Thursday, November 24, 2011

Great Under-appreciated Invention #2: The Styptic Pencil

I’ve never been all that good at shaving. This odd and somewhat barbaric cultural custom requires a substantial degree of patience and care, but when the time comes to remove the morning stubble, I am always in a hurry. Today’s high tech disposable razors are remarkably sharp, and I am not safe with one unless I’ve used it way past the usual disposal time and it is as dull as a butter knife. As a result, I often nick myself creating tiny bleeders that would be a great embarrassment out in the world.

Enter the messy, chalky, but completely essential styptic pencil. Yes, it stings a bit, but I don’t mind. The stinging tells me I’ve hit the right spot, and the astringent is doing its job. And it never fails. A quick dab with this wet rock immediately stanches the bleed. If I forget to wash my face off later, the pencil leaves unattractive white marks behind, but I find they come off in the shower without restarting the flow of blood. Amazing. I keep one at home and in my traveling toiletry bag.

I don’t know who first introduced me to the styptic pencil, but I would like to thank whomever it was in absentia. You did me a great service. In turn, I have carried on the tradition by giving my son his first styptic pencil when became a shaver.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Great Under-appreciated Invention #1: The Rubber Band

I am starting a new category of entry: Great Under-appreciated Inventions, and the honor of GUAI #1 goes to the rubber band (AKA elastic band), patented in 1845 by Stephen Perry, a British inventor and business man.

I have a deep love of office supplies in general, but I particularly love the rubber band. Elastics have limitless possibilities. The world is populated with so many loose things in need of binding, and the rubber band provides a daily hedge against entropy.

A simple yet elegant invention. I keep plenty of them around, both at home and in the office.

Thank you Stephen Perry.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Overheard on a Flight from Tampa to New Orleans

Four bachelor-partying men discussing (a) the best ways to encourage wives to lose weight and (b) how to avoid getting into fights with a member of the group who was reputed to be a bad drunk. All over Bloody Marys at noon.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Simple Pleasures: Comfortable Socks

Despite being way down there at the ends of our legs, feet are remarkably sensitive appendages. When struck or stubbed, they smart viciously, and over many centuries of mutual exploration, lovers all over the world have discovered the unique erogenous electricity of the tender regions of the foot.  But in the cooler months of the year, few things can compare to the soft caress of a good pair of socks. They protect us from hard edges and unyielding surfaces and hold our most distant parts in a warm embrace. Whether slipped into a shoe or worn alone, good socks are good friends.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Christopher Hitchens on Mortality

It is horrible to see oneself die without children. Napoléon Bonaparte said that.

What greater grief can there be for mortals than to see their children dead. Euripides said that. 

When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.

I said that.

                  From his review of Joan Didion's forthcoming book Blue Nights.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

A Perfect Commercial Experience

Joined an online audiobook subscription service. Downloaded two great books (Skippy Dies by Paul Murray and State of Wonder by Ann Pachett) at no charge, as part of the introductory offer. Listened to them.
A couple of months pass, and I am having difficulty getting into the audiobook website. Password doesn’t seem to work. Maybe I forgot it, but my efforts to reset my password all fail. Worrisome, but I am not too concerned because no charges have appeared on my credit card statement.
Eventually I get an email indicating that there was a problem signing me up for the service and that, as a result, my subscription has been terminated.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Finding Peace in the Face of a Young Boy

I know a couple, each of whom is very accomplished. They are highly educated, and they are both experienced diplomats. They have served as advisors to our government and to the governments of several other countries. If the wars we are fighting ever come to an end and we are able to find the kind of satisfying peace that so many of us yearn for, these two, the man and the woman, will have played an important part in bringing us to that happy ending.

I also know that this man and woman had a child, a daughter, who died very young. Eventually they had another child, a boy, and this boy recently marked his fifth birthday. I have seen the couple with their son, and I have seen pictures of the boy at his fifth birthday party.

These two have much to offer the world. They are capable of things that others could not possibly do. I know they have a deep desire to contribute to peace and understanding, and they have dedicated their lives to service in an effort to bring that about. But I have also seen them with their son. I have watched the expressions on their faces and the way they attend to everything their little boy does. As important as their work is, it is obvious what matters to them. There are reports, diplomatic visits, and policy statements that must be made. But the most important thing in the lives of this man and this woman is their son.

If we ever find peace, it will be because of love. The love of adults for each other and especially the love of parents for their children. If, like this couple, more of us could extend the love we find within our families to the larger family of people beyond the borders of our homes and nations, we might just get there.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Axiom of Domestic Life

When there are no coffee cups left, it is time to do the dishes.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Relationship Advice for Men

Beware of women who, upon entering your home, begin to wipe the counters, adjust the lighting and ventilation, fiddle with the stereo, and reorganize the cupboards.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Why Good Writers Are Not Always Great Conversationalists

“Reading, study, silence, thought are a bad introduction to loquacity.” —William Hazlitt

Source: "Why Good Writes Aren't Good Talkers," a review of Arthur Krystal's collection of essays, "Except When I Write: Reflections of a Recovering Critic" by Mary Jo Murphy. Krystal used the Hazlitt quote in one of his essays.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

So Long, See You Tomorrow

Published in the Providence Journal on August 13, 2011


I recently met up with an old friend, and we reminisced about our high-school days 40 years ago. It was fun to share those memories with him, but I was also filled with a sense of regret about some of the things we did.

