Roger in Black and White


Other people’s prose:

The great majority of use—all, in brief, who are normal—pass through life in constant revolt against our limitations, objective and subjective. Our conscious thought is largely devoted to plans and specifications for cutting a better figure in human society, and in our unconscious the business goes on much more steadily and powerfully. No healthy man, in his secret heart, is content with his destiny. He is tortured by dreams and images as a child is tortured by the thought of a state of existence in which it would live in a candy-store and have two stomachs.

H.L. Mencken from “The Art Eternal” (1918)


Other people’s prose:

Why then do rational men and women engage in so barbarous and exhausting a vocation—for there are relatively intelligent and enlightened authors, remember, just as there are relatively honest politicians, and even bishops. What keeps them from deserting it for trades that are less onerous, and, in the eyes of their fellow creatures, more respectable? One reason, I believe, is that an author, like any other so-called artist, is a man in whom the normal vanity of all men is so vastly exaggerated that he finds it a sheer impossibility to hold it in. His overpowering impulse is to gyrate before his fellow men, flapping his wings and emitting defiant yells. This being forbidden by the police of all civilized countries, he takes it out by putting his yells on paper. Such is the thing called self-expression.

—H.L. Mencken from “The Author at Work” (1926)


No comment:

Bird in oil

By Charlie Riedel of the AP.


Other people’s prose:

"New Orleans" is the Big Easy that the tourists go to so they can drink themselves into a stupor on Bourbon Street and connect themselves to a prefab sense of the city's character, which is built on a series of stereotypes -- most of which are self-perpetuated.

At the same time, the real New Orleans and Katrina belong on that blog "Stuff White People Like" because both continually attract a kind of seeker, from Brad Pitt's green rebuilding effort to writer Dave Eggers's "Zeitoun," and on down -- well-meaning people who want to bring their special understanding for the city's tastes, sounds and people.

It's fascinating to watch "Treme" skirt both the drunk's indifference and the intellectual's arrogance. What results in the first three episodes is a much fuller celebration of place and soul; everything you're initially going to remember about the series is the music, but do stick around for the stories. I say all this as someone who lived in New Orleans for four years, in college, and came away with only an infinitesimal (and youthful) understanding of its complexities. Like most visitors, I let the bon temps rouler right off into meaninglessness. All I ever knew for sure about New Orleans was that it was doomed.

Among the endless words I read on Treme, Hank Stuever’s comments in the Washington Post make the most sense.


Slate asks, “Why is Miller Lite’s ad campaign more about the container than the beer?”

Because the beer tastes like shit. Next question.


Sloppy thinking can matter more than months of good reporting. In New Orleans, we learned that after Katrina. No amount of solid journalism from the Times-Picayune, NPR, or the New York Times could overcome the perception that a hurricane, and not a massive engineering failure, caused the flooding in New Orleans. It was, people continue to say even today, a “natural disaster.”

Since oil started pouring into the Gulf of Mexico, the New York times has covered the crisis better than any other national outlet. Today, though, the paper added its voice to the growing murmur of spin that casts what happened on that BP platform as a “natural disaster.” In a story on the political implications of President Obama’s handling of the crisis, Helene Cooper writes:

Natural disasters provide great opportunities, or great peril, for presidents. President Bush’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, magnified by his now-infamous “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie” praise of his FEMA director, Michael Brown, cemented an impression that his administration failed to act with enough urgency to address the suffering of tens of thousands of people.

This morning I wrote an email to the NYT:

Dear Editors,

An article today by Helene Cooper states that both the BP oil spill and Katrina were "natural disasters." That is false.

The spill and the damage from Katrina, at least in New Orleans, were both caused by human error and engineering failures.

Todd Price

This is the paper’s reply:

Dear Mr. Price:

We are aware that many people want us to make the distinction between Katrina and the flooding.

But Ms. Cooper did not call the flooding in New Orleans a natural disaster. She called the hurricane Katrina a natural disaster. And that is correct: a hurricane is a natural disaster.

I think all the families who were displaced and who lost loved ones would agree that a hurricane did exist.

Best regards,

Greg Brock
Senior Editor/Standarde

I considered many responses. In one of the politer versions, I wondered if Mr. Brock’s failure to address Ms. Cooper’s characterization of the oil spill as a “natural disaster” means that the New York Times stands by that description?

I also wanted to point out to Mr. Brock that a hurricane is actually a storm and not a natural disaster. Hurricanes often make landfall without causing damage that anyone would call disastrous. In fact, if our levees had worked as designed, that’s exactly what would have happened in New Orleans.

In the end, what’s the point of a response? I don’t have the impression Mr. Brock is looking for a conversation.


Other people’s prose:

The city descended on Bourbon Street. New Orleanians, as a general rule, do not like to go there. It is a tourist trap, too crowded and cheap. But on Sunday night it was a beating, living, pulsating mass of people, like a capital city of some country after a dictator has been overthrown.

Beer-stained, bead-scattered Bourbon Street was black and gold wall to wall — the bars on either side were half empty, playing either “Stand Up and Get Crunk,” the Saints’ current theme song, or the old standby, “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

From the balconies, in lieu of confetti, they threw cocktail napkins. In lieu of expensive Champagne, people raised the cheap stuff.

