Emdashes—Modern Times Between the Lines

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On Mother’s Day, friend of Emdashes Caledonia Kearns writes:

For years I thought my father was the story, though I knew nothing of his day to day. I just knew that his life was more cinematic than mine and my mother’s—for one thing, he was dealing his way through the grit and graffiti of 1970s and ’80s Manhattan. A surviving beatnik, he went from burning his draft card and feeding the poor on the Bowery at the Catholic Worker, to selling marijuana in a loft with special built-in bins for the various varieties he sold.


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Lee Alexander writes:

It’s hard not to think of Alan Rickman as Severus Snape, curl-lipped and leering behind a smoking cauldron as Harry Potter’s ambiguously evil Defense Against the Dark Arts instructor. In Thersea Rebeck’s new comedy, Seminar (which opened on Sunday at the Golden Theatre), Rickman is once again in command of the classroom, abandoning his robe and wand for a somewhat more mundane task: instructing four twentysomethings on the craft of writing a novel.

Though Rickman’s character, the famous writer Leonard, snidely remarks


Some time ago, we sponsored a contest—write a letter to a punctuation mark, and get a chance to win a signed copy of Ben Greenman’s book What He’s Poised to Do—whose results diverted and delighted us. They also distracted us, so much so that it’s taken us, collectively, quite a while to pick a winner. The Emdashes staff selected an absurdly long but heartfelt of finalists, and now Ben has picked his winner. Here is the glad announcement, and with it, our collective apology that we can be awfully slow. Punctuation makes us dizzy and loony. Sometimes blogging does, too. Thank you so much to all the clever writers and true punctuation lovers who entered the contest. And now: Ben Greenman! —Emily Gordon

To say that I agonized over this contest would be an understatement. I have spent weeks staring at these semifinalists, trying to decide how to elevate one and let the others fall away. Who should win? Who will win? When we started this competition months ago, we had no idea that so many people would write such passionate, funny, and insightful letters to pieces of punctuation. We should have guessed. The relationship between a reader and his or her punctuation starts early, and it doesn’t operate as a type of infatuation or opportunism, as the relationship between readers and words sometimes does. The love of (or love for) a piece of punctuation grows slowly, over time, until it is undeniable: a reader looks and wonders until there’s no option left but saying what is felt.

In the end, after weighing them all, I selected Letter #2, Nicole Rushin’s letter to the tilde, in part because she couldn’t remember its name (she’s flustered by love) and in part because she has perfectly identified the seam between passion and fashion. Ten years ago, no one cared about the tilde except for Spanish teachers. Ten years from now, it will have passed into oblivion again. But today, in the waning days of the strange http era, it is a kind of little king. The last four sentences of Nicole’s letter are especially poignant, and especially true. Congratulations to our winner and all our entrants.

—Ben Greenman

Nicole Rushin’s winning entry, for which she will receive a signed and personally punctuated copy of Ben’s book:

Dear ~,

I am embarrassed to say that I have forgotten your name. You came into my life one torrid night while talking to the abrupt, but helpful customer service rep from Blue Host. I remember it clearly. I hope this letter reaches you. Is it too forward to say how I love the way you look after my name? Please write back. I am sending this out in a bottle, posting it in the classified ads. We would could be so happy together, crashing the shores of our meaning against each other, forever. I know nothing about you, I don’t know what you do? Why do you exist? I just want to know you.

Nicole ~


Emdashes exclusive: A dispatch by our friend Ben Bass from the recent Chicago Humanities Festival—in particular, an event in which New Yorker cartoonists told fascinating stories and Bob Mankoff made cogent observations about modern youth (and encouraged more people to submit). Bass is a theater critic, culture watcher, devoted attendee of the New Yorker Festival, puzzler, and writer (not to mention tool maker, stacker of wheat, player with railroads and the nation’s freight handler in the city of the big shoulders) who would have to be considerably windier before we tired of reading him. Here’s his engaging report.

Chicagoans who make an annual pilgrimage to the New Yorker Festival are getting a local cherry on top of their recent Manhattan sundae. Now underway within Windy City limits is the Chicago Humanities Festival, a yearly cultureklatsch that recently retained New Yorker staff writer Lawrence “Ren” Weschler as its spiritual leader. As a result, this year’s CHF has more representation than ever on the Eustace Tilley front.

Simon Schama, for example, joined Weschler onstage to tell Jewish jokes to a capacity crowd at the Spertus Museum of Judaica. The fast-talking two-man vaudeville show was punctuated by sound effects from beatbox artist Yuri Lane. Artist Chris Ware, whose ghostly Halloween cover and four-page cartoon spread graced last week’s issue, appeared with Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, Jules Feiffer, and Michael Miner for a discussion on the dire state of alternative comics.

And Saturday morning, a panel of New Yorker cartoonists assembled at Thorne Auditorium in the Northwestern University School of Law. The popular Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan introduced them; I imagine she’s no stranger to making appearances at elite law schools, but even more relevantly for this purpose, she’s married to the New Yorker cartoonist Pat Byrnes. The other panelists: Roz Chast, Ed Koren, and moderator Robert “Bob” Mankoff.

Mankoff, the magazine’s cartoon editor, kicked things off with a joke: “We’re running late, so please hold your laughter until the end.” Before turning things over to Koren, he discussed the recent history of humor and The New Yorker’s cartoon selection process. The audience got a delightful peek at the latter during a screening of the short film Being Bob, in which Mankoff roundly rejects everything from piles of cartoons


In October we were very pleased to present Jenny Blair's account of Platon's New Yorker Festival event. Today Blair has volunteered to bring us a detailed report of a fascinating lecture by the composer John Adams in New Haven, which occurred last week.—Martin Schneider

Jenny Blair writes:

The composer John Adams visited Yale University last week to give the prestigious Tanner Lectures on Human Values.* This writer attended the second of the two lectures, held at the Whitney Humanities Center on October 29. (In the first, the composer discussed Thomas Mann's fictional composer in the novel Dr. Faustus.)

A fine-featured and slender man with arching sprouts of white hair and a gracious manner, Adams spoke to a near-capacity crowd about the way that myth informs his operas. Though he is famed in part for having dramatized Nixon's visit to China and, more recently, for the 2005 opera Doctor Atomic, which dramatizes the hours before the first atomic bomb was detonated, Adams is annoyed when he hears himself referred to as a "political composer" or his operas called "docu-operas." Such appellations would seem to miss the point, which is that he seeks out universal themes within the


2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree