posted by SWC on July 13th, 2012 · 1 Comment ·

The Map.  In childhood I was given to improvising maps of small towns and villages.   I would often start with a stream, add a bridge, a railroad, then several roads that would converge at the town’s center.  And there would be a small park, a railroad station, a store, a post office, a school, a diner, and I would add a few side streets with houses.  When the map was complete, or when I ran out of ideas,  I declared the town done.  And then one day, not long ago,  I realized that I had chosen just such a place to call home.

The Gem Spa. Back in that never-finished era we know as The Sixties I was greeted on a summer’s day in Washington Square Park by a  German tourist couple who politely asked me “where the hippies is ?”  Hippies were what they had come to the village, perhaps to New York, to see.  Washington Square  was evidently a disappointment.

Without  hesitation, I directed the couple to the corner of Saint Marks Place and Second Avenue,  specifically to the Gem Spa, sweetly fragrant of egg creams, dripping chocolate cones, pot, and  sweat of uncertain vintage; it was a mere ten-minute stroll into the heart of the East Village.  I lived down the street from the Gem Spa.  It was where I bought my cigarettes and newspapers.   The front steps of nearby brownstones, including mine, were often littered with the living dead.  Most were homeless Bowery winos, who might have been mistaken by the German tourist couple for hippies.  On the other hand,  hippies had homes, I thought,  where they were probably wanted and could still return to, homes which were in the words of Robert Frost, “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

The Film.  About this time a film was released, which was directed and written by, and based on the affluent, but drug-afflicted life of Conrad Rooks, who starred as an underground cult-movie version of himself.   Many of the iconic and subiconic figures of the day appeared in cameo roles:  William S.  Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg,  Peter Orlovsky, Moondog, the Fugs, Ravi Shankar, Swami Satchidananda.  Native Americans and African Americans seen in spiritual ecstasies added point to the film’s sense that the hero’s private psychedelic hell could be breached with intensive rhythmic,  metaphysical, and eventual clinical guidance.  The name of the film was Chappaqua.

During  Rooks’s treatment at a seriously-guarded French rehabilitation clinic he is asked by the director (Jean-Louis Barrault) where, if he left, he would want to go.   Rooks says that he would like to return to Chappaqua, his childhood home, once an Indian burial ground where only arrowheads and its variously translated Algonquian  name survive.

The spiritual home to which Rooks would return is a 50-minute train ride north of New York.  To reach that destination one passes by uncounted acres of cemeteries between the appropriately named towns of Valhalla and Pleasantville, where it might be assumed that at least  some Native Americans lie buried.  However, the acres of parked cars at the recently renovated Chappaqua train station belong to the bankers, lawyers, and executives, who, together with limo-riding political celebrities like Bill and Hillary Clinton, give the area its self-consciousness and far-reaching tone.

Susan Lawrence.  It is an easy ten-minute walk from my house to the center of Chappaqua where North Greeley and King Street meet.  At this intersection there is a Starbucks, a Sotheby real estate agency and just north of that a conspicuously charming pocket park with a small sign that lets you know that you are in the Town of New Castle.   Not that you are likely to hear anyone say that he or she or they live in a place with that name. Yet New Castle does nearly everything for its little hamlet.  It handles the municipal and paperwork realities, the police, the fire, the clean-up people, the water bill people, and much more, including probably Chappaqua’s entire geopolitical existence.

Chappaqua, the name, arguably qualifies as an honorific, a consideration that might justifiably appear on mortgage statements.  It is best pronounced and spelled with patient assistance.  Its municipal purity is clear from its official recognition as a Census-Designated Place, or  CDP,  which means that it derives its unincorporated identity from the cultural commonality of its residents; i.e. the people who say they live in Chappaqua and who ban traffic lights, movie houses, and bars as such, and who on  Saturday mornings and on the days before feast days ritually pour into Susan Lawrence, a  gourmet food and dessert elegance, and practice being Chappaquans in full view of each other, to the accompaniment of a perpetually ongoing recorded Haydn trio.

Susan Lawrence does not sell egg creams, or newspapers, or cigarettes of any kind, though you might observantly spot a former hippie or two in the crowd.   It does the definitional work for Chappaqua that the Gem Spa did, and still does, for the East Village.  That alone would justify its prices, if it did not also add to its customers’ already robust sense of self-worth the notion that they are participating in an eat-in/take-out experience that not even Bronxville, which anyone can pronounce, could match.

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Rule Number One

posted by SWC on June 9th, 2012 · 3 Comments ·

The rules of indexing,  not counting those that are the responsibility of basic education, are few.   The most useful are grounded in common sense and should therefore be self-evident.  Among these the most important is the one I usually formulate as:

Index the idea, not the word.

Authors present their views in terms of concepts–ideas as such–or names.  For indexing purposes nouns, proper and common, are on an equal footing with concepts.  That also happens to be the principle which best answers the following question: “Why can ‘t computers be programmed to index books?”

Let’s take as an example a hypothetical book on the Truman period, the era , of course, not the punctuation that is sometimes omitted after the middle initial of the 33rd president’s name, a subject we can discuss another time in one of the back booths of the Pleasantville Diner.

Human intelligence, at least up to now, is superior to machines in determining, say, whether George F. Kennan, whose name appears only on page 84 and 92 of this hypothetical text, should be indexed with the span,  84-92 or with two separate locators, 84 and 92.  It depends entirely on how Kennan’s story is told on pages 84-92.  Were there on those pages excerpts from his “Long Telegram” or his X Article in Foreign Affairs?  The famous telegram may have been mentioned only on pages 84 and 96, and that is how a computer program is likely to index it.   But obviously, whether as a heading on its own or as a subheading of Kennan, George F., the entry requires a span that accurately tells the reader on just which pages it appears.  Moreover, the reader would probably like to know the significance the author has attached to the entry.  In other words, when we are hurriedly seeking a meaty discussion of topic A we often brush aside single page references in favor of long spans.

The Cold War as a subject in any book of the Truman period is likely to require subheadings, perhaps many.  If the indexer or the computer program indexes that term only where it is specifically mentioned the usefulness of the entry may suffer proportionately.  The author may refer specifically to the Cold War in an introductory paragraph or two, but the subject may reappear in its various aspects throughout the book.  Subentries  will probably be needed, for containment,  the Berlin blockade and airlift, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NSC-68, and the abovementioned Long Telegram.  And, naturally, the Berlin blockade may appear on pages where the term itself is not mentioned.

Cross-references from “Cold War” to these topics can and probably should be used with one important exception, the too-frequently employed “see also specific topics.”  The reader who turns to the index is hoping to save time, not to multiply it by reading, additionally, the indexer’s mind.

[Note:  If you have read to the end of this benignly intended pedantry–thank you.  It was originally meant to prevent the Chappaqua dust from settling on my keyboard, and I think it has at least served that purpose.]



The Ginsberg Variations

posted by SWC on June 1st, 2012 · 1 Comment ·

Speaking of Lionel Trilling, as I was some months ago, I have often thought of my omission of his most famous student, Allen Ginsberg, who was at Columbia in the mid-forties and who was also a Paterson schoolmate of mine. Over the years we spoke about five or six times, not counting the semester that I was assigned to a study period in the back of Miss Durbin’s senior English class, in which Allen was a devoted student. In one of our conversations, decades later, he asked me what he was like in high school; he couldn’t remember. I told him that he struck me as pretty nervous and intense. He nodded, absorbed with what I had said like a biographer compiling materials for a Life.

In 1984 an editor at Harper & Row asked me to prepare a proper name index for Ginsberg’s Collected Poems 1947-1980.  An index for the poems, not the appendices, the commentaries, or the voluminous notes? The idea of a proper name index for this huge lava-flow collection of poetry fascinated me. Names make news , but in what sense do they make poetry?   It was Ginsberg’s private Who’s Who. Facebook before its time. In his “Author’s Preface, Reader’s Manual” he wrote that the purpose of the index was to make the large volume “user friendly.” The reader as “user”– consumer of poetic goods?  We–my staff and I–did the index.  The index that I eventually saw,  after the book was published,  had been mutated by Ginsberg and his staff. Do poets work with staffs? For this book, yes.  The book with all  its appurtenances and linkages was both a collection of poetry and an encyclopedic rendering of the world according to Allen and his social network.

What happened to the index? The changes were at first glance a little vexing. The rules of indexing are really few, and they are frequently  forsaken.  For instance cross references, were added with whimsical superfluity. “Cousteau, J.” directs the reader to the neighboring “Cousteau, Jacques.”   “Lou, see Ginsberg, Louis” is followed by “Louis, see Ginsberg, Louis.” What kind of  user, I wondered,   requires such friendship? That would be the same reader who looks up “W. C. Williams” in that straight-across order and needs to be sent down the page to “Williams, William Carlos.” There is an entry for “Blow, Joe” which cross-references to Ginsberg, Allen, who is apparently indexed  wherever his name appears.  Many entries are cross-referenced to the 50 pages of notes where the explanations are helpful,  although some seem unnecessary to readers of the daily press.  I am reminded of  T. S. Eliot’s Notes to The Waste Land and wonder if some student has not already compared them with Ginsberg’s Notes for a graduate dissertation.

The more I look at the index today the more I find it entertaining, not lacking in idiosyncratic charm ,  and in fact falling within the vast poetic embrace of the entire book. Ginsberg has stamped it too with his utmost sense of self.  The volume itself is, after all, some serious publishing history.

[Note: Lionel Trilling was not in the index, but the Ginsberg-Trilling connection and their Dionysian-Apollonian relationship has been well covered, particularly by Adam Kirsch in his “Lionel Trilling and Allen Ginsberg: Liberal Father, Radical Son” in the Virginia Quarterly Review online and in his excellent Why Trilling Matters.]

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Morningside II: Five Great Teachers

posted by SWC on September 25th, 2011 · 1 Comment ·

Moving uptown from NYU’s Washington Square College in Greenwich Village to Morningside Heights and Columbia was more a matter of cultural than geographical relocation. NYU turned out to be the right place to sort out, debate, and eventually establish one’s lifelong political and philosophical leanings. This process occurred mainly in the school cafeteria, known as The Commons. The Village itself added a cultural-laboratory effect to an otherwise drab urban university curriculum. Columbia by contrast was an intellectual finishing school where graduate students were given the learning and models they needed to become ready-to-hire scholars. The cineramic personalities who educated us were themselves renowned intellectuals, each with a mythic reputation for great teaching. Below are my remembered perceptions of five professors I thought fit securely in the stellar category.

Gilbert Highet (1906-1978) was a classicist, probably from infancy. Glasgow-born, he spoke with just a hint of Scottish burr (very handy for words like “terrific” and “pure”). Movie-star handsome, he was clearly meant to play the role of nothing less than a foreign secretary, though I think even Anthony Eden would have looked a bit raggedy-edged by comparison. I don’t recall him using his desk, unless as a prop. He demonstrated the art of teaching as performance by whipping around the class while describing some contemporary bounce of the living Classical Tradition, often through face-to-face enactments with randomly chosen students. Though he would often refer to his “own darling Catullus,” his infectious first love was his love of teaching. The Art of Teaching is his handy guide for those who would teach anything to anyone. Always affable and generous with his time, Highet was the easiest of professors to speak with. His wife, incidentally, was Helen MacInnes, also Glasgow-born, and my favorite spy and mystery novelist from high school on.

Marjorie Hope Nicolson (1894-1981), chairperson of the Graduate Department of English and Comparative Literature, was a woman of generous girth, convincing authority, and what I remember as profoundly grey eyes. A practitioner and fine tuner of the old historicism before it became the new historicism, she lectured from her desk on the thought and poetry of the seventeenth century (read her Breaking of the Circle or Newton Demands the Muse), but she could just as comfortably spend a New Critical hour in tracking down the simple subject and predicate of Milton’s “On His Blindness” or parsing one of the shorter poems of John Donne. Nicolson also taught the virtues of organization and clarity, not surprising for the daughter of a midwestern newspaper editor.

Maurice Valency (1903-1996) lived fortunately well into his nineties. Fortunately, because he had much more than an average lifetime of literary and allied accomplishments to work his way through. Although he was described as a theater master in Mel Gussow’s New York Times obituary (playwright, author, critic and professor of drama; known for his award-winning adaptations of the plays of Jean Giraudoux and Friedrich Duerrenmatt), Professor Valency was also a member of the New York bar, was fluent in at least seven languages, taught at Brooklyn College, was director of academic studies at Juilliard, and taught Spenser and Courtly Love at Columbia, where I had the mistaken notion that anyone who lectured so alluringly on sixteenth-century love poetry could hardly be doing much else. Valency had the air of a jaded patrician; he should have had one of those proud European names awash with prepositions. In the row behind me and a little to my right sat Charles Van Doren, one of Professor Van Doren’s two sons then at Columbia.

Mark Van Doren (1894-1972) had the aura of someone who might have received an Academy Award for his starring role in Civilization and who found no better way to express his thanks than to teach the plays of William Shakespeare. Van Doren’s Shakespeare classes are the stuff of legend. You would see very little note taking; there was too much in the way of thoughtful and easy-flowing talk to dwell on. Pick up his Shakespeare, indispensable and beautifully written, start reading on any page and you instantly get a sense of Van Doren. W. H. Auden is quoted in David Lehman’s foreword: “Professor Van Doren enlightens us, not because he has any special knowledge or private advantages, but because his love of Shakespeare has been greater than our own.” He was, in fact, a loving man who inspired love in others; it is not difficult to believe that if Lincoln had taught Shakespeare he would have spoken not unlike Illinois-born Mark Van Doren, whose son, Charles, was born on Lincoln’s birthday and given “Lincoln” as a middle name. Charles’s own story with regard to his role in the 1950s quiz scandals is available online in stacks of press coverage, but was best told in his own New Yorker article of July 28, 2008 entitled “All the Answers.”

