[Stephan Pastis, Pearls Before Swine, 8/16/09]
What? Abolish tenure? Am I — long-tenured professor and one-time university administrator — really saying that?
Well, no. Not regarding academic tenure. I’m thinking of a completely different category of tenure: the tenure the New York Times bestows on its columnists.
Growing up, I knew something was wrong. I would read one Arthur Krock column after another and never figure out why he kept filling space. Then there was Flora Lewis. And now? Yes, once again, it’s time to complain about David Brooks. (See here and here and here and here and here.) What’s with that guy anyway? He’s so totally full of you-know-what.
Two days ago, in his now-famous The Follower Problem, Brooks offered his latest take on what’s wrong with the rest of us. Only by reading it in its entirety can you properly appreciate how dickish Brooks is. Here’s a sample (emphasis mine).
The old adversary culture of the intellectuals has turned into a mass adversarial cynicism. The common assumption is that elites are always hiding something. Public servants are in it for themselves. Those people at the top are nowhere near as smart or as wonderful as pure and all-knowing Me.
You end up with movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Parties that try to dispense with authority altogether. They reject hierarchies and leaders because they don’t believe in the concepts. The whole world should be like the Internet — a disbursed semianarchy in which authority is suspect and each individual is king.
Maybe before we can build great monuments to leaders we have to relearn the art of following. Democratic followership is also built on a series of paradoxes: that we are all created equal but that we also elevate those who are extraordinary; that we choose our leaders but also have to defer to them and trust their discretion; that we’re proud individuals but only really thrive as a group, organized and led by just authority.
I don’t know if America has a leadership problem; it certainly has a followership problem. Vast majorities of Americans don’t trust their institutions. That’s not mostly because our institutions perform much worse than they did in 1925 and 1955, when they were widely trusted. It’s mostly because more people are cynical and like to pretend that they are better than everything else around them. Vanity has more to do with rising distrust than anything else.
In his memoir, “At Ease,” Eisenhower delivered the following advice: “Always try to associate yourself with and learn as much as you can from those who know more than you do, who do better than you, who see more clearly than you.” Ike slowly mastered the art of leadership by becoming a superb apprentice.
To have good leaders you have to have good followers — able to recognize just authority, admire it, be grateful for it and emulate it. Those skills are required for good monument building, too.
I am so so grateful for our leaders. Where do I begin? Let’s see. There was LBJ. He sent thousands to Vietnam to die in order to look strong. And Nixon. He said he would bring them home, but sent more, and bombed the crap out of Hanoi for no good reason on the eve of a peace agreement. Should I go on? Well, let’s jump ahead a few decades. Bush led us into war on lies so he could one-up his father. Obama kills selected lucky duckies — US citizens aren’t exempt — in countries we’re not at war with because, well, I suppose because he’s extraordinary and we trust his discretion. Oh, and what about all those leaders of financial institutions who destroyed the economy? Extraordinary as well.
I must have an attitude problem. Good thing Brooks is on the case.
Without naming names, Brooks’ neighbor down the NYT hallway, Paul Krugman, slipped in a comment today. Writing a blog post about a Bloomberg article with the title “Hungary Lauds Hitler Ally Horthy As Orban Fails To Stop Hatred,” Krugman concludes: “But remember, the big problem is that the public isn’t showing enough deference to the elite.”
Does the NYT have a tenure review process? If not they certainly should. If so, time to set it in motion. And when they’re done with Brooks, they can turn to Tom “suck-on-this” Friedman.
Those of us who question authority do so not because we’re vain or think we’re better than everyone else. On the contrary. We question authority because we recognize that human beings, ourselves included, are flawed. And we’ll always be flawed. Which means that we will build flawed institutions and produce flawed leaders. We question authority because we recognize that not only is authority (another word for power) inherently corrupting, but also because we recognize the perverse values, priorities, and notions of merit upon which authority is generally granted.
