In Which the Prof Is Handed the Lost Chords

In the early 1980s, when I was a music-obsessed teen (as opposed to my current status as a music-obsessed, middle-aged man), I would listen to the radio late at night. This was before what I’ve come to think of as the Great Homogenizing of radio, when massive conglomerates and their analytics made sure that formats and playlists were rigidly standardized from market to market: “I Heart Conformity!”

What this relative anarchy meant was that DJs had a degree of freedom in selecting what they might play. This was particularly true late at night, when the attitude seemed to be that only the weirdos were listening, so why not fly that freak flag? So if you were, say, a 15- or 16-year-old music geek in the Cincinnati suburbs, you might be listening to WEBN after midnight (in the summer, or yes, even on an insomniac school night), and you might hear Something Cool, something you might not have heard before, something you probably wouldn’t hear during regular business hours.

The risk, however, was that you might miss the introduction or backtroduction, and if you heard Something Cool, but didn’t catch the band’s name or song’s title, you were… what’s the word? Oh yeah, boned. You could call the DJ in the hopes that he or she might not have anything better to do than talk to a geek like you and ask him what he had played, but honestly, even late-night DJs usually had better things to do than talk to a dork in Union, KY at 2:36 a.m. So I… um, you… had to wait for another night and another spin.

And if a song only made it to air a few times, flashing briefly into the digital clock radio I won in a spelling bee, I might hear it and never find out what it was. It would be like catching a glimpse of a potential soulmate as you boarded trains on opposite subway platforms. The memory would appear from time to time, but you knew it was something here and gone. An eidolon of song.

Well, for decades now one such song has popped up in my head on occasion. I’ve mentioned it here before, and if you’ll allow me to quote myself:

It was something of a hard-rock/AOR track, with a tempo and groove rather like the hook in Blue Oyster Cult’s “Burnin’ for You”, and a similar sort of smooth production. But all I can remember is what I think is a snatch of the chorus (Backing vocals rendered in parentheses):

It’s all right (It’s all right it’s all right)

It’s OK (It’s OK, it’s OK)

[Something something] from the end of the night to the end of the day.

No one I knew could ID the song then, though a couple of my friends (fellow weirdos, from a time in which your radio station of choice was a tribal affiliation) vaguely recognized it.

But a few weeks ago, while I was going through similar angst about a band from a TV show in 1981, my friend Will connected me with a fellow named Kurt Blumenau, whose interests seem to parallel mine to a frightening degree. Blumenau instantly had the answer, which allowed me to rediscover a New Wave band called The Innocents (including Thomas Newman, Randy’s brother [Correction: Randy’s cousin, not brother. — Mondo.] and now a highly successful film composer in his own right.)

So I figured if it worked once, why not try it again? Last night I reached out to Mr. Blumenau, sharing the information I’ve shared with you. This morning, he had sent me the answer. The band was Hawks, from Fort Dodge, Iowa, and they were one of the many acts of the era that had a two-album deal and then vanished. This power pop gem led off their debut album in 1981. And now the 15-year-old inside this 56-year-old can sleep a little easier. Thanks, Mr. Blumenau.

(SIDE NOTE: At least one of my subscribers informs me that my embedded music links aren’t working on his e-mailed copies of these posts. Consequently, I added the hot link in what is now the penultimate paragraph. Let me know if it helps.)

Posted in Culture, Music, Pixel-stained Wretchery | Leave a comment

Sunday Potpourri: Mother’s Day Edition

Happy Mother’s Day, gang! The Spawn is spending the afternoon with the Main Squeeze’s family up in Terpville, but spent nearly an hour chatting with Mrs. M yesterday afternoon, maintaining her record of being a Good Kid. And I hope all of us can have a moment today to feel like a Good Kid, a Good Mom, or maybe even both.

***

The semester is winding up; finals begin tomorrow, with Commencement on Saturday, and then I’m off until the two courses I’ll teach in June. Naturally, then, yesterday afternoon brought what I recognized as the symptoms of my annual cold which usually develops into bronchitis, and sometimes (in Very Special Episodes) into pneumonia. So it looks like I’ll be checking in with a local sawbones tomorrow in an attempt to nip this thing in the bud.

No, I don’t believe it to be the ‘Rona. As I said, this pretty much happens to me every year, so I know the drill. And of course, there’s work to be done. One of my classes — the entry-level creative writing course — is already in the bag, and I put together the final exam for my film class before I started this post. I still need to write the exam for my Edward Gorey course, and there’s some leftover grading to be done for my freshpeeps.

With luck, I’ll have everything in the can by Thursday.

