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All contents herein (except the illustrations, which are in the public domain) are Copyright © 1995-2011 Evan Morris. Reproduction without written permission is prohibited, with the exception that teachers in public schools may duplicate and distribute the material here for classroom use.

Any typos found are yours to keep.

And remember, kids,
Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

 

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February 2014

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

readme:

If April is planning on being the cruelest month this year it has some catching up to do, because January and the first half of February have just about convinced me to move to the tropics, and I loathe even the concept of the tropics. Horrid places, full of sweat and bugs, sweaty, biting bugs, bugs building nests in your ears, spiders the size of poodles….  Anyway, I remember standing in our north field on a very cold winter day right after we moved out here from Manhattan, icy wind spitting freezing rain in my face, looking at the horizon across several hundred desolate acres of frozen corn stubble, and thinking, “Y’know, if I didn’t have that nice warm house to go back to, I would die rather rapidly out here.” (Yes, I can be hired for parties.)

So when I innocently clicked on my weather widget the other afternoon and discovered that it was 20 degrees below zero out there (actual temperature, not “wind chill”), I started to freak. I grew up in suburban Connecticut, and lived in New York City for more than 20 years. I can count on the fingers of one hand the times the electricity went out. That’s fewer than the number of times it’s gone out here, often for days, in the past year. In warm weather, it’s merely a colossal drag. But if the power goes out in this kind of weather, we’ll be in serious trouble within about 1/2 hour. A few years ago, we had to squeeze five cats and two dogs into a tiny flea-bag motel room (on Christmas Eve, no less), and I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t work. Not an option.

Meanwhile, in the world of popular culture, we finally caught up with the third season of Homeland last month after dodging spoilers for weeks and, boy howdy, the Nattering Nabobs of Negativity were absolutely right. Utterly moronic, the entire season. It started stupid and went downhill from there. Don’t get me started. It probably didn’t help that they killed all the interesting people and left us with the most relentlessly unpleasant troubled teen in TV history. Whatever. I hadn’t paid any attention to Mandy Patinkin since The Princess Bride, but now he’s the only conceivable reason to watch the show, which probably means he hasn’t long to live.

Anyway, in an attempt to reboot my mind, I decided to re-read John le Carré’s so-called Karla Trilogy, consisting of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honorable Schoolboy, and Smiley’s People (Karla being the pseudonym of the head of Soviet Intelligence). Unlike the idiots who cook up nonsense like Homeland, le Carré was an actual intelligence officer, running field agents for MI6 until his cover was blown (and his career thus ruined) by Kim Philby, a Soviet “mole” (le Carré popularized the term) who spent decades in the highest precincts of British intelligence. Tinker, Tailor, not coincidentally, centers on the detection and capture of a Philby-esque Soviet mole in MI6.

Continue reading this post » » »

January 2014

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

readme:

Oh look, it’s 2014. The future has arrived! Happy New Year. Yay. Last week it was 27 degrees below zero around here, and the past month has furnished a graphic demonstration of why they stopped insulating houses with horse hair. Unfortunately they didn’t stop until a few decades after our house was built in the 1860s. On the bright side, the refrigerator rarely comes on.

Sorry about November. I foolishly accepted an invitation to be the Guest of Honor at some hinky Wodenfest up in the UP, and ended up fleeing from bio-engineered dire wolves chasing me across a frozen hellscape of burnt-out strip malls and abandoned Bitcoin mines. I finally took refuge under the old abandoned UMich campus in a cave occupied by a clan of elderly, un-tenured and very disgruntled adjunct profs who lent a new dimension to “bitter cold.”

Yeah, that’s all I’m gonna say about November. Dreadful month. Always. It’s pure twisted genius that they put Thanksgiving near the end of a month consisting entirely of endless bleak, gloomy days punctuated by icy rain. Me? I’m thankful for me boils, Sir. I’ve named ev’ry one, Sir. This one ‘ere is Nigel. Say ‘ello, Nigel.

December was a blur, probably because it seemed that every time I went outside I managed to fall down. I’m about ready to give up on this whole walking business. I was carrying some groceries in from the car last night when I tripped for no good reason and landed on our concrete walk, nearly bashing my brains out. I am now under strict orders not to go outside without first notifying Management, lest I turn up as a lawn ornament with the Spring thaw.

In any case, I am profoundly grateful for the wonderful folks who have so generously contributed to our upkeep here at Downscale Abbey, where every crisis is welcomed as an old friend and all the servants are played by cats.

By the way, I’m going to have to stop watching that show. We were perched on the settee with our microwave scones and marmite, cats in their little tiaras, all set for the season opener, when we heard Laura Linney say, “And now the two-hour season premiere…” and we both fainted dead away. Actually we just shuddered, but that was enough, and we clicked off. Two hours in that suffocating cultural coat closet? A few days later we watched the first hour of the thing, during which nothing even remotely un-totally-predictable happened, and I, personally, threw in the towel.

Downton really seems to be aimed at the sort of people who get all tingly when they see a Ralph Lauren commercial, a cohort from which I am gladly absent. I actually had occasion to proofread Ralphie’s rather baroque last will and testament many years ago, so I feel a sort of remote kinship for the guy (I surreptitiously wrote myself in as a nephew, in fact), but enough’s enough with the WASPstalgia.

