A Big Wow

It has been very cold in Maine lately, as this report in the Boston Globe attests:
The coldest temperature ever recorded in Maine, a frigid 50 degrees below zero, was reached when a blast of Arctic air hit New England last month. The record is tied with a thermometer reading from 1933 in Bloomfield, Vermont for the coldest recorded temperature in New England history.

“It’s a big wow,” said Tony Sturey, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Caribou, Maine. “It’s an incredible number, an insanely cold number.”

In January 1971, the country's lowest temperature ever recorded, 80 degrees below zero, was reached in Alaska. The lowest temperature on record in the continental US is 70 degrees below zero, measured in January 1954 in Montana. Maine's previous record of 48 degrees below was measured in 1925, also in mid-January.

January was a colder month than usual in many parts of Maine and New England. The record-breaking temperature was recorded the morning of January 16, after a mass of Arctic air plunged into Alaska and northern Canada, and traveled eastward into New England.

From Walden:

Once, in the winter, many years ago, when I had been cutting holes through the ice in order to catch pickerel, as I stepped ashore I tossed my axe back on to the ice, but, as if some evil genius had directed it, it slid four or five rods directly into one of the holes, where the water was twenty-five feet deep. Out of curiosity, I lay down on the ice and looked through the hole, until I saw the axe a little on one side, standing on its head, with its helve erect and gently swaying to and fro with the pulse of the pond; and there it might have stood erect and swaying till in the course of time the handle rotted off, if I had not disturbed it. Making another hole directly over it with an ice chisel which I had, and cutting down the longest birch which I could find in the neighborhood with my knife, I made a slip-noose, which I attached to its end, and, letting it down carefully, passed it over the knob of the handle, and drew it by a line along the birch, and so pulled the axe out again.

Photo Library of Congress--Fred Waters in Auto-Sleigh, between 1910 and 1915.

88 Keys Below W 4th

This is what we at The Thoreau You Don't Know are talking about, and it comes via Flicker as first spotted on Gothamist.

Like Conan O'Brien, Thoreau Went to Harvard

Like Conan O'Brien, Thoreau went to Harvard. In the New York Times Book Review this weekend, Jennifer Schuessler writes of Flannery O'Connor, who is the subject of a great book review by Joy Williams:
O’Connor never made the best-seller list, but she did catch the eye of the budding literary critics Tommy Lee Jones and Conan O’Brien, both of whom wrote Harvard undergraduate theses on her work. In his Class Day speech at Harvard in 2000, O’Brien described the awesome, kryptonite-like powers of his analysis: “I wrote a thesis: ‘Literary Progeria in the Works of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner.’ Let’s just say that, during my discussions with Pauly Shore, it doesn’t come up much. For three years after graduation I kept my thesis in the glove compartment of my car so I could show it to a policeman in case I was pulled over. License, registration, cultural exploration of the Man Child in ‘The Sound and the Fury.’ . . .” Jones, according to The Boston Globe, received cum laude honors for his opus. O’Brien’s thesis grade has apparently not been disclosed.

Also like Conan O'Brien, Thoreau was big on getting laughs out of his lecture audience, though today have lost their sense of humor when it comes to (a) Thoreau and (b) nature, among other things.
(Photo NYPL Digital archives here--New York's first known comedian.)

Talking Transportation With the Times

A member of the Thoreau You Don't Know team talks about shutting down the Times Square area to cars and, thus, opening it to people here.


People think Thoreau was against the train. Personally, we at the Thoreau You Don't Know don;t get that feeling. He took the train to hike in the hills. He took the train to lecture. He used to hang out by the train tracks to check out the nature--kind of like looking at plants on a highway median, in terms of today. One of our favorite reporters is Sarah Goodyear at Streetsblog.org, and she recently had this to say about trains and the United States and today--she is following the people following high speed rail as it relates to the stimulus bill.

In Common Parlance

According to the New York Times Book Review's blog, Paper Cuts, the discussion between Lawrence Lessig and the artist Shepard Fairey. (Jennifer Schuessler wrote the post, "Steal This Blog.") Here's the moderator's Twitter feed. All I want to say is they talked about the commons. Thoreau talked a lot about commons, pitching himself as what he called an extra vagrant, a phrase that, if you think about it, gets better and better. Here's this about the idea of commons:

Speaking of Unemployment

A lot of people think that Walden is a paean to nature. And it is pro-nature. On the other hand, it is an economic analysis--or an analysis of the culture that thinks only economically. The goal, of course, is to mend the rift between thinking economically and thinking nature--"healing the false binary" is a phrase the the staff at The Thoreau You Don't Know have seen in academic papers. It seems relevant to point out that times were not good when Thoreau was setting out as a writer, as this brief excerpt from The Thoreau You Don't Know indicates:
Violent class warfare was more of a possibility than the typically genteel study of the Transcendentalists’ time would indicate, or marketers who invoke Thoreau’s namenowadays might imagine. Union membership had taken hold on a mass scale—in 1834, New York City’s General Trades Union created a National Trades Union, and had a march a mile and a half long—but the layoff s zapped their power. In the winter of 1837, as theaters were deserted and markets empty, renters were planning a mass action in New York City; landlords collectively held back on their attempts to collect. For the first time in U.S. history a president, Andrew Jackson, used federal troops in a labor dispute—against the immigrant Irish workers on the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal who had attacked scab workers. The Workingman’s Party was agitating in Boston, while women working in the mills in Lowell went on strike, what they then called a “turn out,” singing, “Oh! isn’t it a pity, such a pretty girl as I/ Should be sent to the factory to pine away and die?” Philip Hone, the former New York City mayor and diarist, wondered how a workingman fed his family, given that Hone’s upper- class friends were in dire straits. “What is to become of the working classes?” he wrote. That spring, Emerson wrote in his journal: “Cold April; hard times; men breaking who ought not to break; banks bullied into the bolstering of desperate speculators; all the newspapers a chorus of owls. . . . Loud cracks in the social edifice.—Sixty thousand laborers, say rumor, to be presently thrown out of work, and these make a formidable mob to break open banks and rob the rich and brave the domestic government.”

