Saturday, March 18, 2017

Cohen, The Life of Riley, and One's Turn in the Barrel

When I honestly recall what I knew and understood when I was a college student, I cannot despair of  today's young, eagerly trying to make sense of Life.  I was still reading Edna St. Vincent Millay, biographies of opera stars, and assorted novelists.  I still did not know, really, how sex was done (the books that Parents Magazine had recommended to my mother...).  I thought the newspapers were dumb (and they were, really) but the little map of Korea on the front page of the Berkeley Daily Gazette didn't indicate where it was.  I had no TV, and when I went to my mother's there was no news on it.  But would I have followed Public channels if I'd had them?  And, of course, there was no Cable TV.  The Voice of Firestone was still on AM radio (I had no FM) and of course nothing was in color.  In compensation we had the NBC Symphony (Toscanini), the New York Philharmonic (Mitropolis, usually), and both the Metropolitan Opera and the San Francisco Opera, besides the Chicago Opera (? title?) with a speech by Col. McCormick.
That's enough to show how different things were.  LP mono records were just beginning to come on the market, but most of our collection was in albums (and that is when and why we say "album"): a symphony was usually five discs, ten sides.
And so on.

But here I'm going to describe a ten-inch record of a vaudeville song.  Later I bought, new or used, some vaudeville material, but the pop stuff my parents had was from their high school days and not at all indecent.  I must still have "Cohen is Living the Life of Riley Now".
(1) I cannot locate the disc or the cassette taken from it, but I think it was a blue-label US Decca two-sided  10-inch disc, and I can actually recall what it sounded like, so I think it was early electric.  It definitely was vaudeville, late vaudeville, and purchasable at the dime-store, not at the music library shop that sold RCA red-seal records; I got it from a bin in a secondhand store or possibly from a batch of records from someone's family attic.  What is remarkable is that I cannot find it in the LOC jukebox site or anywhere in Amazon or in YouTube.  Not that it is explicitly, verbally sexual.  No.  It is horribly Incorrect: Cohen is making out with Reilly's wife, named Molly, and they are teaching each other their food, their slang, and so forth (which serve to imply the unmentionable things they share).  That's how it was.  As in "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn": you could take the whole family and pretend that the children didn't know what Cohen and Riley did.  So I thought I'd check to see how much popular culture (most of the stage acts being Jewish or Irish in fact) dealt crudely with such crude affairs.
And I found nothing else!   Not even in Eric Partridge.  I only found a footnote in the 15th (centennial) Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, on p. 922, with, yes, a vaudeville show about the Life of Riley in the 1880s, followed by a slew of references to 'life of Riley' with as many variants (they are on line, svv) as for 'I used to work in Chicago' but not as rich, and, yes, the first ones British and all in the same spirit as old Punch jokes, with their Tenniel-style stereotype of an Irish man.  That is, crude (and unprintable today) but not blatantly sexual: my phono record is at least two generations later and New York rather than London.  Does anyone else know this NYC recording?

(2) Just as blue-collar families took the whole family to shows in eastern cities, unless a grandmother was available to babysit, so when I started in art school, on a scholarship in 1952, my coeval fellow students were far more knowing and certainly less inexperienced than I was, but though protective and eager to show me a San Francisco, that of the Beat Generation in galleries and coteries that are now famous, that my mother's employment as a club vocalist for soldiers and sailors, though hinted at at home (like my father's stories from the Hunter's Point shipyards) also were unaware of.  Some of them did have signs saying "Off Limits to Servicemen".  Only once (and, after all, I was still far under age for any bar), did they take me to one of these and they made the regular customers assume I was someone's little sister, but we all hung out at the same cheap eateries and bookstores, such as City Lights, wherever someone's pictures were hung.  And back in our neighborhoods and in the studio classes they told me who slept with whom and who wouldn't speak to each other.  And they told me, when I asked, what homosexuals did.  I guarantee you, my family (I no longer lived with them, since there was an addiction problem there) did not know what they did.  I must tell you that the class distinction between folks who who did things they couldn't or wouldn't name and those who could and would talk and write about what they did not do (and, as I said, if you were young and inexperienced, one's friends shielded you from doing or being used).   This seems, today, an odd way of talking.  Yet, until a decade ago when I retired from teaching, it still seemed to me that I could tell which students (freshmen) were still shielded and which probably were not.  Not that it mattered.
The only reason for mentioning this is that one of my homosexual friends told me a lot of his favorite jokes, including one about an ocean-going ship of hard-up sailors, who might be introduced to the Barrel.  I forget the mechanics involved, but the punchline was, when a new crew-member asked if he could have its use on a given weekend, he was informed, no, that was his night in the barrel.  I couldn't imagine how this joke made sense unless both guys were katapygon, a word I'd just learned from a Greek vase inscription.  I assumed, further, that this joke belonged to homosexual society. Funny, you say, what one remembers.  Indeed.  But when on MSNBC someone wrote a tweet, addressing Mr. Podesta, that next it would be HIS turn "in the barrel", guys younger than me knew that to be "in the barrel" (so not privy to jokes left over from WWII in the Pacific) meant that taking one's turn willy-nilly was nasty and unpleasant.  Getting the point of genital humor is, after all, universal? Locker room humor...  Our President's social past, admittedly, I decided, probably was not exceptional, though letting it be recorded certainly was imprudent.  I mean, half a century later someone still cherished a recording.