All high schools have their pariahs, whose function it is to protect the honor of those who cannot achieve status by any other means. When all else fails, denigrating the lowest of the low separates you from them. Looking back, two cases stand out for me.

One was a willowy girl prone to long dresses and distant gazes. She had straight brown hair that ran down to the middle of her back, and she was naturally taciturn. Apparently friendless, she was often seen dancing in the park at lunch. In those days we were allowed to go outside during the lunch hour, though we were not supposed to leave the school grounds. Some kids never returned, but school officials were willing to accept a small loss of inventory in the afternoon.

Across from school there was a small park, and in nice weather this girl could be seen swaying and bending alone in a manner that combined ballet movements with modern dance. She often appeared to be initiating a kind of communion with the trees, who, despite her invitations, did not join in.

During adolescence everyone is so worried about how their own behavior will be judged that anything unusual in others is quickly labeled aberrant. It is an age when the codes of social conduct are remarkably strict. Seen from a distance, this young girl’s dances looked very strange to us, and she was immediately assigned to the school’s unofficial loony bin.

Although we thought she was crazy, perhaps because she was a girl and most of my friends were boys who retained a shred of chivalry or who, like me, were afraid of the opposite sex, we did not subject her to overt teasing. We made fun of her behind her back, but we left her alone. The same could not be said of one boy I remember.

This young man was the unchallenged winner of the loser contest. He was a general law of social science: the one kid you could deride with impunity. It was safe to make fun of him at any time, even if he was standing right next to you. Why? Because he would take it. Despite being bigger than a number of us, he was so desperate to be included that he was willing to accept the job of verbal punching bag just to have a role.

Physical fights were rare at my high school, but there are different ways to get beaten up. This boy could take any number of verbal punches and keep coming back. Today this would be called bullying, but in those days it was called high school.

Looking back, I am convinced that the young dancer’s only problem was being smarter and more creative than the rest of us. She probably felt somewhat alien in our world and responded by creating a different one in her imagination.

Today the victimized boy would have a label. He might be called cognitively disabled, or perhaps he would be diagnosed with one of the less severe forms of autism. I am not sure it would have made a difference to us. Had he been anointed with a condition — a syndrome with a textbook name — I suspect we might have acted the same way. Or worse.

Sometimes a sense of regret comes with age. The main character of William Maxwell’s autobiographical novel, “So Long, See You Tomorrow,” is a man who, as a child, withheld a simple act of kindness from a friend whose family had been shattered by tragedy and scandal. It was a moment in time when a small gesture might have been very important. A missed opportunity that remained a psychological burden long into adulthood.

Nothing can be taken back. Once done, an action cannot be undone. Often we do or say something without thinking, or in the heat of emotion, and we regret it almost immediately. But sometimes the longing for a different reality comes much later. Time passes; we gain a new appreciation of events; and we discover pieces of our past that we wish had gone differently.

Children act without the benefit of a wisdom that — if we are fortunate — comes later in life. Looking back, it seems fair to forgive our younger selves their youth. We were just kids. We didn’t know what we were doing. It would be easy enough to let it pass. Yet some decisions — particularly those that touched other people — can gnaw at you years later.

I wish I had reached out a bit more to these two fellow students. High school was not a great time for me. I have few happy memories of that period, and when senior year came around, I chose not to buy a copy of the yearbook. But I probably got through my high-school career in better shape than they did, and as a result, I had something I could have given them.

The saddest part is knowing — as I do now — that it might not have taken much effort. Sometimes just a simple thing, like turning to someone at the end of the day to say, “So long, see you tomorrow,” can make all the difference in the world.

Stuart Vyse is a professor of psychology at Connecticut College.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Charles Baxter on Love

The main character of the novel owns a coffee shop.

"Bradley, I don't think you should talk about these things."
"Why not?"
"Some matters you shouldn't verbalize. I mean really, Bradley" ―and here she raised her hand and caressed my cheek―"all this love business is just nature's way of getting more babies into the world. The rest of it is just all this romance nonsense." She struggled for the word. "The rest of it is just superstructure."
"Well, maybe. But what if," I said, still gazing at her, with her sly sexy smile like a little dawn on her face, "what if the love we feel, what if it's central, what if it's what makes the world's soul possible, what if it's what made the world and keeps it running, and the babies are also a product of that, our soul-making, not the only product, but..."
 "That's what I mean," she said. "You're so weird and metaphysical. For a coffee guy."   
The Feast of Love, pp. 172-173.             

