Thursday, February 11, 2016


Usen Castle Tower B-Phil Lacombe/flickr
Usen Castle, the oldest dormitory on the Brandeis University campus, has been in a state of disrepair for many years. Now most of the structure is to be razed. The castle, which predates the founding of Brandeis in 1948, was added to the National Register of Historic Places on April 9, 1979.   Photo credit: Phil LaCombe/flickr.

Every household has some ground rules.  One of them is Thou Shalt Not Read Thy Beloved's Diary, ever.  Not a smart idea.  Journal-snoopers risk being cornered in the eighth circle of Hell with a tray of rotting food and irritatingly improper use of the preposition around.  If you have an itch to invade private territory, may I suggest you turn to published journals and letters.

These days, I'm liking letters that were written by either Charles Darwin or John Muir (aside: consider his dog story in light of the Fool Card—not this one, the one farther down).

You may want to settle in with a brownie, because (fair warning) this is a Rosenbaum-esque entry; and, truth be told, it is meant to be my last.  The sands of time are calling.

To you, surfing page-viewers of this lit-up stuff: Thank you for stopping by and possibly seeking meaning-making.   To Mr. NB of Maine: Thank you for your time years ago and for the statistics book I still hope to use for the someday (some day?) data-mining y study. 

Now on to Muir.  Some students this semester are learning about him in a history class about the National Park Service taught by public historian Andy Gulliford at Colorado's [still] liberal arts college, Fort Lewis. (Full disclosure: I taught at Fort Lewis this past semester, in the English Department.)

advanced madolin chords
Advanced mandolin chords, via (via Yahoo)

What is so appealing about Muir's and Darwin's letters is their vitality, Muir's especially (a bit of Morris dancing in there, almost). The beauties of his prose bring to mind a book I've just begun re-reading: The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home.  The book is about providing a language-focused education that, among other things, grounds children in memorization, organization, and expression at specific intervals.

As somebody lucky to have been born in the era before parents began over-exposing themselves and their children to the importance-conferring-conditioning toy tool known as the Inter-Nets, I spent much of my childhood reading books made of paper.

During my teen years, my favorite part of any book was the dedication page. I would stand in a shop or library, sometimes for hours, reading the dedications.  To my eyes, each short message transformed an entire book into a long letter of sorts, and for years it seemed to me that the best reason, really, for writing a book—possibly the only reason—would be so that it could be dedicated to somebody. Arranging a dedication page, I felt at the time, must be a very intimate act.  To plainly announce one's heart for people to see at a glance.

The Well-Trained Mind does not take up such matter.  The authors explain the value of their educational approach: "Language requires the mind to work harder; in reading, the brain is forced to translate a symbol (words on the page) into a concept. Images, such as those on videos and television, allow the mind to be passive. In front of a video screen, the brain can "sit back" and relax; faced with the written page, the mind is required to roll its sleeves up and get to work" (page 44). 

Many people are indeed wondering what is driving the world's eyeballs, brains, and hands to seek out electronically lit screens.  Consider what is being lost alongside the gains.  For example, people who can actually hold letters in their hands can notice details that cannot be detected by eye alone using a remote screen. Scanned documents can never tell of all the markings, the erasures, the fineness of the watermarks, or the pages stuck together by mistake, or the thickness of the papers, and so forth.

Who account$ for the survival of . . .  a medium ? Of a language? Of a variant spelling?

Maybe it's a matter of Use It Or Lose It.

After Figure 1, The formation of vegetable mould, by Charles Darwin. Credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library/University of Toronto

Today's word is selected from a letter written by Charles Darwin (Letter No. 274 on the Darwin Correspondence Project website).  It is dated "April 18th.—1835—."
The Sandstone consists of many layers & is marked by the concentric lines of the bark (I have specimens) f5  11 are perfectly silicified, & resemble the dicotyledonous wood which I have found at Chiloe & Concepciòn: the others 30--40 I only know to be trees from the analogy of form & position; they consist of snow white columns Like Lots wife of coarsely crystall.
Why an adverb, if indeed it rated as an adverb in 1835, would be placed before a noun is a mystery to me.  Language historians could probably explain this.  My uneducated guess is that it may be because adjectives of the day could yet display the -ly suffix before -ly became staunchly adverbial.

