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Monday, March 30, 2020

O, Isolation!

TRUTH TO TELL, there’s not much different going on here. Rural life has a built-in social-distancing factor, although that’s the thing that causes neighbors to crave any manner of get-together. Take the farm-supply store a half-mile down the road from me. It’s a long-established retail outlet that stocks every possible tractor-repair part, along with tools and boots and feed and hardware, and it draws customers from many miles around. But there have been days when you could raise a beard while waiting in line for the next cashier. My theory is that this is the first human contact some of the customers have had in many days, and they’re making the most of it. (You don’t count spouses or farmhands, of course; familiarity is conversation’s worst enemy.)

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Now the store, essential business though it has been deemed, is usually fairly empty and the line, if there is one, moves quickly. We’re getting ready for spring planting and need seeds and mulch, although this is something practiced here in a comparatively compact way. Around us, the farm tractors are disking wide furrows for the feed corn that dominates the late-summer landscape; here, a lone roto-tiller pushes through our unkind clay.

It’s not so rural here as to be without supermarkets and big-box stores, which perch about twenty minutes away in the struggling city of Amsterdam. But the supermarkets here (as have yours, I’m sure) are now limiting their hours and the hardware giants are limiting the number of customers allowed within, asking their overflow customers to wait in a well-spaced line, said spacing demarcated by PVC pipe sculptures reminiscent of a Christo installation.

Monday, March 23, 2020

How to be a Doctor

Guest Blogger Dept.: The rising need for medical personnel is bein matched by a rising self-sufficiency among the quarantined masses. According to Stephen Leacock, we can combine these pursuits, as reflected in his 1910 essay, reproduced below. At the time this was written, Leacock was a professor at Montreal’s McGill University. He began submitting articles to the Toronto humor magazine Grip in 1894 and soon his humorous pieces were appearing in magazines throughout Canada and the United States. In 1910, he privately published a selection of these as Literary Lapses, which was picked up by a British publisher, who issued editions in London and New York. Leacock soon became the most famous writer of his time.


CERTAINLY THE PROGRESS OF SCIENCE is a wonderful thing. One can’t help feeling proud of it. I must admit that I do. Whenever I get talking to anyone—that is, to anyone who knows even less about it than I do—about the marvellous development of electricity, for instance, I feel as if I had been personally responsible for it. As for the linotype and the aeroplane and the vacuum house-cleaner, well, I am not sure that I didn’t invent them myself. I believe that all generous-hearted men feel just the same way about it.

Stephen Leacock
However, that is not the point I am intending to discuss. What I want to speak about is the progress of medicine. There, if you like, is something wonderful. Any lover of humanity (or of either sex of it) who looks back on the achievements of medical science must feel his heart glow and his right ventricle expand with the pericardiac stimulus of a permissible pride.

Just think of it. A hundred years ago there were no bacilli, no ptomaine poisoning, no diphtheria, and no appendicitis. Rabies was but little known, and only imperfectly developed. All of these we owe to medical science. Even such things as psoriasis and parotitis and trypanosomiasis, which are now household names, were known only to the few, and were quite beyond the reach of the great mass of the people.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Some Little Bug Is Going to FInd You

My cabaret partner, Malcolm Kogut, and I spent yesterday recording the song embedded below. It's from a 1915 operetta by Franz Lehar, "Alone at Last," although it's not a Lehar number. It was common then to have interpolations to showcase a particular star's specialties. Unlike the other videos I could discover of this song, we went through all five verses, which you'll probably regret when you get to about verse three. Dr. Munyon, by the way, was a famous homeopath back at the beginning of the last century.

Monday, March 16, 2020

A Litany in Time of Plague

Guest Blogger Dept.: Thomas Nashe (or Nash; he signed it both ways) was a poet, playwright, and pamphleteer – and a devout Catholic, who lived from 1567 to 1601 or so. He wrote the lines below as a meditation on the Black Plague – which may well have brought on his own death. He is thought by some to have collaborated with Shakespeare on “All’s Well That Ends Well.” He also is purported to have written one of the most pornographic poems of his era, “The Choice of Valentine.” You may get more enjoyment out of that one than this one.


Thomas Nashe, or so it's reckoned
ADIEU, FAREWELL, Earth's bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen’s eye.
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us!

Friday, March 13, 2020

Grocery Story

YOU’VE PROBABLY CONTEMPLATED doing more shopping at your local food co-op for many reasons, among them that you’ll probably find healthier fare and you’ll be supporting the local economy. Once you finish reading John Steinman’s Grocery Story, you’ll wish never again to set foot in a supermarket.

Even as the book explains in anger-inducing detail how the supermarket chains got where they are today, it gives you enough info to help you realize how thoroughly such stores manipulate pricing structures, shelf placement, and, ultimately, you, the captive shopper.

