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Big buttocks

May 23, 2016

Striving to maintain for this blog an elevated standard of excellence and seriousness, I don’t normally comment about buttocks.

(OK, I did write about overhearing a gal say she wanted Frida Kahlo tattooed there.)

imagesHowever, a line in a local newspaper story got my attention: “police say they caught him with 69 bags of heroin hidden in his buttocks.”

A reasonable person naturally wonders: how big were they? The bags. And the buttocks. Inquiring minds want to know.

The newspaper did not specify any dimensions. But, hypothesizing the smallest bags one can plausibly envision, it’s still a log of bags. Unknown-1And so we come to the size of the buttocks. Need I say more?

And what, pray tell, was this guy’s comeuppance, for being busted with 69 bags of heroin up his rear? The City of Schenectady is paying him $25,000. To settle his lawsuit claiming illegal search.

Only in America.

(He was a passenger in a car stopped because of a warrant for the driver. Courts ruled the cop needed another warrant to search the passenger; so drug charges against him were thrown out. Was his lawsuit against the City cheeky?)

Another new currency design

May 11, 2016

After seeing my recent blog post about currency redesign, here’s what my wife gave me, to celebrate May 2, the anniversary of the day we met. This design incorporates (according to her) my heart’s desires. However, note that it’s the chocolate I appear to be fixated on.


Human ingenuity: a new way to count

November 24, 2015

images-1My business is collector coins, which I often have to count. When they’re all identical they can be counted in stacks of ten. But for non-uniform coins, there seemed to be no alternative to, well, just counting them. Counting by twos helps a bit. But it’s still laborious, requiring concentration, and it’s easy to lose count, especially when dropping a coin or two.

Recently I had a mess of about 5,000 mixed coins I planned to sell in bags of 200. So I asked my wife, “Darling, do you have a little spare time?” And she agreed to help.

But my wife can have her own way of doing things.

UnknownSo after a while, I thought I’d better check on her, and lo, found a strange sight: a vast array of coins spread out in neat rows. Could this make sense?

Then she explained the method in this seeming madness: on a newspaper sheet, she’d marked out a grid of ten squares by twenty, to put one coin on each square. When done, she’d roll up the sheet to neatly funnel the coins into a bag.

imagesThe light bulb went on: I instantly grasped the system’s beauty. Laying coins out on the grid is actually faster than counting them one by one or two by two. Moreover, you cannot lose count or miscount. And no mental concentration is required – she did the job while watching TV!

Through all my decades counting coins, I had never thought of this. And when she finished, I carefully kept her grid sheet for future use.

I guess this shows my wife is smarter than me; but I was pretty smart to marry her.

Proust and the Mystic Chords of Memory

August 22, 2015

UnknownMarcel Proust was an odd cat. Poor health immured him for much of his life in his bedroom, whose walls he had lined with cork to keep the world out; he succumbed at 51. And yet he managed to be something of a social prodigy with keen insight into human psychology – displayed in his monumental seven volume opus A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (commonly translated as Remembrance of Things Past).

This was my first birthday gift to my wife-to-be, just weeks after we met, in 1988. Unknown-1We started reading it aloud to each other in the evenings, a few pages at a time – with some significant gaps in our dedication to the task. In the last few years we became more assiduous, and finally just finished.

I did most of the reading. It helped me comprehend better, and I enjoyed the challenge. The problem was that Proust is famous for his long, convoluted, digressive sentences – so one had to plunge into a sentence without knowing where it would go or what its logic would turn out to be, making course corrections of tone and inflection as one went along.

I had actually read it all before, after a friend strongly recommended it. But that didn’t help much, as it was in the ‘70s when I did not know, to use the technical terminology, my ass from my elbow. In particular, the topic of homosexuality pervades the work, but mostly that had gone right past me without really registering. Indeed, in part at least, this is indicative of how “under the radar” the whole gay thing was in those ancient times, in contrast to today.

One thing I did vividly remember, after slogging through all seven prolix volumes without, frankly, getting all that much out of them, was the ending. imagesTo be exact, the final passage – the final line – which even at the time struck me as a perfect, fitting coda. I didn’t remember the exact wording (something like “on the shoulders of Time”), but certainly recalled the feel of it, the sense of it, as well as the final word itself – Time, with a capital T.

So I was somewhat surprised when my wife and I at last reached the final line, without the dramatic thunk (or “shoulders”) I thought I’d remembered. Now, we were reading the C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation, as revised by Terence Kilmartin in 1981, the best known one; so naturally I wondered whether what I’d read before was simply a different translation. So I went online and learned that prior to 1980 there was only one other English translation, of the last volume only. It’s unlikely I read that; more likely what I had read before was the Scott Moncrieff version prior to Kilmartin’s revision. With some further effort I was able to find a different translation of the book’s ending, but that didn’t conform to my recollection either.

