A Christmas List

Dear Santa,

   It’s been a long time since I last wrote you, but you’re as busy as ever. How are you? How is your wife? You know, I have too many books I haven’t yet read, but still I want a few more. Here’s the list:christmas cats from christmasfilesdotcom

  1. James Baldwin’s Another Country, because I need to read him; his 1963 “Letter to My Nephew” about loving the enemy is timely and so brilliantly written.
  2. Derek Parfit. On What Matters is a perfect title for a book of moral philosophy. Reasons and Persons, a less attractive title, nonetheless starts in a quite satisfying way. But one reviewer criticized the publisher for printing the paperback so badly, so may I have a hardcover?
  3. Jameson’s Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (Actually, I think I have a copy somewhere, so you could just send an elf to find it for me.)
  4. I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats, perversely good silly poems from a cat’s perspective. It is a holiday, after all.
  5. Plus some time and concentration to get organized and read the new ones I already have: Piketty’s study of Capital in the 21st Century and David Harvey on reading Marx’s Capital; Jo Baker’s Longbourn; David Abram’s The Spell of the Sensuous; David Schoenbaum’s big social history of the violin; Christianity: The First 3000 Years; Five Days at Memorial; and Classic Animal Tales.
  6. And finally, as always, peace on earth and good will.

Don’t miss your cocoa and cookies–this year they’re cranberry-oatmeal-chocolate chip-pecan!

Yours truly,


(image from christmasfiles.com via bing)

Proot! δίδωμι, δώσω, ἔδωκα, δέδωκα, δέδομαι, ἐδόθην

Another evocative quotation from Oxford University’s online Word of the Day (November 12, 2014).  Lawrence George Green wrote what might be called “social geography” describing life in southern Africa.  In the Land of Afternoon,

one expert driver…encourages his mules by yelling the principal parts of Greek verbs… The word of command ‘Proot!’, which appears to have come from France with the Huguenots, is more commonly heard.

Principal parts of Greek verbs! This is double nostalgia for me, remembering my Greek professor who told us about his professor whose students chanted the parts at basketball games instead of cheers. What a refreshing student learning outcome!  Stephen Schierling, late of LSU, looked like a California beach bum yet was dedicated to his work and inspired me with a new vision of teaching. (Read his 1999 obituary in the Louisiana Classicist.)

In my last days as an English professor, I taught students some new words to describe the products of drafting and revising. The final draft–the last and best, the ultimate paper–is the “ultima”; the one before it is the “penult,” and the one before that is the “antepenult.” Greeks will recognize the terms for syllables which may receive an accent, but I heard a sportscaster that semester refer to a “penultimate game.”  No “Library Jeopardy” for me; chanting principal parts is my idea of making learning seriously fun. It pleases me to think that Dr. Schierling would have approved.

He, he is dead

in his sleep

four and a half years ago

wrapped in maroon flannel

the day before payday

he was full of food, medications,

desires, frustrations

yearned to  do good

aspired to be a better man

but gravity weighed him

down,  and sex

mechanical wheels moved him

electricity propelled them

after a visit to the VA

which cleaned him out

he was emptied

and so he died

September 30, 2014

The Last Day of Summer

By the time it was over (equinox yesterday* at 9:29 pm CDT), I too had regained some equi-librium. After a day encountering the shortcomings of higher education in Eunice, I went to the local coffee shop.  At a sidewalk table was a fellow orchestra member, who asked how I was dealing with that troublesome passage of sixteenth notes in Dvorak’s  “American Suite.”

“Slowly,” I answered. As a novice violinist, I am not in his class.  He claims to have no talent, just persistence. We shared our practice methods and lamented the lack of interesting writing for second-violin. Don’t worry, audience; we’ll sound pretty good by April.

After the refreshing little chat, I went to meet my writing group. We discussed work we’d done, writers we liked, how to analyze a short story for revision, and the limits of  humanity. It’s a fun group. I felt much more energy, and some more optimism, as I walked in the dusk to my car. On Highway 13, low in the southwest, the teapot of Sagittarius was pouring out stars.