(3) Since then, I have continued reading about the scandals in international banking / investing.  Are any of the large institutions not scandalous?  How does one get stupendously rich?  The studies I have read, at UBS and Deutsche Bank, just to name two, are hair-raising.  No wonder it seems impossible to know how much one did or did not pay to the IRS.  No wonder, if one's President does not want to put up with publicity on Fifth Avenue or a former DC main post office, one may have a whole remodeled floor of an uninhabitable tower at Baku in Azerbaijan, managed by his daughter.  Not that I know it firsthand.  Only, Adam Davidson's long article, The New Yorker, June 13, pp. 48, ff. (and now he's a staff writer, too), is not only hard to put down and very hard to dismiss and awfully coherent.  Now I had to give in and subscribe on line to The New Yorker.  Having read it since the 50s and still missing the bloopers at the bottom of the back page, it was more than my old eyes could take to read it every week.  And I was astonished that ALT+F, but spelled out in full and freely, was now, especially in Reviews, abundant.  I feel much better having its company in this world.  But you'll have to read it yourself; I won't be anybody's press secretary.

P.S. Originally I had been struck by the preponderance of Irish names in the Trump cabinet and staff, but I couldn't find any explanation for it and even began to think that it might be illusory.  But that was why I had headed this Post with Life of Riley.

Monday, February 6, 2017


I didn't mean to follow up on my last Post, which  I wrote deliberately very promptly, so as not to hear others' opinions.
But I just was badly frightened by BookTV which I've listened to almost every weekend since the 1990s, even when it covered authors far to the left or to the right of Brian Lamb or his successors.
For three hours Nick Adams said whatever he wanted in depth, though his depth was not quite such as I'd call it.  Thing is, I watch Fox News channel only for major sports events (I had just turned off the Super Bowl).  I only knew Bill O'Reilly, for example, from Henry Louis Gates' genealogy program.  Had just, unhappily, made the on-line acquaintance of KellyAnne Conway, whom I didn't like.  Anyway, now, directly following Nick Adams, I am consoled by Hugh Hewitt, who like Morning Joe is reasonable and even entertaining.  Certainly reasonable (though I prefer Chris Mathews).  And like Hewitt, I've been reading lots of stuff I ought to have read decades ago, but the Kindle now encourages instant purchases, and back in my graduate student years and early teaching years I had neither the money nor the time taken from publishing to gain job security (I didn't have time or shelf space. either).
Anyway, though I always voted D, I am no political fanatic.  It's interesting however, now that I'm reading up on Eisenhower and the Bushes and the youth of Joseph Pulitzer has proven that American history may be wasted on kids, but Nick Adams seems to me a frightening basket case.  That label shows how scary he felt to me.  So bless Hugh Hewitt for consoling me.
But I have to get back to that word: liberal.  Don't ask me to say what that new OED may say of it. What I say is what it HAS meant, and why it is worth considering that.
Liberality is the mentality of the freeborn, such as Romans born as freeborn children are, of famuli of patres familiarum.  Of course, there were others in the household, who could work their way out of slavery: I've never been sure, in the absence of something quite like our Welfare, whether all of them were purchased persons, or in either case, they were at least indentured.  They were servi, who were servili, just as the freeborn liberi were  liberali.  Nicely bigoted children, who might grow up to inherit or to marry their peers, could be called liberal as adults, just as servi, whom you might dislike even when they'd worked their way free, might be dismissed as servile, especially if they had bowed and scraped.
Now on BookTV Dennis Prager in his turn is heartening me even more than Hugh Hewitt did, though I'm sure, alas, that Nick Adams is awfully illiberal.  But I do recommend Dennis Prager.  And the ancient source of the word liberal clings happily to its etymology, even though usually it is mangled.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


The closing address.

