August 30, 2009
Garrison Keillor mused in one of his monologues about the days when life wasn’t so complicated — for instance, when there was no entrance exam for kindergarten.
Things are almost that bad, according to Patti Hartigan, writing in the Boston Globe. Experienced educators are troubled, Hartigan writes, by the atmosphere once dominated by wooden blocks and graham crackers: “(I)ncreasingly in schools across Massachusetts and the United States, little children are being asked to perform academic tasks, including test taking, that early childhood researchers agree are developmentally inappropriate, even potentially damaging. If children don’t meet certain requirements, they are deemed ‘not proficient.’ Frequently, children are screened for ‘kindergarten readiness’ even before school begins, and some are labeled inadequate before they walk through the door.”
I remember all of my elementary school teachers, but the class I recall most vividly is kindergarten. Our teacher was Miss Botbyl, who had been at the school for decades. In a corner of the room she had an upright piano that had been painted lime green with a high-gloss enamel. I don’t know if that’s normally good for a piano, but the way Miss Botbyl attacked those keys, the piano would have responded out of pure fright. That’s not to say that Miss Botbyl was mean to us kids; she was in command at every moment of the day — she admonished us collectively as “people” — but she was likeable. It was the kind of relationship many kids of my era had with their grandparents.
I can visualize the interior of that room, including a series of cartoons that were posted above the blackboards illustrating unacceptable types of behavior. My favorite, which was labelled “Me First,” recommended against pushing ahead in line. I’m 66 years old, and I still don’t push ahead in line.
Maybe Jenna Bush Hager, in her new role as an education reporter on “Today,” will examine the question of academics in kindergarten. My uninformed opinion is that the Botbyl model should be restored, but the overall academic experience should be expanded, whether that means one or two more years of school before college or career, or the same number of years with more hours or days of instruction. Considering how the body of human knowledge has expanded since Miss Botbyl banged on that piano, why do we think we can teach it — learn it — in the same framework that served us 60 years ago? Forcing academics on five-year-old kids who are not ready doesn’t seem like the answer.
You can read Patti Hartigan’s report at this link:
August 30, 2009
This Phillip Garrido case stirs up such a complex of judgements and emotions that it’s hard to think about it dispassionately. The account from University of California police officers Lisa Campbell and Ally Jacobs suggests that Garrido himself is far more than a calculating rapist; he’s a human being spinning out of control.
Unlike the outfall that often follows a case like this, in which the neighbors tell how the suspect was a quiet man who always waved hello when he went out to pick up his mail, the folks on Garrido’s block perceived that there was something way out of whack with this man, and they said so more than once — they said so to law enforcement authorities.
With unerring hindsight, we can see that those authorities should have discovered the facts at Garrido’s home long before they did. I have heard the rationalizations about the amount of territory the sheriff’s department has to cover and the descriptions of visits to the house in which investigators could detect no crime — perhaps code violations, but no crime. However culpable the authorities are for the fact that Jaycee Dugard was not found sooner, this case challenges again the wisdom of registering convicted sex offenders and allowing them to live unsupervised in society. And while Garrido was supposedly under the supervision of a parole officer, anyone can now judge how effective that arrangement was.
I am among those who think there are far too many people in prison in the United States. But it is a matter of common sense that a person who has been convicted of a serious sex offense should either be incarcerated for life or kept under constant surveillance, and in either case provided with intense and consistent treatment — and we have to be willing to seriously invest in that treatment. The rate of recidivism and the impact of such crimes on their victims demands this.
I sat on a criminal jury a few years ago in a case that involved a corrections officer who had committed sexual offenses against two female inmates. One of the inmates was participating in a release program at the time of that offense. The corrections officer was accused of seeking her out at the home where she was staying, ostensibly under strict supervision. An officer who was supposedly keeping track of the inmate, testified that the inmate was not permitted to have any social contact with men while in the release program. But the officer also testified that she paid an unannounced visit to the house on one occasion, found the defendant there with the inmate, and accepted the explanation that he was the inmate’s billiards coach. I’m not making that up. Apparently the supervision of Phillip Garrido wasn’t much better.