A middle-aged woman stood in a doorway wiping tears from her eyes. In the middle of the street someone was holding up a banner: “HELL FREEZES OVER”

“We won the Super Bowl, brother,” said a man in a tuxedo, leaning on his friend who was wearing a Saints jersey. “Can you imagine that after 40 years?”

Campbell Robertson in the New York Times.


Satan is a little ticked off at Pat Robertson. He sent this letter to the Star Tribune:

Dear Pat Robertson,

I know that you know that all press is good press, so I appreciate the shout-out. And you make God look like a big mean bully who kicks people when they are down, so I'm all over that action. But when you say that Haiti has made a pact with me, it is totally humiliating. I may be evil incarnate, but I'm no welcher. The way you put it, making a deal with me leaves folks desperate and impoverished. Sure, in the afterlife, but when I strike bargains with people, they first get something here on earth -- glamour, beauty, talent, wealth, fame, glory, a golden fiddle. Those Haitians have nothing, and I mean nothing. And that was before the earthquake. Haven't you seen "Crossroads"? Or "Damn Yankees"? If I had a thing going with Haiti, there'd be lots of banks, skyscrapers, SUVs, exclusive night clubs, Botox -- that kind of thing. An 80 percent poverty rate is so not my style. Nothing against it -- I'm just saying: Not how I roll. You're doing great work, Pat, and I don't want to clip your wings -- just, come on, you're making me look bad. And not the good kind of bad. Keep blaming God. That's working. But leave me out of it, please. Or we may need to renegotiate your own contract.

Best, Satan

Hat tip to Lily Coyle for serving as a messager for the Lord of Darkness.


Other people’s prose:

Sax can express sexiness like no other instrument; during a striptease, drums snap and pop on the bumps, but the long bleat of the sax is the soundtrack of the grind. Drums are the punctuation; the sax is the sentence.

Alison Fensterstock reviewing a burlesque show in the Times Picayune.


Quote of the day:

Three years ago, the city did away with handwritten parking tickets. Except for a few exceptions, all tickets are now issued using electronic machines that may account for rumors they were preprinted for people expecting handwritten notices, Mendoza said.

“Each ticket includes the license number, vehicle make, model and color of every car in violation. If we had that type of (psychic) ability to predict all of that for every car, we’d use that ability for something else, not writing tickets.”

From New Orleans City Business.


It’s damn dusty around here. Does anyone remember what this knob does?


Other people’s prose:

Customers enter the room, a brightly colored rectangle, near Lexington and 52nd, and it spreads south and west before them. Not very good paintings of Venetian scenes adorn the walls in that peculiar French manner that combines bad taste with deep sophistication. Banquettes line the place, with pockets of bistro tables set tightly between them, everything slightly smaller than it would be in a restaurant owned by Americans.

Sam Sifton reviewing Le Relais de Venise L’Entrecôte in the New York Times.


In the Times-Picayune, book editor Susan Larson has a wonderful interview with Dan Baum about his book Nine Lives:

"Living in New Orleans, taught me a lot about the paucity of life outside New Orleans," he said. "It's different out here. We're richer out here. We have more stuff, and we drive newer cars. It sounds corny, but life means something in New Orleans. Day-to-day living in New Orleans matters in a way it doesn't out here, and you pay a price for that. It's scary and stressful to live in New Orleans, but I don't have to tell you that. Now we talk about coming back, and we're trying to figure out how we can spend part of each year there."


"I'd never really been to New Orleans before the flood," he said. But he's ready to accept the role of spokesman and defender of the city. "There's still a lot of good will about New Orleans. And, of course, I'm counting on it in a mercenary way. But everybody in the U.S. understands that New Orleans got screwed. This beautiful, benighted poor little city is really like the cute cousin of the family who isn't all that serious but everybody just loves. And everybody understands that she got beaten up and left for dead."

I can’t wait to read this book.


The fine writer Dan Baum, formerly of the New Yorker and the author of Nine Lives, has a blog that’s required reading for freelancers. He talks shop with advice on everything from paying the bills to making people speak:

Here’s the little secret they taught me at The Wall Street Journal: Whenever someone offers to tell you something “off the record,” they really want to tell you. So if you decline their conditions -- can’t attribute it, can’t use it -- they’re going to end up telling you anyway. They can’t resist. So it’s best to refuse the conditions and just be patient for a few minutes.

After reading a few posts, I already feel like a better writer.


The always interesting Roy Clark presents a list of “25 Non-Random Things About Writing Short.” Here are a random items from his non-random list:

  • Keep a journal where you practice short writing.
  • Obey Strunk & White: "Omit needless words."
  • Beware: The infinite space on the Internet creates aerated prose.
  • Obey Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch: "Murder your darlings."
  • That said, every short passage should contain one gold coin, a reward for the reader.
  • Obey Donald Murray: "Brevity comes from selection, not compression."
  • The more powerful the message, the shorter the sentence: "Jesus wept."
  • The best place for an important word in a short passage is at the END.
  • Begin the story as close to the end as possible.
  • Treat all short forms of journalism –- headline, caption, blurb, blog post –- as literary genres.

Blogs have shown that anyone can write 1,500 words. A lot of people can do it well. Saying something smart in 500 words, though, seems to be rare skill.