Alphonse Allais

alphonse allais

I was avid to visit the town of Honfleur, up on the damp coast of Normandy, when Partner and I visited France in 2012, because one of my favorite composers – Erik Satie – was born there. (I should note that, to paraphrase Lily Tomlin, Satie left Honfleur as soon as he realized where he was.)



Honfleur is a dour little fishing port with boggy streets and old sad-looking houses. Satie’s childhood home has been converted into a very neato little museum, good enough to be featured by Rick Steves on his excellent European travel TV show, but once you’ve seen the museum – as Partner and I quickly realized – you’ve seen the shank of the town, and the best thing you can do is bid Honfleur a modest au revoir.

Except that one little detail caught my attention: a life-sized plastic cow in the visitor center, with a bande dessinee painted on the side. (Two Rick Steves-type comments: Normandy is a farm region, so the cow motif is everywhere, and Partner begs me to remind everyone that the restroom in the Honfleur visitor center was the most toxically horrible he ever came across in Europe.) Anyway, the comic strip on the side of the cow depicted Erik Satie and Honfleur’s other favorite son, humorist Alphonse Allais, grabbing one another’s chin and singing a little children’s song. Then one slaps the other on the cheek, very hard (I have no idea if this is part of the children’s song or not) and runs away, leaving the other in tears. I was so baffled by this that I don’t even remember which one does the slapping and which one runs away.



This led me to Alphonse Allais, whose “oeuvres anthumes” I purchased on an appropriately soggy day in Paris about a week later. (“Anthumes” is meant to be a cute parallel to “posthumes,” meaning “posthumous” – see, I bought the stuff he published while he was still alive, get it?) It turns out that Allais was an essayist / journalist / humorist in a way that no longer really much exists. (If you can imagine the New York Times’s Gail Collins without the politics, or “CBS Sunday Morning”‘s Bill Geist without the peripatetic folksiness, you’ve almost got it.) Allais created characters and situations and wrote about them for a page or two. Generally there’s a punch line. If the characters or the situations amused Allais, he revisited them.




He was, in a word, a feuilletonist.


Do they exist in American literature? Did they ever? Most assuredly. It was a late 19th / early 20th-century thing to be and do. Mencken was a feuilletonist, as were Don Marquis and H. Allen Smith and Harry Golden. See? You haven’t been reading those guys recently, have you? But it’s not because they’re not entertaining or that they don’t write well; it’s only that the style has fallen out of fashion.



Allais had the famous dry Norman sense of humor, the “pince-sans-rire” (“pinch without laughing” – basically, “tell a joke all the way to the punch line, but tell it so seriously and drily that no one is sure if you’re joking or not.” Isn’t French neat to be able to put all of that in three words?) Satie used pince-sans-rire all the time in his music, writing pieces of fantaisiste music with titles like “Dried Embryos,” and ending them with long strings of Beethovian tonic-dominant-tonic chords.



Allais needs to be translated for a modern American readership.



Now who could do something like that?




George Steiner

george steiner

I like pictorial books: graphic novels, et cetera. I agree with Alice Pleasance Liddell: “What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?”

Recently I picked up a little book called “Philosophy: A Discovery in Comics,” by a Dutchwoman named Margreet de Heer. It’s a nice mini-summary of Western philosophy, done mostly through illustrated biographies of major philosophers like Socrates and Plato and Aristotle up through Erasmus and Spinoza.

She does a nice little summary of George Steiner which makes me want to learn more about him. He’s a deeply intelligent man, a polyglot who knows everything and has memorized everything, and who has made some very intelligent pronouncements about the modern world.

Steiner says that all of us should have a suitcase packed at all times. We need to be ready for the worst; we need to be ready to move along. We need to acknowledge to ourselves that nothing lasts forever, and that sometimes terrible things happen, and when they do, we have to get away, the quicker the better.

He also speaks (very eloquently) about the need to memorize things. Once you’ve memorized something, it can never be taken away from you. Who cares if they burn the books? You have the books in your head.

Here’s Steiner himself talking about the importance of memorization:

The world is a wonderful and perilous place. So it’s probably a good idea to have a suitcase packed.

