Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Private Dining Room by Ogden Nash

Source of book: I own this.

Most people know Ogden Nash, if at all, from his humorous doggerels, like:

The problem with a kitten is that
Eventually it becomes a cat.

And there are more. Many more. Each of his collections contains a number of these, some of which have entered the popular consciousness, although many have no idea who was behind them.

Nash is much more than that, however. The short poems are indeed easy to remember, and often combine humor with astute observations or philosophical musings. But many of his works are longer than two or four lines, and exhibit the same wit and wordplay, but over a longer form.

Ogden Nash lived from 1902 to 1971, and died of food poisoning from tainted coleslaw. Which sounds so much like something Nash himself would have written a poem about. It seems a fitting end for him. 

Nash’s poems are humorous, even when they deal with serious topics, which is often. Not quite as biting in his satire as James Thurber, one of my favorite authors, or even as Don Marquis who was of the same era and also wrote unusual and often humorous verse. Perhaps this is because Nash could never resist a bad pun or a silly joke, no matter what the topic was.

The Private Dining Room was published in 1951, and thus sits roughly at the center of Nash’s output. He writes as a man comfortable in his art, but also as a bit of a reactionary. It is hard to believe that Nash was subversive as a young man, as there are definitely some “get off my lawn” and “young people these days” moments. But there are others in which he actually comes across as a Bernie Sanders type, suspicious of corporations and politicians and throwing shade at the establishment.

But these are mere background compared with the art of humor in the poems. Wordplay is abundant - perhaps only Thurber could rival him for verbal origami. The title poem is a great example. Here is an excerpt:

Miss Rafferty wore taffeta,
The taffeta was lavender,
Was lavend, lavender, lavenderest,
As the wine improved the provender.

Or in “Calling Spring VII-MMMC,” a rant about books using Roman numerals for the publication date:

Because anybody can make a mistake when dealing with MCMs and XLVs and things, even Jupiter, ruler of gods and men;
All the time he was going around with IO he pronounced it Ten.

Feel free to groan. Note also his use of rhyme with irregular and long line lengths. This is a characteristic of his longer poems. Also common is the setup of a particularly bad pun at the end of the poem. This one comes in “Change Here For Wichita Falls or Has Anyone Seen My Wanderlust?” The poem is a gripe about the inconvenience of travel and the way amenities rarely live up to the ad copy.

I am told that the comforts in modern hotels are stunning;
My experiences is that a hotel is a place with the elevator out of order where you can only wash one hand at a time because there is no stopper for the drain and you have to keep squeezing the handles of the faucet to keep the water running.
That is the hard way to get an ablution;
It reminds me of the visitor to the Chinese zoo who asked what language the aquatic carnivora talked, Pidgin English? And the keeper replied, No, Otter Confucian.

Very typical of Nash’s combination of whining about stuff while making it funny. Another one that I really liked actually fits one of my own complaints: the tendency to try to do too much with salad dressing - and make it too sweet. (Probably you don’t, unless you own a restaurant, in which case, well, maybe.)

The Chef Has Imagination
It’s Too Hard To Do It Easy

Hark to a lettuce lover.
I consider lettuce a blessing.
And what do I want on my lettuce?
Simply a simple dressing.

But in dining car and hostel
I grow apoplectic and dropsical;
Is this dressing upon my lettuce,
Or is it a melting popsicle?

A dressing is not the meal, dears,
It requires nor cream nor egg,
Nor butter nor maple sugar,
And neither the nut nor the meg.

A dressing is not a compote,
A dressing is not a custard;
It consists of pepper and salt,
Vinegar, oil, and mustard.

It is not paprika and pickles,
Let us leave those to the Teutons;
It is not a pinkish puddle
Of grenadine and Fig Newtons.

Must I journey to France for dressing?
It isn’t a baffling problem;
Just omit the molasses and yoghurt,
The wheat germ, and the Pablum.

It’s oil and vinegar, dears,
No need to tiddle and toil;
Just salt and pepper and mustard,
And vinegar, and oil.

For Brillat-Savarin, then, and Hoyle,
Stick, friends, to vinegar and oil!
Yachtsman, jettison boom and spinnaker,
Bring me oil and bring me vinegar!
Play the music of Haydn or Honegger,
But lace it with honest oil and vinegar!
Choir in church or mosque or synagogue,
Sing, please, in praise of oil and vinegogue.
I’m not an expert, just a beginneger,
But I place my trust in oil and vinegar.
May they perish, as Remus was perished by Romulus,
Who monkey with this, the most sacred of formulas.

Who but Nash would rhyme “dropsical” with “popsicle,” or “Teutons” and “Fig Newtons”? And, as a bonus, you have the basic recipe for a proper vinaigrette right there in the poem. (On a related note, I consider it one of my successes as a parent that my older kids can whip up a proper dressing with those ingredients.)

