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October 15, 2003

The Luck of the Bodkins [1935], and Pnin [1953]


This afternoon, to the Stanford Math library (to browse) on my bike, then to the University bookstore, where just outside the front door they were selling extra books at discounts.

I had about given up on finding anything interesting when I suddenly spotted a copy of P. G. Wodehouse's The Luck of the Bodkins.

"OK, then, let's read the first page, and then we'll decide," I thought—(although in reality, no thought comes to me with the clarity suggested by such a 'self-dialog' quotation).

Chapter 1

Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French. One of the things which Gertrude Butterwick had impressed upon Monty Bodkin when he left for this holiday on the Riviera was that he must be sure to practise his French, and Gertrude's word was law. So now, though he knew that it was going to make his nose tickle, he said:

'Er, garçon.'


'Er, garçon, esker-vous avez un spot de l'encre et une pièce de papier—note-papier, vous savez—et une enveloppe et une plume?'

'Bien, m'sieur.'

The strain was too great. Monty relapsed into his native tongue.

'I want to write a letter,' he said...
The Luck of the Bodkins was first published in October 1935—just a few days after my mother was born.

Another book I've been reading and enjoying immensely is Nabokov's Pnin. Timofey Pnin has the opposite problem—he's a professor and Russian emigre who can't speak English well. Here is Nabokov in a masterful passage describing a telephone call from Pnin to a character named Joan, who has a room for let:
Technically speaking, the narrator's art of integrating telephone conversations still lags far behind that of rendering dialogues conducted from room to room, or from window to window across some narrow blue alley in an ancient town with water so precious, and the misery of donkeys, and rugs for sale, and minarets, and foreigners and melons, and the vibrant morning echoes. When Joan, in her brisk long-limbed way, got to the compelling instrument before it gave up, and said hullo (eyebrows up, eyes roaming), a hollow quiet greeted her; all she could hear was the informal sound of a steady breathing; presently the breather's voice said, with a cozy foreign accent: "One moment, excuse me"—this was quite casual, and he continued to breathe and perhaps hem and hum or even sign a little to the crepitation that evoked the turning over of small pages.

"Hullo!" she repeated.

"You are," suggested the voice warily, "Mrs. Fire?"

"No," said Joan, and hung up. "And besides," she went on, swinging back into the kitchen and addressing her husband who was sampling the bacon she had prepared for herself, "you cannot deny that Jack Cockerell considers Blorenge to be a first-rate administrator."

"What was that telephone call?"

"Somebody wanting Mrs. Feuer or Fayer. Look here, if you deliberately neglect everything George—" [Dr. O. G. Helm, their family doctor]

"Joan," said Laurence, who felt much better after that opalescent rasher, "Joan, my dear, you are aware, aren't you, that you told Margaret Thayer yesterday you wanted a roomer?"

"Oh gosh," said Joan—and obligingly the telephone rang again.

"It is evident," said the same voice, comfortably resuming the conversation, "that I employed by mistake the name of the informer. I am connected with Mrs. Clement?"

"Yes, this is Mrs. Clements," said Joan.

"Here speaks Professor—" There followed a preposterous little explosion. "I conduct the classes in Russian. Mrs. Fire, who is now working at the library part time—"

"Yes, Mrs. Thayer, I know. Well, do you want to see that room?"

He did. Could he come to inspect it in approximately half an hour? Yes, she would be in. Untenderly she cradled the receiver...
If you find that passage in the least bit amusing, you going to want to read this book! Highly recommended.

Posted by tplambeck at 10:24 PM

The German Atrocity

I seem to be completely incapable of remembering whether an "Assistant" or "Associate" Professor is the one with tenure.

