Thursday, November 19, 2015

Something I don't get

Syrian refugee children in Lebanon
Possibly this is a little more political than I get here usually, but it is genuinely something I don't get. Currently, a wave of fear is going through America at the thought that 10,000 Syrians might arrive on American soil because there is some very remote chance that a radicalized terrorist might slip in among them.

Yet if some innocent citizen should happen to go to the movies, walk into a mall or go to school, we are totally unprepared to protect them from acts of violence by people similarly armed with automatic machine guns or anything else. And unwilling to do anything in light of these deaths to protect them. This disconnect seems to me insane.

Because we seem at this moment in time to let our children go out in a world where there is no protection against unstable, racist or militant people with guns, I feel justified in saying that our fear of letting people into our country who made a hazardous journey in overcrowded, leaky rafts with no guarantee that they or their children would even survive the trip is more than a little crazy.

Here's the MSNBC video where Richard Engel boards a Greek boat which patrols to help Syrian refugees in distress. Greece, which as he notes is ill-equipped to take in masses of Syrians, nevertheless accepts them without qualm because they understand the crisis in  a way that we apparently do not.

I happened to watch the Benedict Cumberbatch production of Hamlet from National Theatre Live last weekend. He closed it with a plea to donate to Save the Children and a  few fragments from a poem by Warsan Shire called "Home". This is how it starts:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

 Here is a link to a place where you can read the whole thing. Read it and then consider donating to one of the many places geared to help the people in the leaky boats. If you can't figure out what these might be, please write me. If you're a state governor who is going to try and keep Syrian refugees out of your state, well, I'd advise you to go elsewhere to spread your message.

a picture from The Daily Impact

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Peace for Paris

                                                                                                                  Jean Jullien
You've probably seen this somewhere today, but just in case someone hasn't I thought I'd post it. Slate magazine tracked down Jean Jullien, the illustrator who drew it and posted a short interview HERE.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

veteran--and a bonus word as well

                                                                                                                U.S. Navy

It's Veteran's Day here in the U.S. which for some reason I'm more aware of than usual, perhaps because it's in the middle of the week, even though so many other holidays have been moved to Mondays to accommodate weekend plans. There have been lots of vets' activities too, one of which I'll mention below.

So I started thinking about the word 'veteran', and realized that I really didn't have a clue where it came from--not even a guess.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, 'veteran' came into English around 1500 and meant pretty much what we mean now--'an old, experienced soldier'. The French was vétéran, the Latin veteranus, and though this had the meaning of "old, aged or in long use", it was used particularly of soldiers. But the emphasis on age is there in the source word, vetus, which is all about age and use, and not about war. It's also the source of words like the Italian vecchio, the Spanish viejo, and the French vieux, which all mean old or aged and may be more familiar to us from our various language studies. It's a bit surprising to me, as, when you think about it, there must always have been some pretty young veterans coming home from every war. But I guess they do stay veterans for a pretty long time afterwards.

My mother, Carolyn S. Graham, as a WAVE

The expanded use of 'veteran' to mean anyone who has been of long service in a role or job doesn't come around in print till about 1590, which is a fairly long time after as these things go. 

This also got me thinking about the word 'inveterate'. Turns out I didn't really know what 'inveterate' meant. I think I've probably heard it most used in the phrase, 'an inveterate liar', so I always thought it meant something like 'accomplished' or 'skilled', maybe with a touch of shadiness thrown in. But inveterate really means 'habitual or long-standing'. It too has vetus at its root, the Latin  past participle inveterare meaning 'to grow old in'.

Santa Cruz is holding a very Santa Cruzan sort of Veteran's Day celebration this year. the Holistic Veterans are inviting the community to a Community Healing Project this evening. They're using the Veterans Memorial to host a wide range of holistic healing sessions, like yoga, reiki, acupuncture and so on, serving an organic meal, doing pottery and art  and music. It's largely free but there's an auction and a raffle and all proceeds are going to be used to send twelve vets to healing retreat in Costa Rica. Here's a story of the Holistic Warriors and how they came to know of this Costa Rican site. I won't be able to attend this evening but it's a great idea and I certainly hope it's successful.

Although I am not really of a military cast of mind, coming of age in the Vietnam era as I did, both my parents were vets and I owe my existence to the fact that they were, as they met while stationed overseas. So Happy Veteran's Day, everyone.

Monday, October 26, 2015


No, this isn't another word that came to me via the political realm. I was thinking about the word 'clapboard' and then I started wondering about the word 'claptrap'. It's a simple as that. And I'm glad I did, because claptrap proves to be a delightful word. Well, you already know it sounds delightful. Like other words that rhyme within themselves, they please us for some reason: hocus-pocus, mumbo jumbo, roly-poly. But I mean that it also has delightful beginnings.

Claptrap means 'nonsense' but maybe more like 'nonsense!' said in an emphatic way. It has a lot of equivalents--'rubbish', 'drivel', 'poppycock',' humbug'. We have way more words than we actually need for this meaning, actually. But I suspect that this won't stop us from coining more.

I fully expected to find that claptrap was derived from, say, the High German klappentrappen  meaning a load of garbage or some such thing, but in fact claptrap is all English. It comes from the theatre world. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it appeared in print in around 1730 and was a stage term. It was originally a trick meant to 'catch' applause. A trap for claps, in other words. Pretty cool. I would have liked to find some example of what this kind of trick was, but haven't so far. I am not sure if the trick would have been of a verbal or a physical nature, or both. I'm kind of thinking it might be something like what we'd mean now by a 'star turn' or a 'show stopper', but I can't be sure.

