ideas, language

Temps Perdu

There are a lot of books I look forward to reading, and even a few I look forward to re-reading. Among that smaller, second set is Swann’s Way, the first book of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, The Search for Lost Time, better known but perhaps worse translated as A Remembrance of Things Past. (The six following volumes in that opus are on the aforementioned looking-forward-to-reading list.)

Perhaps the greatest legacy of Proust’s work in the popular imagination comes in the opening pages, as he describes the experience of involuntary memory triggered by the taste of a little madeleine.

And suddenly the memory returns. The taste was that of the little crumb of madeleine which on Sunday mornings at Combray (because on those mornings I did not go out before church-time), when I went to say good day to her her in her bedroom , my aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of real or of lime-flower tea. . . . And once I had recognized the taste of the crumb of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-flowers which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like the scenery of a theatre to attach itself to the little pavilion, opening on to the garden, which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated panel which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the Square where I was sent before luncheon, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine. And just as the Japanese amuse themselves by filling a porcelain bowl with water and steeping in it little crumbs of paper which until then are without character or form, but, the moment they become wet, stretch themselves and bend, take on colour and distinctive shape, become flowers or houses or people, permanent and recognisable, so in that moment all the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water-lilies on the Vivonne and the good folk of the village and their little dwelling and the parish church and the whole of Combray and of its surroundings, taking their proper shapes and growing solid, spring into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

from Overture, translated by C.K. Moncrieff

Anyway, what was it that got me thinking of Proust? What was the trigger?

Belgian film poster. Title of movie is "Le Monstre des Temps Perdu".

*Belgian film poster for The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, effects by Ray Harryhausen. Happy 91st, Ray. Image via Jesse Marinoff Reyes Design.

journalism, language

Is there anything you can say when quoted while eating a truffle-flavored French fry that does not make you sound like a jerk?

I suspect not.

Lynn Hirschberg’s final celebrity profile for the NYT Magazine knocks the musician M.I.A. down a notch or two on the credibility scale. M.I.A., aka Maya Arulpragasam, comes across as possibly well-meaning, but also self-righteous and misguided. (And reminds us of how much we love the term “radical chic.”) Hirschberg includes little observations that, if left out of the story, would have given it a much different tone. Perhaps most-cited is the following:

“I kind of want to be an outsider,” [M.I.A.] said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.

Ah, the perilous fry. So tasty, yet, as NY Mag’s Vulture blog and others have realized, shot through with the risk of unflattering revelation if eaten in the presence of Ms. Hirschberg.

How might the french-fry phrasing sound if combined with other quotes set down for posterity? Would it be so bad?


  • “I’m as devastated as you are by what I’ve seen here today,” said BP’s Tony Haywood, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “I feel your pain,” said Bill Clinton, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “All we are saying is give peace a chance,” said John Lennon, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “We tend to prefer candidates who don’t talk about us one way in Scranton and another way in San Francisco,” said Sarah Palin, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die,” said Ted Kennedy, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” said George W. Bush, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “Every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the,”’ said Mary McCarthy, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “My failures have made me look at myself in a way I never wanted to before,” said Tiger Woods, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum which is what I am,” said Terry Malloy, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “To have served in this office is to have felt a very personal sense of kinship with each and every American,” said Richard Nixon, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again,” said Scarlett O’Hara, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.
  • “Please, sir, I want some more,” said Oliver Twist, eating a truffle-flavored French fry.


Architecture, China, journalism, language

The Diane Dale Follow-Up at Greenbuild

Diane Dale and I encountered each other on the expo floor at Greenbuild last month. It was a Thursday afternoon, the 20th of November, and the conference was in full swing. We’d initially walked past each other without quite realizing it, but were soon standing together in the middle of one of the paths between the rows of exhibition booths. Scores of conference attendees streamed around us

Dale has worked with the architect William McDonough for several years. Since 2000, she has been the director of community design at William McDonough + Partners. Dale is of medium height, with blonde hair and rectangular glasses. She looks just like her picture. A couple of days earlier, she stood up during the question-and-answer section of the panel I participated in at Greenbuild’s International Forum. She didn’t have questions so much as comments, which I described in a previous post. In a nutshell, neither Dale nor anyone from McDonough + Partners, was especially happy with my FRONTLINE/World story on the Huangbaiyu Cradle to Cradle Village Project in China.

She started by saying she knew I had mentioned her on my blog. When I asked what she thought of what I’d written, she said she hadn’t read it (she later clarified that it was printed out for her). But she did want to follow up on some of the points I made in my blog post, and gave some additional information about the role of William McDonough + Partners in the Huangbaiyu project. She did most of the talking. Our conversation was probably about 20 minutes, maybe a little longer. I spoke briefly with Kira Gould, the director of communications for the firm, soon after, and then once more, briefly with Dale. For those interested in the details, I’ve outlined the points they made, as well as some questions and responses, after the jump.
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articles, beach, dissipation, energy, environment, journalism, language, really?

Newspapers Say the Darndest Things

Chronicle front page 8 november“Crunch!”? Really? 

A huge cargo ship bumps into the Bay Bridge and spills 58,000 gallons of bunker fuel–not just oil, but bunker fuel–and this is the Chronicle’s headline? Is it supposed to be a joke? 

When I looked at my copy this morning, I originally thought this was a feature recapping some little disaster that I hadn’t heard about. But, no. This is breaking news.

art, history, ideas, language, life, poetry, talent, unfortunate

Enormous Changes, Last Minute: About Grace Paley

Grace Paley died two days ago. She was a sweet and humane poet and short story writer, one of those individuals for whom many will admit a familiarity with the name if not a specific knowledge of the work because some high school English teacher somewhere along the line (but a fan, truly) assigned a couple of her stories about the lives of working class New York women, narrated by those same working class New York women. But many others will remember her for a long time because they were great stories and great poems and illuminated a talent and a part of society that we would do well to remember–the Yiddish-inflected Jewish street and home life of New York in the 50s and 60s.

Grace was also an ardent activist, particularly for the cause of piece. During the Vietnam War she went to Hanoi on a peace mission to negotiate for the release of American prisoners. To learn more about her, I strongly recommend the obituaries in the New York Times and Washington Post–the Post for its wit (really, Grace’s wit), and the Times for its sheer, uninhibited enthusiasm.

I first met Grace Paley in 2000 or 2001. She lived near my college during the later part of her life, in Thetford, Vermont, and we had a couple of friends in common. One of them, Cleopatra Mathis, introduced me to her after a reading by the poet Grace Schulberg. We were at a little reception, catered by a local African restaurant, with platters of doughy fried finger foods and fresh vegetables. Grace Paley wasn’t in much of a talking mood, but was still very warm and friendly. “Don’t forget to eat your vegetables,” she told me. And then she bit into a carrot.

I saw her again a few years later, in April 2003. During the new Iraq War, it turned out. And she was worried about me. It was like talking to a close family friend or favored great aunt who is in town for the night and really just wants to make sure I’m getting along OK: am I? really? OK?

She was in San Francisco to give a talk at the giant Temple Emanu-el. (I wrote a friend about it, and from that am I getting some of these comments.) She didn’t read much, except a short and excellent story about spending six days in jail, and a few poems by other people. But she did talk a lot, especially about current events, and she didn’t avoid any questions. When asked about US involvement in the domestic situations of other countries, she recalled meeting a Chilean truck driver who had a briefcase full of paper money from the CIA. She and her husband Bob Nichols were visiting Chile to learn about strawberry farming. This was 1973.

I think I must have been the youngest person in the audience, except for a few 12 year olds. Maybe I was the youngest person who went there voluntarily. One woman a bit older than me stood up and asked Grace how she felt about current events as a Jewish person. This woman was young and attractive and well-dressed and well-spoken and after Grace’s talk she was surrounded by complimentary old women who clucked and cooed over her. The question seemed to arouse a sense of approval from some sections of the audience, though not necessarily all. How do you feel about these things as a Jewish person?

And Grace said, I’m not quite sure what you mean.

Grace Paley grew up as a normal socialist Jewish girl, she said, and added that religion never was very important in her family. I think she also said that her parents were quite critical of religion. She did make her opinion on the Israel-Palestine problem clear by suggesting that we transplant the anti-war slogan “Bring our soldiers home” to the occupied territories: “Bring the settlers home.” (This was before Sharon started the settlement withdrawals.) An Israeli friend of hers pointed out that having those settlers integrated into regular Israeli society would drive everyone else crazy, so Grace switched gears: “Send them home. They’re all from Brooklyn, anyway.”

She then mentioned that a series of threats she had received for her criticism of the settlements were traced to a single phone booth at a college in Brooklyn.

I talked to her briefly afterward, and she signed my edition of Collected Poems. (The poet and professor Gary Lenhart gave me a copy of her Collected Stories a couple of years back, as well–there you’ll find much of what the critics rave about.). We talked for what seemed a long time, but was probably just 10 or 15 minutes. I could feel all the middle aged women there eyeing me suspiciously–why is he taking so long? Though by the time I talked to her, there was no line. No rush, I suppose, either, as she made time for everyone who wanted to speak with her.

She hadn’t shaken the Bronx inflections (one former New Yorker told me they all work to cultivate it long after they’ve left): How’s life, dahling, whatta ya doing, are ya making enough money, good luck, dahling, good luck to you.


Grace Paley figured in the first blog entry I ever wrote, on the occasion of the death of a playwright. In that little essay, I lamented not getting to meet these great and talented people who lived when I lived, but died before I could talk to them, and noted that when it came to Grace Paley, I was lucky. Another person I mentioned there was the poet Kenneth Koch.

Kenneth Koch wrote a lot about helping people–especially children and seniors–write poetry. Koch figured heavily in me getting to know the aforementioned Gary Lenhart. And a friend of mine used some of Kenneth Koch’s writings when he helped children learn creative writing. Through some circuitous conversation, we ended up talking a little about all that. I hadn’t talked or thought of Koch for a while. This was Wednesday, the same day Grace Paley died. She was 84.


“Here,” by Grace Paley. First published in the Massachusetts Review.