I am too much of an optimist to give up even on a Phillip Garrido, but while we’re trying to take care of him, citizens deserve much better protection against a person who is likely to repeat such a crime.
August 28, 2009
We once received an invitation to a dinner in Trenton, and the invitation came with a menu. We noticed on the menu the term “pencil points,” but we didn’t know what that meant. We resolved to be scrupulous about what we ate, but the dinner was several months later and by that time we forgot about it. After we had eaten, one of us recalled it and asked our table companion, who lived in that area, what had happened to the “pencil points.” “You ate them,” he said — the pasta. He was referring to penne, which had been the course before the entree. When we said we had never before heard penne referred to as “pencil points,” our companion said, “Well, I guess you’re not Burgers.” Hmmmm? “I guess you don’t come from Chambersburg,” he said. Comes the dawn, as my mother used to say: He was referring to a section of Trenton that at one time had been the “Little Italy” of the city and still maintained some vestiges of that past, including a few good Italian restaurants.
Chambersburg, incidentally, was a distinct municipality from 1872 to 1888. It had been a part of Hamilton Township. Janet Evanovich, who is from South River, has used Chambersburg — the Burg, as it were — as the locale for her series of novels and stories about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum.
“Pencil points,” “the Burg,” and “Burgers” are examples of slang in the strict sense. By the strict sense, I mean that these terms originated among and in a way distinguished a certain group of people — the residents of Chambersburg. Slang can evolve within social groups, demographic groups, professional or occupational groups — within pretty much any subset of society.
Heaven knows we had enough slang in the newspaper business, and I mean slang in the strict sense. During the summer semester I was explaining something to my class and I used the term “graf” — a common expression in publishing industries. I noticed a quizzical look on one student’s face and I asked him what was the matter. He said, “You always use that word – “graf.” What does it mean? This was about half way through the term; the class had sat there in silence up to that point, and I don’t know how many references to “paragraph” they hadn’t understood.
Douglas Quenqua, writing for the New York Times News Service, reports that slang terms of that kind may be passing from the scene. “Keeping up with the latest slang,” Quenqua writes, “is at once easier and harder than ever. The number of slang dictionaries is growing, both online and off, not to mention social networking media that invent and discard words, phrases and memes at the speed of broadband. The life of slang is now shorter than ever, say linguists, and what was once a reliable code for identifying members of an in-group or subculture is losing some of its magic.”
Quenqua points out that slang dictionaries as such are nothing new, but they used to appear at a pace that was in keeping with the natural evolution of language. Quenqua says dictionaries of slang have been around since the 18th century. I just finished reading a new book by Bernard Patenaude about the Leninist-Bolshevik Leon Trotsky. According to Patenaude, while Trotsky was living in exile in Mexico, he received from a union activist in Minneapolis a dictionary of American slang, designed to help him better understand the Americans who were a part of his security staff. In a letter thanking the donor, Trotsky wrote: “In the part I have already studied, which is devoted to college slang, I had hoped to find some abbreviations for the various sciences, philosophical theories, etc. (B)ut instead I found merely about 25 expressions for an attractive girl ….”
Quenqua’s story, which I read in The State of Columbia, South Carolina, is at this link:
August 26, 2009
As I was picking up my suitcases at the airport in Savannah the other day, my cell phone rang. It was my brother, who wanted to know when major league baseball players stopped leaving their gloves on the field while their team was at bat. And why did they do that in the first place?
Between us, my brother and I have been working for years on collecting all human knowledge. This was just the latest installment. The only answer I had at the moment, as I yanked a suitcase off the carousel, was that the practice was still in place when I first went to a game at Yankee Stadium in 1951, and I was certain it had been discontinued by ’57 or ’58. So my guess was that it stopped in the early ’50s.
Since then, I learned that a rule requiring that all equipment be removed from the field at the end of each half inning was adopted in 1953 and took effect for the 1954 season.