Another fine rant with which I firmly identify is “Everybody Wants To Get Into The Baedeker.” (Referring, of course, to the famous travel guide book.)

Most travelers eavesdrop
As unintentionally as autumn leaves drop,
Which brings up a question that confronts every conscientious traveler:
Should he, or should he not, of overheard misinformation be an unraveler?
The dear little old lady in front of you asks, What river is that, is it the Swanee or the Savannah?
And somebody who has no idea firmly says, It’s the Potomac. It happens to be the Susquehanna.
The visiting Englishman asks, What is that mountain and somebody yells, Pike’s Peak! into his ear.
It isn’t. It’s Mt. Rainier.
Can one oneself of responsibility disembarrass
When one hears an eager sight-seer being informed that Greenwich Village is in Connecticut?
It is my experience that people who volunteer information are people who don’t know the Eiffel Tower from the Tower of Pisa,
Or Desdemona from the Mona Lisa.
I am convinced that they have learned their geography through drawing mustaches on girls on travel posters,
And have done their own traveling exclusively on roller coasters.
What is that, madam? How do you get from 42nd Street and Broadway to Times Square?
Sorry, madam, but it’s impossible to get from here to there.   

Nash also pokes fun at himself in many of the poems. I won’t quote “Father-in-law Of The Groom” as it is pretty long, but he jokes that he has had only daughters and even the pets have been female, so he is so thrilled to see his daughters marry and give him sons-in-law that he keeps monopolizing them - to the annoyance of his daughters.

He also laughs at his inability to remember which of his friends use which spellings of their names (such as Stewart and Stuart) - to the point that he can’t write them letters because of his fear of making a mistake. (As an attorney, I sympathize greatly with this one. Thank goodness for word processors and “find and replace.”)

I’ll also mention “Peekaboo, I Almost See You,” about his failing eyesight combined with his inability to find the right pair of glasses when he needs them.

Middle-aged life is merry, and I love to lead it,
But there comes a day when your eyes are all right but your arm isn’t long enough to hold the telephone book where you can read it,
And your friends get jocular, so you go to the oculist,
And of all your friends he is the joculist,
So over his facetiousness let us skim,
Only noting that he has been waiting for you ever since you said Good Evening to his grandfather clock under the impression it was him,
And you look at his chart and it says SHRDLU QWERTYOP, and you say Well, why SHRDNTLU QWERTYOP? and he says one set of glasses won’t do.
You need two,
One for reading Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason and Keats’s Endymion with,
And the other for walking around without saying Hello to strange wymion with.
So you spend your time taking off your seeing glasses to put on your reading glasses, and then remembering that your reading glasses are upstairs or in the car,
And then you can’t find your seeing glasses again because without them you can’t see where they are.
Enough of such mishaps, they would try the patience of an ox.
I prefer to forget both pairs of glasses and pass my declining years saluting strange women and grandfather clocks.

I should quote a couple of the shorter doggerel poems too. They are sprinkled throughout the collection, as a way to break up the longer works.

The Platypus

I like the duck-billed platypus
Because it is anomalous.
I like the way it raises its family,
Partly birdly, partly mammaly.
I like its independent attitude.
Let no one call it a duck-billed platitude.

The Lepidopterist

The lepidopterist with happy cries
Devotes his days to hunting butterflies.
The leopard, through some feline mental twist,
Would rather hunt a lepidopterist.
That’s why I have never adopted lepidoptery;
I do not wish to live in jeopardoptery.

Nash was also an avid baseball fan. (So it is fitting that I am writing this after watching game 4 of the World Series.) One of the more bizarre poems in the collection is entitled, enigmatically, “Hand Me Down My Old School Sliding Pads or There’s A Hint Of Strawberry Leaves In The Air.” In it, he describes reading the romance novels of Mrs. Humphry Ward in a summer cottage, while listening to baseball on the radio. It goes downhill from there.

A glimpse of ducal silhouettes,
A flash of electronic science,
As kind hearts clash with coronets -
Also the Cardinals with the Giants.

The heroine’s birth is most unusual -
It’s three and two on Enos Slaughter.
What would she think of Stanley Musial,
And he of Lady Rose’s Daughter?

The code of stout King Edward’s reign
Conceals outstanding hanky-panky,
Suggesting time and time again
The hidden ball of Eddie Stanky.