***

Although I spent a substantial portion of my life in Kentucky, I’ve never been keen on the horse industry. I’m leery of anything that’s big enough to trample me, and I never really had the money to gamble on racing. In fact, I’ve never been to a horse racing event, despite spending years in the shadow of two important tracks — Keeneland for the thoroughbreds and the Red Mile for the trotters. I know folks who go to Louisville for the Derby, or who have parties and wear fancy hats and such. But that’s just never been my thing. Maybe Mint Juleps help; I don’t know.

Still, I have to admit that I was tickled to see an 80-1 longshot win the Kentucky Derby yesterday. Watching replays, it seemed as though Rich Strike simply found an extra gear at the race’s end, and watching him catch and pass the favorites was impressive. And as I learned more about the horse and his jockey, trainer, and owner, it just strikes me as a classic underdog story. We can all use those occasionally — reminders that every once in a while, the $30,000 claimer can outrun the products of the syndicates and industrial class trainers. After all, don’t most of us feel like $30,000 claimers from time to time?

***

Since it’s Mothers Day, I’ll wrap things up with a couple of songs for the moms in my life. When Mrs. M and I started dating, I was heading back to Northern KY every two or three weeks to visit family and friends, and to stock up on leftovers while doing free laundry. Somehow this became the song I used to let her know that I was always looking forward to coming back. Eventually it was our first dance at our wedding. From Turtle Creek, PA and 1966, these are the Vogues.

Some years after that, toward the end of my folks’ lives, I introduced them to the work of Tom Waits, telling them they would either love it or hate it. As it turned out, they loved it, and my dad wound up appropriating my copy of Rain Dogs as his own. Not long after that, my mom told me she had run across another Waits song she really liked, so I got her that CD for Christmas. Here it is.

See you soon!

Posted in Culture, Education, Family | Leave a comment

Sucker Bets

… and the odds will not improve.

This is part of why I tell my students to seek anything but an academic career, unless they genuinely can’t conceive of doing anything else. On the upside, I got a short story out of it.

Posted in Culture, Education, Why I Do What I Do | Leave a comment

Saturday Afternoon Potpourri: Bloggiversaries and Transitions Edition

This post marks 12 years of the blog’s existence. It started at the Mad Dog’s instigation (so now you know who should be blamed). Mike had killed our folks not quite a year earlier, and mentally, I was scrabbling about for distractions — things to occupy my mind other than The Big Noise.

As part of that scrabbling, I got into discussions of current events, chiefly with the Mad Dog — we both knew we’d disagree, but we also knew that we were good enough friends that the stakes would stay low. After enough of that, he suggested that I step into the larger online world. I figured it was worth a try, even though I also figured I would probably fool with it for a few weeks or a month before losing interest, as has been my habit about most things in my life. Well, in the words of Rod Stewart and Ron Wood, “Look how wrong you can be.”

From there, I looked into sharing my ideas with some other folks over the next year or two, crossposting occasionally at Sam Karnick’s The American Culture. After some of that, another fellow at TAC had run across a couple of short stories I had on my (now long gone) personal webpage. He asked if it would be all right to run them. Sure, why not?

But then something happened. If someone outside my immediate circle wanted to put my fiction into the world, did that mean that maybe people might want more of it? As it happened, I had a novel I had written in the early 90s, shopped around to agents, and then dropped into the trunk (or the hard drive, to be more accurate.) Between that time and the early years of the blog, the indie publishing industry had happened in much the same way the indie music revolution happened in my first trip through grad school. Because I had been busy being a dad, going back for the doctorate, and earning tenure, I hadn’t really noticed it, or at most thought of it as being a shinier version of vanity presses.

I shopped the book around again, with a close call at the first place I tried. The next place I tried liked it. They published it and promptly went out of business — I don’t think it was my fault, but one never knows; after all, a lot of places I’ve played have closed down over the years as well. But I had a book out (if only briefly), so why not try writing some more stories that might draw attention to the book?

After some of that, I heard from Lawrence Block, with whom I had struck up a friendship a few years before, bringing him to speak at Newberry a couple of months before I started the blog. El Bee told me he was putting together an anthology of stories based in NYC. Would I be interested in trying my hand? Well, I had never been to New York City, but I had been to Toronto, and there was a subway there, and, and, and…

… and that was how “Bowery Station, 3:15 a.m.” saw the light of day. Since then, I’ve appeared in another five or so of Mr. B’s anthos, along with a few others, with at least another couple waiting in the on-deck circle. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive kind notice in both USA Today and the NYTBR. Perhaps most movingly, Larry has said — in public, yet! — that I’m “first and foremost a writer.” I have no plans to get a tattoo, but if I did… in Courier New type.

So, twelve years into the blog now. For years it was pretty much a daily thing, again because I was trying to drown out the Big Noise, and that it’s less frequent now probably indicates that the Noise has dulled with time, although it never really goes away. But looking at it this afternoon, it seems to have provided an avenue back to some things I maybe should have been doing all along, and I see no reason to stop. Thanks to all of you who have accompanied me for all or part of that dozen years, whether you agreed or not. I’ve been glad to meet you.

