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Profanity-Laced Tirade

October 10, 2014 | by

PostcardNewYearsResolutionGossipSlangEtcCirca1909

No cussing! A postcard ca. 1909.

The following human-interest story ran recently on Metro UK:

A grandmother who once hated the idea of swearing now turns the air blue after a stroke left her unable to control her potty mouth ...

‘Before I had a stroke I would still get annoyed at things but I could control my upset, however now I just can’t help it,’ she said.

The retired bank worker says her swearing particularly irks her husband, as he used to be a head teacher and therefore has an obvious aversion to swearing.

She has introduced a swear box since her stroke last January in an attempt to train her brain, and is also receiving help from psychologists.

Of course, nowadays, not cursing is more noteworthy than swearing like a sailor. I’ve never been very good at cursing, personally. There was a very brief vogue in my middle-school homeroom for trying to get me to curse; it corresponded with general mockery of my uptightness. But I stand by that; I think I understood that however ludicrous a tiny, flannel-clad nerd trying to be dignified might have been, the same tiny, flannel-clad nerd peppering her speech with profanity would have been more ludicrous still. The problem is that I never learned to do it, and to this day in moments of extremis will give voice to ejaculations like, Oh, gosh! Gee whiz! Drat! And, when things get really bad, Darn it!

But then, I don’t come from much of a swearing family. Even the grown-ups didn’t go in for what my mother calls “coarse language,” and we kids wouldn’t have dared. (As with many normal things, however, my brother seems to have taken to it much more easily than I.) With the exception of the famous occasion on which she listed cunt on her Boggle scorecard—“isn’t this a word?”—my grandmother never used words stronger than fouled up. As for my grandfather, he managed to invest his gin-playing epithets—“DAMMIT!” “I’LL BE DIPPED!”—with such rage and menace that the words themselves were almost immaterial.

Cursing may coarsen the culture and display a lack of verbal imagination, but it is a useful skill to have. Back when those kids used to tease me, I remember replying with dignity that I like to be able to use the same language with my grandmother that I do the rest of the time, and thinking that this was a really good answer. But then, there are grandmothers and grandmothers. As the article tells us, Preston “has even called her grandchildren ‘little b******s’ when they were playing up.”

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Psychodrama

October 9, 2014 | by

Popcorn, 2008

Andrew Stevovich, Popcorn, 2008.

To those of us who enjoy seeing movies alone, the practice does not require any defense; it’s one of life’s greatest pleasures. While—obviously—everyone likes seeing a film with a like-minded friend, and while some (The Room springs to mind) derive half their pleasure from the shared experience, there’s a lot to be said for the total lack of self-consciousness inspired by a solo venture. The practical benefits are self-evident—seeing what you prefer, sitting where you like, leaving if you want—but those of reacting in a vacuum are even greater. However independent-minded you might be, it is hard not to be aware of your companion’s amusement, or disdain, or (in the case of my dad) checking of his watch whenever he gets bored. How much more relaxing to sit alone and let your impressions form, and then digest and recollect in tranquility.

Last night, I went to see Gone Girl. It struck me as a perfect movie to see alone; unlike much of the English-speaking world, I didn’t know the plot, and looked forward to thoroughly losing myself in an absorbing story. With this in mind, I purchased a ticket for one of the stand-alone seats at the back of the theater; this multiplex has assigned seating. I figured the privacy—the space to react—mitigated the distance.

But when I arrived for my showing, it was to find that, in fact, these seats were not stand-alone; while my seat was indeed isolated from the general aisle, it was one of a pair. And there was an older man already occupying the other half of what, basically, amounted to a love seat. I should perhaps add here that this theater is famously romantic; since its 2013 remodel, its fully reclining, softly padded seats, with their removable armrests, have been a destination spot for teens on the make. Not only would I not have privacy; I would be relegated in bizarre intimacy with this stranger. I had a horrible flashback to the time in seventh grade when I was invited to a bar mitzvah where I didn’t know anyone and we were seated in the order in which we filed in and I ended up sitting next to three random boys for the duration of a joust at Medieval Times. Read More »

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Gobble-uns

October 7, 2014 | by

Orphant

A photograph published alongside “Little Orphant Annie” in an edition of poems ca. 1900.

There’s a new iteration of Annie opening this year, starring Quvenzhané Wallis as the plucky eponymous orphan. You’ve probably seen the 1982 movie; maybe you’ve caught one of the musical’s many revivals. And most everybody knows that the musical itself was adapted from a popular and long-running comic strip. But did you know that all those were based, in turn, on the 1885 poem “Little Orphant Annie?” Or that James Whitcomb Riley wrote the poem about a real-life orphan, Allie? And that it’s creepy and scary? Well, now you do!

