Sunday, December 30, 2012


I don't often choose words that are completely new to me, but this one was--at least I have no recollection of it. It came to me by way of a Christmas card, and the quotation was:

The lion with the fatling on did move
A little child was leading them with love:

It comes from the border of a painting by Edward Hicks from 1826 called "The Peacable Kingdom"--one version of it, anyway, which is housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Now other people might want to know more about Hicks, or the style of his work or what the couplet means. But I just want to know what a fatling is. I may have run across it at some point, but it's sure not something that comes up in common speech. It's really quite a delightful sounding word, but it would sound a bit insulting today. From the picture, it's apparently the cow, but let's find out.


A fatling, not too surprisingly, is simply a young animal being fattened up for slaughter. In some translations of the Bible, the world fatling is translated as fatted calf, which may sound a bit more familiar. As Hicks paraphrase in the form of a poem is taken from Isaiah 11:6 , and there is already a calf in that translation it is probably the larger white animal in the painting, which I guess is a kid.

It's interesting that Hicks painted many versions on this theme, over a hundred, in fact, and this probably not the most famous one. That might be this one from the National Gallery, circa 1834:
Getting back to the word, it came into usage around 1534, and  as far as I can tell has largely disappeared. I wonder if it's the "fat" or the "for slaughter" aspect that's most to blame for this. A fatling sounds pretty adorable if you can suppress from your thoughts its inevitable end.
There is apparently one form of resurgence, though. According to the Urban Dictionary, it now can refer to an overweight or obese child as well.
It's the Urban Dictionary, folks. You weren't expecting something kind, were you?

Thursday, December 27, 2012


Brian O'Rourke reposted a question that came up for him a few years ago--which would you rather celebrate, Christmas or Saturnalia? Leaving aside questions of faith and meaningfulness, Brian makes a pretty good case for Saturnalia. As I said there, a week off work would be  more than enough to convince me.

In the course of explaining Saturnalia, Brian mentions that one of the things you get to indulge in is 'tomfoolery'. I think we all know what it means--practical jokes, hijinx, tricks of the kind you get when you don't do the right thing on Halloween. But why "tom" foolery? Is there some prehistoric Tom that everyone blames? Or is this going to be one of those "origin unknown" kind of definition?


 Before there was tomfoolery, there was such a thing as a tomfool, a buffoon or clown of the 1640s, and before that there was the Middle English Thom Foole, a fictional personification of a mentally deficient man. "Tom", in fact, is a stand in for a whole host of common man types, from Uncle Tom, to Tom O'Bedlam, to Tom and Jerry, to Tom, Dick and Harry. It must be something about the shortness of the name that's so appealing. And I'm going to hazard a guess that saying 'tomfoolery' is a satisfying word to say, but that 'tomfool' was replaced in American venacular with 'damn fool'. It has the same sort of notes and accents in it.

Here is a Tom Fool's knot:


I think you can see why. And  here is a famous American racehorse who bears the name:

He was voted American Horse of the Year, and sired a couple of famous racehorses in turn, Buckpasser and Tim Tam. But why no Tom-Tom, Tom?

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sure On This Shining Night

Sure on this shining night
Of star made shadows round,
Kindness must watch for me
This side the ground.
The late year lies down the north.
All is healed, all is health.
High summer holds the earth.
Hearts all whole.
Sure on this shining night I weep for wonder wand'ring far
Of shadows on the stars.
                                        -James Agee

Music by Morten Lauridsen

I came across this at a holiday concert this month. Beautiful music and I was moved to realize that one of my favorite writers ever wrote the poem that Lauridsen used. It isn't actually a winter song, but I think it works.

I hope your winter holidays were or will be good ones.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The First Line

Taking some time for some shameless self-promotion, I'll just mention that a story I wrote was accepted by The First Line  a month or so ago, and it is now published because I just got contributor copies today. I've written about this magazine on my story related blog before, but since few have read that, I'll just mention its unique concept here. Four times a year, they invite people to submit a story based on the first line of their concoction and the put out an issue of stories all beginning with that first sentence. It's a fun idea. I was pretty excited to get in this time, as I've tried a time or two before.

This isn't meant as an advertisement so much as a simple announcement, but if you want to check out this volume, you can find it at their website, or, if you're in that realm, you can even buy a copy for Kindle if you want.