As for how the practice began, the information is sketchy. It is certain that when organized baseball emerged in the middle of the 19th century, fielders didn’t wear gloves at all. When gloves first appeared, on an individual basis, they were work gloves — probably used to protect an injured finger or hand — and a player would stuff those gloves in his pocket when he left the field.
As gloves made specifically for baseball appeared, they were too large to fit in a pocket, so that was no longer an option. Those early gloves were left on the field at the end of a half inning because they were used by players on both teams. As gloves and mitts became more customized, players no longer shared them, but they continued to leave them on the field. If a thrown or batted ball hit a glove that was lying on the field, that ball was in play. If a fielder tripped over a glove, that was his tough luck.
The rule adopted in 1953 was in a way based on the idea that a glove lying on a field constituted a hazard to navigation. Gloves and mitts by that time had become much larger than their forbears — though not nearly as large as those in use today — that baseball officials decided the practice should be discontinued.
The fact that gloves were left on the field for so many years suggests that there weren’t many incidents in which players were injured or the outcome of a game was affected. That doesn’t mean there were never repercussions from the odd habit. On September 28, 1905, for instance, Harry Davis of the Philadelphia Athletics hit a ball that struck a glove left on the outfield grass by teammate Topsy Hartsel, and the carom enabled Hartsel to score the winning run in a 3-2 victory over the Chicago White Sox.
August 25, 2009
Back in June, Michael Kinsley wrote in the Washington Post that the United States needs a new national anthem. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is unsingable, according to Kinsley, and some of its lyrics are offensive. This is hardly an original idea, and it is likely to go as far this time as it has in the past.
But meanwhile, Michael Kinsley, meet Umberto Bossi. Bossi is a senator in Italy, and he is campaigning to get Italy to dump its national anthem, “Fratelli d’Italia” (“Brothers of Italy”). Bossi thinks the current anthem is a musical mediocrity, and he doesn’t like a line that refers to the nation as “You whom God created as a slave of Rome.” Correspondent Anna Momigliano, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, agrees with Bossi, arguing that the lyric “we are ready to die if Italy calls” is a heavy burden for millions of school children who probably sing the anthem more often than most Italians.
Bossi doesn’t seem to care what replaces the present anthem, but he has suggested that an operatic piece would at least improve the quality of the music. He has suggested one chorus in particular, “Va, pensiero” from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Nabucco.” This song is widely known in Italy; in fact, it was adapted into a popular song. That’s not Bossi’s rationale, though. He says no one would understand the words anyway, but that the music is nice. Bossi, apparently, is a practical man.
“Va, pensiero” is sung in the opera by a chorus of Hebrew slaves during the Babylonian Captivity. The lyrics refer in part to Psalm 137 (“On the willows there, we hung up our harps ….”). How this applies to modern Italy, I am not aware. Bossi, by the way, is the same chap who has proposed that northern Italy secede from the rest of the republic.
You can read Anna Momigliano’s column at this link: http://features.csmonitor.com/globalnews/2009/08/24/senator-wants-to-change-italys-national-anthem-%e2%80%93-to-opera/
You can read Michael Kinsley’s column at this link:
It was an everyday experience in the newsrooms I once worked in to receive mail addressed to folks who no longer worked there — who, in some cases, had not worked there in decades and who, in other cases, were already partakers in glory. This phenomenon, which I presume occurs in other kinds of business offices, was a function of both the turnover in our shop and the failure of other organizations to update their mailing lists.
The oddest incident of the kind occurred in the 1960s when our newsroom was in Perth Amboy. A package arrived from a food company, addressed to an editor who had left the newspaper before I arrived. The package, sent by a marketing flak at the company, contained a half gallon of blueberry ice cream packed in dry ice. There was a note in which the flak apologized to the editor because it had taken so long “to get around to this” — which raised issues both about the ethics of the editor and the efficiency of the flak. Both issues seemed moot, so we gave the ice cream to the newsroom librarian, who was about to leave for home and was expecting company.