People like David Brooks think people rise to positions of power and status because they’re better, wiser, or otherwise more meritorious than the rest of us—they’re “Great Men” touched by the hand of God. (But only if we get out of their way!) He thinks people achieve political power because they exemplify the best in us. We “bad followers” recognize that they usually embody the worst. We don’t buy the idea that people who have the power to tell other people what to do are inherently worth obeying simply because they’ve managed to get themselves into a position where they get to tell other people what to do. In fact, we think there’s good reason to believe the institutions that confer telling-people-what-to-do authority grant that authority to all the wrong people, and for all the wrong reasons.
Individualism is of course worth embracing and championing for its own sake. But celebrating and promoting individualism is as much about recognizing, fearing, and guarding against the corruption of power as it is about preserving the right to do your own thing. When a flawed individual (and that would be all of us) makes mistakes, he affects only himself and the people who associate with him. When a flawed political leader (and that would be all of them) makes mistakes, we’re all affected, whether we chose to associate with that leader or not. And the more we conform, follow, and entrust our political leaders with power, the more susceptible and vulnerable we are to their flaws and mistakes.
I’m a huge fan of the Language Log blog and its co-founders, the linguists Mark Liberman at Penn and Geoff Pullum at Edinburgh. Pullum has spent two decades in fierce combat with the myth that Eskimos have twenty-three words (or is it two hundred? or two thousand?) for snow. (See his 1991 essay The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax, which follows up on the 1986 work of Linda Martin.) I made brief reference to this in a post three Julys ago on linguistic fact checking, or the lack thereof.
Two Sunday nights ago, I was reading some of the next day’s NYT online when I clicked on the Monday book review and stumbled on the astonishing opening by Emma Brockes to her review of Alan Hollinghurst’s latest novel:
“The Stranger’s Child,” Alan Hollinghurst’s fifth novel, opens on a scene in Harrow and Wealdstone, a suburb north of London chosen by the author to represent the middle ground, that is the space between the upper and lower orders — or rather, this being England in 1913, between the orders of lower upper middle and upper upper middle.
As Eskimos do with snow, the English see gradations of social inadequacy invisible to the rest of the world; Mr. Hollinghurst separates them with a very sharp knife.
Wow! Eskimos have not just a multitude of snow words, but also gradations of snow perceptiveness invisible to the rest of the world.
The thing about those words is, any language has every bit as large a snow vocabulary as the Eskimos. Slippery snow. Grainy snow. Powdery snow. Oh, those aren’t words? Okay, how about slippery-snow, grainy-snow, powdery-snow? The oft-repeated claim is inane. But read Pullum for that.
Speaking of which, I wasted no time sending the latest example of Eskimo snow inanity on to Professor Pullum. A day later, in his characteristic style, he pounced.
If Emma Brockes were one of the sharper knives in the journalistic cutlery drawer she might have avoided becoming the 4,285th writer since the 21st century began who has used in print some variant of the original snowclone. (I didn’t count to get that figure of 4,285, I just chose a number at random. Why the hell not? People make up the number of words for snow found in Eskimoan languages that they know absolutely nothing about. I might as well just make stuff up like everybody else.)
I notice that Brockes’ version of the familiar Eskimological claim deals in visual cognition rather than linguistics (though the two are closely intertwined). The usual citation of a surprisingly large (and randomly chosen) number of snow words is absent; instead she actually claims to know about Arctic nomads’ perceptions of gradations that non-Eskimos cannot see. Where does she get this fascinating fact about perceiving the imperceptible?
Apparently, from credulous acceptance of an urban myth that goes back to the writings of an amateur linguist, Benjamin Lee Whorf.
Pullum goes on at length, all worth reading, concluding with a blast at the NYT.
A casual unsupported assertion about Inuit people perceiving distinctions to the rest of us are blind? That won’t cause any trouble at the New York Times (which has published several different figures for the number of snow words in “Eskimo”, and has ignored the letters of correction that have been sent). Don’t worry about it: it’s only language and cognition we’re talking about — just make stuff up.
I’ll say this, though. We Pacific Northwesterners perceive gradations of gray invisible to the rest of you. Dark? Rain? Give us more, so we can make our perceptive skills still more powerful.
