Monday, December 24, 2018

Nice And Naughty

Dan Lewis, Now I Know:
The word "nice" comes from the Latin word "nescius" which literally meant "not knowing" — basically "ignorant." When the word was coined in the 14th century, it retained that meaning — according to Oxford Dictionaries, the word "nice" "began life in the fourteenth century as a term for 'foolish' or 'silly.'" It was, unambiguously, an insult, which in a roundabout way, is how it got to this catch-all way to give faint praise today.

For its first generation of use, the denotative meaning (let's go with "foolish") held firm, but in time, that gave way to the word's negative connotation. Before the 14th century was out, people began using "nice" as a one-size-fits-all insult; as Huffington Post describes, the word "was used to refer to a variety of less-than-great sentiments including wantonness, extravagance, ostentation, lasciviousness, cowardice and sloth."

As the Middle Ages waned, so did the breadth of the term. The word "nice" became increasingly about laziness and less about extravagance, which is still not very nice, but less so than before. Still, that wasn't enough for the word's meaning to change to something lukewarmly positive. But we were long on our way. Lazy people were also seen as reserved, private, and demure, and, the word "nice" became somewhat of a neutral term. Huffington Post summarized it like this: "Dive deeper into the Middle Ages, and the meaning deflated. The word started to hint not at ostentation or cowardice but shyness and reserve; not in a negative way, but certainly not yet positively."

Of course, that changed. With the emergence of the Enlightenment, people liked their elites more reserved, more, say, "ladylike," and the word "nice" accurately described these people. As a result, "nice" became the word of praise (faint as it may be) it is today.

Bonus fact: The word "naughty" has a similarly muddled history, and one which may reflect on how we, by default, often blame those in poverty for their situation. It literally means "having nothing" — someone with "naught". The negative connotation came later, as GOOD Magazine explains: "In the 1300s, naughty people had naught (nothing); they were poor or needy. By the 1400s, the meaning shifted from having nothing to being worth nothing, being morally bad or wicked."

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Writing A Book About Books

I've never given much serious consideration to those "1000 _______ To _______ Before You Die" books. However, this Literary Hub conversation with James Mustich, who spent 14 years researching and writing the recently-published 1000 Books To Read Before You Die, makes me want to track down his book. Completing a project like this properly requires a ton of time and effort, and it sounds like Mustich took his job extremely seriously.

Thomas DePietro has known Mustich since they were "high-school poets together over forty years ago" and he states that Mustich "walks a fine line between literary critic and enthusiast" and has created "a book that ... exults in the sheer joy of reading, and sharing those pleasures with others".

From Mustich's comments:
It's almost a thousand pages, nearly 900 pages of text and then various indexes to help people navigate through the list that I've made. For each of the thousand books I've written a brief essay, and added endnotes with relevant information and lots of recommendations for further reading. Altogether, there are more than 5,000 books referenced in it. ... I signed the contract for this book 14 years ago. It's been quite some time in the making. ...

The idea is: What about books speaks to people? In general and then specifically. What has spoken to me in particular? There's everything in here from, in terms of a reader's lifetime, from Goodnight, Moon, to The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion's book about grief. And chronologically it ranges from the Epic of Gilgamesh up to a book published last year called Life in Code, by Ellen Ullman. ...

[T]here's probably, say, 250 of the 1,000 that are what are generally considered classics, so you can trace in what I've done a kind of course, if you wanted to, in literary history. ... Toward the end of the project, I begin to realize something that was motivating me, somewhat unwittingly. I have two daughters, who are both adults, in their twenties. They have always been readers, and they couldn't walk out of their rooms in our house without tripping over a pile of books. But they don't have the constant sense of the continuum of literature that was so important to me when I was growing up, which, frankly, I absorbed from spending so much time in bookstores in my formative years—not enough fresh air! So I've been reconstructing all of that by my own lights as a kind of record for them, I think. Again, that wasn't a conscious thing, but I think it's certainly part of what gives my book its shape. ...

I framed it for myself like this: what if I had a bookstore, and I could only have 1,000 books in it? I'd want to have classics, yes, but I'd also want to have something for anybody who walked in, and said, "I want a good mystery," or "I feel like reading something about golf." Or medicine. Or theology. Or true crime. One of the things I write about in my introduction is that inveterate readers read the way they eat: hot dogs one day, haute cuisine the next. ... [R]eading isn't all high-mindedness. ...

[F]or a long time, 1,000 seemed like so many. But then when I got towards the end, it was too few, by half at least! There are just so many good books. And closing in on the 1,000 put a fine point on what, of course, had haunted me all along: there is so much I haven't read. Through all the years I worked on the book, I tried to be thoughtful about it, but every week turned up books or authors I'd missed. And every conversation I had with a fellow reader seemed to add to that pile. ... But sooner or later, I had to draw a line. ...