In other words, there was a great recession, a depression, in fact-—that's what Thoreau was thinking about. And it should also be noted that Thoreau survived. It was a lot of work, but he and his contemporaries figured out ways to get by.
(Library of Congress photo of Big Bill Heywood leading strikers in Lawrence, MA.)

A Nineteenth Century Moment!

Is it just us here at the Thoreau You Don't Know or does it feel as if we are having a Nineteenth Century Moment? Thoreau, by the way, was critiquing farming methods when he wrote Walden. At the time, farms were growing less for local customers and more for people out of town, which he thought was a bad idea. (On the other hand, he exported pencils, until German competitors caused him to shift to graphite.) Anyway, look here:

Above is the photo from a recent Times report, below a photo seen on your number one Victorian clothing web site.

But wait--why stop?

Wildlife Patterns

From the Journal Human Nature, via Eric Etheridge's wordblog, The Thoreau You Don't Know notes this wildlife research:
This study investigated the use of mobile telephones by males and females in a public bar frequented by professional people. We found that, unlike women, men who possess mobile telephones more often publicly display them, and that these displays were related to the number of men in a social group, but not the number of women. This result was not due simply to a greater number of males who have telephones: we found an increase with male social group size in the proportion of available telephones that were on display. Similarly, there was a positive relationship between the number of visible telephones and the ratio of males to females. Our results further show that the increased display of telephones in groups with more males is not due to the ostensive function of these devices (i.e., the making and receiving of calls), although single males tended to use their phones more. We interpret these results within the framework of male-male competition, with males in larger group sizes functioning in an increasingly competitive environment. This competitive environment is suggested to be akin to a lek mating system in which males aggregate and actively display their qualities to females who assess males on a number of dimensions. We suggest that mobile telephones might be used by males as an indicator of their status and wealth (sensu �cultural ornaments�).

Photo Library of Congress


Click here for a bottle neck story that includes this line: "Researchers say there was a thirty percent drop in traffic congestion last year, the likely result of higher gas prices and higher unemployment." The story is about bottlenecks, not bottleneck slide guitar playing, seen below:


In the Times today, the mayor's plan to cut out traffic from Times Square is leaked, as is this from Thoreau's Journal, 1857:
... in the distant woods or fields, in unpretending sprout-lands or pastures tracked by rabbits, even in a bleak and, to most, cheerless day, like this, when a villager would be thinking of his inn, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I come home to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful. I have told many that I walk every day about half the daylight, but I think they do not believe it.

Go feet (Photo NYPL.)

The Ecology of an Intersection

We at the Thoreau You Don't Know never tire of watching this, which reminds us of watching herds of animals on the Great Plains, or fish in a stream and so on:

Scramble from Sam Javanrouh on Vimeo.

Seeing the Wind

As readers of The Thoreau You Don't Know know, the staff of the The Thoreau You Don't Know is very interested in wind and windstorms, especially in the city--which is why we were elated to receive the following e-mail from an alert reader, in particular alert novelist Matthew Sharpe (Stories from the Tube, Nothing Is Terrible, The Sleeping Father, Jamestown), who came across this wind description from Charles Dickens, in Our Mutual Friend:
The grating wind sawed rather than blew; and as it sawed, the sawdust whirled about the sawpit. Every street was a sawpit, and there were no top-sawyers; every passenger was an under-sawyer, with the sawdust blinding him and choking him.

That mysterious paper currency which circulates in London when the wind blows gyrated here and there and everywhere. Whence can it come, whither can it go? It hangs on every bush, flutters in every tree, is caught flying by the electric wires, haunts every enclosure, drinks at every pump, cowers at every grating, shudders upon every plot of grass, seeks rest in vain behind the legions of iron rails.

Nice wind quote. (We put it in italics, because italics look windblown.) When the BBC did "Our Mutual Friend," they also ran a scholarly article archive, which can be found here. As far as Dickens and Thoreau goes: we are reminded of Dickens tour of The Five Points, the notorious so-called slum of New York City. (Photo NY Public Library Digital Collection.)

We am reminded that he liked to go slumming. We are reminded that the Five Points was exploding due to the sudden influx of immigrants, running from famine. We are reminded that Dickens did not have a lot of nice things to say about the Five Points residents, comparing them to the pigs.
Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays. Many of those pigs live here. Do they ever wonder why their masters walk upright in lieu of going on all-fours? and why they talk instead of grunting?

We recall that Thoreau came to New York City the following year, living in Staten Island, and had some not nice things to say about the very same immigrants. Then he returned to Concord, MA, where there were also a lot of immigrants all of the sudden. In fact, Thoreau lived with some of the immigrants at Walden Pond, using party of a Irishman's shanty to build his house. Sometime after living at Walden, Thoreau's attitude changed. He began to have nice things to say about the immigrants--about their work habits, their fence building skills, their kids. In other words, Thoreau stayed loose; he was flexible. Kind of like Matthew Sharpe, seen here on the Today Show:

In closing, note that one of the BBC's scholarly articles--Choi, Tina Young. "Completing the Circle: The Victorian Sanitary Movement, Our Mutual Friend, and Narrative Closure." A paper originally delivered at the Dickens Project Winter Conference, UC Davis, February 19-21, 1999--refers to the great English sanitarian Edwin Chadwick and says this:
Dickens's massive novels about urban life, such as Great Expectations and Bleak House, elaborate upon a similar conception of nationhood, where both narrative and nation, in spite of seeming novelistic excess with respect to characters and pages, actually exemplify remarkable economy. But his last complete novel, Our Mutual Friend, might provide the most fitting example of this emergent sense of nationhood, if only because here, Dickens overlays an almost Chadwickean vision of narrative and national closure with a pervading narrative thematic of sanitation, waste, and recovery.