[Dan Grayson, Tokyo, December 10, 2011]
Those of us on the west coast enjoyed a total lunar eclipse just before moonset yesterday morning, the last one until April 2014.
The entire lunar eclipse will be visible in East Asia, Australia, and the far western portion of North America that includes Alaska and Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories. The spectacle will last nearly three and a half hours, starting on Saturday at 4:45 a.m. Pacific Time.
Totality—when the full moon will be completely blocked from direct sunlight—will start at 6:05 a.m. PT and last until 6:57 a.m. PT.
We were discussing the eclipse at dinner with friends Friday evening. Would we wake up for it? Would we be able to see it without trees in the way? Jean mentioned that she would be up anyway, as she would be rowing. Plus, her location out on the water would provide unobstructed viewing. I imagined waking up and walking out to a clear area at the edge of the backyard with a good view to the southwest, but when the time came to set the alarm, I decided not to bother. I would either arise naturally or miss it.
At 5:55 a.m., I arose naturally. I looked at the clock, then noticed that the early morning moonlight that a full moon usually brings into the bedroom was missing. The eclipse was underway, on schedule, with totality ten minutes away. I couldn’t believe my luck. I got out of bed, got dressed, went down to the garage to get my coat and hat out of the car, got gloves from the closet, opened the backdoor, and headed out for total eclipse viewing.
Something didn’t seem right. I could see a faint glow to the southwest where the full moon must be. I couldn’t see the moon, which of course was the whole point. Then I realized what the problem was. I couldn’t see much else either, because it was cloudy.
Boy did I feel stupid. I completely forgot to look out the window to check for clouds before getting dressed. I could have done that and gone back to sleep.
Or maybe not. It was well before sunrise after all. Because of the darkness, I might not have been able to assess the nature of the cloud cover without going outside.
I went out again about 15 minutes later and then 30 minutes later, in case there was a break in the clouds, but there wasn’t. I had to content myself with my old friend Dan’s posting on Facebook at 5:34 a.m. PT of an eclipse photo he took from Tokyo. (See above.)
I’ll try again in a couple of years.
The performer of this stupid trick, alas, was me, and I did it a week ago, so I’m a little late in reporting.
Where to begin? Well, first you need to know about sharps containers. If you don’t have one at home (and why would you?), you will at least have seen them at your doctor’s office. They’re those plastic colored containers attached to the wall that used needles get dropped into.
It turns out you can buy them at pharmacies for home use. Unlike the ones at the doctor’s office, the home-use ones are free standing. No need to attach them to the wall. You can see one in the photo above. Over time, you drop needles in, and eventually the needle pile reaches the line that says the container is full. At this point, you put the handy container lid on and bring the container to a place that accepts it for disposal. The crucial point here is that the containers are not meant to be re-used. Rather, you dispose of a full one properly, buy a new one, and repeat. As for disposing, it seems that some pharmacies will accept the full containers. Failing that, hereabouts, one can bring them to the county transfer station.
Okay, so, that’s that. Now to my story.
Until twelve days ago, I didn’t know about home sharps containers, or care. But then, for reasons I won’t go into in this post, I found myself in a class in which we were given blood glucose meters (free!) and the associated paraphernalia with which one can measure one’s own blood glucose level. I had no idea what I was missing all these years. It’s the coolest thing, getting this instant feedback about what’s going on in your blood. But you can’t get that feedback without sticking the tiniest little needle into your finger first and coaxing out a little drop of blood.
That little needle, or lancet, comes under the heading of sharps. You can’t just toss it in the garbage. You need to put it in a sharps container. The odd thing is, at the class, we were given those blood glucose meters but not sharps containers. We were told that we can’t throw the used lancets in the garbage, that we should get a sharps container, and that we should eventually bring it to the county transfer station. I can’t imagine the first thing every student does after class is buy his or her own container. I imagine, more precisely, that some students never buy a container. There must be a lot of those lancets in the garbage stream.
