Three Things

1. Today Bush attended a a study group; next week he’ll be going to Vietnam. Maybe he’s having a midlife crisis or something, and frantically trying to do all those things he didn’t do as a youth.

2. Am I mistaken in my belief that duct tape doesn’t actually stick to anything? I was lugging a roll of it around with me yesterday as I did home repair stuff, and was amazed at the wide variety of surfaces and textures it steadfastly refuses to adhere to. Duct tape is like the Paris Hilton of hardware: it has this huge reputation, despite having never done anything useful.

3. Back when I was in middle school, it seems like I used the phrase “pop a boner” at least two or three times daily. Now, despite my best efforts, I am only able to use the phrase in casual conversation or work email a few times a month. Oh, where have those carefree days of youth gone?

Moby-Dick, Chapters 29-33

Chapters read: xxix. Enter Ahab; to Him, Stubb, xxx. The Pipe, xxxi. Queen Mab, xxxii. Cetology, xxxiii. The Specksnyder

Page reached: 140 of 522 (26.82%)

Status Report: Oh, man. Chapter 32. This is probably a strong contender for the title of Most Skimmed Chapter In Classic American Literature. I would have skipped it myself if I hadn’t resolved to read this book in its entirety.

Thirteen pages long — about three times the length of the average chapter — “Cetology” has the narrator giving an impromptu lecture on the nature of the whale, grouping the beasts into fourteen categories and offering lengthy descriptions of each. Here, Melville uses a literary technique known as OMG BORING! In some other context I might have found this engrossing, but here it’s like, “Dude, you got your marine biology lecture in my adventure story!”

I wonder how many people have quit reading Moby-Dick at “Cetology”. I bet this chapter is a veritable Goodwin Sands, with a thousand shipwrecked readers littering its shore.

I could have been one of them, as Moby-Dick is perilously close to violating my One-Third Reading Policy, which states that I shall abandon any book that I am not enjoying when I am a third of the way through it. Unfortunately I am determined to finish this thing, so quitting on page 174 isn’t an option. But Cetology has sapped my of all momentum. Chapter 32 is a disabled vehicle in the center lane of this book’s narrative.

Words looked up::

  • Ferrule: A metal ring or cap placed around a pole or shaft for reinforcement or to prevent splitting.
  • Hone (“Sailors put [the oil] on their hones”): Whetstone

Moby-Dick, Chapters 22-28

Chapters read: xxiii. The Lee Shore, xxiv. The Advocate, xxv. Postscript, xxvi. Knights and Squires, xxvii. Knights and Squires, xxviii. Ahab

Page reached: 119 of 522 (22.80%)

Status Report: Confessing to kinda liking Moby-Dick in my last report brought the jinx down upon my head, because this twenty page block did nothing for me. In it we learn about the crew of the Pequod, including, at last, the mysterious Captain Ahab himself. Honestly, I don’t even like meeting people in real life, so this fell short of escapist entertainment for me.

More to the point, who the hell puts exposition on page 100? It’s like breaking away from a film 40 minutes in to show the opening credits. And right after the ship set sail, too — what a tease. If anything, there’s less action now that the story has begun than there was when the protagonist was still wandering aimlessly around New England. Even Melville seems to recognize the monotony of this stretch of prose, giving two adjacent chapters the same name.

I understand that knowing the background and disposition of these characters might be helpful later in the book, but this is less an introduction to the dramatis personae than a dissertation on them. He describes them at length, but from afar; we don’t actually get to meet them. When literature professors exhort their students to “show, don’t tell,” this is what they are trying to avoid.

Favorite passage: A description of the second mate, Stubb: “A happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking perils as they came with an indifferent air; and while engaged in the most imminent crisis of the chase, toiling away, calm and collected as a journeyman joiner engaged for the year. Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests. … When close to the whale, in the very death-lock of the fight, he handled his unpitying lance coolly and off-handedly, as a whistling tinker his hammer. He would hum over his old rigadig tunes while flank and flank with the most exasperated monster. Long usage had, for this Stubb, converted the jaws of death into an easy chair.”

Words looked up::

  • Pestiferously: Morally evil or deadly; pernicious.
  • Quoggy (“a mature man who uses hair-oil … has probably got a quoggy spot in him somewhere”): I can’t find a definition of quoggy anywhere, and I even stumped my local librarian on this one. The only reference I can Google up for it is a essay called “Melville’s Contribution to English” but, unfortunately, I don’t have access to read the entire article. Still, if Melville “contributed” the term to English, that seems to imply that he just made it up.
  • Investiture: The act or formal ceremony of conferring the authority and symbols of a high office.
  • Unvitiated: Pure
  • Taffrail: The flat upper part of the stern of a vessel, made of wood and often richly carved.
  • Mizen: A fore-and-aft sail set on the mizzenmast. (Mizzenmast: The third mast or the mast aft of a mainmast on a ship having three or more masts.)