I do have to mention one more really terrible pun (and it was hard to limit myself.) I’ll quote the entire poem because the setup is needed. And also, the whole thing is pretty darn funny. It comes from a set of four poems collected as “Fables Bulfinch Forgot.” This is “Chloe And The RouĂ©”

When Lord Byron wrote so glowingly of the isles of Greece
It was not mere coincidence or caprice.
Knowing his character and his environment,
I think we can guess what Byron meant.
Nobody than Lord Byron could have been sorrier
About the death of a heroic Grecian warrior,
But nobody after so short a period
Could find consolation in the company of a nymph or a Nereid,
So all praise to the nymphs of the isles of Greece.
May their tribe increase.
But their tribe won’t increase if they all behave like a nymph named Chloe,
Who lived on the southernmost isle of Greece where it is swampy, not snowy.
Chloe caught the attention of Zeus,
And he slipped away from the banquet hall mumbling some ridiculous excuse,
And when Hera called after him to come back, she knew what it meant when he got all skittish and scampery,
He said he’d be back for breakfast, he just had to see a mortal about a lamprey,
And he didn’t want to tell a like, so he disguised himself as a lamprey fisherman but he couldn’t find his lamprey-fishing clothes,
So aside from his lamprey-spear he was as naked as a narcissus or a rose,
And he tracked Chloe through the swamp and offered her his heart and a golden chariot, a dandy four wheeler,
But she refused because she was a Southern nymph, a Hellenic Dixiecrat, and she had been taught never to trust a nude eeler.

I’ve read this through several times, and it never ceases to amaze me how he brings together mythology, history, and politics...all just to...wait for it... make an astoundingly awful pun. It’s so terrible it is amazing. I guess either you hate it, or like, me, an inveterate punster myself, find it hilarious. I mean, this is why I learn all kinds of weird and useless things, right? So I can understand an intricately crafted pun that requires this sort of knowledge.

I’ll end with a more serious poem. (Well, at least for Nash.) It is a surprisingly thoughtful musing on the journey that some of us make, from our idealistic youth, when we were sure we knew everything, to a realization that the world is more complicated and full of shades of grey than we knew. (Not everyone makes this transition - and they tend to become self-righteous fundamentalists of whatever stripe.) Likewise, we soften a bit toward ourselves, becoming less perfectionistic, and more able to roll with things. And, in Nash’s case, use a pun in the title, while exaggerating both the before and after.

How To Get Along With Yourself
I Recommend Softening Of The Oughteries

When I was young I always knew
The meretricious from the true.
I was alert to call a halt
On other people’s every fault.
My creed left no more chance for doubt
Than station doors marked IN and OUT.
A prophet with righteousness elated,
Dogmatic and opinionated,
Once self-convinced, I would not budge;
I was indeed a hanging judge.
I admitted, in either joy or sorrow,
No yesterday and no tomorrow.
My summary of life was reckoned
By what went on that very second.
I scoffed when kindly uncles and aunts
Said age would teach me tolerance,
For tolerance implies a doubt
That IN is IN and OUT is OUT.
But now that I am forty-nine
I’m tolerant, and like it fine.
Since the faults of others I condone,
I can be tolerant of my own.
I realize the sky won’t fall
If I don’t pay my bills at all.
The King of Sweden it will not irk
To hear that I neglect my work,
And tombfuls of historic dead
Care not how late I lie abed.
Oh, tolerance is the state of grace
Where everything falls into place,
So now I tolerantly think
I could tolerate a little drink.

A bit of gentle humor and hyperbole to illustrate the changes that come, and some deeper truths hidden below the outer layer of absurdity.

Not everyone gets Ogden Nash. But I find him rather delightful, particularly as a change from the serious stuff I read regularly, and the drama of the present. It’s a reminder that there have always been those able to find the humor even in the stew of politics and the drama of history. And that none of us can do everything right, so we might as well keep a little perspective:

One man's remorse is another man's reminiscence.

One man's remorse is another man's reminiscence.
Read more at:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

How Old Is The Universe? by David Weintraub

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

“I do not feel obligated to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended to forgo their use...He would not require us to deny sense and reason in physical matters which are set before our eyes and mind by direct experience or necessary demonstrations.” ~ Galileo Galilei (1615 CE)

To a degree, this book is a follow up selection in my self-education regarding astrophysics. A couple of years ago, I read Philip Plait’s excellent and thrilling Death From The Skies, which uses the idea of “things which could destroy our planet” to give an overview of astronomy and astrophysics. While an overview, it doesn’t get too in depth about specifics, which makes it a good introduction to the average reader, rather than a scientific text.

How Old Is The Universe is likewise not a scientific textbook, but it goes much further into the math and physics - so much so that it probably would help to brush up on geometry and physics a bit before reading it. And maybe a bit of chemistry too for good measure. High school level is probably okay, but this book will stretch it a bit.

This is not to say this book is boring. Quite the contrary. While not exactly a page turner, it is written in an accessible style, and the author does a fine job of bringing the difficult stuff down to the level of us mere mortals. I particularly found his analogies to be helpful in explaining some of the higher concepts.

