Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Shop Talk: Our Changing Language

© 2016 By Bob Litton > All Rights Reserved (except for quoted passages).

All right, I admit: I am consistent only in my inconsistency. That might explain why I am back into my blog, at least for this post about my native language. I consider it to be that important.

This morning I listened to’s Tom Ashbrook — the regular host of the weekday “On Point” program — interview linguist John McWhorter, of Columbia University, about how the English language is constantly “morphing” (not “evolving”) and how we should accept the sometimes disconcerting changes as natural. I tried about half a dozen times to phone in and offer my input but each time got a busy signal, so I gave up. As an alternative approach, I am resuming the chair in front of my dormant blog.

As a former working journalist and sometime teacher of English composition, I have feelings about English grammar and expression just as fervid as my feelings about democracy. Discussions about either one cause me to grab my sword and buckler, figuratively speaking.

One of the offerings I had in store for Ashbrook and McWhorter was to assert that while it is true that, as McWhorter said, our grammar and spelling became crystallized in the 18th Century through such efforts as Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary, most of the subsequent deviations from the “rules” were actually sensible gestations attributable to easier pronunciation and reading comprehension. Former crimes like the use of such terms as “ain’t” as a contraction for “am not” (have you ever tried to say “amn’t”?), the beginning of sentences with “But”, and the ending of sentences with a preposition have now become established as acceptable in general communication, although they are still considered Nonstandard (U.S.) or Informal (U.K.) in academic, professional and business papers.

Another influence on the development of our language was the employment of Latin grammatical structure and definitions by our pioneering grammarians. Unlike McWhorter and his cohorts, I appreciate the historical efforts to maintain the rules of Latin grammar, even though those rules are not entirely symbiotic to English. In its early centuries, English was just as inflected as Latin:the uses of its words were determined by orthography, not by position in the sentence as they are now. The result of our language’s pupation is that now we have to be taught explicitly not only the case names but how and where they are to be used in sentences.

Most of us literary types, regardless of how tolerant we might consider ourselves, still retain, I believe, prejudices toward grammatical infractions. One fault which McWhorter dwelt upon that particularly irritates me, but which he finds perfectly acceptable, is the confusion of cases in pronouns. His example was the use of “me” (the objective case) as the subject of a sentence, a role normally reserved for nominative case pronouns, in this instance “I”. A typical erroneous sentence would be “Me and her went to the show.” For anybody who doesn’t see the problem, that should be “She and I went to the show.” Actually there are two problems here: one is the grammatical issue already noted; the other is a matter of etiquette — politeness dictates that we mention other people prior to ourselves. When “I” and “me” become legitimized as identical twins, then our language will indeed become chaotic.

Another modern infraction which McWhorter and Ashbrook discussed was the term “like”, used principally by teenagers as a meaningless interpolation during their jabbering, as, for example, “So my mom was, like, going ballistic because I didn’t get home before eleven last night!” I would add to that grievously ubiquitous error the phrase “you know”, which I constantly hear even educated guests repeating on Ashbrook’s show (and elsewhere); it seems to serve as a substitute for “uh”, the old-timey pause syllable many of us utter when we haven’t quite got our phrasing organized in the brain. Those terms wouldn’t be so annoying if they were used less, but many people employ them repeatedly within a single comment.

One caller, a teacher, astutely remarked that we need to try and inculcate Standard English into children’s minds if they are to cope well in society and business. McWhorter acknowledged as much but maintained that children are very capable of handling two and even more languages adeptly; they can readily use Formal English in their school papers and Informal, even slang, at home and among their friends on the street.

Another aspect of our changing tongue which McWhorter mentioned and which always fascinates me is the more glaring differences between the English of the Beowulf saga, Chaucer’s Tales, and Shakespeare’s plays; we need defining footnotes — in the cases of the first two, even facing page “translations” — to comprehend those works now.

I might add that we can include much 19th Century literature among the works that require footnote definitions or good guessing. Among these latter I can list George Eliot’s 1860 novel Mill on the Floss, which I have almost finished reading. In particular, there are some terms the less-educated characters frequently use which in my first encounters I had to read twice to glean what was meant. The heroine’s father, Edward Tulliver, for instance, has a habit of proclaiming his confusion with life, as in Chapter IX of Book III, where he says to his employee, Luke:

 ‘The old mill ’ud miss me, I think, Luke. There’s a story as when the mill changes hands, the river’s angry — I’ve heard my father say it many a time. There’s no telling whether there mayn’t be summat in the story, for this is a puzzling world, and Old Harry’s got a finger in it — it’s been too many for me, I know.’

The “’ud” and the “summat” most of us readers would easily enough interpret as “would” and “somewhat”. Also, nowadays even an uneducated character would say “many times” instead of “many a time”, but we get it. One might suppose that the “as” is a typo, but really it is an antique way of saying “that”.  A reader unacquainted with English folklore might wonder who “Old Harry” is, but the rest of us would recognize him as the Devil. The phrase that really caused me to pause, however, was that last one: “too many”: what I finally discerned Tulliver to be saying is “too much for me”.

Further in on their conversation, Luke says to Tulliver:

‘Ay, sir, you’d be a deal better here nor in some new place….’

In our age, we would say “a good deal” or “a great deal”, but Luke’s meaning there is clear enough. The term that confused me (and it actually occurs several times earlier in the novel) was “nor”; after a little head-scratching, I deduced that it stands for “than”. Wow, I said to myself, I wonder how that came about!

Finally, and on the same page again, Tulliver says:

‘But I doubt, Luke, they’ll be for getting rid o’ Ben, and making you do with a lad — and I must help a bit with the mill. You’ll have a worse place.’

Now, this one really stumped me! Nonetheless, I figured it out. Old Tulliver and other characters in the novel are actually using “doubt” for “believe”! You explain that one to me!

In spite of its confusing and frustrating aspects, my native tongue — and other languages, too, (I’m studying classical Greek right now) — fascinate me. Maybe I should have been a philologist.