Because you never know.

Canadian money

canadian money

I took a friend to my bank to exchange some dollars a while back, because my bank has better exchange rates than his. He turned 354 American dollars into 345 Canadian dollars, just like that.



And what beautiful currency they have in Canada these days!



The twenty-dollar Canadian bills have a little clear plastic window in them, along with the shiny metallic strips. Some of the bills have pictures of Helen Mirren, or possibly Elizabeth II. The five-dollar bills have images of a sport – either curling or hockey, I couldn’t tell which. (My friend tells me that it’s curling, but he’s not Canadian, so how can he be sure?)



These are far more entertaining than our dull old American greenbacks. I’ve folded a one-dollar bill into thirds and made George Washington’s head into a mushroom too often; it just ain’t fun anymore. And who cares what car’s represented on the ten-dollar bill? (I always thought it was a Duesenberg, but evidently I was wrong)



Why can’t we put Walt Whitman on our money, or Mark Twain, or Edward MacDowell, or Leonard Bernstein? What about Humphrey Bogart, or Artemus Ward? We put everything in creation on our postage stamps – flowers and dragons and cartoon characters and movie stars. Why not on our money too?



Most countries celebrate their culture on their currency, not just their political history. They put their writers and musicians on the money. We don’t. I don’t think Americans like to be reminded that we have a “culture.” We’re far too macho to have “culture.” On our money, we have only Founding Fathers, Male Presidents like Wilson and Grant, and Miscellaneous Political Figures, like Alexander Hamilton and Salmon Chase.



I vote for variety, and culture, and entertainment.



If the Canadians can do it, then surely we can do it too.


Radio scripts, 1939 – 1942


While browsing through the (unpeopled and lonely) stacks of the Providence Public Libraryrecently, I found a couple of gems: “The Best Broadcasts.” They are collections of the best radio scripts aired between 1939 and 1942.



Oh my god what nostalgia! George Burns and Gracie Allen (Gracie was running for President in 1940, as the nominee of the Surprise Party). Fred Allen, doing a spoof of Clifton Fadiman’s “Information Please” showDame May Whitty doing a grim little dramatic monologue written byW. H. Auden. Bette Davis as Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s sponsor / imaginary girlfriend. Clark Gable in a very funny romp about an adventurer marring a wealthy woman.

And Jack Benny!



(Now listen, Jack Benny was before my time, but he was still around in my childhood; he died when I was seventeen years old, and I remember feeling very solemn when I heard the news. I think I realized then, for the first time, that there was an older generation and a younger generation, and that one of these days I’d be promoted into the older generation. And then – uh-oh!)

The Jack Benny show had everything. He had his regulars – Don Wilson the announcer (who also read the commercials for Jell-O, which were part of the show, and are included in the script), and the young goofy singer Dennis Day, and Jack’s wife Mary Livingston, and Jack’s black butler Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and the singer / bandleader Phil Harris, who was too cool for words (in the 1960s he was Baloo the bear in Disney’s “Jungle Book” movie).  Also Jack’s polar bear Carmichael who guarded his safe in the basement, and his ostrich Trudy in the back yard, who ate all of the bills Jack received. (Rochester: “Trudy ate so many bills yesterday that she’s laying eggs in her sister’s name.” I don’t even know what that means exactly, but it’s pretty funny.)

Hysterical, right?

Then there was a radio script about childbirth, from 1939 or so. I was a little startled that it actually mentioned having a Wassermann test (for syphilis). And there was this tender dialogue after the birth of the child:

Mary: Hank, do you care that it’s a girl?

Hank: No, Mary, that’s swell, I don’t care a bit.

Also there’s some talk in the preface to the 1939-1940 book about “the German race” and “the British race” and (get ready) “the American race.” Is there such a thing as the “American race”? If so, I don’t know of it. But, you know, I dimly remember in my 1960s childhood hearing and reading that same expression.

The most sobering volume is the 1939-1940 book, which covers a period in which Europe was at war, but America hadn’t entered the war yet. It includes an FDR speech in which he talks about the need for neutrality and pacifism, but also the need to be prepared for – hm – eventualities. (There’s a note in the book about Senator Borah of Idaho, who said that FDR was too convincing when you listened to him live; Borah insisted on reading FDR’s speeches in the paper the next day, to get them unemotionally. I know what Senator Borah meant. I don’t like to listen to political discourse; I prefer to read it. It’s less inflammatory.)

Also in the 1939-1940 book was this note about why so many comedy shows were included in the text: “It is a hard year, and it is going to get worse.”

And it did.

But there were still comedies on the air.

Coming up next: “Fibber Magee and Molly”!

French as she is spoke

A long time ago – in the 1980s – I spoke French pretty well. I got a Foreign Service score of 4, which means that I could converse on a university level with people; I still had an accent, however.

And this years, after twenty-five years, I was going to France.

Imagine my nervousness after twenty-five years of not speaking French on a daily basis. I was terrified. I read a lot of French to prepare myself, and tried to practice as much as I could.

As it turns out, I was worried about nothing. Language is funny: once it’s in your brain, it’s there forever. It took me a few days to get going (mostly nervousness, I think), but by Day Two of the trip, I was having long involved conversations with people.

(Please note: my accent was still atrocious (even I could hear it), and my grammar was not the best. But I could make myself understood.)

I’d forgotten the picturesque phrases: all the different ways to say “goodbye,” depending on the time of day and the situation. “A tout a l’heure.” “A bientot.” “Adieu.” “Au revoir.” These came back quickly, thank goodness.

Then there are all the English-language borrowings (I think there are more of them now than there were in the 1980s): “sandwich,” “parking,” “weekend.” I bought a package of Petit Ecolier cookies with a contest advertised on the front: “GAGNEZ UN BABY FOOT!” Can you guess what a “baby foot” is? It’s a foosball table. Charmante, non?

Then there are the faux amis – the “false friends.” These are words that look like English, but aren’t the same at all. These work both ways. “What’s that sign?” Partner asked one day on the bus.

“Deviation,” I said. “It means ‘detour.’”

“Why don’t they just say ‘detour’?” he asked. “Isn’t that a French word?”

“Well, yes, but –“

There’s no explaining these things.

Best of all: we were watching the French version of “The Price is Right” (“Le Juste Prix”), and the contestant – a man named Fabrice – mentioned his “conjoint,” a man named Emmanuel. “Aha!” I said. “Now I know the correct French term for ‘partner’! It’s ‘conjoint’!”

“As in conjoined twins?” Partner said darkly.

“Well, indirectly, yes,” I said, “but – “

“I don’t like it,” he said positively.

“I do like it,” I said. “Maybe I’ll start referring to you as le conjoint in the blog.”

France has an effect on people. Partner looked at me with Gallic disdain. “Non,” he said definitively.

And that’s the end of that.

(But I still think it’s a better word than “partner.”)


“We don’t have a TV”


I was talking to a new guy in the office the other day. I said: “Do you watch ‘The Simpsons’?”  And he said: “Oh, we don’t have a TV.”



I swear, it’s like saying “We don’t have electricity,” or “We haven’t put in one of those newfangled flush toilets yet.”



It happens at least a couple of times a year: someone telling me that he/she doesn’t have a TV, or that he/she doesn’t watch TV at all.  (At least this guy hedged and admitted that his family had Internet access, which means that Hulu and all kinds of other things are probably already polluting his kids’ minds.)



But I still feel that I’m been judged and found wanting.



I feel like someone in ancient Rome asking my neighbor if he’s going to the big Bacchus thing next week, and he says gravely: “Oh no.  We believe in Jesus now.” 



Don’t you just want to take that Christian neighbor to that Bacchus thing and offer him up as a sacrifice?



Well, hm, no one is pure these days, there’s that consolation.  This guy admitted that his kids probably watch TV on their computers.  A few years ago, a TV-hating friend of mine finally bought a TV, but only watched VCR movies (which she got from the local public library) on it.  I can tell you that, by now, she has certainly moved on, and I’m sure she’s watching “The Good Wife” as I’m writing this.



“Television,” after all, is no longer a discrete medium.  It’s just a delivery system, like a syringe.  You can absorb the sweet poison of your choice – “The Good Wife,” “NCIS,” “Jersey Shore,” “Bad Girls” – in so many other ways: mobile, laptop, tablet.



Televison sets seem so inert now.  You have to hook things up to them to make them interesting: a cable box at least, a Roku unit, a Wii, an Xbox, a DVR.  Otherwise, you (with your rabbit ears and digital converter box) will be stuck with four fuzzy local broadcast channels, just like when I was a kid.  (Well, we had five – the three networks, a Portland independent station, and PBS – but the PBS station had lots of static, and my mother was convinced that static ruined the TV set, so I could only watch it when she wasn’t paying attention.)



TV haters: come out of the closet!



We know you’re watching something!



Just admit it!



The Providence Public Library


The Providence Public Library is a grandiose pile of masonry on the corner of Empire and Washington downtown.  I went in a few times in the late 1970s, but it seemed very hoi polloi to me. (What a nasty little snob I was in those days!)



Also, I was entering that phase in my life in which it was important that I own books rather than just borrow them.



Thirty-five years have passed, and my home bookshelves are groaning with books, loved and unloved, read and unread.



And a few months ago, for some reason, I don’t know why, I went back to the Providence Public Library.



And I fell in love with the place.



Let me tell you first that it’s open for less than forty hours a week.  It opens at 12:30pm four days a week, which is a crime against humanity.  I didn’t know that when I first started going there; I got there around 12:15pm one day, and was surprised to see a line of people waiting to get in.  And do you know why most of them were there?  To use the small bank of public-use computers.  By the intense look on their faces, they were job-hunting.  What does that tell you about the usefulness of the public library?



The other sections of the library – the reference stacks, the reading rooms, the music rooms – are very quiet.  Well, maybe “quiet” is a stupid word to use about a library.  Let us say instead: deserted.



Which is itself a sin and a shame.



But I have to admit I enjoyed it.



I wandered into the fiction section as if by instinct.  I was the only person for miles, amid racks and racks of books, acres and acres of books, with that musty elementary-school smell all around me.  Do you remember those crackly plastic covers that library books always had when we were in school?  They still have them.



I got my bright blue library card that very first day.  I have been back at least once a week, and I get such pleasure out of it.  I return my last week’s reading in the little basket, and I wander light-headed through the stacks. 



And I’m borrowing them!  I’ve finally gotten away from the idea that I have to own books!  I used to love the idea that I owned them, they were mine, I could keep them on a shelf and pull them down anytime I wanted to . . .



Sometime around the ten-thousandth book, this stopped making sense.



Let’s face it: ultimately we own nothing, not our homes nor our cars, not even our precious books, not even ourselves.



We can only ever borrow things and use them for a while.



And maybe libraries are a perfect expression of that.



American fatness


There are lots of foreign tourists in Disney World and at Universal – an amazing number, actually.  I noticed this trip that they’re starting to put both Spanish and Portuguese on the signs; I assume this is for Brazilian tourists.   There are Brits and Dutch everywhere, and Chinese and Japanese and Koreans.  (There was a Dutch group at our hotel, and I know it’s horrible and bigoted of me, but when I see a skinny Dutchman light a cigarette and hold it between two fingers while surveying the room, I can only think of every villain in every World War II movie I’ve ever seen.) 



But here’s the thing: most of the foreign tourists are not overweight.  Some of the Brits and Brazilians are rugby-player stocky, but they are almost never fat.



For real honest-to-God fat, you really need to go American.



My dear lord!  When you’re walking in a group of Americans, it’s like a herd of mastodons.  The bellies!  The butts!  What do they eat?  How much do they eat?  Are they aware that they look like circus freaks?



Then you notice the people on scooters.  For grandmas and grandpas, and for the handicapped, scooters are great.  But then you see these mammoth sacks of flesh driving their little scooters down the main drag, presumably just because walking is just such a hassle, and you want to knock them over.



Naturally there are a lot of Southern tourists in Florida.  A lot of the men look like football coaches or ex-players: you know, tall, sunglasses, sort of brawny.  But there always seems to be that gigantic belly in front, which sort of ruins the jock image.



And then there are the wives. 



Also (and most sadly of all) there are the children.  There was a Minnesota family near us at the airport gate in Orlando, with two small very active boys.  And both of them had adorable little pot-bellies sticking out in front.  And, judging from the looks of Grandpa and Dad sitting nearby, those adorable little pot-bellies aren’t going away any time soon.



Honestly, folks: why are we doing this?  I tell you that this is not normal.  We need to reassess our national diet and our national approach toward nutrition, but immediately.



And, while you’re reassessing, pass me them there Cheez Doodles.



Beefy is as beefy does


I approached my work friend Apollonia’s desk the other day, cautiously, as I always do. (I never know how she might react. Sometimes she throws things at me.) She was looking at her computer screen with rapt attention. “What is it?” I asked.



She looked up at me with dewy eyes. “Seals tossing the caber.”



“Harbor seals?” I asked. “Or Navy Seals?”



She giggled. “Navy Seals, naturally,” she said in a little-girl voice. (Apollonia and I share an appreciation for the same kind of men, which explains her caber-tossing fantasies.) “Arms are good on a man,” she said dreamily. “Shoulders. And you know what else? Backs.”



“Display,” I said. “It means: ‘I’m big and strong. I can take care of you. I can protect you.’”



“Yeah,” Apollonia said. She looked thoughtful. “Whether or not it’s true. Looks can be deceiving.”



In his book “Sociobiology,” E. O. Wilson says that just about all animal behavior, from coral organisms through social insects to crustaceans and monotremes and mammals and yours truly, has a biological basis. I vaguely remember a Time or Newsweek simplification of the theory from the 1970s: they took the old Charles Atlas cartoon of the scrawny guy and the bully on the beach and changed the dialogue. When the bully kicks sand on the scrawny guy and grabs the pretty girl, the word-balloon over his head reads: “My genes are good! Mate with me!”



But there are other urges. Apollonia, you will remember, has a Robert Pattinson fetish. Yes, Robert Pattinson, who looks as if he were made out of pipe cleaners and construction paper. This, I’d say, is more of a protective-mother thing. This probably also explains why I do not share Apollonia’s depth of feeling for Robert Pattinson. I actually had the nerve to bring this up to her. “Robert Pattinson,” I said, “has neither arms, nor shoulders, nor back. And yet you love him. Why?”



She regarded me for a long time. “Oh, babe,” she said. “Those cheekbones. That chin.”






Here, to clear your palate after thinking of the scrawny Pattinson, is a New York Magazine slideshow of the biggest biceps in this summer’s movies. Chris Hemsworth, AKA Thor, is the clear winner of the contest.



He’s big and strong, boys and girls. He can protect you.



But remember what Mother Apollonia says: looks can be deceiving.




The Eastside Marketplace at the end of the universe


Some scientists say that there are parallel universes and alternate worlds all around us. They occupy the same space we do, but we don’t see them.


I have found evidence of this at the local supermarket.


When I put my groceries on the checkout counter, the cashiers pick them up, scan them, put them back on the belt, take my money – but without ever speaking to me, or even looking at me.


Apparently they and I are in different universes.



The groceries are somewhere in between, I guess.


Once in a while, however, there is a glimpse of the other side.


The other night, I was buying one item: a bottle of Fiji water. The cashier was a fourteen-year-old girl, and the bagger was another fourteen-year-old girl. “I, like, love this water,” the cashier said, pushing it down to the bagger. (This dialogue should be read aloud with a Valley Girl intonation for full effect.)



Whyyyy?” the bagger said. “It’s, just, wa-ter.”



“It tastes better,” the cashier said.


Whyyy?” the bagger said again. “It’s, just, wa-ter.”


Nooooo,” the cashier said. “It’s delicious. It’s, like, from a mountain or something.”


“It’s from the South Pacific,” I said.


For a moment her eyes flickered up to my face. I think she actually heard me, across the universes. “Yeahh,” she said to the bagger.


I think this is a tremendous breakthrough.


Someone please notify Stephen Hawking.




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