Wednesday, July 3, 2013


When I told my wife I was reviewng a book titled The Dimaggios, she asked me, “There was more than one?”   There were, in fact three – the brothers Joe, Dom and Vince, all big-league ballplayers of varying skill-levels and fame. 

But it’s the  subtitle that’s the problem, identifying the book as a document in the long literary history of this country’s animating vision, of which baseball, of course, played a part. The DiMaggio parents, Italian immigrants who worked hard to give their children a better life in San Francisco than they could have in Sicily, had a version of the American Dream in their minds that corresponded to the classic narrative that has shaped the fiction of Horatio Alger, Nathanael West, John Updike, F. Scott Fitzgerald,  and Arthur Miller.  The problem is that none of  these three brothers was Jay Gatsby (though perhaps Vince, who ended up selling Fuller brushes door to door, was a kind of Willy Loman.)  Dom, the one with the brains, always underrated and in Joe’s shadow as a ballplayer though he was voted American League MVP in 1947, at least found a successful career in business.  And Joe, after Marilyn Monroe’s death, became even more reclusive, bitter and paranoid than he had always been.   None of them was a hero, least of all Joe, who “just wanted  “an excuse to get out of the house.”

The fact that Joe was lionized by the press and the fans was the product of America’s conflation of athletic skills and character.  Undoubtedly, the cult that surrounded him was enormous: Paul Simon’s lyric “Where have you gone, Joe DiMggio? / A nation turns its lonely eyes to you” testifies both to the size of the myth and to the absence of the man, and Joe reveled in his fame, using it as a screen to keep everyone else out.  He was from the start vain, not very bright, suspicious to the point of paranoia – a loner who seldom spoke to his teammates, and ended up estranged from both brothers.  Here’s what he told Gay Talese in 1966:  “There are . . . personal things that I refuse to talk about.  And even if you asked my brothers, they would be unable to tell you about them because they do not know.”  Clavin quotes Charlie Silvera, a Yankee teammate, as saying that Dom and Joe, “each is his own way was a great guy and a great ballplayer.”  But Clavin makes it abundantly clear that Joe was anything but a great guy.  Vince was the affable one; Joe was, as Gay Talese put it, “a kind of male Garbo,”

Telling the story of these three lives involved, for Clavin, a prodigious amount of research;  he seem to have read every book, every article, every news story written by, for and about the brothers, their family, and about baseball itself in the 30’s and 40’s – he stops just short of including box scores.  And this is a problem: he doesn’t really tell a story.  The DiMaggios is something of a cut-and-paste job, an immense amount of data arranged in chronological order, but with no overarching idea to serve (not those in the subtitle, at any rate). Too much space is taken up by meaningless factoids (a friend of Joe’s, serving in Korea, was promoted to sergeant; Ted Williams had fun learning how to fly; Lefty O’Doul, died on “the anniversary of the American attack on Pearl Harbor.”)  And it isn’t only facts that Clavin’s research turns up, but opinions as well:  whenever things get pulled together in a meaningful way, it’s Roger Kahn or David Halberstam who’s doing the pulling.  Clavin seems to have interviewed several members of the DiMaggio family and scene, but the only one he quotes extensively is Vince’s daughter, Joanne DiMaggio Weber.  And she’s good for an anecdote every few pages. But as a family member, she’s not necessarily a reliable witness (though I believe her when she says that her favorite baby sitter was Phil Rizzuto.)  The “as told to” autobiographies produced by each of the brothers are, as Clavin rightly calls them, formulaic, self-serving and unreliable.

But there have been many biographies of Joe, one of the best being Richard Ben Cramer’s Joe Dimaggio:  The Hero’s Life, an excellent and juicy book that probes into all the sordid, interesting crannies of “the hero’s” stunted personality.  Where Clavin tells us that after his divorce, Joe “wasn’t looking for another wife, just companionship,” Cramer reveals that between and after his marriages, virtually the only women he met were prostitutes, one of whom still marvels at Joltin’ Joe’s physical attributes:  he was “bigger than Milton Berle,” she said, Uncle Miltie representing the phallic paradigm of the 40’s and 50’s. This is juicy stuff, and it’s what’s missing from Clavin’s version.  It’s not that The DiMaggios is sanitized, just that it’s plodding and literal, lacking narrative style and telling details.  The brothers’ personality quirks are mentioned regularly but Vince’s affability, Dom’s shyness and Joe’s sullen grudge-holding get lost among endless reiterations of what happened in Cleveland, in New York, in Boston on summer afternoons 70 years ago, when Joe went 3 for 4 and won a game that won a pennant that led to yet another World Series. In 1950, “The gutty Red Sox did not fold. On July 18, their 12-9 win over the Tigers at Fenway Park brought them to .500 at 39-39.  In the next 59 games they went 47-12.”  There must be baseball fanatics who will lap up all these stats and replays, but for most of us, a little more than a little of that is much too much.