Here's the line:

Sometimes, when it's quiet, I can remember what my life was like before moving to Cedar Springs.

And they've got a new one up if you want to try your own hand at this. February 1st deadline...

Monday, December 17, 2012


I was thinking of doing this word a while ago, probably after watching one of the political news shows talking about congress, but it actually  came up again tonight at a discussion group I go to, and after a fairly raucous discussion, one of the men said jocularly, "Enough with your rancid fulminations!" It was funny, but it also gives me my cue.

To fulminate is to hold forth or blow a lot of hot air, I think. A senator fulminating is one of the more common ways you hear this word. But what does it really mean? I've already seen that there may be some tantalizing chemical origins, so let's take a look...


Okay, well, I have this slightly wrong. It has a more specific meaning. To fulminate is to denounce or attack verbally, usually in a thunderous manner. The thunderous bit is key here, because the word goes back to the Latin fulminare--to hurl lightening or to lighten, because the Latin for lightning flash is fulmen. Interesting that the sound and not the light seems to have crossed over. The word started in English in the fifteenth century in its metaphoric and not its literal sense and was originally used in ecclesiastical censure. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

In chemistry, though, a fulminate is an explosive salt of fulminic acid. Yeah, yeah, whatever, you say. But hasn't Breaking Bad taught you that high school chemistry is eternally relevant? And in fact, Episode 6 of Breaking Bad has a scene involving mercury fulminate:

And here is an article with comments on whether this was a realistic scene and other related topics.


Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Separation

Have you gotten around to watching the 2012 Oscar winner For Best Foreign Film yet? I hadn't till last night, even though I've had the envelope from Netflix for weeks. I think that in the kind of "fog of war" talk that we live in around the subject of Iran, this small but beautifully done movie works as a kind of antidote and reminder of the  humanity  of people we often think of as on the other side of a line.
A husband and wife have what seem to be irreconcilable differences as the movie opens, she wanting to take an opportunity to go to America, he feeling unable to leave his mentally deteriorating father behind. Caught in the middle of this struggle is their pre-adolescent daughter, who decides to align herself with her father and remain at home for the time being. An arrangement is made through the wife's friend to have  a young mother come and look after the father during the day. She brings her own small daughter, but elects to leave her husband largely in the dark about this arrangement. That is essentially the setup.
This is a wonderful bit of ensemble acting, with even the nearly mute father and the four year old child holding up their ends of the story. There is a dimension to the story that is universal--how do husbands and wives handle differing wishes and differing obligations, how do people of differing economics and class backgrounds interact when difficulities arise, and so on. But there is also a very unique Iranian story being told, with Iranian law and Muslim faith being central aspects of the story. There is an unfolding crisis but no villains. What it reminds me of a little, actually, is the American novel House of Sand and Fog  by Andre Dubus III. Although if anything, the characters in the novel have far more freedom of choice in how things unfold than these characters do.
Check it out. My copy is going back to Netflix tomorrow.

Thursday, December 6, 2012


It's much in the news these days, what with the desire to reform it and all. A filibuster, for those who may not know the term, is a delaying tactic, usually thought of as being in the form of an extremely long speech ala Jimmy Stewart, but in fact not usually taking that form these days at all. The tactics are not new, as they used some of the same devices in the Roman Senate way back when, but 'filibuster' is an American coinage. I thought it was probably based on some Latin legal term, in fact, but no, it's not, and if you don't know its origin, it's pretty fun.

Filibuster apparently goes back to the Dutch vrijbuiter, which meant robber, or plunderer. Freebooter is a loan word derived from this and is related to 'booty' here as well. If all this smacks of piracy, well, that's because vrijbuiter becomes both  the  Spanish filibustero and the French flibustier, both terms for the pirates of the West Indies and giving us the English word 'flibutor' as well. To me, 'flibutor' just doesn't have the same ring as 'pirate', which is probably why it didn't catch on...

The Spanish term is the one that caught on in Texas, where filibusteros  incited insurrection against Spain in Latin America, under the banners  of  Narcisso Lopez in Cuba and William Walker in Mexico and Nicaragua. I think this sense of insurrection and rebellion is more what carried over to the stalling tactics in the Senate than actual piracy. Although when I think of the money moving through Washington DC, I realize I could very well be wrong. 

