The Reading

Reading Time: 9 minutes

The Reading_06Sep2014__DSC0009-Edit


Saturday of this past weekend was a banner day for the household. The book tour for MG’s latest opus (co-edited with her collaborator on this and other projects) began, auspiciously enough, at one of the destinations on everyone’s short list of great independent bookstores: Politics and Prose, in Washington DC. Setting aside the universal plight of all independent bookstores—how to stay viable and profitable in a world of online discount selling—we can take comfort that the strongest and most appealing of these stores, and Politics and Prose is one of them, seem to thrive. Sometime, in another post, I may end up musing on the qualities of these stores that allow them to survive where they are beaten every time on price, the factor that seems to trump all others in the book buyer’s decision process.

The book that was the focus of the event is an anthology of food writing, a collection born of a mutual interest on the part of the co-editors long since to teach this genre, drawing from a growing library and history of such works. Several years ago, in tandem, but on separate campuses, they offered what turned out to be very popular courses. One editor, whose expertise skews toward fiction, and scholarly inquiry into the nineteenth century novel in English, taught a curriculum that demonstrated a similar predisposition. Jennifer Cognard-Black is Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, an institution whose constituents, all and sundry, seem reflexively to add to the name, “the public honors college,” is a respected, if small, liberal arts college that is actually part of the State of Maryland system of higher education institutions. Hence it operates at the fiscal discretion of the Governor and the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates. All of which is by way of seeing that there’s an analogy here, between the plight of the independent bookstore, and the plight of the small college of liberal arts—also a struggling breed, except for quality institutions like St. Mary’s, which holds its own, with far smaller budgets, though at far less cost to its students, with its peer institutions, far better funded, more prestigious, and highly competitive in their selectivity.

One co-editor, Melissa Goldthwaite [full disclosure: she’s my wife], is a Professor of English, at St. Joseph’s University, a specialist in Rhetoric and Composition, and Creative Writing. St. Joseph’s is one of a whole network of Jesuit-affiliated institutions of higher learning throughout the country. The aims of the education have, still, at their core a dedication to providing a solid liberal arts education. I say still, because the challenge for any U.S. institution of higher education today is how to continue to instill not only a love for learning and an understanding that a broadly based education steeped in the cultural history of the world, with some requisite skills in analyzing the relevance and meaning of the substance of that history.

The impediment confronted on many campuses, regardless of how you categorize the institution, and not strictly an antithetical stumbling block, but in seeming counterpoise, is the acquisition of credentials through the study of more marketable subject matter. Strictly speaking, and increasingly, this means courses in business, or marketing, or economics—or any of the broadening array of sub-disciplines—that constitute a more practical species of specialized skill sets. It’s well and good to be able to suss out meaning that appeals to the heart and the mind in a poem; it’s another thing altogether to understand the arcane relations between columns of numbers in a balance sheet and what they might augur for the continued prosperity of an enterprise.

Smarter dispassionate heads struggle to prevail in the argument that these are not antithetical capabilities. Indeed, the subject areas in the classic curriculum collectively still referred to as the humanities provide a foundation in discovering a successful way of coping with life in the real world. Not every argument is won by the humanists. There has been a progressive retrenchment in traditional curricula and it’s likely at least three decades, if not longer, that colleges and universities have introduced, in a first wave, new departments and areas of specialization: women’s studies, gender studies, and targeted ethnicities, including African-American and Latino studies, being prime examples.

More recently, and in tandem with rising tuition costs on almost all campuses around the country (rising at rates that far exceed the rate of increase in almost any other critical economic marker), the entire industry, for that is, alas, what it has come to resemble, of higher education, has added courses of study that are directly and unambiguously platforms into seeking and achieving paying jobs within highly defined areas of specialization, in technology, finance, and entertainment. In ways that test the elasticity of meaning of a word that originally sustained little ambiguity given its roots, I mean the humanities, the new designers of academic missions and the supportive educational infrastructure argue—usually by way of mere lip service—that being human endeavors, the new subjects and courses are merely latter-day manifestations of this classic epistemology. Others, in a sense less cynical, say that the study of the humanities per se, with no qualification or abridgment of the standard meaning of the term, have become at best a luxury, and at worst a useless anachronism.