Any information junkie would love Muir's or Darwin's letters, with their clarity, their linguistic ecologies, their wiredrawn strengths.   Letters like these would make excellent training grounds.

As we know, there will not be mailed letters much longer.  Supposedly this is in the service of "global" connectivity and convenience, though for whom I do not know.  Certainly it is convenient for the companies that run the new electrified message-ways but for connecting humanity to the party line that features markings on tactile materials, it it quite inconvenient—or worse.  How often do people consider that various nations came into existence by virtue of the tools and conditions of Old Literacy.  To break with printed matter and the words imprinted there—could that be a little like breaking into a new kind of law (or lawless-ness?) altogether?  Benjamin Franklin (much quoted by the media scholar James Carey) said that America is a republic if we can keep it.  Hmm.

The most meaningful letters I own are letters on tape (not this tape, though I couldn't help hotlinking it).  They are like listening to music. What is startling is to hear the speaker's voice in real life, after years of hearing it on tape.  The letters I like so much, they re-mind me both of the person the speaker was (he had the cutest darkroom), and, equally, of the person I was in his presence (a librarian who could take off her glasses).

At the time of the tapes I was going by two names, a childhood nickname and my given game.  With this letter-speaker, in his presence, I was my given name on the outside and my nickname on the inside.  I experienced this as a profound sense of acceptance and integration.

If you have any old audiotape letters of your own, try taking them for a spin.  See what it's like to listen somebody who is speaking for your ears only.  See if it sounds like music (and if there is music in the background).  See if the vocabulary and phrasing, the cadence and rhythm, sound like they belong to the voice of a distinctive individual, as opposed to, say, an echoer or a parroter.

I cannot help but think again of Edward Abbey.

In "How It Was," he writes:
. . . Most of the formerly primitive road from Blanding west has been improved beyond recognition.  All of this, the engineers and politicians and bankers will tell you, makes the region easily accessible to everyone, no matter how fat, feeble or flaccid.  That is a lie.

It is a lie.  For those who go there now, smooth, comfortable, quick and easy, sliding through as slick as grease, will never be able to see what we saw.  They will never feel what we felt. They will never know what we knew, or understand what we cannot forget.
The repetition and the paragraph break . . . sigh. 

If somebody were to ask Who are the John Muirs of today? the Edward Abbeys of today? the real answer, even if supplied, would have to be: There are no more of them.  Muir and Abbey were of their time and geographies, places, and the media they were raised upon was primarily printed matter.  Theirs were well-trained minds.  The generation in front of mine is, to my ears, the last one worth listening to very hard.  In my generation, things begin to deteriorate, language-wise.  That "things" appears the way it does in the previous sentence is proof of this. Precision is an extinct habitat.

After all, languages die off with the communications conditions that support their speakers and their writers.  It seems increasingly difficult to come across English speakers, for example, who have enormous vocabularies or who have an intense relationship with words.

Beyond this, how many people do you know who can speak or listen or write for lengthy periods of time (and without interrupting the other speaker)? What of handwriting? Cursive, that wonderful left brain–right brain linking activity, is being tossed out, blindly, in favor of keyboard strokes.  People take photographs instead of copying down words.

My question to most people who are not interested in the benefits of handwriting or who knee-jerkily want to Google (v.) information instead of reaching for, say, a phone book, is Are you sure about this? Are you in permanent love with an . . . indexing algorithm?  And if your hand-held device disappeared tomorrow how many phone numbers would you be able to recall?

Darwin's birthday is tomorrow, February twelfth.

This week also marks another man's birthday.  I believe it was yesterday, the tenth.  He was an editor who spoke on telephones.  His voice was timeless.  In New York especially there are many people who mourn his absence and continue to celebrate his life.

Beginner's Mind. (Based upon the Fool card in a Rider-Waite Tarot deck)

In her one-woman show Blown Sideways Through Life, Claudia Shear, after relating the hypothetical wilderness expedition team–selection anecdote in which the group leader selects her for his team solely on the basis of her sense of humor (in a rough situation, humor is deemed more important than skill), the writer-actor delivers this short speech:
There are very few moments in life where someone shows you a portrait of yourself: clean, clear, and totally unexpected.  Never mind the sword pulling from the stone.  This is the adventure.  If for a moment, you see someone differently, their portrait changes. It comes to life. The eyes follow you.  They see you.
To Claudia's idea I add: If you see someone differently, it's likely you will want to dance to them.  (By the way, at the risk of sounding like Chris in the morning, it's worth keeping in mind that the Romantic poets would say If you can give a reason for an attachment, then it is no longer a preference.)

The actor John Corbett howling as Chris Stevens in the 1990s hit TV series Northern Exposure. Tilt your head to the right to see how his lips are shaped like a heart.  

Northern Exposure, if you haven't viewed it lately, was one of the more creative shows of its time.  I'm making my way through the entire series.  So far its early episodes show off its excellent writers, excellent editorial judgment, a baseline sweetness, and no punches pulled.  Rude, sensitive, sparky.  The characters of Cicely, Alaska, demonstrate the kinds of behaviors and mindsets that populate a true come-as-you-are kind of town—and surveillance free!

Northern Exposure also supports an idea offered in a book about the sculptor Gonzalo Fonseca: "To become universal, cosmopolitan, one needs to be more a resident and less a patriot." The idea of residency is worth discussing, especially for a writer (since writing allows for transpersonal experience).  Residency has a nice local ring to it.  My withdrawl from this blog might just change my idea of residency in the state of Colorado.

I'll continue to hear and see words with a terminal y, and will want to put them into this blog.  Today in the Delaney Library at the Center of Southwest Studies, I did pass limy and hummocky, for example, but the mystery of coarsely should do just fine.

Once upon a time, there was an editor and a writer, maybe.  Maybe not, but true readers both they were; or so some had wished, or imagined.

The swimming pool at Phantom Ranch in the Grand Cañon, with water from Bright Angel Creek. From a souvenir booklet "published exclusively for Fred Harvey."

Alvy Singer
Y-you look like a very happy couple. Um, are you?

Female street stranger

Alvy Singer
Yeah? So, so, h-how do you account for it?

Female street stranger
Uh, I'm very shallow and empty, and I have no ideas and nothing interesting to say.

Male street stranger
And I'm exactly the same way.

Alvy Singer
I see. Wow. That's very interesting. So you've managed to work out something, huh?

Male street stranger

Alvy Singer
Oh. Well, thanks very much for talking to me.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016


These days, a road trip requires several books to satisfy several moods. In Gunnison, with a towel stopping up the wind under the door, I took in some of The Elements of Grammar (steadying, rational, soporific) before bypassing Edward Abbey's journals and settling upon Mooomintroll and his clan in my edition titled The Happy Moomins, copyright 1952 by The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 52-5817.

The bookmark for this book is a July 9, 2001, obituary excised from page 6 of Section B of ye olde hometown paper, The New York Times.  A photograph shows Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson (who wrote in Swedish) surrounded by stuffed Moomin dolls.  Jansson is holding Moominmamma, and Moominmamma is holding—what else?—her handbag.

The third paragraph of the Times article describes the Moomins as "tubby, torpid, lazy and fond of sleep."  I would describe them firstly as gentle and lightly eccentric.

Alison Lurie's 1992 New York Review of Books piece about Jansson tells that the creatures live "in a remote and peaceful rural world."

Rotundity is a word that comes to my mind when thinking about the Moomins.  Theirs is a world of soft landings, gentlefolkitude, light hearts.