One of the things that takes so long is that you not only need to know enough about the book to have something to say, but you also need to know enough about a subject or an author to know what not to say. ... If you're going to write 500, 600 words about Darwin, or about Madame de StaĆ«l, or about Ishmael Reed, you want to know enough about the extent of their work to be able to judge what's important, what to share with someone who may not have any context, and also know enough about the breadth and depth of their thinking to represent it credibly, especially if you're dealing with someone outside one's own tradition or one's own education. You want to be respectful of what you're reading and you want to make sure that you have enough sensitivity and sensibility—or just enough sense with no suffix—to recognize that the work has its own existence whether you read it or not, no matter what you say about it, and to represent that in some way. ...

What I tried to do, especially with those authors whom readers might assume they know about, or assume they're not interested in, or whose work they've always been daunted by, is to give an invitation to their books that is engaging but still robust enough give a sense of the landscapes they create. To suggest that this is what you'll be thinking about if you read this author. For most of us, too much of our reading of serious literature is when we're very young, and they're school assignments. And we approach books a certain way because of that—like they're homework. ... This is a book which I hope people will keep on their shelves and pull off when they want to read Conrad, or they want to read Virginia Woolf, or they're looking for a good mystery. It's meant to be used as a resource. ...

[T]here is a sensibility that runs through my book that I hope readers will find congenial, and come to trust. I don't mean trust as in "agree with," but respect and react to in considered ways. ... [R]eading, and the kind of interior life it presupposes, is really important to one's mental health, and I would also venture to say, to one's moral health and to the mental and moral health of society at large. And that when you pick up a book you are also acknowledging others, because you're reading someone else's words, and you're learning about new worlds. That dialogue that books encourage is critically important. ... I think books have receded from the frontlines of the cultural conversation in a way that's not healthy for the culture.
The Washington Post praised the "scope and diversity" of Mustich's choices. The book "invites rapturous browsing even while eliciting, and expecting, argument. ... It's hard to imagine that such a massive compendium could have been done better or demonstrate a more supple and catholic taste."

 And a look at some sample pages reveals a gorgeous layout.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Winter Rain

Port Hardy does not get cold enough during the winter months for much snow to accumulate. Instead, it rains. A lot, we were told.

It was raining on the night we arrived. We drove the final two hours through endless forests in the dark, with copious rain and heavy fog. I hoped the elk living in those forests had the good sense to stay home that night. (Two signs along the way instructed us to watch out for elk for the next 65 kilometers (40 miles), then another 45 km. So pretty much constantly!)

That was the only rain we saw for our initial week. But most of the last three days have been very wet. There is a baseball field near our house and walking Diego (not pictured at left) in the outfield is like walking in two inches of water. It's like the grass does not exist.

I finally got my work equipment this past Monday and was connected for my shift on Tuesday. So far, the only drawback is the delay in retrieving and saving documents. Of course, those delays are measured in handfuls of seconds, but it still can be frustrating.

But, in general, working at home - I'm going to really enjoy this. Finish a job, then walk down the hallway and put some wet clothes in the dryer. ... Change the CD in the small stereo in my office. ... Email a co-worker that I can start a job, but I need to walk my dog first. ... Continue organizing my office while keeping an eye on the in-box.

Last evening, for my dinner break, I grilled a couple of burgers, had some tater tots going in the oven, and built my first fire in the fireplace. I brought a comfy chair over by the fireplace and ate with Diego laying beside me. Later, he got up and sat rigidly behind me, just over my left shoulder, keeping his sharp eyes focused on the dwindling supply of tater tots.

Baseball: In the summer, most weekday Red Sox games will begin at 4 PM (or 5 PM), which means that home night games will likely be over by 7:30 PM. During the first week of the 2019 season, the sun will set about 8 PM. In late June, it will get dark at roughly 9:45 PM. ... Two hours of daylight after a night game!

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Port Hardy, After One Week

One of the most amazing things about Port Hardy (or our little part of it) is the silence. Walking out the back door onto the deck with Diego, turning right and going along the garage and down the driveway to the street, I would hear absolutely nothing. Except for some bird calls. The silence has a real presence. When there is no sound, you believe you can hear the utter quiet; the term "deafening silence" refers to something real. There is a weight to it, a heft.

No passing cars, no honking, no traffic on nearby streets, no machinery, no planes overhead, no bus announcements, no trains, no yelling. Two days ago, I heard a noise, which I determined was a ferry departing down on the bay.

We arrived at 9435 Mayors Way last Tuesday evening. It was a little dusky as we drove north from Campbell River. Port Hardy was 2.5 hours away. In addition to the dark, it began raining, so we saw nothing of the endless scenery of the trip's final 230 kilometers (143 miles). The landlord's agent was waiting - with a fire in the fireplace - to welcome us and give us keys. Later, we put a comforter down on the floor and had some dinner.

We knew we would be arriving at night and the house would be empty, so we had the movers in Mississauga load our mattress and a futon (and several boxes of necessary supplies) at the back of the U-Haul. When we took these items out, I noticed that several boxes were sopping wet on the bottom, the cardboard falling away in pieces. I immediately feared that the U-Haul had a leak somewhere and (considering the days of rain we had traveled through) a lot of our stuff was now ruined. I tried putting it out of my mind, figuring that another 12 hours would not matter if the boxes already had been in water for a week or more.

Four local men came by at 10 AM the following morning and unloaded the U-Haul. I quickly saw that my fears about water damage were unfounded. My brother-in-law, who had driven the U-Haul across the country, surmised that two large jugs of water at the back of the truck had frozen. The plastic containers had then expanded and cracked and some melting ice had leaked out. It turned out that the water was really only in one area and nothing was damaged - other than the many things broken or damaged by the incompetent movers back in Ontario. (I wish the Port Hardy guys had been able to pack the truck.)

We spent the rest of Wednesday and Thursday unpacking, hooking up computers, putting legs back on tables, filling bookshelves with books, storing the flat boxes and bubblewrap in the garage. We had two great meals in town - including perhaps the best fish-and-chips we have ever had - which was tremendously encouraging.

Because Laura would be driving south to Nanaimo on Sunday for two weeks of job training (and her brother and his wife were returning the U-Haul in Campbell River before continuing on to Nanaimo, where they would take a ferry back to the mainland), we decided to explore the town a bit on Friday and Saturday. We drove down to Tsulquate Park (maybe three minutes from our house) and walked along the water, passing a playground, the ferry dock, and a large wooden carrot.

Laura also spotted two bald eagles high in the treetops, scanning the water.

My happiness over this move and our new situation has been a pleasant (and somewhat strange) surprise. The house, rented for several hundred dollars less than our 19th-floor Mississauga apartment, the outdoor space of a deck, the remoteness of the town, the ability to work from home ... it is striking how every single aspect of this resettlement has gone smoothly and wonderfully.

Yesterday I drove into town, thinking I would go to the library and the Port Hardy Museum (which are part of the same building), but I forgot they are both closed on Monday. I walked into Cafe Guido because there is a book store off on one side (The Book Nook), in a semi-lower floor, with some used books among the the new ones. In a craft store upstairs, I met an adorable golden-haired young dog. I bent down to pet him and he poked his nose towards my jacket pocket, where there were bits of Diego's peanut butter crackers. The dog followed me around the store before giving up and walking back by the register and laying down.

I bought a tea and walked past the library (a sign on the door: "No Bathroom - Key Went Missing") and found the Ministry office for which I had once hoped to work (before my law firm suggested working remotely). Back on the main street, one business was closed, the owner having added an explanation ("More Medical Procedures!"). I saw the post office down one street, so I went and picked up our mail.

I sat out on the deck reading for a bit, with Diego on the stake in the side yard. Our neighbour in the house beyond the deck came over and said hello to Diego. She and her husband are retired and they travel a lot in their massive RV (Arizona, Florida, and "down island"). They apparently are famous (relatively speaking, of course) for having the most Xmas lights on their house, but they are behind schedule this year. A pizza delivery guy asked her over the weekend, "So where are the lights?" She wanted to know if she could come into our yard to string lights on the fence separating our yard and their driveway because there are plants and whatnot on her side. I said sure. (There are some lights up now, but I don't think she will top the houses I saw in Brooklyn decades ago.)

There has been a lot of frost on the grass every morning, with the temperature around freezing. The snow/ice crystals on the top of the fence posts and the car roof are pointy or fuzzy.

The smoke from chimneys tells me that many people have wood stoves or fireplaces going in the mornings. The morning quiet and the smell of wood burning is exquisite. We will need to purchase some firewood, which I believe one of the movers said he chops and sells.

It's hard to tell for sure after only one week, but Port Hardy seems to be the right amount of town for me. At age 55, the basics are pretty much all I need. Everything is a mere 3-5 minutes away and there is neither traffic nor crowds (as long as I avoid the grocery store on the weekend or late afternoon). I also really like the uniqueness of every single house. I hope to drive around soon and take more photos.

And while it was raining on the night we arrived, I don't think it has rained at all since. On Monday and today, it reached 10 degrees C (50 F).

I love being so close to the water. In the first picture below you can sort of see a road in the middle of the picture going off to the left. There is another slight curve and then it goes down a hill and Queen Charlotte Strait is visible.

Today, I got a library card. When the librarian looked at my Ontario drivers license, she asked what brought me to Port Hardy. I told her my wife was the new librarian in this branch. She knew someone had been hired, and we talked for a bit.

I also drove out of town to take a picture of the Welcome To Port Hardy sign we half-saw in the dark last week.

I want to learn about this area and the various small towns.