For the record, here's what one school of medicine gives as its definition:
An Assistant Professor is a junior faculty member hired on a 7-year non-renewable contract. During their 6th year, they are evaluated for tenure and promotion to Associate Professor. A tenured faculty member is one whose job is secured for life except under certain circumstances. In order to obtain tenure the assistant professor must undergo a peer review process that generally takes the entire 6th year in which the candidate must gain approval from various committees and department heads.
Here is Edmund Wilson in "The Fruits of the MLA":
[Mr. Mumford] said that we do not want served up to us the writer's rejected garbage. He had no doubt shuddered at the thought—which is likely to trouble any careful writer—that all his early notes and drafts might survive and fall into the hands of the MLA editors or be handed over to those of the young Ph.D. candidates, who could only benefit from them—the brighter ones—by becoming convinced of the absurdity of our oppressive Ph.D. system of which we would have been well rid of, at the time of the First World War, when we were renaming our hamburgers Salisbury Steak and our sauerkraut Liberty Cabbage, we had decided to scrap it as a German atrocity.
Posted by tplambeck at 10:20 PM

October 14, 2003

Bambi or Terri?

From an article on advertising strategies for pizza restaurants:
"Here’s image advertising in a nutshell," Karington began. "You’re looking to get a wife from a service, and you’re going to choose from two women based on their descriptions of themselves.

"One says, ‘My name is Bambi, I’m tan, I have a great figure, I like to dance and I’m a brunette. Please choose me.’

"The other talks about how she’ll do everything to make you happy, how she’ll give you back rubs, take care of the children you’ll have together, do the shopping and fulfill your desires. And then at the end she says, ‘My name is Terri. Please choose me.’

"One ad is all fluff and the other says ‘this what I’m going to do for you.’ Guess which one gets the most attention?"
For me, the choice is easy—who wouldn't prefer the mysterious charms of the undulating, tan and curvaceous Bambi to the tiresome Terri, who promises too much, presumes that children are on the menu and considers her name to be a mere afterthought to conversation?

The article itself considers the answer to this question to be so obvious that it makes no further comment on it. I imagine that the correct choice is Terri—but perhaps I'm wrong about that, also?
Posted by tplambeck at 10:15 PM

October 11, 2003

A crocheted skull


Posted by tplambeck at 10:11 PM

October 08, 2003

A friend writes

I received this note in a condolence letter from an old friend:
On a personal note I have screwed my immediate future up. I was federally indicted for conspiracy to distribute more [than] 1.5 kilos of meth but less than 5 kilos. I had to forfeit my house—$100,000 paid for—and will be getting at least a 10 year Federal sentence of which I'll have to do 8 1/2 years of. I'm hoping to get to a federal camp. Anyway I'm not as smart as I thought and not above the law. It sucks. I'm going to miss another class reunion—I missed the last one due to a possession charge in Illinois. Anyway I may need a pen pal when I go in. Guess I'm telling you cause I know you're my friend and I feel better when I talk about my mistake and own up to the decisions and path I have walked for 22 years.

My son graduates this year. I have to start serving my sentence in February. I am not talking on others so I'll have to do 85% of my time—if I snitched I could get out in 2-4 years but that is not me and I knew the risk. Anyway, sorry to hear about your mom. Enjoy your Dad while you still can. My greatest fear is losing one of them while I'm locked up. Tell your Dad hello for me.
Posted by tplambeck at 10:05 PM

October 03, 2003

My mother died today


Marlene L. Plambeck, sixty-eight years old, born 27 September 1935.

One of her memories from the 1940s:
After school on Wednesdays I was to check in with Grandma in the Presbyterian Church basement in Valentine, Nebraska [map]. My job when I arrived was to cut quilting thread in pieces 18 to 20 inches long and keep four or five needles threaded for these ladies. Only now, nearly 40 years later, do I fully realize the value of this small service I provided.
(Read more about Nebraska quilts and quilting).