The cloth stamping underneath the dust jacket

In Chapter III of the book, the Moomin group is stranded on an island due to "the great thunderstorm." They each go exploring.  Sniff, one of Moomintroll's friends, hauls in some treasure but wants to make a deal for something Moomintroll finds:  He says . . . "Listen!  What do you say to a swap?  The raffia mat, the dipper and the shoe for that old buoy?"

"Never in your life!" said Moomintroll.  "But perhaps the life belt for this rarey object that must have drifted here from a distant land."

And held up a glass ball and shook it.  Then up whirled a mass of snowflakes inside, settling gradually to rest on a little house with windows of silver paper.

Charming conversation about the snow globe follows (the reader noticing how satisfying it must be for a small Moomin to control a snow storm in one's hand, and so soon after its cousin, a rain storm, has unloosed such furious power upon the entire family), and then:

. . . "Dear Moomintroll, couldn't we share the little snowstorm?"

"Hm," said Moomintroll.

"Couldn't I just hold it sometimes?" begged Sniff.  "On Sundays?"

Moomintroll thought for a bit, and then he said, "Well, all right!  You can have it on Sundays and Wednesdays."

Perfect for snowstorm reading. (For my part, I don't mind snow days.)

Rarey enough

Saturday, December 5, 2015


Says the voice of Edward Abbey playing on a compact disk yesterday evening:  Perhaps the severest test of a marriage is to assign a man and a woman to a fire lookout.  

It's an interesting enough idea, two people, alone and together, day in, day out, accepting and welcoming of each other, a nation of two.

The writer tells about living alone in a 60-foot fire lookout tower deep in a forest on the remote North Rim of the Grand Canyon,* far from "the traveling American public."

It would seem unlikely that the eminently permissive Ed Abbey would find any snuggle-worthy warm body in the vicinity of his lookout-keeper's cabin; but, improbably enough, the unreasonable universe brought the self-proclaimed sexual pervert an educated, high-spirited woman with a sense of humor.  His Bonnie H. was a park ranger who made sweet summers together with him before "the deepest grief of [his] life" set in.  Abbey and his nervous system fell in love with her.

Who knows what Bonnie H. actually kept of Ed Abbey in her own heart-mind after moving back to her home state of California, far from the wood smoke and the calls of the hermit thrush.**  Abbey writes that she married a man with all the fixings, a man who was "not a fire lookout, not by a long shot."  Stating this, his voice sounds perhaps a note of contempt and stubbornness.  

A "fingernail moon"
Writer-persons, go the wisdom, can be difficult candidates for intimate pair bonding.  The North Rim lookout and its keeper (or "operator"), I'd like to imagine, did not make the necessary impression upon Bonnie at that moment in time.  If she had then possessed a greater amount of Inner Ed, she may have carried his Utopian heart with her for a while longer, and possibly until her or his expiration somewhere in the canyon country. Bonnie may have not been ripe for that attachment.

It would have to be a story on a different CD set which tells the tale of a different Bonnie—call her Bonnie the Second—whose sea change begins while she mentally replays her years as a young city girl afraid of fires and spending many childhood night minutes arranging her bathroom and slippers (to facilitate escape).  

The different story would tell of Bonnie's many-years endurance of her gross error in lifetime judgment and her awakening.  It would tell of how she loves her own version of Ed Abbey—his name is James Walsh—and then sets out to find him again years later, believing that it is her fate to stake her claim to him. By this time Walsh is married with children.

Bonnie is unswerving.  For an unreasonable number of years, she played her California role impeccably, all the while knowingly and unknowingly carrying (eecummingsly) James deep in her under-mind and mind-heart.  Then she realized that she was stubborn as a Utopian writer-person, after all.

Driving along Highway 145 and listening to KSUT announcers deliver the blood-soaked news in soothing professional tones, Bonnie thinks about how she married the man with all the fixings because he and his family supported her false selves; in his presence she felt secure.  She was secure; he had money.  He was practical and she was not.  However, she rarely felt alive; mostly she was dying a life, day by day. Driving in the car, she wishes James were in the front seat with her to discuss the so-called news. 