But life, which is to say, of course, television, must go on, and here at Word Detective World Headquarters we’ve been catching up with Homeland. I must admit that the first season was better than I expected. The second season was a bit incoherent, and the shocking finale produced more consternation than shock. We’re just now getting started on season 3, and the whole shebang definitely seems to be coming apart at the seams. Hope I’m wrong.

There does seem to be a problem with cable series reaching a point where all the interesting characters are randomly expunged; I’ve always thought that the Sopranos killing off both Richie Aprile and Big Pussy early on was a huge mistake, and if I’d ever really liked Downton Abbey I’d say that not having the central actors nailed to long contracts was the show’s doom. Now there’s quite literally no one interesting left.

Onward. I’ve been hearing for years that HBO’s The Wire is the best TV show ever made, so I’ve been watching that in small bits here and there. I think they may be right; it is an amazingly well-made show. The second season in particular is a slam-dunk masterpiece. And there’s always Omar. Omar is awesome. I hadn’t realized that Richard Price, one of my favorite novelists (his excellent Clockers was made into a so-so film by Spike Lee), was an advisor/contributor to the show (he actually appears early on in a scene set in a prison library). At the rate I’m watching it, the five seasons may take me ten years, but that’s OK. It beats watching TV.

I imagine that it sounds as if we watch a lot of TV, but we actually log way less than the national average. Name your favorite show and I can practically guarantee I’ve never heard of it. And I like it that way, dagnabbit.

Bookly-speaking, I finished Pynchon’s latest, Bleeding Edge. and I would give it three Mehs on a scale of five. Some nice bits but it never reaches escape velocity. I’m starting to think that his future reputation will rest entirely on Gravity’s Rainbow, a definite outlier in his oeuvre. Hey, outlier and oeuvre in the same clause. Not bad for someone surrounded by frozen soybean fields as far as the eye can see. Anyway, at the moment I’m reading some John LeCarre. I don’t remember the title. Good books with forgettable titles.

So here’s January. Please consider subscribing or otherwise contributing to our survival. And now, on with the show….

October 2013

Semper Ubi Sub Ubi

readme:

It occurred to me the other day that I’m going about this whole monthly update thing wrong. I usually babble on about books or TV or cats for a thousand words or so, and then, in the last paragraph, ask folks to either subscribe or donate to this site. So this month I’m just going to reverse the routine and ask for help up front.

So here’s the deal: about seven years ago, I was diagnosed with primary progressive multiple sclerosis. At the time I was glad they had found an explanation for the strange symptoms that had suddenly appeared (although some of them were apparent 20 years earlier), but, apart from my left leg not working right and intermittent vision problems, I figured it it must be progressing very slowly and wasn’t going to amount to much. Wrong-o-rama. I had apparently failed to fully appreciate the “progressive” part, and, for whatever reason, it has sped up. It’s only six years later and I have serious  trouble standing, can barely walk, can’t really use my left hand, and my vision only works right about half the time. There are more bizarre and debilitating dimensions to the whole tiresome business, which can be perused at the Wikipedia article. My favorite glitch is that if I do manage to pick up something with my left hand, I have enormous trouble letting go of it. Yes, it’s every bit as creepy as it sounds, and it proved inconvenient the other day when I was using a match held in my left hand to light our broken stove. Bad idea. I couldn’t put it down after the burner lit, but I couldn’t raise my arm to get it close enough to my mouth to blow it out. I ended up prying it free with my right hand in a desperate imitation of Dr. Strangelove. Never a dull moment. Perhaps I should rent myself out for children’s parties.

When I first started this website, I sold email subscriptions mostly to pay the hosting fees, etc. My columns ran in several newspapers, I wrote books and articles for other outlets frequently, and I was getting by. Since 2001, newspapers have atrophied (to put it mildly) and book publishing has been remade in Jeff Bezos’ image, which is to say that living on advances and royalties is a thing of the past. So this website and subscriptions have become a far more important — uncomfortably vital — part of my income. Unfortunately, our readers have not escaped the ravages of our new minimum-wage economy, and lately those vital doubloons have been thin on the ground. And it shows. Our house is full of things we can’t afford to fix, including the stove, water heater, bathroom floor (it’s collapsing), the water softener and my teeth. Our 16-year old car (bought used) needs serious work.

So please consider subscribing or donating. Any amount will help; if you have a spare ten grand lying on the piano, that would be awesome, but even $15 is more help to us than most people wanna think about.

Oh yeah, the TV report. There’s been an interesting epilogue to the conversion of OTA (over the air) TV from analog to digital. Many local stations have established digital sub-channels and filled them with old movies and low-cost syndicated shows, mostly from the 1950s and 90s, providing something to watch for folks who can’t afford cable (which is a lot of people). Around here we get, in addition to some really bad movies and horse operas, many of the shows I watched as a kid, including Mister Ed, Sea Hunt, Twelve O’Clock High and my absolute favorite then and now, Highway Patrol with Broderick Crawford. Apart from the weirdly addictive charm of these shows (cop cars with huge tail fins!), they’re notable for the number of major stars who appeared in supporting roles early in their careers. I’ve seen Leonard Nimoy, for instance, playing criminals in at least two Sea Hunt episodes.

So there you go. Please remember to subscribe. And now, on with the show….