Sorry, no pictures--my picture file is acting wonky, so you will just have to imagine these bold brigands for yourselves...


Friday, November 30, 2012


Belgian Revolution, by Gustave Wappers

I was watching the Rachel Maddow show a couple of nights ago and she used the word 'foment' to describe some trouble the Republicans were threatening to stir up in congress. I know roughly what foment means--it does mean to stir things up or catalyze some action. But am I the only one who always hears the foam in foment, even though it can have nothing to do with foaming? I have thought a bit about the word, but I can't figure out the root. It would actually be weird if it was foam. Well, let's find out.


No, no foam. Foment means to encourage the growth of, to instigate or stimulate. But it comes from an earlier more precise meaning of  'to apply hot liquids'. The  Old French was fomenter, to apply a hot compress, and comes out of  the Latin fomentum, a warm application or poultice. It is actually a contraction of fovimentum, which is probably neither here nor there to you, but the longer word makes it more easy to see that it's rooted in fovere  'to warm, cherish, encourage', and connects it to our word fever.

Interestingly, although I did find someone else curious about the foam in foment, more people actually confuse it with 'ferment'. This seems to be because the words have similar sounds and different meanings that can be used somewhat interchangably in certain settings. Here's a good post about this. I would agree with one of the commenters that foment has more immediate and ferment more long term resonances. Fermenting trouble seems more like 'brewing up trouble'. But as the post points out, the two words have probably been linked from the beginning, as foment comes from the aforementioned fovere, 'to heat', and ferment goes back to fervere, 'to boil'.

Another comment on the above mentioned blog mentions an entirely apropos scene from The Office. Wish I could YouTube it for you, but I am apparently not that adept. So here's the dialogue as provided by someone named Pete:

Dwight – So I expect you to be on your best behavior, which means none of you will be insubordinate nor will you foment insurrection.

Jim – Question. If we’ve already fomented insurrection, may we be grandfathered in?

Dwight – Define “foment.”

Jim – You define “foment.”

[awkward silence]

Thanks, Pete.


Sunday, November 25, 2012


A woman was looking at one of the small books we keep at the register while I rang up her sale today--I think it was a picture dictionary. At any rate, she said "Imbricate. What's imbricate?" The pencil drawing showed a plant somewhat like an asparagus, but beyond that, I didn't even know what the drawing was. I said, "I don't know, I guess I'll have to look into that."  She said, "I'm going to take a picture of it. That's how I remember things." And so I suppose to prove that I can remember things without a camera, I'm going to look into this now.


Well, Latin students will know all about this one, I suspect. Imbricate plants are those whose leaves overlap partially in an even sort of pattern. The tips of asparagus do fit the bill, but so do artichokes. And pinecones. In fact, a lot of things in the world are imbricated. Fish scales. Shingles.

And shingles, or, really, roof tiles, are the key here. Imbricate and imbricated come from the Latin imbricatus,  "covered with tiles", the past participle of imbricatare, "to cover with rain tiles". An imbrix was one of the rounded Roman tiles that lay over the joins of two tegula, the other flatter tile used as part of the rainproofing system. The imbrix was so named because it protected from imber--rain.

the rounded, upper tile is the imbrix.

Seems a long way from there to artichokes, doesn't it?

In the course of my wanderings, I came across this post by a professor named Michael Drout from Wheaton College, refuting the idea that "imbricated" was a good way to describe overlapping cultural studies. It is not only a word used to show we are smarter than someone else, but also it is used imprecisely in this context.

"We fight a losing battle against fossilized metaphor and imprecise language, but it is a long defeat worth fighting, because when we preserve the specific meaning of "dilapidated" as "having stones missing" or "imbricated" as "overlapping like shingles on a roof," rather than allow these words to decay into just dead metaphors for "old" or "entwined," we keep the language richer and more powerful, more able to communicate specific, concrete ideas in only a few words."

