Farts In The Arts

When Russell went off to Camp Seagull in the Carolinas as a young lad, Kish and I waited with trepidation for his first letter home.

Most camps in those days didn’t let kids call home for a few weeks.  Campers could write letters, but not call — the reasoning being that hearing Mom’s voice might just produce even great bouts of homesickness.  So we waited, and when Russell’s letter arrived we tore it open and read it eagerly.  We realized that he would be OK when we got to the part where he said he thought he would really like his cabin mates because “they all thought farts were funny, too.”

250px-firefartIt turns out that Russell and his Camp Seagull buddies had a lot in common with the ancient Sumerians, Shakespeare, and Jonathan Swift.

A recent article tackles the important and surprisingly under-researched topic of flatulence humor in literature.  It reports that the earliest known fart joke in history is also the oldest known joke, period — which tells you something about the significance of flatulence humor in human civilization — came from the Sumerians circa 1900 B.C.  It is: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”  Admittedly, it doesn’t really seem very funny these days, but let’s give the ancient Sumerians a break — since it was the very first known joke in history, we can’t reasonably expect Seinfeld levels of humor, and besides, we’re probably missing some important sound effects that accompanied the gibe and dramatically increased the humor quotient.

Of course, fart references were found in Chaucer and Shakespeare — where your British Literature professors might dismissively refer to them as “bawdy humor” — and in Mark Twain’s writing, too.   Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, seems to have been weirdly obsessed with breaking wind.  Writing under a pseudonym, he penned an entire book on the subject called The Benefit of Farting Explained that articulated, in painstaking detail, Swift’s views on the different categories of farts.

So if you read or heard about the recent report about the unfortunate woman who passed gas during surgery in a Tokyo hospital, igniting a laser being used during the procedure, and thought it was funny even though the woman was burned as a result, you’re not alone.  Humans have been chuckling about farts since the dawn of recorded history — and probably for as long as humans have been around at all.

Dylan’s Nobel Prize

Yesterday Bob Dylan, the beat folk musician who turned electric and helped make the ’60s the ’60s, won the Nobel Prize for literature.  Dylan is the first musician ever to have won the award — and, not surprisingly, the decision to give one of literature’s great prizes to a rock singer immediately produced criticism.  One writer said “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars.”

50-shades-bob-dylanMost of the criticism of the decision to give the Nobel Prize to Dylan focuses on whether lyrics can ever rise to the level of “literature.”  It’s a kind of snooty argument that necessarily comes off as dismissive of songwriters, suggesting that poets and novelists labor over their craft, think big thoughts and wrestle with the big issues, and produce timeless works of literary art — while songwriters simply dash off a ditty and consult their rhyming dictionary as necessary.  Still others argue that Dylan has received enough awards — he’s won a lot of Grammys, for example — and he doesn’t need the Nobel Prize.  As one critic of the award put it, reading is declining, writers and poets are struggling for recognition, and “awarding the Nobel to a novelist or a poet is a way of affirming that fiction and poetry still matter, that they are crucial human endeavors worthy of international recognition.”

Kind of sad, isn’t it?  Years after Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth, and Hemingway, people are arguing that the Nobel Prize is what is needed to show that writing poetry and prose matters?  And, in a way, that argument is self-defeating, isn’t it?  After all, the Nobel Prizes in literature that have been awarded pre-Dylan – and you can see the list here — haven’t exactly prevented the worldwide decline in reading and recognition of writers and poets that some people are bemoaning.

The notion that the Nobel Prize somehow legitimizes literature seems pretty silly to me.  Nobel Prizes always appear to be highly politicized, and the concept of honoring writers and poets through the selection of one award winner doesn’t make a lot of sense.  The Nobel Prize for literature in 2011, for example, was given to Tomas Transtromer “because, through his condensed, translucent images, he gives us fresh access to reality.”  How does the award to Tomas Transtromer affirm the value of authors and poets who write in different genres and different styles?

Words are words, and the Nobel Prize for literature recognizes that words have power.  Whether the words appear in a book, a poem, or a recorded song, the key point is whether those words are being used in a memorable, beautiful way to send a lasting message to the reader — or the listener.  No one who has listened to Bob Dylan’s music has failed to appreciate the lyrics, which undeniably have their own unique, poetic power.  Dylan’s writing — like, apparently, the writing of Tomas Transtromer — makes us think about words and their message.  I think he’s a fitting recipient of the Nobel Prize for literature.

