Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Three-Year Move and a Ten-Year Meme.

Since I began working in the Bloomington-Normal, Illinois Amtrak station in July, 2005, I've been trying get a transfer either to South Bend, near our house in Elkhart, or to Galesburg, Illinois, near my wife's hometown of Davenport, Iowa. At the end of 2006 I had accepted a transfer to South Bend only to find that another employee, who was still on the seniority roster, was entitiled to the job. It turned out that I was lucky not to get the job, as I would have been bumped later on by the elimination of another job.

Just a couple of weeks ago, one of the Galesburg ticket clerks took a job in management, giving me a chance to bid a job there. In the next few weeks I'll be moving out of The Closet Over the Stairs in Bloomington and starting the new job in Galesburg. I'll be staying with my in-laws in Davenport until we can get rid of the house in Elkhart and find someplace to live in Galesburg.

I'll be busy trying to get resettled, so posts will be more sporadic than usual. Chapter 19 of Things Done and Left Undone may take a while to complete. Meanwhile, here's the Ten Year Meme Lisa of Eudaemonia tagged me with:

What were you doing ten years ago?

In the summer of 1998 I was working at the Amtrak Call Center in Chicago, making the long-distance commute from Elkhart (drive to Michigan City, then ride the South Shore train to Chicago). I had enough seniority to hold a 4-day, 10-hour shift, so it wasn't so bad. That fall I'd start writing a column on local history for the Elkhart Truth, which I'd continue writing until 2003.

Anne had finished eighth grade and would start high school in August. Sarah was out of seventh grade. It seems as though middle school, or junior high school, is always a traumatic time. Sarah actually had a good seventh grade, but Anne hated both years of middle school. Jim would be going into third grade. Kathleen was not working outside the home at the time, as I was essentially gone four days a week.

In some ways, 1998 seems farther in the past than 1973, when Kathleen and I were married. But it was a turning point for me: I became a regular, as opposed to a sporadic writer.

Five things on your to-do list for today

Take some more books to Goodwill and continue getting rid of stuff .

Do some laundry.

Fill up the tank in my ancient Toyota.

Drive back to Bloomington.

Get rid of more stuff at my Bloomington apartment.

What would you do if you were a billionaire?

I'm going to pass on this one. Money and I aren't friends --I wish there were some other way to get along in the world. I fear a surfeit of money would be worse for me than my current situation of being up to my neck in Direct Loans for my kids. Money would find a way to get me.

What are three of your bad habits?

General messiness.

A tendency towards pessimism (see answer to previous question).

Procrastination (To-do list was from last Thursday, though the procrastination here is doing the meme--I got all the tasks done).

What are some snacks you enjoy?

My own trail mix (Chocolate chips, unsalted peanuts, and raisins).

Greek olives.

Nutella on French bread (haven't had it in a long time).

High-cocoa dark chocolate (I can even pretend it's good for me).

What were the last five books you read?

Boom! Voices of the Sixties by Tom Brokaw--Brokaw is a journalist, and is more concerned with how the past affects the present than actually understanding the past. He makes the mistake of assuming that the Baby Boom generation made the Sixties. "They [the Boomers] made the Sixties. There's no doubt about that." Actually, there's a lot of doubt. It was his generation--the people born just before and during the Second World War who were the movers and shakers of that decade. Abbie Hoffman, Bob Dylan, John Lewis, Gloria Steinem, John Lennon, etc., etc. Plus some of the "Greatest Generation" such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (people he fails to mention in his book, The Greatest Generation). My generation gets stuck with the Seventies and Eighties. However, Jerry Rubin of Brokaw's generation had the distinction for being a Yippie in the Sixties and A Yuppie in the Eighties.

A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties by Suze Rotolo--The best part isn't Rotolo's relationship with Dylan, but her description of the Village scene in the early Sixties.

Name Withheld by J. A. Jance--Not her best work, but entertaining. It was available on cassette, which is what I have in my '90 Toyota.

No one was killed, Documentation and meditation: Convention Week, Chicago, August 1968 by John Schultz--perhaps the best of the books about the '68 convention, though Schultz does take a pro-Yippie view, while viewing the McCarthy volunteers as smug and arrogant (even though his wife was one).

The Self Under Siege - Philosophy in the 20th Century by Rick Roderick (course on tape). Roderick's Philosophy and Human Values course is perhaps the best introduction to philosophy around. Self Under Siege is classic Roderick--brilliance in a West Texas drawl. He discusses Sartre, Heidegger, Marcuse, Habermas, Foucault, Derrida, and others. Roderick's lectures are available on the Web, now--click here.

What are five jobs you have had?

Working the grill and fryer at Henry's Hamburgers in Coralville, IA.