***

In other news, it’s been a big week for the Spawn. When she started grad school up in Terpville in 2019, she didn’t have an assistantship and she was an out-of-state student, so she took a student loan to make sure she had a roof over her head and such while she began work on her degree. Because she’s hard working and bright, she landed an assistantship before too long, which took care of tuition while paying enough of a stipend to (in the words of Dorothy Parker) keep body and soul apart. So after that first semester, she stopped taking loans, living the academic life of shabby gentility.

Then COVID hit, and with it, the moratorium on student loan interest and payments. All the same, the Spawn figured that she didn’t live particularly high on the hog, so why not go ahead and make payments on the loan and at least pay it down a little bit before she graduated? (N.B.: She gets this from Mrs. M; I am the pecuniary equivalent of a submarine with screen doors.)

Anyway, this culminated on Monday, when she successfully paid off that loan from 2019. Combining that with the fact that she did her undergrad here in Mondoville (where the employee benefits include tuition for dependents — one reason I went into this line of work), and she’ll graduate on 20 May without the burden of student debt.

Of course, there was still the matter of things like rent and groceries after 20 May, and while she established a rainy day savings (with the bulk of that original loan as the starter), she didn’t want to go to the umbrella right away, so she has been looking for a post-graduation gig for the last couple of months. That came to a resolution on Thursday, as she accepted a contract position as an archivist at the Federal Reserve, beginning the Monday after she graduates. She figures that it’s a good entry into her chosen career in records management, and given her track record up there, who am I to doubt her?

Mrs. M and I will be going up there for Commencement, and we should be easy to spot — we’ll be the ones basking in pride and reflected glory.

***

Meanwhile, Monday begins our final week of classes for the semester. I’ve made it through the first wave of Gradeapalooza, but the second, larger one comes this week. I don’t know if it’s the aftereffects of years of COVID, the fact that this semester is tighter than it traditionally has been (fewer weeks, because of the addition of a January term), or just that I’m getting older, but everyone — faculty, students, staff — all of us are dragging at this point. We’ll all make it through, I think, but this one has been something of a grind.

***

Last week, I mentioned the death of a dear friend of mine from my undergrad days. William, James’s roommate (and of course a close friend in his own right) recounts hearing the news at his blog, and offers a brilliant description of our friend: “a central star in the constellation of connections from that era”. I learned today that there will be a memorial in late June, at the same place where we met to remember his late wife just a couple of years ago.

I’m at the age now where I know this is going to happen more often — Goldengrove may always be unleaving, but the leading edge of my generation is beginning to see the “worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie.” That will only increase; such is the fate of Man. On the other hand, I take some solace in the fact that the last time I saw James — at his wife’s memorial — I was able to tell him one of the worst jokes in my substantial arsenal. As I told my students last week, we don’t get too much time, so we should at least try to make each other laugh along the way.

***

I’ll wrap things up here, and since I quoted the lyrics earlier, I’ll go with a better known song than I usually do to close.

The first few Rod Stewart albums after his departure from the Faces are easily my favorite of his career. There’s a shambolic, organic nature to them that the years would eventually buff out, and this, the title cut of his Every Picture Tells a Story album, is the perfect example of what I mean. In particular, I adore the loose, fiery drumming of the late Micky Waller — it drives the song without any sort of showy technique, and it’s one of my go-to performances for inspiration in my own playing. So have a bit of 1971, huh?

See you soon!

Posted in Broken Glass Waltzes, Culture, Education, Family, Music, Pixel-stained Wretchery, Why I Do What I Do | 1 Comment

Sunday Afternoon Potpourri: Home Stretch Edition

We have two weeks of class left this semester, followed by finals, with Commencement on 14 May. It’ll be the first one I’ve attended in a couple of years, as the college attempted to reduce indoor crowds during the height of COVID. This year, for the first time in my career, the plan is to hold the ceremony outdoors at the stadium. The downside of this will be that I’ll be wearing the Hefty Bag that is my academic gown on a South Carolina morning in May. I may request that we get the vapor coolers our football team uses and aim them at the faculty. But we’re not there yet.

***

Two of my classes this term were small, so I’m hoping Gradeapalooza will be milder than usual this time around (he said, knocking wood). I’ll make up for it this fall, with three freshman-level classes (two FroshComps and an inquiry class on conspiracy theories), along with an upper-level course in contemporary/urban fantasy and magic realism. We’re expecting a pretty sizable incoming class, so the classes aimed at freshpeeps will likely be at or slightly above cap. It’s not nearly as bad as it once was — when I got here, Mondoville’s cap for FroshComp was 25, and these days it’s closer to 15 or 16. But it’s still a lot of Freshman writing to evaluate. Ah, well — beats selling tires and batteries.