When the book gets interesting, predictably, is when Joe meets Marilyn.  Clavin observes that they slept together on their first date, though I think it would be bigger news if they hadn’t; “dating” doesn’t seem like what these two were up to.  Yet Clavin, in defiance of all evidence that their marriage was a liasion between two damaged, narcissistic, sex-addicted celebrities, tells us that their wedding was “a fairy-tale event for gossip lovers,” attended by none of Joe’s family.  The marriage lasted less than a year.  “He had loved her deeply.  He always would,” writes Clavin. But Joe really was incapable of love, and didn’t want a homemaker and child-rearer for a wife; he’d tried that once before and gotten burned. Neither had any idea who the other really was.  Returning from a promotional tour of Japan, Marilyn told her husband, by now retired, “You never heard such cheering.”  He replied, “Yes, I have.”  The people closest to him probably shared Toots Shor’s opinion of her: “Joe, what can you expect when you marry a whore?”

The last few chapters of The DiMaggios are painful, as the brothers’ relationship deteriorates and one after another, they sicken and die.  Joe seems in his later years to have fallen under the spell of a sleazy lawyer named Morris Engelberg who made him money on the memorabilia circuit impersonating, as it were, Joe Dimaggio, and who, as Joe lay on his deathbed, may have pulled his World Series ring off his finger and then tried to pull the plug on his ventilator.  The kid who just wanted to get out of the house ended up hoarding money and, except for a moocher, alone.  If this is the American Dream, it’s a sad one.

Monday, June 3, 2013


Nancy and I were in Paris last week with the kids and grandkids.  I had been looking forward to seeing them, but Paris?  Not especially.  I've hardly spent any time at all there, and when I have, it was either freezing January or broiling July.  I have trouble understanding the machine-gun bursts of spoken Parisian French, and a good part of this trip would be spent with my son-in-law's many relatives, in suburban Houilles, where I anticipated mind-numbing language difficulties.  I had no interest in doing the tourist things; my most vivid memory from previous visits is lines longer than Disney World's.  And this, at least is still true; here's the Louvre on a weekday morning:

Of course, the food would be great, at least in restaurants, though we'd need a second mortgage to eat out.   And to top it all, the long-range forecast for that week was cool and rainy -- and so it was, except for one perfect, sunny afternoon when the two of us went to Roland Garros for the second day of the French Open, buying grounds-only passes from a scalper for a mere 300 euros.  That's euros, not dollars.

But something strange and wonderful occurred:  I fell in love with the city.  We were in Houilles twice, and the famille Bellenoue all came into town once, and I mean all --

and the more time I spent with them, the more charmed I was.  Most of the conversation was indeed in  French, but they took pains to speak slowly and distinctly, and they were amusant and interessant, and they cooked us a wonderful day-long meal, and it was the first time we'd ever met any French people who weren't waiters or cab drivers or hotel clerks (except for a girl named Jeanne, in Cassis, when I was 19, but that's another story).

The other thing that made the week special was that instead of staying in a hotel (which really would have required a second mortgage), we rented an apartment.  It had three bedrooms and two bathrooms, the latter feature not typical of the city's housing.  It was in the 1st, just up the street from the Jardin des Tuileries, which had a nice playground for the kids, and though it was on the Wrong Bank (the Right; we'd have preferred the Left), it was perfectly situated to bring everyplace we wanted to go within walking distance -- the Musee d'Orsay, le Marais, St. Germain, Sainte Chapelle, restaurants that Benoit and Danielle could ferret out, where we ate the best meals of 2013, for less than $100 (that's dollars, not euros) a couple.  We walked our feet off, miles and miles, past the famous landmarks and into neighborhoods I'd never heard of, and I loved every step of the way.