Bus driver (campus bus, Cedar Rapids Transit, and Iowa City Transit).

Rail coordinator for the Midwest office of CIT Tours (agent for the Italian State Railways).

Reservation Sales Agent.

Rate Desk Clerk--dealing with complicated fares and difficult people.

What are five places where you have lived?

Iowa City, Iowa

Albuquerque, New Mexico

Oak Park, Illinois

Elkhart, Indiana

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I was born in Peoria, Illinois. Some people find that fact hilarious--kind of like being born in Dull Center, Wyoming.

I'll forgo tagging anyone else. Virtually everyone whose blog I read has done this one anyway.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Hanover--Just up the road from Transylvania

In my last post on my visit to Hanover College, SzélsőFa commented, "It never ceases to amaze me how the names of European cities appear and STAY on the map of the USA." Most of the European city names come from the hometowns of the first white settlers. Lots of Londons, Bristols, Hamburgs and Amsterdams. I think the many Milans (almost all of which are pronounced to rhyme with smilin') and Parises were named because those cities had class and sophistication which the founders hoped would rub off on their towns. Some of Parises and other French-named towns may have been named by the voyageurs who plied the rivers of North America in the years before the French and Indian (Seven Years') War. In what would become the Louisiana Purchase, the French had even more time to name towns. Warsaw, Indiana, county seat of Kosciusko County, was named not by Polish immigrants, but for the capital of Poland, the home country (though not at the time a nation-state) of Thaddeus Kosciusko, the Polish patriot who had fought in the American revolution. A lot of the Spanish names in the Midwest are named for battles in the Mexican-American War--Churubusco, La Paz, Buena Vista, Cerro Gordo, etc.

But I came across one European name that has nothing to do with the region in Europe. While at Hanover, Kathleen and I met some very nice people from Kentucky. We were talking about colleges at lunch, and the Kentuckians were talking about "Transy." I asked if this was Transylvania University, and whether there was any connection between that institution and the Carpathian mountains.

It turns out that Transylvania University was founded in 1780, in Danville, Virginia, and moved to Lexington (now Kentucky) in 1789. What would become Kentucky was known as the Transylvania Colony, from the Latin, "across the forest." So the name came independently of the European region, though from the same Latin root. (According to Wikipedia, the European Transylvania is a Latinization of the Hungarian Erdély, which is derived from Erdő-elve meaning "beyond the forest.")

Thanks to Bram Stoker, the name Transylvania conjures up images of dark castles and vampires, at least in the minds of Britons and Americans. But when Transylvania University was founded, the novel Dracula was more than a century in the future. For Virginians, it just meant the land to the west of the great forest.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Off to Hanover

Kathleen and I will be driving down to Hanover, Indiana with our son Jim for the orientation program at Hanover College. The campus overlooks the Ohio River and is said to be one of the most beautiful campuses in the country. The picture, uploaded from WikiMedia, is of Parker Audiorium. We'll be back Saturday night. Beginning this fall, Jim will be a Hanoverian, though not of the Georges of England variety.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

John Ruskin, John Millais, and the Ideal of Womanhood

A lot of us men idealize women, especially the women we love. I'm guilty. Unfortunately, when the woman falls short of our ideal, which inevitably happens, things can go very wrong. In most cases, we come to realize that our beloved is just as human as we are, and we go on to love her with all her imperfections. Yet sometimes the idealization can go too far. Take the famous case of the critic John Ruskin and Euphemia "Effie" Gray (the model in the painting at left, Peace Concluded, by John Millais). Ruskin had fallen in love with Gray when she was very young, and had written the fantasy novel, The King of the Golden River, for her when she was twelve. They married when she was 18. According to Gray, he was an oppressive husband. That wasn't unusual. What was unusual was that Gray was still a virgin five years after her marriage.
Ruskin had championed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists and had taken a special interest in the painter John Everett Millais. Effie Gray had posed for a Millais' painting, Order of Release (right). Millais then accompanied the Ruskins on a trip to Scotland, where he fell in love with Effie. She had her marriage to Ruskin annulled on grounds of non-consummation and subsequently married Millais.

Why had Ruskin refused to make love to his wife? In a letter to her father, Effie wrote, "He alleged various reasons, hatred to children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and, finally this last year he told me his true reason... that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April." And Ruskin confirmed it in a statement to his lawyer during the annulment proceedings: "It may be thought strange that I could abstain from a woman who to most people was so attractive. But though her face was beautiful, her person was not formed to excite passion. On the contrary, there were certain circumstances in her person which completely checked it."