Unknown-2So I wind up simply confuzzled. A la Recherche, as the title suggests, is in the main a meditation upon memory. Be careful next time you insist you remember something with absolute certainty. The brain does not work that way. (See this further post about memory.)

Anyhow, at my wife’s behest, having after 27 years pretty much forgotten the book’s early chapters, we have started again from the beginning, albeit with the new translation of the first volume by Lydia Davis, which we got from her very own hands.

Next Door to the Dead: Poems, by Kathleen Driskell

August 20, 2015

(This is a guest posting, written by my wife, Therese L. Broderick, and appearing on her own poetry blog.)

Located on the same grounds where my father is buried, a nearby cemetery’s headquarters is the site for a variety of public discussions and activities. Once, I sat in attendance while a visiting lecturer explicated “One Art,” Elizabeth Bishop’s powerful poem of loss.

9780813165721Poetry has a long affiliation, of course, with human loss—our trivial daily relinquishments as well as that final and most consequential loss, our voyage from Life to Death. Conversely, poetry has also sung for thousands of years about that other voyage, that cosmic law-defying journey that only a few departed souls succeed in making: a safe return to the greening Earth from a stay in the barren Underworld. And yet, every contemporary poet who writes or vocalizes an elegy, dirge, ode, or threnody is performing that very miracle, resurrecting someone—however briefly— by means of a ritualized trinity (Art, Art’s subject matter, Art’s witness).

All these currents and more run through the eloquent, graceful, vivifying new book of fifty-one poems by Kathleen Driskell entitled Next Door to the Dead (The University Press of Kentucky, 2015). Over the next few days, this blog will focus on that highly admirable book. Today’s spotlight focuses on my own observations.

Conceptually, this impressive collection guides us first to a cemetery boundary, then through the gate, and then inside the graves in order to summon forth their spirits. Along this path, Next Door to the Dead unveils a cultural desecration, descending to that particular hell of funereal skullduggery. Thankfully, this talented poet knows how to guide us back to a proper reverence.

Humanistic as these poems are in orientation, they also honor the spiritual imagination, escorting the reader through multifarious encounters with disembodied personalities, some of them eternally in limbo. (The human lives envoiced in this book recall, for me, the personal dramas within The Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters.) These pages peopled with ‘’Border State” individuals—Kentuckian and/or everywhere existential—explore matter-of-fact loss, grievously tragic loss; witty epitaphs, profound laments; family tales, town gossip; occasional ceremonies, timeless myths; skeleton-closet celebrities, anonymous worthies; gods and clergy, saints and sinners; and the (perhaps fallacious) empathetic mourning of critters and Nature.

Kathleen Driskell

Kathleen Driskell

Those character portraits are made expansive and vivid by Kathleen Driskell’s talents for weaving the textures of lyrical narration, persona, and monologue. Also by her utterly trustworthy shaping, her dynamic phrasing, her melody of vowels plus peal of consonants, the palpable tug of her versified lines, her strikingly true turns-of-phrase, and her images both rooted and revelatory.

Much can be said about “Tchaenhotep,” the book’s extended signature piece. A probing and subversive journey, this poignant monologue arrives in the voice of a female mummy exhumed, displaced from an ancient Egyptian tomb to a modern American museum. The unlikely speaker lived as a marginalized woman, a proletariat. Her ancient chant-like accounting of her own commonplace virtues and vices is a time-tested paradigm for judging innocence and guilt.

This prominent poem, then, weighs the merits of all other poems, of memorial poetry in all forms. And also of how respectfully our surviving cultures redeem the crimes committed by our forebears. Just as importantly, of how fruitfully you and I the readers have spent our own days and decades.

Thankfully, the highly deserving poet Kathleen Driskell is an artist, not an evangelist for any single faith tradition. In Next Door to the Dead, she devotes her artistry to sanctifying the natural dignity of her subjects, renewing for us all a vision of communal care and understanding. Blessed be every single one of her neighbors, in-the-flesh or otherwise.


The Great Mutilated Coin Scam

June 27, 2015

“Waste, fraud and abuse.” How often we hear that from politicians promising to clean up government. I just roll my eyes, because if it were that simple, it would already have been done, right?

imagesBut government never seems able to stay one step ahead of con artists devising ways to rip it off. It isn’t rocket science. One major, common scam is filing phony income tax returns claiming refunds. And government, robotically, just mails out the checks. In one case over 500 separate tax refund checks went to a single mailbox . . . in Lithuania. You might think the government would have noticed something amiss, around, oh, the hundredth check. Nope.