And the Right Bank ain't so stodgy after all.   Look at these pictures:  the first was taken from the window of our NY apartment, on the Upper East Side, a very desirable location, and probably New York's equivalent of the Rive Droit:

What we see, across the street, is an undistinguished church and a gutted building containing, from left to right, a newsstand, a shoemaker, a frozen yogurt place, a farm stand, and of course, across Lex, a Starbucks.  Here's what the Marche Rue Ste. Honore´ looked like from the terrace of our Paris apartment:

The store with the green awning sells every kind of oyster you've ever heard of.  On the  corner, elegant young Parisians are converging on the mecca of a small bistro; across the street, more chic citoyens are congregating at a little bar that every evening trundles out a bunch of barrels and puts checkered tablecloths over them.  Bicycles and scooters predominate; the parked cars seldom move, so the street is quiet enough to catch snatches of conversation floating up.  

And all this has been here all my life.  It was never a problem falling in love with London, and our friends Jeff and Linda, who live in Rome, plugged us into that wonderland, but now, only now, do I get what Balzac and Proust and Woody Allen have been proclaiming.  Might have to make this reunion an annual affaire

Thursday, April 25, 2013


What an odd academic career I've had!  My first full-time job after grad school lasted thirty years -- at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York, from which I retired, at the rank of full professor, in 1998.

I did so not because I wanted to stop teaching, but because I wanted to teach fewer courses to better students closer to home, which in practice meant become an Adjunct Professor at NYU.  The salary was minuscule, but I was very happy there, principally because I was spared the scut work of teaching composition courses, which made up the bulk of everyone's schedule at BC.  Instead, and inexplicably, I got to teach Shakespeare seminars because no one on NYU's permanent faculty was interested in doing so.

This year, NYU let me go.  They had hired two Shakespeareans, making me expendable, and were trying to rid their midsts of adjuncts, which is in a way commendable; too many departments nationwide depend too heavily on underpaid, overworked (and perhaps unqualified) part-timers to relieve the superstar profs of the tedious business of teaching undergraduates, grading papers, holding conferences.   The fact that I felt violated and desolated when I got the news that I was being let go (by email!) was beside the point.  I had fallen into the trap of thinking that, though my job description was "adjunct," my years as a professor put me on more or less equal footing with the permanent department.  Hadn't I published almost as much as some of them had?  Didn't I win NYU's Outstanding Teaching Award (seldom, if ever, awarded to adjuncts) in 2005?  Hadn't I been assured by several chairpersons that I was a valued member of the department?

But that was then.  My friends and supporters at NYU have retired, or transferred to the Abu Dhabi campus, or taken other jobs, and, as Willy Loman said to his boss, sealing his own fate, "They don't know me any more."

Not ready to leave the classroom, I got myself another job -- back at Brooklyn College.  Home is where, when you have to go back there, they have to take you in.  I'll be teaching a Core course next fall, and Shakespeare in the spring -- but I have no idea to whom.  I loved NYU's students, and a lot of them loved me back.  I don't know what I'll find at BC.  Probably enough bright kids to sustain a classroom discussion, but certainly a much higher proportion of what are termed "students in difficulty" -- clueless, unprepared, bored, desperate -- who will need a lot of special attention.  But will we be friends?  Many of my former NYUers -- hi Kea, Carol, Oz, Sarah, Heidi and Loidee -- are still my buds.  Only one of my BCers is -- hi, Ruth --  and she followed me to NYU to do graduate work and became my TA there.

Then there are the practical matters.  NYU is only 20 minutes away on the 6 train from my New York apartment. .  BC is about an hour away on the 5 train.  NYU is in the East Village, than which no neighborhood is more fun; BC is in Midwood, off Flatbush, which becomes quite dreary that far out.  NYU has Washington Square Park, which on warm, sunny days like yesterday is New York theater at its finest:

On the other hand, BC has a beautiful campus, one of New York's finest examples of Georgian Revival architecture, with its own little park, including a koi pond, that soothes the soul:

So maybe, in terms of environment, it's a wash.  I just don't know, and won't until September.  Isn't all change good?  On the other hand, is this a change, or just deja vu all over again?  I'll let you know in six months.

