The Desiccation of Wit

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

best of

Current front-runner in the contest for Best Congressperson Name:
From Wisconsin's fightin' 7th: Representative Dave Obey.
Because nothing reads as well as "the Ranking Member, Rep. Obey."

Official Blog Seabird

Clearly, the Ohio Penguin is our Official Blog Seabird. No two ways about it. But what's with the scarf? It can't be that cold in Youngstown. Certainly he could huddle for warmth in an abandoned steel mill, if necessary, wouldn't you think?

Monday, April 24, 2006

Some things...

1. It is rare that something I read will make me laugh out loud. No, for those of you whom it may concern, I do not do so to provoke you to ask me, "What's so funny over there?". But, Lex, you're way off base about last week's New Yorker, which was frankly hilarious, particularly the piece about the development of maps and map-making technology (citing SNL's "Lazy Sunday" sketch) and Anthony Lane's journal of his excursion to Vitoria-Gastez (which, from firsthand knowledge, I can attest is in fact in the Basque region of Spain) and the other ups and downs of budget in-continent air travel. (I'd be curious to know what his experiences have been regarding un-hyphenated incontinent travel on low-cost providers.) So, apart from your misconflation of the umlaut and my beloved dieresis, it appears I have good cause to disagree with your assessment of the issue on the whole.

2. In today's final class of Constitutional Law, the antepenultimate class of the semester, all things considered, New York's most beautiful brainiac pulled out of his beltless, narrowly tailored pants a word which, according to my best sources, went into obsolescence a mere 676 years ago:

duree, dure, n.

[a. F. durée (12th c. in Hatz.-Darm.) duration, f. durer to endure.]

a. Power of endurance. b. Duration.

c1330 R. BRUNNE Chron. (1810) 16 {Th}e kynges folk was litelle, it had no dure. On the nyght he fled away, {th}at non suld him se.

(Rough translation? 'The few people who were there didn't stay around long, not long enough to see him leave.' Olde English scholars, please do correct me.)

Back on point. His usage of it grafted the French accent aiguille onto the "e" sound, though not with that "Look at me, I'm using a French word" navel-gazing that might well have been expected, but rather with a sort of "I'm saying this word as though it were spelled D-U-R-A-Y like in 'duration'." Thus I can infer that his intent was to use this word as though it were English in his response to my point that federalism is, for all intents and purposes, dead and that therefore, in interpreting the intent of Reconstruction Era-senators, it is most appropriate to do so with disregard for their desire to protect a structural entity which, as argued above, has long since gone by the wayside. Like, for instance, the English word duree.


3. Apr 23 Texas Rangers 2B Ian Kinsler (thumb), working out in Arizona with a dislocated thumb, has started taking batting practice in a swimming pool, according to T.R. Sullivan of (Emphasis added)

Why, pray tell, is he taking batting practice in a swimming pool?

Friday, April 21, 2006

it's in the computer

I have realized that the law school lockers all carry small labels indicating that their steel bodies were manufactured in Youngstown, Ohio. I imagine some law professor years ago who got appointed to the Works Committee over his strident obligations chuckling to himself in his office as he ticked them off on the catalog order sheet.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

eating my words

Okay, I've screwed up my courage and I'm just going to say it: Yes, damn it, I subscribe to The New Yorker. It's a pompous and arrogant periodical that is not as good as it was in the [insert editor of choice] period. It reviews opera in long format, apparently presuming that there is still a large segment of the public that arranges its life around when a favorite mezzo might appear. It persists in using an umlaut when a prefix ending in a vowel runs up against another of the same vowel (coöperation), which I think died as a general practice around the same time as Caesar. (Julius, not Augustus.) Sometimes I don't understand the cartoons. I never understand any of the ads.

But it still publishes poetry (poetry!) in a general interest magazine. Sometimes the cartoons are very funny. The profiles, all superciliousness overlooked, are often brilliant. And there's still some very good original investigative journalism in its pages, albeit heavily influenced by the Local Color and the I State This Blandly While You Catch My Other Meaning* schools of journalism.