The staff at the Thoreau You Don't Know wrote a piece in last week's New Yorker and then forgot to post it. It's about the signal, and your reception, and it raises either no questions at all or questions such as, Are you in a position to see and hear? Are you receiving the signal or any signal at all? Here is the Talk of the Town piece mentioned, and here is an excerpt:
The handoff of the White House seemed like a piece of cake next to America’s transition from analog to digital TV signal. With the White House, you switch residents but get a lot of the same stuff: podiums, helicopters, tour groups. With the switch that is officially taking place in television transmitters around the country starting this week, you could wind up with frame skipping, frozen screens, or, worse, nothing (as in snow). Bill Beam, the engineer in charge of the signal that WABC-TV sends off the Empire State Building, said recently, “We don’t know how it’s all going to wind up.” In the months leading up to the switchover, the city’s anxious cable- and dish-less citizens have been turning for answers to the Antenna King.

Lately, the Antenna King himself—a.k.a. Henry Langan—has not been in residence at the Antenna King headquarters, in the shadow of the Gowanus Expressway. Once, he ruled the rooftops of Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx, places where today there are still a few hundred thousand people using old-style antennas to watch “Dancing with the Stars.” (The relatively wide-open vistas of the outer boroughs make them antenna-friendly; Manhattan, by comparison, is practically terra incognita to the Antenna King, save for a few satellite dishes.) Steven Langan, Henry’s son, is in charge now. “I’m the Prince,” Steven said the other day, at the Antenna King showroom.

Here is an excellent report on the neighborhood in which the Antenna King resides, Brooklyn's Leif Ericson Corridor, as it is referred to at this most excellent site, Forgotten New York.

A Simple Meal

This comes, no pun intended, via the Daily Dish, and reminds me of how Thoreau used to say that if you cut your own wood (and he got this from a neighbor) then you would warm yourself three times: once when you cut it, again when you lugged it home, and finally when you burned it. If you were to ask the staff at The Thoreau You Don't Know what they thought of this video, then they would tell you that they think it is kind of beautiful.

Under the Streets

The other day, people were coming out from under the street, as they sometimes do, on Atlantic Avenue, in Brooklyn.

It reminded me of that old, old Superman film, the first Superman film, "Superman and the Mole Men."

The film was in black and white.

Here it is:

A good synopsis is here
What people were doing under Atlantic is here
And this is where they had been:

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From everyone on the Thoreau You Don't Know staff: Good night everybody!

(Illustration, NY Public Library Digital Archives, here.)

If Thoreau Live Blogged the Oscars, 13

If Thoreau were live blogging the Oscars, he might take a moment to note that an (excellent) film about the first openly gay elected official in California winning the best actor award for Sean Penn reminds him (Thoreau) that people are often wondering whether or not he (Thoreau) was gay. Thoreau is the kind of guy who always turns a question around. For Thoreau, the question might not be, Am I (Thoreau) gay? The question might be, What's up with 21st Century America that they are so concerned with who is gay? With how close your relationships are with those of the same sex? In Thoreau's day, there were intense male to male relationships that would now be labeled gay and maybe were and maybe weren't gay, a kind of moot point, given that they were good relationships. I am reminded of the fact that Lincoln, as a young legislator, answered an add for a roommate and shared a bed with the guy in Springfield for a while, no big deal. I guess the question is, Gay, not gay? What do you care? The question really is, Are you relating?

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I don't know what the Reader is about even; I have not seen it. The people I am watching the Oscars/Live blogging the Oscars pretending to be the Thoreau You Don't Know tell me it's about a woman and a boy and post-WWII Germany and him reading to her, or something along those lines. All I know is that Thoreau says this, in the opening section, entitled "Reading," in Walden:

WITH A LITTLE more deliberation in the choice of their pursuits, all men would perhaps become essentially students and observers, for certainly their nature and destiny are interesting to all alike. In accumulating property for ourselves or our posterity, in founding a family or a state, or acquiring fame even, we are mortal; but in dealing with truth we are immortal, and need fear no change nor accident. The oldest Egyptian or Hindoo philosopher raised a corner of the veil from the statue of the divinity; and still the trembling robe remains raised, and I gaze upon as fresh a glory as he did, since it was I in him that was then so bold, and it is he in me that now reviews the vision. No dust has settled on that robe; no time has elapsed since that divinity was revealed. That time which we really improve, or which is improvable, is neither past, present, nor future.

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If you are the Thoreau You Don't Know then you don't know if they will name Frost/Nixon for any awards this evening, but you feel compelled to mention, after seeing Paul Newman's picture in the pictures of actors who passed away this year, that Newman was on Nixon's enemies list. Newman was what Thoreau, in Civil Disobedience, described as a friction, that thing necessary for the proper functioning of a machine, in this case the machine of government. Just for fun, read to his name on this list, which can be found here and is below:

The original list of 20 names of White House "enemies" submitted with comments submitted with comments to Dean by the of office of Charles W. Colson.*

Boldface type indicates a correction in erroneous White House identification of its political enemies. Material in brackets is additional information supplied by the editor.

Having studied the attached material and evaluated the recommendations for the discussed action, I believe you will find my list worthwhile for status. It is in priority order.