Saturday, March 9, 2013



As everyone who reads a newspaper or a blog knows by now, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, has put an end to perhaps the most valuable perk in Silicon Valley, permission to work from home.   That model seemed to make perfect sense in an internet company; doesn’t it simply fulfill the core promise of the internet itself, that interaction on line can be as rewarding and effective as face-to-face contact?  Mayer’s reasoning was interesting:  she admitted that working from home was more productive than shlepping into the office and hanging out by the water cooler, but, she said, it was less innovative.  For innovation, you need that water cooler, or cafeteria, or couches in hallways, or any place that encourages 24-year-old whiz kids to excite each other with new ideas, to improve and refine and think of new uses for the company’s products.

That’s not a new idea; Steve Jobs, when he designed Apple’s new headquarters, made sure that even going to the bathroom routed you past watering holes and gathering spots.  I don’t remember Walter Isaacson, in his biography of Jobs, mentioning any real or expected decline in productivity, so we don’t know whether that would have been a successful trade-off for the Magus of McIntosh.    But, in a Times’s op-ed page last week titled “In Defense of Telecommuting,” a sociology professor from UT-Austin commented that the powers-that-be at our large research universities, “among the most successful engines of innovation in our economy,” never have to artificially enforce face-time between faculty members.  “To give one small example,” she wrote, “two of my colleagues, at Cornell University, a demographer and geographer, recently came up with the idea for a study to improve the retention of women working in science while chatting during their children’s after-school swim lessons.” 

Ah, yes.  But what works at Cornell (my undergraduate school) might not work at NYU (my current employer).  Ithaca, NY, is at best a medium-sized town, with a somewhat limited palette of restaurants, cultural and sporting events, and pools that offer children’s swim lessons; in my day, and I imagine now, wherever faculty happened to find themselves off-campus, other faculty would have found their own ways there.  Ithaca, Boulder, Ann Arbor, Austin, and State College, PA, are, to varying degrees, almost suffocatingly insular places, but Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Philadelphia (think Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley and Penn) are geographically and culturally polyglot and diverse.  If I’m not eating in the vicinity of Astor Place, I almost never run into my colleagues or my students.  The same was even more true of  Brooklyn College, where I taught from 1967 to 1998:  it was, and is, a commuter school, and though there are a cafeteria and lounges, they’re almost empty; faculty and students  met in the classroom for 75 minutes, and then either retreated to their offices, if they had them, went home.

All this connects to the Next Big Thing in education – MOOCs, the clumsy acronym for Massive Open Online Courses, in which a superstar professor lectures to thousands of enrolled students worldwide, who will eventually take online exams and receive course credit without ever having set foot on the campus (which might itself be virtual).

Why not take this to its extreme:  just have the students read a book and pass quizzes on it.  No, say the innovators of this potentially huge money-maker, that would defeat the principle of collegiality.  After each lecture, the students will have the opportunity to interact with their teacher, advancing ideas and asking questions.

Are they kidding?  Picture the virtual classroom as if it were a real place the size of, say, Madison Square Garden -- 20,000 students, 7,000 of them with hands in the air.  I’ve taught lecture courses at NYU with as many as 120 students in them, and I didn’t field questions and queries after I was done speaking; I had three TAs, each of whom met two sections of 20 students once a week, to do that.  How many TAs will a big-time MOOC require?  Where will they come from?  Mine were graduate students studying for Ph.Ds in English, but in a virtual university, they’ll be on-line too.  So, at least in one model, there’s no face-to-face contact at all.

Is that so bad?  How would Baxter Hathaway’s creative writing class at Cornell all those years back have suffered if each of us students had submitted our stories and poems online and discussed them via teleconference (which hadn’t yet been invented)?  Here’s how:  I’d never have met my fellow student Tom Pynchon, never have had coffee with him after class, never have picked one of the most subtle, original and powerful minds I’ve ever encountered.  College – at least a humanities college – isn’t a place where you’re trained to regurgitate factoids.  It’s a place where you find your cohort, the people who shape your character and outlook and become your friends.  There are no friendships in the MOOC landscape.  

And there may be perils, having to do with isolation and distraction and social infantilization and possibly even worse things.  “Officer, I know I ran that red light at 60, but I was tweeting my BritLit final.” 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013


                           Did Jennifer Lawrence trip, or is she mourning the death of humor?

