Scobie. You’ve been his wife, haven’t you, for fifteen years. A priest only knows the unimportant things.”
“Oh, I mean the sins,” he said impatiently. “A man doesn’t come to us and confess his virtues.”
“I expect you know about [his affair with] Mrs. Rolt. Most people did.”
“Poor woman.”
“I don’t see why.”
“I’m sorry for anyone happy and ignorant who gets mixed up in that way with one of us.”
“He was a bad Catholic.”
“That’s the silliest phrase in common use,” Father Rank said.
“And at the end this--horror. He must have known he was damning himself.”
“Yes, he knew that alright. He never had any trust in mercy--except for other people.”
“It’s no good even praying...”
Father Rank clapped the cover of the diary to and said furiously, “For goodness’ sake, Mrs. Scobie, don’t imagine you--or I--know a thing about God’s mercy.”
“The Church says...”
“I know what the Church says. The Church knows all the rules. But it doesn’t know what goes on in a single human heart.”
“You think there’s some hope then?” she asked wearily.
“Are you so bitter against him?”
“I haven’t any bitterness left.”
“And do you think God’s likely to be more bitter than a woman?” he asked with harsh insistence, but she winced away from the arguments of hope.

Mercy is not consistent; it’s like the wind; it blows where it will.
Mercy is comic, and it’s the only thing worth taking seriously.
T-Bone Burnett, “The Wild Truth”

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Benedictio Cerevisae

MN: Beer Blessing in Latin
By Michael Novak
Tuesday, August 1, 2006, 3:46 PM
Beer Blessing
From the Rituale Romanum (no 58)
Bene+dic, Domine, creaturam istam cerevisae, quam ex adipe frumenti producere dignatus es: ut sit remedium salutare humano generi: et praesta per invocationem nominis tui sancti, ut, quicumque ex ea biberint, sanitatem corporis, et animae tutelam percipiant. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen
Bless, O Lord, this creature beer, that Thou hast been pleased to bring forth from the sweetness of the grain: that it might be a salutary remedy for the human race: and grant by the invocation of Thy holy name, that, whosoever drinks of it may obtain health of body and a sure safeguard for the soul. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Translation by Fr. Ephraem Chifley, O.P.)
(Access contributors’ biographies by clicking here.)
added 28 January 2012, full entry
V. Adiutorium nostrum in nomine Domini.
R. Qui fecit caelum et terram.
V. Dominus vobiscum.
R. Et cum spiritu tuo.


Bene+dic, Domine, creaturam istam cerevisiae, quam ex adipe frumenti producere dignatus es: ut sit remedium salutare humano generi, et praesta per invocationem nominis tui sancti; ut, quicumque ex ea biberint, sanitatem corpus et animae tutelam percipiant. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

Translation from XI.9.5 of Weller’s edition:

P: Our help is in the name of the Lord.
All: Who made heaven and earth.
P: The Lord be with you.
All: May He also be with you.

Let us pray.

Lord, bless + this creature, beer, which by your kindness and power has been produced from kernels of grain, and let it be a healthful drink for mankind. Grant that whoever drinks it with thanksgiving to your holy name may find it a help in body and in soul; through Christ our Lord. All: Amen.

It is sprinkled with holy water.
Cf. also this BBC article.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


I used to have the following as a sig:

* “If the reader does not understand this word, it is too bad.”

Best Footnote Ever, from p. 59 of Rats, Lice and History
(and brought to my attention by SWMBO)

I suppose I should qualify that epithet to “Best Academic Footnote Ever,” since the footnote to which I most often refer people is not only in a different book altogether, it is in a different sort of book altogether.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett is the funniest novel about the coming of the Antichrist that you will ever read. The premise is that the Spawn of Satan was, through bureaucratically designed accident, switched with a normal child. The effect is that those responsible for seeing to the Dark Child’s preparation and training are wasting their efforts with a thoroughly unsuited pupil, while the child with Hell’s powers is being reared in a bland British suburban setting. The book is populated with comic characters both mortal and immortal and peppered with a most entertaining set of footnotes. My favorite of those is informative and dry with just the right amount of snark; it comes upon the revelation that a particular member of the Witchfinder Army, name of Newt, is paid one old shilling per annum (p. 178 in my edition):
NOTE FOR YOUNG PEOPLE AND AMERICANS: One shilling = Five Pee. It helps to understand the antique finances of the Witchfinder Army if you know the original British monetary system:

Two farthings = One Ha’penny. Two ha’pennies = One Penny. Three pennies = A Thrupenny Bit. Two Thrupences = A Sixpence. Two Sixpences = One Shilling, or Bob. Two Bob = A Florin. One Florin and One Sixpence = Half a Crown. Four Half Crowns = Ten Bob Note. Two Ten Bob Notes = One Pound (or 240 pennies). One Pound and One Shilling = One Guinea.

The British resisted decimalized currency for a long time because they thought it was too complicated.
So there it is. I think Chesterton would happily accept the book’s dedication to himself. Read the reviews & descriptions at Amazon (linked in the title of this post) and then waste a few hours wiping tears from your eyes. It beats doing actual work.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

New Appliance for the Heat

Long abouts Derby Day, we tend to make some mint juleps and have a little Derby Pie (Lizzy less of the pie in these diabetic days). The time-consuming part of making a decent julep has been the powdered ice. Using the mallet tired the arm and ruins a tea towel. So I've had half an eye out for a decent ice shaver. Most of the machines make crushed ice, and the smallest chips seem to be what you'd find in a snow cone. But then, while poking around at Amazon, I found a complaint that read in part:
I have tried shaving just plain ice first and then adding liquids, but because this machine generates snow, the snow tends to melt before you get a chance to enjoy it.
"...generates snow..." That sounded like my machine, and at $20, what's to lose?

So we've had it for a little while now and I have to say that this looks to be our julep machine. I'll have to hand-pack the shavings a little harder next time, because they really do want to melt away when a beverage is poured on top. They are that light and fluffy.

We've also played around with freezing other things to shave. Best so far: coffee. It comes out much softer than granita, and goes a treat with Bailey's. Shave some coffee, add some Irish cream. Yum!

Although it will have limited use, it could turn out to be our best kitchen appliance since the convection toaster oven, which is even now about to be loaded with some cookies.


BTW: click the title of this blog to arrive at the Amazon page. It's the Hamilton Beach Snowman Ice Shaver.