Not my lancets. Gail bought a sharps container. She brought it home, I examined it, and I wondered what to do about the fact that the container lid was attached by a thin strip of plastic that was sufficiently stiff that the open lid kind of hung out at an awkward angle. It was in the way. I figured it was supposed to stay attached for some reason, like maybe to remind you to cover the container between uses. But it really was going to be a nuisance. So I got the scissors out and cut it off.
Now what? Well, if the lid was meant to cover the container, I may as well cover it. Which I did. That was the moment when I realized the lid, now firmly shut on the container top, had no grasping point, no place to get your finger under in order to flip it off. Yup, that sucker was on for good. I had just put the permanently locking lid on an empty sharps container.
Good job, Ron.
It all made sense after the fact. Once you’ve filled the container and need to dispose of it, you put the lid on. There’s no reason ever to take it off again, and good reason to make sure it doesn’t come off, so once it’s on, it’s on. A permanently locked lid goes hand-in-hand with safe transport and disposal of the sharps. I then saw, too late, that there was a label glued on the side of the container with instructions, and sure enough it explained that you put the unremovable lid on when you’re done.
There you have it, my stupid trick of the week.
Except that I really couldn’t bear the thought of wasting the four dollars it cost to buy the container. I decided to experiment, and discovered that you can get the lid off after all, with a little prodding. I won’t say how. I’ve said enough.
I’ve been making a list of art exhibits to see once the term ended, which it did with my turning in of grades a week ago. The time had come to attack the list. Last Thursday we went to two galleries, with lunch in-between. One was a success; one wasn’t.
First the success story. I wrote last March about the BIG IS BETTER (or so some claim) exhibit at the Wright Exhibition Space. As I noted at the time, the Wright Exhibition Space mounts small shows from time to time, each of which draws largely or entirely from the Virginia and Bagley Wright Collection, the largest collection of contemporary art in the Pacific Northwest. The gallery typically opens just two days a week for limited hours. For the current show, those two days are Thursdays and Saturdays, and for the next two weeks, that means Thursdays only. So last Thursday was the day.
We drove down to the gallery (just east of the Seattle Center and the under-construction home-to-be of the Gates Foundation), parked in one of its reserved spots, and entered. Often, we pick up the small printed brochure and see the show on our own. This time, as we picked up brochures, the docent on duty asked if we were on the mailing list — yes — then proceeded to grab her looseleaf binder with pages on each of the show’s objects, stand up, come around the desk, and head off to give us a guided tour. We didn’t know we wanted one, but she turned out to be excellent company, and informative as well, and we’re quite glad we did.
The current show, curated by the Wrights’ son Bing, is called Bing’s Choice, with the subtitle “Art from my parents’ collection that was in storage that I liked (plus some other things thrown in that I also like).” He explains: Read more…
The Big Ten conference announced names for its new divisions, two of the most meaningless names one can imagine. But maybe I should back up. The Big Ten is the oldest and, I suppose, most famous university sporting conference in the country, dating back to 1896. It became the Big Ten only in 1917, with Ohio State joining in 1916 and Michigan re-joining in 1917 after an absence, the other eight being founding members Chicago, Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, and Wisconsin (along with Michigan), plus Indiana and Iowa, who joined in 1899. The arithmetic got a little complicated when Chicago left after 1946, but Michigan State joined in 1950, restoring order. When Penn State joined in 1990, there was no changing the name, as will be the case after Nebraska joins next year. The Big Ten is a brand now, not a count.
I will pass on providing a primer on the economics of college football and the motivation for conferences to have 12 teams. The short version — and remember, this is about football only, not other sports that conference teams participate in — is that once a conference has 12 teams, it is allowed to split into two 6-team divisions and conclude the regular season with a conference championship game between the two division champions. This means big money. Millions. Many millions. And it’s why both the Big 10 and the Pac 10 chose earlier this year to expand. Losing out in this is the Big 12, which will lose not just Nebraska to the Big 10, but also Colorado to the Pac 10. (Yes, that’s right, this means the Big 10 will have 12 teams and the Big 12 will have 10. Get used to it.)
