Sunday, May 24, 2009

Riverside and Hills, Iowa--Switched at Birth?

I finally got to see the Star Trek Movie. I highly recommend it. But as someone who grew up in Iowa, I have to protest its depiction of the Hawkeye State. Iowa is not flat. Central California is flat--at least the part of California used for the Iowa parts of the movie. Apparently there were mountains in Iowa in one of the movie trailers. They seem to have been digitally removed in the final cut. The gaping chasm that the young James T. Kirk nearly falls into is wrong for Iowa as well. Both the mountains and the chasm could be explained by, say, the New Madrid Fault's Big One. But not the flatness.

The real Riverside, Iowa, declared the future birthplace of James T. Kirk, appears to be an oxymoron. There's no riverside. The English River flows nearby, but not in town. It's in a very hilly area. Just down the road, on the banks of the Iowa River, is the town of Hills. Not many hills. I suspect the railroad engineers (not the ones who drove the trains, but those who plotted out the route) switched the names on the map by mistake. The rail line now runs only from Iowa City to Hills, but had once gone through Riverside as far west as Montezuma, Iowa. I have no documentation for it, but it seems the most likely reason that Riverside has no river and Hills has no hills.

Star Trek shows James T. Kirk born not in Riverside, but in space. But then the movie seems to be following the lead of Alfred Bester, whose 1958 short story, "The Men Who Murdered Mohammed," suggested that while it's possible to go back in time to change history, the change would be in an alternate reality. Perhaps that can also explain why Riverside, Iowa looks like central California.
The painting above is Grant Wood's "Stone City, Iowa," 1930 (Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska)

Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Chance Meeting in Rome

It was early March, 1983, and Kathleen and I were in Rome. I was working for CIT Tours then, as Rail Coordinator for the Midwest office. CIT (Compagnia Italiana Turismo) was the official agent for the Italian State Railways, and I was on a familiarization trip. I had been allowed to bring Kathleen along, and to arrive a week ahead of time so we could do some exploring on our own.

We were in a little trattoria one night. The place was fairly busy, and a well-dressed man, who looked to be South Asian, asked if he could sit with us. We said yes, and we introduced ourselves. I don't remember his name, but he was an official at the Sri Lankan embassy. He was surprised that we, as Americans, even knew where Sri Lanka was, and that it was formerly known as Ceylon.

He was intensely proud of his country. Sri Lanka, he said, had the highest literacy rate in South Asia. Sri Lankans enjoyed a higher standard of living than Indians. It was literally the sacred island: "Sri" is a Sanskrit title meaning sacred, and "Lanka" is Sanskrit for island.

We may have talked only for half an hour or so, but all three of us enjoyed the conversation. It sounded like a wonderful country. And perhaps it was. But while Sri Lankans were more educated and prosperous than their other South Asian neighbors, they still harbored the ethnic prejudices that would tear that beautiful, sacred island apart.

Only a few months after our conversation with the Sri Lankan diplomat, the civil war began between the majority Sinhalese speakers and the Tamil speakers, who lived mainly in the north and east. After more than a quarter century the war is over, with the total defeat of the Tamil Tiger rebels. Hundreds of thousands of Tamil speakers remain in refugee camps. The nation is in desperate need of help in a time of worldwide recession.

We can only hope and pray that Sri Lanka will become what our friend in Rome proclaimed it to be.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

R.I.P. Compaq Elite 4/50CX

In the spring of 2000 I was writing a column for the Elkhart Truth: a monthly, and sometimes biweekly column focusing on local history. I was working at the Amtrak call center in Chicago at the time, and commuting four days a week on the South Shore Railroad from Michigan City. I'd drive from Elkhart to Michigan City, sleep on the train in the early morning, and work on my columns on the return trip. I needed a laptop. I found a used Compaq LTE Elite 4/50CX at a Jackson Hewitt tax office in South Bend. For the next three years it became part of my life. At the end of 2001 I was asked to do "The Way We Were," a compilation of stories from 25, 50, 75, and 100 years ago. I'd scour the South Shore train for a seat by an outlet, plug in, and copy bits of stories from the photocopies I had made the previous weekend. I'd put the text on a floppy, download it into my PC, and e-mail everything to the paper.

In late 2003, when the Chicago call center closed, I went to Philadelphia, and the laptop went with me. I wrote out a two articles I sold to Classic Trains, for which I was paid, but which the magazine never ran, and one for Remember the Rock, which was published, but did not pay anything. Since I've come back to the Midwest, I haven't had reason to use it, except when going to Chicago for Amtrak block training. I brought it with me this spring, and worked on Things Done and left Undone along with a new post for the blog. But I couldn't transfer it to the floppy. After buying new floppy disks, it was clear that the problem was the disk drive and not the disks.

It would cost too much, I'm sure, to repair the drive in my laptop. And pretty soon, the Windows 95 program won't be compatible with anything. So the old laptop will go into storage. It served me well.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

I've Been Possessed: The Trackside Professor Discusses Possessives

Kellie Davis, better known in the blogosphere as Tea N. Crumpet, asked me to do a post on possessives. Kellie writes for the Anchorage Family Examiner as a Family and Parenting correspondent. Recently she posted a column by one of her colleagues at the Examiner on her Facebook page. I responded, "The author is essentially right, though she needs to learn how to use punctuation, especially with regard to possessives." (Actually, after rereading the article, I'm not sure she is right, but that's another story.) Her problem was that she left out the apostrophes in most of her possessive nouns. (Ex: "Know your kids friends.")

I got the following response: "Can you do a post on this? I need to learn about possessives'. (I did that apostrophe on purpose, Professor!)"

After arming myself with Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, by Lynne Truss, and The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E. B. White, 2005 edition, I should be able to write this without any serious errors. But if not, any errors are mine.

Possessives in English are, for the most part, straightforward, at least for most singular nouns. No learning intricate rules for noun declensions. Just put an apostrophe and an "s" after a singular noun, and you've made it possessive. Stephen's blog, Kellie's column, Alaska's governor, the philosopher's stone. But English has exceptions--lots of exceptions--that confuse a lot of people.

The rule works fine until you get a singular word ending in a sibilant. And most of the time it still applies: Kellie Davis's blog, Charles Dickens's novels, the octopus's garden, the moose's antlers. But if you get too many sibilants, the rules of style call for an apostrophe at the end of the word: Massachusettts' governor, or for convenience' sake. Jesus and Moses usually merited exceptions: Jesus' parables; Moses' laws. But I've seen Jesus's a lot lately. And if you get a word ending with a silent "s" (usually a French borrowing), put the apostrophe at the end: Illinois' ex-governor, Des Moines' museums, Arkansas' Huckabee. That way you just say the one "s," and don't say anything barbarous, like Illinoise's. As for the Illinois city of Des Plaines, where they pronounce the final esses, I'd hold with the final apostrophe. Strunk and White suggest another way of dealing with too many sibilants: say "temple of Isis" instead of Isis' temple.

And then there are plurals. Thanks to William the Conqueror, better known to his contemporaries as William the Bastard, and not just for his parentage, English acquired a lot of French grammar and vocabulary. On top of the Germanic "s" for possessives, we also have the French "s" for plurals. What to do? For regular plurals ending in "s," just put the apostrophe at the end of the word: the Davises' house, the Wylders' folly, the dogs' breakfasts, etc. Irregular plurals not ending in "s" go back to the rule for singular nouns: men's room green and women's room pink.

With compound nouns, you apply the apostrophe and "s" to the last word: My son-in-law's Facebook page says he's Lt. Worf. I'm not sure about plurals, here: sons-in law, attorneys general. I'd avoid the possessive case and use a preposition: the meeting of the attorneys general.

If you need to show joint possession, the apostrophe goes with the last in the series: Steve and Kathleen's house, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice's bed, etc.

But it's the pronouns and determiners--especially "its"--that give English speakers the most problems. Our case system, unlike those of Latin, German, or the Slavic languages, is based on word order, prepositions, and, in the possessive, or genitive case, the letter "s" and an apostrophe. No tedious noun or article declensions. Except for pronouns and determiners. Lynne Truss conveniently provides a list of possessive pronouns and determiners:

Possessive Pronouns: mine, yours, his, hers, its, ours, yours, theirs.

Possessive Determiners: my, your, his, her, its, our, your, their.

They're part of our Anglo-Saxon heritage, and they don't take an apostrophe. It's just that the word "it's," a contraction of "it is" or "it has," is pronounced the same, and has an apostrophe, though it's serving an entirely different purpose: to mark it as a contraction at the point where we've removed the letters. (Very traditional writers describe October 31st as "Hallowe'en" to remind us that it's All Hallows' Even.) Example: Even though the tree has lost its leaves, Kathleen knows it's a hackberry from its bark.

I wish there were a mnemonic for this, such as the one my generation learned for the order of planets: My very educated mother just served us nine pickles. (Doesn't work now, because Pluto's been stricken from the list of planets.) But I can't find one for its and it's. Once more:

"It's" is a contraction of "it is" or "it has." "Its" is the possessive.

I've noticed some confusion along the same lines between "your" (possessive) and "you're" (contraction of "you are.") and between "their" (possessive) and "they're (contraction of "they are.").


You're never going to finish your novel if you keep wasting time on Facebook.

They're painting the passports brown. People with brown passports should apply for their visas at 1313 Desolation Row, just off Highway 61.

One more thing: Purdue University has a wonderful site on writing called the OWL. Check it out here. The page on apostrophes is here.

There you go, Kellie. Sorry so many of my examples date back to the 1960s (note: no apostrophe there-it's plural, not possessive). It's because I date back to the '60s (apostrophe there because I've left out the "19"). Now it's back to trackside.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Jennifer, Guinivere, Juniper, Ginevra

My daughter Anne sent me this YouTube link featuring Helen Mary, aka "Jenny" Boyd. I love the song, even though the lyrics are a bit sappy. Helen Mary, called Jenny by her older sister Pattie, the model, photographer, and ex-wife of George Harrison and Eric Clapton, inspired the song. Jenny was also a model in her own right, as the video above shows. It also reminded me of how much I disliked the Carnaby Street look, with the op-art dresses and overdone eye shadow. But I digress.
Donovan fell for Jenny during the 1968 trip to India with the Beatles. But like another famous Scottish poet, William Douglas, who wrote Annie Laurie, Donovan did not win his beloved. Jenny Boyd married Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood in 1970, divorced him, married and divorced him once again, before marrying antother drummer, Ian Wallace, formerly of King Crimson. She received a Ph.D in psychology from UCLA and co-authored a book on musicians and psychology called Musicians in Tune. (Thanks to Wikipedia for the above.)
But Wikipedia was wrong in its article about the song, "Jennifer Juniper," to wit: "The names "Jennifer" and "Juniper" are etymologically the same." But they clearly aren't--in fact, the Wikipedia articles about the names tell a different story.
"Jennifer" is Cornish in origin, and is related to the Old Welsh Gwenhwyfar (gwen: white, fair + hwyfar: smooth, soft). It's a cognate of Guinivere, the French form of the name. The name wasn't popular outside Cornwall until 1906, when George Bernard Shaw used the name for a character in his play, The Doctor's Dilemma:

RIDGEON. Thats a wonderful drawing. Why is it called Jennifer?
MRS DUBEDAT. My name is Jennifer.
RIDGEON. A strange name.
MRS DUBEDAT. Not in Cornwall. I am Cornish. It's only what you call Guinevere.

It became extremely popular as a girls' name after Donovan's song came out, and even more so when the heroine of the book and movie Love Story was named Jennifer.

Juniper, on the other hand, comes from the Latin juniperus, from junio, (young) and parere (to produce), literally "youth producing," but meaning evergreen. Wikipedia mentions an Anglo-Saxon name, Jenefer, that derives from juniperus, put it's clear that the name Jennifer is from the Cornish.
Donovan wasn't the first to use the juniper tree in conjunction with a similar-sounding woman's name. Leonardo da Vinci's painting of Ginevra de' Benci (circa 1476), uses the juniper tree as a background. "Ginevra" is Italian for juniper. The painting now hangs in the National Gallery of
Art in Washington, D.C.

Helen Mary Boyd acquired the nickname "Jenny" because her of her sister Pattie's doll, also called Jenny. So what became the most popular girls' name during the 1970s earned its popularity in part because of a toy.