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My books can be purchased as e-books for only $1.99. If interested, just click here: Books.
Match Play is a golf/suspense novel. Dust of Autumn is a bloody one set in upstate New York. Prairie View is set in South Dakota, with a final scene atop Rattlesnake Butte. Life in the Arbor is a children's book about Rollie Rabbit and his friends (on about a fourth grade level). The Black Widow involves an elaborate extortion scheme. Doggy-Dog World is my memoir. And ES3 is a description of my method for examining English sentence structure.
In case anyone is interested in any of my past posts, an archive list can be found at the bottom of this page.
My newest novel, Happy Valley, can be found here.

Saturday, April 30

Grapefruit Tree

I’ve written about this before, but here’s an update. Over forty years ago, our son Michael took a seed from a Florida grapefruit he was eating and put it in with one of my wife’s kitchen plants. When it sent up a tiny shoot, Rosalie was about to pull it, thinking it was a weed. Mike explained what it was and she transplanted it and we watched it grow over the years as a house plant in our living room. And when we retired to Arizona, we brought it along with us, and I planted it in our back yard, where it grew and grew into what we now have, a tree nearly twenty feet tall. It didn’t blossom for at least four years, but then one spring I saw a few blossoms which later became a few grapefruit, which weren’t very good, pithy, small, and white inside instead of pink. A few more years went by, a few more fruit appeared but were still not edible. My daughter from Kentucky paid us a visit recently and said she wanted to try one of Mike’s grapefruit. She picked one and cut it open. Voila! A pink grapefruit that was juicy and delicious. And it took only forty years. We picked the few remaining fruit, eating some, giving some to son Michael. Now we can’t wait for next spring to see if we get the same pink grapefruit in greater numbers.
Here’s the tree as it now stands in our backyard.
And here’s a picture of our cat Tiger that my daughter took and then superimposed onto one half of our pink grapefruit. Isn’t he cute? Doesn’t the grapefruit look wonderful? Don’t you wish you could grow your own grapefruit tree from a seed? Well, you can. But you better be prepared to wait at least forty years before you can eat any of your bounty.

Friday, April 29

Trump versus Clinton

After Tuesday’s primaries, the results of which make it almost certain we’ll see Hillary and The Donald duking it out for the White House. And, oh, will it ever be a dirty duking, even muddier and bloodier than what we’ve seen for the last four or five months. High school coaches are fond of telling their teams, there is no “I” in “team.” One might also say there is no “I” in “Trump,” but there should be because he inserts it in nearly everything he utters during his news conferences. But there is a “u” in Trump, as in vacuous (lacking in ideas or intelligence), fatuous (silly, stupid, asinine), vaunt (to make an empty boast or ostentatious display of nothing much), and a double “u” in vacuum (a space from which most or all of the matter has been removed). Any time a reporter asks him anything substantial about what he will do if elected president, he simply says “I’ll fix it” or “I’ll take care of it.” Jobs? “Oh, I’ll bring back millions of jobs from China and Mexico.” The Wall? “Oh, yes, I will build it and Mexico will pay for it.” ISIS? “I’ll strengthen our military and make it so strong no nation or terrorist group will be able to overcome it.” Women’s rights? “Yes, I love women. And women love me. I get along with most women, but not lying Hillary. She should be put in prison for what she’s done. And Carly Fiorina, lying Ted’s running mate? Well, she’s too ugly to be vice president. But I love most women and most women love me.” The deficit? “I’m a very successful businessman, and I know how to make money, so I’ll get rid of the deficit in my first term.” Muslim immigrants in the US? “Well, they’re dangerous and I’ll round ‘em all up and send ‘em back where they came from. All the illegal Mexicans too.” The reporter then asks, “How, Mr. Trump, are you going to accomplish all that?” “Oh, don’t worry. It’ll get done. I’ll make America great again, do away with everything that weak sister Obama has done to make us weak.” “Well, thank you, Mr. Trump,” the reporter says, with only a hint of sarcasm. “You’ve certainly enlightened us all about your proposed plans for your presidency.”