Keeping the product cold is, of course, an expensive burden on the ice cream industry but one that, until now, seemed unavoidable. According to The Times of London, however, at least one company isn’t willing to accept what appears to be obvious. Unilever, owner of the Ben & Jerry brand among others, is trying to develop an ice cream that will be sold at room temperature. The consumer will take the stuff home and freeze it. This ostensibly is Unilever’s attempt to be more environmentally responsible — a goal it has already addressed by improving the energy efficiency of its plants and by upgrading the refrigeration units it supplies to its retailers. Manufacturing and delivering a frozen product results in significant carbon emissions, the company says, and those emissions would be significantly reduced if the ice cream were, well, not really ice cream until it reaches the customer’s kitchen.
The first question this idea is likely to raise in the mind of a consumer is, “Is this stuff still going to be ice cream?” I’m not sure a statement by a Unilever spokesman is reassuring: “The key question which has yet to be fully answered is: how do you ensure that, when the ambient ice cream is frozen at home it will have the right microstructure to produce a fantastic consumer experience?” Ambient ice cream? Microstructure? Hand me my pitchfork, Gert, there’s gonna be a fight.
The Times story is at this link: http://business.timesonline.co.uk/tol/business/industry_sectors/consumer_goods/article6807139.ece
August 21, 2009
We’re heading for Hilton Head tomorrow which means that sometime in the mid-afternoon, I’ll be thinking about Joe Pinckney. He’s always on my mind when we head down there, but even if he weren’t, the sign that calls attention to the Pinckney Colony would remind me.
Pinckney Colony is on the mainland in Beaufort County. The name always intrigued me, but intrigue became lively curiosity about 25 years ago when my son, Christian, and I were sitting around in Port Royal Plantation leafing through the local telephone book. We might have been looking for people named Paolino — unlikely in those parts, or people who share Pat’s family name — Kamieniecki — perhaps more unlikely. What caught our attention, though, was the list of folks named Pinckney. So we picked one out — Joe Pinckney — jotted down his address and set out to find him.
He was in his studio, and when we told him why we were interrupting his work, he greeted us as though there were nothing peculiar about two strangers from Jersey picking his name out of a phone book and dropping in unannounced. He spent a long time with us, showing us his work and telling us his personal history.
He was born in New York, but during World War II he moved as a boy to the Low Country of South Carolina, where his parents were born. The stories I have read about him don’t go into this, but he told us the move back south was motivated by his family’s fear — a fear shared by many in those days — that Nazi Germany would attack the Northeast Coast from the sea. It was quite an adjustment for Joe. He was dazzled by the sight of the night sky, unobstructed by the artifical light of the city. He also had to get accustomed to an unfamiliar cuisine, and he absorbed some of the local dialect.
Joe Pinckney studied art in New York and received a scholarship from the Norman Rockwell Foundation, but he became a permanent resident of South Carolina and spent several decades creating a body of work that depicts the culture of the Gullah people who have lived and farmed in the Low Country since the 19th century. He died in November 2005.
I have my son’s inquisitive nature to thank for the fact that we visited Joe Pinckney. Our whole family loves Hilton Head and we have vacationed there often, but in a way every vacation was like every other one, except for the one blessed by that gracious and gifted man.
The Pinckney Colony was founded by a family of white farmers, and I don’t think Joe explained whether his forbears had adopted that name or if the names were coincidental. After spending time in his company, maybe it didn’t matter to us any more.
There is a story about Joe Pinckney at this link: http://www.blufftontoday.com/node/3053
Four of Joe’s paintings, including the two I have included in this journal, are at the web site of the J. Costello Gallery in Hilton Head: http://www.jcostellogallery.com/artists/joe-pinckney
I see by the papers that Starbucks is going to raise the prices on some of its drinks and lower prices on others — and see what happens. The short version is that sales have been declining. So frappucchinos and caramel macchiatos are going up — maybe 30 cents a pop — and lattes, cappuccinos and brewed coffees are going down.