"We saw your boobs!”*  “The only guy who really got inside Lincoln’s head was John Wilkes Booth.”  “It’ll be sixteen years before Quvenzhane Wallis is too old for Clooney.” Other targets included Jews, Latinos, gays and rape victims.  With these and other tasteless and misgynistic bon mots did Seth MacFarlane regale the billion or so people watching the Oscar presentations the other night, prompting a backlash in both directions:  The Onion tried to get into the spirit of the evening by saying of Ms. Wallis, “that Quvenzhane Wallis is kind of a c**t, right?” But most people who have offered commentary, in the press or on the social media, expressed indignation, even outrage, at the whole unseemly spectacle.  Perhaps the most eloquent criticism was the look of disgust on Charlize Theron’s face when MacFarlane exulted in having glimpsed her breasts onscreen. (It’s possible, however, that this moment was pre-recorded, which interestingly complicates Theron’s take on the joke.)  It’s kind of surprising that when Jennifer Lawrence tripped over her dress on the way to the podium, there weren’t at least isolated peals of mirth.

            I have a particular interest in this cultural moment because, as it happens, I’m teaching a course at NYU this semester in bad taste and misogyny.  That’s not how it’s labelled, of course; its title is “English Literature in the Earlier 17th Century,” but as it happens, the years between the death of Elizabeth I in 1603 and the Puritan takeover of the country in 1642 saw the birth and flowering of an esthetic of bad taste and contempt for women, a kind of wholesale reaction against the decorum of conventional thought and image that had governed the world of letters until then.

            Consider this epigram by Sir John Suckling, who, in his short lifetime served as James I’s secretary of state, invented the civilized game of cribbage, and was a trusted advisor to James’ son and successor Charles I:

            Love is the fart
            Of every heart.
            It pains a man when ‘tis kept close
            And others doth offend, when ‘tis let loose.

            The first fart joke of the early modern era!  Aside from the literary merits of this ditty (at best it’s clever, though it tops any of MacFarlane’s sallies hands down), it served as an announcement that a new kind of joke was permissible.  The body and all its various sounds, sights, smells, and secretions was no longer off-limits to poets – particularly the female body.  Where the previous generation of sonneteers (Sir Thomas Wyatt, Sir Phillip Sidney, Shakespeare) dwelt on their mistresses’ golden hair, alabaster foreheads and coral lips, John Donne wrote avidly of his mistress undressing before him, saluting “the hairy diadem which on you doth grow” and begging her to “License my roving hands, and let them go / Before, behind, between, above, below.”   But women were just disposable toys to the misogynistic Donne, who will “swear / No where / Lives a woman true and fair.”  In his poem “The Indifferent,”  he views female constancy as a vice, asking those few women who still practice such abberant behavior, “Will it not serve your turn to do as did your mothers?”  Low blow!  In one of what he problematically called his “Holy Sonnets,” Donne (who was not only a priest but Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral), entertains a fantasy of being raped by God:  “O’erthrow me, and bend / Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new. . . . for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”  Suversive enough for ya?

            In the light of this rather short-lived fad (when the Puritans seized control, decorum returned, sharpened to a razor’s edge that resulted in the beheading of Charles I), the gross-out humor of our own time, and its vast appeal, may be more explicable. Perhaps it started with Bill Osco’s 1980 film Gross Out, whose premise was that a woman threatens to withold her children’s inheritance unless they produce a movie so disgusting it makes her vomit. It caught on. To millions, it’s funny to watch Cameron Diaz rub semen into her hair in There’s Something About Mary.  The food fights and fart jokes of Animal House are hilarious not only to frat boys but to much wider audiences as well. Judd Apatow’s This is 40 is a gross-out movie for the mildly middle-aged.  Beavis and Butthead speak for themselves.

The precondition for the esthetic of bad taste, I think, is an ironic outlook on life – the outlook of Seinfeld’s cast, of Chris Rock, of the Farrelly Brothers.  Irony turns everything on its head, so that a joke, or a movie, or a routine such as MacFarlane’s can be so bad it’s good, outrageousness for its own sake is worthwhile, airing in public what used to be private is nothing but liberating.  The more literate apologists for all this cite the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of the “grotesque body” – the body we all have and used to deny or attempt to ignore, a hairy, squelchy bag of flesh enclosing sacs of urine, feces, semen, mucus, pus and snot.  Such, seen from the reductive, grossly physical point of view, is your body and mine, John Belushi’s and Elizabeth Bennet’s.  Even George Orwell, though he never grossed anybody out, provided a rationale in his essay “The Art of Donald McGill” for pictorial obscenity:  “It is the voice of the belly protesting agains the soul,” he wrote. 

