Friday, October 30, 2015

A.K.A. Doc Pomus (2012)

Canada / USA, 98 minutes, documentary
Directors: William Hechter, Peter Miller
Photography: Antonio Rossi
Editor: Amy Linton
With: Sharyn Felder, Willi Burke, Raoul Felder, Geoffrey Felder, Shirlee Hauser, Alex Halberstadt, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Dr. John, Gerry Goffin, Dion DiMucci, Ben E. King, B.B. King, Peter Guralnick, Dave Marsh, Joan Osborne, Lou Reed, Jimmy Scott, Marshall Chapman, Shawn Colvin

There's a certain style to A.K.A. Doc Pomus that raises it several notches above typical musical biographies. A lot of that is due to the subject at hand. Doc Pomus (born Jerome Felder) was one of the great 20th-century pop songwriters, a point on which there is wide agreement—indeed, part of the appeal of this documentary is the wide swath of people appearing to testify, who are obviously sincere. As it happens, Pomus also has an interesting biography, a lifelong New Yorker born and raised in Brooklyn, and a victim of polio since the age of 6.

By all appearances the driving force behind the picture was his daughter, Sharyn Felder, an executive producer and an interview subject herself, along with her mother, brother, uncle, and stepmother. There's no need for whitewashing anything, and it's not really a hagiography either. The regard others have for Pomus, even 20 years and more since his death in 1991, enables the film to be honest about his human weaknesses and provide a context for the music, and the joy, that he created. In the end the movie is mostly about the music, and the joy.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

T

Alphabetically, T falls at #20, but in terms of frequency of usage, it is #2, trailing only E. Among other things, that makes T the #1 consonant. But don't get too excited—as with Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, T is unlikely to overtake E any time soon. E represents 12.7% of all letters used whereas T is nearly four points behind, at 9.0%. After that the bunching is tight: A, 8.2% ... O, 7.5% ... I, 7.0% ... N, 6.7% ... S, 6.3%, and so forth. Still, at #2, T has a grip on its destiny. As a thought experiment, I wonder how things would change if the definite article, "the," were changed to "xqz," made up of the three least-used letters. I suppose we'll never know because it has the drawbacks of appearing unpronounceable and also makes no etymological sense. We would never get used to it. Imagine encountering this sentence in a story: "Hey," said xqz handyman, "will you grab me xqz pliers over there, please." No. It would never do. For the most part, T operates as the so-called "voiceless alveolar stop," the noise made with the tip of the tongue against the region of the mouth back of the upper teeth. It doesn't seem to me exactly the most natural sound to make with a mouth, not like M or R or S (let alone H, a sound that adults make at the rate of 16 to 20 times per minute). This might explain why T arrives so late in the alphabet—it is dead last in Hebrew, for example. When H sidles up next to T, it's time to start lisping. Why is T given this assignment? I don't have time to go into that or into Thomas or thyme either. Sometimes when T and I appear together, they act like S and H (not to mention I and T): "purgation," "ratio," "Croatia." Nobody got time for that. For that matter, the whole TH mouth noise adventure is something of a peculiarity, unknown altogether, for example, in German, French, Persian, Japanese, and Mandarin. For those of us with a penchant for the square (not mutually exclusive with one for the curve!), T is one of the finest shapes to be found in the alphabet. So pleasing in fact that the T-square, an instrument or tool that enables drawing or testing right angles, was named for it. It stands on a single point, bearing its horizontal crossbar with equanimity and poise. In its lowercase form it takes on the look of the Christian cross and/or fishhooks, but it's still a pretty good-looking letter, simple, sturdy, evocative, eternally enduring, or suggesting such things. T is yet another one of those little letter narcissists that likes to double up and pal around with itself, doppelganger style. T is hardly the only letter that does so, but it shows an especial effrontery by doing so in the word "letter" itself. Tsk, tsk.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1970)

I think I'd be a little surprised to hear anyone name this as a favorite Philip K. Dick novel, but it's serviceable enough, with lots of familiar Dick touches: drugs, anomie, near-future totalitarianism, and reality marked as much as anything by its elasticity and fungibility. It involves a celebrity performer, a singer and TV talk-show host who inevitably put me in mind of Mike Douglas or Merv Griffin. He is fabulously wealthy and much beloved, not to mention "a six," which apparently makes him a type of superhuman. Merv Griffin as the model of a superman is likely a stretch to all (save Griffin and the fictional Cosmo Kramer) but never mind. After suffering an attack by an ex-girlfriend, our hero Jason Taverner comes to in a world that has never heard of him. What's more, he has no personal identification documents, and that makes him illegal. Getting to the bottom of this vexing mix-up provides the narrative arc. Not surprisingly, the resolution involves parallel realities accessed via experimental new drugs. A lot of the Dick novels I've been reading and writing about likely make good starting points, I think, and this is probably another. It's weird, it's mind-bending enough, and it's delivered in a deadpan American idiom that is at once homey and dissociative. He's reliable for that. He's best on drugs and mental illness, somehow getting inside the head of strange ways of perceiving, and thinking, and then, even more remarkably, smuggling that sense into the reader's head. "Trippy" really covers it. He's less good on sex—on the one hand that's good, because he's not inclined to pro forma steamy sex scenes that have cluttered up so many things the past 50 years or so. On the other hand, he's bad on sex. There's a notably repugnant incest thread in this one, made worse by strains of BDSM stereotyping, with "leather" and "bondage" and stuff. I found it off-putting, but I was also listening to Frank Zappa albums at the time for another project, a bad combination. Dick is not good on relationships either. But he's very good on loneliness, dysthymia, alienation, and the yearning to escape. He thinks of places to escape that no one before him ever had, and sometimes it seems now that's all we can think of. Read enough of his stuff and you start to understand what a stamp he made.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Shoah (1985)

France / UK, 566 minutes, documentary
Director/writer: Claude Lanzmann
Photography: Dominique Chapuis, Jimmy Glasberg, Phil Gries, William Lubtchansky
Editors: Ziva Postec, Anna Ruiz

As a quirk of history, December 7, 1941—a Sunday—is not only the day the Japanese attacked the US at Pearl Harbor. It is also the day the Germans formally adopted their policy of die Endlösung: the "final solution" for "the Jewish problem." In the scope of history, it's a stepping-off point. As historian Raul Hilbert caustically notes a few hours into this massive and elegiac documentary, everything the Nazis had done to that point to scapegoat, persecute, and oppress Jews in central Europe had already been used for centuries: harsh inheritance laws, intermarriage bans, badging, ghettoization—all of it. Now, with the formal policy, the Nazi bureaucrats were forced to invent, and create, and they did so the way most bureaucracies do—by irrational fits and starts, marked frequently by stupidity.

Shoah sets out to address one of the most maddening aspects of this part of German Nazi history, die Endlösung, which is the way it shrouds itself in decency and notions of taste (good and bad), making it hard to find out what happened. We know some 6 million Jews were systematically exterminated in death camps set up in Poland, that it involved gassing of some kind mostly (and something about showers), and that it was "horrible"—that has been taken more or less as all we need to know, and in a way it is. Yet as The Sorrow and the Pity began to disclose in 1969, the complicity and tacit knowledge and implicit acceptance actually ranged wide and didn't involve only Nazis or even only Germans. So what the hell, exactly, was going on? Who knew what, and when?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

