»  National Review Online Diary

  June 2008

Vile bezonians.     Few things are more distressing to read about than the murder of a good and useful person by a worthless one. Shakespeare knew this. As the Duke of Suffolk is led off to be killed by pirates in Henry VI Part II, he says:

Great men oft die by vile bezonians.
A Roman sworder and banditto slave
Murdered sweet Tully; Brutus' bastard hand
Stabbed Julius Caesar; savage islanders
Pompey the Great; and Suffolk dies by pirates.

[bezonian = a beggar, a worthless person, from Italian bisognoso, a pauper;  Tully = Marcus Tullius Cicero, great writer, orator and statesman of late-republican Rome, murdered by a Roman soldier on the orders of Mark Anthony after having been betrayed by one of his family slaves.  Brutus = Caesar's assassin, and according to rumor his bastard son.  Pompey = Caesar's adversary in the Roman civil war of 49-48 B.C., actually killed by two of his own officers in the hire of the (last pre-Cleopatra) Egyptian King.]

Here are two more for the sad — and so far as I am concerned, rage-inducing — catalog.

(1)  Beau Zabel, a 23-year-old native of Austin, Minnesota, murdered for his iPod on a dark Philadelphoa street June 15. Zabel was an Eagle Scout with degrees in philosophy, Spanish, and math. He was planning to be a schoolteacher, and was to begin his training in a few weeks. He was walking home from his job working the late shift at a Starbucks when he was murdered. Notice his tie.

(2)  Gospel singer Matthew Butler and his employee Stephen Swan, aged 28 and 26 respectively, were shot to death by two muggers outside Butler's recording studio in Garland, Texas. Two men have been arrested for the crime, and have confessed. Their attitudes seem to be somewhat different, though. Demarius Cummings "appeared to have some remorse when asked about the crime. 'I feel real bad, you know,' he told MyFOXDFW.com. 'I feel it was wrong what we did.'" His cousin James Broadnax was somewhat less remorseful: "I kind of regret what I did, but things can't change so no use crying over it." Asked what he would say to the families of the murdered men, he replied: "F—  'em." Well, I guess he gets points for honesty.

Capital punishment? I'm all for it. In fact — and I know, I'm a Neanderthal, avert your eyes please — if we were to bring back public execution for vile bezonians like these, I'd go watch. Heck, I'd take the family, and a picnic lunch.

Election downside.     Oh, that election business? Since we ended up with, from a conservative's point of view, the worst possible candidates from each of the two big parties, I've had to struggle to maintain interest. All right, I'll try harder.

At a graduation party yesterday a neighbor asked me what, from the point of view of a conservative like me, would be the worst aspect of an Obama presidency. Me: "The worst aspect would be, I'd have to read his godawful bloody autobiography."

Young Adult fiction.     "YA fic." to the publishing houses, I am told. This is, according to Wikipedia, "fiction written for, published for, or marketed to adolescents, roughly ages 12 to 18." My daughter at 15 is right in the middle of that range, and seems determined to read every single YA novel ever published before she reaches 18. She takes them out of the library half a dozen at a time.

Now and then, more from sheer curiosity than from any intent to monitor the stuff, I read one of these books. Some are sappy; some drip political correctness from every page (as, of course, does much adult fiction); a surprising number are morbid — disease, disability, and death — but a lot of them are cool, funny, and well-plotted.

This month's selection from the Nellie Derbyshire YA Fiction Book Club was Frank Portman's King Dork. The first-person protagonist, a high-school sophomore, describes himself as: "small for my age, young for my grade, uncomfortable in most situations, nearsighted, skinny, awkward. and nervous." And of course "no good at sports." The meatier boys beat him up when they're bored; the girls ignore him. You see where the title comes from.

Portman is very good on the anthropology of high school.

Now, here's something I've noticed about girls, after years of careful observation. They tend to sort themselves into groups of three. There's the hottest one, who is the boss. She dominates and controls the second-hottest one, who is the sidekick and second-in-command, and she instructs her in the art of clothes and sexiness. Then there's a third one, usually chubby or freakishly tall and skinny or otherwise afflicted, whom #1 and #2 both boss around. #3 is a sort of gopher, doormat, punching bag, object of loving condescension, and project for improvement all rolled into one …

He is also funny about the strange Catcher in the Rye cult, still going strong after forty years (at least). I'll confess I have never read Catcher in the Rye, though I think I started it once. It does seem to be the cult book among American high school teachers, though. Nellie read it earlier this year, her freshman year of high school. The teachers told her she had to, she said. Portman's hero naturally develops a counter-cult. His rock band's signature tune, "Losers Like You," goes:

Catcher in the Rye is for losers
Losers, losers,
Catcher in the Rye is for losers
Losers like you.