Gashwin tagged me. If anything comes of it, it will be at livejournal.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Pronoun / Antecedent

One morning a fifth-grader saw me hand an empty egg carton over to another student. He asked why, and I told him that the other student’s family was going to fill the carton with a dozen freshly laid brown eggs.

His reply was, “we get brown eggs from our neighbors. They raise chickens. They’re rednecks.”

“Nicholas,” I said, “you do realize that that’s a derogatory term, don’t you? That it’s not a nice thing to call someone?”

In a completely guileless voice he said, “I don’t think they mind.”

“But you should mind, ” I told him. “They’re your friends. They give you eggs.”

He looked at me, his favorite teacher, as if I were an idiot and said, “they’re just chickens.”

I paused, tiny little cogitative wheels spinning furiously.

“Do you mean Rhode Island Reds?”

“Yeah!” he said brightly, “That’s it! Rhode Island Reds!”

“Ah... Well... I’ll see you in class, then.”

It’s all in the synopsis

Transported to a surreal landscape, a young girl kills the first person she meets and then teams up with three strangers to kill again.

Rick Polito, summarizing
The Wizard of Oz
for the Marin (CA) Independent-Journal’s television highlights column.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Unintentional? Papal Snark

This on p. 52 of the first American edition (Doubleday 2007), in a quick review of just what "the Kingdom of Heaven / God" has meant and what it should mean:

Here, obviously, theory predominated over listening to the text.

cf. Lodge’s MLA scene.

Jesus of Nazareth

I'm reading the Pope's newest book, and am very much enjoying it. I've mentioned to a few people already that the forward should be published separately as a tract on how to do Biblical hermeneutics now that we've reached the limits of and seen the problems with the historical/critical method.

After I've finished it, I'm going to have to let it sit for a month or so and then go through it again. But for now I'll say: after so many years of fighting over the "historical Jesus," it's refreshing to read such a competent (and learned) search for the Lord Jesus in the gospels.

But for now, just one quotation, appearing above this post.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Unfortunate Collocation

Out on the web tonight, I catch out of the corner of my eye a line of icons for social networks. They were, in order, Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr. Unfortunately, the icons all ran together into something I think I may have shouted at TV sets that were going dead in past decades.

I've clipped a screenshot. See for yourself.

Cicero on Blogging

...mandare quemquam litteris cogitationes suas, qui eas nec disponere nec inlustrare possit nec delectatione aliqua allicere lectorem, hominis est intemperanter abutentis et otio et litteris.

...for someone to entrust their thoughts to writing, someone who can neither order nor clarify their thoughts nor win over a reader with some kind of pleasure, this is the mark of a person who flagrantly abuses both leisure and writing.

Tusculanae Disputationes 1 III 6

Classics and Anthropology

The journal Arion might better be entitled Phoenix. It has risen from the ashes twice. But the name Phoenix is already taken by a different journal of classics. So now Arion carries on more than a decade into its third incarnation under the name of a poet who miraculously evaded death, rather than under a name of resurrection. So be it.

Arion’s first piece of Advice to Prospective Contributors includes the lines, “If you propose submitting a paper that has been rejected by one of the professional journals, we urge you to rewrite it. The fact that it wasn’t quite dull enough to be accepted there doesn’t mean that it is lively enough for Arion.” If you’re interested in Classical Antiquities and prefer a livelier read, Arion might be the journal for you.

Back when it had arisen the second time and just started the Third Series, there was a very nice article by James Redfield. No, not the therapist-turned-novelist James Redfield, but the Professor James M. Redfield who does ancient Greek studies at Chicago. Redfield’s article is a brief of what anthropologists and classicists can and should learn from each other. It also includes a good bit of compare/contrast of the disciplines, including their initiation rituals. It’s a delightful read to nearly anyone who has spent time with the linguists and archaeologists, the literary theorists and the crypto-psychiatrists who inhabit the world of Ancient Studies.

Here, I give you only the second paragraph of the article. Feel free to go dig up the rest. It’s well worth it.

Redfield, James, “Classics and Anthropology,” Arion, Third Series, vol. 1, no. 2, Spring / May 1991, pp. 5-6.

I have spent most of my academic career hanging about the edges of departments, particularly (at Chicago) the departments of Anthropology and of Classics. It often seems to me that these two are structural opposites. Take, for example, the question of the consumption of alcohol. Both professions include heavy drinkers—indeed the profession of Classics seems to me to have more than its share of helpless drunks (not at Chicago, needless to say). But Classicists tend to be solitary drinkers; when they meet together socially it tends to be in the afternoon, over tea. The anthropologists, on the other hand, gather at midnight, and drink grain alcohol and grapefruit juice out of plastic waste baskets. To this difference correspond others—for example, on the rhetorical level. Anthropologists like to conduct their controversies in open meetings, where they ride and make flamboyant, unforgivable speeches. Classicists are almost always polite—with the result that it is frequently impossible to find out what they think. Anthropologists seem to enjoy conflict, whereas classicists prefer to pretend that it does not exist. Anthropologists tend toward exuberance, classicists toward irony. To give them the most gross kind of physical characterization: the classicist is typically dusty, the anthropologist, sweaty.

Cicero on Political Flip-Flopping

Some AP-related poking around in Cicero has intersected with overblown political rhetoric about “primary conversions” (candidates whose views seem to change as soon as they enter the season of primary elections) and “flip-floppers.” While one hopes that a change of heart and mind is not cynically intended to garner more votes, I see nothing wrong with politicians changing their minds. In fact, I think it’s a very good thing for a politician to be able to be swayed by good argument or new evidence. Apparently, I’m not alone.
...numquam enim in praestantibus in re publica gubernanda viris laudata est in una sententia perpetua permansio....

...for persistence in a single permanent opinion among men [sic] active in the governance of the republic has never been praised....

ad Familiares 1.9.21
nemo doctus umquam ... mutationem consili inconstantiam dixit esse.

No educated person has ever said that a change of mind was inconsistency.

ad Atticum 16.7.3

Of course, Cicero ended up with his head and hands mounted on the Rostra, so caveat lector.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Serious Sin

What is it in us that wants to rank sin? Any sin of any degree separates us from God, be it lust, murder, or pride—even pride that my sins aren’t nearly as bad as yours (Lk. 18.9ff.). Usually when I’m thinking about what a horrible sinner someone else is, it’s a way of distracting myself from my own sin—not to mention an example of active sin in my own life. And I’m not saying that there aren’t degrees of sin, only that our rankings are not usually those of God.