Mary Alice “Allie” Smith was an Indiana neighbor of the Riley family. When her father was killed in the Civil War, twelve-year-old Allie—the name change was a typographical error—came to live with the Rileys; the future poet was a child himself. Allie apparently entertained the other children of an evening with scary stories that made a huge impression on young James. The poem, which is made up of Allie’s cautionary stories, was one of his most popular, and a major part of his well-attended speaking tours. Well, it was the Victorian era. Read More »

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Reunion

October 6, 2014 | by

L-ami-retrouve-2037882

From a foreign edition of Reunion.

Glass half full: whatever the travails of the publishing industry, we live in a wonderful era for reissues. Think about it! All of Barbara Pym and Barbara Comyns are in print! Muriel Spark is having a moment! You want A Girl in Winter or Maiden Voyage or Sigrid Undset’s Jenny? You can have any of them within a week. Several of my new favorite books—In Love, Climates, After Claude—were introduced to me in recent editions. And people discuss Stoner and Speedboat as if they’re the latest must-reads.

Much of this is because of the hard work and great curation of publishers such as New York Review Classics, Persephone, Penguin, New Directions, and Lizzie Skurnick Books—to name only a few—but the readership is heartening, too. We want good books, but more than that, we want treasure. And the problem is, without library stacks and used bookstores, it’s increasingly difficult to stumble upon anything on our own. We depend on these publishers, and we depend on friends.

For all its chaos, the Internet does not make random book discovery as easy, I don’t think. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, altogether. I mean, I’ve read a lot of books, but I’m not what I would consider well read; there are too many gaps in my reading, it’s too scattershot, and too much of it has been bad. There were a lot of third-rate Victorian novels in the school library, or midseventies expository feminist novels from dollar carts, or memoirs by C-list celebrities. If I’d been shopping with intention—or, indeed, had had to pay shipping—I don’t think this would be as true. But for every random piece of pulp or strange book I’ve picked up on a stoop or at a thrift shop—okay, for every ten—there has been something worthwhile. I love the shelf of NYRB Classics in my local bookstore, but there’s less an element of discovery involved; you know what you buy will be worth reading.

I was talking online last night with some friends about what the next big new-old book would be; I joked that I had a hundred dollars on May Sarton. (I was only half joking.) I got several great recommendations out of the exchange, and I had the usual good feeling in the knowledge that there are tens of thousands of wonderful books we’ll never get to read, and thousands that could be potentially life changing, or at least life affirming. Read More »

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Nevermore

October 3, 2014 | by

Edgar_Allan_Poe;_a_Centenary_Tribute_-_frontispiecea

The frontispiece from Edgar Allan Poe: A Centenary Tribute, 1910.

On October 3, 1849, a delirious Edgar Allan Poe was found in a Baltimore ditch dressed in clothes that were, reportedly, not his own. He died four days later at Washington Medical College. There are numerous theories, but the exact cause of death remains a mystery, as does his presence in the ditch.

If Poe interests you, you wish to commemorate him, and you happen to be in New York, be sure to go to the Grolier Club and catch the public exhibition “Evermore: The Persistence of Poe,” which consists of the extensive Edgar Allan Poe Collection of Susan Jaffe Tane. In addition to manuscripts, first editions, personal effects, and letters belonging to the writer, the show has a section devoted to Poe’s portrayals in pop culture, which include everything from John Cusack’s unfortunate turn in 2012’s The Raven to the Unemployed Philosophers Guild’s ubiquitous Poe doll. Particularly arresting is a poster for 1944’s The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, a film that was unknown to me. But I rushed home to remedy that at once, and, luckily for all of us, the whole thing’s available on YouTube: Read More »

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Blank Verse

October 2, 2014 | by

ErskineNicol_Kept_In

Erskine Nicol, Kept In.

It is not often in this day and age that something falls through the Web. And yet, today, National Poetry Day, I wanted to share with you the text of my favorite childhood poem and found myself completely stymied. Not a trace of it exists.

I even know the name of the poem—“The Call of the Child”—though I don’t recall the author. What I know for certain is that it was a little red-bound, tasseled pamphlet, probably dating from the first two decades of the twentieth century, keeping in mind that Jack London’s Call of the Wild was published in 1903. Okay, maybe calling it a “poem” is misleading—it was more a long piece of doggerel*.

“The Call of the Child” is the first-person lament of a baby who really, really has to pee. He complains about the urgency of his need, the pressure on his bladder, the indignity of wetting his pants and bed. He fantasizes about peeing with abandon, spraying fountains of urine wherever he wishes. At one point, he goes into a reverie, imagining a fantastic bed rigged up with a series of rubber hoses that lead directly from his penis down to some kind of basin, allowing him to joyfully wet the bed whenever he likes without discomfort or censure. Oh, and it’s all in rhyme. Read More »

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