She was a retired university English teacher and dedicated amateur genealogist. In the 1970s she established, by an unlikely sequence of last-born children to large families, that one of her great- great- grandfathers, a man named William Nicholas, was once a soldier—on the winning side—in the American Revolutionary War. This gained her admission to the Daughters of the American Revolution (or "DAR"), an organization which she described to me as "a bunch of little old ladies."

That's only two "greats" to reach a Revolutionary War ancestor, a fact that I've always found amazing. So my five year old son Henry, a kindergartner in Palo Alto in the year 2003, is just four greats from a Revolutionary War ancestor.

On 7 June 1832, the United States Congress passed an act which outlined benefits that were available to men who had served in the militia in during the American Revolution. On 17 October 1832, at age seventy-three, William Nicholas appeared before a court of law in Columbiana County, Ohio, to make a (successful) claim for benefits. Here is one complete pleading my mother uncovered:

Columbiana County
Common Pleas
October 17, 1832

On this seventeenth day of October A.D. 1832 personally appeared in open Court, before the judges of the Court of Common Pleas now sitting, William Nicholas, a resident of Hanover Township in the county and state aforesaid, aged seventy-three years, who first being made duly sworn according to law doth on his oath make the following declaration in order to obtain the benefits of the act of Congress passed June 7, 1832.

That he entered the service of the United States some time in the 1776 about the time New York was taken. That he was living, at the time he entered the service in Bucks County, Pa. [and] from thence he marched to Trenton from thence Princeton, to New Brunswick and from thence to Amboy, where he joined the main army which was commanded by Gen. Robert Doe—from thence he marched to Bergen near New York, at which place [they] turned and marched back through New Jersey and were then discharged—that in this tour, which lasted about six weeks or two months he was a volunteer [and] that Col. Anderson, Major Mucalvane, and Capt. Jarvis were [his] commanding officers.

That he entered service of the U. States the second time in the year 1777 shortly after Philadelphia was taken, which tour lasted about six weeks or two months—that he was drafted, and joined the troops at White Marsh and was stationed on a hill between that and the river Schuylkill and was engaged with some other troops in patrolling the neighboring country under Gen. Potter and Major Kennedy who was afterwards killed by the refugees and that he was discharged at Dilworth's Tavern on the York Road.

That the third time he entered the service of the U. States he enlisted for six months to drive a continental team—that [they] got [their] wagons from Col. Larick and loaded at Easton, Pa, from thence he drove across the Jersies to the White Plains where Washington lay with the army and were engaged in hauling provisions from Tarrytown on the North River to the army at the White plains—and that, when Gen Washington moved his camp and encamped on Quaker Hill [he] lay the remainder of the time at Morris's Store, he thinks in the State of Connecticut.

He also joined a volunteer company and assisted in guarding a magazine and the market people on the roads to prevent them from conveying produce into Philadelphia at the time the British had possession of that city. And thinks he was about one month engaged in that kind of service. That he has no documentary evidence and does hereby relinquish every claim whatever to a pension or annuity except the present and declares his name is not on the pension roll of any state.

Sworn and subscribed the day and year aforesaid.

/s/ C. D. Coffin, Clerk

/s/ William Nicholas

We, Edward Jones, a clergyman, Joseph Grissell, Esq. are residing in Hannover Township county and State aforesaid, do hereby certify that we are well acquainted with William Nicholas who has sworn and subscribed to above declaration, that we believe him to be about seventy-three or four years of age, and that he is respected and believed in the neighborhood which he lives to have been a revolutionary soldier and the concur in that opinion.

Sworn to subscribed the day and year aforesaid.

Edward Jones

Charles D. Coffin, Clk.

Joseph Grisell
* * * * * * *

William Nicholas would live ten more years after this pleading. He died 6 November 1842, at age eighty-four. Almost one hundred and sixty-one years later, his great- great- granddaughter, dying of cancer, said to me suddenly, "I'm not going to be a little old lady."

It wasn't that she didn't want to be—it was just her way of making an observation.

Posted by tplambeck at 09:48 PM

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