This week's issue, however, has reminded me thrice over of why I do subscribe:

Nancy Franklin's lovely simile that crops up in, of all places, a restaurant review: The restaurant is just a hundred yards or so away from the mayhem of Union Square, with its hordes of young people running after a good time as if it were about to roll under a couch.

Anthony Lane's use of the much forgotten "conurbation" in an article on European budget airlines, a word he must have pull out from under the aforementioned couch and dusted off expressly for this article.

Finally, Jonathan Stern's "The Lonely Planet Guide to My Apartment." While weak in spots (you're horny, we get it), the parody of a much-beloved but perhaps too-big-for-its-britches-becoming publication does an excellent job of lampooning the guidebook's mission of making its readers feel at once intrepid cultural explorers (More adventurous eaters might try standing over the sink, as the locals do.) and safe in their new society (Dangers & Annoyances: The ongoing economic recession has led to a large increase in petty crime. For the most part this is limited to the "borrowing" of personal items and the occasional accidental disappearance of the neighbor's newspaper.)

Go forth, wordsmiths! Go forth and… smith. Produce for me these things of beauty in your Upper East Side sort of way. Make of your smirk a sword of insight. But please stop trying to convince me that I need to buy a roll-up Panama hat handwoven from straw in Ecuador (p157) or a ring with my family crest (research included!—p155). Affording the subscription price has meant giving up lunch for a month.

*This is sometimes referred to by British commentators as the "Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge School."

Monday, April 17, 2006


Can someone provide me with either:
(a) a theologically sound repsonse to,
(b) a witty retort to, or
(c) a refutal of the premises underlying
the following question:

Can vegetarian Catholics eat communion wafers? Does it matter whether or not you intinct? (<--- new word I'm very proud to have learned yesterday at church (!) from the Rev. Doug Fisher, M.Div.)

Happy Easter to all
(P.S. It's still Passover)

Sunday, April 16, 2006

to half and to hold

I know that when the Treasury Secretary thinks of halves, his pie is spilt into 99% and 1%. (I can only assume the 1% is green.) I also know he's a moron.

But America is the land of opportunity, and so no matter who we are, no matter how many moronic speeches officials of the Bush administration give, I think some part of all of us still believes that we can be anything: the President (perhaps! see above), an astronaut, a billionaire.

Then I actually read about that half/1% and realize: it's never going to happen. Oh, sure, some of us will make more money than others. Someone we know will probably make their first million before thirty. (Probably not someone with a BA in the humanities-- but you never know.) Yet no matter how much bootstrap-pulling-up-by might be accomplished, there are some dizzying heights I just don't think I'll ever manage to scale.

Case in point: the following sentence from a NYT article about the heir to the Kreiss furniture fortune who is proving that he's "an heir with a mind of his own." (You probably didn't know the Kreiss furniture fortune existed, did you? You East Coast peon.)

Mr. Kreiss writes his graphic novels on his BlackBerry while working out on an elliptical trainer at the gym.
[Edited in response to a very good question from Des to point out that Mr. Kreiss only writes his graphic novels. He hires other people to illustrate them. Probably because you can't draw straight lines on an exercise machine.]

That gurgling you hear, ladies and gents, is the sounds of all my high society aspirations collectively drowning their disappointment in cheap wine. Is it too late to become an astronaut? How about to get rich quick in a turnaround scheme that sees me sell Canal Street knockoffs out of the trunk of my (theoretical) car to people in Iowa?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Words of the Day

1. Defenestration: The action of throwing out of a window.

Defenestration of Prague, the action of the Bohemian insurgents who, on the 21st of May 1618, broke up a meeting of Imperial commissioners and deputies of the States, held in the castle of the Hradshin, and threw two of the commissioners and their secretary out of the window; this formed the prelude to the Thirty Years' War.

1863 NEALE Ess. Liturgiol. 238 Which commencing at the defenestration of Prague..terminated in the peace of Westphalia.

2. Uxorilocally: Applied to or denoting residence after marriage in the area of the wife's home or community.

1963 Brit. Jrnl. Sociol. XIV. 24 So that now you may read about individual couples ‘marrying avunculocally’ or ‘living uxorilocally’. This seems to me an abuse of terminology.

