I’ve got a little list…

Top Five Awesome Things About My Recent Surgery

5. The anesthesiologist actually laughed at my Walking Dead jokes.

4. In fact, pretty much everyone I met at the hospital enjoyed my act. Thanks! Y’all were a great audience!

3. You know that bit where they roll you into surgery, start the engines on your anesthesia, and tell you to count backwards? Yeah. I don’t remember any of that. Clearly, in addition to having a terrific sense of humor, my anesthesiologist is brilliant.

2. Hospital swag! Seriously — they sent me home with a tub full of cool stuff, including this charming contraption:


This thing is all about making you suck.

Who knew there’d be prizes? Nobody told me about the prizes! Why didn’t anyone tell me about that?

1. It is now actually impossible for me to be hysterical (assuming one takes the origins of the word seriously) except in the comedic sense. Take that, sexist schmucks!

Posted in random stuff, Uncategorized | Tagged , ,

Time-Slices for Violin and Accompaniment

One of the things I really love about the Library of Congress Flickr stream’s collection of images from the early 20th C. (News in the 1910s) is that it provides a vivid reminder (as if one needed it) of the context in which certain people and objects in one’s experience actually operated. Recorded music, for example, can have the illusory effect of making a performance seem timelessly present.


Jascha Heifetz died in 1987, and this performance from later in his career (perhaps the late 60s) is, in its way “peak Heifetz” — racing, effortlessly light without sacrificing powerful tone and expression, and above all a demonstration of his excellent control and mastery of the instrument. Note that this isn’t a thoroughly cleaned-up recording — it’s still got all of the crunch and slip and noise that violins make even in the best hands, things that in some contemporary recordings (*coughAutoTune*cough*) are carefully hidden or corrected. That is, I think, what makes something like this performance feel so present to me — even Heifetz makes these sounds in this way, live and immediate and irrevocable.

I am used to thinking (because I was a child learning to play the violin when he was old and mostly dedicated to teaching rather than performing) of the image of Heifetz in this video — a gray man with a lively violin and a sort of understated, playful wink waiting to happen on his face. That’s why I was especially delighted to find him young again through the good graces of the Library of Congress, when the old man was a young prodigy:

Heifetz (LOC)

This undated photo from the Bain News Service was taken sometime between 1915 and 1920, probably around 1917; Heifetz would have been in his teens, having come with his family to the United States in ’17 to make his debut at Carnegie Hall. I love the picture not just for the window it provides into his youth, but also for its gritty printed-on-glass black-and-white details: the rosin near the bridge and f-holes of the violin, close to his face and body as the main focus of the shot; the blurring of his fingering hand; the attention of both Heifetz and the viewer of the photo drawn to the note played by his bow hand on the piano. It’s a lovely shot, thoughtful and full of the promise of music to come, and it’s just messy enough to feel immediate and present.*

It’s easy enough to put the old man and the young man beside each other in a digital environment, their images and sounds recorded and preserved long after the life of the man himself ended. Putting the old man and the young man together becomes possible in a way that life does not permit. So: an illusion of timelessness, created by the eternal “present” of recording media.





*It’s amusing to note that the digital image here (produced from glass negative) is actually flipped — it makes it look as if his right hand is holding up the violin while the bow is in his left, which is obviously not how he played. How can you tell? Look at the chin rest on the violin — if he had merely been persuaded to hold a normal violin incorrectly to set up the shot, the chin rest would be on the other side of the tailpiece. Yet it is difficult for me to imagine this image having quite the same impact facing the “correct” way; perhaps this feeling of mine is an artifact of living in a culture where so much of what we do is oriented left-to-right.

[Edited to replace video content with a similar enough example to suit the post without a whole lot of rewriting; the original video was taken down due to a copyright complaint. Honestly, I hesitate to share this one, because I strongly suspect that it should also be taken down. I’ll keep looking for a more legit substitute.]

Posted in aesthetics, Library of Congress Flickr Stream MAGIC, music | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Still Spectacular After All These Years

Every year, the little town I live in throws a big ol’ 4th of July parade, and every year it serves as another example of how little towns live, grow, and change.