There is one constant, however, and not paradoxically. If anything, the importance of the ability to communicate, especially verbally, has never been more of a manifest value. Which brings me back to the substance of the spanking new Goldthwaite/Cognard-Black opus. In food writing, I suggest, there is a rare amalgam, a blend of the two still viable contemporaneous disciplines: effective communication (dare I say, at the apex of its expressive qualities, attaining to literary worth?) and the subject of food in every conceivable aspect. The latter has long since been monetized in the still major media channels of radio, television, the Internet, and that strange space coextensive of the World Wide Web, proprietary social media. Food has become competitive sport, obsession, confessional, practical, salvational, healing, spiritual, and technological.

Books that Cook: The Making of A Literary Meal is, frankly, not an exponent of all these salient if divergent methods of inquiry into the subject. The editors being who they are, and with a more singular mission in their noble day jobs as pedagogues and mentors to would-be writers, have chosen not a more conservative course of activity, so much as a classic one. And on the Saturday, just passed, in question, seven of us read from our work, including the co-editors who were also contributors: Cognard-Black wrote a short story specifically for this volume, and Goldthwaite included one of her excellent poems. The other five of us, including myself (with a poem, commissioned for the volume, “How to Make the Perfect Fried Egg Sandwich”), and two other poets, an essayist, and memoir author.

We didn’t exactly wear our academic credentials on our sleeves—for one thing it was a very hot, beyond sultry, Washington DC day, and the majority of us were in short sleeves, if there were sleeves at all to our garments. In fact, to some greater or lesser extent each of us, as well as all the other writers in the book, were or are published authors. Our bona fides preceded us. The only criterion the works selected had to meet, aside from manifestly having food as a major theme, motif, or subject, was that each include a bona fide executable recipe within the text.

The publisher bankrolled a generous adjunct to the gathering, especially generous to the attendees who met no other criterion of admission than to show up, in the form of a smorgasbord of sample tastings of five of the recipes featured. In short, they paid a caterer to prepare and provide small, but ample, tastes of two kinds of cake, a vegetable soup, and a beverage, a punch. Anecdotally, I’d say, from the amount consumed and the overheard comments of approbation, the crowd was pleased.

The audience settled in, many of them with tiny cups of soup, sipped with even tinier spoons, and the reading began with a greeting from our merchant host, which, courtesy again of the publisher had provided stacks of volumes for purchase, and a traditional signing after we had all performed. We read in turn, taking from five to ten minutes each. Some of the readers bolstered the rendering of their contributions as published with yet more works of theirs along the same lines. In an hour, we were done. There were few questions, all asked with that earnestness that characterizes self-consciously literary crowds. And then the queue formed.

I was surprised to see that several folks bought multiple copies, each receiving a requested and different personalized greeting. The book is not costly, and I did not inquire as to any discounts, but three copies, let us say, which at least one generous soul had purchased, plus the local sales tax ate up most of a hundred dollar bill. I was further surprised to be asked myself to sign several copies, and I easily fought the temptation to disabuse the pilgrim of the likely value of my scrawl in any conceivable future.

I will admit personally to a certain sense of a kind of temporary dissociation. I for sure knew where I was, but I also wished I weren’t. I loathe crowds of strangers of any size. They intimidate me, and put me on guard. When it came time to read, I stood up, and didn’t quite entirely put aside my usual sense of confidence (bolstered by a rehearsal the day before at home, before my editor and our pooch, who both listened raptly as I easily gave a flowing reading of my free verse) as I hugged the podium and barely glanced at the equally rapt crowd. As I read, with the same well-paced cadences I’m sure in retrospect, all I could hear was a tremulousness in my voice, which I certainly felt. By all accounts that reading was as free of defect as the run-through, though it had seemed interminable to me. Barely noticing the applause, which had justifiably greeted each of the other readers, I regained my seat, as the sense of otherness enveloped me again.