I just listened to President Obama's address from Chicago.
l have to say, unabashedly, that I believe every word of it and its sum.  It is why I voted for him before,  and even more after all he's been through.  My Pacific president, but not just that.  Now I can't refrain from saying so.  A great president.  A great American.  Not that other forms of constitutional government (such as monarchies) can't be great.  I no longer am so unhappy as I was just a week ago.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A brief note on the prefix 'alt-'

The other day, failing to notice that the blog on which I'd left a comment (and now can't even find) about "alt-", is puzzling: unless it means nearly the same as "neo-" did several years ago in political discussions, it would be a truncated form, as "lumis-" and "paci-" frequently are and as such easily confused with the German "alt-", meaning old, and too similar to Latin "altus", referring to height but doubly unclear when truncated.
The author of the now-defunct blog post explained with several current, published examples that it means alternate or alternative.  My comment suggested that between German and Latin look-alikes, familiar to older readers, this confusing one should be abandoned.
Then, one of those dawnings that happen when one is about to fall asleep:  it's not "alt-" but ALT on the PC keyboard.  And as such it may be useful, to rid us of those strings of asterisks or hyphens ; it would be unambiguous when undergraduates or political candidates or comedians used words that networks bleep and the print media replace with those century-old asterisks, thus: ALT+F, et al.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Paperbacks, eBooks, and Me

At the University of UC Corner
Originally UC Corner on Telegraph Avenue was an international newsstand; that was why it had clocks on the Durant Avenue side window with all the time zones; indeed, it did still have international papers and magazines through at least most of my student years.  But it became the best stocked and best organized of the stores of paperbacks and then of LP records.
Of course, there had always been paperbacks, but they were all pulp, such as crime and other non-literary, and one called them Pocket Books, as A Pocket Book of Boners.  The exception was Penguin, the categories color coded: turquoise blue for non-fiction, dark green for mysteries, brown for Greek classics, purple for Latin classics, orange (?) for Scandinavian, orange for, well, respectable fiction, and others—a wonderful system.  Then, of a sudden alongside the rows of Penguin paperbacks on the shelves of UC Corner, there were Anchor Paperbacks from Doubleday, almost all of them of permanent value and, one noticed, most of them pre-War, out of print.  Not just otherwise unavailable but great.  At the back of one of the first that I got, Erich Auerbach, Mimesis, was a list of those available in 1957.  My first paperback was a turquoise Penguin, Civilization by Clive Bell.  I got it at the little bookstore of the College of Arts and Crafts (N.B., before I'd even heard of his famous sister in law).  For several years his little essay was like a bible to me!  But my systematic acquisition of quality paperbacks began when I moved to Berkeley and to the University of California.  I searched out one after the other and read them eagerly.  Some of them have been acquired now by the New York Review of Books, such as Lionel Trilling's, but more were such as Huizinga's Waning of the Middle Ages and before long, when Harper (Torchbooks) joined the movement, E. R. Curtius's European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages.  By then my mentor professor had also had me read Virginia Woolf's First and Second Reader.  Needless to say, by the time that I graduated with a BA in Art, specializing in History of Art (for that was how it was administered then), I had worked my way through college, and mostly working in the Loan Department of the UC Library, with a good-looking transcript, yes, but also virtually with an extra major in all the subjects I hadn't been able to take for credit.  I did have, by the time I finished the requirements for the PhD, almost a real complete major in Classics.  Being able to read Latin and Greek, I see in retrospect, was probably the most useful thing I did, apart from art and architecture per se.
I'll try to concentrate in this blog on some of the value of all the reading that, in retrospect, I see that Berkeley gave me, specifically the south of campus (now utterly changed, since the 1960s and 1970s) alongTelegraph Avenue.  Everything I stole time to read added up to another education in its own right, and it centered on the jam-packed but by no means junky establishment of UC Corner.  By the 1980s that was no longer what it had been, and, if the internet serves me aright, today it no longer exists at all.
Today, indeed with a touch of presbyopeia and living hundreds of miles from Berkeley, anyway, it is Amazon that feeds my hunger for self-education; another revolution has replaced the paperback revolution as such.  That is good, because the Telegraph Avenue with its UC Corner that I took for granted would exist wherever there was a university no longer exists for avid students hardly anywhere.  Yet so long as the avid learners exist, well, if Erich Auerbach could write Mimesis in wartime Istanbul, young scholars will take advantage of what we have now.