***

For years, I’ve included the following text in every syllabus I use:

PLEASE NOTE: THIS COURSE DOES NOT CONSTITUTE AN ENDORSEMENT OF ANY PARTICULAR CRITICAL/POLITICAL PERSPECTIVE. YOUR INSTRUCTOR MAY AGREE WITH ANY, ALL, OR NONE OF THE IDEAS EXPRESSED BY THE ARTISTS AND SCHOLARS WE EXAMINE, AND IF HE ACTS AS IF HE DOES AGREE, HE MAY BE FAKING IT.

YOU ARE NOT REQUIRED TO AGREE WITH ANY OF THESE WORKS OR SCHOLARS. YOU ARE, HOWEVER, REQUIRED TO REGARD THEM WITH RESPECTFUL ATTENTION. IF YOU DISAGREE WITH THEM AND CAN BACK IT UP WITH REASONED ARGUMENT AND EVIDENCE, COOL. IF YOU DISAGREE, BUT CAN’T BACK IT UP WITH REASONED ARGUMENT AND EVIDENCE? TOUGH BREAK – GET A HELMET. YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO BE COMFORTABLE.

At the very least, I figure none of my students can reasonably claim they weren’t warned. (Granted, the odds of their reading the syllabus aren’t great, but that’s on them.)

In any case, I figured this was just part of my antediluvian approach to pedagogy, along with things like lecturing as a primary form of course delivery. But a couple of things have happened in recent months that made me raise my eyebrows a bit.

A former colleague of mine is now the head of a high school for exceptionally bright kids in another state in the Deep South. She reached out to me some months ago, asking me if I could pass her the boilerplate above. Apparently, many of her faculty members were terrified of saying something to which a student might take offense, with the tar-and-feather reaction that often makes the news these days. In the interest of instilling some spirit in those teachers, she passed my caveat to them, mentioning that I’ve used it all along. She told me later that some of her faculty hadn’t realized that this was an option. When she told them I’ve been including that since at least 2007 (and I think before that, but who the hell wants to go back and look? — Prof. M), jaws dropped. Good enough, say I.

Another data point emerged last week. I had to endure got to participate in post-tenure review this semester — a relatively new development here at Mondoville — and as part of that, I had to submit recent versions of my syllabi. I did my thing and promptly forgot about the whole business. However, I was startled the other day when a colleague from another department (who is on the post-tenure review committee) stopped by my office to tell me that 1) he adored that section of the syllabus, and had posted its ultimate line (properly attributed, thank you) both on his office door and just inside the door to his classroom. Now, this particular prof is one of the few who have been here longer than I have, but he’s a rather beloved member of the faculty, so if he’s endorsing my boilerplate, maybe there’s some hope?

***

I got Pfizer #4 on Thursday, so I’m as fully dosed against the ‘Rona as one can get these days. Other than a bit of soreness in my shoulder (which could just as easily been a bit of chronic bursitis — that happens with drummers) and a touch of fatigue, I didn’t notice any particular ill effect. I’m still hoping for that prehensile tail, though.

***

My film class watched Touch of Evil this past week, and last night I watched a documentary I discovered a few days ago: 2014’s Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles. Earlier in the week, my class and I watched a subtitled German documentary of Billy Wilder (who made three of the movies we watched this term.) I know I tend to melancholy in general, and the loss of a dear friend this week didn’t help a bit, but seeing these two remarkable artists being doomed to obsolescence late in their careers (and in Welles’s case, often finding his vision thwarted by the system of his era) only served to deepen the gloom. It did, however, remind me that I probably should buy Chimes At Midnight for the next time I teach the Shakespeare course.

Meanwhile, this morning I ran across an article by Steven Whitty, which I also shared with my film kids. In a lot of ways, the article presents my rationale for teaching the course. And as I read it, it reminded me of a point I’ve mentioned a number of times over the years, here and elsewhere.

The late Roger Scruton suggested that while good teachers love their students, great ones love their subjects, and are fired by the determination to make sure that information, those stories, those ideas, survive for another generation. I’m not a great teacher, I don’t think, but I do have the passion to make sure that my kids at least have a chance to learn about Welles and Wilder, or Edward Gorey, or in other courses, E.A. Robinson or the Pearl-poet, just so they don’t have to be imprisoned in the eternal, instantaneous present.