1. Arnold M. Picker, United Artists Corp., N.Y. Top Muskie fund raiser. Success here could be both debilitating and very embarrassing to the Muskie machine. If effort looks promising, both Ruth and David Picker should be programmed and then a follow through with United Artists.

2. Alexander E. Barkan, national director of A F.L.-C.I.O.'s committee on Political Education, Washington D.C.: Without a doubt the most powerful political force programmed against us in 1968 ($10 million, 4.6 million votes, 115 million pamphlets, 176,000 workers--all programmed by Barkan's C.O.P.E.--so says Teddy White in "The Making of the President 1968"). We can expect the same effort this time. [See p. 468E3]

3. Ed Guthman, managing editor, Los Angeles Times [national editor]: Guthman, former Kennedy aide, was a highly sophisticated hatchetman against us in '68. It is obvious he is the prime mover behind the current Key Biscayne effort. It is time to give him the message.

4. Maxwell Dane, Doyle, Dane and Bernbach, N.Y.: The top Democratic advertising firm--they destroyed Goldwater in '64. They should be hit hard starting with Dane.

5. Charles Dyson, Dyson-Kissner Corp., N.Y.: Dyson and Larry O'Brien were close business associates after '68. Dyson has huge business holdings and is presently deeply involved in the Businessmen's Educational Fund which bankrolls a national radio network of five-minute programs--anti-Nixon in character.

6. Howard Stein, Dreyfus Corp., N.Y.: Heaviest contributor to McCarthy in '68. If McCarthy goes, will do the same in '72. If not, Lindsay or McGovern will receive the funds.

7. Allard Lowenstein, Long Island, N.Y.: Guiding force behind the 18-year-old "Dump Nixon" vote campaign.

8. Morton Halperin, leading executive at Common Cause: A scandal would be most helpful here. (A consultant for Common Cause in February-March 1971)[On staff of Brookings Institution]

9. Leonard Woodcock, UAW, Detroit, Mich.: No comments necessary.

10. S. Sterling Munro Jr., Sen. [Henry M.] Jackson's aide, Silver Spring, Md.: We should give him a try. Positive results would stick a pin in Jackson's white hat.

11. Bernard T. Feld, president, Council for a Livable World: Heavy far left funding. They will program an "all court press" against us in'72.

12. Sidney Davidoff, New York City, [New York City Mayor John V.] Lindsay's top personal aide: a first class S.O.B., wheeler-dealer and suspected bagman. Positive results would really shake the Lindsay camp and Lindsay's plans to capture youth vote. Davidoff in charge.

13. John Conyers, congressman, Detroit: Coming on fast. Emerging as a leading black anti-Nixon spokesman. Has known weakness for white females.

14. Samuel M. Lambert, president, National Education Association: Has taken us on vis-a-vis federal aid to parochial schools--a '72 issue.

15. Stewart Rawlings Mott, Mott Associates, N.Y.: Nothing but big money for radic-lib candidates.

16. Ronald Dellums, congressman, Calif.: Had extensive [Edward M. Kennedy] EMK-Tunney support in his election bid. Success might help in California next year.

17. Daniel Schorr, Columbia Broadcasting System, Washington: A real media enemy.

18. S. Harrison Dogole, Philadelphia, Pa.: President of Globe Security Systems--fourth largest private detective agency in U.S. Heavy Humphrey contributor. Could program his agency against us.

19. Paul Newman, Calif.: Radic-lib causes. Heavy McCarthy involvement '68. Used effectively in nation wide T.V. commercials.'72 involvement certain.

If Thoreau Live Blogged the Oscars, 10

Speaking of scores... From the South Florida Classical Review:
For most of his lifetime, Charles Ives was regarded as something of a benighted crank.
The Danbury, Connecticut, native was successful in the insurance business, but little of his music was known or performed while he was alive. In the 1950s and, largely, after his death, Ives’ stupefying originality and the innovative, experimental nature of his music were finally recognized when he was championed by Leonard Bernstein and others.

And then this:
In addition to requiring a pianist who can handle the fusillade of notes, the sonata also calls for a flute in the concluding Thoreau movement, and, in some editions, a viola in Emerson, which Denk believes is a too-literal misinterpretation of Ives merely asking for a viola sound. “I don’t think even Ives was perverse enough to put a viola in a piano sonata.”

Here's some from Ives.

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Philip Petit won! Or the documentary that is about his tightrope walk between the towers of the World Trade Center, the now-gone Twin Towers. Tight rope walking, just after Thoreau died, at the turn of the century, was a national obsession, according to a book I read and enjoyed by Ginger Strand.
Strand goes from being dismissive of the stunts the falls inspire to being appreciative of their meaning. Blondin, né Jean-François Gravelet, the famous aerialist who high-wired back and forth to Canada in 1859 and 1860, becomes for Strand emblematic of the national balancing act for a nation that was on the verge of civil war — Niagara was a last stop on the Underground Railroad. Blondin tightroped in shackles, which confused Strand at first. “But imagine magician David Copperfield putting on a show somewhere in the desert along the Mexican border. Imagine he gets Regis and Kelly to come and tape segments of the show in which he builds a wall and makes someone disappear on one side of the wall and reappear on the other.” In 1905, W. E. B. Du Bois and Mary Talbert convened a group of African-American intellectuals on the American side of the falls and, after being denied a hotel room, crossed into Canada, where they began the Niagara Movement, which eventually became the N.A.A.C.P.

Once, Petit was quoted in Newsweek as saying: "I never fall," he says, "but, yes, I have landed on the earth many, many times." This is very Thoreau. Petit rules!
A live news report here.
(Photo above, of Petit's signature on Trade Tower, by Brian Rose.)