S

S is for serpent, which it looks like and which it sounds like. But don't hold that against it. It has nothing to do with sin other than fronting for the word. It doesn't actually want you to eat an apple. It's far too busy demonstrating the Calvinist work ethic as one of the busiest letters in the alphabet—#7 most frequently used, which somewhat belies its rather lowly position as the 19th of 26 letters. Consider its many duties. Perhaps it's best known as The Pluralizer, converting one noun to many nouns by the simple expedient of showing up, sometimes, for the ladies and the laddies, with helper letter E and doubling consonants as needed. With S, there's always room for more. A friend becomes friends, a cat becomes cats. Put S at the end of many verbs and they are activated, moving forcefully into the eternal present. You already know you can run, eat, learn, but runs, eats, learns is for when you are actually doing it, a pinpoint focus on pure activity. For the most part, S maintains its integrity, but as with so many letters in this English alphabet it is occasionally lured from the straight and narrow. It is essentially a sibilant, a subtle sound made with the tongue at the back of the upper teeth, and a sharp exhalation. It is a remarkably penetrating noise as anyone can tell you who has sat in a darkened theater with people randomly hissing about things they don't like. Pair S with H, however, and the sibilance is still there but now caused by the jaw mostly closing the mouth against the exhalation to please be quiet please, another sound sadly heard too often in theaters nowadays, along with its cause, people randomly having conversations—plural. S is so pleased with itself about this land grab with H that it also molests the letter U at will for the same effect, as in "sugar" and "sure." This does not occur without surcease, which makes it annoying. It's small potatoes, of course, compared to the gyrations of some other letters we could name. Otherwise, S struggles for a personality. Inevitably it is a computer programming language. Someday each letter of the alphabet will have its own programming language and mergers will be allowed only if they spell words found in the Scrabble dictionary. One thing you can say about S is that it certainly has a lovely sinuous shape, printed or cursive, and damn the serpentine association. Just as there is no I in team there is no S in evil (though here its blunt force strength as The Pluralizer unfortunately works against it). Ultimately, that very fungibility of S saves it. It is so perfectly utilitarian. You can add it to the end of maybe 75% of the words in the English language and arrive at something with a perfectly new and useful meaning. S does have the unfortunate propensity of so many consonants to pair off with itself: pass, lassitude, gross, mission ... wait, what was that noise my mouth just made? Oh crafty S with your many ways!

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Culture of Narcissism (1979)

Another book I meant to get to approximately in its time, toting around in used mass market paperback all these decades. It feels a little out of date now in its reliance on Freudian language and contextualized with figures equally so—Woody Allen, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth. Yet if anything Christopher Lasch's insights about the decay of ancient traditions of family and community, replaced by fresh-faced experts and technocrats of the middle class, struck me in many ways as dead-on as ever. A constant theme is enlarging celebrity worship, which has only worsened exponentially since then. He is particularly lucid in his depressing history of 20th-century spectator sports, whose trends, again, have only worsened: corporate control, a product increasingly debased by its commercial requirements, too great for any to resist. He is perhaps most devastating on our system of education, which he compares most aptly to Thorstein Veblen's systems of elaborate status representations. That would be funny if there wasn't so much at stake. Education is still a gatekeeping strategy between classes. Wealth inequality is only worse. Politicians are plainly the tools of moneyed interests—that's common knowledge and conventional wisdom now, as Donald Trump affirms in his starring role at the current Republican debates. We turn into our empty selves to find meaning and only find emptiness. There are things here to say about game theory too probably, but the larger point is there are multiple forces with an interest in keeping the deadly state of insanity in place. We go along to get along. At the same time, I'm not sure I trust the "helping professions" as little as Lasch does—he denigrates them in large and small ways here, usually using the scare quotes. The self-perpetuating cycles of violence and ignorance, as ancient as any of the traditions Lasch celebrates, are precisely what the helping professions (social workers, community workers, therapists, teachers, etc.) are attempting to interrupt. The effort is merited—children, women, and minorities still suffer great abuse systematically, and the problem still needs to be fixed, even if it appears perilously like the lunatics running the asylum. As much as anything Lasch is addressing the kind of spiritual malaise President Jimmy Carter pointed out the year this book was published, one that is still very real, and Lasch is doing so with the same kind of eye on the literary arts that Freud himself kept. He seems notably haunted by Joseph Heller's very haunting second novel, Something Happened, published in the mid-'70s, and on that level I'm certainly on Lasch's wavelength. Hard times ahead.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Night and Fog (1955)

