like to think I’m a fairly intelligent person, possessing
a relatively good vocabulary. At least when I’m not
doing my “I-grew-up-on-the-Lower-East-Side” shtick,
in a faux-Di Nero voice.
Like many people with this sense of self-aggrandizement,
I admit to reading “the failing New York Times.”
Yes, call me an elitist. “So’s your old man!”
I know. I’ve seen all those Tweets about
“FAKE NEWS.” And who knows, maybe even their crossword
puzzles are fake. They probably make up words given how disingenuous
they are. Especially in their ball-breaking, hardest one of
the week on Saturday. There goes my alleged good vocabulary.
A man of humble birth, and now as a means
of busting out of my almost high-rise co-op— overused
catch-word alert— “bubble,” I do spend some
online time slumming through the tabloids. In particular,
the New York Post.
else can I start my day without reading that celebrities I’ve
never heard of, have announced that they are breaking up.
(But remain good friends, and have “asked for their
privacy at this time for the sake of their children”).
Or that someone intentionally left their baby in the subway
on the L-train. Or that Harvey Weinstein once masturbated
into a potted plant in a restaurant in front of a female TV
reporter. (I can’t help but wonder how long that took,
and how it went unnoticed by even, say, a passing busboy toting
dirty dishes past dirty Harvey while en route to the kitchen).
But back to The Times, and one particular
Sunday, October 8th to be exact, when I plopped in my favorite
leather chair from Crate and Barrel. With cup in hand of tepid
brew— via Mr. Coffee (“Where have you gone Joe
DiMaggio”)— I kicked back to review what had been
going on in the socio-political biosphere of the past week.
And more interestingly, who thinks “what” of it.
And who thinks “why” about the “what.”
Yes, agreed, like an errant golf shot, the
editorial and op-ed pages will tend to hook to the left. That’s
no news. But to play off that analogy, I like to think of
myself as just the caddy here who’s lugging a bag full
of questions and not the one doing the swinging.
I walk the paper’s fairway, focusing
on some sections while skimming through and avoiding the sand
traps of others. Like the real estate section, which renders
me apoplectic, what with its listings of Hamptons getaways
that only my team of doctors, or Bernie’s “top
one puhcent,” can afford. Anyway, end of golf
analogy. Thank God. I hate golf.
I encounter along the way, names and words
and other intriguing facts that I never knew existed, yet
am oddly tickled to learn (as I don’t hunt or fish either).
I certainly didn’t know that, though
Mayor de Blasio has “long identified with his Italian
heritage, bequeathed by his mother’s family,”
he was born Warren Wilhelm Jr.
Aaah…ha! That’s why he’s
so open to deep-sixing Columbus (OCTOBER,
2017 MUSE-LETTER, “Statues of Limitations?”).
That’s why he’s so tall. That’s why his
son Dante was allowed to sport an excessively retro ‘fro.
“Elementary, my dear Watson.” (Which Sherlock
Holmes never said.).
the same editorial, I was introduced to someone named Phillippe
Pétain. Who he? None other than a WWI hero
given a ticker tape parade in 1931. (What took them so long?).
Oh, but on the B-side of the record, he was also a Nazi-collaborating
leader of France’s Vichy government in WWII. He’s
caught here (and this before cell phone cameras), making nice
with the Führer. Yet, he has a plaque on Lower Broadway
in the “Canyon of Heroes.” Not to be confused
with the “Valley of Traitors.” No doubt Warren
Wilhelm Jr.’s “symbols of hate” commission,
will be looking into this.
Other names I’d run across later in
the Book Review section with whom I’d had no clue, included
Breece D’J Pancake (cousin of Y’I Waffle?)…
Benvenuto Cellini (che bello)… Longinus (apparently
singly named ala Madonna)… W.G. Sebald (at least initials
with periods, and not an apostrophe).
Gleaned from a skinny dip through Wikipedia,
here’s the skinny on these guys that you’ll want
to tape to your refrigerator for future reference:
Breece D’J Pancake
(1952 –1979): an American short story writer, frequently
published in The Atlantic Monthly. He committed suicide on
Palm Sunday at the age of 26 (and unfortunately didn’t
rise at Easter).
Bevenuto Celline (1500
–1571): an Italian goldsmith, sculptor, draftsman, soldier,
musician, artist, poet who also wrote a famous autobiography
(that no one’s ever heard of).
Longinus: legendary Roman
soldier who pierced Jesus in his side with a lance. He was
said to have converted to Christianity and has achieved sainthood
in the Roman Catholic church. (That’s one way to get
W.G. Sebald (1944 –2001):
German writer/academic. Cited by many literary critics at
the time of his death, as one of the greatest living authors.