The Power Of PR

It was 7:00 AM and I was at the the office, feeling peckish. I went to the next-door deli, but nothing on their breakfast menu appealed to me, so I asked if they could make a grilled cheese sandwich. Unfazed, the guy whipped up my order and handed it to me on a paper plate. I decided to eat it at my desk.

Now this was a few years ago, back when I worked at a call center. In order to return to my cubicle I had walk from the front door to the back of the building, passing dozens of my colleagues in the process. Many seemed agog at my breakfast selection.

“What is that?” asked one. When I told him, he seemed stunned. “A grilled cheese sandwich?” he said in disbelief. “At seven in the morning?!”

A few moments later, as I was still wending my way back to my work space, a second coworker asked me the same question. “Eating grilled cheese sandwiches for breakfast can not be healthy,” she announced after I told her.

I wasn’t safe from inquisition even after arriving at my desk. The guy in the cubicle next to me leaned over, saw what I was eating, and asked what it was.

I opened my mouth to say “grilled cheese sandwich,” but abruptly decided to change tack. “It’s breakfast cheese toast,” I said instead.

“Breakfast cheese toast?” he exclaimed, with a note of wonder in his voice. “Where did you get it? That sounds delicious!”

On Aging

On every birthday between the ages of four and 15, some adult would ask me “So, do you feel any older?” It was meant to be a joke I’m sure, but in some ways it was kind of depressing.

Hitting the next age was a big deal to me as a kid, as I always thought that the next annual increment would bring with it all sorts of long sought-after boons: more freedom, later bedtime, permission to watch more risque TV shows, etc. I would pine for my birthday for months, in the hope that, when the day finally arrived, everything would suddenly improve. At last the sacred date would arrive. And then along came these grown-ups to remind me that, really, nothing much had changed.

The Democrats have just taken both chambers of Congress. Feel any older?

Election 2006

And welcome to Election 2006.

In The Morning News today we have the winners of the Encyclopedia Brown for District Attorney contest.

In McSweeney’s, please to be finding my 2006 Voters Guide.

And although this is the part of the post where I am supposed to urge you to “get out and vote!” Washington State elections now rely almost exclusively on absentee ballots these days. So, you know: fondly reminisce about that time you voted, like, three days ago.

Dare to dream


Moby-Dick, Chapters 17-22

Chapters read: xvii. The Ramadan, xviii. His Mark, xix. The Prophet, xx. All Astir, xxi. Going Aboard, xxii. Merry Christmas

Page reached: 101 of 522 (19.34%)

Status Report: You know, despite all my grousing (though, given the setting of the novel, “carping” might be a more appropriate term), I am enjoying the book so far. It is not what I expected at all. I was bracing myself for 500 pages of turgid, byzantine prose, so steeped in symbolism that the plot was little more than a hook onto which the author could hang pages upon pages of religious allegory. In truth, Moby-Dick is, first a foremost, a fairly straightforward adventure yarn, a classic tale of “Boy Meets Whale, Boy Loses Whale (and Leg), Boy Goes in Search of Whale” story.

As for Melville’s logorrhea … well, I’ll tell you a secret. I like long-winded authors. One of my favorite contemporary writers is John Irving, famous for his ability to bury a 100 page story in 400 page book. And the novel I’ve most enjoyed in the last few years was House of Leaves, a book which, like Dick, has more asides, tangents, and digressions than actual narrative.

The atomic story unit in Moby Dick, I’ve discovered, is about twenty pages; that is, some major event that advances the plot happens about once every score of pages. I’m now on page 100, and I’d say about five things have really transpired: we met Ishmael, Ishmael met Queequeg, the two traveled to Nantucket, they signed papers to serve on the Pequod, and the Pequod set sail (at last, in the final line of chapter 22).

This works out great for me, as I reading the book in twenty-page chunks — 20 x 30 days = 600 pages, which means can take four days off and still finish it before December. So, really, it’s like tackling a chapter a day. And each evening, as I tuck into the novel, I feel like I am reading the next installment of a serialized adventure story found in the back of Boys Life magazine.