Nuit et brouillard, France, 32 minutes, documentary
Director/editor: Alain Resnais
Writers: Jean Cayrol, Chris Marker
Photography: Ghislain Cloquet, Sacha Vierny
Music: Hanns Eisler

Made in the mid-'50s, Alain Resnais's documentary often feels strangely inhibited, as if 10 years were still not time enough to think about, or talk about, or show, the evils of Germany's concentration camp system. Even the abbreviated length, just over half an hour, suggests the delicacy, the unwillingness to engage—the sense it is somehow sacrilege even to acknowledge the terrible reality. The visible signs of evil are limited, if blunt, which is part of its point. The footage from the '50s, shot on color film, has the bland look of road trip home movies. The camp sites that it visits have been abandoned to nature. The buildings of the camps still stand but they are crumbling and unused. Grassy nature is reclaiming them, softening the sharp lines. But the memories are still searing. They always will be. Documentary film and photos in black and white alternate with these inoffensive scenes, offering up images of the horrors and humiliations we know, or think we know: corpses in railroad boxcars, lines of naked prisoners standing in roll call formation, mountains of sorted personal effects, decapitated heads in baskets, corpses bulldozed into the ground. Written and narrated by Jean Cayrol, a survivor, the film is at pains to imply more than it says. It's a matter of decorum—what it implies, after all, is unspeakable. It struggles every second to walk the line between dignity and the impulse to pule at atrocity. It is dense with information and allusion, the images playing off the narration and the facts disclosed or shown, reminiscent in that way of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil (Marker a cowriter on Night and Fog), Guy Debord's Society of the Spectacle (where the ideas are abstracted), and of course Marcel Ophuls's Sorrow and the Pity. By 1969, when The Sorrow and the Pity came out, the dams were bursting. There was more willingness to consider at length the monstrous events—that documentary is over four hours long. In another 15 years, Shoah would more than double that. Less than 10 years more, Steven Spielberg was up for Oscars for a four-hour narrative treatment, Schindler's List. The enormity of that part of Nazi history, the so-called Final Solution (die Endlösung), has sunk in slowly. Some even deny it altogether. Night and Fog is only incidentally informational—it's intended for people who already know the basic outlines, whose lives were directly affected, whose trauma is evidenced most by the mute countenance. It lives on as an evocative symbol of the difficulty of responding to great wrong: with barbarous yawps of rage, yet restrained down to seething fury by the survivor's impulse not to talk about it at all, not to become the ranting thing they already hate. Civilized man is rational man—we cling to that. The images, particularly toward the end, grow more horrifying, as the world discovers the camps after World War II. Everything in this documentary passes, is soon over, except the unease it produces, which lasts a long time—hopefully, long enough. But frankly I'm as dubious about that as the filmmakers themselves, who are clear in the end. Brutalizing anxiety, and unending skepticism for human capacity to do the right thing, are the legacy of the Nazi regime, and thus necessarily of this short documentary.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