                                                                                       Sam Levin

Apparently by 1819, the term was in common enough usage that it's meaning had extended to any sort of  showy language.World Wide Words  says that it was speech appealing to the lowest common denominator, full of platitudes and mawkish sentimentality. From there, as that website and others say, it was a short step to meaning 'nonsense'.

World Wide Words also clears up a misconception that seems to be floating in the ether. Many years later, a device was created to simulate clapping, much like our laugh track, which was also called a claptrap. But its invention comes 150 after the original usage.

I'd like to have an image of that device for you, but web images are dominated by a primitive looking robotlike character called Claptrap from the videogame Borderlands. According to their Wiki,

"Claptrap is a CL4P-TP general purpose robot manufactured by Hyperion. It has been programmed with an overenthusiastic personality, and brags frequently, yet also expresses severe loneliness and cowardice."

Here's an image of Claptrap, as rendered by fan J.P. Simpson:

More interesting to me personally is that there was apparently a stage play by Ken Friedman called "Claptrap", which opened at the Manhattan Theater Club in 1987. It wasn't well received. But it did inadvertently give Nathan Lane his big break. According to the L.A. Times, Lane was in the lobby after  yet another frustrating performance in what the Times termed "this dying farce", 

A man passing through the lobby paused, disturbed by Lane's forlorn face. "Hi," he said, extending a hand, "I'm Terrence McNally. You seem a little down, but you're very good in 'Claptrap,' and you shouldn't worry. Your career won't suffer as long as the work is good." 

Not only did McNally give Lane encouragement at a much needed moment, but he went on to cast him in 'Lisbon Traviata' a few years, which sent his career soaring. 

Sometimes a little claptrap is all you need. 


Wednesday, October 14, 2015



On the first of the Democratic Presidential debates last night, Bernie Sanders referred to Syria as a quagmire within a quagmire. For Americans of a certain age, 'quagmire' evokes the U.S. war in Vietnam so many years ago. A quagmire in this case means a military involvement that there is no easy way of extricating your troops from.

My question, though, is, what was a quagmire originally?


According to the Online Etymology Dictionary the first instance of 'quagmire' in print was in 1570. "Quag", now obsolete, meant bog or marsh, from Middle English quabbe, which in theory goes back to Old English *cwabbe, meaning to shake or tremble (the Online Etymology Dictionary adding "like something soft and flabby"). And "mire" meant, well, pretty much the same thing, only from Scandinavian roots, like Old Norse myrr. So not just a bog but a double bog--a sort of "quagmire within a quagmire" situation, really.


As a word which literally meant, shaky ground, it's not surprising that  originally there wasn't just one spelling. There were quamyre and quabmire and quadmire--even quakemire. The metaphoric use of the word of the word meaning "in an inescapable bad situation" was with us as early as 1766, but fell out of common usage for a lot of the nineteenth century.

In the way words sometimes do, though, it came into fashion again because of a specific military meaning it had in the sixties, after the publication of a popular book by David Halberstam, The Making of a Quagmire, which specifically addressed the situation of military involvement the U.S. faced in Vietnam.

But it turns out that an earlier intelligent observer saw America's penchant for getting into quagmires long before Halberstam did. If only he'd come up with a solution for that then:

"You ask me about what is called imperialism. Well, I have formed views about that question. I am at the disadvantage of not knowing whether our people are for or against spreading themselves over the face of the globe. I should be sorry if they are, for I don't think that it is wise or a necessary development. As to China, I quite approve of our Government's action in getting free of that complication. They are withdrawing, I understand, having done what they wanted. That is quite right. We have no more business in China than in any other country that is not ours. There is the case of the Philippines. I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. Perhaps we could not have avoided it -- perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands -- but I cannot understand it, and have never been able to get at the bottom of the origin of our antagonism to the natives. I thought we should act as their protector -- not try to get them under our heel. We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now -- why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I'm sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation."

    Mark Twain, Returning Home, New York World [London, 10/6/1900]

Cited at

(Photo by Terry Ballard taken of portrait circa 1905, owned by the Mark Twain library in Redding, Connecticut.)

Sunday, October 11, 2015

"Night Watchman"

I've been away. Regular service to resume shortly. In the meantime, why don't you take a look at my friend A. M. Thurmond's short story, voted as most popular over at the M.O. this round? Now you can read it in its entirety right HERE.

cover art by Tobie Ancipink

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Flash Jab!

Apologies to those who only read this blog to find out what else I don't know, but another story of mine is up today, this time over at Jack Bates' Flash Jab Fiction. Jack was a fellow plotter in Untreed Reads Grimm Tales with me a few years ago, and so obviously is a crime fiction writer in his own right, but periodically is gracious enough to issue a challenge over on his blog. I do like challenges with prompts, and I particularly like his photo challenges as they are more open ended than some.

Another fun thing is that this time there are two respondents and we are both from Santa Cruz! What are the odds? I don't believe I've had the pleasure of meeting Morgan Boyd, but I do think I know which roller coaster gave him the idea for the background sound in his opening paragraph, as it was a background sound in my own life for several years.

Without further ado, check out his story "Enology (The Study of Wine)" and mine, "Black and White and Red All Over" at Flash Jab Fiction.