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to used "imbricated" without having to resort to academic-speak.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Blast from the past--Addi Somekh and Mary Holmes

I've mentioned here a couple of times, I think, that I'm a regular at a local discussion group called the Penny University. I've flagged a bit over the last couple of years--it has to do with external things more than lack of interest--but I always make that extra effort when word of certain guest speakers show up. Such was the case this Monday, when Addi Somekh, balloon twister extraordinaire, returned to give us a talk about one of our beloved leaders of the past, Mary Holmes.

Addi is a story in himself and enlivened our lives considerably from the moment he appeared on the scene some years ago, and returned from time to time to regale us with his stories of making balloon hats for people around the world. Sounds crazy,  maybe. It wasn't. And in fact, one of the first people to encourage him was Mary Holmes. With her amazing art history background, she was able to place his project in a larger historic and cultural context. In a word, people like hats.

Addi's presentation included some video from some film that was shot of Mary and which he has posted on YouTube. You can find that stuff here. Seeing her again, even in virtual form, was a true delight.

Addi didn't just go around the world making balloon hats. He came back and he and his photographer partner Charles Eckhert put together a  beautiful book about Mary called Mary Holmes: Paintings and Ideas. I picked up another copy at the Penny last night.

This doesn't sound much like a confession of ignorance, does it? Well, there was a Mary Holmes story that I had never heard, so let's go with that. Addi had heard that Mary was a friend of Ray Bradbury (which I didn't know). They had in fact, driven out to Los Angeles together at some point. Addi had some version of the book ready when he heard that Bradbury was doing a book signing in some part of L.A., Glendale I think, so he decided to go out there and present him with a copy. When he got there, there was a line circling around the block to see him, and he could barely make it through the crowds. When he got somewhat within range, he talked to a handler of some kind and said he wanted to give Ray Bradbury this book. The handler basically said get lost, buddy. Addi said, "Just mention the name Mary Holmes." So the handler did. Bradbury stopped what he was doing and said "Mary Holmes--I knew her for years and years." And then he spent several minutes going off into raptures about her, much to the befuddling of the stunned crowd. Bradbury did endorse the book. Here is the quote from the balloon hat website:

"This is a fascinating book about an amazing woman. I knew Mary Holmes on a personal level for more than thirty years, and this book captures the ambiance of her fantastic personality." - Ray Bradbury

Tell it, Ray.

Sometimes, I find myself a bit uncertain about the meanderings of my own life. But sooner or later, I always seem to come upon an evening like this one, where I am reminded of the extraordinary people who have come my way and how lucky I have been to know them.

Mary with our two present leaders, Jim Bierman and Paul Lee.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Where did all the money go, part 2

By coincidence, I just found that our local paper has researched the part of the money trail that my post on campaign spending didn't. Namely, what happens to the money that didn't get spent at all? As Josh Richman says, it kind of depends...

Go on. I know you're curious.

Thursday, November 15, 2012


November 15th is the launch of Occupy Wall Street's (or at least one of its offshoots) next venture. It's called the Rolling Jubilee, and I've already posted the explanatory video here. It's a simple and in some ways brilliant idea: We ordinary citizens buy up some of the distressed loans that are sold for pennies on the dollar, and instead of leveraging them, we pay the loan and forgive it. As this article says, on a large scale it might be problematic, as the strategy may well drive up the price of these loans. But as an initial gesture to do something for people in financial trouble it would seem to work pretty well, and it would take a pretty big influx of money to reach problem proportions.

I thought that in honor of the launch, I'd track down the origins of 'jubilee'. I think most of us know the term 'diamond jubilee', as Queen Elizabeth II celebrated hers this very year. In the case of royalty, it celebrates the 60th year of a monarch's reign, though in terms of other anniversaries, it means the 75th.

But the source of all this is somewhat different--and more relevant. 'Jubilee" goes back through the usual Old French jubileu, which meant jubilee, anniversary, rejoicing. The Late Latin jubilaeus meant jubilee year, and was originally an adjective meaning 'of the jubilee', but which switched meanings a bit by being promiscuous with the Latin jubilare "to shout with joy". I haven't quite been able to pin down the background of this close word to see if it has some of the same root, and there are some alternate theories of etymology out there, but in any case, jubilaeus goes back to the Greek iabelaios and earlier iobelos. But that's not even yet the basis of the word, which is Hebrew and is pronounced yobhel or yovel, and means jubilee but also a trumpet made of ram's horn, and ultimately comes from 'ram'. The ram's horn may be more familiar to you as the shofar, which is present and important at many Jewish ceremonies. 