One of the things that let me know that my theology of the Lord’s Supper / Communion / the Eucharist needed some work was when I realized that the God of the New Testament is still a “smiting” God, and seeing what he smote people over. I think that most people remember the story of Ananias and Sapphira (not the same disciple Ananias from chapter 9). I’ll let you refresh your memory on that one and say no more about it here.

But it was the example from 1 Cor. 11 that caught my attention. With all the junque going on at Corinth, including possible incest (cf. 5.1), why is it that some are dying? Because they take Communion in an unworthy manner (vv. 29-30). All the immorality and strife in Corinth, and this is why God smites some of them. Hmmm... Sounds like God takes the Eucharist a whole lot more seriously that I did back in my Fightin’ Fundy days. (And I suppose that some day I might have to post a rumination on John 6, but not tonight.)

But what provokes me into posting my own thoughts for once instead of just quoting someone else is a statement in the inventory I posted below this one. When I took the “quiz” the statement showed up at #24; revisiting now it’s at #53. So the order apparently changes when you visit quizfarm. Be that as it may, this was the prompt:
Homosexuality is one of the worst sins
Even as a Bible-thumping Reagan Republican (I was precinct party chairman at age 18), I knew that this was simply not true. Stick with me for a moment, and I’ll show you how I know that there are far worse sins.

Way back in the day, my co-religionists typically referred to homosexuality as “Sodomy,” named obviously for that horrid city of wickedness that had fire and brimstone rained down upon it for its sins. And like my co-religionists, I assumed that the sin that broke the camel’s back was the attempted homosexual rape of God’s messengers. But then God told me otherwise.

Oh, don’t worry. I didn’t hear His voice in my ear while meditating with recreational chemicals. No, I just read the prophets. And among them, I read Ezekiel. Ezekiel 16 in particular, where God is sternly warning His people about what they deserve. Verses 48-50 run like this:
As I live, says the Lord GOD, I swear that your sister Sodom, with her daughters, has not done as you and your daughters have done! And look at the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters were proud, sated with food, complacent in their prosperity, and they gave no help to the poor and needy. Rather, they became haughty and committed abominable crimes in my presence; then, as you have seen, I removed them.
So what sins were most important in the mind of God? Which did He feel the need to specify? Sins very similar to those by which He separates the sheep from the goats (Mt. 25.31ff.).

So next time you find your knickers in a twist over something as boring and unoriginal as sexual sins and “perversions” born of simple attraction and loneliness, take that energy and turn it positive. Go to a hospital, a prison, a shut-in. Take a homeless person to lunch. God apparently takes our own lack of active compassion much more seriously than he takes acts of homosexuality.

Theological Worldview

I’m putting this up mainly because question 24/63 is prompting a post I’ve been thinking about for a while (see above). But notice that the creator of this quiz would probably say that, based on my worldview, swimming the Tiber almost four years ago was the right decision for me. Does this make it any more official?


You scored as Roman Catholic, You are Roman Catholic. Church tradition and ecclesial authority are hugely important, and the most important part of worship for you is mass. As the Mother of God, Mary is important in your theology, and as the communion of saints includes the living and the dead, you can also ask the saints to intercede for you.

Roman Catholic


Evangelical Holiness/Wesleyan




Neo orthodox






Classical Liberal


Reformed Evangelical


Modern Liberal


What's your theological worldview?
created with

Thursday, May 24, 2007


The pastiche and commentary below opens one of the funniest novels about life in the academy that you’ll ever read. It is a must-read for anyone living their life on campus. For those who are giving thought to leaping from the ivory tower to the safety of less rarified air below, I would recommend a different comic novel, Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. But for those entrenched, especially in the Liberal Arts, this is the one. David Lodge’s Small World.

OK, I’ll get to the quotation in a moment, but not before I tell you about the scene that made me love this novel. It had already given my enough belly laughs and quiet smirks that I was in love with it, but what changed the crush into a lasting affair is a subversive scene set at an annual conference of the MLA. At this conference, the big names in competing schools of literary criticism all participate in a panel discussion. Our hero stands up during the Q&A and asks them to suppose that everyone agreed with them. Then what? If everyone stopped fighting about how to interpret a text, the question implies, would we discover that no one actually reads anymore? Would we discover that the study of literature is no longer about the literature itself? In a room full of academics whose lives and livelihoods depend on talking about how you talk about literature, Persse asks what they would all do if everyone agreed with them (Part V, Chapter I, p. 319 in my old Penguin mass-market edition). And then the denouement is like a scene out of Plautus. I was and am smitten.

But that’s not what I wanted to quote here. Instead, I give you my favorite description of conferences: David Lodge, Small World, beginning of the Prologue. Enjoy.
When April with its sweet showers has pierced the drought of March to the root, and bathed every vein of earth with that liquid by whose powers the flowers are engendered; when the zephyr, too, with its dulcet breath, has breathed life into the tender new shoots in every copse and on every heath, and the young sun has run half his course in the sign of the Ram, ... then, as the poet Geoffrey Chaucer observed many years ago, folk long to go on pilgrimages. Only, these days, professional people call them conferences.

The modern conference resembles the pilgrimage of medieval Christendom in that it allows the participants to indulge themselves in all the pleasures and diversions of travel while appearing to be austerely bent on self-improvement. To be sure, there are certain penitential exercises to be performed—the presentation of a paper, perhaps, and certainly listening to the papers of others. But with this excuse you journey to new and interesting places, meet new and interesting people, and form new and interesting relationships with them; exchange gossip and confidences (for your well-worn stories are fresh to them, and vice versa); eat, drink and make merry in their company every evening; and yet, at the end of it all, return home with an enhanced reputation for seriousness of mind.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

On being an Ex-Suicide

1983 was a good year. It saw the release of both Mark Heard’s Eye of the Storm and the Talking HeadsSpeaking in Tongues. It was the year that the O’Cayce household (House of Chez Casa) was established, with an exchange of vows at the Pilot Grove Church in Old City Park, Dallas. And it was the year that Walker Percy published a piece of non-fiction entitled Lost in the Cosmos. (Be sure to read the customer reviews.)

