Roving thoughts and provocations

Romney’s Taxes in a Poke

Garry Wills

Scott Olson/Getty Images

One of the oldest bits of practical advice in the English language advises people not “to buy a pig in a poke.” It dates from days when there were shortages of meat, and con men sold what purported to be succulent ham or bacon in the form of a piglet wriggling in a poke, or burlap bag. A bargain price was offered on the condition that the poke not be opened. When it was opened, too late for the payment to be called back, the sucker found he had bought a stray dog or large cat, not a pig. Mitt Romney tells us he has a pig—a reasonable account of his taxes—in his pouch, but he won’t show it to us. Imagine our surprise if, after his election, we get to peek inside the pouch.

Poets and Money

Charles Simic

edvardmunch.org

Most poems are short. They give the impression it took no time to write them. Ten minutes tops. To write a six-hundred-page novel takes years. You go and work at your desk every day the way a miner goes to his mine and you feel as drained afterwards. Of course, that kind of work should be amply rewarded. A poet stands by the window watching the rain fall, or looks at the lock of hair of his old sweetheart, scribbles something down on a piece of paper and is through for the day. The most outrageous thing about poetry is that poems composed in such a lackadaisical manner end up in anthologies your kids are supposed to study in school. Not only that, but they may fall in love with them, memorize them, and try to imitate them. “Poetry is dead!,” someone shouts happily every now and then, to the relief of parents and those among the educated who never read poetry. No such luck.

Advice for Soldiers in Vietnam: ‘The Fish is Good’

Jonathan Mirsky

Phillip Jones Griffiths/Magnum Photos

Most American soldiers landing in Vietnam in the 1960s were handed a ninety-three-page booklet called A Pocket Guide to Vietnam. Produced by the Department of Defense, it described how small, well-proportioned, dignified, and restrained Vietnamese people are, how the delicately-boned local women appear in their flowing national dress, how Vietnamese love tea, and don’t like slaps on the back, how they excel at cooking fish. Soldiers reading this advice could get the mistaken idea that they were going to a tourist destination with a bit of violence on the side.

The ‘Crime Committed in France, by France’

François Hollande

AP Photo/Jacques Brinon Pool

We’ve gathered this morning to remember the horror of a crime, express the sorrow of those who experienced the tragedy, and speak of the dark hours of collaboration, our history, and therefore France’s responsibility. We’re also here to pass on the memory of the Holocaust—of which the roundups were the first stage—in order to fight the battle against oblivion and testify to new generations what barbarity is capable of doing and what resources humanity may possess to defeat it.

The Last Book Sale

Larry McMurtry

David Woo/Dallas Morning News/Corbis

In a summer when the shoreline temperature in the Little Arkansas River reached 98 degrees—bad news for catfish—should I really have attempted to bring a bunch of citified northerners into the heart of the heat, which peaked locally at 116? Well, yes. It’s just weather, as my popular hero Captain Woodrow Call often said if he heard a complaint. So I threw a book sale. Upward of 300,000 books went on sale in Archer City at public auction, which was conducted by the cracker-jack team of Addison and Sarova out of Macon, Georgia, where I gather the heat is wet rather than dry.

Romney’s Choice

Elizabeth Drew

Paul Ryan is the charming ideologue driven by an ambition robust even by Washington standards. He has been the young man in a hurry, with dead aim; the indefatigable persuader; the self-created “man of ideas,” articulate and conspicuous. “Ideas” politicians can be more likeable and interesting than wise. Yet those who broke out in celebration upon learning that Mitt Romney had chosen Ryan as his running mate, certain that the Wisconsin Congressman’s radical worldview would surely sink the Romney ticket, may find him more dangerous than they currently assume.

Does Copyright Matter?

Tim Parks

Bob Adelman/Magnum Photos

Do I, as an author, have the right to prevent people copying my books for free? Should I have it? Does it matter? Officially the idea is that the writer, artist, or musician should be allowed to reap the just rewards for his effort. This is quaint. There is very little justice in the returns artists receive. Somebody becomes a millionaire overnight and someone else cannot even publish. What we are talking about, more brutally, is preventing other people from making money from my work without paying me a tribute, because my work belongs to me. It’s mine. What we are talking about is ownership and control.

The Singular Sound of Sonny Rollins

Christopher Carroll

Magnum Photos

No one knows why exactly Sonny Rollins, the tenor saxophone colossus, hasn’t recorded a good studio album since the 1960s. Though he ranks alongside Charlie Parker and John Coltrane as one of the greatest jazz saxophonists in history, some say that his style was irreparably damaged by years spent experimenting with funk, disco, and fusion in the seventies and eighties. Yet anyone who has seen Rollins perform on a good night knows that, even at eighty-one, he is still capable of playing with the same brilliance that first made giants like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk take an interest in him in the 1950s.

The New Olympic Arms Race

Ian Johnson

Adam Pretty/Getty Images

You can follow the Olympics two ways. First, there’s the right way: you pay attention to the athletes and root for great performances. You see them cry and hug each other in joy or look away in disgust at a bad performance. You empathize with them as human beings and debate issues like whether Michael Phelps is the greatest Olympian of all time or just the greatest swimmer. You wonder about doping but try to believe that the sports agencies have it more or less under control and that Dick Pound is just another Canadian curmudgeon. Then there’s the way I watch the games: as a statistical survey of geopolitics and destructive public policy.

Posing for the Senate

Christopher Benfey

Left: Melina Mara/The Washington Post; Right: Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

It is hard to watch the verbal sparring between Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown, the candidates in this fall’s closely watched Massachusetts Senate race for the “Kennedy seat,” without recalling the classic 1949 comedy Adam’s Rib. In that Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn vehicle, Adam and Amanda Bonner are husband-and-wife lawyers who battle in the courtroom before ending up as Democratic and Republican rivals. “I’m not sure I care to expose myself,” Amanda says, “to typical instinctive masculine brutality.” Which invariably meets with Adam’s “Oh, come now” response. Now, we have Warren adopting the Amanda pose, to Brown’s Adam.