The original idea of jubilee is that, every 50th year (or really, the end of seven cycles of Sabbatical years known as schmita) is a year of emancipation of slaves and restoration of lands, set off by the sound of trumpets everywhere.Jubilee deals with land, property and property rights. I like the more transcendent sense of the Septuagint--the translation of the Hebrew bible into Greek in the third century BCE-- that yovel means "a trumpet-blast of liberty" (αφεσεως σημασια afeseos semasia), at least according to Wikipedia. Here's the passage from Leviticus.

Christianity did carry the idea forward, in the sense of a period of remission for sin penalities in exchange for alms, pilgrimages and so on. But I like best the way it crept into African-American spirituality and became the name of a type of folk song in the 1800s.

This is a video of the Jubilee Singers, and I'd say it's appropriate for the launch of the Rolling Jubilee
as well.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012


If you go back into the ancient history of this blog, you will find one of my personal favorite posts, that of shambolic. Now it turns out that Oxford Dictionaries has a certain predeliction in that direction, at  least, based on their current choice for UK Word of the Year 2012. As they say in their blog post about it, this doesn't meant that 'omnishambles' will make their dictionaries any time soon. But this word from a British television favorite, The Thick of It, has gained a lot of currency over the last few years. As they point out, a promising aspect of any words longevity is how well it spawns new words. As an American left-leaning Democrat, Romneyshambles is about as good as it gets--that is, if you discount Romnesia, which I do not.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Where did all the money go?

I thought I'd be done with politically related blogging, but one of the big topics post-election is how much money the ultra-rich Republicans spent and how little they had to show for it. The recurring image is flushing it down the drain, but obviously that isn't precisely right--after all, it was spent somewhere. I even thought it was probably helpful to the economy in terms of creating  jobs and purchasing a few things. Subsequent research has shown that I am fairly off on that, and I thought I would post a bit about what I learned.


First, there's the question of where the money actually did go. According to this CNN article, campaign spending is at 4.2 billion dollars and may rise as high as six by the time it's all accounted for. Although in those all important swing states there were profits to be made for the local media and print shops and caterers and anyone else who gets paid to help a campaign when it's in town, it is really the large companies tied to the campaign who will benefit the most. CNN quotes former FEC chair David M. Mason in saying that though there's a lot of talk about how it's all going on the web, "the biggest industry beneficiary of campaign spending is any business that works with broadcast media". At least in part, this means the big ad firms that fashion the ad campaigns. In other words, Mad Men, 2012 style. The head of the chief firm for Obama's ad campaign was GMMB, headed by Jim Margolis. He said that the campaign has spent over 400 million dollars on advertising during the course of the race. The ad companies get paid to create the ads and then disperse them. They usually keep some portion of the funds for their services. Margolis declined to say what GMMB's portion was.

Now, on to what this all means in terms of stimulus. I'm sorry to say that those who know much more than I do on this stuff are pretty much in agreement--it's a pretty poor form of stimulus. Matthew Yglesias of Slate actually goes so far as to say that "Heavy spending on campaign television advertisements is like a textbook example of things that don't boost the economy."

First of all, it's just a shifting of wealth from someone like Sheldon Adelson  to the owners of the local television stations. A closely contested race leads to more ads and more profits, but it doesn't induce a station to invest in their physical plant or higher new long term staff. It's simply a boost in short term profits. Secondly the flow of advertising is basically fixed, Yglesias says. All the increased demand for air time does is inflate the prices. " Every ad that Romney or Obama ran in Ohio was an extra 15 or 30 seconds that wasn't used to air some other advertisement."

New York City ad men, 1960

On whether campaign spending has a good effect, I read a nice piece by Paul Solmon, familiar to many of us as the explainer of all things financial over at the PBS Newshour. In answer to a question from a reader over at Making Sen$e , he says that scholars like Tom Ferguson have long pointed out that "campaign spending represents something substantially more problematic than a "lousy priority." He might use the term "pernicious priority." "

Solmon goes on to quote Lawrence Lessig on why the large campaign spending is bad for the Republic in the long term.

