That Labor Day clambake — the last of the season — was my first clambake ever, and proved to be all it was advertised to be. If there are clambakes elsewhere I'm definitely up for them, but I'll be surprised if they're as good as Cabbage Island's.
As regular readers and listeners know, I take a daily New York Post to read over my breakfast oatmeal. It so happened that a few days before we set off for Maine, when we were in the final stages of planning the logistics of the trip, New York Post gossip columnist Cindy Adams posted a report of a trip to Maine that she had just made. Her report was … not uniformly positive.
No litter. No trash. It's polite. Friendly. Inexpensive. Seafood. Lobsters the size of Radio City. Locals whose behinds overlap the state of Texas all stuffed into shorts. Realtors could establish an entire campsite on the average ass.
In Kennebunkport, Bar Harbor, Portland, Ogunquit, Freeport, Eastport the concept of dressing is only for salad. Forget shopping. Skirts, necklaces, socks, ties, footwear, knife-pressed longpants went out with the first settlers. L.L. Bean jeans, drawers, plaid shirts, crappy sweaters, sweats, sneakers and backpacks are considered black tie.
You have to cut Cindy Adams some slack. She is the quintessential New Yorker, in fact Manhattanite, with an outlook on the rest of the world — including the rest of the U.S.A. — corresponding closely to Saul Steinberg's famous 1976 New Yorker cover. She closed her column with:
Mainers, maybe ecstatic just to see anyone, are friendly. Anything you want, except for trees, you have to get in your car to get.
I climbed into mine to get back to civilization and New York.
That was a tad too much even for the good-natured citizens of Maine. One of them showed up in the Post's Letters columns a few days later:
Mainers are fit, fun, relaxed and unpretentious — hence the lack of ties.
Guess I won't be seeing you in Maine any time soon. But it's sad that you consider New York civilization, especially of late.
Falls Rome, falls the world. My earliest acquaintance with dyed-in-the-wool Manhattanites was literary. Around age thirteen or fourteen, my teenage passion for science fiction well under way, I read George R. Stewart's 1949 novel Earth Abides.
For those who don't know their sci-fi classics, Earth Abides is a post-catastrophe story. A plague has quite suddenly wiped out most of humanity, leaving only scattered survivors here and there. We follow the fortunes of one such: Isherwood Williams, who we get to know as Ish, a graduate student at a West Coast university when the plague struck (George R. Stewart taught English at Berkeley).
Ish takes a cross-country trip seeking other survivors. He finds a couple in New York City: Milt, "middle-aged and overweight," and Ann, "a blonde-haired woman, about forty, well dressed, almost smart-looking." More or less alone in the empty city, they have helped themselves to an apartment uptown on Riverside Drive where they fill their days playing cribbage and two-handed rummy, drinking martinis, playing records on the phonograph, and reading mystery stories. "Physically, he guessed, they found each other attractive." I guess so.
Ish spends an evening with them.
They played cards by candlelight — three-handed bridge … It was a kind of make-believe.
Yet, as the cards were dealt and played, by incidental remarks here and there, Ish put together a great deal of the situation. Milt had been part-owner of a small jewelry store. Ann had been the wife of someone named Harry, and they had been prosperous enough to spend summers on the coast of Maine.
Coast of Maine? Hey …
Now the two of them occupied a fine apartment, vastly better than even Harry had been able to provide. The electricity had failed immediately, because the dynamos which supplied New York had been steam-driven … Being ordinary New Yorkers they had never owned a car, and so neither of them could drive …
Ish figures that Milt and Ann are doomed. The catastrophe had struck early in the year; winter, with no central heating, will probably kill them off.
They were like the highly bred spaniels and pekinese who at the end of their leashes had once walked along the city streets. Milt and Ann, too, were city-dwellers, and when the city died, they would hardly survive without it.
I doubt Cindy Adams is much troubled by thoughts of catastrophe, epidemic or otherwise; the lady is 92 years old. In any case a swift mass near-extinction like the one in the book is epidemiologically impossible: pathogens need time to grow and spread, and warm bodies to grow in.
Reading Earth Abides might, though, prompt younger New Yorkers — or city-dwellers in general — to acquire survivalist skills.
That's unusually early, eleven days earlier than last year. Next year the festival will be unusually late, September 29th. That's because of an intercalary month — an extra August — that's slipped in to keep the Lunar calendar in sync with the Solar.