Wednesday, April 27

The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

We just saw The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at the Arizona Broadway Theatre, not a musical I’d have chosen if given a choice. But again, ABT did a fine job with it even though it didn’t have any music one could hum along with. But it concluded with Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You,” that iconic song made famous by Whitney Houston. The set designs were excellent, the choreography surprisingly sprightly and complex, the singing, especially that of Cassandra Klaphake as the madam Miss Mona, very good. It was another entertaining evening spent with a great show and a great meal. What struck me, though, were the similarities between the stories of the famous Texas brothel, The Chicken Ranch, and a place my wife and I knew when we were growing up, the West End Tavern, which might as easily be called The Best Little Whorehouse in South Dakota,. LaGrange, Texas, is a small town of just under five thousand. Mobridge, South Dakota, is a small town of just under five thousand. The Chicken Ranch was a long established “House of Ill Repute” that for nearly a hundred years serviced as many as 245 a day in its heyday. The West End Tavern was also long-established, dating back to the beginning of the Twentieth Century but with much fewer than a 245-a-day clientele. Both places were said to have resisted any association with organized crime, the “girls” coming there seeking a haven from their other-worldly problems. The citizens of LaGrange and Mobridge both tolerated the presence of these establishments, considering them safe sexual schools for the young men of the area and as preventions of rape and abuse and venereal disease. Both successfully resisted a number of attempts to shut them down. And both were finally closed in the second half of the Twentieth Century, The Chicken Ranch in 1973, The West End Tavern sometime in the 1960’s. Attitudes today regarding whores and whorehouses are much freer than they were back in the day. Is that good or bad? Is prostitution, the world’s oldest profession, good or bad? Probably a bit of both.

Monday, April 25

Suicide

I remember when I used to teach vocabulary, I’d start with a Latin root and then add prefixes, showing students how the prefixes would lead them to other words. One of the roots I used was -cide (to kill or cut down), and the often used words with which most of my students were already familiar: homicide, genocide, suicide, etc. But there are also a ton of words that lead to other words: patricide (father killing) leading to patriarch, patrimony, pater familias, patriotic, patronymic, paternal, etc.; matricide (mother killing) leading to matriarch, matrimony, matron; and on through the family killings with fratricide (brother), sororicide (sister), infanticide (baby), mariticide (husband), uxoricide (wife), filicide (son or daughter). Then on to kings (regicide), nasty little bugs (pesticide), enemies (hosticide), wolves (lupicide), and even kangaroos (macropicide). But back to my original intent, the word for killing oneself, suicide. The prefix sui- leads almost nowhere. There’s suigeneris, meaning unique, and suijuris, meaning legally competent to handle one’s own affairs. How can one kill oneself? There are quick but gruesome ways, like leaping off a tall building, the shotgun in mouth and toe to trigger as Hemingway did, the slashed wrists in a bathtub, the deliberate auto crash as Sinatra attempted in Young at Heart, the rope over a tree branch or ceiling light and a kicked-over chair, running headfirst into a concrete wall as some Sing Singers try, or the ritual seppuku (or hara kiri) in which the Japanese suicider uses a short blade to disembowel himself (Oh, double yuck!). Slower but less messy ways: the long walk out into a blizzard, the deliberate drowning by swimming out into stormy lake or sea, the asphyxia with running auto in closed garage or the plastic bag tied over the head, and the ingestion of bottles and bottles of booze or bottles and bottles of prescription or non-prescription drugs. That opens the door to what is legal and what is illegal regarding suicide. It’s against the law to kill oneself, but if one is successful, how does a court mete out punishment? Refuse burial? Take a fine out of the estate? Send a relative to jail as in loco parentis (or in this case, in loco suicidis)? And to my knowledge, no one who tries and is unsuccessful is ever arrested and tried for attempting to kill himself. Presently, we’re at a sticky legal place regarding one’s right to die, especially when one’s quality of life is unacceptable, or if one is suffering pain and facing monumental medical bills. It seems to me that most of us are suijuris (legally competent to make that decision for ourselves). The main argument against such legislation is that some might abuse the law, relatives who would consider the medical costs as exorbitant and would then talk a dying relative into the early death. And at what stage are we still competent or suddenly incompetent to make such a decision? Where in the sand is that line drawn? Jack Kevorkian went to prison for his suicide assistance. Brittany Maynard, young lady with incurable brain cancer, had to move to Oregon to be euthanized. She had this to say about her decision: "I would not tell anyone else that he or she should choose death with dignity. My question is: Who has the right to tell me that I don't deserve this choice? That I deserve to suffer for weeks or months in tremendous amounts of physical and emotional pain? Why should anyone have the right to make that choice for me?" Right now, in addition to the six states with such laws, over a dozen states are considering some form of Right-to-Die legislation. I would hope that soon all states will do so and will pass such legislation. I’d also like to add one more word to my list of -cide words—“udicide.” There is no such word, but I think there should be.

