Sunday, December 7, 2014

Controlling the Universe

In Notes of a Native Son, which I've just finished reading, James Baldwin writes that “the root function of language is to control the universe by describing it.” Only a writer could say something so outrageous as that about language. For a writer it isn’t outrageous. But a normal person would say that the root function of language has something to do with communicating with other people. Baldwin has outed writers in a big way here: we aren’t really interested in communication with other people and aren’t very good at it. We do want, along with all the villains in James Bond novels and Superman movies, to control the universe.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Making It Small

I like the things I carry to be small. First Aid kits, tool collections, and so on. I drive a small sedan, used to sail a small sailboat and fly a two-seater airplane, but I can't really claim their limitations as causes of my passion for littleness. A better excuse would be the back trouble that resulted in my two spine operations. When I carry luggage or a briefcase, I'm aware of added ounces. I even weighed the two cordless Braun electric shavers I own--neither being more than a few ounces--so I could select the lighter one for my toiletry kit.
      Take keys, for instance. For some people, a huge wad of keys attached to a belt loop with a bear chain, looking for all the world like the spiked ball of a medieval flail, is not only a tool of office but an emblem of the bearer's importance, as weighty in figurative as in literal terms. For me, a handful of keys is an annoyance that distorts my pocket and makes my trousers sag. And so I try to diminufy, littlize, attenuate, eschewing the car keys with little transmitters, cutting the plastic top from the car key to make it smaller.
      I have a drawer full of little flashlights powered by single AAA batteries or button-cell batteries or their own internal batteries rechargeable by plugging them into USB ports. But the flashlight in my pocket is only a half inch in diameter and one and half inches long--the smallest one I've ever found, but surprisingly bright. It's attached to a penknife that is not the smallest that can be found, though it's the smallest made by the Victorinox Swiss Army people, with fewer than half a dozen features.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Real Mexican

People can be very proprietary about their regional American brand of Mexican food. I've heard friends who were introduced to Mexican food in California or New Mexico say, when presented with a Mexican meal prepared in Tucson or Brownsville, "Well, it's good but it isn't really MEXICAN."

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Uncle Col

My wife's Uncle Col was an amused observer of the happenings around him, and when those events weren't amusing enough he would tweak them a little to provoke their essential ridiculousness. One night in Tucson we had all had dinner at Skyline Country Club's Sunday night buffet. Col came out of the restaurant into the driveway where the valet brought departing patrons their cars and found a man standing there, dressed in a suit and fairly obviously not the parking valet. But Col had a dollar in his hand and he held it out to the man, who just stared at him for a minute before saying, "What's this?" "Aren't you the valet?" asked Col, who might have been as innocently confused as he looked. The man stiffened and pulled himself up to his full height. He said, "I'm Richard Harvill, president of the university!" "Oh, oh," mumbled Col, "thought you were the valet," and his face showed no hint of a smile.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

You'll Thank Me

So here's the idea: put an ad in whatever national magazine or large regional newspaper you think might have readers likely to respond. The pitch is very simple. The ad reads, "Send me $5 and I will send you a list of all the people who responded to this ad." You might have to put a time limit on it; you might have to adjust the price. But do you see the appeal? This is a list of people who were willing to send money.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Place to Read

Michael Cohen, A Place to Read: Life and Books (Brisbane: Interactive Publications, 2014).

MICHAEL COHEN'S ESSAYS on the reading life are a treat to read. Relaxed, personal, wide-ranging, they contain fascinating nuggets of information and lively assessments of hundreds of books, as well as a whole life’s worth of thoughtful rumination on time, love, travel, and family, as well as what it means to be, almost existentially, a reader. – Christina Thompson, Editor, Harvard Review 

Anyone who has pounded the pavement selling The Great Books of the Western World in 54 volumes and lived to tell gets my undying respect and should get yours. Michael Cohen is a book rat, not a book snob. For him, the pleasures of the book are tactile and auditory as well as psychological and philosophical. The essays in A Place to Read take on potential plate-lunch combinations in western Kentucky, the tuxedo as male uniform, the golf course as locus of friendship and humor, and Baptist theological responses to Day of the Dead practices in Michoacán, in addition to more strictly literary subjects.
– Ann Neelon, editor of New Madrid

Michael Cohen has given us a collection of personal retrospectives that deserve a place in the finest tradition of the American essay. Each is in its own way a comment on the human situation, filtered through a personal optic that is both refined and erudite.  Amusing, highly personal, insightful, they’ll make you smile, smirk, frown, and gasp, but they’ll never bore.  I promise.
– E. A. Allen, author of the Montclaire Mysteries

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Stars Are Going Out

OUR STAR PARTY coordinator made the sad announcement on Tuesday that this year's Twin Lakes Star Party, the twenty-fifth, will be the last. TLSP has been one of the most enjoyable events sponsored by the West Kentucky Amateur Astronomers, and it is not the first star party that has ceased to operate in recent years.

Why, my wife asked me at dinner that evening, have these star parties been disappearing? I gathered my thoughts to try to give some answers. She knows, having been head of a volunteer humane society, one of those answers. Star parties are run by volunteers, and in these sorts of organizations, the same people volunteer year in and year out. Eventually they wear out or their time is taken up by other matters.

Finally the problem is lack of new, young blood in amateur astronomy. And there are many reasons for fewer young people becoming interested, not all of them having to do with video games competing for their attention. More than half of America's population now lives in congested areas where the night sky is barely visible. I believe a wondrous dark sky full of stars and a visible Milky Way make as many converts to astronomy as our heroic efforts to show interesting sky objects to the public on planetarium nights and at other public outreach events. And telescopes themselves may be so good that, paradoxically, they become part of the problem. One of my friends got into astronomy sixty years ago by grinding his own 4-1/4-inch mirror for a telescope he then assembled. That time and effort invested him in amateur astronomy. And the time many of us have spent in pushing scopes around while star-hopping to things we wanted to see—that was time we spent learning the sky. You don’t learn the sky that way if a computer takes you to your target. My point is that lifelong amateur astronomers come from the ranks of people who find the night sky marvelous whether or not a telescope is anywhere around.