Mooncakes are somewhat of a joke food, like fruit cake at an American Christmas. Johnny Carson used to say there is really only one fruit cake; it just gets gifted, re-gifted, re-re-gifted, … Okay: but I actually like mooncake, especially the ones with pineapple-paste filling. I like fruitcake too. So sue me. 中 秋 快 樂!
Incapacitation works! Crime and punishment were recurrent topics in this month's news and commentary. Of the commentary, I particularly liked Ed West's September 7th essay at Substack. Ed's writing from London, but the piece isn't especially Brit-centric.
Halfway through the essay Ed brings up an old maxim from Penology 101. Putting criminals in jail, says the maxim, serves four purposes: deterrent, punishment, incapacitation and rehabilitation.
Numbers one, two, and four there do very little to reduce crime, says Ed. Number two, punishment, may actually increase re-offending: "harsher prison conditions are associated with greater recidivism." Ed quotes a 2011 academic study from Italy in support of that.
The jewel in the maxim is number three: incapacitation. People locked away in jails aren't committing crimes against the rest of us. That's indisputable. It needs no academic studies.
Not only would expanding the prison population be a worthwhile investment in terms of the savings made from lower crime, but it would also be worth spending on more comfortable and pleasant jails, such as those of the Norwegians, "marked by their civilised treatment of prisoners." Give them comfortable rooms, televisions, free subscriptions to their favourite Substack writers — but keep them away from the people they will inevitably hurt. ["Old Britain has a cancer — the cancer is crime" by Ed West; Substack, September 7th 2022.]
Crime and punishment: That was one topic that came up a lot in my one-hour morning trawl through the media this month. After Vladimir Putin's televised address on September 21st it jostled for prominence with items about the partial mobilization of reservists in Russia.
The two topics actually overlapped to a degree. Hungry for recruits, Russian authorities have been offering amnesties and pardons to convicts in the nation's jails if they will sign up for two weeks of military training and six months' service. (Not a new idea: In the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s some categories of British convicts could avoid transportation to the Australian penal colonies if they agreed to join the army.)
It was a different aspect of Russian mobilization that caught my attention, though, and got tangled in my mind with the crime'n'punishment issue. That different aspect was impressment.
Crime and impressment. In the school history lessons of my English childhood, one of the horrors of the not-very-distant past that we heard about was the impressing of young men into the navy.
From the 17th century to the early 19th, "press gangs," often under the command of a naval officer, could grab you off the street and drag you away to serve on His Majesty's ships. Merchant seamen were preferred targets, being already trained in the seagoing arts, but anyone could be a victim. We read lurid stories about bridegrooms being taken while coming out of church after the wedding service. The impressment of American merchant seamen into the Royal Navy was one cause of the War of 1812.
Some of our news outlets have been comparing the mobilization of reluctant Russian men to those horrors of two hundred years ago. "Russian couples hug in tearful goodbyes before men are forced into Ukraine war as European Council chief says EU should give asylum to those fleeing Putin's press gangs" was the Daily Mail headline on September 24th.
I can't judge how fair that is to the Russian authorities — not altogether fair, would be my guess — but the conjunction of all the crime'n'punishment talk with stories of impressment brought poor Mary Jones to mind.
Mary Jones was an English lass born around 1752. She was married to a merchant seaman, William Jones, and gave him two children. When she was eighteen, however, William was pressed into the Royal Navy during the Falklands Crisis of 1770. (The crisis from which Dr Johnson worked up a twelve-thousand-word "pamphlet." Pamphleteers could spread themselves in those days.)
Mary was left destitute. Although not of a criminal character, from desperation she stole "four pieces of worked muslin" worth five and a half pounds sterling from a draper's store. Caught, arrested, tried, and convicted, she was publicly hanged.
Yes: shoplifting was a capital crime in 1771 England. By some accounts Mary was breastfeeding her youngest child in the wagon that took her to the gallows.
It's an awful story, and stirred people to anger even at the time. The veteran Whig politician Sir William Meredith made an indignant speech about it in the House of Commons six years later. That speech inspired Charles Dickens, sixty-four years further on, to include a reference to Mary Jones in Chapter 37 of Barnaby Rudge. (The speaker there is Ned Dennis, the public hangman.)
I have occasionally, in a facetious mood, promoted a punitive policy of One Strike and You're Dead, which I clarify as: "Jump a subway turnstile, go to the chair." The Bloody Code (that is, penal code) of 18th-century England was not that severe, but it came close.