R

It's clear no letter of the alphabet is more approved by pirates, but R has much more going for it as well. It's ranked #8 overall for frequency of use—#4 among consonants, after only T, N, and S. In English it is primarily a growling noise, with the tongue flipped back in the mouth to texture the vocalization (an "alveolar approximant," in the argot of linguistics). But in other languages, such as Spanish, it takes on a rolling, purring, motorized sound called trilling, which I have never been able to make, just as I never learned to stick two fingers in my mouth and make a piercing whistle. I don't see these as flaws, particularly as I don't speak Spanish, but yes, the potential for problems is there. R is tucked pretty far down there, as the 18th letter of the alphabet—it's 18, I just don't know what to say. Now that we are so deep into the alphabet, do individual letters even have distinct personalities anymore? That is our course of inquiry, you see, and the obvious answer is yes, of course they do. But the workhorses that make up the majority of letters in this tray of the alphabet as I learned it, namely Q, R, S, T, and U, are mostly too busy representin' and performing extremely important stitching-together language work, notably R, S, and T (and with the notable exception of Q, as previously discussed). U is a vowel—as with pitchers on baseball teams, the numbers favor the impact of vowels as single units over the everyday players that are the consonants. Vowels have to be considered separately. The bailiwick of R includes a primitive one-upmanship function of making everything better—bigger, faster, more wonderfuller—just by showing up at the ends of adjectives (with E and doubling consonants as needed). If you think that's great I'll tell you it's greater, and I'll be growling too, because that's the way R rolls. R is always going to be one step ahead of you, at least until S and T combine to stop the greater quarrel, and make it the definitive greatest. Working with verbs, R makes nouns with admirable work ethics: doer, thinker, farmer, and (the greatest of them all) writer. In mathematics, R represents the set of all so-called real numbers ("real numbers"—never mind). R also works part-time as a warning to parents (and red flag to adolescents) about certain movies. I have always respected R as a utility player in the alphabet, such are its many faceless powers—how can you not? But as a handwritten letter, printed or cursive, capitalized or lowercase, it is somehow always a nuisance to make and never quite looks the way it should. For the sake of R's dignity, it's a good thing there's typing.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

As I Lay Dying (1930)

I was impressed all over again by how difficult Faulkner can make things with his abrupt changes in point of view, even inside of one character, and here we are privy to the inside first-person views of some 15 characters. This often reads to me like Benjy Compson's first section of The Sound and the Fury, with simple declarative sentences and straightforward dialogue that yields very little directly. Even so, in As I Lay Dying the scope reaches biblical proportions of event, with both flood and fire and arguably locusts too, as it tells the story of a backwoods impoverished white Southern family attempting to transport the body of their matriarch, Addie Bundren, to her desired resting ground in Jefferson, Mississippi. Much grotesquerie goes on with the various family members and especially the corpse, to the point where it becomes comical. The corruption is passed out unequally but most of the characters share some taint—adultery, greed, pride, and sloth are the usual suspects among the God-fearing population of Faulkner novels. I respect it like hell for its adventurous experimentalism and for its usual x-ray of the bizarre (and still familiar) ways of the post-Reconstruction South. But it feels mannered and disconnected too, again reminiscent of Benjy Compson's narrative style. What I prefer of Faulkner, which is otherwise more commonly found, is the brooding ruminating free-flowing narrative voice, with long artful spiky sentences. It is an even more difficult style to read in some ways—the extreme is Absalom, Absalom!, which I admit is a bit much even for me—but also, once in, the most luxuriant and energizing to read. Light in August may be the best expression of it, or the rest of The Sound and the Fury, after the first section. Faulkner set out to write a tour de force with As I Lay Dying, and accomplished it on multiple levels—stylistically, by plot points, by influence (particularly on pulp noir writers), and by the way the story proceeds, like a relay match, handing off the baton of narrative chore to the next seeming random character, even as Addie Bundren reaches the point of her death, is put inside a box, and after some ordeals finally comes to be buried. It does what it sets out to do and it feels like an accomplishment to read it too, so all good all around, I suppose. But it feels mechanical too, it always has to me—something less than organic.

In case it's not at the library.

Friday, October 09, 2015

North by Northwest (1959)

USA, 136 minutes
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: Ernest Lehman
Photography: Robert Burks
Music: Bernard Herrmann
Editor: George Tomasini
Cast: Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Leo G. Carroll, Martin Landau, Jessie Royce Landis, Adam Williams, Edward Platt

Something about North by Northwest epitomizes for me everything that is great about movies. It has always seemed to exist outside of time somehow, whirling out of my undifferentiated past to make the bill on repertory house double features, brash and colorful and vivid as ever, every time. In fact, for the longest time I was surprised again and again to learn that it came out so late in the decade, when it seems to belong more in the mid- or early '50s—indeed, in the gusto with which Cary Grant leads the cast, the strapping good spirits of it, it belongs even perhaps all the way back to wartime joie di vivre, when sunny optimism ruled the day.

Yet at the same time, arriving in the same year as the birth control bill, North by Northwest is at pains to establish its cheesy sexual sophistication bona fides. It's liberally sprinkled with lines like, "Now what could a man do with his clothes off for 20 minutes?" and has a famously lascivious last shot. The plot, in fact, turns on a frank and very delicate issue of sexual ethics—that is, within an elaborate and fanciful context of Cold War spy games. Underneath that, the motivations are as corny as anything Frank Capra ever did. As if to underline the point, the movie is equally liberally sprinkled with potent and modern symbols (for 1959) of apple-pie America: the United Nations General Assembling Building in New York, a cross-continental train trip, and ultimately a visit to Mount Rushmore in western South Dakota. Among other things it's a tourist's-eyes view of America, like in Lolita.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Q

The letter Q stands in as the crown royalty queen class of the alphabet. Is there any other letter so nauseatingly cute, so entirely useless? It is eccentric in a way similar to how the knight chess piece moves, which at least can be turned to the purpose of the game. Practically everything Q does could be done as effectively by K and W in combination, or K all by itself ("out of Irak!"). Furthermore, Q has the temerity to impose a truly ridiculous requirement, which is that it will not appear in public, at least in the English language, without accompaniment of its Batman-Robin sidekick U, no doubt bare-legged too. "Wherever go I," says this silly letter in the haughty tones of the peerage (meaning itself, Q, not the letter I), "there goes U." And why is this? Does anyone know? Does anyone even ask? On the other hand, consider the rakish beauty of the circle intersected by the coy slash. In lowercase the sly variation on both p and g is elegant as silk. Here I am, suddenly charmed by Q! Quick, I need a drinq. Various American marketers over the years have demonstrated that the phonetic replacement for the sake of clarity somehow just isn't kwite convincing, or even that kwik to parse. And of course Q looms somewhat more useful in other languages, where it may be a form of the throat-clearing found in the German "ch" (generally absent as a mouth noise from English). Around here it's quickly apparent that it's quite an affectation, no question. At least we respect that about it, using it so sparingly that it ranks #25 in the alphabet for frequency of use, ahead of only Z. I want to say that even Z belongs ahead of Q for that matter, because of its undeniably unique mouth noise sound, but you can't have everything, and we'll get to that. Q does have some utility representing the word "question" (as in "a Q and A story"), signifying a transcribed interview. It was also the name of one of the worst characters ever to appear in the Star Trek franchise (though I would hazard that Lwaxana Troi still remains single worst by orders of magnitude). Maybe that's why I don't like Q. Because, let's be clear, I don't. But I think it's more likely a matter of the ridiculous unnecessary work it brings to the enterprise of the English language. Again, it might be interesting to get the perspective of children and ESL students, whatever their thoughts are on this monumentally useless letter. Why don't we just remove it—25 is a much better number than 26. That way, for postal codes, each state in the US can share one letter and there are no fractions. Think about that. Post office monolith, are you listening to me? In the long run, generations from now, the figure of Q would just become an exotic meaningless shape like a bunch of those Cyrillic letters or whatnot. At least say you'll think about it.

