Saloon Spittoon

writing plume

The bucal effluvia belched

from limousine and lectern 

drums the ear like the per-

cussive splot of a hocked 

louie slapping a saliva slick 

in a saloon spittoon.

(c) 2020 JMN

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You Can Pick Your Battles, Not Your Wars

www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jan/21/crushed-by-brexit-how-labour-lost-the-election

My title is what I extrapolate from the tersely cogent remark attributed to an anonymous Labour Party strategist:

“In the end, you can’t just fight a battle and ignore your opponent. You can’t just say: ‘We’re fighting at sea’, if your opponent is mounting a land invasion.”

(Heather Stewart, “‘Crushed by Brexit’: how Labour lost the election,” theguardian.com, 1-21-20)

(c) 2020 JMN

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Getting Itself Done

www.nytimes.com/2019/12/20/opinion/uk-election-labour.html

… The mines of County Durham, the pottery workshops of Staffordshire and the textile factories of Lancashire… Onetime Labour strongholds stretching from West Bromwich on the outskirts of Birmingham to Blyth Valley near the Scottish border… Bolsover in the North Midlands and Bishop Auckland in the North East… At the end of the 2010s, they simply fell off a cliff.

All seats lost by Labour in the northern and Midlands districts voted for Brexit in 2016, according to Alex Niven.

(Alex Niven, “The Labour Party’s Spectacular Defeat Had Been Coming for Decades,” NYTimes, 12-20-19)

(c) 2020 JMN

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Spilt Pith

www.nytimes.com/2019/12/30/opinion/walt-whitman-nytimes-2020.html

Such was [Walt] Whitman’s description of [President] Lincoln in a March 1863 letter to two New York friends. The president, wrote Whitman, had a face “like a hoosier Michael Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion.”

(Ed Simon, “Why We Will Need Walt Whitman in 2020,” NYTimes, 12-30-10)

“Ruth stood firmly on his sturdy legs, like the Colossus of Rhodes, and, taking a mighty swing at the second ball pitched to him, catapulted the pill for a new altitude and distance record.” [The Times description of Babe Ruth’s record-breaking “epochal clout” against the Yankees, his 28th home run.]

(Jane Leavy, “Why on Earth Did Boston Sell Babe Ruth to the Yankees?” NYTimes, 12-30-19)

(c) 2020 JMN

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Art Wins, Artists Lose

cropped-wanted1.jpg

Among the biggest losers in the current system are artists themselves. With art now considered an asset class to equities and commodities, collectors are forever on the lookout for rising stars whose work can be bought at bargain prices and then resold for many multiples as their reputation soars. When the market moves on, careers are often shattered (except in the case of a few ever-in-demand stars).

And even those artists who do remain popular usually benefit only from the initial sale of their work; as its value appreciates, the profits go mainly to collectors and auction houses. 

(Michael Massing, “How the Superrich Took Over the Museum World,” NYTimes, 12-14-19)

(c) 2020 JMN

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“Pretty Ugly”

blooms library

Harold Bloom’s home library, photographed in June. Credit Tanya Marcuse.

This tweet contrasts so starkly with the seriousness of the actual situation with Iran,” said Ben Rhodes, a former top national security aide to Mr. Obama. “We are in the midst of a roiling crisis with Iran that is largely of Trump’s own making, and yet he continues to view that largely through the prism of pretty ugly domestic politics.”
(Annie Karni, “A Narrative Collapses as Trump Tweets: ‘It Doesn’t Really Matter’,” NYT)

This quote triggers a reflection on the interesting use in English of “pretty” as what I would call an adverbial qualifier. The word is emptied of its adjectival sense of “comely” or “attractive” and becomes instead the equivalent of “fairly” or “to a great extent.” It seems to fall somewhere between the poles of “not much” and “extremely.” It’s especially fun when it happens to land alongside its opposite adjective “ugly.” 

Would a non-native speaker be confused by “pretty ugly,” wondering, “Which is it?” As a linguist I enjoy mulling how such expressions might be translated. 

In Spanish I would resort to “bastante,” which basically means “enough”; however, “bastante fea” becomes what I would call “pretty ugly.” 

In French also I would choose “assez,” or “enough”; “assez laide” is “pretty ugly” too.

(I’ve used the feminine adjectives “fea” and “laide” in both translations because “politics” is feminine in both languages: “la politica” and “la politique.”)

From a style standpoint, waffling adverbs can render statements flaccid, tepid, noncommittal, evasive, or deniable. See, for example, a statement by Stephanie Grisham, presidential press secretary, in defense of a photoshopped image retweeted by her boss:

 In an interview with Fox News, Ms. Grisham said the president was “making clear” that Democrats were “parroting Iranian talking points, almost [my emphasis] taking the side of terrorists.”

Correction: Making “almost” clear. 

(c) 2020 JMN

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Intellectual Disarmament

diversity

Ross Douthat writes that when he was an undergraduate at Harvard University “our so-called ‘core’ curriculum promised to teach us ‘approaches to knowledge’ rather than the thing itself.” 

It was, and remains, an insane view for humanists to take, a unilateral disarmament in the contest for student hearts and minds; no other discipline promises to teach only a style of thinking and not some essential substance.
(Ross Douthat, “The Academic Apocalypse,” NYTimes, 1-11-19)

As a failed teacher I’ve found that some of the best pointers on teaching issue from the armchairs of non-teachers. It’s tempting to invert the sardonic old dig to: “Those who can’t teach it do it.”

I once taught Spanish in a humanities division. Our medley of disciplines — foreign languages, art, English, music, history, theater — competed to fulfill the humanities component of students’ degree plans. 

I finally dropped out of academia, before being thrown out, and went into advertising. My own insufficiency and creeping disengagement had defeated me. I could not give undergraduates a good reason to meet my Spanish class twice a week.

I had made one belated grasp for “substance” in an effort to make Spanish look relevant to elective shoppers: Translation! My overture to slant teaching in that direction was batted away by the senior ranks. 

As it happened, I had a profitable side-hustle as a translator for off-shoring industries. My obsession with George Steiner’s “After Babel” did not keep my bid to align my classroom and research activities from looking non-cynical to my tenured colleagues. They didn’t buy it, or me.

 (c) 2020 JMN

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