Saturday, August 06, 2011

2011 Album of the Summer Announcement

Dear Music Lover:

Continuing a tradition that began eight years ago, I am happy to announce the 2011 Album of the Summer. This was the easiest summer so far to put this letter together. All year, great albums seemed to come my way without much effort, and as a result, there is much more here than in any previous AOTS epistle.

Several of the 2010 selections had a hip-hop/reggae flavor, and, somewhat surprisingly, this year the theme is distinctly country (or alternative country) and contemporary Irish.

I’ve added a few new features this year. There can be only one Album of the Summer, but this year’s selection is accompanied by no fewer than four Honorable Mentions and, for the first time ever, a Local Artist Award. To round out the list even further—and because I had trouble paring it down—I have added a new category of “Other Albums I Enjoyed This Year,” which includes five additional titles. Finally, since much of this music was brought to my attention by friends, I have identified the recommender or recommenders for every album mentioned. NPR still tops the list.

Now on to the award…..

But first, the disclaimers and criteria:


1. I have no authority to make this announcement. I majored in English. I played cornet in high school, sometimes sitting in the first chair, but that was a long time ago. I only buy a few albums a year (more as summer approaches), and I do not consider myself particularly musical.

2. This selection is not the result of an exhaustive scientific process. I listen to reviews of albums on NPR; I listen to things being played in the local coffee shop; and I try to take note of any good songs I hear in movies. People tell me about albums they like. Despite a rather casual approach to this project, I have discovered music that I and others have enjoyed for the last few summers.

The Demanding (if Somewhat Idiosyncratic and Not Rigidly Adhered To) Criteria for the Album of the Summer

1. I have to like it. Enough so that I am fairly confident I will not get tired of it before the summer is over.

2. It has to be happy. It helps if you feel like dancing. Over the years this has been the most troubling criterion. The first ever Album of the Summer (WELCOME INTERSTATE MANAGERS by FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE) was quite happy, and happy seems appropriate for music played in the car with the windows rolled down. But I have come to realize that most of what I listen to throughout the year is quite sad—desperately so, in some cases—or at least a little angry. So, this is where the “Not Rigidly Adhered To” loophole has most often been applied.

3. It has to be new to me, but it may or may not be new to you.

For further background visit the Album of the Summer Blog ( ) which includes YouTube videos of all current and past winners (and some Honorable Mentions). The blog also provides an account of the origins of the award.

And now the winner. The 2011 Album of the Summer is......…


This choice was hard to resist. As mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago, Fountains of Wayne won the very first Album of the Summer in 2003 for WELCOME INTERSTATE MANAGERS, which included the hit single “Stacy’s Mom.” Furthermore, SKY FULL OF HOLES is being released in the U.S. today, so the timing is perfect. Repeat winners are not an ideal circumstance, but there is precedent: Regina Spektor is a two-time winner. Although this album is a mild departure from their earlier efforts, Williams College alums Adam Schlesinger and Chris Collingswood continue to pump out clever, punchy songs appropriate to this award. Rolling Stone recently called FOW “rock's sharpest storytellers.”

Most importantly, the thirteen tracks of SKY FULL OF HOLES  include some great music. This is FOW’s first full studio release since 2007, and the topics show a bit more maturity. For example, there are slightly fewer songs involving people who are drunk. As usual, FOW have no problem meeting the happiness criteria. Well over half of the songs are upbeat driving pop numbers typical of the band. There is plenty of humor, but Schlesinger and Collingswood are also starting to probe deeper, more melancholy subjects. Indeed, the last song on the album, and one of my favorites, “Cemetery Guns,” is about a military funeral. Similarly, "Hate to See You Like This” is a beautiful ringing ballad about someone trying to help a friend out of a depression. But there are also great alt-pop numbers that could easily be radio singles, including “Someone’s Gonna Break Your Heart,” “Cold Comfort Flowers,“ and “Dip in the Ocean.“ The best story pieces are “Action Hero,” about a Walter Mitty-ish middle-aged father of three who is beginning to buckle under the stress, ”Richie and Rubin,” about two failed entrepreneurs who solicit investments from friends, and “Acela,” about a guy trying to get home to Boston. Finally, “A Road Song,” is an innocent country number about a touring band member calling home to tell his girl he’s written a song for her. America, the aging casino-circuit rock band recorded a cover of “A Road Song” before SKY FULL OF HOLES was released.

You may ask, “If SKY FULL OF HOLES is being released today, how can you make this announcement so quickly?” Two reasons. First, due to the long gap between albums, several of these songs have been part of FOW’s concert repertoire for some time. Emily and I heard ”Cemetery Guns” and “A Road Song” two years ago at the Tarrytown Music Hall in Tarrytown, NY, and a number of the new songs have been on YouTube for a while. More importantly, however, FOW released a streaming version of the entire album on their Facebook page ( ) a week prior to the official release date.