Dear Wiktionary,

A few weeks back you rejected my submission of the word 'platscham' to your open source dictionary. Apparently my citations were not up to snuff. I direct your attention to the venerable OED, which is beyond reproach, and yet seems to not find it problematic if citations for its entries themselves suggest that the word is nonsensical. (Cf. 'uxorilocally')


Sunday, April 09, 2006

Of Mice and Men and Blue Cheese

I moved into my apartment around the first of November, after the previous tenant decided following just a few months in Manhattan that she was homesick for the Midwest and fled the big city for home. Whether or not there was already a mouse in residence at that time, I can't say. Within a month or so, he had presented himself, and traps had been purchased and installed: one behind the refrigerator, one in the corner between the garbage bin and the painted-over fireplace.

(After a bit of consultation with sorts who care about things like the Rights of Mice, I purchased the spring-loaded bar-snap type, rather than the stick-'em-with-glue-wait-as-they-chew-their-own-legs-off type.)

And I waited. And waited. As directed, I did not load the 'Cheese Pedal' with actual cheese. I continued to wait. November turned to December without incident, and December nearly to January when, late at night after 2005 had turned to 2006, Mouse reappeared, dashing across the tops of my sink and stove. After a particularly harrowing incident a week later, when I was awakened by his rummaging in my bedroom wastepaper basket, I changed my plan of attack: No fake cheese pedals would entrap this mouse; Gruyere it had to be.

And again, with the waiting. And nothing. And yet -- the cheese, it disappeared! Such sophisticated tastes had been acquired by this mouse who (co-)inhabited a 3rd floor, 1BR walkup here just north of the West Village-Chelsea borderline. And such cunning! Was it possible? Had he snuck his nose in between the cheese pedal and the wooden panel to snatch the wedge of gruyere without detection?

Months came and went. More waiting. Less trapping of mice. Perhaps, once or twice, I thought I heard rumblings from where he dwelt, but no results.

Then yesterday, thanks to the keen eyes of my comrade Sr. Martinez, the little bugger was detected again. And then, again. And then, after I reloaded the traps -- one with some Raw Milk Morbier, the other with Roaring Forties Blue -- he snatched it out again, right from under our noses!

And then again, across the countertop he scurried, disappearing straight into my rear right burner! Fiery attempts to smoke him out unavailing, we re-examined the mechanisms with which we (for A.J. was now steadfastly committed to this project) intended to nab him.

Aha! We detected a misrigging of the traps, through entirely my own fault. And rerig them we did, with particularly enticing bits of these finest cheeses offered by Westside Market. And yet, no results.

The best laid plans of mice and men, they say, are 'aft gang agley'. (Why do I know that in Scottish, or whatever that is? Damned if I know. But Bartleby supports me.)

Or not so agley! 8.38 p.m. Sitting on my bed, reading Planned Parenthood v. Casey (did this really need to go on for 40 pages?), watching the Rangers-Devils game...Snap! from the other room I hear the unmistakable ricochet of metal bar against wooden plate. No, nothing as gruesome as the crushing of mouseketeer bones, but indeed: upon close inspection, there he was.

How nauseous! How disgusting! See if you can choose which of the following actions I subsequently undertook:
1. Threw up in the toilet.
2. Threw up on the mouse.
3. Threw the mouse in the toilet.
4. Threw the mouse up (in the air).
5. Threw the mouse in the garbage.
6. Threw the mouse out the window.
7. Threw myself out the window.
8. Threw a party for the mouse.
9. Threw a party to celebrate the departure of the mouse.
10. Threw my hands up in the air in frustration.
11. Blogged.

(Hint: I did at least three of these things.)

(In an interesting and completely incomprehensible side note to this affair, I had lunch today with my friend James. As I was recounting yesterday's plight to him, I mentioned that I'd decided to rig the traps with real cheese, in contravention of the manufacturer's instructions. (Victor Corp., incidentally, which A.J. and I queried online.) James, who -- it should be noted -- has quite the affinity for affinage and once worked briefly in a cheese shop, suggested, of all things, that I should try some raw milk Morbier. Little did he know that my mouse had such refined tastes for blue cheese culture.)