King Dork comes with a mock-glossary that displays some quite keen insights into the lit. biz. Sample:

epigraph (a-PIG-rape):  an obscure quotation at the beginning of a book designed to make the author of the book seem smarter and more well-read than its readers. An epigraph that doesn't make the reader feel confused, small, worthless, and stupid is an epigraph that has failed. Therefore, the best epigraphs have no discernible relationship to the contents of the books they adorn.

I think that's a wee bit unfair to epigraphists, but there's no doubt it has some truth content. I turned to the front matter of King Dork to see if Portman himself had included an epigraph. (Like everybody else in the world, I think, I start reading novels at page 1 of Chapter 1.) He had indeed — a very striking one by a surprising poet.

Moment of parental pride.  Recalling that Nellie had liked Catcher in the Rye, in spite of having been made to read it, I asked her if Portman's anti-Catcher barbs had changed her thinking. She, a bit puzzled: "No. Why would they?" My girl makes her own literary judgments, bless her.

Boots, boots, boots …     Just one more follow-up on this month's Long Walk. I did an FAQ on the episode, but some more questions have come in, concerning what boots and socks you wear for a jaunt like that.

I'm not a fan of buying $800-worth of specialist equipment before venturing on any kind of physical exercise. My hero in this sphere is George Mallory, who climbed Mount Everest in what look like my Dad's old gardening boots. (He climbed part of the way wearing nothing else …) The boots I wore for my 14-hour trek were my own actual gardening boots, an old pair (of course! you do not want to attempt distance walking in new boots) from Hitchcock's, where I buy all my footwear. My boots are in fact so old that Hitchcock's doesn't seem to carry them any more, but the second "work footwear" boot here is a good approximation.

Socks: plain white, come in a pack of six from the local discount store, $9.99 the pack. I told you, I'm the specialty-sportswear salesman's worst nightmare.

Driving out demons.     In mid-June I posted a brief remark about Bobby Jindal's having participated in an exorcism. Over the next few days I learned a thing that left me, I must say, somewhat depressed: I learned that quite a lot of NRO readers believe in demonic possession. At any rate, I got half a dozen emails along the lines of this actual one:

I recently saw your post about Bobby Jindal and his encounter with a demon as a young man. For you to dismiss his claims shows me the ass that you really are. As a Catholic, and a man of faith, something obviously you don't understand in that puny brain of yours, demons are a very really [sic] part of the faith. The devil does exist and he tries everyday to destroy our souls. Why you feel the need to justify your beliefs to liberals, I myself live in NYC, is stupid. You want to get along with libs and not feel bad about yourself fine. I want to destroy them. So please leave NR and take your whiny liberal ass with you!

Well, lots of luck with that program to "destroy" liberals, Sir. I'll remain content to just try to win arguments with them. But if I have to believe in demonic possession to be a True Conservative, what else do I have to believe in? Ectoplasm? Spirit writing? Witchcraft? What's the party line on leprechauns?

Misogoneist?     The Earl of Marchmont, talking to James Boswell about Dr. Johnson's great Dictionary one day in May of 1778, as related by Boswell:

"Do you know the history of his [i.e. Johnson's] aversion to the word 'transpire'?" Then taking down the folio Dictionary, he [i.e. the Earl] shewed it with this censure on its secondary sense: "To escape from secrecy to notice; a sense lately innovated from France, without necessity." [The Earl continues] "The truth was Lord Bolingbroke, who left the Jacobites, first used it; therefore, it was to be condemned. He [i.e. Johnson again] should have shewn what word would do for it, if it was unnecessary."

Boswell then continues:

I afterwards put the question to Johnson: "Why, Sir, (said he,) 'get abroad'."  BOSWELL. "That, Sir, is using two words."  JOHNSON. "Sir, there is no end of this. You may as well insist to have a word for old age."  BOSWELL. "Well, Sir, Senectus."  JOHNSON. "Nay, Sir, to insist always that there should be one word to express a thing in English, because there is one in another language, is to change the language."

Far be it from me to take up cudgels against the great lexicographer, but like the Earl, I'm always mildly annoyed when I come across some plain concept for which the English language has no single word.

Case in point: I recently wanted a word for "a person who hates his parents." Such persons are not, after all, that uncommon. I've know a few cases in my time, and I've found that it often explains a lot about that person's broader social and political attitudes. But what's the word?

The prefix "mis-" or "miso-" seems like a good start, but neither the OED nor Webster's Third had anything to offer. Liddell and Scott's Greek-English Lexicon gives goneos for "parents" if I'm reading it right (I don't know Greek beyond the alphabet), so "misogoneist" looks about right; yet not only is it not in either of my major-league dictionaries, it gets zero hits on Google.