The Big 10 expansion and concomitant addition of a conference championship game necessitate a split into divisions. Those conferences that already split divisionally generally did it geographically. The SEC (Southeast Conference), the model for this, has east and west divisions. The east is perhaps more east and north, but the west is a geographically compact region, one that makes sense, and so the divisional alignment as a whole makes sense as well. The west schools (going roughly from west to east) are LSU, Arkansas, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Alabama, and Auburn. The east schools (going from south or southeast to northwest) are Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky.
The Pac 10 has a plan for post-expansion divisions that has some logic as well. To the north are Washington and Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State, Cal and Stanford. The six in the other division come in handy pairs as well: USC and UCLA, Arizona and Arizona State, and the two newcomers, Colorado and Utah.
Take a moment now to think about how you would split the twelve Big 10 teams into two divisions. Remember, they are Penn State, Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Michigan State, Illinois, Northwestern, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska.
Seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? In fact, I’ve just done it, and handy pairs are staring you in the face. In the east we put Penn State and Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue. In the west we put Illinois and Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska. Done, with natural rivalries built in, rivalries that may not respect past history but are ready made for new history.
The problem is that past history, with the mother of all rivalries, Ohio State and Michigan, the primacy of which has to be preserved somehow. And then, well, let’s see what the Big Ten had to say in its announcement a few months ago:
The Big Ten football division alignments will include a division featuring Illinois, Indiana, Ohio State, Penn State, Purdue and Wisconsin, and a division featuring Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern. Each school will play the other five schools within its division and will also face three teams from the other division, including one cross-division matchup guaranteed on an annual basis. The guaranteed cross-division matchups are Illinois-Northwestern, Indiana-Michigan State, Ohio State-Michigan, Penn State-Nebraska, Purdue-Iowa and Wisconsin-Minnesota. Names for each Big Ten football division will be announced at a later date.
This isn’t how I would have done it. In particular, there’s no geographical logic to it at all.
But about those division names, which were announced today along with the logo pictured at the top, they are: Leaders and Legends. League commissioner Jim Delany explained to the AP that “The Legends, not too hard in that we have 215 College Football Hall of Fame members, we have 15 Heisman Trophy winners. We thought it made perfect sense to recognize the iconic and the legendary through the naming of the division in that regard. … We’ve had plenty of leaders in the conference, that’s for sure, but the emphasis here is to recognize the mission of using intercollegiate athletics and higher education to build future leaders.”
I think he lost me. And which is which? The division with Ohio State is the Leaders; the division with Michigan is the Legends.
On Sunday I described some of our Thanksgiving Eve woes, one being the difficulties we were having setting up Gail’s new iMac. Ultimately, we had to do so from scratch, without transferring data from her old iMac. The worst indignity was that iTunes wouldn’t recognize the new computer as hers, which means she couldn’t recover all the items she has bought — songs, TV shows, iPhone and iPad apps. As we learned, one must write to the appropriate iTunes rep (calling isn’t an option) and beg for forgiveness. The friendly but patronizing iTuner assured her that he understood how frustrating it is to lose one’s data. He would make an exception to policy and allow her to download her purchases from iTunes again. They were put in the appropriate place on iTunes’ end and she was able to see them in her downloads folder at the iTunes store. This afternoon, almost 48 hours later, the download to the new iMac was complete.
But that’s her story. This is about me. I mentioned near the end of the Thanksgiving Eve post that I ordered my own new iMac last Friday. It came this afternoon. I didn’t want to set it up right away, because doing so would involve transferring data from my ancient MacMini, which I suspected might take hours, during which time I wouldn’t be able to use either of them. Around 5:00 PM, with Joel’s assistance, I connected the two and began the transfer. We then went out to do some errands and have a quick dinner. On our return, the transfer was going well, with an estimated time remaining of 3 1/2 hours.
What to do? Maybe this was a good time to disconnect my computer’s external speakers, which I would no longer need thanks to the built-in iMac speakers. Of course, the external speakers are better than the iMac speakers, but they also take up space. I figured I would try life without them. To my surprise, Gail offered to take them, which meant the speaker clutter wouldn’t disappear. It would simply move from one corner of our extended built-in desk to the other. I wasn’t sure that was progress, but that was the plan.
