Acronyms lend dignity and swagger to the entities or concepts they miniaturize. They attach like decals or tattoos to virtually every American institution, whether it be political, medical, corporate, military, legal, educationist or digital. It’s no accident that names are often created with a view to the acronyms they form, which makes them tendentious, forged shortcuts.

Take, for example, the ten-billion-dollar, ten-year, cloud computing project for the Defense Department called the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure project: JEDI.

I’ve tried to parse the name semantically with little certainty. “Joint” means “combined.” So the JEDI project is a project for:

(a) infrastructure whose purpose is to defend combined enterprises?

(b) infrastructure built by combined enterprises whose purpose is defense?

(c) infrastructure created for the benefit of both “enterprise” and the Defense Department?

(d) none of the above?

No matter. What’s important is that it spells JEDI, which has a sought-after vibe (unlike, say, SNAFU and CHAOS).

(c) 2020 JMN

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“The Pencil Is a Key”

This is an article about drawings made by persons who were in prison. They were featured in an exhibition at the Drawing Center that ran through January 5, 2020. Author Jillian Steinhauer quotes cartoonist Lynda Barry, who sounds the familiar theme that we all draw as children and grow away from it subsequently.

In the opening of her new book, “Making Comics,” the cartoonist and MacArthur fellow Lynda Barry reminds her adult readers that they made art when they were young, even if they self-consciously stopped doing so long ago. “There was a time when drawing and writing were not separated for you,” she writes. “We draw before we are taught.”

(Jillian Steinhauer, “Prison Art: A Dark Place Where the Muse Never Leaves,” NYTimes, 12-12-19)

(c) 2020 JMN

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Balanced Learning

The “science of reading” approach is based on phonics, which sounds out the letters of words: Bit. Buh! Ih! Tuh!

The “balanced literacy” approach believes “exposing students to the likes of Dr. Seuss and Maya Angelou is more important than drilling them on phonics.”

One of the most popular reading curriculums in the country — used in about 20 percent of schools… was developed by Lucy Calkins, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. She is widely admired for her emphasis on helping students develop a love of reading and writing. (Dana Goldstein, “An Old and Contested Solution to Boost Reading Scores: Phonics,” NYTimes, 2-15-20)

Drills versus exposure. Science versus love. There’s no doubt which should prevail.

In teaching Spanish I learned to avoid grammar and drills in favor of instilling in students a passion for traveling abroad. I helped them imagine the many scenarios — airports, restaurants, taxicabs — in which they would spontaneously utter, “Do you speak English?”

In like manner the U.S. Army trains platoons to parade in flawless formation using an approach called “balanced marching.” Sergeants renounce drills; instead, they foster in new recruits a love of rhythmic walking and synchronized motion.

When exposure and love replace science and drills, almost anything you can imagine virtually teaches itself.

(c) 2020 JMN

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World War Gucci

[Subheading] Whether designers acknowledge it or not, World War II still shapes their collections. Even at Gucci.
(Guy Trebay, “At Milan Men’s Week, the War Lives On,” NYTimes, 1-15-20)

I can’t resist marveling at the look of this Gucci lineup and quipping that the plaid background pulls it all together! The models evoke for me waifs who have had to dumpster-dive for remnants and cast-offs in order to clothe themselves.

High fashion is a mysterious and perplexing world to me. I enjoy keeping an eye on it, not to ridicule — that’s simplistic and counter-productive — but to see where it points. How do designers develop their ideas and make their choices? In what ways is World War II reflected here? I would love to converse with a Gucci insider to find out.

(c) 2020 JMN

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“Tiepolo Meets Mad Magazine”

The 61 works in this exhibition… span the career of an American painter whose art has, for more than half a century, both diagnosed national maladies and been shaped by them. The result is work that’s virtuosically bizarre in style (Tiepolo meets Mad magazine) and ecumenically offensive in content. Whatever your ethnic, sexual or political persuasion, there is something here to give you ethical pause, to bring out an inner censor you didn’t know was there.
(Holland Carter, “The Wild, Anti-Authoritarian Art of Peter Saul,” NYTimes, 2-13-20)

I don’t warm to Peter Saul’s paintings a great deal, but I do find stimulation in the motivation behind them and in how he has chosen many of his subjects.

[When] Mr. Saul returned from Europe to California in 1964, he was clear on what he wanted, and didn’t want, from art… He didn’t want the pretensions — the ego, the angst — left over from Abstract Expressionism. And he didn’t want the social trappings associated with a mainstream career… What he did want was to be able to paint what he pleased and to have his work noticed. And one way to get people looking was to take subjects from a source they cared about: the news.

At 85 Saul is still hard at work, and claims in recent years, writes Holland Carter skeptically, “that all he’s ever really been interested in was opportunistically grabbing attention by being outrageous.”

(c) 2020 JMN

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On Listening

I got a speeding ticket once, and took the option of sitting through a driver’s training refresher class in lieu of paying a fine. The instructor led off with a question: “How do you know when you’re completely stopped at a STOP sign?”

None of the dozen adults in the room could provide an answer that satisfied him. He finally answered it himself: “When your wheels aren’t turning!”

Whatever the exchange taught me was as much about language as about driving.

In her practical strategies for helping men become better listeners Kimberly Probolus has three suggestions: Stop talking; hear the words being said and take them at face value; and ask questions. (“Men, You Need to Listen to Women,” Letter to the NYTimes, 2-14-20)

The definition of “truism” as “a statement that is obviously true and says nothing new or interesting” shorts the potential of some truisms to be useful. A car with resting wheels is stopped. Stop talking to listen. First do no harm. Some truths are too clear to be obvious.

(c) 2020 JMN

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I’m impaled by a witticism that wants outing. 

My dad died in an old folks’ home as he was foot-scooting himself to breakfast in his wheelchair one morning. Everyone foot-scooted, no one got pushed. It was promoted as therapeutic exercise. 

No one saw him die. Someone simply found him not breathing, and that was that. He didn’t make it to breakfast. I keep wondering what that transition was like for him.

 Prior to that I had joined him for various meals. The food was bland in the extreme. I said to myself, “This food has committed flavorcide,” adding, “This is where taste comes to die.”

(c) 2020 JMN

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