It invariably begins with the patriotic past, and history is threaded throughout: old army vehicles with an ever-dwindling population of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam veterans riding them, a museum collection of old Farmall and Deere tractors, antique cars, and antique fire trucks.

Iwo Jima (2)

The Iwo Jima memorial float made (I think) its third appearance this year, built and manned by the Ida Grove (IA) American Legion post, and it remains the most impressively constructed actual float in a parade that typically features much simpler entries (including “random truck with a sign on it,” a perennially popular form of expression).

Safety and Service

This year, in addition to driving its shiny antique truck, the Storm Lake Fire Department marched in uniform with an antique hose rig, suitably flagged.

Two for One

Of course, one way you know you’re in a rural town is if your parade features tractors pulling other tractors. This is just a simple twofer — I wasn’t able to capture a picture this year of the guy who shows up pulling more than thirty (in ever-shrinking size, down to a really teeny toy).

Flag Ride (1)

Every year, there are marvelous charreria riders, marching with big smiles and big flags and magnificently well-trained horses. Storm Lake is, in its way, the demographic future of the rural midwest and west — driven by immigrants from everywhere, but especially notable for large Latinx populations that came to town for the agribusiness jobs and stayed to build lives beyond the Tyson plant.


This year, we were lucky enough to get to celebrate a special entrant: our very own Pulitzer Prize winner, Art Cullen of the family-owned, family-run, and totally local Storm Lake Times. I like to think of this as another move in the direction of a different possible future for the rural US — and it certainly tells a different (and much richer) story of midwestern small-town life than the recent barrage of post-election thinkpieces about rural Trump voters and working-class white people. Storm Lake is not nearly as simple as it looks to an outsider who wants to make a point with a color-coded map, and it is not an outlier in its complexity. This is, ultimately, what a study of the parade reveals, every year.

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How To Work A Hat

Today’s trip to the Library of Congress Flickr Stream is instructional in nature, with particular regard to applied haberdashery. Your instructor in the fine art of hattery today is the brilliant Luisa Tetrazzini, late 19th/early 20th Century coloratura soprano and generally cheery sort of person.

Tetrazzini (LOC)

That is how you wear a hat, friends. Tetrazzini-style: Like you’re brilliant and you know it, but you don’t care, because the thing you’re brilliant at is really just the thing you love to do. That is the hat of a woman who lived a big, loud, exciting life, worn just as it should be. The woman who chose that hat knew how to make an entrance, and she knew how to hold an audience.

Tetrazzini (LOC)

Her life was not always easy, either personally or professionally. She got into any number of contract disputes with a variety of financiers and sponsors, including Oscar Hammerstein (with whom she was under contract in New York). Amid her legal battle with Hammerstein, she actually performed a free street concert in San Francisco, famously saying that “I will sing in San Francisco if I have to sing there in the streets, for I know the streets of San Francisco are free.”

Toward the end of her life, ill and much poorer than she should have been, she was still the same diva in the winged hat: “I am old, I am fat, but I am still Tetrazzini.”

Still rocking it, Tetrazzini-style.


Posted in Library of Congress Flickr Stream MAGIC, music, photography, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Type(face)s and Tokens

The development of movable (metal) type presses is, of course, a revolutionary technological feat that changed how information was presented, stored, and shared. While we often (“we” being general folks who aren’t printers and know more about the results of the printing process than we do about the process itself) speak of printing in terms of typefaces, presses, and binderies as they are related to their output, I suspect that we don’t spend much (if any time) thinking about the internal business of typeface production, as accomplished and owned by the printers and foundries that produce the type. Among the things we (the outsiders to the business of printing and publishing books) perhaps don’t consider at all are what I think of as internal sales matters. How do printers and foundries catalog, present, and sell type itself, as they surely must?