***

And with that, I think I’ll close for a bit. But how about some music? I’ve written before about “Mop Top Mike” Markesich’s magisterial Teen Beat Mayhem!, a nearly encyclopedic compendium of ’60s garage rock. I leaf through it on occasion, and there are a couple of things that always attract my attention. One of them is when Markesich (who made trips to the Library of Congress to track down addresses of the songwriters) can’t tell me where an artist came from, and the other is when he describes a track as “crude”, or better yet, “Ultra-crude.” These guys check both boxes. So from Parts Unknown (like a masked professional wrestler), here are The 4th Amendment (not to be confused with Mobile, AL’s Fourth Amendment), with a swinging, folky little number from April of 1968 called “Whiskey Man” (no relation to the Who song.)

See you soon!

Posted in Culture, Education, Literature, Medievalia, Music, Why I Do What I Do | 1 Comment

So Long, James.

James Kolasa, one of my best friends from my years in Lexington, died this morning. I can’t say it was out of a clear blue sky — he had been in failing health for some time, in fact longer than I knew. A clouded sky, perhaps, but it was nonetheless both sudden and unexpected. He is predeceased by his wife, Amy, and survived by his mother and by his son and daughter, one of whom is in college and the other in high school.

I met James during the first of my two years at Transy. He and his roommate, Will, were a year ahead of me; both were Computer Science majors (as was I in those early days), and were both heavily involved with the college radio station, so it was pretty natural that we’d connect. While I was a year younger, I seemed to take on the role of relatively harmless bad influence and iconoclast during our time together — it has historically been a role that suits me. I can remember James saying at least once that he had almost never dropped f-bombs before he started hanging around with me. Likewise, when my parents came to visit one weekend (staying in a guest suite in one of the dorms), my dad bought a couple of sixes of beer (Killian’s Red, if I remember correctly), which he shared with any of my interested friends and me (although we may all have been underage.) A couple of years ago, when James’s daughter began college, he told me that ever since then, he had hoped to be the “cool dad” and do the same thing when his kids were in school. “And it turns out her school is a dry campus!”

The three of us hung together quite a lot in the way that college kids do (or did) — hanging around over meals, during bull sessions in the computer lab and radio station, watching MTV in the student center, playing arcade games, and talking about music (mainly), old movies, and whatever else happened to be going on at the time. I’m reasonably sure that he bought my share of the occasional pizza — I was usually broke during those two years, as my folks were trying to dig their way out of financial trouble. James and I crushed on some of the same girls, including one I’ve written about before, but it didn’t usually get in the way. In the meantime, I turned him on to some of my tastes, most notably the poems of Archibald MacLeish and the music of Yes, but also Eraserhead and the original Dawn of the Dead And when my life went pear-shaped during my second year and I was sliding into depression, James was someone who put up with it more than he had to, and more than he likely should have.

After I got bounced from Transy, I kept somewhat in touch with Will and James (Will lived in the next town from mine, and we’d hang when he was home on weekends or breaks), but James and I didn’t really reconnect until I came back to Lexington to do my M.A., having decided to play to my main strength in English and such. He was at UK as well, doing a Masters in CompSci and living in a small house down the street from where my band rehearsed. Unlike my cinder-block grad housing apartment, James’s place had effective air conditioning and he had a stereo with a CD player and a computer on which we could play games. We would stay up until stupid o’clock enjoying both. We also used his computer to design and print flyers for my band, and I could generally count on him to be at our gigs.

Even then, he was someone with wide-ranging interests. He started brewing his own beer (Kolasabrau, with a picture of his ancestral Poland on the dot-matrix-printed label) in grad school, and would become a master gardener and a beekeeper in his later years, lecturing on both around his eventual day job as a computer science prof at Lexington’s local community college. He also spent some time working at a tobacconist’s shop in the Rupp Arena complex and accumulated a number of pipes, indulging in the habit on an occasional basis. Influenced by Yes’s Chris Squire (and my baleful encouragement), he bought a cheap bass and amp from a local music store, and would plunk on it from time to time before eventually selling it to another of our mutual friends. He was also fond of historical wargames, of the Avalon Hill variety — a particular favorite of his was Kingmaker, which I played with him a couple of times, always winding up with peals of laughter and my early elimination. (I may read about the stuff, but I lack the temperament for medieval politics.) At any given point, the evidence of his multifarious fancies would be strewn about his home, both before and after he met up with Amy and I met Mrs. M. We also would hang out at the same campus bar and grille locations, him drinking beers while I usually drank cokes, occasionally indulging myself. (The two times in my life at which I’ve been inebriated were both with James, leaving me smiling and wondering who was the bad influence on whom.)

The years did what they do, and along the way, as I mentioned, James married Amy (I was a groomsman and caught the garter at their wedding) and I found Mrs. M. Geography intervened again. James and Amy remained in central Kentucky, while Deb and I went to the Cincinnati area, then Muncie and Mondoville. Will had done his grad work at the U of Illinois, and became a professor at a college about 15 miles from Lexington, and every once in a while, we’d get together for a Kentucky football game. James and Amy created a homestead on the rural outskirts of Lexington, where they raised small crops, small critters, and their two children.

After my folks were killed, Mrs. M and I had frequent occasion to travel between Mondoville and Northern KY, and when we could, we would occasionally meet up with the Kolasas at our favorite local restaurant, just the four of us, and down the line, with their kids.

Along the way, it became abundantly clear that he and Amy had been a spectacular couple, to the point that I couldn’t really think of James without her, and without her combination of joy, exasperation, and the ability to make and do things. James spun in many directions, but Amy was (to borrow John Donne’s expression) the point that made his circle just.

We stayed in touch via social media, as one does these days, and that was how I learned first of Amy’s final illness, and then of James’s own declines and his struggle to serve as a single parent. That both are gone and that the kids are now orphaned is one of life’s cruelties that will trouble me until a day when I am allowed to see answers currently beyond my understanding.

When I teach, the discussions frequently turn to theodicy and the questions about bad things happening to good people. James and Amy were both good people to whom terrible things happened. I’ll miss them both, but I knew James better. He was smart, kind, funny, and fascinated by almost everything he encountered in life. He was a good guy, and a man in full, and one of the best natured people I’ve had the privilege to know.

A sudden, superstitious thought: Who will tell his bees?

As I mentioned above, I introduced James to the band Yes, and in particular to the work the band’s charismatic bassist, Chris Squire. For years after that, Yes provided the soundtrack for our hangouts. I thought it would be fitting to listen to the band this afternoon, so I turned on Spotify, with the Yes playlist set to random. Of course, the first track to play was the track often thought to be Squire’s definitive statement.

James, I’m pretty sure you picked that one for me — but I wish you hadn’t left so soon.

Posted in Culture, Education, Faith, Family, Literature, Music, Pixel-stained Wretchery, Uncategorized, Why I Do What I Do | 2 Comments

Adventures in Colloquialism

I was e-mailing with an editor (not to be confused with Anne Elk — Miss) this morning about a story of mine that’s coming out this fall. The subject was copy edits, necessary and/or suggested. I’m always glad to get these, as I’m a lousy typist, and also prone to the usual sort of solecisms that afflict us all. This one, however, was one of those instances in which I was able to stand pat.

The story in question is set in Cincinnati in the 1930s. Third-person narrator, but the viewpoint is that of the protagonist (what we called “Third-person limited” narration back at Boone County High School, and perhaps still do.) Anyway, the character realizes he “didn’t know from pearls.” My editor (who is based in Britain) wondered if I had perhaps left something out (e.g., “didn’t know marbles from pearls”, although had that been the case, it would have been better to my ear to reverse the order, along the lines of “didn’t know pearls from ball bearings.”)

However, the construction I used is (or perhaps was — it may have fallen out of use in recent decades) a little different. As I wrote it, what is basically happening is that the word from replaces the more commonly used about. Certainly, saying Character X “didn’t know about pearls” would have worked. But my usage, “didn’t know from pearls”, seemed to me more suited to a character who is somewhat down and out. Certainly, it felt more colorful to me.

All the same, I found myself wanting to explain myself, or at least to reassure myself that this wasn’t merely a linguistic quirk on my part. A quick check of my memory revealed the line from Tom Lehrer’s “Lobachevsky“, where the mathematician declares, “This, I know from nothing, what I am going to do.” But Lobachevsky is a Russian, and Lehrer is playing with the English accordingly. So it was time to do a little more digging.

Sure enough, I found (after a couple of instances that dealt with the sort of thing I mentioned earlier, like “knowing one’s ass from one’s elbow,” to say nothing about one’s being able to recognize Shinola) that my usage does in fact have a heritage. Specifically, I discovered that my usage is what linguists and lexicographers call a calque, a direct rendering from another language. In this case, the other language is Yiddish, the phrase being Er veys nit fun.

Given that the Cincinnati area (where I spent a significant portion of my life) has a significant population of German descent (and is home to America’s largest Oktoberfest), and a substantial Jewish population as well, it was enough to justify (to me, anyway) the idea that a fellow in mid-1930s Cincinnati might very well use that particular dialect.

This sounds like a lot of hassle, I guess, but it really didn’t take me more than a couple of minutes, and it gave me more justification for my phrasing than I might otherwise have had. Of course, there’s no reason to antagonize my editors, and most folks probably would have seen the matter as inconsequential. But as a noted Ninja Turtle said (perhaps apocryphally), “Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle.” My work is nowhere near perfection, of course, but I will stand up for the occasional trifle.

And then I went to talk to my freshpeeps about their annotated bibliographies.

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Happy Easter, 2022

As I posted on social media this morning:

When I was young, Christmas was my favorite holiday, and I grew to love the unlikeliness of God in the manger.