Is it worth it to feel alive once again? she wonders. Travelling solo in all senses of the word, she feels vulnerable and threatened, but it's not an entirely unwelcome feeling.  [Cliché Alert] The heart wants what it wants. 

There came a moment in California when there was simply no where else to go.  Getting a purchase on reality meant acknowledging that there were only two nations remaining in the world:  where James Walsh lived and everywhere else.  She needed to be next to him, to talk with him.  She packed her belongings and left.

When Bonnie locates Walsh in a volunteer fire department in the West, a thousand fears bloom anew.  She feels as if the traveling American public can see, at a clicking glance, thoughts broadcast on the screen of her forehead, about how her husband made her feel secure and how James Walsh made her feel capable, adequate, and her Best Self.


She is also irrationally afraid that a bear or a mountain lion will eat her before she can speak alone with James.

Yes, her quest is foolhardy; but hey: so is storming a castle gate guarded by sixty men.  Movie logic wins the day.

Walsh does not know Bonnie is trying to make contact with him, but seemingly everybody else does. His wife, their children, his wife's family, his fellow fire fighters, the small-town neighbors intercept Bonnie's letters and phone calls. To them Bonnie is a city strumpet, a growth maniac, cold to the bone, and much too pretty. She also seems far too expensive to be worth the man's time.

The story takes its final turn when the unreasonable universe brings James and Bonnie together again. They spend their first two hours holding hands and listening to songs spun on an old record player from James's father's house.  Bonnie allows herself to smile but no longer to laugh (the years of falseness have exacted their price). 

Walsh is a bit flattered and a bit skeptical she has come back to him, since this is something that happens mainly in film treatments and sappy pop songs.

He is amused she still subscribes to what they shared. They talk and talk and drink whiskey flavored with juniper syrup.  The words they recall saying to each other from summers past are considered as music selections, not verbal weapons.  Bonnie the Second tells James Walsh the falsehood stories, which alleviate some of his grief over losing her.  He tells her his stories. They talk about their spouses, his family.  They publish none of it on social media.

Bonnie's small ears hear James Walsh say, "I see who you are," and because Walsh actually means what he says, his trust in her uncovers once and for all her almost-suffocated Best Self.  It is still whole and readable, a codex that can be cracked, after all.

Schmaltzy but true.

Paradox Valley

And now: to re-enter reality.

I'm reading the Harriet Fish Backus memoir Tomboy Bride, and so must consider whether a greater test than the fire lookout wouldn't perhaps be a year-round life in a mining manager's cabin above Telluride, Colorado, in the year 1906.

What sports these mining people were.  Gales, slides, ice, frostbite, lack of roughage, few neighbors, overworked horses and mules, many miners, and snow, snow, snow.  Also: explosives.

Newlywed Backus self-reportedly takes in stride everything about her mountain redoubt except perhaps the altitude problems.  She cannot cook properly, since heat at 11,800 feet has a mind of its own.  For example, the boiled eggs remain frozen.  Backus also serves a business dinner disaster involving rancid turkey.  Cakes, too, confound. 

She writes:  At home in California I had made delicious cakes and decided to use one of my mother's recipes.  I mixed the batter with great care and put it in the oven for the required time to bake. The result—it remained battery!

Until now, I've not read or heard of battery being used as an adjective.  How strange for the word to simultaneously conjure thoughts of assault, electricity, and uncooked baked goods.  How odd its spelling is not batter-y.

Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride

*   [Author's note: Originally this post situated the North Rim Lookout on the rim of the Colorado Plateau, not the rim of Grand Canyon. This may make some sense but not really.  After a tutorial at Outdoor Pursuits, I have corrected the error.]

** [Author's second note:  Beyond Abbey's story on the CD, which is titled "Fire Lookout" (from Abbey's Road), I have no idea about the relation between him and Bonnie H.   Obviously.]

Monday, October 5, 2015


[from the website of Chicago's independent research library, The Newberry]

On Sunday, during an NPR radio segment about interspecies communication with dolphins, the narrator tossed up a y word so sweet, I now must tip-type back into this supposedly defunct blog. Such is life (or SIL, as friends of my youth once said).

Dolphin-y, which I wanted to hear in my mind's eye as dolphinny, was the word.  As in Phineas, or finny.

Dolphins.  Intelligent creatures who swim and click and whirr-squeak.  They queak, or queek (spellers?....).  Asks a dolphin expert, What are they thinking while going about their days and nights; and what do they and their long-term memories recall, resift, replay?

Said expert has long studied dolphins and has, with help from a tech whiz, rigged up a device that hopes to be an interspecies translator and essentially operates as an emitter and receiver of whistles.  What I wonder is how much of a difference it would make to a dolphin for the whistles to be emitted by a human being rather than by a machine.

Train, STOP (festina lente)
 (out of frame and up "the hill," Fort Lewis College )

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Postscript Post, July 2015 — A Why Of the Y

Reader, if you walk parts of Western Colorado in the summertime, you may sight lupin and cairns.

You may also notice, within the vicinity of some gorgeous waterfalls (it's not a particularly good photo, the one below, I admit)

an average, everyday kind of y.  It's at the edge of a paved bi-cycling trail.

So: Mount your bike.

For what is sure to be an exceptionally memorable, mayhap joyful, mayhap grievous and thoroughly horrific adventure in modern journeying, pack something bagelly (appropriately bagelly), if you wish (as you wish), and plenty of Smart Water (btw would somebody pleeze close that super-irritating Cheney loophole already?)

Perhaps strap in a printed book or two for plein air reading.  And take off.

Do scream raucously in the tunnel (Note: It's just outside the frame of the above photograph.)  [ What are tunnels for, anyway? ]

When you dismount, may the lingering commence.

For starters I propose the first lines of novels, and card games, such as Go Fish and gin rummy.

For after the starters, perhaps unsent letters, unheard tapes, and such. You know: blah di blah (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da?)

And, for after-after, well.  Come on.  As you wish, I'm not going to tell you everything.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Y Word of 2012: Horsy

It's true: horsy has nudged Tripoly to one side and claimed the spotlight.

Sam Sifton now has the dubious honor of being the chaperone of the Y Word of 2012 (as well as the final Y word of the year on this blog, ever). Congratulations to Mr. Sifton and to The New York Times Magazine, which exhibits the right kind of editorial spirit, regardless of whether Mr. Sifton had to fight for the word. I feel I should send him a cut-out y, but fear not: I shan't and I won't.

Instead I'll be setting my sights on other letters, other realities.


48 px specimen from the font Rocky Family, via Webtype



From Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas. This is one of Mr Edwards' lines.

I am a draper mad with love. I love you more than all the flannelette and calico, candlewick, dimity, crash and merino, tussore, cretonne, crépon, muslin, poplin, ticking and twill in the whole Cloth Hall of the world. I have come to take you away to my Emporium on the hill, where the change hums on wires. Throw away your little bedsocks and your Welsh wool knitted jacket, I will warm the sheets like an electric toaster, I will lie by your side like the Sunday roast.

Does anyone -- man, woman, vegetable, or Other -- profess their love so ardently any more?

The OED's etymology tells: "In 15–16th cent. demytdimite, < Italian dimito ‘a kind of coarse cotton or flanell’ (Florio 1598), ‘a kind of course linzie-wolzie’ (Florio 1611) = medieval Latin dimitum (12th cent. in Du Cange), < Greek δίμιτος of double thread, n. dimity, < δι-δίς twice + μίτος thread of the warp. It is not certain how the final -y arose: could it represent Italian plural dimiti? Compare the plural in Du Cange's quot.: ‘amita, dimitaque, et trimita’, explained to mean fabrics woven with one, two, or three threads respectively. The relation to these of the Persian word dimyāṭī, explained as ‘a kind of cotton cloth, dimity’, which has the form of a derivative of Dimyāṭ, Damietta, is not clear."

Mr. Thomas was right to include dimity in Mr Edwards' list, seeing as it is a double thread.