Other than the pride in my wife’s accomplishment (and I was one of very few, present or not, with any acquaintance with the trials the editors together had undergone in seeing the book through its long gestation) my memory of the afternoon is hazy. It was, undoubtedly, a success, which I knew, having seen the number of copies the store had rung up. For all that, this was, I admit, my first opportunity to participate in a reading of this sort, from the other side of the lectern. Seeking no prior indoctrination, and even knowing my antipathy for crowds of strangers, I was interested to take in as much as I might perceive. For all the sales of the book that day (and to date, as it enjoys its inaugural weeks on sale nationally), the publisher had shipped what proved to be a significant surplus, no doubt in an established protocol of cautious optimism and preparedness. I happened to be at the check out at the front of the store, as the staff prepared for the next event, hard on the heels of our own. I admit as well, I cannot step into a well-stocked bookstore without spending some money (and I bested the outlay of the hundred dollar lady, with quite a much larger sum in a fit of spreading the wealth—I should disclose that my own copy of Books that Cook had arrived weeks ago at home, gratis). As I paid for my second purchase of the day, for another book, another audio CD, and a Lamy rollerball pen I couldn’t resist, I watched as two of the staff members, expertly stuffed what was left of an unsold pile of volumes of the literary feast into two sizable cartons, festooned with labels that looked familiar from a shipment long ago of my one published volume—probably the same production house. They had those cartons packed and sealed and ready for shipment back, all in the time it took to swipe my card and for me to sign the check.

All in all, and nevertheless, I am sure it was a good day for NYU Press, and Politics and Prose, and the co-editors. Later that same weekend, a check on Amazon of how the book was selling showed it had, for what it appears was a shining moment, achieved “best-seller” status, making it to the “Top 100” in three different sub-categories. I have no doubt with our next reading, scheduled for New York City, the home turf of the publisher, at a rare book library on campus, it will attain a few more moments of fame, and once again, even a few grains, like scattered salt crystals, will reach me.

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The book is available on-line, here http://www.amazon.com/Books-That-Cook-Making-Literary/dp/1479830216/ref=pd_rhf_ee_p_img_1, and here http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/books-that-cook-jennifer-cognard-black/1119220500?ean=9781479830213. And, of course, at your local independent bookstore. I know where I’d go.

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The Philadelphia Irk List: Part 1 of no doubt many

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Having enjoyed the privilege of a brief—brief to me, but probably an incredibly luxurious hiatus for most people—period of rustication, first in the wilds of Provence, and then in the wilds of Grafton County, NH, virtually on top of the Vermont border, it has been a strange awakening to arrive back in Philadelphia. There was a bracing, very brief interval, between trips to the bosky dells of two continents—mainly I think to get our temporal sea legs to regain their normal status—but not sufficient to be a reminder of what we have escaped during our annual summer run.

But goodbye to that, alas. We are back in the thick of it. The main and prevailing thickness is the swampy weather that for some reason the founding fathers found so congenial here in the Middle Atlantic wedge of the great jaded northeast of the U.S. But there is another thickness, palpable enough, a dimension of the quotidian here in the urban milieu, though wholly invisible. I speak of the thickness between the ears of the collective inhabitants of the region.

In plain language, my friends and fellow commiserators, there’s a reason for that famous apocryphal epitaph of W.C. Fields, and, considering the alternative, which I am wont too often to do (and I don’t mean the Côte d’Azur), I unhappily agree. That is, I do, until, say, I sit behind the wheel of our car, which has taken us through thousands of miles in the north country in safe, largely imperturbable bliss, except for Route 84 in Connecticut. What I have been quickly reminded of are the only too predictable and thoroughly irksome habits of Pennsylvanians, or maybe it’s just Philadelphians, but they do a pretty good job of it in the suburbs as well. So here’s the beginning of an irk list. I am sure, in the fullness of time, as my brain further congeals and grows a defensive barrier, I will dispassionately add to this list in installments.