One way in which a typesetter, printer, or foundry sells and organizes  type is through a Specimen Book of Types. These books serve as sample sales catalogs presenting available types (including ornaments and borders as well as letters) in multiple sizes; they may also demonstrate a model binding style. The trick to creating such a catalog, of course, is figuring out how best to show off the typefaces, and different printers and foundries have often put their own spin on the business. While some use lorem ipsum (a deliberately garbled selection of the Latin text of Cicero’s de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum), others have historically found ways to make their type catalogs into both subtle and overt representations of the kinds of printed content they sell.

Book of Types, Athenaeum Press

Detail of the spine of a specimen book of types from the Athenaeum Press

A few posts back, I took a look at a book from the Athenaeum Press in Cambridge, MA, created and run by Ginn & Co. in the late 19th C. The company specialized in textbooks for students in the US; according to their own promotional material, their founder, Edwin Ginn, was among the first to take the student reader seriously in his approach to textbook selection and printing. The book in the image here is a Specimen Book of Types of the Athenaeum Press (1907), and it’s a lovely example of how a press might use a type catalog to do more than just sell type. Physically, it’s a sturdy book about 19cm tall, with signatures of heavy paper held together by a sewn binding. Assuming the typical binding from Athenaeum didn’t change too much between 1907 and 1925, “the thread is made of the strongest linen and will support a sixty pound boy,” at least according to the film linked above.* The copy I own is a bit water-damaged, but the thick paper holds up well for all that, with only a moderate amount of discoloration and a little rippling to indicate where the water had gotten to it; the cover is solid, and shows little evidence of water touching it at all.

A little water damage

Pages 12-13 (slightly water damaged) of the Specimen Book of Types of the Athenaeum Press (Cambridge, MA 1907). Note the sample text.

Athenaeum’s educational mission lived not only in its products, but also in the company’s specimen book, which made do with no lorem ipsum to speak of. The English language body type is presented using a selection on the history of printing from one of Ginn & Co.’s own textbooks, Philip Van Ness Myers’ A General History for Colleges and High Schools from the 1890s. The German fraktur typeface samples discuss the history of print through Gutenberg, and the Greek samples are based on Homer’s Odyssey. Discussions of the history of printing, as it happens, aren’t at all unusual in specimen books. The Keystone Type Foundry’s abridged type specimen book from the same year (1907), for example, is one of several that used the introductory text from Theo L. De Vinne’s lecture on “Historic Printing Types” (1885) for its body type samples; it appears to have been fairly popular material for textbook publishing operations. Interestingly, lorem ipsum was not the only Latin choice for printers to play with — the Austin Letter Foundry’s type specimen book (1838) made extensive use of Cicero’s Catiline Orationsspecifically the beginning of the first. The Athenaeum specimen book, however, uses no Latin at all (although there are two sizes of Anglo-Saxon and Hebrew and a set of inscription Greek and Latin characters on p. 80).

The pages of the Athenaeum book themselves present some additional curious features. Between pages 2 and 3 (so, between the end of the list of types at the beginning of the book and the section title page for body types) there’s a much-faded sheet of graph paper with a slightly different weight and texture from the pages around it. This sheet isn’t stuck in the book like a bookmark — it’s bound there, quite clearly threaded into the first signature. It’s not entirely clear what the purpose of the graph sheet is, although it might be useful for a salesperson mocking up typeface arrangements for a client. At the end, after p. 170, there are 26 blank pages (13 sheets); there may have been more at one time, as a few sheets seem to have been very cleanly cut out, perhaps to demonstrate something about the binding. There seems to be nothing about this catalog that doesn’t somehow represent the company’s product — type is merely the beginning.



* I’m not sure why supporting a sixty pound boy is supposed to be an impressive indicator of the strength of binding thread. Why exactly are we suspending sixty-pound boys with linen thread? Was this a thing? Are sixty pound boys more of a challenge than other objects or people of the same weight?

Screen Shot from archival footage of Ginn & Co.

Apparently, that’s some strong linen, right there.

Posted in Adventures in Collection Management, Library Business, random stuff | Tagged , , , , , ,

In Case of Apocalypse, Break Into Library

While (as I’ve already said) there is no apparent rhyme or reason to the books in the Wood’s House collection, there are some popular genres and themes (broadly construed): historical fiction, outdated textbooks, and a wide variety of reference works.