More Shop Talk: Some Pet Peeves

© 2016 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

It has been slightly more than a year (March 2015) since I wrote my last blog post about language and writing. The writing below differs from that earlier one in that it can be described as simply a column of pet peeves, while the older was an essay concerning problems I have with the nature of my native tongue. Of course, reading an essay is usually more fun than reading a list of gripes, but I hope you readers will continue on and gain something at least enlightening if not entertaining from your perusal.

— BL

* * * * * *

Last Tuesday I joined our “lame-duck” mayor at breakfast in the local diner. (For those who don’t know what “lame-duck” means, the term describes an elected official whose term is approaching its end and who will not be returning to office next term.) During our conversation the mayor mentioned how annoyed he is when someone uses the term “Obamacare” instead of “Affordable Care Act” or its abbreviation “ACA”.
“What are they thinking?” he asked. “Do they see it as a medical benefit set up especially for Obama?”
“I understand your point,” I replied. “Another problem with their phrasing is that it can appear like an edict establishing a healthcare program by fiat instead of a legislative act passed by Congress.”

That conversation got me to reflecting—for the umpteenth time—on all the irritating malapropisms, misplaced words, and nonsensical interpolations I hear over and over again.

One of the chief malapropisms that has become so ingrained in our common discourse that even top echelon journalists run afoul of it is the use of “bathroom” where “restroom” is the accurate term. If it is not already obvious to you, “bathroom” literally refers to a room where a bath can be performed, such as in a tub or in a shower stall. A “restroom” is a place, often hardly larger than a closet (thus the British preference for saying “water closet”) where one can relieve oneself of urine and feces.

One misuse of terms which is not quite as objectionable as those is the substitution of “less” for “fewer”. “‘Fewer’ refers only to number and things that are counted: Fewer cars on the road. There were fewer than sixty present. In Formal usage ‘less’ refers only to amount or quantity and things measured: There was a good less tardiness in the second semester. There was even less hay than the summer before.  ‘Fewer’ seems to be declining in use and ‘less’ often takes its place.” Still, I am among those purists who find the substitution of “less” for “fewer” offensive because it reduces the exactitude and therefore clarity. (I should credit late Professor Porter G. Perrin for much of the above paragraph, including the examples, from whose Writer’s Guide and Index to English I borrowed it.)

Similar to those terms’ confusion is the phrase “one or two” and similar constructions. Particularly surprising instances of this fault are in Henry James’ novel Portrait of a Lady. In Chapter 22, Gilbert Osmond, while nervous in the company of his visitor Madame Merle, “…without looking at Madame Merle, pushed one or two chairs back into their places.” And in Chapter 28, I read where Lord Warburton goes to an opera house to find the “heroine”, Isabel Archer, and her friends; there, “(a)fter scanning two or three tiers of boxes, he perceived in one of the largest of these receptacles a lady whom he easily recognized.” When I see such phrasing in an article or a story or a novel, I almost pull my hair out in exasperation and utter aloud, “Can’t you count even to three, you numbskull?!”  I must be upfront here and acknowledge that I cannot stand Henry James; I think he is one of the most overrated authors and insufferable snobs in American literary history. And Portrait of a Lady is a ridiculously absurd novel filled with other types of flaws which I might elucidate some other time.

In the class of misplaced words I particularly note the word “only”. I remind you that English has evolved (or devolved?) into a mostly uninflected language. That is, we do not use multiple case endings on our nouns and adjectives to indicate their functions in a sentence; our pronouns alone retain that characteristic. Consequently, we determine and infer a word’s function by its place in the sentence; that includes the term “only”. I frequently see this word misplaced in a sentence and its intended meaning thus jeopardized. Disgusting! I could write some sentences to further explain the problem with “only”, but I found in the online Free Dictionary by Farlex as good or probably even better an explanation than I might render, so I copied part of it for use here. Hope they don’t mind; if they do, I will withdraw it and struggle through with my own examples:

Usage Note: The adverb only is notorious for its ability to change the meaning of
a sentence depending on its placement. Consider the difference in meaning in
the following examples: Dictators respect only force; they are not moved by words.  Dictators only respect force; they do not worship it. She picked up the phone only when he entered, not before. She only picked up the phone when he entered; she didn’t dial the number. The surest way to prevent readers from misinterpreting only is to place it next to the word or words it modifies.

The Free Dictionary’s entry for “only” has a few more interesting remarks which I recommend aspiring writers peruse.

Finally, under the heading nonsensical interpolations I include “you know”, the latest substitution for “uh” as a pause gap filler. I hear it frequently on one of my favorite NPR talk shows, On Point, with Tom Ashbrook. I believe it would be safe to claim that at least half of the people Ashbrook talks with on that program—special guests and call-in listeners alike—use “you know” in many of their sentences. It is irritating for three reasons: (1) No, Tom might not know it (whatever it is); (2) if he does know it, then why are they saying it? and (3) the constant repetition of “you know” soon begins to grate.

Well, gentle readers, I hope your eyes have not glazed over from reading this blog post about the more horrific writing…and speaking…crimes.






© 2016 By Bob Litton

Note to Readers: This short story was written back in the late 1960s (or perhaps the early ’70s); I was in graduate school at the time. With that background, some readers might view it as juvenilia. But I have kept it in my files all these years and took it out today and still like it.
The reason I have not sought to have it published before now is because one of my former professors deflated me by declaring, “You’ve got this kid thinking like a Harvard graduate, Bob!” Today, however, I recalled reading a 
Life magazine article decades ago about a 10- to 12-year-old boy who was attending science courses at the University of Chicago. When asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, the devout prodigy replied, “Well, right now I want to be a priest, but when I get that old I might feel different.” How mature an insight for a boy that young!
     Another element I want to mention: From the time I started to write stories (as an adult) I realized that my efforts were not stories so much as they were essays with characters in them.
Whatever its literary worth, I hope you will gain something from reading “Identity”.

Chuck could tie his own shoes now.  He was telling himself that over and over again as he struggled with the laces.  “Hurry Chuck!” his mother called from the living room below.  At last, they were tied!  He stood, looking critically at the closet mirror.  He was wearing his red cotton shirt, just like Gene Autry’s shirt, at least as it always appeared in the comic books.  His blue jeans, too, were just like Gene Autry’s jeans.  If only the shoes were cowboy boots, but his mother had said those would have to wait until Christmas.  Chuck lowered his pants’ cuffs over the shoe-tops so that the laces were at least partly covered. When I get my boots I won’t have to bother with laces! he imagined.  His appearance was most important today because he was going to the state fair with his mother, going to the fair for the first time in his life.