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Thoreau is thought of primarily as a nature writer--the guy in the cabin in the woods. A lot of his writing, though, is about alternate histories. He looks thoroughly at the past. From The Thoreau You Don't Know:
If America was found and lost again once,” Thoreau wrote, “as most of us believe, then why not twice?” Walden calls us to jump out of the boat as we race over the falls of greater and greater materialism. Cape Cod is the book that looks back at the source of it all, that shows us we are not coming from where we thought we were coming from. Here Thoreau ends up looking less like a dead white male and more like the original alternative historian. Especially when it comes to Indians. A passage that stands out as forward- thinking, even by today’s standards, when it comes to Native American treaty rights, is this one, which is also funny, very Mark Twain (who was working as a printer when Thoreau wrote it):

When the committee from Plymouth had purchased the territory of Eastham of the Indians, “it was demanded, who laid claim to Billingsgate?” which was understood to be all that part of the Cape north of what they had purchased. “The answer was, there was not any who owned it. ‘Then,’ said the committee, ‘that land is ours.’ The Indians answered, that it was.” This was a remarkable assertion and admission. The Pilgrims appear to have regarded themselves as Not Any’s representatives. Perhaps this was the first instance of that quiet way of “speaking for” a place not yet occupied, or at least not improved as much as it may be, which their descendants have practicecd, and are still practicing so extensively. Not Any seems to have been the sole proprietor of all America before the Yankees. But history says, that when the Pilgrims had held the lands of Billingsgate many years, at length, “appeared an Indian, who styled himself Lieutenant Anthony,” who laid claim to them, and of him they bought them. Who knows but a Lieutenant Anthony may be knocking at the door of the White House some day? At any rate, I know that if you hold a thing unjustly, there will surely be the devil to pay at last.

If Thoreau Live Blogged the Oscars, 7

The Letterman interview with Joaquin Phoenix was just spoofed, as Thoreau would have seen:

This reminds me of reading the New York Times today, and seeing an editorial call him a "prig." I think that when we call him a prig we run the risk of commenting less on the guy we are calling a prig and more on ourselves.

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Say Thoreau were watching the Oscars tonight. He would be a little bored by now, and getting up to get another glass of something. The photo above (Library of Congress, by Russell Lee, and taken in 1939 or 40, of an orchestra during intermission at square dance in McIntosh County, Oklahoma

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Steve Martin just handed out an award. Best screenplay. Steve Martin plays the banjo—a clip:

A great banjo book that Thoreau would definitely have and would not doubt peruse were he watching the Oscars now would be Philip Gura's banjo book, America's Instrument. Gura, of course, won not an Oscar but a National Book Award last year for his book on the Trancendentalists--a book that put the transcendentalists back in a good place, as pre-1960s radicals, as opposed to the place that they have been in for a long while, which was a dusty place, a place where people thought they weren't doing anything. Speaking of banjos, of tunes still learned by ear, as they were in Thoreau's time, there is great banjo here.

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If Thoreau saw Penelope Cruz win the best supporting actress award, he might have thought about Woody Allen as an artist who has been called too parochial--writing about just one town, one set of people, which is not true, or no longer true, especially given that the movie that she just won for was set in Barcelona. Of course, that's what Thoreau did. There's a lot to that. Why do people have a problem with that? Says H.D.T.:
We are acquainted with the mere pellicle of the globe on which we live.

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He just touched the hand of Kate Winslet, who is sitting next to Sam Mendes, who directed the play that Thoreau, if he were living in Brooklyn and had gone to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, would have seen: Mendes' version of "A Winter's Tale." Winter's Tale includes the following line:
Nature is made better by no mean
But nature makes that mean; so over that art
Which you say adds to Nature, is an art
That nature makes;.....this is an art
Which does mend nature, change it rather, but
The art itself is nature.
— Winter's Tale IV. 89

If Thoreau Live Blogged the Oscars, 2

The red carpet has begun. Miley Cyrus said that Angelina "is my favorite person in all of history. Among the many people he seemed to think of as his "favorite person(s) of all history" was/is Chaucer, Sir Walter Raleigh, Emerson (for a while), and Whitman. But he also seemed to really like the old guys at the post office. People talking, people congregating, people socializing, in a way that people are less likely to socialize anymore. What if everyday were a red carpet day? What if we all processed? That would be a lot of work. Says H.D.T.:
I'm thankful that my life doth not deceive/ itself with a low loftiness...

(Photo by LIbrary of Congress: Orphans going to Coney Island in Autos, June 7, 1911.

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If Thoreau live blogged the Oscars, he would just be turning it on, and you have to believe he would be watching via analogue, the clear choice for (A) simplicity and (B) cost saving in a down economy time. To wit:
The handoff of the White House seemed like a piece of cake next to America’s transition from analog to digital TV signal. With the White House, you switch residents but get a lot of the same stuff: podiums, helicopters, tour groups. With the switch that is officially taking place in television transmitters around the country starting this week, you could wind up with frame skipping, frozen screens, or, worse, nothing (as in snow). Bill Beam, the engineer in charge of the signal that WABC-TV sends off the Empire State Building, said recently, “We don’t know how it’s all going to wind up.” In the months leading up to the switchover, the city’s anxious cable- and dish-less citizens have been turning for answers to the Antenna King.

Sounds of the Subway

A subway sound that is reminiscent, or even more than reminiscent, of the song "Somewhere," from West Side Story--that's, in part, what Thoreau is talking about. The New York Times' Jim Dwyer notes:
To hear a love song from the undercarriage of a train, even fleetingly, qualifies as a found moment. But like Ms. McLaurin, not everyone is listening for it.