Why wouldn't there be a word for this? Do other languages have a word for "person who hates his parents"? My wife doesn't know such a word in Chinese, though given the Confucian tradition of filial piety, that's not very surprising. Can readers offer anything from other languages?

Irish washerwoman.     The June 20 broadcast of Radio Derb included a clip of a traditional Irish fiddler (actually Gerry Heaney) playing "The Irish Washerwoman." You almost certainly know this tune. If you only know one Irish jig, it's this one.

Question: What words do American children sing to this tune? Kids in England, at any rate in my childhood, used to sing:

O'Connell is dead and his brother don't know it;
His brother is dead and O'Connell don't know it;
They's both of them dead
And they's in the same bed,
But sure neither one knows that the other is dead!

(And you thought all those stories about the English being beastly to the Irish were just made up!)

Do American kids sing that? Or something else? Or what?

I know Americans are familiar with the tune. Isaac Asimov, who grew up in New York City in the 1920s and 1930s, and who trained as a biochemist, used to tell a story of being in a lab once when a colleague asked where "the stuff" was.

"You know — that reagent with a long name, begins with 'para-,' I can never remember the dang thing."

"Oh," said Asimov, "you mean paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde."

"That's the one," replied the colleague, "but how the heck d'you remember that? I never can."

Asimov:  "Easy! It's 'The Irish Washerwoman'! See?" Whereupon he danced off across the lab singing: "PA-ra-di METH-yl-a MIN-o-ben ZAL-de-hyde!  PA-ra-di METH-yl-a MIN-o-ben ZAL-de-hyde!  PA-ra-di METH-yl-a MIN-o-ben ZAL-de-hyde! …" to the tune of, of course, "The Irish Washerwoman."

"The Irish Washerwoman" is, in other words, a chain of dactyls, like "The Bridge of Sighs" (though the poet's taken some liberties, as skillful poets will, truncating some of the feet). This appeals to me. I'm fond of dactyls, my surname being one. I gave my kids dactylic names. At least, I thought I did: apparently Americans pronounce "Daniel" with only two syllables. Never mind, the lad still has the indisputably dactylic "Oliver" for a middle name.

Math Corner.     Math story of the month was undoubtedly this one from southern England — a crop circle designed around the first ten digits of pi.

Crop circles are deeply mysterious to me. Not "mysterious" in the sense of "what strange beings, from what remote region of spacetime, are making these things, and what are they trying to tell us?" More along the lines: "Why the  *?!$%#*  would anybody waste several hours of his time stomping down corn to make some weird pattern, just so he could see it reported in the newspapers?"

Runner-up is this one from Yahoo News:

For kids to do better in math, their teachers might have to go back to school. Elementary-school teachers are poorly prepared by education schools to teach math, finds a study being released Thursday by the National Council on Teacher Quality … Math relies heavily on cumulative knowledge, making the early years critical.

What a surprise. Actually, math is one of the easiest subjects to teach. The students have to do most of the work. The only way to learn math is to grind your way through endless drills. You want to understand quadratic equations? Solve a couple hundred of them, by all the different methods — graphical, formulaic, sight-factorization, geometric. There isn't another way. A teacher can explain the basics, but then you have to do the drills. Till you're blue in the face. Till you can do them in your sleep. That's it. No other way.

That is of course contrary to the whole ethos of our feminized, emotionalized, romanticized culture. So the stuff doesn't get taught, a generation of teachers comes up who don't know it, and we end up with articles like this one.

Probably the best way to teach math, and a lot of other subjects too, is to break the curriculum down into simple repetitive drills and provide some supervised place where the students can work through the drills in silence. Probably you need to stream the students first, so the whole classroom is working at roughly the same pace. WHAT? ARE YOU SUGGESTING THAT SOME KIDS ARE SMARTER THAN OTHERS, DERBYSHIRE? WHAT ARE YOU, SOME KIND OF FASCIST?

The education article that impressed me most this month was that report on "The Swedish Model" in The Economist's June 14 issue. It's about a chain of private schools run on the minimalist Ikea principle. Says Per Ledin, the boss of the company:

We do not mind being compared to McDonald's. If we're religious about anything, it's standardization. We tell our teachers it is more important to do things the same way than to do them well.

I get so sick of hearing blowhard politicians tell us how we need to recruit "great teachers," how that will work wonders for our schools. Ain't going to happen. Most teachers, like most people in any line of work — I've done a few, including schoolteaching — are mediocre. For the work to be successful, you need a system that gets good results from employees who are not all charismatic motivational geniuses. Plenty of business companies do this, along with other organizations like the military. Schools don't do it, not very well. They need better systems. The Swedish Model looks good to me.