Lionel Trilling (1905-1975) walked briskly into his Literary Criticism class as the bell rang and departed aloofly while topping off his lecture, disappearing before his students had an opportunity to ask questions or close their brief cases. His grey flannel suit, striped tie, button-down blue shirt and precision-trimmed grey hair gave him the appearance of a spiffy John le Carre double agent. Read his one novel, The Middle of the Journey, for a sense of his spirit and his times.

Literary Criticism , I thought, was an enviable class hour for any teacher; it was the kind of course that could be called “Thoughts on Culture” or “What occurred to me as I was reading my morning paper.” Of course, it took Trilling’s aplomb and fluency, his intimacy with the complexities of large and small subjects to pull that off. He spoke on Cold War morality, death symbolism in modern poetry, the Freudian vision of instinct and civilization, the doctrinaire Left, the great novelists, the prevalence of mass cult, and the superiority of sociological thought over fiction in explaining contemporary times. Occasionally, Trilling would toss out an inexplicable “as everyone knows.” For instance: “As everyone knows, Brahms is too loud.” Embarrassing, I thought, to hear such nonsense from a person of his standing. Obsessed, I was tempted to bug him about Brahms during one of our brief elevator encounters at 620 West 116th Street, where we each lived and where he had a workspace on an upper floor, but he usually had about him an air of cheerless and unsmiling preoccupation that I rarely had the temerity to penetrate. Nonetheless he was, like many enclosed people, more self-revealing than even he might have realized. I remember sometimes how feelingly he read Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” to his class, especially those lines about the world that “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light /Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain. . .” and I am brought back to an understanding of the brilliant yet complicated man that he was.

Years earlier Trilling had turned from the hopefulness of Marx’s Divine Comedy to the despairing world view of Freud’s Paradise Lost. He regarded Freud as a towering figure, despite his disappointing personal analysis. Almost twenty years after Trilling’s death from pancreatic cancer his wife, Diana, wrote in The Beginning of the Journey (1993) that “it would have been better for him if he had railed against the failure of his therapy instead of blanketing it in his admiration of Freud.” His son, James Trilling, whose profession as an art historian fulfilled Diana’s own long abandoned career hope, concluded, controversially, in The American Scholar (“My Father and the Weak-Eyed Devils” ; Vol. 68 Spring 1999) that Trilling, like himself, had experienced lifelong Attention Deficit Disorder. He too found Trilling a complex spirit, living inside the myth of himself and not liking it. Read John Rodden’s “The Trilling family ‘romance’: report of a psychoanalytic autopsy” (The Free Library). But in the end, it really didn’t much matter how Trilling got the way he was, because neither I nor anyone I knew regretted for an instant attending his classes.

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Morningside: Some Very Odd Dust

posted by SWC on August 11th, 2011 · 1 Comment ·

Soon after I was admitted to the graduate school at Columbia, I rented a small room in the sixth floor apartment of Alexander Miner on West 116th Street near Riverside Drive. Mr. Miner was a tall sixtyish German refugee who went off with his wife each morning to run their baby stroller company. My room had a narrow casement window which opened to the serenity of a river view and the occasional dark whiff of roasting coffee drifting from the Maxwell House factory across the Hudson. On the downside, I was separated from the Miner family by only a thinly curtained, glass-paneled door, through which I heard the effects of Mr. Miner’s frequent bouts with bronchitis and his phone conversations in animated German.

Edward Kalian, an Iranian law student well into his thirties, lived down the hall and, enviably, near the entrance door, which gave him an edge on privacy. We sipped on demitasses of his expertly prepared Turkish coffee while he spoke about the politically “overheated” mail he received from home. This was still many months before the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of Iran’s Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadegh.

Lionel Trilling, one of my more famous professors, lived on the first floor with his wife Diana, their infant son, James, and a young and attractive roomer who functioned as their domestic au pair.

I was happy to be living on 116th Street. Our apartment house was a little more than a block from my classes, and around the corner on Broadway were my favorite eating places: Tilson’s lunch counter for delicious tuna salad sandwiches; Chock Full o’Nuts for its justly famed doughnuts and coffee; and further southward the capacious West End Bar for rounds of cold draft beer, and thick burgers.

To help pay for my courses and cover expenses, I took a job as a page at Columbia’s Butler Library, working at the circulation desk or chasing down books in the dimly lit and cavernous stacks where I learned to use my thumbnail to gather enough light to read the Dewey decimal codes on the spines of books.

Life in the stacks was sometimes grimly boring, but I came to look forward to the hours of quiet isolation and the background gush of pneumatic tubes, through which call slips sped inside cylindrical capsules like the ones I’d seen in department stores. Besides, I had no end of assigned reading to cover, and I was of course surrounded by a zillion or so books, many of which I decided were never at all on anyone’s reading lists but had awaited decades for someone to open and breath their own particular dust.

Nonetheless, it wasn’t long before a pretty blonde page and I struck up a friendship with the principal aim of making the minutes fly, which we accomplished by smooching tirelessly in one or another of the small, secluded lavatories at the end of each tier; the lavatories were wisely equipped with lights that flashed whenever a capsule filled with call slips dropped into a nearby work station. Which caused, eventually, a temporary interruption in our incessant dalliance.

We did not take our romantic pastime on to the next level, so to speak. We had no relationship, and once beyond the purview of Butler Library we never saw each other unless by accident. I would return to my studies, say medieval love poetry, or to a dinner of pork and beans with a buttered muffin at Bickford’s Cafeteria on upper Broadway; but where she went I had no idea. And, curiously, there was never any sign that our amorous meetings were suspected by our fellow staff members, or the readers, or the chief circulation librarian, stately Miss Louise Stubblefield. I have since even toyed with the possibility that the entire experience might have been a fantasy, induced perhaps by inhaling some very odd book dust.

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The Explorer

posted by SWC on July 10th, 2011 · Leave a Comment ·

Professional indexers do not often get a chance to index books they have written, an appealing idea I thought.  That was one of the reasons I agreed to ghostwrite a book on earth’s vanishing primitive peoples.   The author was Lewis Cotlow whose films and books included titles like Passport to Adventure, Amazon Head-Hunters,  Zanzabuku, or Dangerous Safari, and In Search of the Primitive.  Popular anthropology is not quite the category into which I would place his work, but it is close enough.  Think pith helmets, rainforests. Add escapes from charging rhinos, lectures before the New York Explorers Club, and a touch of malaria.

Cotlow came of age when a square jaw and a rucksack full of gumption could still do everything for a young man.  His lifelong wanderlust was given a swift kick forward when at 21 he went to sea for three years employed as a supercargo, charged with the care and commercial fate of his ship’s cargo, a Joseph Conrad job if there ever was one.  But it was as an aggressive insurance salesman that Cotlow grew rich enough to spend half a year away from home and business as film maker, author, and lecturer, carrying the identity card of an Explorer.

He lived in a large comfortable Park Avenue apartment near Bloomingdales, a likely source of its elegant decor, I imagined.  His den, however, was a stunning last resting place of the great beasts of the wild.  The floor was covered with a large, gleaming white polar bear rug, which I nimbly avoided stepping on.  An elephant’s foot served as an occasional table.  While I was  studying his collection of wall hangings–masks, shields, spears, a zebra hide, clustered arrows,  Cotlow removed a shoebox from a cabinet and asked me if I would like to see a shrunken head, an actual human shrunken head.  I told him that my nerves could manage a peep, and we soon settled down to our drinks and talk of the plight of the primitive world.

After two hours I left Cotlow, my briefcase bulging with a few of his previously published books, which he asked me to  draw ideas and inspiration from as I wrote the opening chapters of The Twilight of the Primitive.   I also carried abundant notes taken during our conversation, along with fresh tapes and transcripts from his recent travels among Brazil’s Xingu River people, who are now in the world news owing to the expected construction of a huge hydroelectric dam which will flood their lands and end their way of life.  And soon he would be off to the Arctic to learn how the Eskimos of Alaska’s North Slope were getting on with their new oil industry neighbors.  Meanwhile, I would be back at St. Marks Place writing and looking forward to a flat-rate check of $300.00 for each chapter, about two month’s rent in the 1970s. 

Before I could start typing away on my portable Olivetti, however, I needed to sort out how Cotlow thought about the people who were disappearing into a twilight of cultural extinction.  They were for him undoubtedly denizens of the dark , the Othermost side of the planet, known best by the plucky and adventurous.  That version sold well in the movie business. The trumpeting of elephants, chattering chimpanzees, and the ever ominous drums.

But Cotlow also wanted us to see the Primitives as not much different from his life insurance customers.  With his camera crew on hand his chummy relationship with the average Masai, Mangbetu, or  Watusi was transactional.  If you wanted to film them doing a ritual dance, he would say,  you first had to sell yourself.  They had to like you.  Another thing:  like the rest of us they had an urge to teach as well as learn, and they had much to teach, as his books attest.  He believed that their absence from the human neighborhood we would shortly and surely mourn.  He was right about that.

As for the index, not quite two week’s work,  it was as much fun to do as I had expected. At the end, Cotlow was generous; there was a bonus, a provision in his will earmarked for my son’s college expenses. That was fine. The only thing I still have difficulty getting over is that he did not understand how I could charge $150.00 for the index.  Indexers have their odd practices too, he must have thought.

  Read more…

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Top Drawer

posted by SWC on June 28th, 2011 · 1 Comment ·

An exercise.

Under my elbows is a desk drawer, a bordered chaos, unconnected to any of the larger chaoses that we ignore or deal with as each day begins, or ends.

(Note: chaos is a word not easily found pluralized in or out of dictionaries.  A website, “More Words” affirms that it is a valid word which has no direct anagrams, although there are many words that can be found within chaoses, like shoes or aches or ashes.)

First there is a packet of yellow Post-Its, which does not belong in this drawer but in the supply drawer on my right.  Done.  What else?  A small scissors that once belonged in a pocket sewing kit.  A pen light to be used in case of a sudden power outage.  A number of items that probably should also be in the supply drawer: several tins of paper clips, a Scotch tape roll, two small pencil sharpeners, two black Pilot pens still encased in the plastic packaging they came in.  Erasers, other pens, a box of very small and infrequently used staples.  It is difficult to throw anything out once it is tossed into this drawer.  Dental floss, both the waxed and the unwaxed kind, many band-aids, several alcohol swabs, useful for finger cuts caused by poking around in the drawer, and for removing ink stains from the white Formica desk top.  A power-drained AA battery.  Small plastic wrapped postage reply envelopes for returning empty printer cartridges.  Two outdated and therefore useless Metro North train tickets.  Nail clippers, tweezers, buttons, safety pins, coins,  including a film container filled with Sacajawea dollars.  Keys, some for locks of unknown whereabouts.   Several small magnifying glasses.  Some pretty stones and shells that sometimes provide an aesthetic jolt when I open the drawer and see them among the expected debris.  One amusing stone has the size, shape and color of a cigar which I have had for years and cannot yet throw away.  Of course all these items will one day find their way into a large black plastic bag.  That is altogether a tomorrow thing.  There is also a torn dollar bill (torn by rage, accident, or found that way?) which I had once hoped to restore to its now disappeared other half.

There is along with all the above a small puzzle that has survived in one drawer or another since my childhood, when it was bought for me by my aunt. I think it was originally called The Imp.  It is an approximately two and a quarter inch metal square with movable numbers–one to fifteen–which the puzzler arranges in the usual order horizontally (to the left or right),  or  vertically, or in spirals (also to the left or right), with the sixteenth (blank) space at the end.  Over the years, as one might suspect,  I have become pretty good at doing this little puzzle, especially when I am arranging the numbers from the left to the right, or clockwise.  I have kept it because solving the puzzle clears my mind and gives me a momentary illusion of exceptional competence,  which is something many sentient beings strive for in what ever small thing they do.

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Light in December

posted by SWC on December 23rd, 2009 · 1 Comment ·

Christmas present:  In Pleasantville nearly every house along Washington Avenue, which connects with Chappaqua, is filigreed with colored lights.  It is as if those old, gingerbread domiciles were themselves objects of December reverence, signaling  light and hope during our passage through the coldest and darkest time of the year.  The snow has come and not yet gone.  Christmas, white or not, in paintings, in the cards we send, in the songs, or in the mind has always been a scene, not only a narrative.  The idea is to design the scene following traditional principles and then to slip ourselves into it, if we can.  In childhood we were able to invent Christmas for ourselves, with the cooperation of a world that wanted nothing more earnestly.

Christmas past:   During my childhood in Paterson, I lived in  a mostly freethinking Jewish family in which each member was given leave to observe the December holidays in his or her own way.  We agreed that it was a time of lights and gift-giving to light the inner person.  The public school I attended, P.S. 21,  pulled out all the stops and celebrated Christmas as a  national religious  event in which everyone was expected to participate in song or verse or become a silent knight.  My kindergarten teacher was Miss Sweeney who, during her doorway chats with Miss Donahue, maintained classroom decorum by striking  ominous chords on her piano.  At Christmas she lead her 30 charges to a vendor of trees; we helped select one and the entire class carried it , a 60-legged spruce, back to our room where it was decorated with totemic care–candy canes and apples and  baubles  brought from home.