I AND LOVE AND YOU by THE AVETT BROTHERS [Recommended by (“Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought….”) and by an anonymous commenter (an apparent Tampa Bay Rays baseball fan. RR?) on the Album of the Summer Blog]

Some of you already know about this alternate country / folk rock group from Concord, North Carolina, but they were new to me. This album was released back in September of 2009 and has received considerable acclaim. Once I got ahold of it, I played it compulsively for a couple of months. The music is beautifully rendered, and the lyrics are frequently thoughtful and moving. Many of the songs deal with issues of loss and disappointment, but others like “January Wedding” and “Laundry Room” are blushingly innocent love songs. Several of the happy songs feature banjos. The infectious, uptempo “Heart Like a Kick Drum” includes the sweet lyric “It’s not the chase that I love / It’s me following you.”

The heavier songs on I AND LOVE AND YOU tackle philosophical themes, and they are often quite successful. The best of these are “Head Full of Doubt / Road Full of Promise” and “A Perfect Space.” The latter is a beautiful ballad about getting older and discovering what you want out of life:

I wanna have pride like my mother has,
And not like the kind in the Bible that turns you bad.
And I wanna have friends that I can trust,
that love me for the man I’ve become and not the man that I was.

The vocals are frequently infused with the brother harmonies of Scott and Seth Avett, and the results are consistently rewarding. I AND LOVE AND YOU is an ambitious album that succeeds on every track. Thank you to the Avett Brothers. They produced my Album of the Autumn and Winter and gave me many hours of pleasure. If you have not already come across them, you should give them a listen.

MYNA BIRDS by GAVIN GLASS [Recommended by Rick Berkemeier via Lynn Callahan]

Ireland continues to be fertile ground for contemporary music. Damien Rice and The Swell Season have received AOTS Honorable Mentions in previous years, and this Irish entry is equally wonderful. Gavin Glass, while a star in Ireland, is not yet well-known in the U.S., and MYNA BIRDS is only available as a download here (iTunes, Amazon, etc). Glass plays in Lisa Hannigan’s band (more about Hannigan below) and has produced two albums on his own. He combines country, folk rock, and big band sounds (there are horns) to produce some wonderful songs on this album.

Glass’ dominant genre is the tragic love song, well-exemplified by the opening track “Just Like Rome.” He is often plaintively tragic in songs like “Just Like Rome,” Wake Up,” “State of Emergency,” and the wonderful but somewhat inscrutable “Minor Miseries.” He moves into the angry tragic mode on “Bleed” and especially on the deliciously belligerent “Awake on the Weekend,” which includes some great Keith Richards-like whining guitar work.

Finally, the title track, “Myna Birds” is a lovely ditty written about a friend’s young child. There is a high quality video of a live performance of this and another outstanding song “Slight of Hand” (I have spent some time pondering that spelling) here ( ) and also on the Album of the Summer Blog ( ) Both songs feature backup vocals by Lisa Hannigan, and “Myna Birds” has some nice honky-tonk piano work. Despite his European origins, Glass’ music has many country overtones. He wears a western tie and vest. Of course, American country music has European roots that extend to Ireland, so he’s entitled.

This album does not meet the Album of the Summer happy criterion, but it is wonderfully evocative and creative. Highly recommended. Glass’ previous album, GAVIN GLASS & THE HOLY SHAKERS is also great.

THE UNFAZED by DOLOREAN [Recommended by NPR]

This time it’s country music from Portland, Oregon (Larry Wheeler & John Battle, take note). This is the kind of mournful music you would expect to hear at a roadside juke joint where Budweiser is the house drink and nobody is dancing—except perhaps for one couple who just met tonight and are now asleep on each other’s shoulders. Hard-luck, pissed-off, breakup songs that are fairly unremittingly hopeless, but so, so wonderful. Once in a while Dolorean slips up and writes a song with an upbeat message, as in the title track “Unfazed,” as well as “Sweet Boy” and “These Slopes Give Me Hope,” but the music is reliably doleful throughout. The wistful “If I Find Love” fluctuates between hope and despair. The line “If I find love I’m gonna make it mine” later morphs into “I have a habit of getting in too deep / If I find love it’ll be the end of me.” A crawling tempo and a sweetly crying fiddle at the breaks give this song great drama and substance. If you’re in that kind of mood, THE UNFAZED is a great album.

ALPOCALYPSE by WEIRD AL YANKOVIC [Recommended by Mike Dreimiller]

I am going to go out on a limb here and say I think Weird Al Yankovic is a genius. A national treasure, even. He has been at it for thirty years, and when he releases a new album it is an event. ALPOCALYPSE does not disappoint. High musical production values combined with Yankovic’s amazingly clever lyrics and clear enunciation make this another great collection. ALPOCALYPSE includes classic Weird Al parodies of Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” (“Perform This Way”), Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” (“TMZ”), Miley Cirus’ “Party in the USA” (“Party in the CIA”), and the B.o.B./Bruno Mars number “Nothin’ on You” (“Another Tattoo”). The video of the Lady Gaga song (also posted on the Album of the Summer Blog) is creepily hilarious.

