The Daily

Our Daily Correspondent

Wish You Were Here

March 4, 2015 | by

Vasily Perov, The Hunters at Rest, 1871.

Many agree that our language is coarsening. We curse more, insult each other with impunity, and speak like illiterate cats on a regular basis. But in one way, things are improving: it’s been a good ten years since I heard anyone say “Guess you had to be there.”

When I was a teenager, people said this constantly. Someone would tell a well-meaning anecdote, something he considered amusing or interesting—then some jerk would fill the silence with, “Guess you had to be there.” The jerk always waited until the story in question was over. And, yes, oftentimes the stories were lame, and not worth telling, and a waste of everyone’s time. But whoever was telling that story was putting himself out there, in a certain small way, and, in an equally small way, being beaten down. Read More »

Heartbreak

March 3, 2015 | by

Its legacy lives on.

One day, when I was around fourteen, my dad was invited to a black-tie fund-raising dinner. And so he broke out the tuxedo my mom had found for him at the Salvation Army and clipped on his bow tie, and took the Metro-North into Manhattan. He returned bearing gifts: the favor bag included a cookbook of light French cuisine and a gadget that was the most wonderful thing we had ever seen.

It was a wine stopper. Two, actually, identical to each other. Its bottom section was conical, covered in rubber, and its top was a large metal heart. It was indisputably ugly, we all agreed—but how ingenious! My mom was delighted. “If we have leftover wine,” she explained, “we won’t need to jam the cork into the bottle, or use tinfoil.” (Screw-tops were still a novelty in the midnineties.) What a marvel of thrift and engineering! Read More »

Folk Wisdom

March 2, 2015 | by

Unalion

Briton Rivière, Una and Lion, nineteenth century.

“In like a lion, out like a lamb” has always seemed a straightforward enough proverb: when March starts, it’s still winter, and by the end of the month spring has begun. True, in many climates the weather hasn’t quite reached the lamb stage by the end of the month—it’s more like a surly cat, maybe, or one of those awful territorial honking geese. But we get the idea. I have seen the phrase referred to as an “eighteenth-century saying” in more than one unreliable Internet source, while Wikipedia calls it “an old Pennsylvania” saw.

As it turns out, there are a few origin theories. There’s the stars, for one. At this time of year, Leo is the rising sign; by April, it’s Aries. (“Kid” just doesn’t have quite the same ring as “lamb,” though.) Some have pointed out that Jesus arrives as the sacrificial lamb, but will return as the Lion of Judah. Which, weather-wise, means a false spring. Read More »

The Universal Language of Mankind

February 27, 2015 | by

neildiamondserenade

Detail from the cover of Neil Diamond’s Serenade, 1974.

“Increasingly rare is the scholar who braves ridicule to justify the art of Longfellow’s popular rhymings,” the critic Kermit Vanderbilt once wrote. One scholar of the human heart who’s never been accused of fearing ridicule is Neil Diamond. And, on his 1974 album, Serenade, he paid tribute to the Fireside Poet with his hit song “Longfellow Serenade.”

In the liner notes to a later compilation, Diamond explains, “Occasionally I like using a particular lyrical style which, in this case, lent itself naturally to telling the story of a guy who woos his woman with poetry.” Read More »

The Junket-Eater

February 26, 2015 | by

junket

An illustration from Junket Is Nice.

New York Review Children’s Classics has reissued so many wonderful forgotten texts: novels and picture books and nursery rhymes and even the occasional cookbook. But for my money, none is weirder than Dorothy Kunhardt’s 1933 Junket Is Nice.

The prolific Kunhardt is best known for Pat the Bunny, but long before Daddy’s scratchy face was even a twinkle in her eye, the author was animating a far more sinister beard: that of the mysterious Junket-Eater. The plot of Junket Is Nice is as follows: a fat man with a Rasputin-like red beard sits at a table consuming a massive bowl of junket (“a delicious custard and a lovely dessert”). This intrigues everyone; the people come running to view the spectacle. Between gulps, the Junket-Eater challenges the populace to guess why, precisely, he is eating this enormous bowl of junket. They put forth ever-sillier hypotheses, to which the Junket-Eater screams, “WRONG!” for all the world like a red-bearded John McLaughlin. And then a little boy stands up and tells truth to power: “JUNKET IS NICE.” For which effort he receives SOMETHING NICERead More »

The Best Medicine

February 25, 2015 | by

Little_Sammy_Sneeze_1905-09-24

“He just simply couldn‘t stop it / He never knew when it was coming”: Winsor McCay‘s Little Sammy Sneeze, 1905.

If you’re not sick, you soon will be, and all the hand sanitizer in the world won’t save you. Everyone is a potential foe; no one wants to admit it. This morning on the subway, everyone was coughing and sneezing with varying degrees of discretion. The only people who seemed at all comfortable were two Japanese tourists wearing paper surgical masks. Well, maybe also the old man with a roll of toilet paper hanging around his neck on a loop of string. I envied all of them. 

All you can do is read Mark Twain. He wrote “How to Cure a Cold” for the Golden Era shortly after arriving in San Francisco in September 1863. Twain may never have actually said the famous thing about a San Francisco summer being the coldest winter he’d ever known, but the Bay Area fog was presumably enough to aggravate a lingering head cold—well, that or a nineteenth-century cross-country train ride. According to a series of humorous letters to the editor Twain sent in to the Call and the Enterprise around this period, he’d had the cold—and an ensuing bout of bronchitis—for at least a month when he wrote this piece chronicling various home remedies. Read More »