I loved the Paterson Christmas.  I loved the way the city salted the air with anticipation.  It occupied only a few days, was minimally commercial, and thanks to my Aunt Ann,  it was a time for me of many small gifts and trips downtown to see the lighted trees behind the curtained windows along stately Van Houten Street, and best of all the largest of trees on Broadway glowing  with lights of  a deeply magical blue that I have not forgotten.  Overcoming my natural child’s skepticism, I came to believe that something unexpected and personally significant would occur at this time.

As the years passed, I visited Paterson rarely.  Although the times were improving, it seemed to me that the world’s heart had gotten colder and darker.  And so I chose January 10th as the quintessential “Paterson Day” when the last of the Christmas trees were abandoned on the sidewalks, some of them still smoldering, when the lights still glimmered faintly around the windows of neighborhood taverns, and the starlings that desecrated the statues in front of City Hall screamed insults at people rushing to their buses.   It was the Thirteenth Day of Christmas.  The January syndrome.  This is how it is, how it really is, I told myself.  And for me Christmas became a more closely held event with a friend or two in front of my own fireplace, toasting Light in December.

Christmas future:  Now I am back in a small town Christmas with occasional visits to the spectacular displays at or near  Grand Central Station.   This is the future.  I can understand the tension between those who want to make the public Christmas go away and those who want it to stay.  Christmas comes too soon and stays too long.  And then, once again the darkly ordinary, the ice storms and the penalty of Adam.

And we are, more surely as adults, subject to our child’s skepticism and propensity for disappointment.  With some difficulty we align and balance our givings and takings,  the self-indulgent  Saturnalias and the ascent of the spirit, while we seek if for only an hour the elusive light of our childhood’s perfect self.

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Great Ones Must Not Unwatched Go

posted by SWC on December 12th, 2009 · 2 Comments ·

Why do we seek fame? John Milton had a famously simple answer in Lycidas.  It was an “infirmity,” some kind of flaw, possibly verging on the pathological; a human condition.  It “spurs” us on to noble deeds, though inevitably this “fair guerdon” is trumped by death.  And so fame is, or attempts to be, the undeath, a touch of the immortal.  James Dean lives on we say.  Florence Nightingale lives on.

Here’s another question: why are so many of us attracted to the famous?  For the same reason, many have said. The famous transcend the here and now.  They will live on, and we are enlarged by emotionally funding that transcendence. That is an engaging myth.  Allow me to personalize it.  But first a useful clarification.

There is a broadly held distinction  between heroes, people we greatly admire, and the famous–“celebrities” if they are presently alive.  Obviously, and here I am a relativist, one person’s hero might be merely famous to another ( or possibly not well known at all, for instance my grade school shop teacher, Mr. Steenstra, who taught me to love the fragrant ambience of shellac and freshly sawed white pine).

One example from recent history:  Churchill and Hitler were each heroes but not for the same people, and no one would disagree that each was famous.  Unlike heroism, fame is value-neutral, in theory anyway.  But in fact there have always been fame-worshippers as there have been hero-worshippers.  Sometimes it is not easy to see the difference: people who once  breathlessly reported a Garbo sighting; the swooners at a Presley or Beatles concert.  I had to steady a friend one day in a supermarket because she thought she saw an actor from the cast of As the World Turns.

(My Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-IV, has not cataloged the altered state induced by high-level celebrities, although I am inclined toward “Dissociative Trance Disorder.”  However, this trance disorder is not culturally sanctioned–which means they might put you away–but what I am describing here appears to be universally accepted.}

On the subject of fame one’s own experience is sometimes more helpful than cultural theory.   Because of my life in the word trades, I have met my fair share of celebrities: writers, actors, musicians, politicians and so on.  A few of them have been my heroes.  Approaching a hero requires an emotional steadiness that I have not always had at my command.  I am then like a young man who courageously introduces himself to the belle of the ball and stiffly asks for the next dance.

The poet W. H. Auden qualified as a hero for me.  This is how things went one evening when fate arranged for both of us to be smoking in the vestibule at the entrance to Manhattan’s 92nd Street YMHA where he was scheduled to read.

Do I just smile and nod affably, I asked myself, or do I say something, preferably brief and cannily sensible? Autograph? Never.  If he were a stranger one of us might have said something like, “Are you a fan of Auden?” and then go on to speculate about which poems he would be reading.  But when it is Auden himself what does one say? This was awkward.  Should I simply depart for the auditorium and look for a seat?  That would be cowardly.  And when would I have another chance to speak to him? I could tell him that I love his poems.  But he must know that, or why else would I be here?  Isn’t there some boilerplate expression for occasions like this? Yes there is. . .  Just say it.