Among the reference works in the collection are two rather brilliant resources for daily life, both classics of their kind: Austin’s New Encyclopedia of Usable Information (1948) and A Dictionary of Everyday Wants (1876). These hefty, comprehensive volumes (1634 pages and 539 pages, respectively) cover everything from basic first aid to running a farm or a business to going on a vacation. They also provide a fascinating snapshot of how the people who wrote and compiled them understood the world — their expectations, their priorities, the technologies with which they were familiar, etc.

Austin's New Encyclopedia of Usable Information

The front cover of Austin’s New Encyclopedia of Usable Information (1948)

Austin’s New Encyclopedia of Useful Information, for example, lives up to its title quite well for any reader trying to start a new life as an adult in 1948. From this book, one can learn how to buy and maintain a home, how to choose a pet, the myriad small details necessary for raising children and sustaining a marriage, running a farm, and a wide variety of other information including basic accounting, shorthand, typing, etc. If I had been a new bride (or groom, for that matter) in 1948, I think I would have been quite happy to receive such a book as a wedding present — in a world without/before the internet, this is just the sort of thing one might want to have around in order to make it easier to handle the basic work of being an adult.

A part of the book’s charm is its matter-of-fact approach to life as a collection of tidy, self-contained, mutually connected priorities centered on the concept of a householdOf course, it seems to say, these are exactly the things one needs to know. Whatever else could you want? A later critic, sensitive to issues beyond the book’s scope, might well quibble with some of its assumptions or values — it is not an accident that the only people photographed in it are white, for example — but might nonetheless find that it lives up to its claim to present usable information, even when it comes to human relationships. Marriage is the foundational relationship (about which quite a lot of practical information is provided, in fact), the core around which houses and businesses and farms are to be built.

FullSizeRender 8

Before there was Google, there was Austin’s New Encyclopedia of Usable Information, ready to help us learn to dry the dishes sociably with our spouses.

The book (refreshingly) assumes that its clear how-to directions ought to be enough — that is, it assumes an audience of readers capable of taking on the DIY tasks of everyday life with relatively little hand-holding and no little amount of genuine reflection and freedom of judgment. Its marriage and child-rearing advice, for example, is remarkably current and flexible — the text suggests thoughtful, respectful engagement rather than proscribing narrow solutions as a rule, which makes its advice rather reassuring. As a text aimed at making the household and householders self-sufficient, its advice leans toward helping the reader help him or herself rather than solving every problem up front. This is an encyclopedia of usable information, a title that suggests active work and decision-making on the part of its audience rather than passive compliance.

Unlike Austin’s New Encyclopedia of Usable Information, A. E. Youman’s A Dictionary of Everyday Wants presents itself in the form of a general collection of several thousand “receipts” (that’s recipes, for folks who spell stuff the new-fangled way) for home remedies, cleaning solutions, approaches to practical farm and hunting tasks (breeding livestock, skinning and preparing game, etc.), and some really questionable medical advice. The Dictionary explicitly speaks to an interesting phenomenon: the ways in which changes in resources and technologies lead to changes in how we live. Its introduction positions it as a text that addresses, in one tidy collection, current developments in a fast-changing world (1876 being no less exciting a time than 1976 or 2006, from the perspective of the folks who live there and then). The Dictionary would probably be quite a bit more use in a wilder world — it does not have the institution of the tidy “household” in a relatively prosperous and stable country as its core organizational principle or model. Rather, it seems to start from a sort of beginning — that is, it assumes something like an idea of the “civilized,” in a constant condition of challenge and development.

I suspect that, should the zombie apocalypse arrive, the Dictionary would be more useful early on, but should living humanity ever attain victory over the shambling dead, the Encyclopedia is just the thing we’d need to make the world feel like home again.