1. The car horns from the car behind you:

  • the horn for sitting a nanosecond too long at a traffic light just turned green, before flooring the accelerator for one of those quick Philadelphia Grand Prix starts from a dead stop
  • the horn for waiting, with your turn signal deployed, to allow an oncoming vehicle to pass safely on your left, before executing a left hand turn removing you from the path of the blower [that would be the horn blaster] who is, of course, tailgating you
  • the horn in the cramped parking lots, which are legion in the overpopulated suburbs, where life as we know it cannot exist without a strip mall every 1/5 of a mile on major thoroughfares, from the speeding vehicle racing for the exit, as you slowly, gingerly, and most of all anxiously, pull out of your parking space, watching, seemingly simultaneously somehow, the side mirrors, the rear view mirror, the rear camera screen on the dash, and the view through the rear window and side vents, keeping in mind always the deadly blind spots
  • the horn for actually coming to a dead stop at a Stop sign, instead of simply continuing your forward momentum, with or without the assistance of the use of the accelerator of your vehicle, at whatever speed happens to suit your own sense of urgency at the moment, executing, in effect, the maneuver, formerly known as The Boston Roll, called The Philadelphia Roll [cross reference here: Stop sign behaviors]

2. The car horns from oncoming vehicles, proceeding from either the right or left, and more often than not, both, even with traffic islands, separating traffic, because the Philadelphia driver is nothing if not anticipatory of what’s happening on the other side of the road that could potentially (with a .025% chance of probability) impede their progress, occurring usually at at least 20% in excess of the speed limit

  • the horn for standing, as a pedestrian, less than a yard (or meter, whichever is longer; just to demonstrate that I have no biases, I mean, the person behind the wheel invisible behind the tinted windscreen, could be British, or Canadian, or European, and also, at the same time, berserk) from the curbstone, especially with no intervening zone of parked vehicles, waiting for the traffic to abate so you can cross [cross reference here: irks for the less than brilliant road and street engineers of the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, who, it appears, must park their brains along with their vehicles as they report for work to design the highways and byways, the streets, avenues, roadways, boulevards, and alleyways of our fair cities, towns, villages, hamlets, boroughs, and unincorporated IPCs (important population centers)]
  • the horn for daring to anticipate making a left hand turn across oncoming lane(s) of traffic at an intersection with a traffic control signal, and your own turn signal indicator deployed, by actually stopping the forward motion of your vehicle well short of the trajectory of said oncoming vehicles; special mention for the anticipatory horn blast as the blower approaches from behind you, but is still ¼ mile away from you, and extra special mention for the prolonged blast from the blower, especially after you have, in fact, executed your turn, and are exiting the intersection, thereby removing yourself from the blower’s vector without materially impeding their velocity, not that these people slow down for much anyway; this type of horn blast is always an excellent demonstration of the Doppler effect, in case you have any young students of the Principles of Classic Physics in the car.

I thought I could make this first installment a fairly good introduction to the subject, by making a fairly substantive list of perhaps a half-dozen to ten items in just the automobile horn category, but, I am sorry dear reader, I have to lie down now and rest for awhile.

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The Dangers of Exposing Yourself

Reading Time: 6 minutes

I’m not speaking of the current trending topic on everything from Huffington Post to Ars Technica—which is the hack that resulted in the release of hundreds of photos of celebrities, mainly movie stars, who made the dubious decision of taking nude selfies with their mobile devices.

I doubt anyone, but an incredibly tiny number of select individuals, would care to see me in a similar state, were I stupid enough to deploy my iPhone so stupidly, and I am not worried about that kind of exposure in all events.

I am talking far more prosaically and, yes, boringly about presenting one’s self, or at least a reasonable persona here on the Internet in the form of blog posts, Facebook news items, email blasts, etc.

Over the years—I’ve been on networked computer-based media since 1982, long before the Internet—I’ve had my share of ways to communicate with the great faceless multitude populating the ether. I’ve had a blog (a still relatively new Web-based phenomenon; it is, after all, a neologism/contraction of Web-log, though it’s always been more in the way of a personal journal than a log, per se) for over ten years in one form or another. Sometimes, as is still true, it’s in several forms.

There are two things that are the hardest to deal with for me personally in terms of my Web presence in this form.