As much as Weird Al is known for his parodies, some of his most impressive songs are original compositions. I love “Hardware Store” from POODLE HAT, which features some amazing speed singing. ALPOCALYPSE introduces several clever originals including “Skipper Dan,” about a failed actor working at an amusement park, “Craigslist,” which is both a sequel to the earlier “eBay” and a generic Doors parody, and “Ringtone,” about a guy with a remarkably annoying one. But without question, my favorite song on the album is the enormously funny “Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me,” which is best experienced by watching the official video here or on the Album of the Summer Blog ( ). This is one of the happiest albums I came across this year. You will laugh.


TWO SIDES by ABOVE/BELOW [Recommended by Gabriel Chandler]

Conflict of interest statement: Among the members of this phenomenal funk-jazz-hiphop-fusion group are faculty colleagues and friends David Dorfman (baritone sax) and Gabe Chandler (vocals). No matter. In my unbiased (wink) opinion A/B is the best thing to come out of New London, Connecticut since The Reducers. Great horns, soaring guitar work, and the amazing rhymes of MC Stat (AKA Professor Chandler). Plus, I really like their politics. The album is very appropriate for summer. The songs are upbeat and danceable. I particularly like “J Street,” “Socialist Todd,” and “The People’s Bailout.” Earlier this summer TWO SIDES won a New London Whalie Award for Album of the Year, and now A/B can add an Album of the Summer Local Artist Award to their accomplishments.

TWO SIDES is available through the band’s website as a “name your price” digital download, or for $10 you can order the hardcopy CD. On the website, you will also find the band’s two-song album featuring “Things Get Better” and “Alchemy.”

Rumor has it, now that Gabe Chandler has returned to California, Above/Below may be defunct. Let me add my voice to all those who cry, “Say it ain’t so!”


ADELE 21 by ADELE [Recommended by Bruce Snider and others]

What can I say. Adele is one of the great new artists of our time. I was a little late to this party. Adele won a Best New Artist Grammy in 2009 and is now a huge star. I did not bond with ADELE 19, but I haven’t had that problem with 21. (Can she really be that young?) A great album from an artist who describes her musical style as “heartbroken soul.” If you are in the mood for some great breakup songs sung by a wonderfully expressive crooner, ADELE 21has what you are looking for.

SEA SAW by LISA HANNIGAN [Recommended by Rick Berkemeier via Lynn Callahan]

Lisa Hannigan first gained attention as an important part of Damien Rice’s band, and since going out on her own, she has become one the best-known young stars in Ireland. SEA SAW is her first solo album, and her second effort is expected momentarily. There are a few soft spots on this album, but most of it is infectious and upbeat. I am particularly fond of the innocent love song “I Don’t Know.”

LUNGS by FLORENCE + THE MACHINE [Recommended by Lori Blinderman]

A great voice and some fabulous songs, many of them propelled by a throbbing drum line. There is much more to this album than “Dog Days are Over.” If you like music that will get you shouting and pounding the steering wheel, you will like LUNGS.

BARTON HOLLOW by THE CIVIL WARS [Recommended by Bonnie “Pez” Pezzolesi]

This is a wonderful collection of synchronized boy-girl duets, sung over the quiet background of finger-picking guitar. BARTON HOLLOW is full of romance. “Poison & Wine” will give you goosebumps. There are a few louder tracks, including the title song, but most of the album has a folk / blue grass sound in support of gorgeous vocals. The duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White just appeared at the Newport Folk Festival and earlier this year were chosen by Adele to be the opening act for her American tour. The album has sold very well, so it looks like The Civil Wars will be around for a while. I hope so.

THE ERRANT CHARM by VETIVER [Recommended by Michael Snediker]

San Francisco-based folk rock Vetiver has an upbeat summery sound. Major mellow. Almost too cool for the room. There is a bit of a dance beat here and hints of The Kinks in some of the guitar entrances. Good happy listening. The vocals can get a bit breathy in spots, but this is an album that will lift your mood. I really like it.

That’s it for this year.

Previous Albums of the Summer

2003   WELCOME INTERSTATE MANAGERS by FOUNTAINS OF WAYNE (I picked it before "Stacy's Mom" became a hit.)


Last October the kids and I saw Fountains of Wayne (Winner in 2003 and 2011), and last month we saw Matisyahu (Honorable Mention, 2010). VERY different shows. Graham and I are off to see FOW in Boston later this month. (Emily will be away at camp).

Thanks to all who nominated albums this year. I received many great suggestions. I apologize if your favorite was not selected.

See you next summer.