As I am older and have learned of loss, I have learned to love the unlikeliness of the empty tomb even more. Happy Easter, everyone.

And I mean it. I completely get Bruce McCulloch when he says “Cynicism is my whiskey,” and I’ve had me quite a few over the years. There’s a lot of the sardonic in my writing and in my outlook, accompanying a familial tendency toward depression.

But then I think of Evelyn Waugh. By most accounts, Waugh was a devout Catholic. . . and a thoroughly unpleasant person. At one point, someone he knew asked, “How can you say such things and claim to be a Christian?”

Waugh replied, “Imagine how much worse I might be if I weren’t.”

Similarly, while I have what various folks would call a constrained or tragic vision of our world and capabilities, my belief in the empty tomb, my belief that no matter how wrong we get things, the ultimate outcome, the true reality, is positive — that allows me to have hope.

Easter allows me the will to continue. A remarkable aspect is that it does this even when I don’t or can’t find it in myself to remember that. I can make this trip because I know there is a destination better than I can imagine.

Again, happy Easter, everyone.

Posted in Faith, Music, Why I Do What I Do | 1 Comment

Lenten Devotional, 2022

As long-time readers of this blog know, the college sponsors devotionals during certain times of year — most notably Advent and Lent. Members of the college community write and record them, and they’re shared on a local radio station and on the college website.

While in the past, we’ve had one each day of the season, this year we went with a weekly devotional, and this was my week. Here’s what I wrote, and if you’d like to hear me reading it, you can go here.

John 14 (KJV)

Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me.

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.

And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.

And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.

Thomas saith unto him, Lord, we know not whither thou goest; and how can we know the way?

Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.

If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.

Philip saith unto him, Lord, show us the Father, and it sufficeth us.

Jesus saith unto him, Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? he that hath seen me hath seen the Father; and how sayest thou then, Show us the Father?

10 Believest thou not that I am in the Father, and the Father in me? the words that I speak unto you I speak not of myself: but the Father that dwelleth in me, he doeth the works.

11 Believe me that I am in the Father, and the Father in me: or else believe me for the very works’ sake.

12 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father.

13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

14 If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.

15 If ye love me, keep my commandments.

16 And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever;

17 Even the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him: but ye know him; for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you.

18 I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.

19 Yet a little while, and the world seeth me no more; but ye see me: because I live, ye shall live also.

20 At that day ye shall know that I am in my Father, and ye in me, and I in you.

21 He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.

22 Judas saith unto him, not Iscariot, Lord, how is it that thou wilt manifest thyself unto us, and not unto the world?

23 Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.

24 He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings: and the word which ye hear is not mine, but the Father’s which sent me.

25 These things have I spoken unto you, being yet present with you.

26 But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.

27 Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

28 Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I.

29 And now I have told you before it come to pass, that, when it is come to pass, ye might believe.

30 Hereafter I will not talk much with you: for the prince of this world cometh, and hath nothing in me.

31 But that the world may know that I love the Father; and as the Father gave me commandment, even so I do. Arise, let us go hence.

            The 14th chapter of John’s gospel chapter opens as Christ knows His Passion and death are coming all too soon. He tells his disciples that even when he is not physically with them, he is preparing their ultimate destination.

Of course, a destination requires a journey, and a wise traveler relies on some sort of map, some set of directions. Thomas asks Jesus what most of us would see as a sensible question: “How are we supposed to get where we’re going? How can we find our way?” And that brings us back to Jesus’s words. He tells Thomas (and all of us) that He is the way. If we follow Him, we’ll get to where we’re supposed to be.

You’ll notice that he doesn’t tell anyone – not Thomas, not us – that it’s going to be an easy trip. In fact, the trip is sometimes hard and painful. It certainly was for Jesus, and so it was for the disciples, and so it is for all of us during our lives. There’s a reason we often hear parts of this chapter read at funerals, which mark some of our hardest times, the times at which we must say farewell to the people we love and cherish. And we all know there are other pains and struggles as we make our journeys through this world.

In those moments that bring us shadow without the comfort of shade, it may be hard or even impossible to see Christ going before us. But just as we believe in God, Christ tells us, we must believe in Him, and in the knowledge that we need to keep following Him, that this will take us to the place that has long been prepared for us. We will not make the journey alone; Christ promises us that there will be, that there is, cause for comfort and hope even in the darkest steps we take. “I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life,” he says. We need to follow Him; the journey awaits. “Arise. Let us go hence.”

Heavenly Father, thank you for the gift of your Son, both road and signpost, as we follow our journey of reconciliation with You. Thank you for the Comforter who carries us forward even when it’s hard to take another step. And thank you for the peace You promise us at the journey’s end. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.