I won’t be a part of this study. I’m atypical where coffee is concerned. I drink it every morning, and I order it after most dinners out, but I wouldn’t care I never had it again. And when I do drink it, it can be Chock Full o’ Nuts or Folgers, with no additives. And I don’t want to pay for coffee as if it were gasoline. I have been in a Starbucks three times, and one of those occasions was to avoid freezing to death on a Manhattan street. On the other two visits, I had hot chocolate, which was also overpriced — but it was chocolate.
I had a supervisor on one of my first jobs who instructed everyone in our section not to talk to her in the morning until she had had two cups of coffee. She was serious. I’m sure she believed it herself, but I couldn’t understand it because the caffeine in coffee doesn’t affect me. It doesn’t make me jumpy, it doesn’t calm my nerves, it doesn’t jolt me out of a stupor, it doesn’t give me indigestion, and it doesn’t keep me awake. Whether two cups a day does anything else to me, I don’t know. Coffee’s reputation as a deadly poison or a life-giving nectar seems to ebb and flow. Shelley Batts, a candidate for a doctorate in neuroscience, looked back a couple of years ago in her fascinating blog “Retrospectacle” at a recurring theory that coffee was a treatment for plague. You can read about that at the following link: http://scienceblogs.com/retrospectacle/2007/08/science_vault_coffee_as_a_cure.php
I just read a book — “Rebirth of a Nation” by Jackson Lears — that paints an uncomplimentary picture of Theodore Roosevelt, to the extent that Roosevelt was one of the principal proponents, during the so-called “gilded age” — of American empire-building. Considering his appetite for action at any price, maybe Roosevelt was hopped up on coffee. He was, after all, the source of the Maxwell House coffee slogan: “Good to the last drop.” The first time I heard that, I dismissed it as a fable, but apparently there is some authority for it. You can read about that at this link: http://www.theodoreroosevelt.org/life/Maxwell.htm
A news story about the Starbucks pricing strategy — which I guess was broken by Bloomberg — can be found here: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/money_co/2009/08/investors-know-that-businesses-cant-cost-cut-their-way-back-to-prosperity-and-rising-earnings-so-what-wall-street-most.html
Shelley Batts is co-authoring a new blog — “Of Two Minds” — which can be found at this link: http://scienceblogs.com/twominds/
August 19, 2009
I don’t know when it began. It seems to me that I have always been an obsessive reader. I had to have been fairly young when my mother started complaining that she couldn’t leave a milk container or a box of cereal on the table without my reading every bit of text.
I have considered that the tendency is inborn. My grandfather’s father and both of my parents were pretty much always reading something — mostly periodicals. So maybe I was always a reader, although I believe my romance with books in particular began with a mysterious incident that occurred on one summer Sunday. We came home from our lake house and found that someone had left on our front step a cardboard box loaded with old books. We never learned where it came from. I was the only person interested, so I rooted through the box and found several things of interest, including ”Breaking Into Society” by George Ade. I had never heard of Ade, but I read some of the short stories — which Ade called “fables in slang” — and I became a fan. I became a fan not only of George Ade, but of books in general, and I became a regular client at the Paterson Public Library, which was no mean trick since it was nowhere near our house.
I also started buying cheap paperbacks at a local store, because that was easier than going to the library. I had odd taste for a kid, which helps to account for my stunted social life in those days. I bought and read a book about the Borgia popes, “The Nazarene” by Sholem Asch, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo, and a collection of papal encyclicals edited by Anne Freemantle. I got stuck on “Mitt Brennender Sorge (With great anxiety)” by Pope Pius XI — in English, of course — and I read it over and over again.
I favored non-fiction until my senior year of college when I took a course in the American novel simply because I couldn’t fit anything else into my schedule. On the first day of class, the professor provided us with a syllabus that indicated that we would be reading 21 novels in 15 weeks. I thought about dropping the course, but that would have meant walking all the way over to the registrar’s office, so I read the novels instead — works including “McTeague” by Frank Norris, “The Crisis” by Winston Churchill (the American one), “Winesburg, Ohio” by Sherwood Anderson, and “Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty” by John William DeForest. That course inspired me to read many more American novels that I might have otherwise neglected.