Here I am in the garden laughing
an old woman with heavy breasts
and a nicely mapped face

how did this happen
well that’s who I wanted to be

at last a woman
in the old style sitting
stout thighs apart under
a big skirt grandchild sitting
on off my lap a pleasant
summer perspiration

that’s my old man across the yard
he’s talking to the meter reader
he’s telling him the world’s sad story
how electricity is oil or uranium
and so forth I tell my grandson
run over to your grandpa ask him
to sit beside me for a minute I
am suddenly exhausted by my desire
to kiss his sweet explaining lips

history, international, language, politics, really?

The Time Has Come To Talk of Many Things: Of Ducklings and Kings

In 2001, not long after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that people “need to watch what they say, watch what they do…” It was an unfortunate comment that was rightly criticized for its implicit threat against anyone who did not say the “right” things. It was also a good example of the growing politicization of national security and what constitutes a threat to that security.

For a while, language like this was spoken with impunity, as those who adopted a “tough-on-terrorism” posture flexed their political muscles by setting French fries free of their nominal burden, among other priorities. If those same people hadn’t been proven horribly wrong in the execution of many of their tough-on-terrorism strategies (Iraq), their rhetoric might have hardened into something more explicitly sinister. For an example of such rhetoric in the extreme, we need only look at a figure currently in the news, Aleksandr Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, re-elected today in what is characterized as an unfree, unfair election. Those who oppose Lukashenko (who won with something like 83 percent of the vote; Aleksandr Milinkevich, the opposition candidate, came in a close second with 6 percent) announced that they would protest the results in a peaceful gathering in the capital, Minsk, in October Square. In response, Lukashenko “vowed to crush any protests, warning Belarussians not to participate and foreign governments not to encourage them,” according to Steven Lee Myers of the New York Times. Furthermore:

“We know where they met, whom they met with and what discussions they had,” Mr. Lukashenko said during remarks made at an auto factory in Zhodino on Friday, according to the Interfax news agency. “God forbid that they should try to perpetrate something in the country. We will twist off their heads as though they are ducklings.”

We will twist off their heads as though they are ducklings. Is this a sign of Lukashenko’s power—that he could make such an explicit and mean-spirited threat? Or is it the product of a culture that values strength and decisiveness (but not ducklings)? One in which opponents don’t stand a chance. Is there a cultural or political driver behind that statement? Or is it just something clever that Mr. Lukashenko thought up on the spot? Whatever the case, the United States would have to be paralyzed by fear before President Bush could compare opponents to ducklings, if only because some would say he was making terrorists look sympathetic. The closest acceptable animal metaphors we employ have to do with taking advantage of defenseless animals to demonstrate the ease of victory (fish in a barrel, ducks in a row), which I guess is not so far from Lukashenko’s point. Instead, Bush compares terrorists to criminals—which they are—wanted dead or alive, to be “smoked out” of their caves. Unless you bring up the Crusades analogy.

No, for an American politician, twisting the heads off of ducklings won’t work as a metaphor for easy triumph. It would be like proclaiming that dispatching of your enemies is as easy as drowning kittens in a sack, or stepping on puppies. Big mistake. Politicians don’t have the grip on this country that Lukashenko has on his—he controls the media, got Parliament to make organizing protests or making statements against the state punishable by years in prison, even resurrected the KGB. Lukashenko can make the line work, but decapitated ducklings are out of our rhetorical bounds.

American politicians only make aggressive, extreme, or interesting statements if they don’t care about the repercussions, are desperate or confused, or are just bad politicians. Examples? Mike Bloomberg has recently sharpened his tongue, wandering off-script to claim, among other things, that junior high students were better reporters than the City Hall press corps, a habit attributed to his lack of grander political ambitions. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s sad and satisfying call for help after Katrina:”Now get off your asses and do something, and let’s fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country.” George Bush’s attempt to describe what happens when you fool me once. Even Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill was sort of puzzling and refreshing in his impolitic bluntness. On the other hand, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous labeling of Democrats in the state legislature as “girlie men” made for great copy, but would only invite ridicule now that he is in more dire political straits.

If, eventually, Belarussia has its own revolution, as the opposition wishes, one in the tradition of the Orange Revolution or the Rose Revolution, Lukashenko may become the unfortunate duckling. In the meantime, he’s the one in charge, and he’ll twist the heads off of as many ducklings as he likes, thank you very much. “L’etat c’est moi,” said Louis XIV—apocryphal, quite likely, but close enough. It’s a nice position to be in. Remember Tom DeLay, who tried to smoke a cigar at a federal building and, when told that federal law prohibits smoking in such facilities, replied, “I am the federal government.”

Louis died, eventually, and DeLay fell, and continues to fall, but Lukashenko hangs on. It’s good to be the king, or something close—I know it, you know it, Louis XIV knew it, Aleksandr Lukashenko and DeLay know it, Mel Brooks knows it. Even George W. Bush knows it. He told us as much as president-elect in December 2000 (and continues to make the point): “If this were a dictatorship, it’d be a heck of a lot easier, just so long as I’m the dictator.” That’s a funny thing for an American president to repeatedly bring up. Fair’s fair, I guess. He’s the guy running the country. It’s not like he should have to watch what he says.