The first edition hardback of LitC runs to 262 pages. Its full title is Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. The opening pages are a preliminary multiple-choice quiz about the Self, designed to see whether or not you need to read the rest of the book, thereby ensuring that the rest of the book will not be skipped. The rest of the book comprises a 40 page excursus on the semiotics of the Self (which the Author all but advises the Reader to skip, thereby ensuring that it will not be skipped) in the middle of just over 200 pages of a:
Twenty-Question Multiple-Choice Self-Help Quiz
to test your knowledge of the peculiar status of the self, your self and other selves, in the Cosmos, and your knowledge of what to do with your self in these, the last years of the twentieth century.

It is an odd and oddly delightful format. Quite a bit of the book is extremely funny, although the section I am going to quote is not.

Question 11 is about:
THE DEPRESSED SELF: Whether the Self is Depressed because there is something wrong with it or whether Depression is a Normal Response to a Deranged World.

Suicidal depression is something about which Percy knew a thing or two. Both his father and his paternal grandfather had used shotguns to end their own lives. Percy’s mother died when, a couple of years after her husband’s suicide, her car went off a bridge and into a bayou, which death Percy also took took to be a suicide. Percy managed to avoid carrying on the family tradition, and the Thought Experiment at the end of Question 11 is what taught me how to be not a non-suicide, but rather a former-suicide, an ex-suicide.

It worked for me, and it was necessary despite the fact that during the 80s I was still a Fundamentalist Christian and, according to Percy, should have been one of those blessed elect who are never depressed. I was certainly surrounded by Fundamentalist Christians who never seemed depressed. And let me tell you, being given to periods of depression while surrounded by those who are nearly clinically chipper and who consider happiness a divine sign of right living, that will only make one’s hole deeper and darker.

Perhaps you are not given to bouts of depression, have never heard the black wings beating about your head. Perhaps your own depression is of a different etiology and requires a different treatment. Perhaps, like me, you have at some point gotten so deep into the self-talk, thought-driven sort of depression that you needed chemical help to find your way far enough back to even be able to retrain your thought life. All I can say is, this has worked for me most of the time. I am still an ex-suicide.

Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book
by Walker Percy
pp. 75-9 (1983 HB edition by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux)

Thought Experiment: A new cure for depression.

The only cure for depression is suicide.

This is not meant as a bad joke but as the serious proposal of suicide as a valid option. Unless the option is entertained seriously, its therapeutic value is lost. No threat is credible unless the threatener means it.

The treatment of depression requires a reversal of the usual therapeutic rationale. The therapeutic rationale, which has never been questioned, is that depression is a symptom. A symptom implies an illness; there is something wrong with you. An illness should be treated.

Suppose you are depressed. You may be mildly or seriously depressed, clinically depressed, or suicidal. What do you usually do? Or what does one do with you? Do nothing or something. If something, what is done is always based on the premise that something is wrong with you and therefore it should be remedied. You are treated. You apply to friend, counselor, physician, minister, group. You take a trip, take anti-depressant drugs, change jobs, change wife or husband or “sexual partner.”

Now, call into question the unspoken assumption: something is wrong with you. Like Copernicus and Einstein, turn the universe upside down and begin with a new assumption.

Assume that you are quite right. You are depressed because you have every reason to be depressed. No member of the other two million species which inhabit the earth—and who are luckily exempt from depression—would fail to be depressed if it lived the life you lead. You live in a deranged age—more deranged than usual, because despite great scientific and technological advances, man has not the faintest idea of who he is or what he is doing.

Begin with the reverse hypothesis, like Copernicus and Einstein. You are depressed because you should be. You are entitled to your depression. In fact, you’d be deranged if you were not depressed. Consider the only adults who are never depressed: chuckleheads, California surfers, and fundamentalist Christians who believe they have had a personal encounter with Jesus and are saved for once and all. Would you trade your depression to become any of these?

Now consider, not the usual therapeutic approach, but a more ancient and honorable alternative, the Roman option. I do not care for life in this deranged world, it is not an honorable way to live; therefore, like Cato, I take my leave. Or, as Ivan said to God in The Brothers Karamazov: If you exist, I respectfully return my ticket.

Now notice that as soon as suicide is taken as a serious alternative, a curious thing happens. To be or not to be becomes a true choice, where before you were stuck with to be. Your only choice was how to be less painfully, either by counseling, narcotizing, boozing, groupizing, womanizing, man-hopping, or changing your sexual preference.

If you are serious about the choice, certain consequences follow. Consider the alternatives. Suppose you elect suicide. Very well. You exit. Then what? What happens after you exit? Nothing much. Very little, indeed. After a ripple or two, the water closes over your head as if you had never existed. You are not indispensable, after all. You are not even a black hole in the Cosmos. All that stress and anxiety was for nothing. Your fellow townsmen will have something to talk about for a few days. Your neighbors will profess shock and enjoy it. One or two might miss you, perhaps your family, who will also resent the disgrace. Your creditors will resent the inconvenience. Your lawyers will be pleased. Your psychiatrist will be displeased. The priest or minister or rabbi will say a few words over you and down you go on the green tapes and that’s the end of you. In a surprisingly short time, everyone is back in the rut of his own self as if you had never existed.

Now, in the light of this alternative, consider the other alternative. You can elect suicide, but you decide not to. What happens? All at once, you are dispensed. Why not live, instead of dying? You are free to do so. You are like a prisoner released from the cell of his life. You notice that the cell door is ajar and that the sun is shining outside. Why not take a walk down the street? Where you might have been dead, you are alive. The sun is shining.

Suddenly you feel like a castaway on an island. You can’t believe your good fortune. You feel for broken bones. You are in one piece, sole survivor of a foundered ship whose captain and crew had worried themselves into a fatal funk. And here you are, cast up on a beach and taken in by islanders who, it turns out, are themselves worried sick—over what? Over status, saving face, self-esteem, national rivalries, boredom, anxiety, depression from which they seek relief mainly in wars and the natural catastrophes which regularly overtake their neighbors.

And you, an ex-suicide, lying on the beach? In what way have you been freed by the serious entertainment of your hypothetical suicide? Are you not free for the first time in your life to consider the folly of man, the most absurd of all the species, and to contemplate the cosmic mystery of your own existence? And even to consider which is the more absurd state of affairs, the manifest absurdity of your predicament: lost in the Cosmos and no news of how you got into such a fix or how to get out—or the even more preposterous eventuality that news did come from the God of the Cosmos, who took pity on your ridiculous plight and entered the space and time of your insignificant planet to tell you something.

