Old Business

I’m always a little relieved to discover that I’m not the only person in the world with procrastination and lack-of-work discipline issues. We watched the movie “Adaptation” again; we saw it on DVD around the time it came out, but I didn’t remember it well, and I certainly didn’t recall how much it dwells on the scriptwriter’s neuroses and lack of productivity. One passage, a voiceover as the writer sits down to his assignment, is perfect: “To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. So I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana nut. That’s a good muffin.”

So, after having gone to the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, here’s something new on the procrastination/discipline front: a Wednesday op-ed from The New York Times on the biology of willpower. The basic take is this: We only have so much self-control; if you spend it on one thing–getting your writing assignment done on time–then you won’t have as much left over for that other good habit you want to pursue, like working out. But that’s not the end of the story. If you understand you’re working with a limited store of self-control, you can manage the supply; and the researchers say that practicing this kind of control is a form of exercise: it actually helps you develop more willpower:

“… It can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success.

“Focusing on success is important because willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.

“In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.”


And speaking of procrastination: Here’s something held over from a week ago. Robert Fagles, the most recent great translator of Homer and Virgil and others, died last week (here’s the New York Times obit; and here’s a little side-by-side comparison of his translations compared to past masters of the art–Fitzgerald, Pope, and Chapman). Nothing to say, really, except to take note of someone who was a superb storyteller in his own right.

“… They harnessed oxen and mules to wagons,

they assembled before the city walls with all good speed

and for nine days hauled in a boundless store of timber.

But when the tenth Dawn brought light to the mortal world

they carried gallant Hector forth, weeping tears,

and they placed his corpse aloft the pyre’s crest,

flung a torch and set it all aflame.

“At last,

when young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more,

the people massed around illustrious Hector’s pyre . . .

And once they’d gathered, crowding the meeting grounds,

they first put out the fires with glistening wine,

wherever the flames still burned in all their fury.

Then they collected the white bones of Hector–

all his brothers, his friends-in-arms, mourning,

and warm tears came streaming down their cheeks.

They placed the bones they found in a golden chest,

shrouding them round and round in soft purple cloths.

They quickly lowered the chest in a deep, hollow grave

and over it piled a cope of huge stones closely set,

then hastily heaped a barrow, posted lookouts all around

for fear the Achaean combat troops would launch their attack

before the time agreed. And once they’d heaped the mound

they turned back home to Troy, and gathering once again

they shared a splendid funeral feast in Hector’s honor,

held in the house of Priam, king by will of Zeus.

“And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.”

–Robert Fagles: “The Iliad,” Book 24

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On the outskirts of Patterson, California, a town on the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley about 75 miles southeast of Berkeley as the crow flies (or about 100 miles as the Dodge Grand Caravan drives). Kate spotted the sign as we were pulling out of a fast-food and gasoline mall along Interstate 5. The only place I’ve seen my family name on a sign before was North Dakota (on a Hallmark shop in Grafton and on a travel agency in Grand Forks that’s nationally known for its tours of Norway). Just in passing: The Patterson city website, which notes the burg is known as “The Apricot Capital of the World,” says the town had 11,000 people in the 2000 Census. The signs entering town now say 20,000-some. Big swaths of big new homes have appeared on the western fringe of the city; in fact, driving into town, the border between what we were calling “new Patterson” and “old Patterson” (with downtown eateries like Hank’s Harley’s Grub Shack) is pronounced.

More about the excursion tomorrow.

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Some things to clear out of the in basket (which consists of a :

Apostrophizing:By way of Lydell, news that the apostrophe is really and truly dead–or at least no one really knows what to do with it anymore. The item is from the Chicago Tribune’s Mary Schmich. She notes a momentous local occasion: The unveiling of a statue of Ernie Banks outside Wrigley Field. The exterior of the inoffensive old ballpark also hosts a hideous sculptural tribute to the celebrated late beer-swiller Harry Caray, but that’s another story. Schmich describes the legend on the Banks installation:

Was the inscription on the correct side of the granite base? Yes, it was. Right down there on Ernie’s left it said:


Let us play two. Your 5th-grade teacher taught you this. When you drop a letter between words, you insert an apostrophe. In other words:


“I’m the sculptor, I’m not a writer,” said Cella, sounding good-natured. “I just read it the way I heard it in my head.”

I will not argue with the directive Schmich remembers her teacher imparting (if I were to argue, I’d say the directive is incomplete). What is lovely here is that the artist shrugged off the error. It was not his job to get it right. And the job of no one else, either, because lots of people saw this thing before it went public and never flagged the error. (The episode is reminiscent of one here in the Bay Area a few years ago in which an installation at a public library included several misspelled names.)

I’m sure Ernie was happy with the inscription, with or sans apostrophe. Chances are this will be the most interesting thing his old team does this year. In the spirit of Mr. Cub, I offer a slogan for the season: The Cubs will be orthographically reprobate in 2008. Catchy, huh?

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Stray Voltage

Comic Nurse has done Infospigot a good turn by going out to the site of the John Peter Altgeld/Vachel Lindsay monument (“Eagle Columns”) on Chicago’s North Side and getting a picture of the installation. As part of a volley of posts touched off by my random blogging about forced beer drinking in old New York, CN (who also goes by the name MK), mentioned an incident connected with the Altgeld/Lindsay installation (at the corner of Sheffield, Wrightwood and Lincoln):

“A few years ago when I was a nursing supervisor at the nearby level-one trauma center, a woman was brought in with multiple dog bites to her arm. Apparently she was walking her dog near the Altgeld memorial and her dog stepped on the manhole cover. Normally a quiet lab, he began squealing, yelping and seizing. When she reached down to help him, he bit her. It turned out somehow the manhole cover was conducting electricity. The dog did not survive the accident.”

OK–there’s a freak occurrence for you. Right? Using the curious person’s favorite tool, I find that, depending on where you live, it’s not so unusual. A quick search turns up several high-profile cases in New York City, including one several years ago in which a woman walking her dogs died (the dogs survived). The family of the victim in that case, Jodie S. Lane, won a $7 million settlement from Consolidated Edison and used part of the money to set up a foundation dedicated to public safety in New York. But as the Gothamist blog has noted on several occasions since Lane’s death, the electrocutions, a product of “stray voltage” from nearby electrical installations like the manhole cover MK writes about. It’s an old problem and one that used to be associated mostly with dairy farm operations. On the public streets, the issue appears to be particularly acute in rainy or snowy weather (one recent example from Chicago).

InfraShock, a New York activist’s website, is devoted to alerting (or alarming) the public to (about) the danger. The New York City Council continues to study the problem. And ConEd, still trying to track down all the stray voltage it’s leaking into the street, has happened on a novel strategy to warn the public away from potentially hazardous site: The utility was found last year to be roping off the danger zones and hiring limo drivers to park nearby to ward off hapless pedestrians.

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