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Time Bandits

December 11, 2014 | by

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The New York Historical Society’s underwhelming time capsule. Photo: New York Historical Society

If you enter the New York Historical Society by its Seventy-Seventh Street side entrance, you’ll see before you a smallish chest: a time capsule, the plaque explains, created in 1914 by the Lower Wall Street Business Men’s Association. It was supposed to have been opened in 1974, but everyone forgot about it, so the powers that be decided to wait until this year, the 400th anniversary of the New Netherland charter. In October, they opened it, and the results proved so generally underwhelming and dry—some newspapers, some charters, a few catalogs—that the New York Historical Society was inspired to make a better one.

To ensure that Capsule 2114 would be more hep and happenin’, the society asked high school students to contribute items. These include smartphones, e-readers, a Lady Gaga concert ticket, and a T-shirt that reads, SOME DUDES MARRY DUDES, GET OVER IT

The problem with any contemporary time capsule is that so much of what’s truly reflective of our culture is ephemeral, and in the literal sense. For instance, any real memorial to the second decade of this century would need to include Someecards. Described by Wired as “the Hallmark of the web,” this wildly popular company combines old-time stock images with cheeky, deadpan captions to create commentary for basically any event in modern life. Belated birthday? Cynical Valentine? Pregnancy scare? Someecards has had you covered for the past five years. As the founder told Wired, “We like to play off the minutiae of life and call attention to it in a funny way. When you’re being honest, stuff comes out that people usually don’t talk about because it’s dark, dirty, or inappropriate.” Read More »

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Letters from the Earth

December 10, 2014 | by

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A still from The Adventures of Mark Twain, 1985.

The Internet is filled with half truths, dead ends, and flat-out lies. But to my mind the single greatest disappointment is on YouTube: the video called “Mark Twain’s Voice.” I’ll admit, it’s interesting in its own right. (And it does lead one to Val Kilmer’s Mark Twain impression, a service in itself.) But the title is, to say the least, misleading. 

Perhaps the strangest of all Twain’s many pop-cultural portrayals is his claymation iteration in 1985’s The Adventures of Mark Twain. If it’s been a while, allow me to refresh your memory: A stop-motion Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Becky Thatcher have to convince a suicidal, disillusioned Mark Twain not to ram his magical, time-traveling balloon into Halley’s Comet. Along the way, there’s history, some dramatizations of Twain’s work, and more oddness than you could possibly imagine. But you don’t have to take my word for it!

Its creator, Will Vinton, was apparently inspired by the quote in which Twain prophetically predicted the year of his death: Read More »

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In the Details

December 9, 2014 | by

John-milton

Milton’s portrait in the National Portrait Gallery.

Some books are made to be read aloud—or, at least, they take on different dimensions when they’re heard or performed. The texts that make for great audiobooks are sometimes the ones you’d expect: Ulysses or Moby-Dick or just about anything by Wodehouse. Books whose poetry and humor are thrown into relief by a gifted voice actor.

Other times, a title will take you by surprise. My brother has always been a great book-listener, and over the years I’ve given him any number of audiobooks. I won’t say which were disappointing, but it was fun to hear how well Herzog took to the treatment, or The Savage Detectives. Leo McKern reads Rumpole far better than your head ever will. (And listening is, in my opinion, the only way to approach The Fountainhead.)

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Paradise Lost. Maybe that doesn’t sound fun—but it’s riveting, and I’m not just saying that because today is Milton’s birthday. (He doesn’t care. Depending upon your system of belief he’s either dead or has better things to think about.) Like a lot of people, I’d read Paradise Lost in college—or maybe studied is the better word—and I’d recognized its importance as a literary and philosophical work and a cultural artifact. But it wasn’t until listening to the nine-hour Nadia May version that I really appreciated the poem. Read More »

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Hand in Glove

December 8, 2014 | by

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From The Saturday Evening Post, 1839.

A few weeks ago, my mom called. This is not in itself unusual, and she had important news: she’d sighted the Barefoot Contessa and her husband on the self-checkout line at the supermarket. I was naturally interested, but I happened to be in the middle of something. I was about to excuse myself when she said, in tones of great distress, “Oh God. Oh no.”

“What?” I said, alarmed. “Is everything okay? What is it?” 

Her reply was muffled.

“What is it?” I repeated. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” she said, once again audible. “But … there’s a really nice glove on the ground.”

I was silent.

“I picked it up,” she continued. “Should I take it to the police?” Read More »

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To S. R. Crockett

December 5, 2014 | by

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Bank House, Penicuik: Crockett lived here from around 1886, and J. M. Barrie often stayed with him.

Today, the Oxford English Dictionary brings us a splendid word of the day: the little-used draffsack. Because we can always use alternatives to glutton

Not that there’s anything wrong with glutton! Glutton is one of the finest of all words. It is evocative, it feels delicious in the mouth, and it’s also an alternate name for a wolverine. (Personally, I’d much sooner see a movie called Glutton. Although, I guess Hugh Jackman would have to put on a few pounds.)

But draffsack refines the concept. A draffsack is not merely a glutton, but a lazy glutton—as opposed to all the industrious, Diamond Jim Brady–style gluttons one encounters. It can also mean “paunch.” From the old Norse word draff (“brewing derivative”) and sack (“sack”), it is, apparently, Scottish. 

Which brings us to Samuel Rutherford Crockett. The OED cites the usage of the term in Crockett’s 1894 novel The Lilac Sunbonnet. S. R. Crockett’s career was a result of his era’s mania for Lowland Scots fiction; his many, many sentimental romances include Flower o’ the CornThe Surprising Adventures of Sir Toady LionMad Sir Uchtred, and, of course, his 1894 breakout, The Sticket Minister. Crockett was an ordained minister, and many of his forty titles had Christian themes, as well as muckle lowland color and Victorian-style syrup. Read More »

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Stock

December 4, 2014 | by

Fredmeyer

Photo: lyzadanger, via Flickr

There are a few things you need to understand about the particular grocery store I’m about to discuss. It’s part of a New York chain, but it is not what anyone would call a supermarket; it’s on the small side, for starters, with none of the slickness or charm one might associate with supermarkets. 

It’s in a basement. You descend a broken escalator to a time that knows no season, no hour, no change. There is never any music playing; it is usually empty. There is a single, dejected cashier. It has that vaguely rancid smell endemic to urban supermarkets, with base notes of wet cardboard, old vegetables, and less-than-immaculate deli slicers. 

Oh, and lest you think it is cheap—it’s not. The unit pricing is generally about 10 percent higher than that of the two other markets in a mile radius. Its one advantage is that it is open late, until midnight most evenings, although late-night trips there are even drearier than usual. 

None of this is the point, however. The noteworthy thing about this market is its mysterious organization. Almost nothing is where you might expect it to be: baking needs share an aisle with cleaning supplies; pet food and dried fruit are cheek by jowl; spices are to be found in three different places, sorted by brand. (Herbs are in a different place completely.) The selection is vast, but arbitrary. On a recent visit, I found they had no whole milk—although they stocked no fewer than five varieties of eggnog, including dairy-free, low-carb, and organic. Read More »

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