"These few don't exercise their power directly," notes Lessig. "None can simply buy a congressman, or dictate the results they want. But because they are the source of the funds that fuel elections, their influence operates as a filter on which policies are likely to survive. It is as if America ran two elections every cycle, one a money election and one a voting election. To get to the second, you need to win the first. But to win the first, you must keep that tiniest fraction of the one percent happy. Just a couple thousand of them banding together is enough to assure that any reform gets stopped."

Finally, I came across this mocking of an MSNBC correspondent on her suggestion that all this campaign spending might have have had a mini-effect on the economy, and added a bit of stimulus at the right time for Obama. Noah Rothman of Mediaite says:

"this belief betrays a stunning lack of understanding about the size and complexity of the American economy, let alone the global economy. If one held the belief that a grand total of approximately $2 billion in spending over the course of 18 months (funds raised exclusively from donations rather than yields from commerce and investment, no less) into consultancy firms and advertising can stimulate the economy, than that individual can also convince themselves that the economy is small enough to be competently managed from the top down."

Commenters have pointed out that Joy-Ann Reid was being a bit facetious, but Noah, I will own the error of scale and take the drubbing on her behalf.

Although I suspect that many Americans are under the erroneous impression that two billion dollars is a lot of money...

This is one billion...

Friday, November 9, 2012


Yes, you have to watch the whole damn thing and then read my last blog post to understand why this is in any way relevant.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


This word came up in our Finnegans Wake group tonight. It was actually the word 'irrelevance' (page 249, in case you're wondering), but the word I ended up pondering was 'relevant'. It seemed, well, related to 'relation', but then I started wondering if they had different etymological roots. Wondering if it was really the '-levant' we should be focussing on. We wondered if it was connected to the relevé of dance, which is all about lifting. The part we were reading did seem to be about a dance, so maybe it was more 'relevant' than we thought.


So yes--lift. It's not a dance move, though. It goes back to the Latin relevare, "to lift or lighten"--in this sense, it's related to "relief". Interestingly, it was originally a Scottish word with a specific legal meaning. It meant "to take up, take possession of  property". It took on (up?) its more general meaning of "having a connection to the matter at hand" later. Not quite sure how the drift happened, but words are like that...

I know--irrelevant.

Saturday, November 3, 2012


Yes, just one more post about voting and then odds are great that you will never have to hear about it from me for four more years, which in blog years means, "never again." But as you're considering your ballots and figuring out how you're going to get to the voting booth on Tuesday--the New York Times has it that "some New Jersey voters may find their hurricane-damaged polling sites replaced by military trucks, with — in the words of the state’s lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno — “a well-situated national guardsman and a big sign saying, ‘Vote Here.’ ”--you might want to spend a moment thinking about what "suffrage" is. Or maybe not. But as I've already cast my ballot, I have little left to do in life but contemplate such stuff.

When I was a kid and heard about the suffragettes, and learned that they were working to get women  the vote, I'm sure I thought that suffrage had something to do with suffering. As I  mentioned a couple of posts back, the British suffragettes went through some hardships for the cause, so this wasn't the wildest guess I've ever made.

But suffrage actually has different origins. "Suffer" has roots in the Latin sufferre, to bear or undergo--it's really sub- plus ferre, to carry, and is thus more related to ferrying people than it is to universal voting rights.

Suffrage, on the other hand, comes from suffragari, which was Latin for "lend support, vote for someone". It breaks down sub- plus fragor--"crash, din, shouts". (The Online Etymology Dictionary steers us a bit by adding "(of approval). But fragor comes from frangare--to break. So suffrage is actually related to the word "fraction", rather than to the vehicle that will carry people across.

Interestingly, and I did not know this, it's  first usage meaning the right to vote comes in a very American document--the U.S. Constitution of 1787.         

Crash, din, shouts. Huzzah!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Jury duty, and other forms of public happiness

Yesterday was kind of a weird day. I had been summoned for jury duty, which meant that I spent the first half of the day in the Santa Cruz court system. I ended up in the first pool of prospective voters, and, not hugely to my surprise, I was excused in the first round of voir dire, where the lawyers for both sides get to pick a certain number of people to eliminate without having to provide reasons. That means that you don't get to know what you said that made you unsuitable but I do know that it was the prosecution's side that voted me off the island.