Friday, July 01, 2011

Nice hair

While I was on my evening run a woman called to me from her car: “Nice hair!” This has never happened before. It felt a little like being carded at age 40.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Chicago Memories

I am old enough to remember when the 41-story Prudential Building was the tallest structure in the city of Chicago and having your birthday dinner at the Top of the Rock restaurant was the biggest treat imaginable.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Just Something Wrong About This

Following upon the previous entry:

Whole Foods Organic Six Braid Challah comes complete with a hechsher indicating that it is kosher and, beneath the hechsher, the word "pareve," signifying that the bread contains neither meat nor dairy products.   There are no other direct references to the religious nature of the bread, and although they are seen by millions of shoppers a day, these tiny markings are probably meaningless to the great majority of non-Jews. All of this is undoubtedly part of a carefully considered marketing strategy designed to send the right signals to those who keep kosher while not putting off the non-Jewish shopper who might just like the looks of this rich egg bread. Such a diplomatic approach is, perhaps, understandable.

More difficult to understand is the recipe for "Our Favorite French Toast" provided on the bag. Challah makes the best French toast in the world, and this rich breakfast—pain perdu—is a standard on Saturday mornings. The Whole Foods recipe for French toast is rather unexceptional, except that the serving suggestions include "...pure maple syrup, fresh fruit, uncured bacon, or whatever you please" (italics added for emphasis). Uncured bacon! Whether you take the laws of kashrut (kosher eating) seriously or not, there is just something wrong about this particular suggestion.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Op-ed: We Stand Up For This Child

By Stuart Vyse

Body language is a powerful mode of communication. The subtlest movement or expression can convey a very clear message.

On graduation day at the college where I teach, the faculty in my department linger outside our building after the ceremony so that students can come by for a final goodbye. They often bring their families, and it is a time of happiness and sense of accomplishment when the faculty get to meet brothers and sisters and praise students in front of their parents. Pictures are taken and gifts given.

Of course, many of my students have parents who are separated or divorced. Some of these students have spent years shuttling back and forth across enemy lines, alternating between adults who remain loyal to the conflicts that drove them apart. Their children have been forced to listen to countless arguments and angry monologues and have endured a variety of more subtle indignities. At graduations and other public events, children must often choose with which parent to sit, trying not to disappoint one or the other side and become a weapon in a never-ending war.

But some families are different. Some parents are able to remember that it is about the kids—has always been about the kids. Once you make the decision to have children, they are what matters, and that does not change if the marriage fails. These kinds of parents work together to plan for birthday parties, holidays and public events. The children need not choose sides because their parents are on the same side when it comes to them. Away from the kids, there may be traditional points of conflict, but in front of the children, the adults treat each other with respect. In the best of cases, this sense of being on the same team comes so naturally that it shows in every glance and gesture.

I will always remember one young man. He was a bright and insightful student, more traveled than most, but like many of his peers, he graduated without discovering a plan for life beyond college. Nonetheless, I liked him very much, and on those rare occasions when I see him now, he greets me with a hearty hug.

On the day that this young man graduated, he brought his parents by to meet me. His mother and father were divorced, and both had remarried. As I stood under the trees outside our building, four people approached: two men and two women. They formed a tight circle in front of me, as I stood next to their son and told them about our experiences together. No one held back; no one was left in the shadows. Their eyes were equally fixed on me, and without saying a word, these four told me more than I told them. They said: We are here for this child, this young man. What matters to us in this moment is our expression of love for him and, as part of that expression of love, to hear from you, his teacher. We are together, and we stand up for this child.

Stuart Vyse is a professor of psychology at Connecticut College.

Published in the Providence Journal on May 8, 2011.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Comic Encounters with the Physical World II

Standing in front of my bathroom medicine cabinet, I heard the faint tinkling sound of a small object bouncing inside it. I opened the cabinet to explore, and all of my shaving equipment fell out into the sink. The sound I’d heard was one of the tiny plastic supports that holds up the particleboard shelves spontaneously popping out and falling to the shelf below.

Friday, April 08, 2011

A Professor Addresses His Class at the End of the Semester

There are churches, synagogues, mosques, and other houses of worship where people come together to do things that give great meaning to their lives. In Alcoholics Anonymous there is a phrase “we come into these rooms.” And in church basements and halls all over the world people gather to engage in activities that have become an essential part of who they are.

I believe that the classroom is also a sacred space. What we do here—if we do it well—has the power to enrich us in profound and lasting ways.

So thank you for coming here and spending this time with me. It has been a very important time for me, and I hope it has been valuable for you, too.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Words Spoken to a Man in Grief

Receive what cheer you may:
The night is long that never finds the day.

         Malcolm to MacDuff,
         Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

David Lodge on Literature, Sex, Children, and Life

"Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life's the other way round."

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Recognition of Irritation

I have been a New Yorker subscriber for several years, and although I am a little embarrassed to admit it, it is the cartoons that keep me paying the subscription price (which has increased substantially in recent years). The articles represent the highest level of writing on many fascinating and important topics, and each issue also includes a short story, poems, and reviews—all of excellent quality and all worthy of attention. Unfortunately, much of the year I am too busy to find time for much reading of this type. But no matter how busy I am, I can always find time for the cartoons, which I tend to read from back to front, starting with the cartoon contest on the back page.

Most New Yorker cartoons are of the single panel variety, and the panels often depict standard cartoon settings that have become reliable backdrops for comedy: the bar scene, the psychiatrist and patient, the boss and employee arranged facing each other across a desk, and the couple reading in bed.

Perhaps it is just me, but lately I have found great enjoyment in the man-and-woman-in-bed format cartoons. It is a wonderful setting because the marital bed is where a couple typically engages in their most intimate acts: love-making, of course, but also sleeping in the same space as another. In an odd way, this, too, is a remarkably intimate act. The loss of consciousness in the presence of someone else—often while in physical contact that someone else. Intimate conversations take place here, too.

A few recent examples: (I am recalling these from memory, so they may not be perfectly accurate.)

The man turns to the woman and asks: “What is your position on some-sex marriage?” (some-sex)

The woman turns to the man: “I never realized that marriage would involve so much reading.”

The cartoon shown above is a particular favorite. (Because I am reproducing this copyrighted cartoon without permission, I feel bound to at least give full credit: It is by Harry Bliss and appeared in the New Yorker on March 5, 2007.) On the one hand, the cartoon is deliciously nasty. There are only two ways I can think of to eliminate the breathing sound—leave or die—and the cartoon suggests that the wife would be happy with either of these solutions.

As cutting as this cartoon is, for anyone who has been married or had a long-term relationship, there is a real sense of recognition. Familiarity does, on occasion, breed contempt. There are times in any relationship when the mere presence of the other, a simple reminder of the other, can evoke irritation. Couples get on each other’s nerves. In the lucky cases, these moments of discomfort are fleeting, but sometimes they are not. Sometimes they become either the enduring burdens of a lasting relationship or the beginning of the end of a doomed one.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Righteous Indignation

There is nothing righteous about it. It is just lacking in dignity.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Proposed New Mental Category: Foil Barrier Retention Disorder

I am told the American Psychiatric Association is engaged in an effort to revise its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the great catalog of mental illnesses, and that the work is not going well.  As a result, this may not be the best moment to suggest a new entry, but I will proceed undeterred.

Many food products come with a foil seal that must be pierced or peeled back to get at the substance inside. These include but are not limited to, sour cream and yogurt containers, boxes of cocoa powder, and tins of loose tea. Some individuals, for reasons that are not yet fully understood by psychiatric science, prefer not to completely remove the foil from the container. As a result, when you reach for the Earl Grey and pop the top off the tin, you are greeted—not with a clear shot at your goal—but rather with a lapping tongue of foil obstructing your view of tea and bergamot.

In its most extreme form, Foil Barrier Retention Disorder (FBRD) is characterized by very small openings of foil, barely large enough to get a teaspoon through. In these cases, the majority of the foil barrier remains attached to the container, appearing almost as it did the day the item was brought home from the store. Individuals with this extreme form of FBRD are prone to two additional symptoms. First, they complain about any efforts by those unafflicted with FBRD to remove part or all of the foil that remains attached to the container. Second, those suffering from extreme FBRD express the irrational and unscientific theory that the partially attached foil is somehow capable of promoting the freshness of the food product within.

In less severe forms of the disorder, little mention is made if the foil if it is detached or falls off of its own accord. If irrational theories of preservation and freshness are held, they typically go unexpressed.

At this time, the presumed genetic origins of FBRD remain unknown, but a vigorous research effort aimed at identifying an effective pharmacological treatment is underway.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Shabbat in My Own Way

One of the privileges of being a non-member is the freedom to adopt the religious traditions that have meaning for you and reject the ones that don’t. For example, I love shabbat. I love the ritual of bread and wine and candles and the idea of gathering at home at the end of the week for a meal, for leisure and rest. The idea of separating an evening and the following day from the other activities of life. Shabbat’s meaning for me is more personal, domestic, and—when others are around—social or familial, but I truly enjoy the feelings generated by shabbat. I do not say payers; I do not keep kosher; and I almost never avoid working on any day—Saturday included. As a non-believer, I am not bound by the mitzvot, but I love the peacefulness—the shalom—that this ritual brings.

So my observance of shabbat is somewhat haphazard. Yesterday was Friday, and after work I went to the grocery store and bought a challah. I have discovered that, when none are displayed, you can often get a frozen one from the person working in the bakery section. They must keep them on hand for the end of the week.

I had decided I would go to an early movie, so I grabbed a bite to eat at a Chinese restaurant before the show, eating dinner with The New York Times. I had pork, but at least I had pork in the location where Jews most often encounter treyf. And, of course, I don’t keep kosher.

After the movie I went home and lit two shabbos candles. No prayers, of course, and because I had already eaten and it was now 9:30, long after the prescribed candle lighting time, no bread or fruit of the vine. When it was time to go to bed, I broke another rule by blowing out one candle that looked far from burning out. According to tradition, once lit, the candles should not be moved or extinguished. They should be left to burn out on their own.

In the end, I performed only small pieces of the ritual. I lit candles, and I have my weekend challah for French toast. But it was enough to have a feeling of shabbat.