In Western society today there is no jail time at all for shoplifting. In many U.S. jurisdictions you won't even be arrested for it. Isn't that at least better than capital punishment for the offense? Certainly; but …
Think of penal policy as a spectrum. At the left-hand end of the spectrum there is no punishment at all for anything much short of murder. At the right-hand end is the Bloody Code with capital punishment for anything more criminal than public urination.
I don't want to live in a society at either extreme; but I am sure we have drifted way too far to the left on that spectrum.
Pandemic, meh. I get occasional emails asking me why I don't speak and write more about the covid pandemic and its associated issues, scientific and political.
Short answer: Because I find the whole business deeply uninteresting.
If I suffer from some illness, or even injury of the lesser sort, my deep-rooted assumption is that either (a) it will get better of its own accord, or (b) I shall die. If I didn't have a loving wife to nag me about annual checkups, medication schedules, and such, I would probably have died years ago.
In a population entirely composed of Derb clones, doctors would have the status of restroom attendants.
A moving story. Mrs Derbyshire has a friend on the other side of town. The friend has a neighbor. The neighbor's marriage has failed, the house is being sold. He's been putting unwanted furniture on the sidewalk outside for pickup. That furniture included some handsome pieces that Mrs Derbyshire took a fancy to. She wanted them for our bedrooms.
My lady conscripted our son and a friend of his — equally muscular and owner of a pickup truck — to load up the pieces and transport them to our garage. This was duly done. While it was being done Mrs Derb threw out the Ikea stuff.
So at mid-September we had four large, heavy furniture items stored in our garage and corresponding empty spaces in our bedrooms. It only remained to move items to spaces.
That's where things got difficult. We live in a small old house built in 1927. The stairs and landing are narrow, the doors inconveniently placed. Getting these big, heavy pieces up those stairs, round the necessary corners, and through the necessary doors, all without breakages or damage to paintwork, presented challenges.
We took them in order by size. Danny and his pal took up the bedside units. They doubted they'd be able to manage the chest; but we begged and pleaded and somehow they got it upstairs and through the door.
(Telling the tale later to a neighbor, he introduced me to the concept of movers' straps, which you can get from Home Depot for forty bucks. How come I'd never heard of them before? Grrrr.)
There remains the dresser — or, as it has come to be known in our household, the Beast. At month end it's still sitting there in the garage, grinning insolently at us. The engineering consensus (me, our son, his friend) is that it's too big for stairs, landing, and doors. Measurements appear to confirm this.
What to do? We have house guests coming fom England in December and my lady would really like to have that dresser in the bedroom when they arrive. OK, Honey, but how do we get it up there?
So far I have come up with two plans.
- Plan A: Phone around local moving companies begging for advice and help. They must have tricks of the trade I haven't
thought of … like movers' straps.
- Plan B: The bedroom window is big enough to pass the Beast through. However, the window sill is twelve feet above the ground. I could erect some scaffolding twelve feet high outside, strategically place some saw-horses inside the room by the window, lay planks across from scaffolding through window to saw-horses, rent a forklift truck to get the Beast up onto those planks outside, then slide the sucker through into the bedroom.
Plan B appealed strongly to my inner engineer until I started looking up the price of scaffolding and forklift rentals. Hoo-ee …
Heroes of civilization. Over dinner one evening there, Junior marveled that I had single-handed moved the Beast from one side of the garage to another while he and his buddy were off-site. "How'd you do that, Dad?"
Me: "An elementary exercise in engineering, Son." (I had just levered it up onto parallel planks and slid it over.)
I couldn't resist adding some fatherly words of wisdom.
"The real heroes of civilization, Son, all the way from the Pyramids to the Apollo Program, have not been the philosophers, poets, politicians, or generals; not the artists or the architects, the novelists or playwrights. The true heroes have been the engineers. Ten thousand years ago we discovered the lever and the inclined plane. The human race has been levering its way up that plane ever since!"
Junior: "This fish is too salty, Mom."
They didn't put on much of a show. It was wartime. There were scarcities, food rationing, earnestness about getting work done for the war effort, and general frugality. Putting on a show was out of style for the duration.
They did hire a photographer for the event, but he screwed up somehow — or perhaps his studio was bombed out, I forget — and we never had any wedding photographs.