P.S. The choice of a picture for the cover of the original paperback (and I have in this case treasured the original) is wonderful.  It is a detail from the North Porch of Chartres and the sculptor has found the means of showing God envisaging the creature that in his love he is making in his own image.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016


Deplorable Atrocity
I like to listen to interviews on C-Span's Book TV, but sometimes I wonder whether the interviewer was aware of what he or she said and, even more, whether author, whose new book was in his hand, had had the services of a competent editor; it seems very often that he hadn't.  In any case he was unconscious of the effect of his (or her) speech on the meaning of what he meant to say.  For example, one author habitually ended most sentences with "etc.", over and over, as if periods or any other meaningful punctuation were unavailable.  And he gesticulated a lot with his hands, though without any apparent special emphasis.  If he writes as he speaks, reading his book will be a dreary, irritating experience.
I started fussing this way after Hillary Clinton was made to regret saying "deplorable".  I understood her meaning that the positions held by her opponents made her unhappy.  But commentators of both parties seemed unanimous in accusing her of calling him deplorable.  First, her syntax made clear that she meant that the state of discussion in the campaigns had become deplorable, and, second, that it is conditions, opinions, and the like,  that are fit to make one weep.
Of course, even half a century ago (even, in fact, a whole century ago), it was emphasized that languages change, so that a Latin original might have changed its meaning.  Certainly!  Just as our remote ancestors who walked out of Africa had skeletons fascinatingly different from ours, both from regular evolution and in response to different environments (and Dobzhansky was certainly right to go to the trouble of proving that we continue to evolve—it was less universally realized half a century ago than it is today), so, too, our speech.  If not, all the ancestors of modern speakers of Romance languages would have transmitted their Latin to them unaltered.  Indeed, philologists of the Enlightenment had already sorted out the descent of Indo-European tongues pretty well.
Thus, "deplorable", it seems, first came to us in its French form (though we have to rely on texts as evidence), but no matter: deplorare already meant in Latin "to weep bitterly", and Roget gives us many alternatives for use as context and style may demand, of which "lament", "bemoan", and "bewail" are only three.  Now, don't let me get started on the misuse of Roget as a source of 'synonyms' to stuff into bad sentences as ornaments.  It's too late now, and hardly anyone would care, but Hillary was exactly right that the level of the political exchanges last week was 'fit to make one weep'.
Atrocity is much harsher.  On the News someone was trying to explain how, legally, ever since Nuremburg, acts of war, atrocities, terrorism, ... I forget the fourth one, ought not to be used interchangeably, just for emphasis.  I do agree that they ought to be used thoughtfully, but he did not succeed in enlightening me.
Anyway, atrox is a more specialized and interesting word, even having a possible Greek cognate, and having the same stem as the ater of atrium, originally the sooty, ashy, fire pit in the center of the primitive round hut.  Anyhow, in classical Latin atrox, atrocis (3rd decl. adj.) means 'cruel', 'fierce', and also 'savage' and 'brutal'.  That last may suggest the bridge to the primitive fire pit?  It is not so commonplace a word as deplorare.
For that reason, 'atrocious' seems to have entered modern English, like most of the 'worsened words' (those that have been demoted to cheap overstatement) to mean, colloquially, 'very bad', 'abominable', as it appears in the margin of a student paper or in an impatient book review of a lousy novel.  You can look up 'abominable' for yourselves.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Occasional Flowers

One of the occasional gifts of wind and/or rain
What I cannot claim to have planted, neither can I identify
In the course of thirty years, this almost spectacular lily (?) flower has come up overnight, bloomed (lasting several days), and disappeared .  Once a friend identified it until (unless) it came again late in summer.  But after my Picasa files lost their classification, of my own devising, among so many thousand images I cannot find the earlier one, in whose caption ("title") or File Info (not come over from Photoshop!) the data for this plant is lurking.  What is worse, I cannot find it in Wikipedia.

Yet these are seen all over town in Baton Rouge, LA.

The current snapshots were taken on the last day of August.  I opened the back door to feed the cat, and, like red lamps that had shot up overnight, there they were, and I hastened to document them and, this time, post them in the blog, rather than just asking all my friends what they are.

I am, as you must realize, no gardener, but I am grateful for whatever I get.
And I thank anyone who can identify this (otherwise than as "firecracer") for me.