Thought to be a future Nobel Prize winner in Literature (Vegas
had him at 2-to-1).
In another part of the paper, I was intrigued
by a piece entitled “Who Invented ‘Zero’?”
Someone had to invent nothing? I always thought nothing always
was…or never wasn’t…or, never mind. Apparently,
it’s all explained in something called the Bakhshali
manuscript. (a mathematical text written on birch
bark, found in 1881 in the village of Bakhshali, near present-day
Pakistan. It’s “the oldest extant manuscript in
Indian mathematics,” with portions dated to 224–383
AD. It contains the earliest known Indian use of a zero
symbol.) Yes, of course. How obvious.
I pause to catch my “breadth,”
in a manner of speaking.
Suddenly, sans warning— in between a
pair of em dashes— they hit me with Latin: mirabile
dictu (i.e. wonderful to relate).
I reflect for a moment on William F. Buckley
Jr., from whose politics I abstained, but loved his love of
words. Which often included Latin ones, which he rolled about
the tongue as if savoring a vintage wine... summun
bonum. (i.e. the supreme good from which all others
are derived). Requiesce in pace (rest in
As I continue on my Sunday stroll, I encounter
other words that are hardly common in everyday discourse.
This linguistic obscuration has perdured
(continued to exist) throughout The Times’
long history. I know there has been a predation
(an act of preying or plundering) on the part of
critics, who consider this as proof of elitism. But any knowledgeable
man or bean feasa (“wise-woman,”
in Irish Gaelic tradition), would see this is not an
intent to befuddle. They assume we speak the same language,
so to speak. And what are we to do, douse the text in a patchouli
(an aromatic oil obtained from a Southeast Asian shrub
and used in perfumery), so as to make it more sweet smelling
to the masses?
In a piece by conservative Ross Douthat, “The
Pigs of Liberalism” denouncing the afore-pictured Dirty
Harvey, he starts one sentence by saying… “Like
a knight promising a crusade against the Saracens as penance
for raping and pillaging at home ….” As opposed
to what? Raping and pillaging on the road, and losing the
home field advantage? And while I’ve heard of Saracens,
what are they all about?
The term’s meaning used to refer to
people who lived in desert areas, but later become synonymous
with Muslims. It’s considered a pejorative term. I guess
if we were to transfer today’s political climate back
to the Middle Ages, some would have been calling for a Saracen
Travel Ban. With camels having to go through various checkpoints.
There actually is a Saracens Football
Club; a professional English rugby team based in London right
now. Sort of, akin to our Washington Redskins? Political correctness
I could go on; I won’t go on. Too much
grist for the milner of martin.
The takeaway for me on just this typical Sunday
reading, aside from the pleasure I get from learning something
new and potentially enhancing, is that whatever one may feel
about The Times, and “some of my best friends
are”… not fans,
And as a personal go-to conduit, that resonates with me. Some
might say, so does an echo chamber. Yes. I hear you you
you you you.
But it also gives me pause to wonder in a
larger sense, as I put down the paper…
When did being undereducated
get to be a virtue and something to be flaunted?
So that when a political candidate exclaims
“I love the poorly educated,” those of that descriptive
applaud with pride, instead of seeing it for the condescension
it really is. Seems that the message ought to be a firm commitment
to elevate the level of education for all, as a means to seek
a higher ground.
And this is going to happen by reading The
Sunday New York Times? This is going to happen by knowing
the meaning of the word perdure? And not confusing it, at
a quick glance, with the Perdue of fresh-chickens fame? Of
course not. But I suspect that if people indulged in some
form of cerebral exercise on a regular basis—how about
a good book for starters? — we would all be better off.
Not just the “elite.” Or is that just an elitist
Quote of the Month
Actuary Tables: A
Give Us This Day Our
Backpacks. Backpacks. Backpacks. What in God’s name,
or in anyone’s name for that matter, is everyone carrying
I think of the late George Carling’s riff on “stuff.
" Everybody's gotta have a little place for their
That’s all your house is…
a place for your stuff ….
And when you leave your stuff, you gotta lock it
Or maybe not, George. Apparently, there is an alternative.
Like a turtle, you can take your whole house, stuff and all,
with you wherever you go. That can be the only explanation
for this invasion of backpacks, often of humongous proportions,
that literally are in my face in many a public place. And
on top of this sort of intrusion, aesthetically, I find them
ugly to behold. They seem as if an albatross. Though opinions
on taste, I realize, are always a zero-sum game.