"It's hard to pick out a song in the midst of all the din down here," says Jim Dwyer. But it's like a breeze coming in here, these three notes. It's unmistakable. Once you've heard them once, you will hear them again and again. He says this in the audio portion of today's Times' column, About New York. For the record, research at the Thoreau You Don't Know indicated that the wind speed of a train entering the 4,5, and 6 strain station at Union Square is 7 m.p.h., thanks to the hand-held wind measuring device that can measure breezes coming into the station.

More from the column:
The playwright Tony Kushner told New York magazine last year that it was his favorite New York noise. Riders often ask transit officials about it, and readers still write to the City section of The Times to report their discovery. The filmmaker Julie Talen told me about it months before I finally caught it.

A little from Thoreau, from the journals, 1841:
Unpremeditated music is the true gage which measures the current of our thoughts - the very undertow of our life's stream.

Photos, New York Public Library, here & here.

Thoreau to Ghandi to King

If you are in India, before March 14, be sure to stop in at the American Center on Kasturba Gandhi Marg, New Delhi, to see an exhibit featuring Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Thoreau. Returning to India to commemorate King's India pilgrimage will be former Senator Harris Wofford, who first visited India in 1935 as a young civil rights activist, as well as Representative John Lewis, who marched with King in 1965, in the march from Selma to Montgomery. (Gandhi, as previously noted in this space, was inspired by Thoreau, publishing Thoreau in his newspaper, Indian Opinion, and writing to his friends about how Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" had helped confirm for him the value of non-violent resistance--see here.)

King's march was was inspired by Gandhi’s Dandi March, when, March 12, 1930, Gandhi and 78 satyagrahis walked 240 miles to the coastal village of Dandi from their starting point in Sabarmati, to make salt, a commodity no Indians were prohibittted by the English from legally producing.

Secretary of State Clinton and Herbie Hancock send the American delegation off, with a nice closing quote (i.e., 17 or so minutes in!), first, about non violence and, second, about Jazz: "Jazz is not just about music. Jazz is a pretty good guide to most things in life, and I can tell you that as secretary of state I am improvising things every day":

Celebrating a Day

by Myrna gCopaleen, artist and photographer

Oprah vs. Thoreau

From Oprah.com:
A popular greeting card attributes this quote to Henry David Thoreau: "Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder."

With all due respect to the author of Walden, that just isn't so, according to a growing number of psychologists. You can choose to be happy, they say. You can chase down that elusive butterfly and get it to sit on your shoulder. How? In part, by simply making the effort to monitor the workings of your mind.

Research has shown that your talent for happiness is, to a large degree, determined by your genes. Psychology professor David T. Lykken, author of Happiness: Its Nature and Nurture, says that "trying to be happier is like trying to be taller." We each have a "happiness set point," he argues, and move away from it only slightly.

And yet, psychologists who study happiness—including Lykken—believe we can pursue happiness. We can do this by thwarting negative emotions such as pessimism, resentment and anger. And we can foster positive emotions, such as empathy, serenity, and especially gratitude.

But wait--with all due respect to the author of Oprah.com, isn't that what Thoreau is saying--the happiness should be in the pursuing (of happiness)? Isn't Walden a book about fostering all those things especially gratitude? Also, did the author of Walden say the thing about the butterfly? Or was it the author of The Scarlet Letter?
(Photo: Library of Congress here.)


You are not thinking big unless you are thinking local is something you can think when you are thinking about Thoreau. Imagine if a feature writer came upon Thoreau, as Thoreau ran around noting river heights, flower blooming times, the habits of farmers and immigrants. (Think Robert Frost as a village surveyor.) The headline?

Imagine if Thoreau had gotten around the country, as he began to want to, at the end of his life. Imagine if he had to answer questions about his writing, which he probably did at some point. Or in lieu of imagining those things, check out Dan Barry's answers to questions about his writing, which is noticing, of the finest kind, if you ask someone who has spent a little time watching Thoreau. (Barry, above, as photographed by Angel Franco, his partner in national noticing.) Also, did I mention that Thoreau, though he loved to rant about newspapers, also loved newspapers?

Aeolus Again

Yesterday, the wind was violent.

I found it all rather morose, though I think the wind was combining in my brain in a negative way with some bad things that were happening.

I can't wait for the spring winds.

Vice Versa

Via Professor Benjamin and http://youlookmarvelous.tumblr.com/...

Simplify! As opposed to Liquify!

While the headline in the Christian Science Monitor is true to a large extent--

--forced simplicity is a drag, no matter what anybody says. (In Thoreau's day, there was a professor at Harvard Divinity School who used to equate poverty with a special sauce or gravy, saying it enhanced the taste of finer things.) In this Monitor piece, the reporter talks about the guilt that drives people to give up stuff, for lack of a better word, so that other people can have their stuff.
Bonnie Russell, a legal publicist in Del Mar, Calif., shares that attitude. “I feel a great relief at cleaning out my closet to donate to the less fortunate and not replacing things,” she says. Part of Ms. Russell’s decision to pare down and share with others had its roots in what she calls “good, old-fashioned guilt.” As she read news stories about people having less, “I realized I’m sitting around plenty of unnecessary things,” she says. “One day I looked around and realized I didn’t want to have a life of stuff. I wanted to have a life of experiences.” One recipient of Russell’s generosity stands on a street corner near her home to look for work. “He’s there at 7 a.m., six days a week, and has helped with handyman chores for years. I give clothes and other things to him directly because I know they’re more apt to find a thankful or needed home.”

While it is better that they are driven to help other people through guilt than through no way at all, it seems as if there is also some joy in choosing something that is less and already more, because, as HTD said, Surely joy is the condition of life, these houses being a case in point:

In other words, less does not seem like less, and having more doesn't make you feel guilty. Here are some young people who helped in this project, a $20,000 house--8th graders from Denver.

The program is called the 20K house program, and it happens in rural Alabama. The history:
Initiated by Sambo Mockbee, the mission of the Rural Studio is to enable each participating student to cross the threshold of misconceived opinions to create/design/build and to allow students to put their educational values to work as citizens of a community. The Rural Studio seeks solutions to the needs of the community within the community’s own context, not from outside it. Abstract ideas based upon knowledge and study are transformed into workable solutions forged by real human contact, personal realization, and a gained appreciation for the culture.

A Life Without Principle

There almost went the economic man, maybe. (Via Andrew Sullivan (no relation) at the Daily Dish.) When Thoreau went to live in his little house on Walden Pond, another writer was writing a book in the Adirondacks, and noticing that businessmen who had fled an earlier financial panic where living in the woods too.

Marchas por la Paz

Thoreau was a practical philosopher, a practical activist. When he wrote about his stay in jail he talked about not paying a tax not because he rejected the government but because he wanted the government to work better—he made himself a friction, a principle that Thoreau the mechanical engineer knew as necessary for a machine to work. (Yes, folks, Thoreau enjoyed technology as much as the next guy.) A book that describes the simultaneous practical simplicity and radicalness of what “Civil Disobedience” is talking about is Breach of Peace, by Eric Etheridge, which contains portraits of the Freedom Riders today, accompanied by mug shots of them when they were jailed for riding a bus in Mississippi at the beginning of the civil rights movement, a collection of practical philosophers: “I can’t speak for nobody else,” one Freedom Rider recalls. Etheridge is currently on tour in Mexico, where the war that Thoreau protested was waged illegally by the U.S. After Thoreau wrote "Civil Disobedience," he was read (and reprinted, in a fair use kind of way) by Ghandi, whose practices were in turn taken up in part by the Freedom Riders. Full circle.

In Mexico City promoting Breach of Peace, courtesy of the US ... on TwitPic

Etheridge tours Ohio and Michigan this week:
Cleveland Public Library
Sunday, Feb. 22
325 Superior Ave. N.E.
Cleveland, OH 44114

Flint Public Library
Monday, Feb. 23
1026 E. Kearsley St.
Flint, MI 48502

Kalamazoo Public Library
Tuesday, Feb. 24
315 S. Rose St.
Kalamazoo, MI 49007

More info here.

Free and Public

Up in the woods, looking at forests, I ran into the public library in Cummington, Massachusetts, birthplace of William Cullen Bryant, the poet and one-time editor of the New York Post, the paper which, today, has on it's front page the following headline concerning Alexander Rodriguez, the Yankee who most recently admitted taking steroids: "A-Hole!" He is famously featured in Asher Durand's painting, Kindred Spirits, which used to be in the New York Public Library but now is in the Wal-Mart Museum in Arkansas. The area featured in the painting was visited by Thoreau. You would never know it from Durand's painting, but the area was, at the time of the painting, heavily logged. On a trip there, Thoreau got to know the logger, and liked his rustic living accommodations.

When Thoreau was in New York

A lot of people don't realize that H.D. Thoreau worked in New York for a while, as a semi-successful free-lance writer, and as a door to door salesman, selling subscriptions to a magazine. This was when he lived on Staten Island, in 1843. He also visited the city on numerous occasions, in his capacity as part-time C.E.O. and chief engineer (my titles but they are accurate) of the family pencil and later graphite business. While there, he hung out in various places around the city (Henry James' house, the Hudson River waterfront, the salt marshes where now the Fresh Kills landfill sits), including the City Hall area, where publishing was centered. While downtown, I have to believe he heard nicknames, such as these, presented by The Bowery Boys, the most excellent Victorian New York blog, as culled from Luc Sante's Low Life, and introduced like so: "Just in case you're sick of reading '25 Random Things' lists on Facebook, feel free to post this tally of 19th and early 20th century bar owners and criminals in retaliation."

1 Boiled Oysters Malloy (owner of the Ruins saloon)
2 Dan the Dude (owner Stag Cafe)
3 Will Fox (piano player at Gombossy's Crystal Palice, who played wearing boxing gloves)
4 Diamond Dan O'Rourke (owner of a self-named bar)
5 Silver Dollar Smith (self-named bar on Essex Street)
6 Mock Duck (Chinese gangster, circa 1900, wore chain mail, wielded hatchet)
7 Slippery Johnny Leipziger (random crook, fun name to say)
8 Blonde Madge Davenport (prostitute who killed herself at McGurk's Suicide Hall)
10 Big Mame (also tried to off herself at McGurk's, ended up only permanently scarring her face with carbolic acid)
11 Chick Tricker (owner of the saloon Chick Tricker's Flea Bag)
12 Scotchy Lavelle (pirate turned saloon owner)
13 Johnny Basketball (rough who attended a 1940s Bowery ball)
14 Bridgie Webber (owner of San Souci Music Hall)
15 Johnny Camphene (bar owner who served varnish solvent as a liqueur)
16 One-Armed Charley (bouncer at the Hole-In-The-Wall)
17 Sheeny Mike Kurtz (member of the Dutch Mob, front for a pickpocket gang)
18 Mallet Murphy (owner of self-titled bar, wielding a mallet on wily customers)
19 Humpty Jackson (hunchback gang leader, headquarterd at a now vanished Lower East Side graveyard)
20 Lobster Kid (one of Humpty's gang members)
21 Johnny Spanish (ruffian known for carrying a minimum of four revolvers at a time)
22 One Lung Curran (specialist in stealing the coats of police officers)
23 Happy Jack Mulraney (whose facial rictus kept a frozen smile on his face)
24 Paddy the Priest (murdered by Happy Jack for mocking him)
25 Ding Dong (leader of a phalanx of children crooks)

(Upper left, actual Bowery Boys, NY Public Library)

Thoreau in the News

Here is Thoreau in the news, in Maine, where Thoreau liked to go to be in the woods (at least, after he went there first to look for a job and had some awkward resume peddling experiences: “A sensitive person can hardly elbow his way boldly, laughing and talking, into a strange town, without experiencing some twinges of conscience, as when he has treated a stranger with too much familiarity..."). The kicker in this column by Gordon L. Weil of the Kennebec Journal & Morning Sentinel is this observation on what you might call human ecology--he suggests an alternative spending of the $18.4 billion dollars already spent in controversial corporate bonuses:

If you paid people $40,000 a year with full benefits including health care, that bonus money would have paid 306,667 people for a year.