Words looked up::

  • Investing (“… a rag of a black handkerchief investing his neck): To clothe; adorn. To cover completely; envelop.
  • Confluent: flowing or running together; blending into one

Moby-Dick, Chapters 10-16

Chapters read: x. A Bosom Friend, xi. Nightgown, xii. Biographical, xiii. Wheelbarrow, xiv. Nantucket, xv. Chowder, xvi. The Ship

Page reached: 79 of 522 (15.13%)

Status Report: “Let’s go grab some lunch,” you propose to a co-worker.

“Yeah, that sounds good,” she replies. “Where do you want to go?”

“Oh, anywhere is fine. What do you feel like?”

“I don’t care, I like everything.” She ducks her head into another person’s cubicle. “Hey, Carolyn, we’re going to lunch. Do you wanna come?”

Fast-forward seventy minutes. You’re standing in the reception area of your office, and your “lunch party” now contains enough of your colleagues to form two rugby teams. You’re not even sure who you are waiting for, though you occasionally see people wander off toward the restrooms, or back to their PCs to check their email “one last time” before you depart. You still haven’t settled on a destination. Your stomach has begun digesting its own lining out of desperation.

This is how Moby-Dick is making me feel.

At least we’ve gotten to the ship. But it has yet to sail. And as Chapter 21 is entitled “Going Aboard,” I’m guessing it’s going to remain moored for another score of pages at the minimum.

Much of the last seven chapters was devoted to the burgeoning friendship between Ishmael and Queequeg. Having shared a bed the night they met, the two are now shacking up at every opportunity, though — and I cannot stress this enough — in a completely non-homoerotic way. I say that for the benefit of any school superintendents reading this, who would ban this book from their library in a heartbeat if they knew that, so far, the novel has been much more Brokeback than Humpback.

Favorite Passage: First sentence for chapter fourteen: “Nothing more happened on the passage worthy the mentioning; so, after a fine run, we safely arrived in Nantucket.” Actually laughed out loud when I read that. Either Meleville got writer’s cramp that morning or seven chapters were excised between 13 and 14, as lack of notice-worthy events did not deter him from writing the first 80 pages.

Words looked up::

  • Punctilious: Strictly attentive to minute details of form in action or conduct.
  • Trump (“All hands voted Queequeg a noble trump”): A reliable or admirable person.
  • Quahog: An edible clam (Venus mercenaria) of the Atlantic coast of North America.
  • Galliot: A light, single-masted, flatbottom Dutch merchant ship.
  • Celerity: Swiftness of action or motion; speed.

Moby-Dick: Chapters 5-9

Chapters read: v. Breakfast, vi. The Street, vii. The Chapel, viii. The Pulpit, ix. The Sermon

Page reached: 47 of 522 (9%)

Status report: A friend of mine once announced that he had deduced the secret to Stephen King’s success.

“Short chapters, man,” he told me. “Those things are like potato chips. You read one, and then you flip ahead and see how long the next one is, and you’re, like, ‘shoot, I can read three more pages.’ And then suddenly you’ve finished a 900 page book.”

Of course, King usually just enumerates his titles rather than give them titles; when he does employ titles, they are typically cryptic. You’re willing to invest in three more pages because a chapter with a title like “34” or “Home Base” might involve a cat coming back to life or someone getting run down by a ’58 Plymouth Fury.

Not so with Melville. When you see a chapter entitled “Breakfast,” you know full well which meal is going to be described in detail.

Each chapter in Moby-Dick is like a door reading “Broom Closet,” behind which you find a closet containing brooms. Outlandishly overwrought brooms, admittedly — with handles carved from cherrywood and quetzal feathers as bristles — but, still, pretty much exactly as advertised. And when you see a series of titles like “Breakfast * The Street * The Chapel * The Pulpit * The Sermon,” you know the exact sequence of events that will unfold over the next five chapters, like a route plotted on a Google map. It’s like Melville first outlined his book using one and two-word phrases, turned those into chapter titles, and then built upward, adding a few thousand words here and there to flesh things out.

If I were to do this all over again, I might have chosen to simply read through the Table of Contents over the course of the month.

Favorite passage: “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.”

Words looked up:

  • Goodwin Sands (“[dead men] tell no tales, though containing more secrets than the Goodwin Sands.”): “The Goodwin Sands are a 10-mile long sand bank in the English Channel … More than 2,000 ships are believed to have been wrecked upon them.”
  • Cenotaph: A monument erected in honor of a dead person whose remains lie elsewhere.
  • Canticle: A song or chant, especially a nonmetrical hymn with words taken from a biblical text other than from the Book of Psalms. Somehow I read A Canticle for Leibowitz in its entirety without knowing this.
  • Spile: A post used as a foundation; a pile.
  • Parricide: The murdering of one’s father, mother, or other near relative.

New Crewmates: albiewise.