Halvard Johnson

1. Do you remember the girl in school who used to draw little stars where the dots over i's ought to be? The one who drew daisies there? Do you remember the ones who wrote JMJ at the top of every page, believing or maybe just hoping that invoking the names of the Holy Family would raise their work to passing level? Would you believe that last night in a dream I encountered a woman who placed her punctuation marks beneath rather than beside the letters or numerals they should have followed?

2. Can you imagine two women bringing home one of those contraptions you see in dry cleaning establishments that with a clatter bring plastic-wrapped garments up to the front of the store thereby saving steps and energy? They're something like the ones you find in checkrooms at museums, where the garments never get wrapped in plastic. Those two women were in last night's dream too, having a lot of fun running the thing one way and then the other (it seemed to work in both directions) even though no garments were hung on it. And then they found a third button, which, when pushed, made the gadget as a whole move in a circular fashion around the livingroom, small as it was.

3. Chigurh (aka Javier Bardem's character in No Country for Old Men, known in Mexico as Sin lugar para los débiles) occasionally offered those he was about to kill a chance to flip a coin for their life. The coin, he would say, had traveled for years to get to where it was at that moment. And yet it was just a coin.

4. What are the chances that one would encounter the word “nubby” twice in one manuscript?

5. To accommodate the mechanical garment rack, they had had to remove almost all the furniture that had been in the livingroom, all but a couple of straight chairs. And when they'd emptied the closets to fill up the garment rack they'd sit there on those chairs, having rigged up a way to keep the on button depressed so that the garments on the rack would circulate around them as they spent the day there laughing and chatting until their husbands (I'd play both roles) came home from the mill and shouted, “What the hell's going on here? Where'd that damned thing come from?” and so on, taking turns in hurling abuse at them.

6. When I went to Editors Unlimited to apply for an editor, I was confronted by a semi-hostile woman who glared at me and asked, “What sort of editorial services do you need, sir?”, her glare counteracting the polite tone with which she delivered the question.
          Rather at a loss as to how to respond, I hawed and hemmed for a moment. She seemed to read my mind. “Perhaps something in the way of diction?” she queried. “You're hemming when you should be hawing.”
           I cleared my throat. “Well, no, I think you can leave word choices up to me. I was thinking more of punctuation and spelling.”
           “Oh, is that all?” she scoffed, and seemed to lose interest. “I think Jimmy Brewer can handle all that for you. He's just an intern here, but he knows his stuff.”
          So Jimmy Brewer it was. Being merely an intern, he'd work for just under minimum wage. I said, “Okay, send him over. This afternoon around three?”
           “Fine,” said Hostile Woman. “That'll be thirty dollars.”
           “In advance?” I said.
           “And in cash,” she said. “No checks, no cards.”
          I gave her three tens, along with my address and phone number (just in case, as she said), and got out of there, free at last from the weight of her glare. Jimmy Brewer arrived promptly at three, but wasn't even twenty minutes into his work before he said, forlornly, “Sir? I hate to disappoint you, but I don't do commas.”

7. What sort of parents would name their daughter Epiphany or their son Love's Reward? Especially if their last name is Jones?

8. My husband likes to walk about three steps ahead of me on the narrow sidewalks in this town, where people advancing towards each other play a little game of chicken, pretending not to see anyone coming so as not to have to step down into the street. Those more adept at the game can pass safely by turning sideways as they near each other. The locals, Mexicans, are exceptionally good at this maneuver, rarely stepping down into the street, except when oversized gringos come along.
           My husband likes, when he can, to step down into the street to allow locals to pass on the sidewalk, thinking, perhaps, that this makes him as a norteamericano somewhat less ugly.
           His legs are longer than mine and sometimes he gets ahead of me by quite a bit, and he rarely looks back to see if I'm still there. If I stop to glance into a store or shop window, I'm in danger of being left behind entirely.
           My husband doesn't like me to walk in the street beside him as he walks on the sidewalk. It makes me seem too short, he says. It exaggerates the difference in our altitudes. I say, well, you could walk in the street while I walk on the sidewalk. I'd be just as tall as you then. But no, that wouldn't do. So I walk behind him, and sometimes we both walk in the street, hand in hand, or arm in arm.
           My husband never lets me forget the day when, falling far behind him, I hurried to catch up and tried out my Spanish: “Tengo piedras cortas.” To bring back that moment of humiliation all he has to do is say, “Come on, hurry up, Short Rocks.”

