Friday, December 30, 2011

A trifle

I had a really nice Christmas. I was especially aware of this this year, because the way the holiday fell, I had to work Christmas Eve and had pretty much decided that would preclude getting together with the family, even though for various reasons, I really wanted to do that this year. But my sister was kind enough to drive down to Santa Cruz and pick me up after work and so I was able to go on a rather madcap adventure around the state spending time with many people I care about. There were many elements to all this, but I thought I would mention one here in particular.

My sister as usual decided that it was not enough to pick me up in Santa Cruz and stay up late wrapping presents. She also wanted to throw her semitraditional Christmas Day brunch. She makes a souffle and sausage but as there was another guest coming she thought she'd also make a trifle. A trifle is not really a trifle to make, it has a lot of things in it and a lot of layers. Fruit and whipped cream feature heavily. As usual, I thought it was a tad over ambitious and as usual, she ignored me, much to my benefit, as it turned out.

Everything actually went very smoothly so we opened presents and the guest arrived and we shared a very nice meal and good conversation. It was a beautiful sunny California winter day, and the trifle looked gorgeous on the well set table and we dug in with appetite and really nothing could have been better. We even had Christmas crackers, and the little trinkets inside seemed apropos.

The doorbell rang and we were saying goodbye to the friend while my sister answered the door and stood there talking to someone. She stood there for a long while and though I was curious I was also distracted, so didn't think much about it till she came into the dining room, followed by a young guy, barely out of high school. "This is Nicholas," she said. We said hello, somewhat perplexed, as I had never heard of him before. He was smiling, and had merry eyes. The odd thing--and it will sound like some sort of literary device,though it isn't--but for some reason, he had the white fringe of a Santa Claus suit around the ankle of one leg. He said he had found it in a trash can at the St. Vincent de Paul.

My sister went out to the kitchen and got him a tin of the Christmas cookies she had made and we made small talk with him while he waited. After he had said goodbye, we looked at my sister and she told us his story. He was a foster kid who had aged out of the system two weeks before he had finished high school and was now homeless. He had come around to her door a few times before, looking for work, and she had given him some small tasks to do. He was happy because he had gotten a sleeping bag and maybe a place to sleep at night.

When you work in retail, you can feel a bit put upon during the holiday season. It is easy enough to understand that you're part of the "the 99%" a lot of that time, but there are other moments when you realize that by other standards, you are also part of the one percent, which merely means "lucky".

Nicholas left, though I'm sure he'll be back. And my sister will undoubtedly try to figure out some way that he can be helped to find work and a GED. There are a few ideas floating around all ready. After he had gone, we all looked at each other, a bit ashamed of our good fortune. My sister looked at the table, seeing it as he would have seen it.

"Oh!" she said. "I should have given him some trifle!"       

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Grimm Tales--Untreed Read Freed!

We interrupt our irregularly unscheduled programming here at Confessions of Ignorance to make an important announcement. Well,important to me, anyway. Normally I have a bit of reluctance to turn my blogging world into a platform for self-promotion or even other promotion, but this time, I have no scruples. Riding on the coattails of my betters, I've got a story in a really terrific new anthology. Grimm Tales, edited by John Kenyon and with an introduction by the Galway master of crime writing himself, Ken Bruen, features a whole host of up and coming crime writers, all working out their own variation on the premise of taking a well known fairy tale and ringing some changes on it in a piece of contemporary crime fiction.      

John posted this challenge sometime toward the end of last year on his blog, Things I'd Rather Be Doing (I believe I actually learned about it through the  crime community connecting blog of Sean Patrick Reardon, Mindjacker), and about seventeen of us took the challenge and came up with something that looked pretty much like a crime story. There was a contest, and there were first, second and third place winners, but basically everyone just did this in the spirit of fun. That would have seemed to be the end of it, but one way and another John thought maybe a book could be made of it, and Untreed Reads gave him the greenlight for an ebook. I believe we all quite enthusiastically agreed to be part of the project. I mean, how hard is it to say yes, when the story has already been written?)

John has been faithfully shepherding the project through to publication and keeping us all posted on the book's progress. I don't know why it came as such a surprise to me when a couple of nights ago, he emailed us all that Grimm Tales was live. But it was a pretty exciting one.  

I like--really like--to read mysteries and crime fiction, but I'm not a crime fiction writer, so I have have a bit of a sheepish feeling about my own part in this. If you happen to read my story, you will quickly see that it is not really noir. It doesn't even totally qualify as crime fiction. So I was happy to get a little and quite unexpected nod from Ken Bruen in his introduction, making me feel that at least it was okay for my story to be included.

Anyway, enough about me. Rather than focussing on highlights, I'll just mention that a variety of familiar tales (and some not so familiar) and a smaller showing of nursery rhymes inspired the very various stories to be found here. For some reason, "Hansel and Gretel" had an outsize number of takers, but as you will see the outcomes are very, very different.

As you might suspect, Untreed Reads is all about ebooks, but if you don't have an ereader, don't despair. There is certain to be a format that you can download on to your computer if that's your option.        

You can check the link out HERE

(I know I put my story up on my Story Dump blog and linked to it from here, so a few regular readers may have already read mine. I'd buy it for the other storytellers anyway.) 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

caret, or triple homonym

 Bowing to the inevitable, I take up the third and I do hope last word which has the same sound as my last two posts. I think I do know what a caret is, but as is so often the case with this blog, having to say it aloud makes me wonder whether I do have it right. I believe that a caret is that little arrow shaped mark, most often used to join things in a manuscript. I can't off the top of my head think what else it might do. I have no idea what its origins are. I don't even know if it is limited to sitting  on top of a sentence or can be turned sideways or upside down. God help me if it can because if so I will be at this all night.

Anyway, let us begin:

Okay, tempting as it is to have a do over, I pretty much have that totally wrong. Sorry, internet community readers that only skim the first paragraph here before passing on to something more scintillating. Far from meaning that a space is needed, it means that something is missing and needs to be added . It comes out of Latin carere, to lack.

Secondly, though in my mind's eye, I was seeing it above the line, like this: ˆ, it is just as likely to be used below, like this:˰ .  You can put the missing material, such as an apostrophe or a comma, under the mark, over the mark or in the margins.

A caret might also be confused with a circumflex (which means "bend around")  such as Ê, which is placed over a letter to distinguish its pronunciation in some way.

Carets actually have a lot of uses. They are used as notation in mathematics, computer programing, logic, music and social networking, and have strayed very far from their original meaning of missing. I could break it down for you, but you may as well, just go to the source.

 Perhaps the most interesting thing to me in these researches is that caret is related through this Latin origin to "caste", because in addition to meaning 'to lack', also means 'to be cut off from' or 'separated'. This incidentally is also the connection to 'castration'. Whoa.   

As Peter Rozovsky made this request, and one aspect of this was to know whether there was a keyboard command for this symbol, I will finish with these. I am not totally sure I understood his question correctly, but if you want ˰, you type 02F0 and then hit alt+X. If you want ˆ, you type the Crtl key plus the caret key over 6  and then hit the Space bar. At least this is how you do it in Windows. I don't know if this is a uniform thing or not. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2011


I know it seems like I'm just being a bit lazy here, having just done a post on the word carat. Okay, I am a bit lazy, but if that were totally the case, I would have just drifted off over into the word caret, as my typing seemed to have drifted over in that direction anyway. (I hope this has been mainly corrected by now, but you never know.)

No, this is a little bit stranger than that. Even though I may not know carat from caret, I certainly do know both from carrot, so I am not sure what byway led me to an old recording of The Carrot Seed Song the other night.

Although we had a lot of records when I was little, I guess we must have not had that many that were just for kids, because I listened to this one a lot. It's a simple story, but I think it's kind of an interesting one, since it warns the youthful hero not just against his detractors, but even against his well-wishers. Have a listen.

(Something seems to be wrong with the embed feature, so here's the link just in case: )

I remembered this song well enough in high school that I could do a full dramatic rendition. (Okay, so it wasn't that hard.) I'd like to say that I learned the stalwartness it was meant to teach, but I'm afraid I can't.

I will say that it seems to have made a strong impression on others of my era as well (Notice the guy in the chair. A lot of my audiences probably felt the same way.)

Ditto what I said above:

Sunday, December 11, 2011


Sometimes late at night when I'm tired but not really tired enough to sleep I find myself watching Jewelry Television. For me, home shopping channels are oddly mesmerizing, even though I've never had the slightest inclination to buy anything, but lately it's really the jewelry that I find most fascinating.

This is hard to explain, as I have never had much interest in jewelry stores or even jewel exhibits at museums. I don't wear jewelry and have no desire to do so. But for some reason, the enthusiastic presenters at JTV always reel me in. Woo hoo! one says--look at the flash off of that opal!

I have no idea if any of the gemstones they are selling are actually valuable, but it sure is fun listening to them make it sound as if they were. (There's a good novel, by the way, about the art and con artistry behind the jewel business--How to Sell, by Clancy Martin, which I reviewed awhile ago here . 

But despite listening to the JTV argot, I realized recently, that I really have  no idea what a carat is. Although I think we tend to associate the word carat with diamonds, they come up in all kinds of gemstones. I assume that "carat" has something to do with weight, for what else could it be, but it's odd how little carats seem to have to do with the size of the stone.

Well, let's get to it.


Sheesh. Nothing is ever just easy, is it? Let me start by admitting that I wasn't really entirely sure how to spell "carat" going in. Maybe that's because there are actually two spellings of it. Carat, yes, but also karat. As far as I can tell from this interesting post about the distinction, both variants go back to the same source, but have taken on different meanings. In American English, the convention has arisen to say that carats have to do with mass and weight, while karats have to with purity. In British English the same spelling is used for both senses.

The word goes back to the Middle French carat, which had to do with measuring the fineness of gold, derived from the Italian careto , which was taken from the Arabic quirat, meaning pod or husk, or four grains of weight, and then back to the Greek keration, carob seed. In early, predigital times, the carob seed was used as a standard of weight because of its uniformity, just as a grain was used as a standard of a far smaller weight.

the name carob comes from the Greek word kera, or horn, which describes the shape of the pod, not the seed.

To get really bogged down in obscurity, the Greek weight was equal to one Roman siliqua, which in turn was 1/24th of a golden solidus of Constantine. This is important because keration then took on a sense of  being a proportion of  1/24th, which then became a measure of gold purity. This is why when something is advertised as 18 karet gold, it should have 18 parts of gold to 6 parts of alloy. And why 24 karat gold is usually followed by an exclamation point.

But when it comes to gemstones, a carat is a unit of mass. A carat is equal to 200 milligrams. But it still derives its name from the lowly carob seed. The confusion is not a late add on, but arose from the unit of measurement itself.

Gold prices being what they are right now, there are more carats than karats being featured on JTV these days. By the time the bubble bursts on gold, I'll probably have a pretty good handle on the difference.

Sunday, December 4, 2011


I just came across the phrase "in their heyday" yesterday somewhere or other. Normally, it's the kind of thing I just pass by, as I know what it means, more or less. It's sort of "at the height or zenith of one's fame or wealth or skills". Something like that. It usually if not always refers to some glory days that have since passed.

But I really have no idea where the word comes from or even if I do actually have the definition strictly correct. I'm a bit tired of talking turkey for now, so let's see where this one heads.


Well, this is the kind of thing that I find interesting. The original expression has nothing to do with days, apparently, but rather goes back to an expression from Middle English, heyda, which was an exclamation of playfulness or surprise, an extension of 'hey'. Heyda!--a bit like Hurrah! or Huzzah! This was back in the 1500s, and it wasn't until around the 1700s that it somehow got conflated with the word "day" and began to be used to describe the period of greatest vigor.

And here I was, thinking it had something to do with haymaking.

The Online Etymology dictionary notes that in Latin, hei was a cry of grief or fear, but heia was an "interjection denoting joy". Interesting what one little vowel sound will do.

Since this post is a bit shorter than my usual rambling, I'll put in a plug for a very nice little publisher out here on the West Coast, called Heyday Books , which does some good and sometimes very beautiful books on California and the West. I know of them partly because it's one of my jobs in the bookstore I work in to order backlist titles from them, but also because they have published a couple of really nicely made books by the late James D. Houston. Houston was probably best known for his novel Continental Drift, or perhaps the book he co-authored with his wife Jeanne Watasuki Houston, Farewell to Manzanar, which described her family's experiences in a Japanese interment camp.

Before he died, Heyday published a collection of essays he wrote on his sense of place, Where Light Takes Its Color From the Sea, which enjoyed quite a bit of success locally, and one that they've published posthumously, called A Queen's Journey, which is an unfinished novel about Liliuokalani, the last queen of Hawaii.

Heyda, Heyday! Heyda, James Houston!

(I just realized that I forgot to say why all the focus on James Houston in particular. It's because he was a Santa Cruz resident, a friend of the local bookstores, and really a pretty terrific person.)

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Cold turkey

Yeah, getting back up to speed here after an outside commitment, it's lucky that one of the "non-effort" posts of recent weeks has generated some questions, and luckier still that it has also generated some answers. Peter Rozovsky of Detectives Beyond Borders wondered about a couple of turkey related expressions "talking turkey" and "cold turkey". Commenter Dan of My Point Being fortunately did a bit of my work for me. He brought up the theory that "cold turkey" has its roots in the result of going into withdrawal for opium addiction, when the skin turns clammy and goosebumpy. Or turkeybumpy. You get the idea.

However, the online etymology dictionary cites a slightly earlier reference which uses the idea of "cold turkey" in the sense we more widely use it, namely, "without preparation". In this etymological thread, cold turkey is a meal that requires no preparation, so it becomes a more general metaphor for things we do without building up to them. Sounds like a bit of a stretch to me, but it may be so.

Especially since, it turns out that at one point in it's history, the phrase "talking turkey" became "talking cold turkey", later to be contracted back to the original form again. It's a phrase that has lived a few lives. Originally, it meant to exchange pleasantries, presumably over a meal, but later acquired its current meaning of not dressing a matter up, but dealing in hard facts.

As the turkey seems to have been the focus of much American speech, it does really seem a shame that it didn't become our national bird.

(The Cold Turkey image is by Hayden Kays.)