The consequences of entertaining suicide? Lying on the beach, you are free for the first time to pick up a coquina and look at it. You are even free to go home and, like the man from Chicago, dance with your wife.

The difference between a non-suicide and an ex-suicide leaving the house for work, at eight o’clock on an ordinary morning:

The non-suicide is a little traveling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future. His breath is high in his chest.

The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

For married friends

I bumped into an old e-mail sig, one I had lifted from Margaret Atwood’s Power Politics. This is the third stanza of a poem entitled Their attitudes differ:

You held out your hand
I took your fingerprints

You asked for love
I gave you only descriptions

Please die I said
so I can write about it

But the better poem from that collection has no title but its first three words, “We are hard.” I’m quoting all four stanzas here. When everyone else was raving about Mary Oliver, this is what grabbed me. Especially the third stanza.


We are hard on each other
and call it honesty,
choosing our jagged truths
with care and aiming them across
the neutral table.

The things we say are
true; it is our crooked
aims, our choices
turn them criminal.


Of course your lies
are more amusing:
you make them new each time.

Your truths, painful and boring
repeat themselves over & over
perhaps because you own
so few of them


A truth should exist,
it should not be used
like this. If I love you

is that a fact or a weapon?


Does the body lie
moving like this, are these
touches, hairs, wet
soft marble my tongue runs over
lies you are telling me?

Your body is not a word,
it does not lie or
speak truth either.

It is only
here or not here.

Pax omnibus.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Not the First Tribute

We’ve been waiting for Mira Nair’s The Namesake to come to Cola, and this is the weekend. It has the standard half-week run for an indy flick in this market, so see it now or get the DVD. But that’s not all that happens this weekend. It’s also Mothers’ Day.

Since all the b’s-i-l and s’s-i-l are doing their own Mothers’ Day celebrations in honor of all the mothers in our generation, m-i-l was in danger of being overlooked. But wait! The cat isn’t doing anything for Lizzie, so we can host Bobbie, and do so far from the madding crowd. So we’re taking SWBSWMBO (She Who Bore She Who Must Be Obeyed) to a movie tomorrow afternoon.

If you haven’t heard of The Namesake, scope out the overwhelmingly good reviews at MetaCritic (82% overall, 8.5/10 by viewers), Rotten Tomatoes (85%), or even Google’s movie review search (4.3/5). And if you haven’t heard of Mira Nair (the director), think Mississippi Masala (not bad) and Monsoon Wedding (very good).

The screenplay is based on a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, and this is not the first time that Mira Nair has brought one of Lahiri’s works off the page. Back in April of 2006, This American Life aired an episode entitled “Fake I.D.,” in which half of the program consisted of Nair reading aloud a short story by Nahiri. The story, taken from Nahiri’s Pulizer-winning collection The Interpreter of Maladies, is a touching and lovely snapshot of the early days in the married life of a mis-matchmade marriage between two NRIs -- Sanjiv, a staid, conservative engineer, and Twinkle, an ebullient MFA candidate who is delighted at all the Cheesus (tacky Christian knickknacks) that they keep finding in and around their new house. Hit the link to the episode and listen to the show. The story starts just before 23 minutes into the show and finishes just after 50 minutes in. (Sorry, since TAL changed their coding a while back, you can no longer fast-forward or rewind the free, archived version of the show. But you can pay $0.95; or you can rip the stream for free if you have the software.)

I hope the movie’s as good as I think it will be. Especially since we’re taking SWBSWMBO.

Blueberry Chutney

My mother-in-law is a big fan of blueberries; she says it’s for the anti-oxidant properties. She also likes salmon. So for Mothers’ Day (is that apostrophe placed properly?) I’m going to try broiled salmon over grits with a blueberry chutney (which will probably destroy whatever anti-oxidants there are; perhaps I should save out some berries for the spinach salad).

Anyway, I guess I’m going to try to make some blueberry chutney this afternoon. I have everything but the blueberries and the ginger root. Here's the recipe I’ll try. I will doubtless have to change this post later:

Blueberry Chutney
  • 1 c. blueberries
  • 1/4 c. golden raisins
  • 2 Tbsp. chopped onions
  • 1/4 c. packed brown sugar
  • 2 Tbsp. cider vinegar
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • S&P to taste
Place all ingredients in a large sauce pan.
Bring to a slow boil over medium heat for 1 minute.
Remove cinnamon stick.
Add 1 medium ginger root, finely grated (added Summer 2010)
Reduce heat & reduce sauce to proper texture.
Remove from heat & refrigerate.

We’ll see how it goes. I think we’ll try some of it on brie tonight before experimenting on our guest of honor tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Why I Ride

I once wrote a little essay trying to explain why I enjoy riding motorcycles so much. The sad truth is that if you need an explanation, none will suffice. But occasionally, someone does a very nice job of almost capturing the ineffable. Dave Karlotski got pretty close back at the end of the last millenium. I'll paste that essay below, and by all means hit the link in the title of this post to hear him read another version of the same essay.

In fact, this little essay circulates fairly frequently, usually with no author ascribed. And there are several versions out there. I first read an anonymous version of it in an e-mail in 1999. You can find different versions (mostly without authors) by web-searching [motorcyle joy machine] or [motorcycles are joy machines] or [a motorcycle is a joy machine]. But better just to read and enjoy.

To read Karlotski's largest collection of stories, point your browser to The751, but don’t do it during work hours; you won’t get anything done for a while.

MPR’s The Savvy Traveler has several of Karlotski’s essays available for reading and listening, but their internal search engine doesn’t seem to work at all. So here's a partial list:
on the Badlands
on Labrador
on Mammoth Cave
on Lonely Roads
and, of course, Season of the Bike


Season of the Bike
by Dave Karlotski

There is cold, and there is cold on a motorcycle. Cold on a motorcycle is like being beaten with cold hammers while being kicked with cold boots, a bone bruising cold. The wind’s big hands squeeze the heat out of my body and whisk it away; caught in a cold October rain, the drops don’t even feel like water. They feel like shards of bone fallen from the skies of Hell to pock my face. I expect to arrive with my cheeks and forehead streaked with blood, but that’s just an illusion, just the misery of nerves not designed for highway speeds.