All told, the U.S. government sent out an estimated $125 billion in improper payments last year.

As a numismatist, I read Coin World, and a recent issue headlined “Recyclers Target Mint With Fakes.” UnknownThe story began by noting “an elaborate scheme to bilk the U.S. Mint out of more than $5.4 million.” Doesn’t sound like that big a deal? But wait.

You see, the Mint has a program for reimbursement for mutilated coins turned in.

The Chinese version

The Chinese version

In this particular case, the coins proved to be counterfeits, originating in China where, of course, counterfeiting of everything is a major industry.

Coin World went on to report that “the purported mutilated U.S. coins [were found] to have been uniformly mutilated by mechanical means.” So first you manufacture the fake coins; then you mutilate them; then send them to the Mint for “reimbursement.” A nice business, getting 50 cents for a fake half dollar costing only a few cents to make. (Much easier than trying to pass all those coins in commerce.)

How could they possibly, with straight faces, explain the great quantities of mutilated U.S. coins turned in? The claim is that they’re found in junk cars being scrapped. It’s been calculated that every such car would have to yield $900 in mutilated coins to account for the totals submitted. Yeah, sure.

Still, $5.4 million may sound almost like chump change. But that was only one case. Coin World noted that as early as 2009, investigators with U.S. Customs and Border Protection were alerted to possible problems “based on the increased shipments of mutilated coins passing through the Port of Los Angeles.” images-1Yet the Mint continued to send out the checks – no questions asked.

Now here is the quote that really got my attention (from the complaint in the recent case filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Lakshmi Srinavasan Herman): “Interestingly, United States Mint personnel also believe that more half dollars have been redeemed by China-sourced vendors in the last 10 years than the United States Mint has ever manufactured in its history.” (My emphasis)

Unknown-2God bless Uncle Sam – what a soft touch. This is what we pay taxes for.


Poetry Performance, May 6, Caffe Lena

May 3, 2015

Scan 2My wife, Therese Broderick, and I will be the featured poets at Caffe Lena on Wednesday, May 6 — we’re pleased to appear on such a distinguished stage where the likes of Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsburg have preceded us.

Caffe Lena is at 47 Phila Street, Saratoga Springs. There will also be an open mic, sign-up starting at 7 PM; the readings begin at 7:30. Admission $5. The event is sponsored by Northshire Bookstore.

Used Book Sale Review

October 28, 2014

images-2I love used book sales. Locally, the Schenectady and East Greenbush libraries have great ones. Both are (to quote a local car dealer’s ads) huuuge. Schenectady’s is very well organized by category; while what distinguishes the Greenbush sale is a lot of books in new condition, excellent for gifts.

The latest was Greenbush. It starts on a Thursday from 5 to 8:30 PM. Previously I’ve gone on Thursday, knowing these sales get pillaged fast, so it pays to be early. But books cost $2 on the Thursday ($1 afterwards), the rush hour traffic is terrible, the parking impossible, and the room overcrowded. So this time I decided to go easy and waited till Friday morning.

images-4I’m always amazed at what other people take, often baffling choices. I primarily look for ancient history and archaeology, which few others seem to want. So even on the Friday I still found 43 books, a pretty good haul.

These ancient history books I sell. It started serendipitously years ago when I received a box of such books from one of my customers together with some ancient coins to sell. “What the heck will I do with these books?” I thought. Well, I listed them in one of my coin auctions and they did quite nicely. So ever since, I’ve been buying and selling that stuff.

I also watch for poetry books for my wife, which is generally pointless because she is very advanced and I am a poetry naif (we argue regularly over whether Invictus is a good poem). I saw one general book about poetics that looked promising; I opened it at random and my eye fell on four words: “If Byron had rhymed . . . .“ Not for my wife.

Unknown-1And I also seek books to actually read. At this point, those I see come mainly in two categories: ones I’ve read, and ones I don’t want to read. This time I strangely had a bee in my bonnet for Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!, which I recalled had gotten stellar reviews. You’d think a best-selling book like that would turn up, but I didn’t find it. (I did find two more copies of Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra, a good item for group lots in my auctions. I’d been impressed at how much buzz Schiff was able to gin up for this publication, which was far from the first one about that 2,000 year old gal. I recommended it to one of my book groups; but found it disappointing.

There were innumerable copies of Eat, Pray, Love, another book group book I really disliked. images-6And the tables were just groaning with David Baldacci, book after book after fat book. What is it with David Baldacci? He’s not even on my radar screen. Likewise Dean Koontz, Jodi Picoult, James Patterson; enough of their books to sink a battleship.