He hopped down the stairs and found his mother opening and closing her umbrella to make sure it was still reliable.  She was very mistrustful of mechanical things.
“Oh Mother, we won’t need that, will we?”
“We might.  We’ll be out there all day, and the radio said a squall line is gathering in the north.”
“What’s a squall line?”
“A lot of rain all bunched up.”

The bus Chuck and his mother rode was crowded with young people in sweatshirts and crazy hats.  Teenagers, swinging their arms carelessly about and yelling to each other the length of the bus, awed the boy.  He knew they were not adults like his mother, who was a large, country-bred woman, yet they were bigger than he;  and, although he didn’t know the word, he could sense their competitiveness.  Huddling as close to his mother’s side as he could, he observed their antics.

They were unseating each other as an impromptu game.  A standee would try to eject a likely victim from his seat.  If he was successful, the seat became his own, and it was then up to the new standee to find a weaker opponent to dislodge.  Each victim held on to the seat bar with all his might, and it usually took several minutes of straining to pull him loose.  Chuck’s mother ignored these frolics, but he watched them fascinated.  And so it went until they arrived at the fairgrounds.

Balloons!  Pennants!  Reds, blues, yellows, polka dots and stripes!  A waving, weaving mob of people.  It was too great a task for Chuck to keep his attention trained on any single sight; there was too much variety.  Here, a little girl, hardly older than Chuck himself, was licking at some pink, fluffy stuff that reminded him of angel hair.  There, an old man, gray-grizzly, with a yellow apron on was blowing cacophonous, quasi-music through a silver disc and then bellowing out that the crowd should buy his bits of tin.  Now came a bunch of teenagers, six abreast, shuffling along the paper-littered street and carrying large teddy bears and tawdry little chalk figurines.  In the distance were elevated machines going round and round high in the air with screaming people in bullet-shaped cars.  Beyond those strange machines were tents flapping in the damp wind over farm implements.  In another direction were sedate buildings draped with flags, and open air stages where bands were playing.

Suddenly Chuck noticed a tent with posters hanging down its sides, posters like giant comic book covers.  On one was a woman with long, frizzled hair who was smiling at the two huge snakes encircling her body.  Such sharp teeth she had!  In another picture an otherwise human sort of man—who looked depressed to Chuck—had alligator scales all over his body.  Chuck paused, heedless of his mother, to gaze at the bizarre posters. They saddened him; but he sensed they weren’t supposed to, so he felt guilty about his sadness.  His mother came up to him and gave him a gentle nudge meaning to come along with her, but he didn’t move.  Instead, he memorized the heavy, dark lines and the ferocious coloring of the posters.

A man behind a wicker-wire cage with a large roll of tickets was hawking for one show:  “Step on in, folks, and satisfy your curiosity.  If you hurry you can still catch the famous Crisp family of acrobats.  Most talented folks you’ll ever hope to see.  Only one dime, ladies and gentlemen, only one dime.  Thank ya, lady…thank ya, buddy.”

Chuck’s mother looked down at her son with a teasingly inquisitive smile, “Would you like to go in?”

Chuck hesitated, glancing at the man high above him and then at the lane of sawdust leading through the tent flaps.  He nodded affirmatively without looking at his mother.  He wasn’t at all sure he wanted to go in there, but he thought his saying “no” would somehow be detected as a sign of fear, and Gene Autry wouldn’t respect a “fraidy-cat”.
“Two, please,” said his mother to the hawker, opening her coin purse and delving for the dimes.
“Thank ya, lady.”

Inside the tent was a fat, hemp rope stretched on short poles cordoning off a sawdust arena.  Since there were no seats, the crowd gathered close to the rope, jostling each other, vying for clearer views.  Chuck’s mother was tall and sturdy enough and not too feminine to push men around.  Her neighbors all agreed she had pushed her husband right into his grave.  Now she elbowed her way up to the roped boundary and pulled Chuck up in front of her.  The boy grabbed the rope to maintain his equilibrium within the slightly swaying crush of the crowd.

The scene before Chuck made him draw his shoulders in, and his hands moistened as they more tightly gripped the itchy twists of the rope.  There were ten small people, about Chuck’s height but with adult-size heads and mature faces, and they were performing acrobatic stunts.  The stubbiness of their limbs made the lithe agility of their movements seem all the more incredible than if done by ordinary humans.  Chuck had thought such beings existed only in the tunnels and towers of fairy-tale books where they hammered on anvils or spun gold out of straw.  Yet here they were in the flesh bouncing through somersaults.  Finally they all came together and proceeded to form a human pyramid by standing on one another’s shoulders: the seven males formed the base and middle, and the three females towered on up until the last could almost touch the peak of the tent.  When they had successfully completed this stunt, the crowd clapped enthusiastically for them.

Only Chuck remained silent and still.  He couldn’t have told why, if anyone had been concerned to ask, but he felt dread welling up within him.  He suddenly wanted to leave this tent with its sawdust and ropes and weird denizens.  But his mother’s broad body was flush against his back, and there was a thick mass of enchanted spectators around the roped perimeter.

The family of dwarfs broke up the pyramid and were preparing to leave so that the next act could enter, when one of the male dwarfs happened to notice Chuck and, laughing in an increasingly extroverted manner, exclaimed, “Brothers!  Sisters!  See, he’s like one of us.  He’s our brother!”  Then the humorous dwarf came up to Chuck and tried to tug him into the arena.

Chuck suddenly realized why he had wanted to escape earlier, why he was repelled by the very sight of these people.  Yes, he was like them, for they were all wearing red shirts and blue pants.  Two more of the dwarfs recognized the significance of their brother’s allusion and then they, too, pulled gently at Chuck’s sleeves and chimed in with the sing-song cajolery:  “Come, little brother, and join our fun!  Stand on your head or turn a somersault!  We’ll show you how.”  But Chuck clung with all his might to the rope and would not be dislodged.  The spectators began to titter, cheer, laugh.  In a short time the tent became an echo chamber of hilarity.  Even Chuck’s mother smiled and tried to encourage her son to go into the ring and play with the dwarfs.
“Go on, Chuck.  They won’t hurt you.  They just want you to play with them.  They’ll show you how to do a somersault.”