Despite this, it’s hard to give up my motorcycle in the fall and I rush to get it on the road again in the spring; lapses of sanity like this are common among motorcyclists. When you let a motorcycle into your life you’re changed forever. The letters “MC” are stamped on your driver’s license right next to your sex and height as if “motorcycle” was just another of your physical characteristics, or maybe a mental condition.

But when warm weather finally does come around all those cold snaps and rainstorms are paid in full because a motorcycle summer is worth any price. A motorcycle is not just a two-wheeled car; the difference between driving a car and climbing onto a motorcycle is the difference between watching TV and actually living your life. We spend all our time sealed in boxes and cars are just the rolling boxes that shuffle us languidly from home-box to work-box to store-box and back, the whole time entombed in stale air, temperature regulated, sound insulated, and smelling of carpets.

On a motorcycle I know I’m alive. When I ride, even the familiar seems strange and glorious. The air has weight and substance as I push through it and its touch is as intimate as water to a swimmer. I feel the cool wells of air that pool under trees and the warm spokes of sunlight that fall through them. I can see everything in a sweeping 360 degrees, up, down and around, wider than PanaVision and higher than IMAX and unrestricted by ceiling or dashboard.

Sometimes I even hear music. It’s like hearing phantom telephones in the shower or false doorbells when vacuuming; the pattern-loving brain, seeking signals in the noise, raises acoustic ghosts out of the wind’s roar. But on a motorcycle I hear whole songs: rock ‘n roll, dark orchestras, women’s voices, all hidden in the air and released by speed.

At 30 miles an hour and up, smells become uncannily vivid. All the individual tree-smells and flower-smells and grass-smells flit by like chemical notes in a great plant symphony. Sometimes the smells evoke memories so strongly that it’s as though the past hangs invisible in the air around me, wanting only the most casual of rumbling time machines to unlock it.

A ride on a summer afternoon can border on the rapturous. The sheer volume and variety of stimuli is like a bath for my nervous system, an electrical massage for my brain, a systems check for my soul. It tears smiles out of me: a minute ago I was dour, depressed, apathetic, numb, but now, on two wheels, big, ragged, windy smiles flap against the side of my face, billowing out of me like air from a decompressing plane. Transportation is only a secondary function. A motorcycle is a joy machine. It’s a machine of wonders, a metal bird, a motorized prosthetic. It’s light and dark and shiny and dirty and warm and cold lapping over each other; it’s a conduit of grace, it’s a catalyst for bonding the gritty and the holy.

I still think of myself as a motorcycle amateur, but by now I’ve had a handful of bikes over a half dozen years and slept under my share of bridges. I wouldn’t trade one second of either the good times or the misery. Learning to ride was one of the best things I’ve done.

Cars lie to us and tell us we’re safe, powerful, and in control. The air-conditioning fans murmur empty assurances and whisper, “Sleep, sleep.” Motorcycles tell us a more useful truth: we are small and exposed, and probably moving too fast for our own good, but that’s no reason not to enjoy every minute of the ride.

Old Fashioned

As long as there’s bourbon in the house...

Many moons ago I ate something at a conference that did not agree with me. I went to the hotel bar and asked the barman what he recommended to stop a tummy from going flippy floppy. He fixed me soda & bitters with a twist and charged me not a single dime. I tipped him and wobbled back upstairs with my beverage. It did the trick.

I remembered this recently while attending a friend’s natal day celebration and needing something that looked convivial while keeping me sober (I had arrived and was leaving again on two wheels, and while I enjoy both bikes and adult beverages, they don’t mix well.) After I got home, I was wondering what in the world bitters are, and so Lizzie & I ended up reading the relevant entry in the wikipedia. Woo hoo! Patent medicines!

A small bottle of the stuff runs ~$3 at the local purveyor of adult beverages, so I picked one up. And then I remembered where else I’d seen bitters referenced recently: in a blog pointed out to me by a colleague.

I teach Latin at one of the larger private schools in town. There’s a guy doing a similar job over at our arch-rivals. He has a friend who writes mysteries, and that friend has a blog to which my fellow Latinist directed me one day. And what should I see on that blog but a picture of a bookstore a scant half mile down the street from where the O’Cayces used to live. It’s a good bookstore, the Regulator is. So I kept poking around the site and ran into this post, which contains the wondrous sentiment, “a couple of Old Fashioneds, taken around noon on Thanksgiving, will help the rest of the day unfold in a splendid manner.”

If I ever take a turn for the autobiographical, I’ll have to post a few Thanksgiving Day memories and explain why that sentence resonates so. For now, I will restrict myself to shamelessly stealing the recipe.

(makes one)
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 dashes of bitters
  • 2 oz bourbon
  • 2 oz club soda
  • slice of orange
Put sugar in bottom of a short cocktail glass and douse it with bitters. Pour in bourbon and muddle. Add club soda. Fill glass with crushed ice and joogle it around some to make sure the sugar is fully dissolved. Garnish with orange. This will help you tolerate relatives who are otherwise intolerable.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Derby Pie

OK, it's not the official, trademarked, name-protected Derby Pie (which appears to use walnuts rather than pecans). But what most people mean by Derby Pie is a chocolate-chip, bourbon pecan pie. I could find no one in Columbia making any such thing for the 133rd Run for the Roses. (And wasn’t it a thrilling run! Calvin Borel and Street Sense ride the rail from 19th place and eating dirt to a commanding 1st place win. That was a race!) So I put out a request on the school’s intra-net for anyone who knew where I could go pick up a decent pie. Nothing. But we did get a couple of good recipes.

Here’s the recipe Lizzie used, sent to me by our school nurse, who has heard Lizzie give a keynote and do a Q&A. Small world.

Derby Pie
  • 4 eggs, beaten
  • 6 tablespoons butter, melted
  • 1 cup light corn syrup
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons bourbon
  • 1 tablespoon flour
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1 cup semi-sweet chocolate morsels
  • 1 cup pecans, coarsely chopped
  • 1 unbaked deep dish pie crust (or two 8" crusts)
Combine all ingredients except nuts and chocolate. Mix well and then add the nuts and chocolate. Pour into pie shell and bake on the lowest rack at 375°F until set. (35 to 40 minutes)


Lizzie has made quite a few pies over the years, and we have quite a few pie pans (metal, glass, stone, ceramic) in several sizes. She has not currently found the magical combination of heat and time to make a deep-dish pie (high walls, twice the filling) set up. For now, she either does half the filling in a single crust or all the filling in two crusts.