To implement the plan, I started to slide the new iMac out of the way so I could get to the speakers. It was right in front of them, and in front of my about-to-be-retired MacMini, to which it was yoked as it sucked up the MacMini’s data. If you have the picture, perhaps you can guess what happened next. I’ll pause a moment.
When I slid the new iMac away from the MacMini and its peripherals, out came the iMac’s power cord. The iMac shut down, the MacMini kept pumping out the data, but it was just spilling all over the desk. Well, okay, maybe not. I don’t know what the data was doing. All I know is, it wasn’t going into the iMac, and I had just wasted two hours.
That’s your dumb move of the day.
I plugged the iMac back in, started the process again, left the speakers alone, and realized I could work on Gail’s new iMac. That’s where I am now. The data dump will surely be continuing when I go to sleep. I’m eager to see what dumb thing I do tomorrow.
I’ve written a few posts about waiting for my new iPhone 4, most recently here, where I noted that Gail and Joel had received theirs and mine hadn’t even shipped yet. Well, it turns out there was a reason mine hadn’t shipped. I screwed up. But I can’t help feeling that the real screwer-upper here is Apple. And I’m finding that our relationship has been damaged.
Let me explain. Like over a million others, I rushed to order our new iPhones when buying season began last month. And like the majority of the others, I was unable to get my order placed. Nor could I the next day. When I tried again six days later, it worked, sort of. I logged in, ordered mine, ordered Gail’s, and was told by the system that something had gone wrong — I was trying to order too many phones. I understood that you can order only one phone per existing phone line, but I assumed I could buy all three in one order, provided they matched up with three lines. Once I realized that this was in fact not the case, that each phone order had to be placed separately, I went back to the shopping cart and deleted Gail’s phone order (or so I thought). Then I went into the store again and ordered a second phone, tied to Gail’s line, placed the order, started again, and placed a third order, tied to Joel’s line. Three phones, three lines, three orders. Done. I was told to expect shipment by July 14.
Early last week, email arrived announcing that Gail’s had shipped. Ten minutes later, Joel’s shipped. But not mine. And still not mine when theirs arrived last Friday. Still not mine Monday, but of course it wasn’t July 14 yet. I would be patient.
And then Monday night I got an email from Apple saying that as I had already been informed (I hadn’t), there was a problem with my order. Apple couldn’t get my phone set up with my phone number prior to shipping. Two possible explanations were given — a problem with AT&T billing, or the possibility that I had ordered multiple phones on a single line. Whatever the problem, the email said it was between me and AT&T and I was urged to call them to straighten it out. Apple would keep trying to complete the order through July 15. If they failed then, the order would be cancelled.
Yikes! I called AT&T immediately. After a long wait, I reached someone. He asked me to look up my order number and I stared at the three original order confirmations to see which one was for my phone. Only then, to my shock and dismay, I saw that two of the three orders had Gail’s phone number attached and the third had Joel’s. Somehow, at the beginning of the process, when I tried to order Gail’s and mine at once and was told I had ordered too many, I deleted the order attached to my line rather than the order attached to Gail’s. I then ordered Gail’s phone, then Joel’s, but really had inadvertently ordered zero for me, two for Gail, one for Joel. The AT&T rep said sorry, but this was between me and Apple, and I’d have to call them.
I called Apple next, but they were closed. The automated fellow insisted he could help me, only to throw up his hands, as it were. So I waited until Tuesday morning. The same automated fellow once again insisted on helping me, but eventually he relented and let me join the queue for a live customer service representative. I was then warned regularly about heavy call volumes. After maybe a little over half an hour, someone came on the line.
Okay, so, if you’re following, all I wanted to do was change the phone number on my order. In fact, all I needed was to change a single digit by 1. I had my doubts though. I was prepared to be told that this was impossible, that I would have to cancel my order and start again. My only hope was that Apple would take pity on me and put my new order at the head of the line.
