Archive for July, 2013

“Bag” it

The Language Log is on the case of a vulgar, sexist neologism, illuminatingly. 

Spiritual Hygiene

In a review of two recent biographies of Sylvia Plath, Stanford University professor Terry Castle judges the poet with uncommon harshness, calling Plath’s life “short and appalling.” Short, of course, but “appalling”? Castle concludes:

“It will come as no surprise that I’m one of those who will always be turning away from Plath. Or trying to. I find her tasteless, grisly—unbearable, in fact—precisely because, even five decades after her suicide, she and her corpse-infested verses hold on with such ghoulish tenacity. She seems never to tire of creating tragic inhuman mischief from beyond the grave. That the infant ‘Nick’ addressed in those final poems from Devon, the very poems cited as ‘nature poems’ by the kindly Boland, hanged himself in 2009 seems only the latest malignant turn of the Plathian screw. A respected fisheries biologist—he taught at a university in Alaska—Nicholas Hughes had apparently done everything possible to distance himself geographically and psychically from his parents’ cursed history. (Most of the people who worked with him knew nothing of his family story.) Yet Lady Lazarus caught up with him at last. He was said afterward to have been ‘lonely’ much of his life and depressed by his failure to find love. His mother was by then long dead—he had never had any memory of her—yet even so I couldn’t help wanting to kill her.”

A really nauseous sentiment.

The late Diane Middlebrook ends her book on Sylvia Plath with this sentence: “The only thing the living can give the magical dead: empathetic but pitiless attention.” I understand that it can be difficult to empathize with the mentally ill – or with those who have taken their own lives – but one must try, as a part of one’s spiritual hygiene.

Years ago, after the suicide of Elliott Smith, I wrote, perhaps too optimistically, that “People are beginning to understand that suicide often is ‘death by depression’ [how Middlebrook described Plath’s demise]. Of course things are happening in and around a depressed person — ‘in’ as in drugs or alcohol abuse, ‘around’ as in self-destructive or very unhappy relationships — but it is fallacious to say that these elements drive one to suicide.  Depression is both the train and the track, as far as I am concerned.  Everything else is just buzzing by the windows. … Depression, like homosexuality, is an animated identity that’s invisible … until it’s enunciated by the one whose life it defines. That is why by some people depression is regarded as a capricious and irresponsible choice:  It seems to be brought into being by the spoken words of the suffering individual, who seemed not to suffer when silent – when in the closet, as it were.”


As I have gotten older, I’ve become less attracted the the work of artists (like Plath) who seem to have seen their lives primarily as material to be transmuted into pictures & poems. That said, these are people I nonetheless need as teachers, of art, and of life and death. They are giving us something.

Buffalo summer


I believe I will miss it:


From the time my mother washed my mouth out with soap – I must have been in first grade or so – until my late teen years, I used no foul language whatsoever. (I did, however, once “make an obscene gesture” to my sixth grade teacher, giving her the finger, god knows why, as I left the school building one day. My Dad asked me whether I knew what “obscene” meant. Of course I lied and said no.)

At any rate, now I swear all the time: alone and in company. I cringe when I do, though, which means that I don’t get that surge of pleasure so savoured by the swearing sort.

So: the habit has got to go.


(To answer your question: It began with a “c.”)



Rest in peace, Francis X. Elinski.

From two of his daughters, Kim and Kris, on Facebook:

Kim: “Last night my father, Francis Xavior Elinski, died after a brief illness. I’m still somewhat in shock. Besides being the father of nine children, he was a teacher, a park policeman, a rifle coach, the past president of Tonawanda United Way, a Staff Sargent in Korea with the US Marines, past commandant of the local Marine Corp League, “worked” Bingo, collected for Catholic Charities, in a bowling league, part of a men’s glee club, cigar smoker and on and on. He was never afraid of hard work or commitments. He took care of my mother to the best of his abilities for the last several years of her life (and in many ways before that) to keep her out of a nursing home–at the cost of his own physical health. He always said he was planning on living to 102. I truly believed his will would take him there. At 81, he died too soon. My family beyond this world continues to grow and rapidly of late. I hope there’s a party.”

Kris: “My sister Kim wrote this, and it just about says it all, except she didn’t mention his extraordinary accordion playing and the fact that he formed the first teachers union for the Tonawanda School system. He will be missed.”

[Please visit the online memorial “guestbook” for Mr. Elinski. – July 25]

Addendum on mentoring

When I was contemplating running for Chair of my department a number of years ago, I consulted my mentor at Kwantlen, David Wiens, asking him whether I’d be any good at this position. “You would,” he said.

I asked him why, expecting him to pay homage to my brilliant analytical and people skills.

“You like to work hard,” he said, and left it at that.

It was the best thing he could have said. David was a really good mentor.

Some notes on mentoring …

… can be found over on basil.CA sister site NoContest.CA here and here and here. They are mostly based on the superb presentation given by Erin Dick at the International Association of Business Communicators World Conference in Manhattan last month.

To be honest, I had intended on *missing* this presentation, believing there was little for me to learn on the topic. In a spasm of self-awareness, though, I understood that my reluctance to go was based on arrogance – and arrogance means that I had grown too comfortable with my ways. I wondered, too, why I seemed afraid to subject myself to new insights on a theme so dear to my heart.

Fear can lead to poor mental hygiene.

I forced myself to attend by making a promise to do so to my friend Sarah Jackson, a fearless young journalist who herself will become a wonderful mentor one day. I am glad I went. I learned a ton – and found I have lots to work on.



Burning Books

It’s been slim-pickings here of late, as I spent most of the last couple of weeks on the road back east in New York City (to attend the annual conference of the International Association of Business Communicators) and the Buffalo area (to visit family). It was a wonderfully worthwhile trip in all respects, though I must admit I do not travel as well as I used to; several times I woke up not knowing the time-zone or country I was in (and I somehow lost a pair of pants).

In Buffalo I took my son to a new bookstore called “Burning Books,” which is located in a beautiful neighborhood on the city’s lower west side now populated by a number of Burmese immigrants. Only two days ago the store’s owner, Leslie James Pickering, was profiled in a New York Times story. Pickering had discovered the United States Postal Service was monitoring his mail.

From the story:

“It was a bit of a shock to see it,” said Mr. Pickering, who with his wife owns a small bookstore in Buffalo. More than a decade ago, he was a spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group labeled eco-terrorists by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Postal officials subsequently confirmed they were indeed tracking Mr. Pickering’s mail but told him nothing else. As the world focuses on the high-tech spying of the National Security Agency, the misplaced card offers a rare glimpse inside the seemingly low-tech but prevalent snooping of the United States Postal Service.


At Burning Books my son and I purchased the documentary “When A Tree Falls,” which profiles the Earth Liberation Front in a subtle and even-handed manner, as well as some literature critiquing the powers that be from a number of left-wing and anarchist perspectives. The big find in that regard was a cool collection of essays published by CWC Books called “Work.”

From the publisher’s website: “After so much technological progress, why do we have to work more than ever before? How is it that the harder we work, the poorer we end up compared to our bosses? When the economy crashes, why do people focus on protecting their jobs when no one likes working in the first place? Can capitalism survive another century of crises? Our newest book, entitled Work, addresses these questions and a great many more. To answer them, we had to revisit our previous analysis of employment and develop a more nuanced understanding of the economy. We spent months studying obscure history and comparing notes about how we experience exploitation in our daily lives, slowly hammering out a grand unified theory of contemporary capitalism.”

It is worth reading.