“Mr. Auden, ” I said. “Reading your poems has given me much. . .very much pleasure.”

At first he said nothing; then Inhaling deeply, he tilted his head back and artfully expelled the smoke as at last he answered evenly, “Oh rilleh.”

That was my conversation with W. H. Auden.  But it wasn’t quite the end of our asymmetrical relationship, because fate slipped another wild card into my deck when some years later I discovered that we were living a few houses apart on St. Marks Place in the East Village, where we would often pass each other similarly burdened with bags of laundry or groceries.  I cannot say why exactly, but until he left his digs at No. 77, to return to England and soon to die, I never spoke a word to him.

It could have been that for a time his formidable craggy face blended too well into the St. Marks scene: the flower children, the rebels, the assorted fallen angels.  Or it may have been that in those days I thought that time had no end, and that I could always steel myself to say hello when next we passed.  I was wrong about that, but still I have always kept a copy of his poems close at hand.



posted by SWC on December 4th, 2009 · 2 Comments ·

Last week the silent service got an unexpected fifteen minutes of fame without doing a thing. The thing was of course the Sarah Palin memoir, Going Rogue, published without an index by HarperCollins.  For this lapse the publisher was awarded a “Golden Turkey” by the American Society of Indexers.  Soon after announcing the Award, ASI President Kate Mertes sent out word that she had been swamped by hundreds of inquiries about indexing.  And ordinary people were talking–actually arguing–about indexing.

Interesting. How often we find curious onlookers attempting to penetrate the mysteries of our seemingly humdrum craft. To them, good luck.  But now it was as though suddenly everyone had an irresistible urge to visit Cleveland.

It did not end there, however.  Since the author was Sarah Palin, whose name is catnip to the media, the Award story was retold unflaggingly by influential online magazines, political websites, and news blogs: Daily Kos, Huffington Post, and Slate, to name a few.  Their reader comments gave voice not only to a wide sweep of opinions on Going Rogue but also on indexing, a subject about which, it turned out, nearly everyone had something to say. For instance from The Daily Beast:

“Give me a data file of the whole text, a six-pack of interns and a reference copy of the bound volume for each of them to use, and I’ll get you an index for a book much thicker than Palin’s within one business day.  Honestly.”

And: “Adobe InDesign has the same thing. A couple hours, tops, and several mouse clicks and you have an index.  You can skip the interns.”

On the other hand: ” Software does not write indexes anymore than it writes books. PEOPLE write indexes–after reading and analyzing the manuscript.  And it does take days or weeks, not hours. Indexing is a profession.  Done by people.  Software simply helps.”

Meanwhile, the Pleasantville Diner crowd, disappointed with Harper’s no-index decision, was entertaining itself with the idea of inviting indexers at large to fill the empty pages in Going Rogue as a competition. June Bissell asked what the prize might be. “You could publish the winner’s index in your blog,” George Tuesday suggested.  “Not a good idea.” P. del Sorto, the indexing dean, said. “An index of two or three thousand lines would bust your blog.”  The issue was soon settled, because by the next day we were all talking about the raft of index parodies joyously satirizing Palin that were appearing on the Cybersphere.  They averaged around 200 not 2000 lines.

“One of the great moments in Indexing,” del Sorto said.  “And please pass the ketchup, George.”

“I know they could have just as well been written if Going Rogue had never been published.” George said.  “And they weren’t prepared with anything like grammatical observance, but . . . don’t you think they’re funny?”

“I’ll tell you when you pass the ketchup.”

Later, June Bissell was making the point that a comparison of the Rogue indexes showed the risk of having several indexers, even the speediest, work on the same book. “When they are done you might never know that they were working on the same book,” she said, examining some notes she had written on the back of an index card.

“Take ‘God’ for instance, a topic you might expect the political left to look for in a book inspired by the political right.  The New Republic indexed 48 references to ‘God’ with no subentries, but Slate only found nine, although each came with a subentry like ‘deliberate causation of premature birth of Trig of’ on page 195, and Huffington Post had not a single reference for the “God” or religion for that matter, whether out of respect or for religious correctness or what who can say?”

“Marvelous,” del Sorto said.  “But do you really think the Rogue indexes are worth the Higher Criticism?  Just another small skirmish in the American Culture Wars.”

As I got up to take the train back to Chappaqua I asked del Sorto if he had any idea of how to title our blog post on the no-index controversy.  “That’s above my pay grade,” he said.  “But I’ll think about it.”