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

triumph of the will (pt 2)

"Yes, it was a real boon to our cause," I wrote to someone in an email yesterday, which made me think about what an odd word "boon" is. It may be apparent to anyone who's read any posts in this space that my co-host and I have a fondness for esoterica that is matched perhaps only by the Australian fondness for beer-- of which, more later.

So I looked it up. The OED reliably (and stuffily) informs me that boon is from the Middle English bene and originally meant a prayer or entreaty before a substantive shift that now sees it mostly used to mean the object of the same. Or that it can refer to "The stalk of flax or hemp after the fibre has been removed; the stalks of cow-parsnip and other umbelliferous plants. " Well, thank god I finally know there's a word for that. What a boon(1). (Naturally I had to look up umbelliferous. Pretty much means like it sounds.)

But that's all neither here nor there. The important thing was that thinking about "boon" (n) made me think about Boon and The 52. David Boon, colloquially known as Boonie (because everything in Australia is colloquially known as something that ends in a vowel), was a member of Australia's national cricket team during the 1980s, and while he was a fabulous player who averaged more than 40 runs in test cricket, he is probably most fondly remembered for the exploits that earned him his other nickname: The Keg on Legs. The story goes that Team Australia in the 1970s realized three things: (1) Australia is far from everywhere (except NZ), thus (2) all of our away series involve very long flights, which provides us (3) more drinking time on average than any other team. What happened on the next team flight to England is as logical as 1+1+1 = beer.

Now, by the time Boonie came along in 1984, things had calmed down a bit and (at least as the story is now told) people weren't making bets on their own ability to consume beers on every flight to England-- perhaps because Rod Marsh's record of 45 beers seemed unbreakable, one of the holy numbers like 755 (shut up, Barry Bonds). But Boonie was a believer. He knew it could be done, that records, though we vaunt them, are not holy things but milestones that spur us, the human race, to greater and greater exercises of the spirit and will.

And so, on a 1989 flight in the middle of what was a slump for Team Australia, Boonie set out on his quest with grit and determination. By all accounts, he made the last push from 22, reached just outside Singapore, toward Marsh's 45 unaccompanied, one man toiling alone against long odds and impending touchdown at Heathrow. One man strode alone into the unknown-- and triumped. By the time London was in sight, Boonie had downed 52 cans of beer (apparently not including the 3 consumed in the Singapore airport, which were outside the rules of the contest) and secured his place in history. He had a pretty good Ashes, too.

The morals of this story are legion. But I think one of the things the legend of Boonie highlights is what we've lost as sports become increasingly professionalized. When games were populated by highly skilled amateurs, we could simultaneously admire them and imagine ourselves in their shoes. (If we were white men in the 1930s.) Now, when athletes in our most watched sports look like oversized well-shaven gorillas crammed into spandex, that kinship is absent. I can no more imagine myself playing linebacker in the NFL than I can imagine myself fully comprehending the Unified Field Theory of Torts. (Though, boy, if I could do either that would be sweet.)

Cricket stayed close to its amateur roots longer than most American sports-- maybe because it was a gentleman's game, maybe because of geographic dislocation, maybe because it's hard to imagine an effective revenue structure if every country that plays your sport has only state-run television stations. But Boonie reminds us of the benefits amateur status brought to the game. Because at some point most of us have been in a bar on a Friday night, surrounded by friends who are having a raucous good time; and we've wrestled with our demons. It's someone else's turn to buy a round and they place the beer gently in front of you on the table and you glance over, half turned away from the joke that is being told, and think: "No. I can't." But then someone, perhaps not even someone you know well, offers an encouraging smile and the next song on the jukebox is one you love and haven't heard in forever and reminds you of a night before when self-doubt also crept up. And you look back at the unopened can, moisture beading and slipping like minutes down its smooth side, and you think: "Yes. I can."

This one's for you, Boonie.