What was it about this beautiful woman that so repelled Ruskin? Mary Luytens, in a biography of Ruskin, suggested it was pubic hair--he expected her to look like a classical Greek statue underneath her clothes. Other historians have suggested menstrual blood or body odor. We shall never know, but I think Luytens' theory makes the most sense.

Millais seems to have had no problem with Effie's body; they had eight children together.

And there's one more bizarre note to this story: Millais painted this portrait of Ruskin while he was in love with Effie: there must have been an incredible strain between the two men, but they stoically finished the portrait.
The story of Ruskin, Gray, and Millais has inspired a number of stories, plays, films, and even an opera. Check out Wikipedia for the particulars.
Although it's very much a Victorian tale, it's a reminder to those of us who idealize the beloved in body, mind, or personality. These beautiful beings are just as human as we are. (Peace Concluded and Order of Release uploaded from WikiMedia; Ruskin's portrait uploaded from Victorian Web.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Folk Etymology: Gringos and Long Knives

I recently checked out a tape called "Spanish for Gringos." On the cover of the the accompanying workbook was the following:

gringo n, pl gringos [Sp, alternate of griego Greek, stranger, fr Latin Graecus, Greek] (1849); a foreigner in Spain or Latin America, esp. when person is of English or American origin....
(Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary)

I'm pretty sure the dictionary is right about the word's etymology. But I had learned a more colorful story: that Mexican-American vaqueros came into contact with Irish-American cowboys after the United States acquired first Texas, and then New Mexico and California. The Irish cowboys were constantly singing the song, "Green Grow the Lilacs." The first two words of the song were slurred into gringo.

What I had learned was folk etymology--what Wikipedia calls "A commonly held misunderstanding of the origin of a particular word, a false etymology." Folk etymologies are usually more interesting than the actual word origin. Sometimes folk etymologies can unfairly cast a bad light on some perfectly innocent words, such as picnic, or phrases such as rule of thumb. But for the most part, folk etymologies can be a lot of fun.

One folk etymology (and who knows, maybe it's true), is the story of how American Indians came to call white Americans "Big Knives," or "Long Knives." The term was first applied to Virginians, then to all white Americans. Here's the story: Francis Howard, Fifth Baron Howard of Effingham, and royal governor of Virginia (served 1683-1692) traveled up to New York Colony to treat with the Iroquois tribe. He had brought with him a translator of Dutch origin. In the course of the treaty making, one of the Iroquois wanted to know the meaning of the name Howard. The Dutch translator, thinking of a Dutch word meaning "hanger" (I'm doing this from memory, so I don't remember the exact word), translated it as "big knife." Thus Virginians, and later all white Americans, became Big Knives, or Long Knives.

Most likely, the term came from the swords the Virginians carried. But the mistranslation story is a lot more fun.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

White Ducks: Jim's Senior Speech

I've had a week off so I could attend my son's graduation from Elkhart Memorial High School. He was chosen to give the senior speech at commencement, so I'm including exerpts from it. I've taken out some of the local and school-specific comments, but gist of the speech is here. A couple of things: Memorial's team is the Crimson Chargers. And Philoctetes was one of the Greeks who sacked Troy; specifically, he slew Paris, the guy who carried off Helen and started the whole sorry business. Photo uploaded from He did a wonderful job with the speech, in spite of some rather bad acoustics. Here it is:

The thing is that even though I've lived here all my life, a whole 18 years, I have never seen a white duck.Yes, I have been to zoos, public parks--even Wisconsin--and I have yet to see one single colorless snow glazed feather. That bugs me. I've heard people whine about the failings of their life, never doing this or that, never having kissed her, found time for him, gotten that job, gone bungee jumping, and through all their griping I can't help but think that I haven't even seen a white duck. I think I'm down on points here. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, "The Future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams." It turns out that's our commencement topic by the way. And you're probably wondering what that quote has to do at all with ducks. White. Fluffy. Ducks. My Dream is to see this duck. It may be odd, it may be silly, but I believe in this dream. And I really want to see that duck! Obviously, and for the reassurance of my parents, since they're probably crossing their fingers up there about now, I have more life goals then that! I have college in a few months--hopefully I'll pull out a degree in something palpable, and later on a career and family. Those are pretty broad dreams, nearly universal, and something I probably share with most of you here graduating today.

What makes wanting to see that little duck special is the infinitesimal smallness of it. It's like the first stepping stone in a pond, and I intend to dream my way across one stone at a time. I believe in this dream...

Okay, Do you remember when you were five, and you wanted to be not a firefighter, a cosmetologist, a lawyer, or a doctor, but a Jedi? (beat)This seemed to me the perfect career choice for me, a way to browbeat my way to the future and a perfectly reasonable career choice to expend my life on.I didn't limit myself to that career choice though, I also considered being a cowboy, pirate, free range chicken, and Godzilla. However, I have yet to achieve any of these lofty childhood goals. These wishes consumed me, burning my insides like a ghostflame, and brought forth the sustenance for my daily trials...

But now that we can separate fact from fiction, our dreams are not so far-fetched, and we can attain them if we can dig up that cinder we have inside us, believe in it, and nurse it into a fire. Not so we can spit-roast that white duck when I find it, but to give ourselves those devastating dreams powerful enough to burn harder then mere crimson whisps, and charge forward to light the lives ahead of us. These dreams can give us the future sight, to aspire to the best in everything we do. Though we can all still feel like Jedi when we go through those automatic doors at Kroger's. We are consigned to dream the best we can.

And we have--in four years we've had so many dreams, and we've worked for them. In four years we've had a plethora of sports teams go to State, and Steve Stahl conquered that [state wrestling] title like Philoctetes over Troy. We've had some of the best artists in the country.

We've dreamed big. And we've dreamed small.
We've dreamed of not having those silly tardy lockouts.
We've dreamed of chasing those geese off the lawn.
We've dreamed of long nights out, and we've dreamed of senioritis.

We've lived life to the fullest, just like every pop song has ever told us to. And now high school is done. But there are so many more dreams we have to live, so let's keep sleeping in, so years from now we can say we lived in our dreams. So don't forget that burning wish, that yearning wish. It is no death wish, no out of scale dream; it is merely an ember that if we foster, can light a fire for the rest of our lives.

Jim will be going to Hanover College in Hanover, Indiana this fall. He's majoring in English/Creative Writing.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

"I am half sick of shadows"

Before we were married, Kathleen gave me a book on the Pre-Raphaelites. At the time I had never heard of them. She instinctively knew I'd like them, and I did. The Pre-Rapahaelite Brotherhood was a school of artists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century which held that the painter Raphael had corrupted painting through his use of classical poses. The Brotherhhod particularly rejected the Mannerist school of painting as mechanistic. Whatever their philosophy, the pre-Rapahelites gave us incredible detail and brilliant use of color. Their themes could be overly sentimental, but their best work shows emphasizes the beauty of nature and the human form. And just sometimes they give us a glimpse into the soul.

One favorite theme of the Pre-Raphelites was the Arthurian cycle of legend, and its many interpretations. Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem, "The Lady of Shalott," loosely based on the Arthurian legend of Elaine of Astolat, was the subject of several pre-Raphaelite paintings, including three by John William Waterhouse. The poem tells of a woman who is confined to a tower, and is cursed to weave a magic web without looking at the world. When Sir Lancelot passes by her tower, she is so enamored of him that she abandons her loom and sets off in a boat to pursue the knight. Because of the curse, she dies before reaching Camelot.

"'I am Half Sick of Shadows,' said the "Lady of Shalott," pictured above, illustrates the following stanza:

But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights,
For often thro' the silent nights
A funeral, with plumes and lights
And music, went to Camelot:
Or when the moon was overhead,
Came two young lovers lately wed:
"I am half sick of shadows," said
The Lady of Shalott.

The painting now hangs in the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. A larger copy of the painting can be found here. And yes, I fell in love with the woman at the loom the first time I saw the painting. Kathleen doesn't have a lot to worry about. For one thing, the woman's hair and figure are very much like Kathleen's And for another, the painting is from 1916, and the model for the picture has surely passed on.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Bring Back the Zonkers!

I was prowling the library shelves for books about the 1960s and came across one simply called 60s! by John and Gordon Gavna (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983). I opened it randomly and saw Screaming Yellow Zonkers! (The exclamation point is part of the product name.) The snack was inspired by the Beatles' animated movie Yellow Submarine. I mentioned Zonkers! to my wife and asked her if she remembered them, and she said, "Screaming Yellow Zonkers! Mmm."

Unlike a lot of 1960s snack food creations, Zonkers! actually tasted good. They were a glazed-popcorn treat much like Poppycock and Fiddle-Faddle. But the combination of the glaze and the creative name made Screaming Yellow Zonkers! a hit for Lincoln Snacks, a Lincoln, Nebraska based company. I hadn't seen the snack in a long time and assumed it had died with the Sixties. Not so, I learned from Wikipedia. They were available until 2007, when ConAgra purchased Lincoln Snacks and immediately discontinued the line.

ConAgra needs to rethink its decision. I suspect that Zonkers! lost popularity mainly because they weren't promoted. A creative ad campaign--Zonkers! were always about creativity--could make this product a hit with a new generation, along with the millions of Baby Boomers who already love them. What about it, ConAgra?