But Chuck held to the rope, speechless, practically mindless with the agony of his humiliation, until finally he began to cry out—to squall, “No,! No! Never!  I don’t want to be like them.  Never!  Let me go home!!”  The ducts of his eyes opened and a downpour flooded out.

The mob of people, all bunched up, melded by curiosity into a single, monstrous being, gradually ceased to laugh.  Its face, just recently so wrinkled with laughter, now took on the bathetic expression of an extravagant tragedian.  A multitude of eyes suddenly became blandly solicitous for this odd little boy who apparently didn’t know how to play but would rather cling to the rope as though he were a hundred feet off the ground.

The three dwarfs let go of Chuck’s arms.  They were embarrassed that their good-natured camaraderie should bring tears to a child’s eyes.  Chuck’s mother looked at them apologetically and was just about to verbalize her feelings when one of them interrupted her:  “It’s all right, lady.  We didn’t mean to frighten him.  Poor kid’s scared to death.  Better take him home.”

As he left the tent Chuck suddenly stopped crying.  He felt the surprising calm that follows a total cry.  But the tears remained on his cheeks, and the cooling twilight air seemed to crystallize them there.  With arm crooked, Chuck wiped the freezing tear-drops on to the red cotton of a shirt sleeve.  He wondered at the strange calm within him and at some new tempest welling but still submerged.  Something had been destroyed; something else was germinating.  Peripherally, he was aware that his mother was trying in her own way to console him.
“My goodness, Chucky!  What’s wrong?  They didn’t mean you any harm.  Are you all right now?  My goodness!  I’ve never been so embarrassed.  You did want to see them, didn’t you?  Yes, you know you did.  Weren’t they wonderful acrobats?  We’ll be home soon.  Do you want some cotton candy?  No?  Oh well….”

Chuck twinged at his mother’s obtuseness.  All she had seen was that he hadn’t wanted to go into the ring and that he had embarrassed her.  She didn’t recognize the meaning of his refusal to identify with the dwarfs─his rejection of them as “brothers”.  In that moment some of her authority as interpreter of the external world dissipated.

For the rest of the week Chuck was quiet and reserved.  He played unwillingly with other children and brooded much.  Even apparel became a matter of indifference to him; he wore whatever his mother laid out, neither exhibiting any preference for the red shirt nor avoiding it.  When Christmas arrived at the end of the week he accepted the boots under the tree as indifferently, almost as though he had forgotten about them.

Chuck didn’t forget the dwarfs though.  As the sense of injustice against his own self waned he gradually came to accuse himself of acting wrongfully against the dwarfs.  Over and over he relived the scene in his mind, trying to imagine a happier outcome.  In one daydream he was wearing something other than red and blue, and the dwarfs were oblivious of his presence.  In another he dignifiedly but kindly refused to participate and made them feel good by the graciousness of his refusal.  His imaginings increased in their romanticism: In the last he was jumping over the rope and tumbling with the dwarfs enthusiastically, brilliantly, so that they begged him to join their troupe.  The grotesque contrast between this day-dream and actual fact brought Chuck up short in his imaginings.

It snowed all New Year’s Eve, and nearly a foot of snow had accumulated by the time the sky cleared that night.  Chuck put on his coat and boots and went out to stand on the back porch.  A full moon glimmered luminously on the snow.  Over one of the pecan tree’s crusted limbs was scurrying a shadowy squirrel.  Ah, thought Chuck, how great it must be to be simply a squirrel looking for a pecan—a squirrel in all its squirrelness hunting pecans, unconscious, not wishing to be anything else!  Why were little boys afflicted with the urge to pretend to be something they are not?  Why must they torment themselves pretending they are cowboys—or dwarfs?  Ah, to be a squirrel!

And then he laughed.  In helpless, boyish giggles did he laugh.


Jimmy’s First Day at School

The story's author when he was about the same age as Jimmy and just as much a believer that the six-gun won the West.

The story’s author when he was about the same age as Jimmy and just as much a believer that the six-gun won the West. In this photo he is mimicking hero-rancher Clay Hardin, played by Errol Flynn, in the 1945 western “San Antonio”. People acquainted with that film will recognize the holster position as reflective of Hardin/Flynn’s.

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

NOTE TO READERS:  The gun-pushers in my town are preparing for their annual “Gun and Knife Show” this weekend. The event is similar to a flea market affair where attendees can haggle, swap and sell guns from pistols to rifles and shotguns, as well as various styles of hunting knives and daggers with artistically modelled handles.
     This, after all, is “the last frontier” where most of the coffee shop conversations are about cattle, horses, boots, thousand-dollar hats, and guns. This morning, in the coffee shop I most often frequent, the fellows at one table were so excited about the upcoming show that I expected one of them to start handing out cigars, such as new fathers do when their wives deliver.
     To help them celebrate, I thought I would write a short-story, which you can read below:

ʘ  ʘ  ʘ  ʘ  ʘ  ʘ

Mrs. Fopwrangler waited in the foyer of her ranch house for her son to enter from the kitchen, where he was just finishing his cereal.

“Come on now, Jimmy,” she called. “It’s almost time for the school bus, and I want to check out your new school clothes, and I have a surprise for you.”

Jimmy ran to his mother, whom he saw holding a new western belt with a holster latched onto it, and in the holster was a small caliber pistol. It was the gun his father had been teaching him to quick-draw and shoot. He had shot his little sister Elsie in the hand with it a couple of months ago; he hadn’t expected to miss the apple she was holding as his real target. But his parents were more than understanding.

“Don’t give it a second thought, Jimmy,” his father had said. “Doc Leech can fix her up as good as new in no time. Of course, if and when she gets married, she might have to wear her wedding ring on another finger, depending on how effectively Doc Leech reattached the one you hit.”

