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.

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