Friday, November 30, 2007

November 30 came around again

In 2001 or 2002, when I was writing "The Way We Were" column (a compilation of news items from 25, 50, 75, and 100 years ago) for the Elkhart Truth, I came across an article from 1901 or 1902 quoting Mark Twain to the effect that he tried to keep November 30 from coming around, but it always did. I haven't gotten old enough to make the effort to stop the birthday Twain and I share from coming around. In fact, I looked forward to it. Actually, I celebrated it with my family on the 28th, as my days off are Wednesday and Thursday, and on Thursday evening I make the long drive back from Elkhart to Bloomington. The drive was made more interesting from "The Century" on audiotape that my wife found for me. That's the ABC News production, narrated by Peter Jennings, which is a sort of oral history of America in the 20th Century. And on Wednesday night the family was doubled over with laughter watching the DVD of "Fractured Flickers," that my daughter Sarah sent me.

My birthday cake won't be until next week. Kathleen didn't have time to make it, mainly because she's had to drive our son all over the place. Jim fractured his fifth left metatarsal (what the doctor called a Jones fracture) at a Halloween dance party. He and his girlfriend were dressed up like characters from Grease, and Jim was trying to dance like John Travolta. He was wearing a pair of my old Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars shoes, and when he came down on his left foot, the shoe just turned with his foot. So he's got one of those plastic boots on his foot for at least another two weeks.

But next week I'll have the cake--Rigó Jancsi, a Hungarian pastry from that wonderfully decadent world of the Austro-Hungarian empire of the late 19th century. It was named for a Hungarian Gypsy violinist who managed to seduce an American heiress who had become a Belgian princess. More on that later.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

There's a Rocket in My Salad, or English as a Foreign Language

"And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor."

In this final sentence in the Declaration of Independence, is Thomas Jefferson also declaring independence from the British language? The last word is honor, not honour. Spelling in those days was not consistent, so it probably was not a deliberate attempt to Americanize the word. But since 1776 the differences between American and British English have grown. Yes, Americans have adopted British terms, such as kiosk and queue, and the British have picked up quite a few Americanisms. But the difference remains. I am reminded of it nearly every time I read Julie's blog, The Virtual Journey, or one of her other blogs. Her posts are always interesting and always well-written, but the language is distinctly British.

In a wonderful description of a meal at an English inn, Julie writes: "In the centre of the plate, a field mushroom nestles in a bed of rocket and green salad; it is topped with spinach, grilled cheese and crisp lardons of bacon." There are no guided missiles here; rocket is British for arugula. (It made me wonder--excuse the groaner of a pun--if British botanists who specialize in arugula could be called rocket scientists.) And Americans just don't eat lardons of bacon, which I believe are small cubes. Our bacon comes in strips, or what the British would call streaky rashers.

I was reminded of an article I read more than thirty years ago. I dug out the Summer 1975 issue of Horizon Magazine and reread "Of Panda Cars and Pantechnicons, Biros and Blimps," by Ian M. Ball. Ball quotes Oscar Wilde as saying, "the English have really everything in common with the Americans, except of course language."

"To begin with, " writes Ball, you might pick up the Times Educational Supplement and read the following: 'A fifteen-year-old Croydon boy has been suspended by his head since last September because of his long hair.' No, this is not the British belief in corporal punishment carried to sadistic lengths. Head is an acceptable abbreviation for headmaster."

Then there's the simple sentence, "I was mad about the flat." For an American, it expresses anger about a punctured tire: to a Briton, it means being crazy about an apartment. Ball goes on with a paragraph to test the reader's understanding of British:

I was wearing a bespoke suit, with gongs, and was sitting in a bath-chair in a lay-by in the arterial road, when I first saw a panda car, then a milk float, followed by a pantechnicon and an articulated lorry. The driver of the lorry, oddly enough a real blimp, stopped, got out, and asked if I was carrying a biro. It transpired that he was carrying a load of geysers, immersion heaters, and loofahs for the ironmonger on the front. He said he had heard there was trouble locally in the mains in town and he was searching for a blower. I told him there was a kiosk ahead, just past the pillar-box.

While I'm sure Julie understood all the references, most Americans wouldn't unless they had spent quite a bit of time in the United Kingdom.