*Monday, September 22, 2014

John Masefield, John Ireland, and James Tiberius Kirk–but not Walter de la Mare

This is a short  note of correction to my previous post, “The Old Canvas Is Almost Gone”: Walter de la Mare might need to “go down to the sea again,” but he was  reading John Masefield’s poem, or perhaps singing John Ireland’s setting of it.  Russell Malcolm performs it on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X82NNkkjSYI .  “de la Mare” reminds me of “La Mer,” hence the confusion.

masefield SaltWaterPoemsAndBallads

The poem is so perfect that several parodies have been written, and it’s been quoted by everyone from Vin Scully to Capt. Kirk.  In Spike Mulligan’s lampoon, the writer has left his clothes at the beach and (to rhyme with “sky”) wonders if they’re dry.

The Old Canvas is Almost Gone

A state university (attended by my niece and nephew) has just announced its decision to convert its library holdings from books to digital files and databases. This has brought home to me the current future of education, the creation of knowledge, and its preservation. Librarians are raising their cool-factor, even appearing at the ultracool SXSW, the South by Southwest culture and computer festival in Austin, Texas. (But I wonder  how public librarians afford the $825 entry pass for SXSW Interactive). Their slogan is “not the same old shhh.” Clever, no? From storytellers and instant reference on the streets to the now fashionable maker-spaces, librarians in the twenty-first century are actively embracing electronic multimedia as well as the old-fashioned personal interactions at information desks.

In 1890 William John Gordon wrote that “Now all the old canvas has gone, with its snowy wings from the watersails to the moonrakers” (Foundry, Forge, and Factory, p. 37). The Industrial Revolution and the progress of material technology used steam, then oil, and now atoms as fuel. Wind and horsepower were left to historical fiction, ecological dreamers, and the poetry of the past. Walter de la Mare might need to “go down to the sea again,” but finding a “tall ship” is increasingly difficult. Writers from Nicholson Baker to Neil Gaiman to myself are lamenting the passing of the book in its paper form, as the codex of recorded knowledge is being replaced by glowing electronic screens of hypermedia. Yet it’s too early for an obituary for print. Some educators are warning the enthusiastic early-adopters about their effects on learning. And the dire state of education in the United States is well-publicized.

So. I don’t know, but we live in interesting times. I’ve been on a wooden ship, even hauled on a sheet. Now I’m dusting my bookshelves again and reorganizing the proud paper books, just as though they were a library.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know.  But I do not approve.  And I am not resigned.

–from Edna  St. Vincent Millay, “Dirge Without Music.” Collected Poems (HarperCollins, 1958), via poetryfoundation.org

On Oil, Complicity, and the Impossibility of Moral Virtue

It seems to me that the major oil spills of my time–first the Exxon Valdez in Alaska, most recently the BP in the Gulf of Mexico–are an indicator of the moral confusion of our post-industrial society.  Even worse than hurricane damage on the Gulf coast, oil damage is in some sense deliberate in that the spillers value profit more than safety, environmental responsibility, beauty, or life itself.

oiled pelican gpeace
      [photo from Greenpeace.org]

Yesterday in federal court, Judge Carl J. Barbier found BP “grossly negligent” and responsible for 67% of its 2010 catastrophe.


The New York Times story focuses on the judicial impact of the spill, but the featured comment gets to the center of the dilemma:

Of course BP is primarily liable. However, as in nearly all such cases, we the people self-righteously ignore our collective culpability. We buy their fuel. We drive with it. We heat with it. We buy tons of the plastic made with it. We dump down tons of the fertilizers made with it. We bemoan all the impacts of fossil fuel use yet, when it comes down to sacrifice, we are partners with global corporate powers.
Carl, Portland

Carl was overgeneralizing, as some replies to his post indicated: “we” use organic, locally produced, fuel-efficient, recycled etc., when we can. Yet I think he’s right about complicity. Remember the 1960s Pogo slogan: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” It’s about time for a new grass-roots movement (while there’s still grass left on the planet). Bienville House, may we come home again?