Today was Jimmy’s first day at school. All the kids were going to be toting their new pistols to school, which the Supreme Court had ruled they have a constitutional right to do. God help the rascal that tries to disarm them.

“But, now, don’t shoot any teachers or the principal, Jimmy,” Mrs. Fopwrangler admonished. “We’ll have to start paying them hazardous duty pay if you kids do that. And they’re already complaining they are underpaid.

“Only shoot armed intruders into the school…or bullies, Jimmy…after you’ve dared them to draw, of course. Gotta be fair, you know. Honestly, not many people are even aware what fair play is anymore! Now here’s your lunch. Get along, cowboy!”

Jimmy stood at the corner for about fifteen minutes. He started to get antsy. Why did he have to go to school, anyway? He figured that everything he needed to know, his pop and mom could teach him…in fact, already had taught him: how to shoot

Finally the bus arrived. The bus driver was some black guy whom Jimmy had never seen before. He was black and he had kept Jimmy waiting fifteen minutes. Jimmy was getting even more irritated; he pressed the palm of his right hand upon the butt of his pistol and gave the driver as steely a blue-eyed glare as any of his cowboy movie heroes had ever mustered.

But the bus driver only smiled and said, “Good morning, Jimmy. Hop in.”

That poured cold water on Jimmy’s heated temper. How did the fellow know Jimmy’s name? What else did he know about him?

After the kids were unloaded at the school, they were arranged in two columns, and little colored ribbons—half of them blue and half red—were pinned to their shirts and blouses. Jimmy got a red ribbon, which pleased him, since in all his six long years he had never liked the color blue. But then the teachers told them that the kids with blue ribbons would be in the “blue bird class” and be called “blue birds”, while those with red ribbons would be called “red birds”. This was to section them off into continuing groups during their first year, one teacher explained, until the teachers could learn their names, and the kids could learn each other’s names.

Jimmy was pleased to see that all the other kids—even the girls—were wearing their holsters, stuffed with pistols; and he was fascinated by the variety of holster designs and presumably calibers of pistols. This looks like it’s going to be a fun day here at school, Jimmy mused. Maybe we’ll have quick-draw competitions. Maybe even some target-shooting.

Well, it did not turn out that way at all. The kids had to sit in stiff-backed chairs with small desks in front of them. They had to memorize numbers and the alphabet. They had to sing songs about America the beautiful and some crazy girl named Clementine who led a bunch of ducks down to a river, tripped on a splinter, fell into the river and drowned. And her boyfriend couldn’t swim, so he didn’t try to save her. This place is loony! thought Jimmy, and he began to get hot under the collar again.

But there was this pretty little red-haired girl sitting across from Jimmy in the next row. He had never seen anything so pretty. Not even his horse. The sight of her sort of made the scene a little less nutsy.

When the bell rang for lunch period, a “blue bird” boy grabbed Jimmy’s lunch sack out of his hand, saying, “I’m bigger than you are, little red bird, and I’m hungrier, too, so I need this lunch more than you do. My dad’s a CEO and we’re one-percenters, so everything we want belongs to us. Got that?”

Jimmy’s eyebrows lowered. His jaw tightened. He was really, really angry. He backed up five paces and held out his right arm.

“Draw!” Jimmy demanded.

The blue bird backed up, too. Even his pistol was bigger. And it had a pearl-inlaid grip.

Both boys fired at the same time. And both missed their intended targets.

The blue bird’s bullet zipped past Jimmy’s ear and hit the vice-principal—who was on his way to prevent the duel—between the eyes.

Jimmy’s bullet also went past his adversary’s ear, ricocheted off a steel fire extinguisher, and hit the red-haired girl in the left side of her chest.

Both boys were taken to the principal’s office, written up with ten detentions each, lectured to about gun-fight protocol, and sent back to their classes.

Meanwhile, all the other students spent the day marveling at what great trick shots those two boys had performed: one right between the vice-principal’s eyes and the other straight into the little red-haired girl’s heart.

Jimmy pondered the situation all day and into the evening. I never got my lunch sack back, he moaned. And I sure am gonna miss that pretty little red-haired girl.

In the darkness of his bedroom, Jimmy quietly sang to himself:
“O my darling, O my darling, O my darling, Clementine!
You are lost and gone forever!
Dreadful sorry, Clementine!”


A Flight of Fancy


By Bob Litton

I deserted my once favorite café, where I used to sit and watch the Amtrak trains halt and some of their passengers disembark for a chance to stretch and gaze at the strange surroundings while the crew-change proceeded. (See my blog post of May 14, 2015 [initially published in September of 2013]). I ceased going there because three of my favorite waitresses had quit. It was an act of protest, on my part at least.

I started roosting at a café near the university, where the waitresses are most affectionate. I don’t know why they treat me so royally, since I have an unbreakable habit of constantly teasing them. I simply cannot stop. This new roost is not as decorative as the other one and is really quite noisy inside. The noise results from some regulars, the sound of whose loud conversations is magnified by cinder tile walls and rubber tile flooring. A TV tuned to a sports or a news channel, and a radio playing in the kitchen, contribute their own shares to the hubbub.

After several months of bearing up under that, I began last week to sit at one of three small tables on the porch outside. One drawback to the porch is that the railroad track is a little further away, to the south, and is largely blocked from view by some buildings and trees across the highway. I can still see part of one train car but no passengers. However, it is generally quieter on the porch, except on the weekends, when tourists and other types descend and sometimes overflow onto MY porch.

Recently, a couple about my age, whom I really like, parked in the area out front and approached. When they arrived at the porch, the woman smiled and asked, “Are you guarding the door?”

“Yes,” I replied. “I am charging a toll to enter. I am a troll charging a toll, but I’ll let you pass on in, gratis.”

After my acquaintances went inside, I pondered my potential as a troll—actually playing the part. Of course, for me to do so would require some heavy-duty facial makeup and deflation of my normally poetic vocabulary, for trolls are noted for their ugliness and stupidity; and I am noted for just the opposite: I might even have to change my name.

Then it struck me that, actually, I remembered very little about trolls, only vaguely recalling that they hung around bridges and accosted passersby. I wondered where they originated and in how many fairy tales they were characters.

When I got home, I checked them out on Wikipedia, where I discovered that the first known story of the troll was in “Three Billy Goats Gruff”: one of the stories collected by Norwegian folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe between 1841 and 1844. There have been successive variations on the story, but the classic tale has each of the first two goats, in turn, persuading the stupid but hungry troll to wait for the next goat, which will be larger and thus more filling than they; and the third goat is large and stout enough to butt the troll off the bridge and into the river. The troll survives, but he doesn’t bother anyone after that.

In my estimation, the most amusing of the variants cited by Wikipedia is that found in the children’s book Timakistan by Andri Snær Magnason, summarized as follows:

The variant features a kid, its mother, and her husband. When the mother goat tells the troll to eat her husband instead of her, “the troll lost his appetite. ‘What’s the world coming to?’ he cried. ‘The kid tells me to eat its mother, and she tells me to eat her husband! Crazy family!’ The troll goes home leaving the goats uneaten.

I suppose this version appeals to me because it resonates with the current state of society—both political and cultural. Children and, by extension, we adults are supposed to extract lessons for living from such a tale. So, what have we here? The first—and most obvious—moral we can note is: In order to drive away hucksters and muggers, act like you are crazy; better yet, become crazy!

But there is more to be said about the goats and the troll.

First of all, I never did get the intent of the adjective “gruff” as applied in this story. According to the dictionary, “gruff” has two meanings: (1) abrupt or taciturn in demeanor; and (2) of a voice, low and rough in pitch. I suppose one could turn aside an accosting character with such a tone, but it seems to me more likely that the smaller goats would have employed more pathetic, smarmy tones. The persona of a lobbyist would be most apropos.

But the more important element here is the wiliness of the smaller goats, who deflect the troll by sic’ing him onto the next goat. If the goats do not have such a plan, however, then all we can assume is that the first two are treacherous, for the troll might have been able to capture and eat the second goat, at least.

As for the troll, he might be stupid but only to a degree. Why should he go to all the trouble and possible injury in overpowering a smaller goat, which may not in fact satiate his hunger, when he could venture all on a late arrival that surely will come the closest to filling his belly? He just didn’t foresee how mean and tough a grown billy goat can be. Moreover, Magnason, in his version, has granted the troll some amount of morality.

Well, dear reader, I have to go now. I must dig up something else to wonder about. But, before I leave, what does the tale of “Three Billy Goats Gruff” say to you about life, about people?


A Little Shop Talk, or A Meditation on My Native Language

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

And then Elise—certainly that was her name—told us, merrily, that the brown spot on her waist was caused by her landlady knocking at the door while she (the girl—confound the English language) was heating an iron over the gas jet, and she hid the iron under the bedclothes until the coast was clear, and there was a piece of chewing gum stuck to it when she began to iron the waist and—well, I wondered how the chewing gum came to be there—don’t they ever stop chewing it?
 — From O. Henry’s story, “The Fool Killer”                                       


Now, I realize that looks like clumsy prose, dear readers; but it is not; it is just O. Henry getting settled into a character who is also the narrator in one of his tales. William Henry Porter—a.k.a. “O. Henry”—was in fact a gifted writer, with a vast, exact, concise vocabulary and a vibrantly rhythmic sentence flow. It is just that not all of his characters were similarly gifted.

But the reason I have quoted such a long sentence from one of O. Henry’s less successful stories is to bring to your attention the phrase I have underlined, for it frequently fits my own perspective on my native tongue, both when I try to compose in prose and in poetry. The rest of this essay will be a somewhat wandering description of the trials and tribulations I encounter in writing, sometimes reaching the point—as currently—of wanting to ditch the whole effort. I have not yet figured out why I cannot do so.

The problem with which the narrator quoted above is wrestling concerns the grammatical issue of pronoun reference. The poor fellow is faced with a sentence in which he is discussing two women and wants to limit referring to them more particularly as much as possible. He wants to employ the feminine pronouns, but that puts him in the uncomfortable predicament of needing to clarify to which “she” or “her” he is referring. Okay, it is not a major issue, but it is that very minimal value that is most frustrating for any writer because of the time it takes to rectify; if the troublesome question had been grander, then he would not have minded toiling with it so much. I find myself in similar grammatical choke-holds way too often.

A similar problem involves repetition of words in adjoining sentences. (Note as an example the word “similar” in the last sentence of the previous paragraph and in the first sentence of this paragraph.) The irritation is not due to any inappropriateness in a particular word—the term might be perfectly exact. No, rather than a lexicographical or grammatical problem, it is an aesthetic issue. Boy howdy! I discover much too frequently that I have repeated the same word in two adjacent sentences, and very often the discovery occurs after I have already published the blog post or sent the email: after the fact, it jumps right out at me as with a protruding tongue. Part of the annoyance results from the fact that I cannot quickly think of a synonym with which to replace the second use.

We also have some words the replicative forms of which I cannot explain. The only ones I can think of are “filibuster” and “cataract”, although a few others could probably be located by a really diligent searcher. I looked up both terms in an online dictionary and found these definitions:

Filibuster: (1) the use of irregular or obstructive tactics by member of a legislative assembly to prevent the adoption of a measure generally favored or to force a decision against the will of the majority. (2) an irregular military adventurer, especially one who engages in an unauthorized military expedition into a foreign country to foment or support a revolution.((Aaron Burr is a good example of that sort of fellow, I think.)) Now those two words are spelled the same, but for the life of me I cannot perceive any similarity between them other than the adjective “irregular”.

Cataract:  (1) a descent of water over a steep surface; waterfall, especially one of considerable size. (2) an abnormality of the eye, characterized by opacity of the lens.

Now, we have many shorter words—such as “lie”—which are laden with unrelated meanings; and that is natural, I think, because there are only so many syllables available to us; but “filibuster” and “cataract” are not at all short: what is the connection?

Then there is the matter of orthography—or, as it is more commonly known—spelling. Do not take this pronouncement as authoritative, for my acquaintance with languages is limited to English, Spanish, French, and Chinese (in none of them, except perhaps English, am I fluent); but I have heard and I believe that English is the most difficult of all modern languages to learn. Even the Asian languages come in second in terms of difficulty, despite the complexity of Chinese characters. But that comparison topic is fodder for another essay. In this place I want to note some of the spelling hurdles learners of our language face. There are two basic ones: (1) the descent of much of our vocabulary from classical Greek and Latin (e.g., psychology, February) as well as borrowings from more modern languages such as French and Spanish (e.g., boulevard, rodeo); and (2) the effect of nationalistic pride that caused us Americans to alter the forms of some words from their Franco/British originals (e.g., theatre to theater, savour to savor).

The same nationalism affected American punctuation rather stupidly, as I noted in the “Preface” to my CD-ROM book A West Texas Journalist, (several articles from which are included on this blog site): our use of quotation marks in the United States differs significantly from that in the United Kingdom, and not in any positive way.

Anyway, all these factors have impacted on English writing. In some aspects I prefer the American mode; in others, the British. Of course, there are other hazards related to prose-writing, but I will leave those for some possible later essay.

As for poetry, it presents its own problems. I haven’t written what I classify as “poetry” in more than a year. I think that probably my poetry-composing days are over. Here are a few of the reasons why. Rhyme is out-of-style right now. In fact, even meter is ignored often enough, gauging by what I have seen in the New Yorker magazine the past few years. Many of our modern “poets” appear to favor what has been defined as “prose poems”. They are prosaic pieces that often enough do not say anything, and when they do say something it might be vulgar (like two lovers caressing each other’s tongues) or it might be almost as vapid as “the wind and sun have dried our clothes, you see”. (That is not a direct quote; it’s just something I threw out for you to note the way even iambic pentameter can be employed to dramatize the dully mundane.)

When poets using English do venture into composing something with rhyme, they are almost always forced into at least one weak, forced rhyme match. It’s a wonder I still have as much hair on my head as I do, because, so many times, I have faced that intransigent line that has no perfectly fitting word to even approximately sound like the end word of a previous line. Of course, a perfectly acceptable way to avoid this issue is to write in blank verse, which Robert Browning employed quite marvelously. However, even when I have done that, I have encountered the ironical situation when the exact word that fits also rhymes with some word in the previous line; I rhymed when I had not intended to do so. For the purist, I tell you, poetry is a pool of quicksand!!!

There is much more I could say about the tribulations of prose and poetry, but I will save them for, perhaps, another day.


NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to read any comments or helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page above the title of this post. Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it. Thank you for reading. BL

Modes of Knowing

© 2015 By Bob Litton. All Rights Reserved.

By way of backstory here, I am going to have to beg your indulgence while I engage in meandering through a little bit of that old solipsistic sand again. Believe me, this brief digression is necessary toward an understanding of at least the motivation for the essay that follows.

Back in my teen years I realized that my family life was not ordinary and especially did not come anywhere near the ideal as portrayed on that old TV show “Father Knows Best”. My two older brothers were mostly absent, although occasionally showing up at the house which I shared with my mother. My father often enough appeared on one of the weekend days; but, since his visits were usually marred by temper tantrums, I was satisfied with the infrequency. This situation I contrasted with the family scenes at some of my friends’ homes, and the contrast was depressing.

I went to church by myself. There, too, the atmosphere was more reflective of a well-adjusted family, although a disparate one. Since I could not ask to be adopted into one of my friends’ families, I believe I subconsciously claimed the institutional church family as my own. In fact, for decades afterwards—church, air force stint, a lengthy university period—I relied on institutions to provide sustenance, organization, and meaning in my life. However, during all those years I saw evidences that the institutional homes had some problems, too. Everything devised by humans could never be perfectly whole; there were bound to be leaking cracks in the structure.

In those early years I found it excruciatingly painful searching for my “niche”—particularly my career niche—in the world’s wobbly organization. While sitting in the pew at church services, I observed the preacher and his honorable position in life. I liked the man so much I practically made a father-figure out of him, although I never told him so. After maybe a year, I met with him in his study and informed him that I wanted to dedicate my life to the ministry. He was obviously very glad to hear my declaration and made a point from that moment frequently to encourage me toward a pastoral career. On one memorable day, as we were in his car heading toward a regional church conference, he said, “Once God calls you, he will never let you go.”

I never followed through as far as pastoral training is concerned, although I eventually came to view my work as a newspaper editor a valid type of ministry in the sense of seeking to serve the people for their benefit. However, even while doing some good in my career as a journalist, I sometimes recalled that preacher’s promise…or warning…: ‟He will never let you go.” Sometimes, while bending over the composing table to paste up pages, I perceived an extraneous thought, “You are the man for the job.” Every time I felt that remark, I asked nobody in particular, under my breath, “What job?”

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to be a philosopher—a professional philosopher even though not a remunerated, academic one. However, I soon discovered that I suffered from one major handicap: lack of mathematical aptitude. Much, if not most, of modern philosophy is conducted through logical theorems and proofs, not in Socratic-style dialogues or Nietzschean aphorisms or in Humean essays. And alphabet letters combined with their attendant peculiar symbols and equations were always too opaque for me: I am not an abstract thinker.

My only recourse, I finally resolved, was to proceed as an outdated literary philosopher. Perhaps a truer denotation would be “an old-timey, cracker-barrel philosopher”. After all, is not every other profession being overturned by some new method of dealing with its material, even that of the symbolic logicians: they will probably find themselves to be fossils someday soon.

Now, besides the various methods of philosophy, there are also the several areas of philosophy—metaphysics, epistemology, ethics and aesthetics being the major fields. I have already published a few posts specifically concerning aesthetics and epistemology. I have also presented less definite offerings related, at least tangentially, to ethics and metaphysics. Today, I would like to present for your consideration a fuller meditation (as I like to call my philosophical essays) on the question of how we know, or come to know, some things: epistemology. While reading the following, keep in mind my anecdote of the composing table incident mentioned above.

When I began to seriously cogitate on the state of knowingness I was amusedly surprised to realize that there are several means of becoming aware of something. In fact, although I intend to discuss here the several that I pondered, I cannot honestly declare that there are not more.

Let me at first name and briefly define, in my own terms, the types of knowing that I have thought of:

(1) Basic:  Immediately at hand, e.g., our own names, although in some conditions, such as amnesia, the knowledge may not be presently available.
(2) Learned, often by Rote:  Memorized ad nauseam, each part except the first and last calls up another part via juxtaposition.
(3) “Tip-of-the-tongue”: We know the word or name, but it hides from us temporarily.
(4) Experiential: We know it’s difficult to fill a black or brown cup with coffee because we’ve done it.
(5) Déjà vu: Nearly everybody recognizes this term, and most acknowledge experiencing it: it is the French phrase for “already seen” and involves those odd moments when we seem to remember elements in a present situation that are very similar to elements of a previous experience, but we cannot remember the exact former situation.
6) Surmise: Given enough ancillary information, we deduce the only probable answer or outcome.
7) Mystical (Prescience): Internal, non-verbal, unsought, fleeting, ineffable knowledge.

Such is the list I have come up with. As I acknowledged above, more types of knowing might exist; I am not trying here to be all-inclusive. I just meant to emphasize that several types exist. Most of the modes above are certainly recognizable by everyone, so I will not dwell on numbers 1, 2, 4 and 6.

I will, however, briefly comment on numbers 3 and 5, both of which I find engrossingly fun to ponder.

Tip-of-the-tongue:   Imagine a very deep cellar with piles and piles of junk scattered on the floor. At the main floor (where you are) there are several stairways leading down to the cellar. You try them all but can’t reach the cellar (where whatever you want to retrieve is located), so you give up and decide to go to lunch down yet another stairway, at the other end of the long hallway; and, lo and behold, you bump into whatever it is you were looking for; it is coming up the stairs, looking for you.

Déjà vu: I don’t know if there are any scientific theories explaining it, but I have long had my own theory; viz., there is a whole aggregation of sensations and experiences jumbled together in our subconscious; sometimes we experience something which contains elements almost exactly reflective (or duplicative) of a previous experience, and thus we feel very fleetingly that we must have experienced the whole event before.

But the mode of knowing I want to concentrate on here (although it is very difficult to concentrate on) is number 7, the mystical or prescient.

Back in 1976, the late Julian Jaynes, at that time a psychology professor at Princeton University, published a book with a title almost as long as the book itself: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. In it, he posited that until around 3,000 years ago people could not reason as we do today; when confronted with novel or stressful situations, they were dependent upon audio hallucinations within the right side of the brain to tell them what to do. This manner of coping persisted until, eventually, people were forced by catastrophe or cataclysm into the necessity of thinking consciously. Jaynes claimed that Homer’s first epic, The Iliad, was composed by a person who was one of the pre-conscious group; while The Odyssey was composed by someone who was more “modern”. Prophecy, poetry and schizophrenia all owe their origins to the “bicameral mind”, according to Jaynes. So, we still have some people today who are of that sort. One of my former psychiatrists intimated, by suggesting that I read Jaynes’ book, that I am one of the pre-conscious folks. After reading a testimony I had written about my mystical experiences, he diagnosed me as schizo-affective.

Observations during recent years have led me to believe that he was probably right. On two occasions in the past decade, I have asked two young waitresses why they said to me, days prior, odd remarks. One had said, as I recalled, “You act like you own this place (the restaurant)”, and the other had said, “I’ve heard bad things about you”. Both later denied they had said any such things. On yet another occasion, while standing in line to pay for my breakfast at a café, I was informed by the man ahead of me, whom I knew but not well, “You think too much”. No conversation had passed between us before that comment; it just came “out of the blue”. Perhaps what I thought I had heard those persons say was what I actually heard them think.

In the recent past, I have happened upon more intriguing incidents of unconscious “knowing”. Unfortunately, I guess, both were episodes in fictional works: Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Joss Whedon’s TV series “Buffy the Vampire-Slayer”.

In Chapter 27 of Dracula, while Abraham Van Helsing and Mina Harker are proceeding through the wintry harshness of the Borgo Pass on their way to Dracula’s castle, where they intend to “kill” Dracula and his “brides”, Mina (who has already been bitten once by Dracula), points to a side road and says to Van Helsing, ‘This is the way.’

‘How know you it?’ asks Van Helsing.

‘Of course I know it,’ Mina answers, and then, pausing until she comes up with a plausible reason, utters, ‘Have not my Jonathan travelled it and wrote of his travel?’

Some other similar incidents, these involving Van Helsing as well as Mina, occur here and there in the novel. In Van Helsing’s case, we can suppose his knowledge derives from his broad and deep reading in books on the supernatural. However, the way he emphasizes it makes me believe his knowingness has a more sub-cranial basis. In Mina’s case, we sense that her knowledge comes from the developing infection caused by Dracula’s bite: She is being transformed slowly into a vampire.

In “Buffy the Vampire-Slayer”, the mystical knowledge comes to Buffy’s mother, Joyce Summers, in Season 5, Episode 9, when a brain-cancer, or the operation to remove it, affects her knowing capability. It causes her to realize that Dawn, whom she has mysteriously accepted as her daughter, is not in fact her daughter. She can’t explain how she knows it; she just does.

And in a manner similar to Van Helsing’s fount of supernatural knowledge, Buffy, in Season 5, Episode 21, realizes that “Glory the hell-god” will win in the contest between them. Says she to one of her friends: ‘I didn’t just know it; I felt it.’

I apologize for resorting to fictional works for my “evidence” here, but, except for my own personal experiences, that is pretty much all I can go by. However, does not the use of such elements by creative writers cause us to suspect that there is at least an ounce of truth in such phenomena? Is it related, perhaps, to Extra-Sensory Perception? Or even—to go the whole way—due to paranormal ability? Are not we all, on at least a few occasions, almost shocked by our own prescience?


NOTE TO NON-BLOGGER READERS: WordPress has its program set up where only WP bloggers can register “likes” and “comments” on this page. However, if you are a non-blogger, I would be glad to read any comments or helpful criticisms you might wish to share and, therefore, have left my email address in the “About” page above the title of this post. Please, no “snarky” comments, or I will have to delete it.
Thank you for reading.

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