Here's a glossary:

Bespoke suit=custom-tailored suit


bath chair=wheelchair

lay-by=rest area

arterial road=main highway

panda car=small police patrol car

milk float=milk truck

pantechnicon=moving van

articulated lorry=tractor-trailer truck

blimp=a pompous, elderly man

biro=ball point pen

geysers=over-the-sink hot water heaters


ironmonger=hardware store

front=seaside promenade

mains=electric power supply

kiosk=pay phone


Kiosk, of course was more general term even then, and has since crossed The Pond, as the British are wont to call the Atlantic. You can buy loofahs at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, but biros, pantechnicons, and geysers haven't made the journey.

Personally, I love learning about the differences in American and British, as well as the regional variations. (The Kensington and Allegheny, or K & A dialect of Near Northeast Philadelphia may be grating to my ear, but I'm glad there are still those who speak it.) But it must be difficult for my Hungarian friend SzélsőFa , who must not only deal with the sometimes bizarre rules of English spelling and grammar, but then have to sort out peculiarly American and British usages. And I haven't mentioned Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Jamaica, and so many other nations which have taken English and made it their own.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Our Hopes and prayers for Patry Francis

Patry Francis, whose blog, simply wait, offers "WILD STORIES, UNPREDICTABLE OUTBURSTS, AND POLITE BOOKISH COMMENTARY," in some of the most elegant prose on the Web, had not been posting since mid-September. I assumed she was hard at work on her second novel. I didn't see her November 25 post until today, and was saddened to learn that she's been diagnosed with "an aggressive form of cancer." It looks as though she has a good chance of coming through. She's committed to fighting it. Check out her post--it's brave and inspiring. And say a prayer, or give a thought for her recovery. I'm looking forward to reading her next novel.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Thank Heaven for the Electric Amish

The Electric Amish is a rock and roll band which does parodies of popular American songs in an Amish vein ("Barn to Be Wild," "No More Mennonite Guy," "Sweet Home Indiana"). Wikipedia says,
"Much of the humor in their songs requires at least a passing understanding of Amish and Mennonite culture and small-town Indiana to comprehend; thus, their popularity is quite regional."

Last Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, I was thankful for another sort of Electric Amish. I started off on my usual return to Bloomington from Elkhart, but I had to take an alternate route because of the lake-effect snow. That's one of the hazards of living around the Great Lakes. On winter days, when dry, cold air passes over the Great Lakes, it draws up evaporated water, and then drops it in the form of snow. It's why places like Cleveland and Buffalo are so frequently snowbound. I normally drive on U.S. 20 and Interstate 80 to Joliet, then take I-55 down to Bloomington. But that night, there was lake-effect snow from South Bend westward, so I drove straight south through Nappanee and Etna Green, then southwest through Rochester and Logansport, and west on U.S. 24, to avoid the big snow.

That put me right in the middle of Amish country. And they were out that night, in their buggies. But while the Old Order Amish eschew automobiles and electricity, the Amish in Indiana have battery-powered lights along with the big triangular Slow-Moving Vehicle (SMV)signs on their buggies. So, in a sense, they were electric Amish, and those lights and signs prevented me from hitting them. Even in drizzle and light snow, I had no problem seeing them.

Extremely conservative Amish sects in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota have gone to court to for their "right" to drive their buggies on public highways without the SMV signs. To do so at night is a virtual death sentence for the Amish travelers and their horse, and serious injury to the driver who hits them. But the Indiana Amish--at least those around Nappanee--have the sense not only to have the SMV sign, but to use a little electricity to make their black buggies visible at night. Were it not for those lights and the signs, I almost certainly would have hit a buggy that Thanksgiving night. So I'm thankful for Indiana's electric Amish.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Norman Mailer, R.I.P

Norman Mailer's death earlier this month produced varying obituaries, most of which recalled his sometimes violent and aberrant behavior, and his sexist and homophobic remarks. Yet in spite of his many failings, he was a brilliant writer. Beth at the Cassandra Pages says it so much better than I could.

I've been doing some research on the 1968 Democratic Convention for a time-travel novel I'm working on. Malier's account isn't the most comprehensive or the most informative, but it's the most well--written. Here's a paragraph from his description of Chicago from Miami and the Siege of Chicago (New York: World Publishing Co., 1968):

"Not here for a travelogue--no need then to detail the Loop, in death like the center of every other American city, but what a dying! Old department stores, old burlesque houses, avenues, dirty avenues, the El with its nineteenth century dialogue of iron screeching against iron about a turn, and caverns of shadow on the pavement beneath, the grand hotels with their massive lobbies, baroque ceilings, resplendent as Roman bordellos, names like Sheraton-Blackstone, Palmer House, red fields of carpet, a golden cage for elevator, the unheard crash of giant mills stamping new shapes on large and obdurate materials is always pounding in one's inner ear--Dreiser had not written about Chicago for nothing."

None of the other descriptions of 1968 Chicago could match that one paragraph.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Quotes and Misquotes: Well-Behaved Women, Nice Guys, and the Age of Trust

“Well-behaved women seldom make history,” wrote historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich in a 1976 article about Puritan women. Ulrich was writing about women who were, by the standards of their time and place, well-behaved, and was trying to give them the recognition she believed they deserved. But that single sentence had a life of its own. Her quote has shown up on T-shirts, bumper stickers, coffee mugs, posters, and so on. And of course, the quote has been taken out of context . It’s also been attributed to more well-known feminists, such as Gloria Steinem.

And Ulrich doesn’t have a problem with her quote as a slogan, for she’s written a new book outlining the lives of women who were not well-behaved, at least, according to their time and place, and showing how they did make history. You can guess the title.
Ulrich’s recent appearance on The Diane Rehm Show reminded me of another quote taken out of context, but with unhappier results.

In 1964, Jack Weinberg, an activist with the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, was interviewed by a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. Weinberg, then aged 24, got the feeling that the reporter was trying to label the student protest movement as Communist. As a gibe at the reporter, and to separate the movement from old-line Communists, he said, “We have a saying in the movement that you can’t trust anybody over thirty.”

In “Nice Guys Finish Seventh:” False Phrases, Spurious Sayings, and Familiar Misquotations (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), Ralph Keyes writes:

“Among the few sixties radicals to stay active in social causes (Greenpeace, most recently), Weinberg was chagrined that his most lasting claim to fame is this puerile remark. ‘It’s a bit disappointing,’ he has observed, ‘that the one event that puts me in the history books--the one thing people ask me to comment on--is an off-the-wall-put-down I once made to a reporter.’ To make matters worse, the reporter he was trying to discredit as a reactionary turned out to be a veteran of progressive causes.”

And Weinberg often doesn’t even get credit for the quote, which is more frequently attributed to the likes of Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Which brings us to Keyes’s axioms of misquotation:

1. Any quotation that can be altered will be
2. Famous quotes need famous mouths.

Ulrich’s line is pithy enough that it isn’t altered, while Weinberg’s gets shortened to “Don’t trust anyone over thirty,” a minor change. Axiom 2 applies more to their lines. For a good example of the first axiom, let’s examine Keyes’s title, which is itself, a misquote.

“Nice guys finish last,” is probably Leo Durocher’s most famous quote, or rather, misquote. Keyes tells us what he really said. It was July 5, 1946, and Durocher was managing the Brooklyn Dodgers, who led the National League. Their crosstown rivals, the New York Giants, were in seventh place--next to last. Keyes describes an impromptu press conference that day:

“Although the Giants had beaten his team the day before, Durocher ridiculed their pathetic record and dinky home runs. Red Barber, Brooklyn’s radio announcer why he didn’t admit that the Giants’ home runs were as good as anyone’s. ’Why don’t you be a nice guy for a change,’ needled Barber.

“Durocher leaped to his feet. ’A nice guy?’ he shouted. ’A nice guy!’ I been around baseball for a long time and I’ve known a lot of nice guys. But I never saw a nice guy who was any good when you needed him….’

“Durocher pointed at the Giants’ dugout, saying, ’Nice guys! Look over there. Do you know a nicer guy than [Giants’ manager] Mel Ott? Or any of the other Giants? Why they’re the nicest guys in the world! And where are they? In seventh place!

“’The nice guys over there are in seventh place. Well let them come and get me.’