Long’s Gone

When you get older, you come to accept the inevitability that things you remember from your youth — whether it is TV shows, favorite athletes, failed breakfast cereals, or brands of beer — will vanish into the mists of time.

mt_long_book_demo_fs_3Still, it was weird to see recent photos of demolition equipment tearing down Long’s college bookstore, across the street from the OSU campus.  When I attended Ohio State back in the ’70s, Long’s was as much a part of the University as the Orton Hall chimes.

Everyone who went to Ohio State — and that covers a lot of people — stopped into Long’s, or its nearby competitor, SBX, to buy their textbooks.  Students would take their course syllabi, scan for the required texts, and then head to Long’s to get the books.  It was a crammed yet sprawling, ramshackle store that also sold OSU fan gear and therefore attracted a good crowd of Buckeye fans, which just added to the hustle and bustle of the place.

At Long’s you would learn that your college professors often wrote the textbooks for the courses they taught . . . and that the texts seemed to carry an awfully high price tag compared to some of the other books available.  But, what could you do?  It was a required text, and how in the world could you expect to pass the course if you didn’t have one?  Experienced students learned that it paid to get to the bookstores early, because with luck you could find a reasonably used copy of the text at a much lower price.  And then, at the end of the quarter — for it was quarters, not semesters, back in those days — you would resell your books to Long’s or SBX for pennies on the dollar.  Why?  Because it was a buyer’s market, and no college student wanted their apartment cluttered with texts from Philosophy 101 or Poli Sci 265, and you’d rather get a few bucks that you could spend on beer and pizza.  It’s not like you were ever going to read a textbook again, anyway.

In this simple way, Long’s taught naive OSU students some valuable lessons.  Buy low, sell high.  Brace yourself for a gouging.  And understand that the world isn’t fair.

Those are some pretty enduring life lessons, when you think about it.

The New Main

IMG_2365Yesterday Kish and I walked over to check out the refurbished Main Library branch of the Columbus Public Library system.  It reopened recently after being closed for about a year for renovations.

The renovations focused on the interior and rear of the building, where the second and third floors now feature two-story floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the Topiary Gardens Park behind the library.  The huge windows give the interior a much more airy and bright feel, and the library has maintained that feel by providing lots of seating areas, open spaces within the interior of the building, and less cluttered shelving.  As you walk through the building — and yesterday there was lots of traffic — you can’t help but be impressed by the spaciousness.

IMG_2370The renovations also included some landscaping of the front lawn leading up to the familiar facade of the original Carnegie library building, as well as adding some green space and a patio area between the rear of the building and the Topiary Gardens.  On a sunny day like yesterday, the towering windows and new green spaces made the library seem more integrated with its surroundings than ever before.

I think the new Main looks great, and I’m happy that it has reopened.  For all of the sleek changes to the interior and exterior, Main also has a great selection of books — one that is much larger than that available at the Parsons branch that we have been using.  Yesterday we picked up a few books after some browsing, which is one of the things I like to do at a library.  I’m glad Main is back in the rotation.

IMG_2368

 

The New Parsons Branch

It was a big day today in the German Village/Schumacher Place/near East Side part of Columbus.  The new Parsons branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library opened.

The old Parsons branch was the smallest branch in the excellent Columbus system.  It was really more like a high school or junior high library than a public library branch, but it was the only library within walking distance when the Main Library closed for renovations, and Kish and I visited and used it extensively.  Then the old Parsons branch shut down, leaving us without a nearby library for an uncomfortable period of time for us regular library users, before the new branch opened a few blocks directly south of the old location.

IMG_1146The new branch is a big improvement — literally.  It’s much larger, inside and out, and my brief bit of perusing during our visit indicates that its collection is more extensive than that at the old branch, too.  That’s a welcome change indeed, because I like browsing and grabbing a book that strikes my fancy at the time, and I had just about worked through all of the selections in my preferred literary genres in the standing collection at the old branch.  With the additional book options available at the new location, I’ll be kept busy for a while.

I’m not sure that we’re going to keep using the Parsons Branch, however, when the Main Library renovations are done and Main reopens to the public in a few weeks.  With the shift of Parsons to the south, it’s almost certainly farther away from us than the Main Library.  When you add that fact to the far more extensive standing collection at Main, I suspect that my choice when I’m in the mood for some browsing will be to cross over the freeway and head to Main.

The new Parsons branch will be interesting to keep an eye on for another reason.  It’s part of the ongoing effort to improve Parsons Avenue, and with the move south it’s an attempt to nudge the redevelopment wave a few blocks farther away from the Nationwide Children’s Hospital zone.  The new neighborhood for the branch has a decidedly more gritty feel, but that may change as the new library and some other redevelopment efforts in the area come on line.  I’m sure that civic leaders are hoping that a new library can help the area feel more like a neighborhood and less like an urban renewal project.  Today, at least, the branch was jammed on its opening day.  It would be a good sign if that continues.

Attempting An Eclogue

For years, Kish has gotten a “word-a-day” calendar as a Christmas stocking stuffer.  The calendar gives you a word, its definition, and its pronunciation, and then uses the word in a sentence, like you’re the contestant in the national spelling bee.  It’s an interesting, relatively painless way to learn new words and build that personal vocabulary to ever more impressive heights, and occasionally — O, happy day! — the word is one you actually knew already.

afghan_shepherd_by_ironpaw1Sometimes, though, the words aren’t exactly easy to fit into everyday conversation.  On Monday, for example, the word was “eclogue.” What’s an eclogue (pronounced ek-log), you ask?  Why, it’s a poem in which shepherds converse, of course.  The sentence the calendar offers to illustrate its meaning is:  “The poet’s new volume offers modern translations of Virgil’s eclogues.”  Even at an erudite workplace like mine, it’s hard to imagine a discussion where you could smoothly use “eclogue.”

Although I can’t see ever using the word in actual conversation, and therefore am likely to promptly forget it, I thought it might be fun to try to write an eclogue, just to give ol’ Virgil a little competition.

A Brief Eclogue

Far out yonder, on grassy plain

Where sheep did graze, were shepherds twain

As they silently did walk

One shepherd felt the need to talk.

Said Shepherd One to Shepherd Two:

“It’s time for dinner.  I brought stew.

The sheep all graze o’er by the lake.

No wolf in sight.  Let’s take a break!”

Said Shepherd Two to Shepherd One:

“I’m sad to say that I’ve brought none.

I’ve got no food, but none the worse.

Let’s use our break, then, to converse.”

Said Shepherd One to Shepherd Two:

“I’d start, but I don’t have a clue

What we’d discuss, or what I’d say.

I’ve been out tending sheep all day.”

Said Shepherd Two to Shepherd One:

“There’s nothing new under the sun.

And what is new I won’t discuss.

Clinton and Trump just make me cuss!”

So shepherds two sat ‘neath a tree

And watched as sheep grazed peacefully

It wasn’t much of an eclogue

But ’twas enough to fill this blog.

Moving Too Far, Too Fast

We all knew that, this season, Game of Thrones the TV show would move past Game of Thrones, the books.  What I didn’t fully appreciate was how far, and how fast, the TV series would progress.

game-of-thrones-season-3-osha-630x355One of the most enjoyable things about the books in my view has been the deliberate pacing.  The stories have taken a long time to unfold, and in the meantime we got to revel in the sigils of the minor houses and what kind of elaborate food was being served at a banquet and the colors and cut of the doublet of some obscure lord who appeared briefly and then vanished from the storyline.  With the TV show, there’s none of that.  Major characters come and go and get knocked off at breakneck pace.

I hate it that characters I really liked are being killed right and left — like the wildling woman who watched after Bran and Rickon after Theon Greyjoy conquered Winterfell — but mostly I’m concerned that the story is just moving too darned fast.  In the George R.R. Martin world, it would have taken 300 succulent pages to get to the point of Daenerys torching the leaders of the Dothraki, and Sansa and Jon Snow resolving to march on Winterfell and try to kill the execrable Ramsay Bolton, but in the series it takes only an episode and a half.  How far are we going to get in the story line this year, anyway?

And that’s the big issue for me.  Much as I think the TV is great, I like the books even better.  What’s going to be left of the plot when this year’s episodes are over?  And if George R.R. Martin doesn’t bring out the next volume until next year’s episodes air, the disconnect is just going to be too much.

Slow down, HBO!