Sometimes people try to get out of jury duty, but I wasn't aiming for that. I wasn't entirely against getting a break from retail for awhile. Frankly, I'm glad it's over, but I would have put in the time if it had had turned out otherwise. As the judge pointed out to us before things got underway, we weren't there to make things easy on the government, we were there to provide a fellow citizen a jury of his peers. I came home to find Hurricane Sandy in full sway and the topic of most network news. I liked this segment from the Rachel Maddow show, which talked about duties as citizens in a different way. Sometimes what is asked of you is bigger than you, and that's not necessarily a bad thing:

Visit for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Being on a jury,however briefly, is one of those things that makes you feel like a citizen. I have very conflicting and ambivalent views of the justice system, based on my own experiences. But I was pretty heartened by the way that my fellow citizens showed up to fulfill this duty, despite their busy lives. I think we can all become very cynical about what our fellow Americans are, and what they think and what they know, but I didn't feel that way listening to my fellow potential jurors. The defense lawyer asked people if they were happy when they got their jury summons. No one raised their hands. Nevertheless, despite not being happy, a whole bunch of people turned out on a busy Monday morning to fulfill their civic duty, and as far as I could tell, no one was trying to sabotage their own chances of getting selected. They were thoughtful, and trying to be honest about their reactions to the questions. I had a few issues about the questions, personally, but that's why I'll probably never get selected.

Our former county supervisor, Gary Patton, did an interesting blog post about citizenship and voting today. He quotes the Hannah Arendt Center blog in saying that voting is not the highest form of citzenship.

Hannah Arendt also saw that voting was a deeply circumscribed approach to politics. She once wrote: “The voting box can hardly be called a public place.” What distinguished the United States at the time of its revolution was what Hannah Arendt called the experience of "Public Happiness." From town hall meetings in New England to citizen militias and civic organizations, Americans had the daily experience of self-government. In Arendt's words, "they knew that public freedom consisted in having a share in public business, and that the activities connected with this business by no means constituted a burden but gave those who discharged them in public a feeling of happiness they could acquire nowhere else. Public happiness was found neither in fighting for one's particular interests, nor in doing one's duty by voting or going to town-hall meetings. Rather, the seat of American democracy was the fact that Americans "enjoyed the discussions, the deliberations, and the making of decisions."

Patton took this idea to heart as a county supervisor and held regular morning at the old Caffe Pergolesi. I wasn't among those attending in that time, but I'm pretty sure there was a fair amount of public happiness floating around amid the espresso steam back then.  

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cast Your Vote! Get it done!

I was thinking about putting out this post a little later, but the current President of the United States voted today, the first standing President to do so, probably to convince the electorate that it's a perfectly appropriate thing to do. I suppose his opponents will wait to vote till after Election Day, out of sheer spite. (Sorry--I've been reading a lot of Molly Ivins lately. I might be channeling her.)

I too have already voted. In California it's been possible for a week or so now. I have the possibility of jury duty next week and I've been clearing my calendar a bit. It helped that last weekend, my friends and I were assisting their 98 year old father in voting his absentee ballot. If you don't live in my state, you might be shocked at how many propositions we have to sort through on top of everything else, so I was pleased to learn a bit more as we read the various parts of the ballot aloud to him. (He's still sharp, but he doesn't see so well now.)

Although I think my liberal bias is probably pretty obvious, I'm not just talking to liberals when I use this post to enjoin you to get your vote in. I get really tired of people who are so above the process that they don't think they'll bother. Even if for some reason you think it doesn't matter who  the Commander in Chief of the country is, there's plenty else that's going to make a difference in your life on the ballot. I live in a largely liberal town for example, and the City Council tends to ride somewhat left of center. But if you think that means they are all on the same page when it comes to the issues of our community, you could not be more wrong.

Quite apart from who, though, I think we can all get a bit complacent about our right to vote, and to take it for granted. In fact, as I learned on the Lawrence O'Donnell show tonight from his guest Mo Rocca, our right to vote is not explicit in the original Constitution, it is only implied.

I thought I'd list the chronology of suffrage in the U.S.:

White men without property gained the vote in a process that gradually gave them the vote between 1820 and 1850.

State and federal citizenship upheld for all people or naturalized into the U.S. by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.