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Presidential Papers (1963)

Those, like myself, pitiful enough to appreciate the high-flown improvisations of philosophical substance and walking the high wire of egotism in essay form found in Advertisements for Myself can get more where that came from in this and two more collections that followed (Cannibals and Christians from 1966 and Pieces and Pontifications from 1982), which I won't otherwise deal with in this series, except to note he's not normally so pointlessly alliterative. But they are nearly as good. I am weak for Mailer's riffing the way others might be for similar exercises by Lester Bangs or Pauline Kael. He is something of their literary counterpart, and half the fun is watching him dazzle, when he does. Here he worries to death the words "existentialism" and "totalitarianism," whose definitions he seems to want to bend to his will, and otherwise engages in bratty exegeses on scatology, boxing, Cuba, etc. It's very much of its time, explicitly addressing itself to John Kennedy and his administration. One of the best pieces here, in fact, is Mailer's coverage for Esquire of the 1960 political conventions. There's also an interesting interview with First Lady Jackie. Speaking of ladies, you should also know it's painfully dated in its sexual politics, which Mailer only makes worse with his own specifically. For example, it's possible he never uses the word "woman" but rather only "lady," "girl," or "female"—it seems like him to do so deliberately, though I don't recall it as an issue of usage until the '70s. At any rate, prepare for wincing. I still like the way Mailer thinks, however, the way his mind moves and flits and lands on things and flies off again. His attempts here to argue implicitly that existence itself comes with a bent toward totalitarianism, all mixed up with his own loutishness, redeemed by a sense of searching honestly under it all, is fun to ride along with. That's not least perhaps because those problems of those times can seem almost quaint now. He does cover the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, with an interesting sense of what it felt like. Interestingly, the book was published before the John Kennedy assassination. I appreciate that because it affords a view into Kennedy and those times that is somewhat at variance with the conventional half-dollar man-on-the-moon narratives that came after—a refreshing view of him mired down politically, unable to get things done, and with unhappy people around him on every side.

In case it's not at the library.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

P

With P, it's personal. After all, if I had happened to find myself among the landed aristocracy P would be all over my handkerchiefs, luggage, and pillowcases. So I have to like it by default, or seek further therapy. It's true that the letter itself bears unfortunate intimations of evacuation—#1, pee, #2, poop—even using it by name, e.g., "did you eat asparagus, your P smells funny." Yet the sound it makes (the only sound it makes, and the only letter that makes the sound, and just never mind about those combinations with H or the silent mode, as in "physics" and "psychologists") is a comical charming delight, the hollow burst of a champagne cork. It encapsulates the pop moment with uncanny perfection, for those of us who love pop—P really brings the onomatopoeia here, the insouciant way that pop music, pop art, and the pop whatnot erupt into existence, explosively, hit the vocal for a beat, and slam the door shut again just like that. Is there anything more pop than the word "pop" itself? (At the same time, this could be part of the unfortunate association with droppings.) Speaking of pop and P, however, you should be careful when you use P with a microphone. Strangely, although the P mouth noise seems so natural to me, it is not used at all in the Arabic language—and in light of that, perhaps not surprisingly, it is also not actually used that much in English, ranking at #19 in frequency of usage. A question: How is all this related to the garden vegetable I eat with a knife, done it all my life? The perspicacious truth is out there (we hope). That reminds me that princes and princesses everywhere have a certain obvious fondness for P, except for the one who complained about the garden vegetable under her super plush 20 mattresses and 20 feather-beds. Jesus, lady, get a life. Then there is the matter of minding one's Ps and Qs. What is meant by that curious phrase? Speculation includes that it stands for "pints" and "quarts," thus "please control your drinking." Another possible acronym is "prime quality." Also "please," with the Q serving as some awkward approximation of either "thank you" or "excuse me," which in general makes me think the theory is arrant nonsense—probably they all are. And I am off on fool's errands again. But now I've abandoned my own Ps and Qs by speaking in such a way. Down in the lowercase register, you have to wonder what b, d, p, and perhaps q think about one another in their crazy funhouse mirror gyrations of line and ball. Here's another question, this time about cause and effect: Are the earlier letters in the alphabet inherently more interesting, or are we more interested in them because they come first? Because I have to tell you, in the end, it looks like P just might be something of a drab and uninteresting fellow after all. There's P all over this place. Ew.