I began this post with the quote from Galileo for two reasons: first, it opens the book itself. Second, it encapsulates my view of science and its relation to theology. I have never been able to believe that God intentionally created a “fake” universe, one where appearances flatly contradict the “reality” we are supposed to believe in spite of the evidence. That would seem to make God a liar, and a cheater to boot.

I mention this specifically because my particular theological tradition has spent a tremendous amount of energy and political capital trying to deny the overwhelming evidence in favor of an old earth and an older universe. I discussed this in more detail in my post on Young Earth Creationism, here.

One of the biggest lies that YEC feeds you is that the scientific establishment is one giant conspiracy. Supposedly, “everyone” knows that the earth is really 6000 years old, but they deny it because they want to sin (usually by having sex) and the truth interferes with that desire. I know, that’s what I was taught.

Of course, this is a huge slander against the tens of thousands of conscientious scientists who have followed the evidence to the conclusions they have reached, not out of some rebellion against God, but because that’s what the evidence shows. This group also contains many Christians who do not believe the evidence conflicts with faith, just with certain theologically driven conclusions.

Galileo himself was one of these, and yet he was punished brutally for going against current dogma. Even St. Augustine cautioned against giving theology priority in scientific matters, specifically warning against making literalism a stumbling block to acceptance of reality.

Unfortunately, the perceived theological need to take everything in the Bible literally, and as literally true in all details has led to an abandonment of this principle and open hostility toward science of all kinds.

(I want to specifically mention the denial of the biological reality of intersexuality, which I wrote about here, as a clear example of perceived theological needs trumping reality.)

Peter Enns put it best:

Theological needs – better, perceived theological needs – do not determine historical truth. Evangelicals do not tolerate such self-referential logic from defenders of other faiths, and they should not tolerate it in themselves.

One of the best things about this book is that it gives the history of the discoveries that have led scientists to understand the age of the universe. Discoveries that seemed at the time to have nothing to do with the question turned out to be vitally important. Furthermore, it isn’t just one area of study that leads to the conclusion, it is multiple unrelated pieces of evidence which agree about the age of the universe. The pieces weren’t assembled by any one person, or at any one time. Rather, they came together over the last 250 years as the result of many thousands of scientists around the world working on different pieces, building on the work of those who had gone before. To many of them, the results were a surprise, the age determined unexpected. Many times, an unexpected result caused a wholesale revision of their assumptions.

These are not the things of a conspiracy, but of a process of discovery. And the more information that is gathered with ever-more-sophisticated tools, the more solid the conclusion has become.

The author begins the book with a quick look at ancient beliefs about the age of the universe, ranging from “the universe is eternal and unchanging” to “the universe was created on October 23, 4004 BCE, at 9:00 AM.” The last, of course, came from the work of James Ussher and John Lightfoot. The former came from Aristotle. As the author points out:

Aristotle’s logic and reasoning were elegant, sophisticated, powerful, and regrettably also wrong.

Therein lies the rub. Theological and philosophical systems often have elegant, harmonious, and persuasive symmetry, so to speak. But they can often be dead wrong. Aristotle’s perceived philosophical needs didn’t fare so well when they ran into reality, and neither did Ussher’s theology.

I do want to mention a few things that I particularly liked. First, Weintraub doesn’t make the mistake many earlier writers did of glossing over the contributions of women to the field. While notable women such as Henrietta Leavitt and Annie Jump Cannon are becoming better known, it is only in the last few years that the truth regarding the mathematical calculations before the age of computers has been stated: the mostly male astrophysicists who get credited with discovery relied on veritable armies of female “calculators” to do the work of measurement and calculation necessary to process the data. So much for women being bad at math.

I also should mention that this book did a better job of explaining the concept of expanding space than any other I have read. I knew this was a key concept of modern astrophysics, but I hadn’t quite realized why it was important or how it came to be accepted as an explanation. I won’t attempt a recap of it here, because I would probably butcher it. Read the book if you want to find out.

Because the book is presented as much as a history as an answer to the question, the concepts build on each other much like they did in real life. But this also means that the math and the concepts get progressively harder as the chapters go on. By the end, those of us without science degrees tend to find our heads spinning a bit. But that is good. It’s good to be stretched, and be forced to think and make links between concepts of chemistry and physics and algebra.

The universe turns out to be the greatest puzzle of all time, with clues hidden everywhere. I can fully understand why astronomers consider their particular area to be the most fascinating thing to study possible.

I am strongly considering getting this book for a reference, and I will definitely be recommending it to friends who want to know why I believe what I do about the age of the universe, or understand better what we have discovered about the wonders of this world we find ourselves in.