While I was still in college, I worked for a company that provided billing and shipping services to a number of book publishers, including Charles Scribners Sons. One of the managers was always slipping me books from the warehouse, and I spent about two years in the company of F. Scott Fitzerald and Ernest Hemingway.
Once I was out in the working world, a colleague mentioned Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House” to me. At the time, I had read only “A Tale of Two Cities,” which had been assigned to us in high school.
I didn’t have to much confidence in this particular colleague, because she claimed to be a descendant of John Wilkes Booth, who had no descendants. But when I admitted to her that I had never read “Bleak House,” she brought me a paperback copy of it. I read it and then read it again. Then I read every one of Dickens’ novels — all of which I have read at least twice — and all the stories and articles of his that I could find.
My mind is wandering; why am I writing about this?
Oh, I remember.
David L. Ulin has a column in the Los Angeles Times in which he laments that he finds it increasingly difficult to read. Our culture has evolved, he says, into an environment that miltates against the state of silence that is necessary to read — to really read — a book.
“These days,” he writes, “… after spending hours reading e-mails and fielding phone calls in the office, tracking stories across countless websites, I find it difficult to quiet down. I pick up a book and read a paragraph; then my mind wanders and I check my e-mail, drift onto the Internet, pace the house before returning to the page. Or I want to do these things but don’t. I force myself to remain still, to follow whatever I’m reading until the inevitable moment I give myself over to the flow.”
So far, I haven’t had that problem. Time can be an impediment to reading, but not the lure of other media. I fact, I have read far more books since I was laid off in December than in any equivalent period since I left graduate school. Still, Ulin’s observations probably will resonate with many folks. You can read his column at this link:
What’s that? You’ve never read George Ade? And you call yourself an American? Check him out here:
August 17, 2009
There were eight other people in the audience when we saw “Adam” last night at the art theater in Montgomery. The film had been consigned to the least of the screening rooms — the one with broken seats, and undersized screen, a pile of cardboard boxes at the front of the house, and an odd odor that seemed best ignored. All signs were that there wasn’t much respect for the movie, which was a prize-winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The plot seems familiar. Ravishing young writer Beth Buchwald moves into a New York brownstone where her downstairs neighbor is Adam Raki, a technical wizard who has Asperger’s Syndrome — a form of autism. Incompetent in social situations, Adam — left on his own in the apartment after the recent death of his father — gingerly establishes a friendship with Beth, who becomes cautiously but increasingly interested in him — both in helping him improve his social skills and in sorting out their personal feelings for each other.
The subplot involves Beth’s doting parents — Rebecca and Marty Buchwald — who are more eager to meet Adam than he is to meet them. Marty is preoccupied the while with a pending indictment against him, the result, he says, of his attempt to help the daughter of a friend and business associate.
This would have been a predictable film if all it involved was a woman who is high-minded despite her beauty and can see the worth between the surface of a tortured psyche. But the script by Max Mayer, who also directs, doesn’t go for the obvious. Nothing is neat or certain about this story — not the nature of the feelings Adam and Rose have for each other, and not the hierarchy among the characters from “normal” to “disturbed.”
The delicate balance among these characters is maintained because of the excellent casting and strong performances. Mayer can hardly have found a better actor than Peter Gallagher, for instance, to portray the self-assured, bigger-than-life Marty Buchwald, or a better actress than Amy Irving to play the philosophical, self-possessed Rebecca.
In the leading roles of Adam and Beth, Hugh Dancy and Rose Byrne create a fitful chemistry that alternately warms the heart and rattles the nerves. Both the development and the denouement of their relationship are unsentimental and credible.
A charming addition to the cast is Frankie Faison as Harlan, a longtime friend of Adam’s dad and a kind of Jiminy Cricket who instinctively knows how to respond to Adam’s erratic temperament.
This film is a lesson in reserving judgment and weighing another person’s shortcomings only when taking into account one’s own imperfections and errors — not to mention one’s own deliberate transgressions.
“Adam” deserves better than the room at the back. And what is that smell, anyway?
An NPR interview with Max Mayer is at this link: