Sunday, December 16, 2018

Call and responses

A challenge from the puzzle editors of the New York Times:
Write a sentence in which the place in the alphabet of the first letter of each word is the same as that word's length. In other words, if a one-letter word is used, it has to be “a”; a two-letter word has to start with “b”; a three-letter word has to start with “c” etc."
The winning submissions, published in a special puzzles section of the paper on December 16th, include the predictable ("Don's haircuts defy gravity," "Forget Hillary's email!"), the vividly plausible ("A fluffy cat fishes hungrily, imagining impending kitchenette feasts dunk by dunk"), and the tartly sesquipedalian ("Vaccinononsensicalitis: a ghastly manifestation, indicated by holistic fervor, formed by flawed, pseudoscientific journalism").

My favorite, though, for inspired silliness, is this contribution by Lee Tarlin: "A cow can interrupt a farmer unexpectedMOOOOOOOOOOO."

Thursday, December 13, 2018


Vera Brittain:
When I was a girl at St. Monica's and in Buxton, I imagined that life was individual, one's one affair; that the events happening in the world outside were important enough in their own way, but were personally quite irrelevant. Now, like the rest of my generation, I have had to learn again and again the terrible truth of George Eliot's words about the invasion of personal preoccupations by the larger destinies of mankind, and at last to recognize that no life is really private, or isolated, or self-sufficient. People's lives were entirely their own, perhaps — and more justifiably — when the world seemed enormous, and all its comings and goings were slow and deliberate. But this is so no longer, and never will be again, since man's inventions have eliminated so much of distance and time; for better, for worse, we are now each of us part of the surge and swell of great economic and political movements, and whatever we do, as individuals or as nations, deeply affects everyone else. We were bound up together like this before we realized it; if only the comfortable prosperity of the Victorian age hadn't lulled us into a false conviction of individual security and made us believe that what was going on outside our homes didn't matter to us, the Great War might never have happened.
Testament of Youth (1933)

Sunday, December 02, 2018


For a couple of years when I was a kid my father and I used to traipse through the woods on what had once been farmland, looking for old foundations that might indicate a household dump somewhere not far off, where, if we were lucky and dug carefully with a trowel or a shovel, we might find patent medicine bottles in amber or cobalt blue, or maybe even a handblown flask whose glass would be flecked with bubbles of nineteenth-century air. If we were on water supply property we'd bring our fishing rods for cover — angling was permitted, trespassing was not — but as far as I remember no one ever called us on it, and encounters with anyone else in those woods would have been few and far between. Now and then we'd find a ruined building that was still standing, surrounded by vegetation, its insulation mixed with mouse nests and its shingles decaying, but those were too new to bother with, offering nothing but beer cans and waterlogged magazines.

My father was a surveyor by profession, and the company that employed him secured a large contract for laying out lots on a tract of a thousand acres or so that had been purchased for development. Most of it was second growth woodland, hilly and criss-crossed with stone walls, but there was also a low area that still served to grow corn up until the time the developers started work. There was an abandoned house still standing on the property, and under the pretext of reconnoitering for purposes of the survey we went one day to take a look around. I don't remember much about it now except that the building had at least three stories and must have been a comfortable farmhouse a few decades before.

We found a way in and walked the rooms. How many years they'd been unoccupied is hard to say; there was some story about an elderly widow living in a nursing home who had finally died. Certainly there was nothing useful still in the house; whatever furnishings had any value had long been sold or taken away by relatives or just looted, and the only thing I remember with certainty is that there was a cupboard that was still — bizarrely — neatly stocked with glass jars of vichychoisse or borscht. As we were exploring we heard footsteps on the wooden floor and a kind of desperate wail, and after a few seconds a very large and frightened Great Dane appeared. It couldn't have been left behind by the former owner — it had been too long — and no doubt it had found a way in as we had, and maybe couldn't find its way out. My father shooed it away and it disappeared deeper into the house.

We left empty-handed. The house was torn down not long after. There's no trace of it now.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Notes for a CommonPlace Book (23)

Charles Morgan:
In each instant of their lives men die to that instant. It is not time that passes away from them, but they who recede from the constancy, from the immutability of time, so that when afterwards they look back upon themselves it is not themselves they see, not even—as it is customary to say—themselves as they formerly were, but strange ghosts made in their image, with whom they have no communication.
From The Fountain, quoted by Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Representative Man

David W. Blight:
Over more than fifty years, 1841-1894, Douglass sat for approximately 160 photographs and wrote some four essays or addresses that were in part about the craft and meaning of pictures. In engravings and lithographs his image graced the pages or cover of all major illustrated papers in England and the United States. His picture was captured in all major forms of photography, from the daguerreotype to stereographs and wet-plate albumen prints. Photographers, some famous and some not, all across the country sought out Douglass for his image. As the historians of his image have shown, the orator performed for the camera. He especially presented himself without props, his own stunning person representing African American "masculinity and citizenship." He helped to choose the frontispieces for his autobiographies, which carried his photograph, and he especially sought to create for a wide audience successive images of the intelligent, dignified black man, and statesmanlike elite, at the same time he understood that photography had evolved into a "democratic art," allowing almost anyone to leave an image for posterity. Visually, by the 1870s and 1880s, Douglass was one of the most recognizable Americans; the dissemination of photographs of him became, therefore, a richly political act.
— From Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom

Image: Frederick Douglass, from a full-plate daguerreotype in the collection of the Onondaga Historical Association.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018


Reservoir views, Halloween morning. The sharp-eyed may notice a passing bird or two in some of the images below.