So was Seth MacFarlane’s the voice of the belly?  Perhaps he’d like to put himself in the august company of Rabelais and Donne.  But it’s one thing to smash the icons of a repressive, prudish society in the name of freedom, and another to pick on nine-year-olds.  In truth, are there any icons left?  Lincoln, maybe.  But except for one (big) Oscar, Spielberg’s reverent epic was largely ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

*This has already inspired a parody titled "We Saw Your Junk," at

Monday, February 18, 2013


I love signage.  Those of you (all three of you) who have remained my constant readers throughout the years know that I've written on signs and their sign(ificance) a lot -- there was the article in the East Hampton Star, titled "The Semiotics of Springs," that almost got my house firebombed twenty years ago, just because it traced the ongoing conflict between townies and weekenders to the unconscious ways in which they marked their territories.  I wrote on the unintelligibility of NYC parking signs on this blog a couple of years ago, and now they're being reworded (obviously Bloomberg is a fan).  And later, I took the town of Southampton to task for displaying mammoth billboards depicting a cop in combat stance aiming a pistol-like radar detector at motorists, which I found less than subtle.

But the above falls into the category of mere whimsy.  The device is attached to the wall of the room in NYU's Skirball Center where they give flu shots, though I'm sure it's used many other purposes than that, none of them obvious but perhaps known causes of panic -- doctoral orals?  Job interviews?  Theatrical auditions?

What, exactly, might the sign mean?

1) If you're in a panic, activate this alarm (and a doctor will come and give you a thorazine shot?).

2) If you're not in a panic but there's panic around you, and you want to put a stop to it, activate this alarm (and paramedics will rush in and slap everyone's face, the way they do in the movies to people having hysterics?).

3) If you want to cause a panic, activate this alarm (and snakes will start slithering out of the heating ducts?).

The most interesting thing is that none of these could conceivably be the real answer, yet I can't imagine what it is.   "Panic," in this or any context, would seem to be a bad thing, but is "alarm" a good thing?  An antidote to panic, not a synonym for it?  The sign itself is obviously home-made, stuck above the switch that it fails to identify, and urge to pull that switch, just to see what would transpire, was hard to fight down -- though I wouldn't say it alarmed me.

Friday, February 15, 2013


This is a photograph of a typical hole at the Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego, where the Farmer's Insurance Open was played in January.

And this is a photograph of a typical hole on the Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship was played a week earlier.

Notice any difference?

Abu Dhabi, which is perhaps the richest country in the world per capita, wants a seat at the golf table, and is prepared to spend whatever it takes.  Apparently, they paid Tiger Woods and Rory McElroy, ranked second and first in the world, over a million dollars apiece to buzz in on their private jets and participate in the tournament. (Both of them played miserably and weren't around for the last two days of the four-day event.)

But the Emirates don't get golf.  One of the most appealing things about that much-maligned sport is the beauty of the courses themselves, oases of green and gold, mountains and pastures, lakes and rivers and oceans.  Golf courses are the formal gardens of the modern era; if you were a landscape architect, wouldn't you want someone to give you 300 acres of virgin land and a blank check?  In the United States, in the UK, in Spain, in Australia and New Zealand, there are stunning courses, many of them with seaside vistas that are so gorgeous it's impossible to keep your mind on the little white ball.   This is the 17th hole at Pebble Beach, on the Monterrey Peninsula of northern California:

You can see pods of migrating whales from the course itself.  The Abu Dhabi course is right on the Persian Gulf, but you'd never know it, at least from the TV coverage.  All you can see is advertising (and those signs, by the way, interfere with play, as you might imagine).

So why does AD, dripping with money, visually pollute what could be a major attraction?  Because money is what they know about and what everything in the Emirates comes down to, from the tallest building in the world to the so-called "souks" where, instead of interesting examples local artisanship (as in, say, Morocco) you're confronted with shlock.  The first thing you see in the biggest souk in Dubai (which is even more commercialized than Abu Dhabi, despite or because it's poorer) is rack after rack of T-shirts:

I spent a week in Abu Dhabi last year, courtesy of NYU's new humanities college there, and I was both fascinated and repelled by the place. Their path to Westernization seems to be the fastest of any country in the world; where fifty years ago there was nothing but desert, there's a city -- if a city is a place with enormous skyscrapers all built at the same time, and no neighborhoods.  Golf may not be the most important feature of a country's cultural life, but it's a handy barometer of the extent to which a society's values bypass esthetics and art in favor of money.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


This font is Courier.  I've left two spaces after the period.  This font is Times. I've left one space after the period.  

