Monthly Archives: September 2012


Pharaoh’s Chickens

Egyptian vultures, also called Pharaoh’s chickens, by the Rev. Francis O. Morris (1810-1893), hand-colored wood engraving from A History of British Birds (1850-1857)

For a series of poems having to do with memory and mnemonic devices I found myself reading recently about chickens. Poultry is no stranger to poetry. As every schoolchild knows, “Hiawatha’s chickens” is Longfellow’s term for the wild birds of the forest; and Williams has told us that the location of the red wheelbarrow, upon…


Organic Syntax

I’m teaching at Brown this semester, and I found accommodation in Providence via airbnb (advertising on yielded nothing at all). I’m sharing an apartment with a gay couple who strongly favor organic foods. They were away for a few days when I used up the last of the household’s organic raspberry preserves. I felt obligated to replace it with a comparable product, but I didn’t know where the original had been bought. I probably should have checked out Gourmet Heaven on Weyboss…


Idioms Delight


An intelligent and gracious person e-mailed me to ask if I was as unhappy as she was about one of the only, meaning “one of a small number of.” For example: “Dave DeBusschere is one of the only people to have played in the NBA and for a major-league baseball team.” The phrase is nonsensical, she declared, since the adjective only denotes uniqueness and can have no truck with pluralness.

I replied that I saw her point but that the usage didn’t really bother me. One reason is that only…


The Mystery of ‘9/11’

On September 11, 2001, everything was a mystery at first. Out of the clear blue sky, airplanes were crashing into the tallest buildings in New York City and then the military headquarters of the United States, and another seemed destined for the White House or the Capitol. What was going on?

The explanations came with surprising rapidity, though too late to prevent the collapse of the twin towers and the deaths of nearly 3,000 at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania….


Oratorical Good Old Boy

At the start of my teaching career, on a moment’s notice when the instructor who’d taught the course for 30 years was laid up with a heart attack, I gave a summer course for advanced high-school students on “The Art of Speech.” Ph.D.’s in comp/rhet were rare as hen’s teeth then, and “rhetoric” still referred mostly to oratory. Scrambling for materials (my colleague’s notes were unavailable, and he used no textbook), I read Aristotle and Lanham in the hope of appearing to know what I was …


The Planet of Chongqing

Are you saddened by the growing McDonaldification and Starbuckization of our planet? Do you long for somewhere that, without being unpopulated wilderness, is essentially untouched by “Western civilization”? I may have something for you. I’m writing this from Chongqing, in southwest China.

Chongqing skyline; Moshe Safdie Architects

It is so utterly Chinese, so devoid of concessions to the Anglophone world, that it feels like another planet. Venus, to judge by the August weather: extremely hot, wi…


The Word the Media Won’t Use

Mitt Romney said President Obama began his administration with an “apology tour.” gave the statement a “Pants on Fire” rating.

People and institutions are frequently criticized for the words they use. Lately, the mainstream news media has been getting heat for a word it habitually does not use. The word is lie—both the root noun and the verb that derives from it. Throw in the epithet liar while you’re at it.

The complaint is an outgrowth of a more general, longstanding, and well-f…


Eastwood Ho!

And now the chair.

It has become the defining image of the Republican nominating convention. Barring even more bizarre antics, it’s likely to be the most memorable of the entire presidential campaign: Clint Eastwood, a Class A Hollywood celebrity,  chiding an invisible Obama in a visible—but empty—chair.

The Twitterati tweeted. The “empty-chair meme” was born, fledged, and took flight. Cue photos of Barack Obama sitting (“this seat’s taken”).  A Facebook-enabled photo of Eastwood addressing Pee…


Beam Me Up

Mostly when people send me examples of how things have changed since the bad old days when we were young, annoyance creeps up on me like arthritis. I never thought that popular culture in 1975 would remain as it was forever, nor am I oblivious to every cultural reference made by my students. My reaction to “The Mindset List” for the Class of 2016 was no different—boredom alloyed by irritation at examples like No. 34, “Billy Graham is as familiar to them as Otto Graham was to their parents….