Steinman is a food journalist who produced “Deconstructing Dinner,” a six-episode TV series, in 2013, and a syndicated one-hour radio show produced from 2006 to 2010, originating in Steinman’s home town of Nelson, British Columbia, where the author also served as a director for several years of the Kootenay Co-op, Canada’s largest.

But the Grocery Story begins in the U.S. with the A&P, a supermarket that began in the 1850s, swelled into an impressive national chain as it reached its height in the 1930s, and sputtered to its bankrupt finish in 2015. Its history is instructive. Early in the 20th century, A&P wielded enough buying muscle that it could institute aggressive pricing practices to undercut competing stores. As Steinman reminds us, this led to A&P losing a court case because of such predatory pricing – which then paved the way for the grocery chain to developing its own manufacturing facilities. Or contracting with other companies to provide house-brand goods, often aping a well-known brand in order to capitalize on a hard-earned image while undercutting its pricing.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Blowin’ up a Storm

MOSAIC RECORDS HAS BEEN VERY GENEROUS with its Woody Herman reissues, and for an excellent reason: Herman’s jazz bands (and there were many) were among the most exciting and innovative in the business. Why they’re not mentioned in the same breaths as the bands of Ellington, Goodman, Shaw, and the like, is puzzling. Herman had no shortage of hits during the big bands’ heyday. Perhaps his constantly mutating image worked against him.

Perhaps it’s the partisan nature of his current fanbase. Many jazz commentators are fond of picking this or that period of the Herman realm and disparaging the rest, but Herman’s lapses, such as they may be, occurred on an individual basis. He recorded any number of second-rate songs (who in the business didn’t?), and there were some questionable choices of session personnel when Woody had to pay the bills. But all of his bands, or herds, or whatever you wish to call them, gave off sparks – the result of Herman’s ability, again and again, to pick great performers and arrangers.

The new Mosaic release, “The Compete Woody Herman Decca, Mars, and MGM Sessions (1943-1954),” fills in the gaps created by two earlier (spectacular) Mosaic boxes. “The Complete Capitol Recordings of Woody Herman” is a six-CD collection that ranges from the end of 1948 to ’50, and from 1954 to ’56, which whetted the fans’ appetite for the release that followed: “The Complete Columbia Recordings of Woody Herman and His Orchestra & Woodchoppers (1945-1947).”

Friday, March 06, 2020

The Maddening Mystery of the Missing Manor

From the Editorial Trauma Dept.: Here’s a piece that could have been a favorite of mine, written in 1986, as I successfully traced a historic building that traveled from the Albany area to Williams College and back to Albany again, losing a great deal of its architectural luster along the way. But the piece I wrote was so badly butchered by an incompetent editor that I still shudder at the recollection, and I’m dismayed by the terrible changes that remain under my byline. This dates from before I was archiving my work carefully, so it’s all I’ve got.


THE MORNING WAS MISTY AND COLD as only spring in Albany can be. I stared down at State Street from my grimy office window wondering how the greenery could look so gray and decided that this might finally be the year I would have to clean the soot from the panes.

Van Rensselaer Manor,
as painted by Thomas Cole in 1841
The intercom buzzed. “There is a man here to see you,” came my secretary’s voice. “A Mr. Stimson.”

I gave her my devil-may-care rumble, although I know she is never impressed. “Send him in.”

Robbe Stimson was a tall, lanky fellow with sandy hair, tinted eyeglasses and a big, broad smile, a country gentleman in jeans and corduroy jacket. His Tennessee Walking Horse was probably parked outside.

“A detective’s office right out of Raymond Chandler,” he said, examining my dingy room with amusement.

“Mysteries are a sort of hobby of mine,” I replied, trying to sound like I’d breakfasted on whisky.

Monday, March 02, 2020

Getting a Rise

ALONGSIDE ITS INCREDIBLE RESOURCE of helpful information, the internet also has brought us the scourge of YouTube how-to- videos. This is not to say that I haven’t found many of them useful; I have. But the useful ones tend to be simple, self-produced video essays with a comprehensible presenter who didn’t begin by intoning, “Hey, guys,” and who saw merit in the use of a tripod.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Now we’re bombarded with overproduced videos featuring overexplanatory hosts, overdoing it at attempts at humor while overusing all available technical devices. And in no realm is this worse than in the matter of the cooking video.

I’m learning to make sourdough bread. I like to experiment in the kitchen, and this is an item that gives me plenty of room to do so. Previous attempts at breadmaking have been woeful – enough so that I will cop to using a bread machine, which I wrote about here – and sourdough has always seemed the most elusive of missions.

I was intimidated, right off the bat, by the concept of making a starter. It seemed as if it would take forever even as I threw out, day after day, half of whatever it was I had brewing. So I didn’t give it much thought until my daughter, a Manhattan resident, announced that she had started a starter, would be bringing it to my house on a recent trip, and expected oven access.

And I have to say that the loaves she turned out were pretty impressive. She wasn’t happy with the “crumb,” which is the inside texture. The flavor was there, but the loaves seemed dense. She left me a little starter and a lot to think about.