A Father’s Day Poem


My young son pushes a football into my stomach
and tells me that he is going to run
an out-and-down pattern,
and before I can check the signals
already he is halfway across the front lawn,
approaching the year-old mountain ash,
and I turn the football slowly in my hands,
my fingers like tentacles
exploring the seams,
searching out the lacing,
and by the time I have the ball positioned
just so against the grain-tight leather,
he has made his cut downfield
and is now well beyond the mountain ash,
approaching the linden,
and I pump my arm once, then once again,
and let fire.

The ball in a high arc
rises up and out and over the linden,
up and out over the figure
that has now crossed the street
that is now all the way to Leighton Avenue,
now far beyond,
the arms outstretched,
the head as I remember it
turned back, as I remember it
the small voice calling.

And the ball at the height of its high arc
begins now to drift,
to float as if weightless
atop the streetlights and the trees,
becoming at last that first bright star in the west.

Late into an early morning
I stand on the front porch,
looking into my hands.

My son is gone.

The berries on the mountain ash
are bursting red this year,
and on the linden
blossoms spread like children.

-William Kloefkorn

The Restaurant Industry’s Strange Practice of Not Writing Important Things Down

At some point in my adult life, many people in the restaurant industry were seized by the idea that wait staff should not write down customers’ orders. I wonder where this practice came from and what its economic payoff is presumed to be.

Two companions and I had brunch this weekend in an eatery of the “don’t write things down” school. When you count in beverages and side orders, that meant that the waitress was trying to remember about 9 pieces of information, which is at the limit of most people’s working memory (Psychologist George Miller famously showed that most people have cognitive space for seven items, plus or minus two). Unsurprisingly, she brought me the wrong main dish and got both of my companions’ side orders wrong.

Why does this practice persist, when it is economically disadvantageous for the restaurant? In this case for example, food was wasted and at least one of my dining companions was sufficiently irritated to reduce his tip.

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May all your Christmases be stereotypes

Why Santa’s reindeer must be female.

Santa Claus may be white or not, according to taste, prejudice or marketing strategy. But here’s bad news for Megyn Kelly. The exploited reindeer that have drawn Santa’s sleigh through the busy Christmas night are necessarily reinhind, that is if they have proper antlers.
From an unnamed correspondent of Victor Mair at Language Log:

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, while both male and female deer grow antlers in the summer each year, male reindeer drop their antlers at the beginning of winter, usually late November to mid-December.

Female reindeer retain their antlers until after they give birth in the spring. Therefore, according to EVERY historical rendition depicting Santa’s reindeer, EVERY single one of them, from Rudolph to Blitzen, had to be a girl.

We should have known … ONLY women would be able to drag a fat man in a red velvet suit all around the world in one night and not get lost!

Sunday Pub Quiz

A seven question political history trivia quiz

In my continuing quest to waste my own time and help you to do the same, I have created this pub quiz about political history. The format is “These but not those”.

An example format of the prompt is:

President, Senator and Governor but not Secretary of State or FBI Director

To which the answer would be: Positions to which people are elected by vote.

Google not and see if you can answer the seven questions below. I put my answers after the jump. There could easily be more than one correct, important answer (i.e., not a trivial one like “words with an n in them”). If you don’t get my answer but have a credible alternative please post it and take the points for a correct answer.

In any event, please post your score. Good luck!

1. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford and Harry Truman but not Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon.

2. Secretary of State, Secretary of War, Secretary of the Treasury and Attorney General but not Secretary of the Interior or Secretary of Agriculture.

3. Winfield Scott, Zachary Taylor, Henry Clay and Millard Fillmore but not Franklin Pierce or Ulysses S. Grant.

4. William Henry Harrison, James Garfield, William Howard Taft and William McKinley but not Calvin Coolidge or Chester A. Arthur

5. U.K. Prime Ministers Ramsey McDonald, Gordon Brown and Henry Campbell-Bannerman but not Tony Blair or Winston Churchill

6. James Garfield, William Henry Harrison and Franklin Delano Roosevelt but not Richard Nixon or Woodrow Wilson.

7. John Nance Garner, Harry Truman and Henry Wallace but not Alben Barkley or Thomas Dewey

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I Like Awards, Despite Their Dark Side

I was in a meeting of the board of an academic professional society and someone proposed that an annual award be created to acknowledge scholarly achievement. To my surprise, one professor spoke out immediately and passionately: “Awards are bad. All they do is tell everyone but the winner that they aren’t good enough”.

There was too much of the zero sum view of life in her comment for my taste, but her words nonetheless sensitized me to the dark side of awards, prizes and honors. For every Academy Award Winner, there are many Academy Award losers. For every gold medal winner, there is a silver medal winner, a bronze medal winner and a large number of non-winners. And being in that large group outside the winner’s circle can sting.

In my youth, teachers’ announcements of winners of academic contests were usually prefaced with bromides about how “we were all winners”. But by the age of 12, even the dimmest of us knew that that was just honey to help make swallowing the jagged brick of defeat more tolerable.

At our best, we delight in the success of others. But by definition, we are not always at our best, perhaps particularly when we have just lost some contest.

Some people have contempt for those who receive awards. Michael Oakeshott, who turned down the offer of far higher honours, mocked The Beatles’ acceptance of an MBE award thus: “Perfectly appropriate. Honors go to those who want them.” Turning down awards for political reasons (e.g., opposition to hierarchy in all its forms) had a vogue in Anglo-America in the 1960s and 1970s, so much so that some people got more good press from refusing an award than others did from accepting one.

Despite all that, I mostly like the idea of awards, for three reasons.

First, award competitions can become a spur to recognize someone who has done well. I was part of a large group of people who wrote letters in support of an award for an underappreciated colleague who had dedicated his life to helping the poor and the infirm. Knowing that so many people had rallied to acknowledge him caused him to weep tears of joy. The award gave him an emotional lift that he badly needed in his very difficult work.

Second, awards are a way for a community to affirm certain values. A university prize for outstanding mentorship of minority students for example is not just a prize for an individual. It’s also an important statement of what the larger academic community treasures.

Third, although some people pursue awards in a crass fashion (e.g., taking credit for other people’s work), I think most people are motivated in good ways by the possibility of recognition. Our motivations to work hard, do the right thing and be productive compete with our motivations to eat Haagan-Dazs, watch television, and not give a damn. Well-targeted awards serve as a finger on the scale that may help tip the balance in favor of the better angels of our nature.

Sunday Pub Quiz: Children’s Literature

On a grey and parky Sunday afternoon, few things are more diverting than a quiz down at the pub. Throw a log on the fire, pull yourself a pint of bitter and above all Google not and see how many of these 10 questions you can get correct. This one isn’t too hard so you should be able to correctly answer at least half and maybe even all of them.

Answers after the jump. Please post your score.

1. London’s Great Ormond Street Hospital has been able to treat many sick children over the years because it was generously granted the rights to what classic children’s tale?

2. By what moniker is Nick Chopper better known?

3. Jim Hawkins is the hero of what well-loved children’s book?

4. How many siblings does Tiny Tim have in a Christmas Carol?

5. Who uses her psychic powers to get the better of the horrid Miss Trunchbull?

6. In the original version of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, what reindeer names followed these words “On, Comet! on, Cupid!, on…”

7. What doctor made the largest ever contribution to Dartmouth Medical School?

8. The Terrible Trivium is a villain in what book?

9. What do the authors of Winnie the Pooh, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan and Go, Dog, Go have in common, besides the obvious fact that they all wrote famous children’s books?

10. Who were the two parties in this exchange?:

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,”
“I don’t much care where-”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,”
“-so long as I get somewhere,”
“Oh, you’re sure to do that if you only walk long enough.”

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Blessed Moments of Shared Silence

National moments of shared silence are opportunities for communion and transcendence, but no guarantee of them

By grace rather than planning, I was in Glasgow Cathedral at 11am on 11/11, the national UK moment of silence to commemorate the nearly one million deaths of The Great War. The cavernous building was empty save for a dozen or so tourists, most of whom, like me, had to be reminded by the presbyters of what was about to occur. Although the silence is two minutes by rule, those present stayed quiet much longer, clinging to the peace and solemnity like a dwindling but still intoxicating love affair.

In a different year, the moment of silence came when I was in Paddington Station. It was awe-inspiring in a less intimate but still powerful way as a myriad of bustlers came to a reverent halt.

These moments of shared silence are intended as communions with the dead, but they also build connections among the living. All of us, with our varied daily concerns, set them aside for the sake of a cultural moment of grief and remembrance.

I wouldn’t cheapen the slaughter of Ypres or the Somme by suggesting that national moments of shared silence be made more frequent specifically as a remembrance of World War I. But fancifully I wonder: Would there be some social good in the creation of more shared moments of national silence? What would happen if, even two or three times a year, a country asked its citizenry to take a few shared minutes from texting and tweeting and twerking to instead be silent together?

What would people contemplate in the absence of all the quotidian distractions? Would they reflect on whether they were living their life in keeping with their values? Would they pause to feel grateful for what they have and resolve to be more compassionate towards those who have less? Or would they just dread the lacuna in the otherwise ceaseless cacophony and plan their next stock trade or iTunes download?

Drive-by orchids

Street orchids in Rio de Janeiro.

The Copacabana district of Rio de Janeiro is almost a pure grid. The longitudinal streets parallel to the beach carry heavy traffic and support only a few trees struggling against the diesel fumes. The shorter transversal streets are much quieter, and many have fine and quite luxuriant street trees, all of course the property of the city. Rua Anita Garibaldi is one of these streets near to Lu and me. Several of the trees support this:

The orchids have been planted by the inhabitants, and it´s become something of a competition between the blocks of condo flats. A few are in pots, but most are rooted normally in the tree bark. They look like florist´s hybrids to my unskilled eye rather than species, but that doesn´t seem to faze them.

Orchids in the cold North are iconic hothouse plants, and thought of as fragile as well as exotic. The CIA´s famous Cold War counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton hybridised orchids as a hobby, and as a rather obscure metaphor for his work. Did his orchids represent the KGB moles he saw everywhere, or his own equally obsessive and parasitic mole-hunters? But on their own tropical turf, or rather bark, orchids are the tough opportunists their way of life requires.The complex flowers target specialised pollinators: these will be harder to find in urban streets than congenial habitat, so don´t expect orchids to spread spontaneously to other streets. Calls to Angleton´s ghost on the question whether the seed of hybrid orchids is viable were not returned.

Brazilians are not famed for the sort of ostentatious civic virtue that leads Dutch housewives to sweep the pavements (AmE: sidewalks) in front of their houses, which traditionally have no curtains in the front windows hiding the family´s virtue and cleanliness from passers-by. Significantly, the concierges in Anita Garibaldi do sweep the pavements. I don´t want to read too much into a localised street orchid competition, but it is a good sign when our instinctive striving for status is channelled into such positive-sum games as, er, epifights.