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Sunday Afternoon Potpourri: Bare-Faced Truth Edition

It’s been a cool, but brightly sunny weekend. I confirmed the “brightly sunny” part by going to a Mondoville lacrosse match yesterday afternoon and getting a noticeable sunburn in a mere two-and-a-half hours. It’s the classic “farmer’s tan” pattern — a little on the forearms, more from the collar to the hairline. Fortunately, I was wearing my baseball cap, so it could have been worse. Adding insult to injury, Mondoville lost the game, getting doubled up by the #4 team in the country. We were ranked #19 going into the game, so the result isn’t exactly a shock, but we had hoped for better.

But now I’m in my office, and the blinds are working as they ought, so here we go…

***

The big news on campus is that our indoor masking mandate comes to an end at midnight tonight, at least for the time being. Profs have the prerogative of continuing to require masking in their classrooms and offices, and I know some of my colleagues will insist on that, but I’m not planning to require that of my kids. I told my classes on Friday that they are welcome to mask if they wish, but it’s each individual’s call.

I’m certainly looking forward to working without mine. I’ve followed the rules throughout, and on the scale of human misery, the inconvenience of wearing a mask while I lecture is pretty low. But as I’ve noted in the past, my hearing difficulties have meant that understanding my students’ speech has been even more of a challenge than usual, and of course it’s hard to pick up on facial cues with masks in the way.

But mainly, I’m just looking forward to seeing and my kids without any of us having to fiddle with the darned things. I try to think of my classroom as a community — of writers, of readers, of learners — and I think it’s harder to have that with masks. They don’t only conceal our expressions; they also invite us to see one another chiefly as vectors of disease, to be isolated (or depending on your views of masking effectiveness, pseudo-isolated) and restricted.

As I said, I’ve followed the rules (with the occasional absent-minded lapse that is my professorial right), and should the administration reinstate a mask rule in the time ahead, I’ll perform accordingly. But both practically and idealistically, I’m glad to be meeting my students genuinely face-to-face.

***

I gave blood on Friday, after receiving a call from the regional blood bank telling me they could use the help. It was my 32nd donation since I started doing this nearly six years ago, bringing me up to four gallons total. According to the figures they put out, that means I may have helped save nearly 100 lives. I doubt the numbers are quite that high in practice, but I’m glad to have helped anyone at all.

Friday’s visit was of a type I’ve only done a couple of times. Because I have an unusual/rare blood type, they asked me if I’d be willing to do what some organizations call a “power red donation“, where they harvest my red blood cells, and then pump the plasma and platelets back into my body. The collection means I lose twice as many red cells as usual (which in turn means I’ll be off the donor list for 16 weeks before my next donation, as opposed to the usual 8), but because red cells are the most commonly required blood product, each power red pint can benefit as many people as up to four whole blood donations. Similarly, I’ve done a platelet donation in the past (with a much faster turnaround time), but since that involves about a one-hour drive to the blood banks each way, this works better for me.

I was a little fatigued after this donation (usually I’m not troubled at all), but other than that, I’m just fine. As it happens, there’s a blood drive on campus later this week, but as I mentioned, I received an appeal for Friday’s drive, and the campus drive won’t have the gear they need for special donations like mine, so I was able to do more good this way.

Of course, the need is constant, and if you’re eligible, I’d like to encourage you to participate at a drive or center near you. There’s no special talent required — all you have to do is bleed, and thus far, even I’ve managed to do that. Four gallons’ worth.

***

Once again, I’d like to remind you that another one of my stories is now available for public consumption. “One of Us Is Dying” appears in Death of a Bad Neighbor: Revenge Is Criminal, Jack Calverly’s new anthology. The book is available both in dead tree and e-ditions, and you can order your copy here.

By the way, I intend to attend this year’s Bouchercon in Minneapolis, so if you want any of my work signed, I should be pretty easy to spot. I usually am, and I’d love to see you, whether it’s for the first time or a repeat acquaintance.

***

Well, I have a little lesson planning to do, so I’ll wrap this up for the time being. But first, some music and a quick story.

One of my freshpeeps this year is from Sweden — she’s on the golf team, which has quite a few international students. (Some of our sports teams go long on international kids; many of our women’s basketballers are Australian — we had an Aussie coach for many years, and the pipeline remains — and our lacrosse team unsurprisingly has quite a few kids from Canada, and from that alien terrain known as Maryland.)

Anyway, a couple of weeks back I ran across a band of garage revivalists called the Beet Freaks. I liked what I heard, and after hearing they’re from Sweden, I mentioned them to my freshpeep, adding that they are from a city called Örebro.

“That’s my home town!” she said, although she wasn’t familiar with the group. She did say she liked the music, though. So what I shared with her, I share with you. Here are the Beet Freaks with a track from their new EP. This is “Hey Little Lover.”

And what the heck — how about a bonus track with this moody little number?

See you soon!

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