Friday, April 22

The Voice

Last night, in that black hole of 3:00 to 4:00 a.m. I thought about Hannah Huston and her place on The Voice, thought about what a great voice she has, thought about a song she might sing that would wow us viewers. In my head, I wrote the whole damn letter I would send to Pharrell to see what he thought of my idea. So this morning I wrote it and sent it via Facebook to Pharrell. Now I hope he gets it and takes my recommendation to heart. Here's what I said: I’d like to recommend a song for Hannah Huston, the Gershwins’ “Someone to Watch Over Me.” It would need to be sung with the intro, since the backstory is important for an understanding of the song. The intro should be sung a cappella and without any runs, just Hannah in a pin spot, no screams from the audience, no waving anemone arms down front, long hold on “lamb” at the end of the intro. Then cue strings and into “There’s a somebody . . .” This could be a career-defining performance for Hannah. Think back to American Idol with Fantasia’s “Summertime,” or Katharine McPhee’s “Over the Rainbow.” Think also of Sinatra’s “One for My Baby” from Young at Heart, or Whitney Houston’s super version of “The Star Spangled Banner,” or Lady Gaga’s really lush version of “Lush Life” on the Tony Bennett special. Would a Gershwin standard work for a modern audience? It’s called The Great American Songbook for good reason. Would Hannah be up for it? I think so. If she sings it the way I suggest, she’d have us all in the palm of her voice. And her life might never be the same.

Monday, April 18

The Danish Girl & Jack Jones

We didn’t see The Danish Girl when it was released, so we rented it on Dish last night to see what we’d missed. We missed two stunning performances by Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander, Vikander winning the Oscar for best supporting actress and Redmayne nominated for best male but losing to Leo in The Revenant. But Redmayne could easily have won. Talk about having two roles readymade for Oscars, as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, for which he won in 2015, and this one as Lili, the Danish landscape artist who opted for transgender surgery nearly a century ago. It was fascinating to see him transform from a man happily married to a fellow painter, Gerda Wegener, to the woman he felt was trapped inside him, Lili, who would become the model for the successful series of paintings by his wife. We see Redmayne as he first tries on the role in a practical joke he and Gerda play at a social gathering of friends and fellow artists.
We also see him as he becomes more and more attracted to this female he’s playing—the sensuous movement of the hands and arms around his face, the sly smile and upward gaze, the quiet modulating of his voice, the criss-cross walk of Jazz-age women. Despite Gerda’s objections, he abandons his male persona and becomes Lili, finally agreeing to the medical procedure he hopes would allow him completely to become this woman for whom he yearned. The story is simple, the acting of the two principals wonderful, the scenes artistically beautiful as the camera lovingly shows us Danish countryside, streets and houses in Copenhagen, lavish costumes from Europe in the Twenties. What next for Alicia Vikander? Ex Machina 2 with her reprising Val, the beautiful, artificially intelligent robot? What next for Eddie Redmayne? A remaking of The Elephant Man?

Last year I went to the Arizona Broadway Theatre to see Jack Jones doing a one-man concert. Despite his age, at the time around 75, he sounded good. Maybe not as good as he did when he was second only to Frank Sinatra back in the Sixties and Seventies, but still able to hit the high notes without forcing it. And he had some nice banter about several of his best-known songs, especially “Wives and Lovers,” which today would be totally unacceptable for its sexist position: “Wives should always be lovers too. Run to his arms the moment he comes home to you.” So today, on Amazon, I looked Jack up and found a new album called Love Makes the Changes: the Lyrics of Alan and Marilyn Bergman. How could I pass up Jack singing the songs of the Bergmans, my favorite lyricists? I couldn’t. I bought it without even listening to any samples. What a mistake. Jack sounds like a feeble old man trying to do what he did so well as a young man. How sad. How pitiful. And, apparently, it all went wrong in only a year. I remember when Frank came out with Duets II, when he was eighty, and it was an old man’s voice, almost embarrassing in its fragility. The only singer I can think of who has bested father time is Tony Bennett, who still sounds pretty damn good at eight-nine, especially when he teams up with Lady Gaga. I guess I’ll simply skip listening to my new Jack Jones album and go back to listening to him when he was in his prime.

Sunday, April 17

Bone Spurs

My topic for the day should indicate how hard up I am for stuff to write about. Three months ago I noticed an odd, round protuberance on my left hip bone, sort of like a kid’s marble about the size of a dime. I hadn’t noticed it before, but when by feel I compared my left hip to my right, it was definitely something new, something that hadn’t been there, shouldn’t be there. At first I thought maybe I’d bumped into something and it was a swelling. But it was too solid to be a swelling. Or maybe my hip bone had degenerated and part of the socket of my thigh bone was trying to escape. It didn’t hurt when I walked but it did concern me enough that I mentioned it to my rheumatologist when I saw her. She suggested that I have an x-ray to see what was going on. The x-ray confirmed that it was a bone spur. Okay, so what’s a bone spur? A net search told me this: “A bone spur (osteophyte) is a bony growth formed on normal bone. Most people think of something sharp when they think of a ‘spur,’ but a bone spur is just extra bone. It's usually smooth, but it can cause wear and tear or pain if it presses or rubs on other bones or soft tissues such as ligaments, tendons, or nerves in the body. Common places for bone spurs include the spine, shoulders, hands, hips, knees, and feet.” Nothing to worry about unless it kept growing and became really painful. Other body ailments have people names, like Arthur Itis and Charlie Horse, so I decided to call it Bonnie Spur. Bonnie doesn’t seem to be enlarging and the only time I feel any pain is when I’m sleeping. Typical female. My problem is that for my entire life I’ve slept on my left side. Sleeping on my back isn’t an option since that only leads to ear-shattering snoring and my wife isn’t up for that. Sleeping on my right side is okay, but I simply don’t fall asleep on that side. Only the left will do. You can’t realize how tough it is to lie on your left side without having the left hip bone pressing into the mattress. I try to keep my left leg facing knee down with my upper body sort of straining around to the right (or do I mean the left?). But as soon as I fall asleep I automatically adjust my left leg. And whenever I spend fifteen minutes sleeping with Bonnie pressed down, Bonnie begins to nag and I awaken to readjust my position. Every fifteen minutes. All night long. Doesn’t make for fun nights. I guess I’ll just have to learn to live with Bonnie, learn to sleep on my right side. Or sleep in a recliner in the living room with the three cats wondering what in the world I’m doing out there. But, then, Charlie, Tiger, and Tuffy often wonder what I’m doing. My wife also wonders, but she’s been wondering about me for our entire married lives. Always keep her guessing, that’s my motto.

Monday, April 11

The Masters, 2016

The toughest ticket to get to any sporting event isn’t for the Super Bowl, US Open tennis, or the NBA finals. It’s that ticket that allows you to stroll down Magnolia Lane and on to the hallowed halls of ivy at Augusta National for the annual contesting of the Masters. I and millions of other golf fans will never get to see the course or players live but we have a wonderful view of it via CBS and its television coverage. Twenty years ago, we never got to see the front nine because the coverage began too late to pick up any of the participants on the front. Not so anymore. Now I can go to the Masters website and watch live action well ahead of the CBS coverage. But then, most of the drama at the Masters doesn’t really begin until we get to the back nine, especially so on Sunday.

Oh, so many stories. And oh, so many memories for me. I’ve watched every minute of the action at Augusta for at least the last fifty-five years (my wife can attest to that), with many of its images burned on my memory, some of them excitingly positive (for viewers and players), some of them devastatingly negative (mainly for players). The place and the event have become so sacred it’s almost comical, all that bowing and scraping everyone does when speaking of the Augusta traditions and history—the reverence for the Hogan Bridge at number 12, the Sarazen Bridge (which isn’t really a bridge at all) that leads to the green at 15 (commemorating Sarazen’s double-eagle there in 1935 that allowed him to tie and then beat Craig Wood in a playoff), the Champions’ dinner Wednesday nights, the ceremonial first tee shots by past champions (this year and quite a few years previously by a sadly aging Arnold Palmer, an age-defying Gary Player, and a rotundly aging Jack Nicklaus), the green jacket ceremony after the final round presented to the winner by the previous year’s winner (with only the winner allowed to take the jacket from the premises for that year), the reverential description of each hole and the flower for which it’s named (#13 – azalea, #15 – firethorn, #18 – holly), and on and on.