I possess just two mementoes of the wedding: bone-handled table knives, the only surviving members of a full set that Mum and Dad got as a wedding present, I don't know from whom. The knives' places in the set are very faintly inscribed on their blades: "Cheese Knife" (the lesser one) and "Cake Knife."
My wife, for reasons I cannot fathom, has taken a particular fancy to the cheese knife. She uses it for all kinds of things that have nothing to do with cheese. The cake knife is strictly mine, for my Christmas fruitcake. (Mooncakes are too small to need a knife.)
Thanks for the knives, Mum and Dad. I'll take good care of them. Thanks for everything else, too.
Thou thy worldly tasks have done,
Home are gone and taken thy wages.
Fiction report: Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels. In last month's diary I reported that, having read and enjoyed Bernard Cornwell's Agincourt, I had purchased a boxed set of the first five Richard Sharpe novels about the British army, 1799-1807.
There are 22 novels altogether in the Sharpe chronicles; the series takes our hero up to 1821. I liked those first five (1799-1807) well enough to want to read more, but not quite well enough to shell out $52.99 for the next five. I therefore went down to my local library. They didn't have any of those next five on their shelves, but assured me they could get them from an affiliated branch. I put in a request. Sure enough, after a few days they had number six for me: Sharpe's Rifles, taking us to the Peninsular War.
Here I got stuck, though. The series is chronological and I don't want to read books out of sequence. For some reason my library is having difficulty getting number seven, Sharpe's Havoc. At September 28th here I'm still in Sharpe limbo.
(Added September 29th: A notice from the library in this morning's email: Sharpe's Havoc has arrived! God bless all librarians!)
So what about these Sharpe novels? Well, Cornwell certainly has a narrative gift. He's kept me wanting to know what happens next through more than two thousand pages. He's done his homework, too — a lot of it. The stories are packed with fine details about Napoleonic-era military technology. I don't see how anyone could be better at describing the progress of a battle. The history is, so far as I can judge, scrupulously accurate. (Cornwell supplies an epilogue to each book discussing his sources and the choices he made when filling in historical unknowns with sheer fiction.)
There is not much depth of character, though. Richard Sharpe himself is a dull fellow, without the wit and chutzpah of Flashman or the intelligence of Aubrey and Maturin. He is unhappy most of the time, especially after his field commission has elevated him to the rank of despised, penniless outsider among his fellow officers, all of whom have acquired their commissions the regular way, by cash purchase. Sharpe's love affairs end in failure or calamity; his one attainment of wealth is snatched from him by lawyers.
In short, very much guys' books. I'm a guy, though; I like them.
On September 13th the Board named their Teacher of the Year: 42-year-old William Green, who teaches Chemistry and Math at A. Philip Randolph Campus High School in Harlem, New York City.
How good a high school is that? Well: "This school is far below the state average in key measures of college and career readiness."
It doesn't seem that William Green and his colleagues are doing a superlatively great job there, so why did Mr Green get this award?
Why do you think? Because he's crazy woke, that's why.
On Jan. 6, 2021, just after the Capitol riot, for example, Green tweeted a list of discussion points for his algebra class. "I will use the vocabulary of inequalities to empower my identities in America," it read. "Students will develop a deeper understanding of how the vocabulary of inequality impacts their lives and the communities they ascribe to."
1 : to refer esp. to a supposed cause, source, or author. 2 obs. : to add in writing. [Webster's Third.]
Why not just "belong"? And what does the vocabulary of algebraic inequalities, which consists of a mere handful of symbols (≠, <, >, ≤, ≥, ≅) have to do with Mr Green's "identities"?
"I teach chemistry and some math and I sprinkle some social justice in," Green, 42, told The Post Thursday. "I have been studied by the greats. I come in here every day and win. The city tried to fire me but the state recognizes diversity and social justice. I am a champion for these kids … I'm Puerto Rican, black, ghetto, gay, …I'm not the person people want to see succeed."
Note please that having won this award from New York State, Mr Green is now a candidate for a national Teacher of the Year award with, I suppose, a trip to the White House and a photo-op with the President.
The hell with them all. A brainteaser, an easy one this month. You should be able to do this one by just staring hard at the diagram and summoning up some very basic geometry. If you have recourse to pencil and paper, you're overthinking it.
ABCD is a perfect square one unit on a side, P is the midpoint of AB, and PD meets AC at Q. What is the area of the triangle QCD?