But I did find a few: Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs (I’ve reviewed his memoir, Elsewhere); Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife (remembering rave reviews); Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings; and, lest you think I’m highbrow, Alan Alda’s Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself, and Maureen Dowd’s Are Men Necessary? (After reading it, I’ll let you know the verdict).

imagesAnd I did snag one true treasure: the rare 1973 first edition of Albany’s O’Connell Machine. Unfortunately lacking the dust jacket; I don’t even own one with an intact dust jacket. (Recently, on the radio news, I enjoyed hearing our new Mayor on some political shenanigans, saying it was just like what she’s been reading about in a book on the O’Connell Machine published back in 1973.)

Talk about ancient history! Makes me feel kind of ancient myself. images-3

June 3-4, 1989

June 3, 2014


Cheryl Strayed: Wild

April 16, 2014

imagesThis best-selling memoir relates Cheryl Strayed’s 1995 1100-mile Pacific Crest Trail hike, from lower California through Oregon. I’d urged it on one of my book groups, but an outdoorsy member objected vehemently: “You don’t go on such a hike as unprepared as she was. It’s just stupid.”

I finally persuaded her that the stupidity was actually what the book was partly about, so we read it.Unknown-2

Strayed, then 26, was kind of messed up, from her mother’s death, her recent divorce, and a heavy heroin bout. She embarked on this extreme hike – without much relevant experience – hoping to find herself. Or something.

Well, she wasn’t totally unprepared; in fact, did quite a lot of planning and prep work, including acquiring a ton of gear, and arranging a series of resupply boxes to be mailed to her along the route. But for all the actually meticulous planning, she did stupidly omit something obvious: a trial run.

“Ton of gear” was a slight overstatement, but only slight. The book describes her organizing it in her motel room the day before starting out, cataloguing all the items. While reading, I’m thinking, “how much does all this weigh?”

Unknown-1So she gets it all packed into (and dangling from) her huge backpack, which is sitting on the floor, and only now, for the first time, tries to lift it. Guess what? Can’t budge it an inch.

Well, somehow Strayed did manage to maneuver what she dubbed “Monster” onto her back, and even to stand up, and walk with it. Eventually a more experienced hiker she meets on the trail persuades her to offload some of her excess burden.

The other obvious (even to me) thing you’d want to test out beforehand is how the boots fit. Fairly critical, you’d think. They seemed to fit fine, in the store. On the trail, not so much.

In fact, the book startlingly opens with her accidentally losing a boot over a cliff edge. One boot being useless, she then throws the other over too.images-1

But later we learn this wasn’t as disastrous as it might seem. The ill-fitting boots were from a company called REI, and after suffering in them for hundreds of miles, wrecking her feet, another hiker tells Strayed to call REI and they’ll send her a larger pair, free. She did, and they did. So after losing the first pair, she managed to hobble on makeshift duct-taped sandals to the next settlement to collect the replacement boots.

Unsurprisingly, Strayed has some glowing words for REI and its customer service. This points up something I’ve stressed often. With all the “corporate-this, corporate-that” invective, many people view businesses in general as impersonal malefactors caring only for profits. And admittedly some are. But this ignores a basic aspect of the human character, and businesses are human enterprises. Most people don’t want to see themselves as evil but, rather, as doing good.

Thus REI’s kind of customer service is not in fact uncommon. (I’ve mentioned my terrific experience with 48 Hour Books.) Many businesses realize it’s actually good for the bottom line. In the long run, it’s those behaving like REI and 48 Hour that succeed and prosper. And, if you think about it, the great majority of your interactions with businesses are altogether positive.

But competition is a crucial factor here. I’ve also written of my less-than-terrific experience with enterprises that don’t really have to compete for my dollar (eBay and the Postal Service). That’s why I’m a believer in free market economics. Any government intervention should aim at greater competition, but too often actually undermines it (by aiding some businesses to the detriment of others).

Unknown-3Another company Strayed lauds is Snapple, whose lemonade was a sublime treat at civilization stops after long hiking stretches. Likewise she makes the reader almost salivate at how luscious a cheeseburger tasted on such occasions. images-2This points up another of my pet themes: how we take civilization and its benefits for granted. Cheryl Strayed, after a couple of weeks roughing it, most certainly did not. Coming out of the woods, a Snapple lemonade and a cheeseburger were for her a Very Big Deal.

So, did the hike straighten out her life? As we used to say in grade school book reports, read Wild and find out.

Finally, you might ask, is there any sex in it? There is. Only one episode, really. But hot enough that it made me put the book down and go looking for my wife.


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