First, there’s the problem of getting readers, that is, regular readers who frequent the pages of the blog, and might even look forward to a new post. What I have to say, I am long since aware, if not always from the get-go, is an acquired taste. And in one of those catch-22 contexts that we seem to create for ourselves, I am of the Groucho school that would just as soon not belong to a club that would have me as a member. The corollary to this famous conundrum is that I am ill-disposed to impose myself on others, even if I know them, and yet, seemingly contradictorily, all right, in direct contradiction, I truly do crave an audience… but a self-selecting one. That is, I only want to be present in the lives of people who actually are interested, in this case, in what I have to say and the way I say it. And, I should add, who go out of their way to seek it out.

Every writer confronts the problem of answering the question of for whom they are writing. As for me, not a problem (so it’s not one of the two problems I mentioned). I write for myself, just as I learned long since not to try to satisfy anyone but myself with my cooking (about which I am equally serious; I love to write, and I love to eat). Whoever comes along for the ride because they think the quality is there, so much the better for me. However, cooking is easier. I can invite two to four friends over for a dinner party with me and my spouse, and I don’t worry about imposing. I know I’m a good cook, and no one will be judging me. I have known people to be eager at the prospect of an invitation (or at least to feign excitement).

Writing somehow is different. For one thing, the context is not that intimate or personal, unless you are the sole recipient of a letter or email. As soon as you “publish” whatever it is, that “it” is viewed differently than a nice plate of braised halibut with vegetables on a mound of farro, with some savory pan juices.

With regard to writing, part of it is, as in that old joke, everyone’s a critic. One way or another almost every single one of us was schooled at some point in how to use the language. Somehow this renders almost every single one of us an expert on the most effective ways to manipulate the parts of speech; regardless of how poorly in fact we learned to do so ourselves. And it’s not so much that we can’t help ourselves from judging—that’s ok, we’re all entitled to the feelings the world evokes—what it is, is that we can’t help but voice our opinion. I’m not shy. If I wanted it, I’d ask. So, the civilized thing is wait for me to ask.

Otherwise, I’ve always tried to offer my writing with a simple proviso. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.

Having gotten all that out of the way, yet again—one of my faults is repeating myself, well short of perseveration—I will simply say, please help me solve that first problem. If you are a subscriber to Per Diem and you haven’t already signed up for the feed here at 1 Standard Deviation, please do so. Scroll back up to the top of the page (though there should also be a nifty little arrow icon pointing up in the lower right of the screen; if you click on that, it will zoom you to to the top). And on the left-hand side, at the top of the sidebar, you should see a small blank window to enter your preferred email for receiving notification of a new post here. Type it in, and wait for the verification email, which should appear in less than a minute, and click on the link and you’re done.

Now, the second problem is of a different sort altogether. Perusing the blog posts here on 1 Standard Deviation, you will see that even the small number of new posts since the inauguration of this site have elicited some comments. I love comments… feedback of a constructive sort of any kind, but comments are easy. If you liked it, please tell me. If you have a cavil or a counterpoint observation, I’d love to hear it, and so would the other readers.

The problem, though, is not getting comments, they come in due course. The problem is that any new blog is like freshly killed game on the savanna. It attracts all sorts of predatory beasts that roam the jungle, in this case, the jungle known as the Internet.

In slightly more than a month, this new blog, with all of five or six posts, has already attracted a special kind of spam. These are comments sent to any one of these random posts (and as I have now migrated another 130 posts from Per Diem to this site, there’s that much more to target) that really are not from people with a genuine, substantive thing to say because they actually read the post. Their posts are thinly disguised mechanisms to get the unsuspecting to click through to their websites. Most of these sites offer merchandise or services that really no one wants… or at least would not seek them out as a resource. Some are worse than that, being hacks that lure the unsuspecting to sites that will surreptitiously install malware on an unprotected computer or mobile device (though I think few people read my verbose posts on a smart phone; at least I hope not).

In a little more than 40 days, this little site has attracted 500 spurious comments, all of which have been virtually automatically purged and destroyed. I have software installed to capture this crap, and furthermore every comment is moderated, so it must pass not only through an automatic filter, but a human filter as well. More often than not, I respond to real comments and remarks from real people. As for the rest, it’s trashed. But it eats up precious time to manage this part of the endeavor, time I could be spending writing even lengthier posts for you to enjoy, especially if you’ve subscribed.

Thank you for your attention, and thank you in advance for subscribing to the feed. Bon appétit.

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