“He waved contemptuously toward the other dugout. ‘The nice guys are all over there. In seventh place.’

“That’s it, folks. That’s the genesis of ’Nice guys finish last,’ as reported by Frank Graham of New York’s Journal-American… When Graham’s original column was reprinted in Baseball Digest that fall, Durocher’s references to nice guys finishing in ’seventh place’ had been changed to ’last place’ and ’in the second division.’ Before long Leo’s credo was bumper-stickered into ’Nice guys finish last.’”

If you’re interested in quotes, and how they came to be, find a copy of “Nice Guys Finish Seventh.” But be prepared to find that the quotes of such greats as Benjamin Franklin, John F. Kennedy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Adlai Stevenson, Winston Churchill, and many others, were not always original.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

St. Martin of Tours

Today is Veteran's Day in the United States. In Europe and the former British Commonwealth it's Remembrance Day, commemorating the end of the Great War at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, 1918. But it is also the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of soldiers, beggars, innkeepers, and drunkards.

During much of the 1980s I was a member of St. Martin's Episcopal Church on the West Side of Chicago. I wrote the an early version of this essay for its newsletter. A few years ago I reworked it for The Winged Ox, the newsletter of the Memorial Church of St. Luke's in Philadelphia. I've tweaked it a little since then. I honor St. Martin not for his legendary miracles, but for his actions as an elderly bishop, when he tried to prevent the church from executing heretics.

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” wrote British historian Lord Acton. The feast day of St. Martin of Tours, November 11, celebrates a man who fought the corruption of power in the church.

Until the fourth century, the Christian church had little or no power. When the emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire in 314, the church was endowed with great, if not absolute power.

Martin was born in 316, in Pannonia (modern-day Hungary), of pagan parents. At the age of 15 he was conscripted into the Roman army, where he was eventually stationed at Amiens, in Gaul. By this time he had become a catechumen, or inquirer into the Christian faith. One winter day, according to legend, he met a half-naked beggar outside the city gates. Moved with compassion, he cut his military cloak in two and gave half to the beggar. In a dream that night, Christ appeared to him wearing the half cloak.

Martin then appealed to be released from the army. When he was accused of cowardice, he offered to face the enemy armed only with the cross of Christ. Before the battle began, the enemy sued for peace, and Martin was allowed to leave the army. He might be considered the first conscientious objector.

Martin eventually made his way to Poitiers, in southern Gaul, to become a disciple of Bishop Hilary. He lived as a hermit, but attracted so many followers that he had to establish a monastery. Legend says that he did not want to become the Bishop of Tours in 371, but was persuaded to visit the city to give last rites to a dying woman, and was there made bishop by acclamation. As bishop, Martin had no qualms about destroying pagan shrines. But he would not accede to the taking of human life.

Priscillian, bishop of Avila, preached asceticism: vegetarianism, teetotalism, and celibacy. His call for the renunciation of marriage brought him the censure of Church authorities. The Council of Saragossa condemned his teachings in 380. After unsuccessfully appealing to Pope Damasus and Ambrose of Milan, Priscillian and six of his followers appealed to Emperor Magnus Maximus at Treveris (modern-day Trier, Germany). It wasn’t a good move. Maximus, at the urging of Bishop Ithacius of Ossanova, had Priscillian and his disciples condemned to death.

For Martin, excommunication, not execution, was the proper punishment for heresy. He made the long journey to Trier, where he persuaded the emperor to remove Priscillian and his companions from imperial jurisdiction. But soon after Martin left Trier, Ithacius prevailed on the emperor to have the men beheaded. They were the first, though sadly not the last religious dissenters to be executed at the behest of church authorities.

Martin refused to communicate with Ithacius after learning of his treachery. But later, when Martin returned to Trier to plead for the release of two rebels held by the emperor, Maximus would agree to the pardon only if Martin would make peace with Ithacius. Martin did so to save the lives of the men, though he later reproached himself for his weakness. For me, Martin’s compassion was his greatest strength.

Martin is the patron of soldiers and beggars. Because his feast day coincided with the pagan feast of Bacchus, he is also the patron of drunkards and innkeepers. But he also needs to be remembered as a man of Christlike love, who stood against the abuse of power by church and imperial authorities.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Remembering the victims of the other 9/11

When we Americans write out a date, we put the month before the day. Today is November 9, or 11/9. But most every one else shows the day first: 9 November, or 9/11. And today marks the 69th anniversary of the other 9/11--Kristallnacht, or Night of the Shattered Glass.

When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, there was some hope that all his anti-Semitic rhetoric was just that--rhetoric. The Nazis purged the Jews from the civil service, but they sent the Communists to concentration camps. And few in the West cared about the Communists. Hitler was distasteful, even threatening. But after the night of 9 November, 1938, there was little doubt about Hitler's plans for the Jews. That night, the SA (Sturmabteilung or storm troopers) and the SS (Schutzstaffel--literally "protective squadron') attacked and ranscked about 8000 Jewish businesses, destroyed 1668 synagogues, and arrested 30,000 Jewish men, who were sent to concentration camps. About 90 people died in the attacks, though hundreds more died in the aftermath.

The Times of London, in its November 11 edition, wrote: "no foreign propagandist bent upon blackening Germany before the world could outdo the tale of burnings and beatings, of blackguardly assaults on defenceless and innocent people, which disgraced that country yesterday."

The term Kristallnacht refers to the shattered glass of the shops--many of which had windows of leaded crystal glass. But it was, in many ways, the beginning of the Holocaust.

So today is a day to remember the victims of the other 9/11, and and to remember that in spite of the Allied victory over the Nazis, we have not yet stopped genocidal attacks.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Starting from Iowa City

While I do have a mystery story that's almost ready to send out, and the beginnings of a fantasy novel, I've actually sold autobiographical pieces about rail journeys. I've been working on this one intermittently, and thought I'd share the opening paragraphs:

Here I go again
crossing the country in coach trains
(back to my old
lone wandering)

- Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Starting from San Francisco”

Jack Kerouac, in his Beat Generation classic On the Road, describes U.S. Highway 6 as “one long red line that led from the tip of Cape Cod clear to Ely, Nevada, and there dipped down to Los Angeles.” One early morning in June of 1969, I headed down that red line on my Raleigh Sports bicycle, riding east in preparation for a trip west.

During my senior year of high school I had worked as a stock boy at Scott’s Variety Store in Iowa City, and had saved up enough money for my trip. I’d be going out to the Grand Tetons to visit my high school sweetheart, who, with her mother, was working at a ranch near Dubois, Wyoming. I would take trains as far as Victor, Idaho, then bicycle over Teton Pass, through the park, and over Togwotee Pass to Dubois. But the Rock Island had eliminated checked baggage service to Iowa City. The nearest place to check my bike was Rock Island, Illinois. So I was riding east to go west.

Across much of Iowa and Illinois, U.S. 6 follows the Great Rock Island Route. The tracks were out sight on the first leg of my ride, from Iowa City to just outside West Liberty, where I struggled up a humpback bridge over the railroad, then pedaled hard on the way down to build up momentum. Biking up the gradual rise into town, I crossed the old Zephyr Rocket route. One U.S. 6 landmark, a favorite of Iowa Writers’ Workshop students, was the Frigid Queen. Its soft-serve cones weren’t any better than those of Dairy Queen or Tastee-Freez, but in those days, every budding writer had to drive out to that place with the Freudian slip of a name.

I rode on through West Liberty, and up and down the rolling hills of eastern Iowa. At Atalissa (named for Atalissa Davis, the first white child born in the village) there was another humpback bridge, this one with a bend in the middle. Both the West Liberty and Atalissa overpasses have since been replaced with grade crossings.

Just beyond Atalissa, U.S. 6 drops into the Cedar River valley, with a long level stretch of road along the bottomlands. I shifted into high gear for the downhill, trying to keep up the momentum until the inevitable climb back out of the valley. Also inevitable were the red-winged blackbirds who swooped down at my head to defend their roadside nests.

Once out of the valley, I followed Route 6 to the left and once more over the Rock Island tracks, then turned right into Wilton Junction. The branchline from there to Muscatine had long since been abandoned, but the town had yet to change its name back to plain Wilton. It had a respectable brick depot, but no trains stopped there.