Who cares?

Farhat Mamjoo, that’s who.

My friend Amanda Gibson posted a fascinating Slate piece on FB earlier today – fascinating, at least to her, to me, and to an apparently enormous cohort of grammar fanatics who feel passionately about a conflict so apparently trivial that it will probably bore you to tears or make you laugh out loud.

Ready for this?  When typing, should you leave one or two blank spaces after a period at the end of a sentence.

I kid you not.  You can read the piece – “Space Invaders” by Farhat Manjoo -- at

There’s a generational divide here:  many of us who learned to type on typewriters rather than keyboards were taught to leave two spaces, which several of the authorities quoted find deeply offensive because it’s, well, a waste of space, and also esthetically unpleasing. 

There was once, Manjoo admits, a good reason for this practice:  before they disappeared, typewriters evolved from using monospaced fonts to proportional ones.  If a font is monospaced, each character – whether an ‘l’ or a ‘w’ – takes up the same amount of space.  Proportional fonts allocate more space to wider letters, less to narrower ones.  In the earlier mode, the spacing in sentences looked a little weird.  (You can check this out for yourself by typing a few sentences in the font called Courier, which is disproportional. I’d do it here, but Google won’t let me.)  Two spaces after the period made it clearer that the kind of full stop represented by the end of a sentence had occurred.

What galls me about Manjoo, who says what galls him about the two-spacers is “their certainty that they’re right,” is his certainty that he’s right.   He should know that there is no right and wrong when it comes to usage.  There was no such thing as English grammar until the 18th century, and it’s been changing ever since, like all living languages.  It’s no more “right” to use one space than it is to leave out or put in the final comma in a series (like “red, white, and blue”). The one-space rule “is one of the canonical rules of the profession, in the same way that waiters know that the salad fork goes to the left of the dinner fork,” says Manjoo.  Canonical rules were made to be broken; they’re silly and arbitrary. Another “canonical rule” is that you’re supposed to put colons and semicolons outside of quotation marks, but commas and periods inside.  Why?  Who in God’s name cares? (Manjoo, probably.)

Manjoo cites as his authority typographers – the people who turn typed manuscripts into type for printing.  But in these days of self-publishing, typographers are a dying breed, made increasingly irrelevant by the practice of self-publishing.  And they certainly aren’t the arbiters of usage that they and Manjoo think they are.  All they have a right to do is come before us like some Dickensian child, and in a small voice humbly and politely request that we drop the two-space rule –which was their idea in the first place! So, the convention has changed?  It’s still just a convention, an arbitrary way of doing something that could as easily have been done differently.

If you want to get overexcited over writing conventions, I have a few more worthwhile ones to consider.  I get emails from my NYU students in which nothing is capitalized, commas are non-existent, and emoticons appear.  Want to talk about esthetically offensive?  Here’s what I think about that:  : (

Tuesday, February 12, 2013



What alarms me most about the rhetoric of the NRA-worshipping far right when it comes to guns is their taxonomy:  everyone is either a "good guy" or a "bad guy," and it follows, as Wayne LaPierre put it, "The only thing that stops a bad buy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."  

But where does Osakarose of San Antonio fit in?  She wrote, "The whole point of being a registered owner is: #1 to own the gun legally and be trained in its use, #2 to protect myself and my property from criminals.  I do not want them to know I own a gun; I want it to come as a complete surprise to them when they break into my home and I blow them away."

Rose, do you sit up all night in your darkened living room, locked and loaded, waiting for the doorknob to turn?  Is it protection you want, or the thrill of shooting to kill?  Are you, in short, a good guy or a bad guy?  Isn't a good guy a gun owner who hasn't committed a crime with his gun -- until he ambushes someone (maybe a family member who forgot his keys), or feels threatened by an innocent passerby in states that permit an armed, violent response, or experiences an ungovernable fit of road rage while wearing a Sig Sauer on his hip -- in which case, doesn't he cross that boundary and become a bad guy?