9. Robert Rauschenberg is a case in point.

10. The difference between “arrangement” and “derangement” is a slight one.

11. Book 3 of C. E. Eckersley's Essential English for Foreign Students was first published by Longmans in 1942 and printed in Hungary. Here's a taste from Test Paper No. 2, a composition exercise:

           X. Read the following passage carefully and answer the questions below:

           As he crept up this rise in the ground, he knew that
          he could not go much further. His body was weak, but worse
           than that, his will to keep going, his will to live, had almost
          died away. It seemed now to Alan like a horrible dream in
           which he was a helpless actor. Three days without food or
           water had almost broken his spirit. He dragged himself slowly
           across the burning sand to the top of the hill and with tired
           eyes looked beyond.
                    At first he saw nothing but the sight he had seen for
           days. Then, away to his right, his eyes fixed on a dull spot of
           green. Trees. That meant water. That meant life. With a great
           effort he rose to his feet and with unsteady but determined
           steps he moved on.

           (1) Give another word or phrase with similar meaning to that in
           which these words or phrases are used in this passage: (a) crept,
           (b) almost, (c) for days, (d) unsteady, (e) determined.
           (2) Why did Alan's journey seem to him like a dream?
           (3) In what sort of country was Alan travelling?
           (4) What brought back to him “his will to live”?
           (5) Suggest in about eighty words what might have happened before
           this extract, explaining why Alan was in such a difficult
           (6) Imagine the image conveyed by the first paragraph as a cartoon
           in the New Yorker. How might it be captioned?
           (7) Replace the character Alan in this excerpt with George W.
          Bush or Dick Cheney. How would doing so affect your reading
          of the passage and your reaction to it? Fully discuss.

Okay, I confess. I've added the last two exercises to the ones originally in Eckersley's test paper. But still, doing the exercises will do you no harm and might do you some good. Your responses are due one half hour after you finish reading this sentence. You may email them to me at the following address: halvard@earthlink.net.

13. Dick and George were furious that their wives had installed a huge mechanical garment rack in the livingroom of George's house. I mean, that was where they, as often as possible, sat themselves down in recliners and watched football or basketball or even baseball, whatever happened to be on. They'd even watch golf or poker or chess or, fer chrissake, soccer. Sports is where it's at, George often said, without ever bothering to explain what the antecedent of “it” was. Dick would nod in agreement and pour another bottle of beer down his throat. And, I hasten to point out, it was always George's house, never George and Gracie's, let alone George's and Gracie's.
           Gracie and Dana often admitted feeling more married to each other than to their putative husbands, not that they'd ever say so to Dick and George of course. In fact, sometimes, especially after a couple margaritas, G&D would wonder out loud whether D, if they were indeed married to each other, would be the husband or the wife, whether D would be “on top” or whether G would. On one occasion, when they got as far as a third margarita, G&D even tried to imagine D&G “making the beast with two backs,” to use an expression both G&D detested.
           Dick and George heaved abuse at Gracie and Dana for several months after the arrival of the mechanical garment rack, but the rack did not go away. What went across the street to Dick's house was the recliners and the big-screen TV. And, for the most part, D&G.

14. Do you remember Polish jokes? Do you remember the one about the Polish astronauts flying to sun, how someone always asks how they could fly to the sun without getting burned to corn crispies? How the answer always is “They only fly at night”?

15. John Cage: another case in point.