Ha! The Apple rep’s first words were a statement about how we at Apple are committed to excellent service, or something even more emphatic than that. I then explained my problem, after which he immediately explained that he couldn’t correct the phone number. I would have to cancel the order and make a new one. Did that mean, I asked, that I would be put at the back of the queue. Yes. He didn’t offer to move me up, didn’t express sympathy or regret, didn’t express anything. Maybe he didn’t owe me any of that. I’m the one who screwed up, after all, though the truth is, I’m not entirely convinced I screwed up, by which I mean that I’m not sure I deleted the wrong order. But whether I did or not, I could have read the emails that came back to me confirming the orders and reviewed the phone numbers. I had it in my power, that is, to discover the error early on, whoever’s error it was.
Once I confirmed that he could do nothing to help me, I asked how exactly Apple was demonstrating their commitment to excellent service. He didn’t have much to say to that. He did ask if I wanted him to cancel the order for me. I said he may as well, since it had to be cancelled. He then said it was done and I would receive confirming email within 24 hours. Anything else? No. He then closed with, yes, you guessed it, “Have a Great Day!” That put me over the edge. I asked him how exactly I was supposed to do that, now that my phone order of three weeks earlier had just been cancelled, and pointed out that this might be a time when he shouldn’t follow the script, that it was patronizing and gratuitous. He acted offended, letting me know firmly that he followed no script. There was no useful direction for the conversation to go, so at that point we said goodbye.
If Gail and Joel didn’t already have their iPhones, and if I weren’t eager to share the pleasures of Apple FaceTime with them, I might just have ordered an Android-based phone next. I didn’t. I went to AT&T, fed up with Apple, and put through a new iPhone 4 order. Two to three weeks. We’ll see.
I’ve been pretty quiet the last two weeks. Sorry about that. It’s not for lack of topics to write about. Have I been traveling? Making progress on my backlog of novels? Proving theorems? No. Mostly, in time I might have spent writing posts, I’ve been planning my life. That’s too generous. Really, I’ve been immersed in the inane endeavor of planning how to plan my life.
You know Arnold Lobel’s wonderful children’s book characters Frog and Toad? They are good friends, and their adventures are told in four books published during the 1970′s, each comprising five short, easy-to-read stories. Frog and Toad Together, the second volume, opens with A List. Many years ago, when my old friend Dan had two young boys, he had me read it. Perhaps he arranged for me to read it to one of the boys. I didn’t realize it was a setup, with Dan knowing that I would recognize myself as the living embodiment of Toad.
If you don’t know the story, you can read part of it at Google books here. Or, with more time, you can see an animated version in two parts, starting with the embedded youtube clip at the top and continuing below. Pay special attention to the part in the second and third minutes of part 2.
[Spoiler alert: In this paragraph, I'll give away some of the plot.] The story opens with Toad waking up and making a list of things to do for the day. He starts with “wake up,” then immediately crosses it off. The climactic moment occurs later, during Toad’s walk with Frog, when a gust of wind blows the list away and Toad is paralyzed. He has no idea what to do next, so he resigns himself to sitting where he is and doing nothing. Hours later, Frog suggests to Toad that they should go to sleep. Toad exclaims, “Go to sleep; that was the last thing on my list!” Calm is restored. He scratches the words on the ground with a stick, crosses them off, and goes to sleep.
What does this have to do with me? I could write pages on the matter, but I don’t want to get too personal. Here are some highlights of my list-making evolution: Read more…
I started this post weeks ago, and even then I started it by observing that I should stop writing about our time in Europe already. With that in mind, I have let it sit, but now I will finish it and post it. Then I can move on.
One reason to push forward with it is that I can’t resist making use of the title. How often can one write “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and mean it literally? (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, of course, is the title of the great 1962 Broadway musical starring Zero Mostel, with book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim — the first musical for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics. My parents saw it, as they saw many Broadway shows of the time, and brought home the Playbill, which I looked at, as I would do whenever they saw a show. I couldn’t make much sense of the title at the time.)
Our version of “A Funny Thing … ” revolves around something we did that was really stupid. I could blame those crazy Romans for being disorganized, or insufficiently clear in the information they provide. And they didn’t exactly help. But I’ll take responsibility.