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Graduation Day



Chris Isaak’s 1995 effort Forever Blue is a sweetly sung musical breakup, complete with all of the highs and lows that the end of a relationship can encompass — everything from despair and anger to desperate, self-deluding hope. Sometimes that makes listening to it a little exhausting, and I think even a person who really likes the music might come out of the experience of listening to the whole album in one sitting more than a little depressed. Like most of Isaak’s output, it’s more nostalgic than adventurous (technically/musically speaking), but the whole thing’s so tightly and beautifully constructed and well performed that it’s hard not to like it even if more adventure is what you’d really prefer. It’s exactly what I’ve expected and enjoyed from him ever since 1985’s  Silvertone, which I wore out on cassette tape back then. It’s a more intimate sort of work than the cheerier surf-along tone of San Francisco Days (1993), its immediate predecessor, or the more chart-popular powerhouse Heart-Shaped World (1989).

It seems weirdly appropriate to me that life should remind me of this record right now, with Twin Peaks resurfacing in all of its creepy, delicious Lynchian weirdness. I remember sitting in my apartment and re-watching the original series as a graduate student (back when binge-watching something required VHS and a lot of patience), at a time when quite a lot of my experience was sort of surreal and untethered to…well, anything, except reading a lot of philosophy. Back then, I thought I knew where I’d end up. It felt fated to me, which, in retrospect, I realize was really a stupid thing for me to believe; knowing what I now know about graduate programs and job markets in the humanities, I often find myself convinced that my grad school friends who finished and went off to get law degrees had the right of it back then.

I did, for a while, end up almost exactly where I thought I would; I’ve spent fifteen years teaching philosophy to undergraduates at a little liberal arts (ish — well, little, anyway) school in a small midwestern town, and I was happy for almost all of that decade-plus-five. I settled in there as soon as I arrived, and I planned to stay. I had no ambition beyond the one I had realized by getting that job, and I devoted myself to keeping it. What it meant to keep that job, unfortunately, was also what made it almost impossible to find another in a tight job market: lots of teaching, lots of institutional service, very little writing. While I was there, academic philosophy passed me by, and I was content for the most part to permit it to do so. I had what I wanted. I had neither the need nor the desire to move on.


Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Higher Ed. in the US is in a bit of a crisis, and little schools in little towns need to make big and sometimes unpleasant decisions in order to stay alive. My employer eliminated my program and my tenured job along with it — the ultimate employment expression of “it’s not you, it’s me.” They let me go, dropping me into a hiring market that, for philosophy, is disastrously bad and not likely to improve in the near future (at least not for over-teaching under-publishers like me). As a mercy (very much appreciated — don’t get me wrong! I’ll take it!), they’ve offered me an administrative position serving a program I was instrumental in creating, although I am no longer tenured, indeed no longer faculty at all. I can still do adjunct work for them, but I am in a condition much reduced relative to my prior work and status, and even as grateful as I am for the opportunity, it is hard to let go of what I’m being forced to leave behind.

“We can still be friends.” Right. Sure. Sure we can. We are. Aren’t we?

Right now, I’m at that horrid bit of the breakup where it’s just become irrevocably real that this has happened, and I have to deal with it and move on, even in an employment market in my discipline in which moving on is sometimes impossibly hard for someone in my position (undistinguished at mid-career, neither a fresh and exciting new face with a promising book coming out nor a notable senior with an Infinite Jest-sized CV full of accomplishments). It’s graduation day here, and I can’t quite face it.


Still, there’s hope, I suppose. We are still friends for now, my institution and I (metaphorically speaking, anyway).  I will be employed next year, regardless of whether my ongoing job search turns up anything. I have plans. I’m still actively looking for library positions, and the admin job will actually afford me better opportunities to improve my work experience in a library context. I have an Open Textbook to write this summer for an online course that I’m redesigning. I have ideas and plots and schemes to put into action. There’s work still to do, and I’ve got to step up and do it.


Still, it’s undeniably sad. Today’s a tough day. I wish my colleagues and students well, but I won’t be there to help them celebrate. We may be friends, but I’m not really up to going to my ex’s wedding yet.

Posted in music, random stuff, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments