O is for old

In the olden days… — The Germans say: Damals… In alten Zeiten… And that is usually the beginning of a story.  You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But this man has some new tricks to teach you about how to get “old dogs” to tell you really good stories about the olden days.

Marc Pachter, former Director of the National Portrait Gallery and of the National Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution), created “Living Self-Portaits”, a program of interviews with great Americans staged before a live audience. One of his decisions in selecting the candidates was that they should be of a certain age. We call them elderly, but actually think of them as old. Here master interviewer Marc Pachter unlocks the secrets of empathy that allowed him to ask them the questions they had always wanted to be asked, getting them to share their surprizing stories. Take a quiet 20 minutes to watch this beautiful presentation. You won’t regret it!

Given at the EG Conf 2008, posted and downloadable at TED.com.

H is for horse

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”

This saying works for me on several implied levels. First, you can’t force the “horse” to do anything, so I follow that you shouldn’t, even if you think it might be good. Chances are, it’s horse manure anyway, at least for this horse. But that’s just step 1. Step 2, you let the horse figure out what it wants. Because when it comes down to it, there’s just nothing like a horse’s sense to educate you about what it needs.  So loose reins, and prick up your ears, cowboy/girl. That’s my dogme.

Horse sense, by the way, translates to “gesunder Menschenverstand” in German. Wish more people had it.

Have you ever fallen off a “real” horse? I have. Age nine. Ouch!

G is for good

Advent Calendar Day 7 – Keep your eyes peeled for dwarves, elves and other Christmas folk!

Good fences make good neighbors. (Liebe deinen Nachbarn, aber reiß den Zaun nicht ein.)

This 17th century proverb is very popular in America. It means “live and let live” and “respect the privacy of others”.

The saying is so well-known because Robert Frost (1874-1963), one of America’s most beloved poets, included it in his poem The Mending Wall, written in 1914. In it, two men meet to perform maintenance together on their mutual boundary, an act that bonds them and brings them closer together. It is not the state of the fence, but the act of keeping the fence in good shape that makes them good neighbours.

This video interpretation remembering the Berlin Wall (1961-1989) hinges on the first line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall“. This changes the meaning of the poem into a criticism of walls in general. The soundtrack is a very old recording of Frost reading the poem himself:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbours.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbours? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbours.”

F is for first

First come, first served.

First things first.

One German translation would be “eins nach dem anderen” — one thing after another; break it down. The other would be “das Wichtigste zuerst” — the most important thing first; prioritize. I don’t think there is an equivalent phrase with both meanings in German. Wow: yet another example of how much we leave unsaid and up to context in English, whereas you tend to spell things out in German.

Trying to get through deadlines and Christmas preparations, maybe you’ll enjoy this cute little motivational sketch as much as I did.

E is for eating

Nobody spotted the dwarf yesterday, eh? Pity, such a sweet little one, I wonder where George found him. Now for advent calendar day 5:

“Eat your words!” (Nimm alles zurück!) ... and Milo does. The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) takes him into a parallel world where you have to eat words to use them. — I’m always nibbling on mine.

Highlights from the book: Milo meets the Whether Man (“for after all it’s more important to know whether there will be weather than what the weather will be”),  and picks up a watchdog named Tock (who has a giant alarm clock for a body). Milo and Tock then set off toward the Mountains of Ignorance to rescue the twin Princesses, Rhyme and Reason. In jail, they meet a Which named Faintly Macabre, who used to pick which words were used for which purpose. But she was a very bad which, because she decided to keep all the good words for herself.

Also see the review by Gregory McNamee

D is for devil

“I’m caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.” When you’re faced with two dangerous alternatives, you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

An earlier version of the idea of being caught between evil and the sea is found in Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus is caught between Scylla (a six-headed monster) and Charybdis (a whirlpool). Well, Circe helped him get through those straits alive.

So luck and love help. So does a little music, like the song by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler (lyrics), written for a musical called Rhyth-mania at The Cotton Club in 1931 and performed by Cab Calloway:

“I should hate you
But I guess I love you
You’ve got me in between
The devil and the deep blue sea”

It’s covered here by George Harrison:

C is for curiosity

“Curiosity killed the cat.” This phrase has always bothered me, as I am a naturally inquisitive person. So imagine my delight in finding that the original phrase in Tudor England was in fact “Care killed the cat”, meaning that worry and sorrow did the animal in. (Source)

So out with worry and in with natural curiosity. Of course, your curiosity can kill other things, like hard drives… or in the case of Simon’s Cat (whom I met on Dagmar’s blog), lamps and curtains. Oh, well, that’s just collateral damage!