The co-worker who sent me this recipe notes, “I just use the roll out Pillsbury pie crust in refrigerated section of the grocery store.” It turns out that this is also what Rhudine, one of the best-known bakers on campus, uses when she makes pie (her specialties are cakes). Lizzie made her crust from scratch. I would reduce the amount of salt in the crust to ~3/4 or even 2/3 tsp; it was a very good crust, but a bit salty on first taste. You couldn’t tell at all when the crust hit your tongue with filling, but nibbling on that top edge all by itself was another story.

Lizzie made a double recipe and produced three pies, two 8" and one 10". The 10" pie filling rose more slowly and ended up with more of the fluffed-jelly consistency I’m used to in a Derby Pie or a pecan pie. It also required more time in the oven to set, although the crust was done. So Lizzie's suggestion is:

Make one recipe in a 10" pie crust. Shield the crust and bake for 20 minutes, then remove the shield and bake for another 30-35 (total 50-55 minutes).

All I can say is that the 10" pie was about as good as a pie could be. The 8" pies were tasty as well, but the texture was better with the 10" pie.

I think that next year, we may need to try this with walnuts instead of pecans. Or maybe half each.

Pie Crust
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt (but see untested suggestion, above)
  • 2/3 cups Crisco plus 2 tablespoons
  • 1/8 cup water
  • 1/8 cup vodka (Lizzie added this one Christmas 2011; too little water and you can’t work the dough properly; too much and the crust gets soggy on the bottom; she heard this trick on the radio and it worked well.)
Measure flour into mixing bowl and blend in salt. Cut in shortening until particles are the size of giant peas. Sprinkle with water, a tablespoon at a time, mixing lightly with a fork until all flour is moist. Gather dough together with fingers so it cleans the bowl. Press firmly into a ball. Roll out or keep in waxed paper in refrigerator until ready to bake.

One last note:

The 10" pie and one of the 8" pies were made in glass pie pans. The other 8" pie was made in a stone pie pan. Lizzie likes the stone pan for things like cornbread, but pie crust always wants to adhere to it. A number of the pieces of pie were damaged coming out of the stone pan. Stick to glass. Or use glass and don’t stick. Or something.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Derby Day already?

Let the hunt begin for fresh mint and a decent supplier of chocolate chip bourbon pecan pie (Derby Pie). We already have the main ingredient for the day's traditional beverage.

Speaking of which, since I pull down my copy of Walker Percy's Signposts in a Strange Land every year to check the recipe and to inflict the essay upon unsuspecting guests, I figure it must be time to store it here on the cyber-vault.

Update: I no longer destroy tea towels with my mallet to make the snowy ice. I use this machine.

by Walker Percy
taken from the posthumous collection Signposts in a Strange Land, Farrar Straus & Giroux 1991, pp. 102-7.

This is not written by a connoisseur of Bourbon. Ninety-nine percent of Bourbon drinkers know more about Bourbon than I do. It is about the aesthetic of Bourbon drinking in general and in particular of knocking it back neat.

I can hardly tell one Bourbon from another, unless the other is very bad. Some bad Bourbons are even more memorable than good ones. For example, I can recall being broke with some friends in Tennessee and deciding to have a party and being able to afford only two-fifths of a $1.75 Bourbon called Two Natural, whose label showed dice coming up 5 and 2. Its taste was memorable. The psychological effect was also notable. After knocking back two or three shots over a period of half an hour, the three male drinkers looked at each other and said in a single voice: “Where are the women?”

I have not been able to locate this remarkable Bourbon since.

Not only should connoisseurs of Bourbon not read this article, neither should persons preoccupied with the perils of alcoholism, cirrhosis, esophageal hemorrhage, cancer of the palate, and so forth—all real dangers. I, too, deplore these afflictions. But, as between these evils and the aesthetic of Bourbon drinking, that is, the use of Bourbon to warm the heart, to reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, to cut the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons, I choose the aesthetic. What, after all, is the use of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home from work every day at five-thirty to the exurbs of Montclair or Memphis and there is the grass growing and the little family looking not quite at him but just past the side of his head, and there’s Cronkite on the tube and the smell of pot roast in the living room, and inside the house and outside in the pretty exurb has settled the noxious particles and the sadness of the old dying Western world, and him thinking: “Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?”

If I should appear to be suggesting that such a man proceed as quickly as possible to anesthetize his cerebral cortex by ingesting ethyl alcohol, the point is being missed. Or part of the point. The joy of Bourbon drinking is not the pharmacological effect of C2H5OH on the cortex but rather the instant of the whiskey being knocked back and the little explosion of Kentucky U.S.A. sunshine in the cavity of the nasopharynx and the hot bosky bite of Tennessee summertime—aesthetic considerations to which the effect of the alcohol is, if not dispensable, at least secondary.

By contrast, Scotch: for me (not, I presume, for a Scot), drinking Scotch is like looking at a picture of Noel Coward. The whiskey assaults the nasopharynx with all the excitement of paregoric. Scotch drinkers (not all, of course) I think of as upward-mobile Americans, Houston and New Orleans businessmen who graduate from Bourbon about the same time they shed seersuckers for Lilly slacks. Of course, by now these same folk may have gone back to Bourbon and seersucker for the same reason, because too many Houston oilmen drink Scotch.

Nothing, therefore, will be said about the fine points of sour mash, straights, blends, bonded, except a general preference for the lower proofs. It is a matter of the arithmetic of aesthetics. If one derives the same pleasure from knocking back 80-proof Bourbon as 100-proof, the formula is both as simple as 2 + 2 = 4 and as incredible as non-Euclidean geometry. Consider. One knocks back five one-ounce shots of 80-proof Early Times or four shots of 100-proof Old Fitzgerald. The alcohol ingestion is the same:
5 x 40% = 2
4 x 50% = 2
Yet, in the case of the Early Times, one has obtained an extra quantum of joy without cost to liver, brain, or gastric mucosa. A bonus, pure and simple, an aesthetic gain as incredible as two parallel lines meeting at infinity.

An apology to the reader is in order, nevertheless, for it has just occurred to me that this is the most unedifying and even maleficent piece I ever wrote—if it should encourage potential alcoholics to start knocking back Bourbon neat. It is also the unfairest. Because I am, happily and unhappily, endowed with a bad GI tract, diverticulosis, neurotic colon, and a mild recurring nausea, which make it less likely for me to become an alcoholic than my healthier fellow Americans. I can hear the reader now: Who is he kidding? If this joker has to knock back five shots of Bourbon every afternoon just to stand the twentieth century, he’s already an alcoholic. Very well. I submit to this or any semantic. All I am saying is that if I drink much more than this I will get sick as a dog for two days and the very sight and smell of whiskey will bring on the heaves. Readers beware, therefore, save only those who have stronger wills or as bad a gut as I.