I would just add that Thoreau was also thinking of the well-to-do as being desperate. A good example is the scene in Walden wherein the authorial "I" is planting his garden while a couple of people from Boston, riding in a fancy gig (what would be the Lexus sedan of 2009), look at him as they make their way to their country house as if he were a nut or, to use his joke, a kind of crazy vine. It's a portrait of disengagement, in the time when the idea of a country house, or retreat, was becoming a middle class necessity, along with servants, hourly wages, and coffee table books. Here is more of the Journal column:

Do you wince when you hear a Washington insider or a Wall Streeter refer to "ordinary people"? I do.

I guess those who call us ordinary people must be "special people." They have the power to reach into our pockets for taxes or fees or to control some of our conduct.

It seems that the folks in charge either ignore or take advantage of ordinary people.

Take health care. Members of Congress have a great government-funded program. Congress seems intent on debating endlessly whether health care should be privately or publicly insured, while about 40 million ordinary people go without.

Or taxes. Tom Daschle, nominated to be health policy chief, failed to pay some of his taxes. He used a company limousine for personal purposes, but did not consider it income, he said, because he had grown accustomed to such service when he was Senate majority leader. Daschle withdrew, partly because his tax problems looked so bad to ordinary people.

Or pay. President Obama says it is "shameful" that Wall Street execs were paid $18.4 billion in bonuses at the same time as hundreds of thousands of people were losing their jobs and Washington was pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into their financial institutions.

If you paid people $40,000 a year with full benefits including health care, that bonus money would have paid 306,667 people for a year.

Or bailout money. Most ordinary people run, or work in, small businesses and community banks or use them. They get no bailout or aid, because they never got into trouble.

Meanwhile the auto manufacturers, who stuck with gas guzzlers too long, and the financiers who conjured up housing schemes that collapsed, get help that will come largely from ordinary people.

Henry David Thoreau, as good a philosopher as America ever produced, once wrote: "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." The mass of men and women are the ordinary people.

The special people may struggle to make things better for ordinary people, but their lives -- corporate jets, big bonuses, congressional perks -- are far from desperate. They seem to live in a cocoon of privilege and miss some simple things that could help.

Thoreau might argue that, in fact, the simple things are luxuries.

Aeolian Markets

Playing the markets playing off us!

Life With Principle--or Cash

A performance that gets to the heart of what's happening in terms of dealing with "shameful" pay and stock markets crashing and Madoff and oil prices and reform and celebrity reform and cash, as well as Tuscany--by Beardo, yet another modern day Thoreau:
The market's gone all soft and the world has gone all hard.

Congressional Simplicity

The Opinionator shares this excellent video in today's post entitled The Early Word On Daschle's Exit:

The Night Poster Boy Spent in Jail

You only have to be a subway rider to know the work of Poster Boy, as show in this Flickr photo (above) by Poster Boy & Aakash Nihalani. Subway advertizements are cut up, pieces from one mixed into another, a nose from Angelina Jolie finds its way, for example, to something along the lines of a Viagra ad. Now this, from Gothamist:
Last night before a benefit he was scheduled to participate in at a loft in Soho, the street artist known as Poster Boy was arrested by an undercover cop. Poster Boy was listed on a flyer for the event, a festival put on for Friends We Love, a series of videos documenting the process of a dozen different artists, including Poster Boy, who talked with us just last week.

Photographer Jim Kiernan tipped us off to the arrest. He arrived at event at Broadway and Howard Street to meet up with Poster Boy around 7 p.m., but police had already arrived after spotting the Poster Boy's name on the flyer. Kiernan says, "There was an undercover cop on the block and they came and picked him up. As far as I know, he's still in Central Booking right now and waiting to get in front of a judge...It's the second time they've gotten him."

Reports indicate that the police believe they have found Poster Boy, but can there only be one Poster Boy making Poster Boy-esque vandalart?

He was reported by the Times to have been taken to Rikers Island. Word was that he was moving on to bigger things anyway:

Very 19th Century, Very HDT

The commons are back--in the woods, in the town square, in the community of ideas, which sounds too mystical but you get the point. If not, here's this:
Joichi Ito is the CEO of Creative Commons. He is a co-founder and board member of Digital Garage and the CEO of Neoteny. He is on the board of Technorati and helps run Technorati Japan. He is a Senior Visiting Researcher of Keio Research Institute at SFC in Japan

Hedging Your Predictions

It is supposed to be a hedge hog? That's what the Oregonian says:
"Chriki", an African Pygmy Hedgehog faced the media and sunshine today at the Oregon Zoo. The little guy, whose name means "blessed" in Swahili, saw his shadow which in theory means that we have 6 more weeks of winter here in Portland. "Chriki" was held in the hands of David Bragdon, the Metro Council President, who explained that the old European tradition of weather prediction belonged to the hedgehog, but when early immigrants to the United States discovered there were no hedgehogs, they substituted the groundhog. Rob Finch/The Oregonian