Augusta National is set on what in the 19th century was called Fruitlands, the setting for Hawthorne's The Blithedale Romance. The course, so breathtakingly beautiful, looks like a million tiny workers have gone out for months ahead of time to trim the greens and fairways with tiny scissors, to prune the flowering trees and bushes with a barber’s precision, to caution the birds to make no unpleasant sounds, to advise the little fishes in Rae’s Creek and its attendant ponds not to make any untoward splashes. It’s a perfect example of nature tamed, unlike beautiful Pebble Beach which might be the best example of nature untamed. No bad animals are allowed at Augusta, no gators or snakes, no coots to desecrate it with their poop. If a deer or bear were to wander out from the surrounding woods, the deer would be Bambi, the bear a tiny Smokey. If Billy Payne were ever to read what I say here, I’d be banned not only from the course, but also from the telecast. Gary McCord and Jack Whitaker found out what punishment could be meted out for any less than respectful comments about Augusta. In 1994, McCord said the greens looked “bikini-waxed” with "body bags" kept at the back of the green for any player who went long. In 1966, Whitaker described the gallery after an 18-hole playoff as a “mob.” Augusta officials persuaded CBS to remove both commentators from the telecasts. I don’t know whether to mock the place or to fall face-down in worshipful praise to its drama. I guess it’s about fifty-fifty.

First, the positive memories. You have to understand, for every joyful winner there was probably a devastated loser. The wins I best remember—Tiger’s win in 1997 when he opened with a front-nine 40 on Thursday and a back-nine 30, then on to a record 12-stroke victory. What’s most amazing is that he had no 3-putts. This year we saw poor Ernie Els knock it around six times in his opening hole on Thursday, and player after player have 3- and 4-putts on those oh, so treacherous greens. Fred Couples won in 1992 mainly because his tee shot on 12 somehow stuck on the front bank of Rae’s Creek, allowing him to make par instead of a likely double bogey. We all can see and laugh at Phil Mickelson’s 6-inch vertical leap of joy on the 18th in 2004, his slap-happy grin when his putt went in on Sunday to give him his first of three green jackets. And Bubba Watson’s improbable shot in 2012 into number ten in the second playoff hole against Louis Oosthuizen, hooking a short iron some forty yards around a grove of trees and a tv tower. And, of course, Jack’s final nine holes in 1986, when he eagled fifteen with that silly-looking white putter, left arm and putter raised, tongue out as he walked the putt in, coaxed it in, demanded it in. I and a lot of other fans wept when he won that one, his sixth Masters victory at age 46.

Other vivid positive images. From left of the green, Tiger’s chip-in on 16 in 2005 when he sent the ball high above the cup and then watched it circle back to pause dramatically on the lip, long enough for the world to see that Nike “swoosh” logo before the ball decided to tumble in for birdie (How could it not? This is Tiger Woods, after all.). And speaking of number 16 and images that will be shown over and over and over again. This year we saw on Sunday first Shane Lowry knock it in for an ace, then Davis Love, and then, most bizarre of all, Louis Oosthuizen’s tee shot that struck J. B. Holmes’ ball near the cup, then ricocheted to the right, then back left and into the cup.

Then there are all the images of despair. The pressure on Sundays at the Masters must be enormous. Players can go brain-dead, doing things they’d never do in any other tournament. It’s a day of holding one’s breath for five hours trying not to make any monumental mistakes. And too often even nature can conspire against a player. This year, on fifteen, Billy Horschel’s shot was perched on the front of the green, but before he could get there to mark it, an Augusta gust of wind moved it a bit and sent it speeding down the slope and into the pond. Billy just stood there with palms out, hoping an official would tell him he could replace the ball. Nope. The ball was deemed to have never come to rest. Too bad, Billy. I remember the look on poor Roberto De Vincenzo’s face in 1968 when he was told he’d signed for a higher number than he’d actually made, thus missing out on a playoff with Bob Goalby. And Scott Hoch’s bend at the waist, hands to head, when he missed the 2-footer on the first playoff hole against Nick Faldo in 1989, a putt that would have given him the green jacket. And the collapses. Ken Venturi’s final 80 in the wind in 1956 to lose to Jackie Burke, depriving Venturi of being the only amateur to win the Masters. And Curtis Strange’s strange decision on Sunday in 1985 to go for the greens in two at 13 and 15, hitting it into the water on both, leading to two bogeys, losing the title by two to Bernhard Langer. Greg Norman’s loss in 1987 when, in a 3-way playoff with Larry Mize and Seve Ballesteros, Mize pitched in from way right of the green on number eleven to rip it away from Greg. And the real meltdown in 1996 when Greg and Nick Faldo were paired in the final group, with Greg leading by 6, then Greg falling to a 78 to Nick’s 67 and losing it in the worst/best come-from-behind loss/win in Master’s history.

Obviously, this is leading up to what happened this year to Jordan Spieth. His oh so painful experience at the famous/infamous, devastatingly painful short par-3, number twelve, with Hogan’s iconic image of the bridge, with Rae’s Creek fronting the green.
It’s a short par-3 called Golden Bell. Maybe it should be called “Bramble Bush.” Nearly all tour players describe the tee shot as more frightening even than the 17th island green at the TPC. Spieth was leading comfortably by three with only six holes to play. His tee shot landed about where Fred Couples’ shot had landed 24 years before, where Fred’s shot stuck, where Jordan’s fell back into the pond. He took a drop at about 90 yards. Then he hit the most awful chunk he may have ever hit in his life, a fat wedge that didn’t get within thirty yards of the hole. All of a sudden, his three-shot lead had shrunk to a one-shot deficit when he made a quadruple bogey, with Billy Willet, the Englishman and eventual winner, leading. Will Jordan have nightmares about that hole? You bet. Will he get over it and win there again? You bet. He’s only twenty-two, and youngsters like him have notoriously short memories. Will I continue to watch this tournament in the future? You bet. I’m an oldster and I have a notoriously long memory.

Friday, April 8

American Idol, The Voice, & Eye in the Sky

I never thought I’d use this word in referring to American Idol, “classy.” I’ve spent fifteen seasons lambasting Idol’s cheesiness, its lack of class—the waving arms, the raucous shouts from the audience, the abundant and ridiculous outfits of J-Lo and Nicki Minaj and Stephen Tyler. But I continued to tune in every week as a form of self-flagellation. Last night’s two-hour finale, however, was anything but cheesy. It was a classy collection of past contestants, lots of music and dance, lots of glitz and glitter and tearful recollections of past winners and judges. I was impressed. The winner of this final season was announced in the last five minutes, with Ryan Seacrest making the most of it, the long pause after “and the winner is . . .” with Trent Harmon winning over La’Porsha Renae, whom everyone, including La’Porsha, assumed would be the winner. It was a dramatic conclusion as the show that began the popular Fox reality series came to an end. I’m glad it’s now all over and I can give The Voice my total attention. The Voice showcases better singers than those on Idol. Any one of the final twenty on this season's Voice could have beaten most of Idol’s fifteen winners. Then there are the judges of each show. I enjoy The Voice’s banter between Blake Shelton and Adam Levine much more than what went on between Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey. And what about the other judge mistakes Idol made with Ellen DeGeneres and Stephen Tyler? I like the insightful comments the judges on The Voice make of the performances. I hated the insipid comments most of the judges on Idol made. Only Simon Cowell and Harry Connick Jr. sounded like they knew what they were talking about whereas all the judges on Voice actually judge the vocals they just heard. We may never again see anything quite like America Idol. But maybe that’s not all bad. Goodbye, Idol; hello Voice.

Quick review of a movie we saw last week, Eye in the Sky, with Helen Mirren as a British Colonel in charge of a plan to find and capture several people radicalized by Islamic extremists in Kenya. The capture becomes a kill mission when she discovers that the group plans several suicide bombings. I took from it two impressions: that our technological advances in warfare and spy cams is unbelievable and that our moral dilemmas regarding whom we kill in war may be more important than how we win. I saw a tiny beetle drone fly from street level in through a window in the bad guys’ house in Nairobi, a tiny spy cam that flew in and settled on an overhead beam to show observers what was going on in that house. It was controlled by a native with a tiny thing that looked like a cell phone. It revealed two young men donning vests with explosives, suicide bombers to kill congregants at some unknown site, a bazaar or restaurant. Overhead, a U.S. drone was prepared to kill those in the residence. It was being flown by a young pilot in Las Vegas (Aaron Paul), thousands of miles from the kill zone. The drama was being viewed by British intelligence and those in the U. S. flying the drone. The moral dilemma involved a young girl selling bread on a table near the house. If they delivered the strike that would take out the two suiciders, would they also kill the girl? Save possibly a hundred bomb victims and sacrifice the young girl or call off the bomb strike? I was taken back to the time in 1945 when Harry Truman had to make the same decision, but on a far greater scale: end WWII by dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus saving countless American lives but killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians, or deciding not to drop those bombs. I can only imagine the moral dilemma Truman faced. He chose to end the war. The world apparently forgave him. Would the world forgive the Brits for going ahead with the drone strike even though the girl died? Scary the kinds of moral issues we face now, scary how fast technology has taken us in terms of drone warfare and drone surveillance. Scary how little regard ISIS has for human lives.

Tuesday, April 5

English Language Oddities

I’ve spent my life teaching English to kids who pretty much took their language for granted. Although most of them were able to master the basics, very few of them were able even to begin to understand all the complexities of this language of ours. I can only imagine how difficult it must be for non-native speakers to learn it. Most of the world would agree that English today is as close to a universal language as there will ever be. Sorry about that, all you Esperanto devotees.

Learning to speak it and write it are two very different animals. With a basic vocabulary of only about a thousand words, most children and most non-natives can be proficient communicators of English. It’s when one deals with written English that problems raise their ugly heads. For over two hundred years, people have tried to create a simplified spelling system, and none of them have been successful: Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster, and George Bernard Shaw, to name only a few, and now the proponents of Truspel. Two elements led to their failure—we’d lose too much of the etymological background; we’re too stubborn to change.

Probably the best-known example of the craziness of English spelling is attributed to Shaw, when he satirically asked how one would pronounce “ghoti.” Simple, he said. It’s “fish.” The “gh” as in “rough” gives us the “f.” the “o” as in “women” gives us the shortened vowel “i.” And the “ti” as in “nation” gives us the “sh.” Simple. It’s not “goatee.” It’s “fish.”

Then we’re also led to that old spelling conundrum involving consonant and vowel sounds: enough, rough, bought, caught, cough, through, though, trough, bough, south, slough, comb, bomb, strum, and dumb (and the list goes on from there). Also, the wonderment of all our silent letters: knight, often, half, climb, psycho, debt, honor, fasten, high, phlegm, bomb, singer. How curious that “singer” is spelled like “finger” but in the first, the “g” is soft and in the second it’s hard. The “b” in “bomb” is silent, but in “bombastic” it’s pronounced. In “limb” the “b” is silent, but in “limber” it’s pronounced.

We have many homographs to contend with (same spelling, different meaning): close (near) and close (shut), bass (the fish) and bass (the musical instrument), desert (dry place) and desert (to leave behind), wind (that blows) and wind (the clock), lead (heavy metal) and lead (to go in front), sow (a pig) and sow (to plant), excuse (to allow) and excuse (an explanation for behavior), refuse (to disallow) and refuse (garbage), root (a tuber) and root (to cheer).

Homophones are words with the same sounds but different spellings and meanings. The usual ones that drive people crazy are to, too and two; there, their, and they're. Some of the less usual but still drive-crazy: flower-flour, prey-pray, flea-flee, bear-bare, beer-bier, sight-site, higher-hire, stare-stair, bury-berry, peace-piece, seen-scene, seem-seam, meet-meat, beat-beet, dear-deer, real-reel, and birth-berth.

English spelling will probably never be regularized, but English pronunciation is coming close through our universal exposure to television newscasters and film stars who speak a standard English, thus coaxing people away from dialectic differences. Children today are being influenced more by the language they hear on the tube than on how their parents speak. Non-native speakers now have movies and television to guide them in learning English.

Part of the charm of English spellings are where and how they’re derived. We can thank the French for the craziness of “queue,” “quiche,” and “hors d’oeuvre.” The French occupation of England in the 11th and 12th centuries shows us the class differences in words relating to domestic animals (Do you eat it or care for it?): “beef” for the nobility, “cow” for the peasants; “pork” for the nobility, “pig” for the peasants; “mutton” for the nobility, “sheep” for the peasants. We borrowed many words from Latin by way of French, many of which gave us more elegant words for inelegant Anglo-Saxon activities: “shit” to “defecate,” “piss” to “urinate,” “fuck” to “copulate” and “fornicate,” “cunt” to “vagina,” “prick” to “penis.” You get the idea. The more syllables we could use, the less uncouth, the more elegant the word becomes.

And let me conclude by examining a current odd phenomenon, Donald Trump, and a number of words that seem relevant to his oddity. “Trumperies” are practices or beliefs that are superficial or appealing but have little real value or worth. The word derives from the Old French “tromper” (to deceive), and into Late Middle English denoting trickery. “Trumped-up” suggests bogus, spurious, and fake. And The Donald often uses a “trumpet” to blow his own horn.

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