Shabbat is not really a sabbath for me. For me, it is a secular ritual. But I have found it to be a wonderful way to mark the time of the week and add a bit of peace to my life. So I am thankful for shabbat and for the freedom to observe it in my own way.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Anna Quindlen on Getting a Life

From A Short Guide to a Happy Life

So I suppose the best piece of advice I could give anyone is pretty simple: get a life...

Get a life in which you notice the smell of salt water pushing itself on a breeze over the dunes, a life in which you stop and watch how a red-tailed hawk circles over a pond and a stand of pines. Get a life in which you pay attention to the baby as she scowls with concentration when she tries to pick up a Cheerio with her thumb and first finger...

Get a life in which you are not alone. Find people you love, and who love you. And remember that love is not leisure, it is work. Each time I look at my diploma, I remember that I am still a student, still learning every day how to be human. Send an e-mail. Write a letter. Kiss your mom. Hug your dad.

Get a life in which you are generous. Look around at the azaleas making fuchsia star bursts in spring; look at the full moon hanging silver in a black sky on a cold night. And realize that life is glorious, and that you have no business taking it for granted. Care so deeply about its goodness that you want to spread it around. Take the money you would have spent on beers in a bar and give it to charity. Work in a soup kitchen. Tutor a seventh-grader.

All of us want to do well. But if we do not do good, too, then doing well will never be enough...

Life is short. Remember that, too.

I have always know this. Or almost always. I’ve been living with mortality for decades, since my mother died of ovarian cancer when she was forty and I was nineteen. And this is what I learned from that experience: that knowledge of our own mortality is the greatest gift God ever gives us.

It is easy to waste our lives: our days, our hours, our minutes. It is so easy to take for granted the pale new growth on an evergreen, the sheen of the limestone on Fifth Avenue, the color of our kids’ eyes, the way the melody in a symphony rises and falls and disappears and rises again. It is so easy to exist instead of live. Unless you know there is a clock ticking. So many of us changed our lives when we heard a biological clock and decided to have kids. But that sound is a murmur compared to the tolling of mortality...

I learned to live many years ago. Something really bad happened to me. something that changed my life in ways that, if I had a choice, it would never have been changed at all. And what I learned from it is what, today, sometimes seems to be the hardest lesson of all.

I learned to love the journey, not the destination. I learned that this is not a dress rehearsal, and that today is the only guarantee you get...

Anyone can learn all these things, out there in the world. You just need to get a life, a real life, a full life, a professional life, yes, but another life, too. School never ends. The classroom is everywhere. The exam comes at the end. No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time at the office.

I found one of my best teachers on the boardwalk at Coney Island many years ago. It was December, and I was doing a story about how the homeless suffer in the winter months. He and I sat on the edge of the wooden supports, dangling our feet over the side, and he told me about his schedule, panhandling the boulevard when the summer crowds were gone, sleeping in a church when the temperature went below freezing, hiding from the police amid the Tilt-A-Whril and the Cyclone and some of the other seasonal rides.

But he told me that most of the time he stayed on the boardwalk, facing the water, just the way we were sitting now, even when it got cold and he had to wear his newspapers after he read them. And I asked him why. Why didn’t he go to one of the shelters? Why didn’t he check himself into the hospital for detox?

And he stared out at the ocean and said, “Look at the view, young lady. Look at the view.”

And every day, in some little way, I try to do what he said. I try to look at the view. That’s all. Words of wisdom from a man with not a dime in his pocket, no place to go, nowhere to be. Look at the view. When I do what he said, I am never disappointed.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Say Hello To All Whom You Love

An old friend, a man with a heart as big as the sky, ended a recent email to me with this sentence: "Say hello to all whom you love." The words do not trip off the tongue, but I cannot think of a more beautiful message.

Say hello to all whom you love.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Thomas Hardy on Women, Men, Love, and Marriage

Stonington, Connecticut resident Bill Emberton gave a wonderful talk on the British novelist and poet Thomas Hardy and his first wife, Emma, at the Stonington Free Library on January 6, 2011. Evidently, Hardy had a somewhat cynical view of women, men, love, and the institution of marriage. The passages below are from three of Hardy’s early novels and were presented in a slide from Bill's talk.

Desperate Remedies (1871)

How exquisite a sweetheart is at first! Perhaps . . . the only bliss in the course of love which can truly be called Eden-like is that which prevails immediately after doubt has ended and before reflection has set in—at the dawn of the emotion, when it is not recognized by name, and before the consideration of what this love is, has given birth to the consideration of what difficulties it tends to create. . . .

A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873)

Every woman who makes a permanent impression on a man is usually recalled to his mind’s eye as she appeared in one particular scene, which seems ordained to be her special form of manifestation throughout the pages of his memory.

Far from the Madding Crowd (1874)

It appears that ordinary men take wives because possession is not possible without marriage, and that ordinary women accept husbands because marriage is not possible without possession; with totally differing aims the method is the same on both sides.