The pleasure of knocking back Bourbon lies in the plane of the aesthetic but at an opposite pole from connoisseurship. My preference for the former is or is not deplorable depending on one’s value system—that is to say, how one balances out the Epicurean virtues of cultivating one’s sensory end organs with the greatest discrimination and at least cost to one’s health, against the virtue of evocation of time and memory and of the recovery of self and the past from the fogged-in disoriented Western world. In Kierkegaardian terms, the use of Bourbon to such an end is a kind of aestheticized religious mode of existence, whereas connoisseurship, the discriminating but single-minded stimulation of sensory end organs, is the aesthetic of damnation.

Two exemplars of the two aesthetics come to mind:

Imagine Clifton Webb, scarf at throat, sitting at Cap d’Antibes on a perfect day, the little wavelets of the Mediterranean sparkling in the sunlight, and he is savoring a 1959 Mouton Rothschild.

Then imagine William Faulkner, having finished Absalom, Absalom!, drained, written out, pissed-off, feeling himself over the edge and out of it, nowhere, but he goes somewhere, his favorite hunting place in the Delta wilderness of the Big Sunflower River and, still feeling bad with his hunting cronies and maybe even a little phony, which he was, what with him trying to pretend he was one of them, a farmer, hunkered down in the cold and rain after the hunt, after honorably passing up the does and seeing no bucks, shivering and snot-nosed, takes out a flat pint of any Bourbon at all and flatfoots about a third of it. He shivers again but not from the cold.

Bourbon does for me what the piece of cake did for Proust.

1926: As a child watching my father in Birmingham, in the exurbs, living next to a number-6 fairway of the New Country Club, him disdaining both the bathtub gin and white lightning of the time, aging his own Bourbon in a charcoal keg, on his hands and knees in the basement sucking on the siphon, a matter of gravity requiring cheek pressed against the concrete floor, the siphon getting going, the decanter ready, the first hot spurt into his mouth not spat out.

1933: My uncle’s sun parlor in the Mississippi Delta and toddies on a Sunday afternoon, the prolonged and meditative tinkle of silver spoon against crystal to dissolve the sugar; talk, tinkle, talk; the talk mostly political: “Roosevelt is doing a good job; no, the son of a bitch is betraying his class.”

1934: Drinking at a Delta dance, the boys in bi-swing jackets and tab collars, tough-talking and profane and also scared of the girls and therefore safe in the men’s room. Somebody passes around bootleg Bourbon in a Coke bottle. It’s awful. Tears start from eyes, faces turn red. “Hot damn, that’s good!”

1935: Drinking at a football game in college. UNC versus Duke. One has a blind date. One is lucky. She is beautiful. Her clothes are the color of the fall leaves and her face turns up like a flower. But what to say to her, let alone what to do, and whether she is “nice” or “hot”—a distinction made in those days. But what to say? Take a drink, by now from a proper concave hip flask (a long way from the Delta Coke bottle) with a hinged top. Will she have a drink? No. But that’s all right. The taste of the Bourbon (Cream of Kentucky) and the smell of her fuse with the brilliant Carolina fall and the sounds of the crowd and the hit of the linesmen in a single synesthesia.

1941: Drinking mint juleps, famed Southern Bourbon drink, though in the Deep South not really drunk much. In fact, they are drunk so seldom that when, say, on Derby Day somebody gives a julep party, people drink them like cocktails, forgetting that a good julep holds at least five ounces of Bourbon. Men fall face-down unconscious, women wander in the woods disconsolate and amnesiac, full of thoughts of Kahil Gibran and the limberlost.

Would you believe the first mind julep I had I was sitting not on a columned porch but in the Boo Snooker bar of the New Yorker Hotel with a Bellevue nurse in 1941? The nurse, a nice upstate girl, head floor nurse, brisk, swift, good-looking; Bellevue nurses, the best in the world and this one the best of Bellevue, at least the best-looking. The julep, an atrocity, a heavy syrupy Bourbon and water in a small glass clotted with ice. But good!

How could two women be more different than the beautiful languid Carolina girl and this swift handsome girl from Utica, best Dutch stock? One thing was sure. Each has to be courted, loved, drunk with, with Bourbon. I should have stuck with the Bourbon. We changed to gin fizzes because the bartender said he came from New Orleans and could make good ones. He could and did. They were delicious. What I didn’t know was that they were made with raw egg albumen and I was allergic to it. Driving her home to Brooklyn and being in love! What a lovely fine strapping smart girl! And thinking of being invited into her apartment where she lived alone and of her offering to cook a little supper and of the many kisses and the sweet love that already existed between us and was bound to grow apace, when on the Brooklyn Bridge itself my upper lip began to swell and little sparks of light flew past the corner of my eye like St. Elmo’s fire. In the space of thirty seconds my lip stuck out a full three-quarter inch, like a shelf, like Mortimer Snerd. Not only was kissing out of the question but my eyes swelled shut. I made it across the bridge, pulled over to the curb, and fainted. Whereupon this noble nurse drove me back to Bellevue, game me a shot, and put me to bed.

Anybody who monkeys around with gin and egg white deserves what he gets. I should have stuck with Bourbon and have from that day to this.

POSTSCRIPT: Reader, just in case you don’t want to knock it back straight and would rather monkey around with perfectly good Bourbon, here’s my favorite recipe, “Cud’n Walker’s Uncle Will’s Favorite Mint Julep Receipt.”

You need excellent Bourbon whiskey; rye or Scotch will not do. Put half an inch of sugar in the bottom of the glass and merely dampen it with water. Next, very quickly—and here is the trick in the procedure—crush your ice, actually powder it, preferably with a wooden mallet, so quickly that it remains dry, and, slipping two sprigs of fresh mint against the inside of the glass, cram the ice in right to the brim, packing it with your hand. Finally, fill the glass, which apparently has no room left for anything else, with Bourbon, the older the better, and grate a bit of nutmeg on the top. The glass will frost immediately. Then settle back in your chair for half an hour of cumulative bliss.