It’s as if we’re all on one Grand Existential
Hike. Which we all bought into, except perhaps I, who is out
of the Facebook loop and behind the curve. But the predominant
“we,” are not in the woods, metaphorically or
otherwise. There are more town mice than country mice, to
coin a fable. As such, one is never too far away from one’s
cheese. Therefore, I find this backpack thing to be baffling.
When I’m not finding it annoying. It’s as if backpack
wearers are channeling Karl Malden’s advice from those
decades past American Express commercials, “Don’t
leave home without it.”
The problem is most especially pronounced where people find
themselves awash in a rough sea of humanity. Take rush hour
in the New York City subway system. Please.
To their credit, the MTA does suggest a common-denominator
type of courtesy, by way of wordless signs with fourth-grader
illustrations. And they are clearly posted within view of
At such times when a backpack is pressing up against me,
I want to point to the above (that is assuming I have access
to my hands), while respectively addressing the transgressor:
“See… red guy…asshole.” “Green
guy…good.” “Gray guy…me.”
“Gray woman, likes Green guy. Maybe even fall in love.
Get married. Have kids. All because Green Guy PUT
DOWN HIS @#%$* BACKPACK!”
I suppose, I can understand a need for students to have a
backpack. Not that that excuses them from not taking them
off in crowded places either. And nobody would want to be
caught dead, walking around carrying their stuff in grandpa’s
school bag, the likes of which my classmates and I once had,
and has long since gone the way of fountain pens. There's
enough bullying going on in the schools these days as it is.
My own daughter had a backpack as early as the first grade.
I even referenced it in a poem.
A sprite with backpack
and lunch box, she walks.
Deliberately. Each step
she is at once, so small, so
big, so soon,
so sure, so six.
As to what was in her backpack at that age, I can’t
recall. A pencil? Some Hello Kitty crap? Crayons? Cookies?
Cookie Monster? They grow up so fast.
But for high school and college kids in 2017? With everything
instantly accessible through one device or another —
“I’m like, do they even have, like ya know, a
need for like, books anymore?” The kind with paper and
a hardcover? I wonder.
I assume a laptop or tablet is de rigueur and needs
to be close at hand (or back). Though no need to pack an iPhone
in there, as it’s always in hand. And given
the times we live in, are they also packing heat? At least
until metal detectors are required in every school? And though
they don’t own a house, to be fair, they too already
have lotsa’ stuff. But finally, for certain, included
in that backpack must be the ubiquitous, precious, bottle
A pause for a word or two about bottled water.
When did we all get so thirsty?! In that Stone Age of the
50’s and early 60’s, (the “Stoned”
Age was to come later), no one was walking around with bottled
water. And remarkably, people weren’t dropping dead
right there in the streets from dehydration. Nor rushed to
a hospital with a life-threatening case of dry mouth either,
so far as I can recall.
Granted, white-collar men at work might have gathered about
the water cooler. But in addition to a Dixie cup shot of H2O,
it was more of a meeting place for drinking in rumors and
spitting out opinions on politics, women and sports. All of
which they knew little about.
It seems as if this water thing though really took off when
a gift from the gods—“Perrier, the earth’s
first soft drink,” as an ad tune informed us—had
arrived! And suddenly it was, bottled water, bottled water,
everywhere, and nary a drop from a sink.
But back to the men of business, and to return to the subject
at hand, is there anything geekier than a guy in a suit wearing
a backpack? I can’t image coming to a power breakfast
or lunch, or meeting after work for a drink to try to close
a seven-figure deal, entering the premises wearing a backpack.
Can you imagine Don Draper with a backpack? Or in another
line of work, James Bond? And what ever happened to the attaché
case? So sleek, so cool, so to the point.
But now it’s about utility for all. "The need
to have our hands free has propelled the backpack into the
forefront," as one industry analyst put it.
Statistics are not needed to back up what is so apparent
to the naked eye regarding this proliferation. But being a
guy who once dealt in numbers for various ad agencies, though
I wasn’t even a Ron Draper, I can’t resist.
This nutshell of a summation by Bruce Horovitz, marketing
reporter for USA Today…
“Backpacks, which began emerging as an accessory
for high school students in the 1980s, have become a $2
billion business with double-digit growth. And they're
everywhere: 58% of consumers own backpacks, with 61% of
the packs bought on impulse…”
And what of those of us not embedded in those numbers? Who’d
rather have a monkey on our backs than a backpack? I guess
it’s just one more sign, that the world and all its
stuff, is passing us by. But don’t even let me get started
on oversized shoulder bags.
Picture a Palindrome
With apologies to Eric Hill