The Fifteenth Amendment then logically upholds the right to vote for non-white men in 1870.
Freedmen of South Carolina, 1868

It isn't until 1913 and the 17th amendment that U.S. Senators are elected by the people, rather than their state legislatures. (Looking at you, electoral college.)

Yeah, we've gotten this far without it occuring to the powers that be that women should be included in the vote. So, not till 1920 do we get the 19th amendment.

Native Americans had to wait another four years--1924. And sometimes a lot longer.

Princess Watawoso, casting the first vote on Indian Island, 1955

Not until 1961 were the residents of the District of Columbia allowed to vote in the presidential elections. Now we're talking about within my lifetime.

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed literacy tests as an obstruction to voting, which had been a means of disenfranchising the votes of the poor and particularly poor blacks.

Discriminating against the poor in another way was eliminated by the 24th amendment, which prohibited the poll tax.

The 26th amendment, in the Vietnam era, reasoned that if you were old enough to go to war, you were old enough to vote. Minimum voting age went from 21 to 18 in 1971.

Residents of Washington DC were restored their rights to vote for their own local government in 1973. Still at loggerheads with the feds over other issues, though. Congress retains the power to overthrow these laws should it see fit.

Finally, although, probably not really finally, we have the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, which guarantees voting rights to military and other citizens residing overseas at the time of elections. (* I originally wrote this as the Uninformed and Overseas Citizens, more proof that they are just like everybody else.)

As you can see, the trend so far is towards greater and greater suffrage. We've still got some issues around Washington DC, Puerto Rico and other places with complicated histories. You can also see that just because it becomes obvious that some group should be able to vote, the next group seeking to be treated like full citizens don't just get a free pass. It's always a fight.

Neither of my grandmothers were born with the right to vote, though both of them were among the most politically interested women I know--on opposite ends of the political spectrum, too. They both were eager to argue politics with anyone and they passed that on to their kids. Arguing politics was actually how my parents got to know each other.

A few years ago, I did a little walking tour of London. Though it was intermittently wet, we didn't mind, as we had a very engaging tour guide who knew her stuff. Eventually, she took us to the Emmeline Pankhurst statue, which was put up in honor of her militant struggle for women's suffrage in England. Our guide said that knowing Pankhurst's fight made her angry at voter apathy. She found it hard to understand why women would take their vote for granted, knowing the history.
So let me take it a step further. If any of your ancestors were women, or renters, or black, or Native American, or poor, or in the overseas military, I think you kind of owe them the time it takes to vote, don't you? Because you know there is someone with views very different from your own who will be very happy if you don't.


Sunday, October 21, 2012


It's been a busy week, and I'm not really up for research today, so I thought I'd share an odd little moment I had. It was this past Wednesday, October 17th, and I was at work, holding down the fort at the information desk. A young guy with long braided hair comes up to the desk--he looked a bit like an African prince, dressed down. He said to me, do you know what day it is? And the funny thing, is I knew exactly what he was asking me, so I said yes, I do. He said, my uncle was Shawn McCormick. And again I knew exactly who he meant. It's my birthday, he said. And my uncle died on this day. And I told him that I knew about Shawn McCormick. Shawn McCormick was one of two people who died on the other side of a wall from me, when that brick wall collapsed on them as they worked at the Santa Cruz Coffee Roasting Company. He and Robin Ortiz were both very young people on October 17th, 1989, the day of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

I always do remember the date, not so much because of the trauma, but because there is a cluster of dates that come together in the middle of the month--my dad's birthday on the 16th, and my friends' son being born that same date, the day before the earthquake. So, like Shawn's nephew, there is a heavy plus and minus feeling to this time of year. I remembered the date that morning, but though several of us old hands still work at the bookstore, I didn't really think of bringing it up at work. It's not one of those round number anniveraries, and twenty-three years out, there really isn't so much to say. But I was very happy that this young man, who was two at the time his uncle died, had thought to come up to a random stranger who was connected with the bookstore. We shared a moment. We shook hands. He told me his name, but I don't remember it, though I wouldn't have posted it here anyway.

I didn't know either Shawn or Robin, but I do always think of them when I mark this day. The wall could so easily have fallen the other way.

a view of the buildings from the back, post-quake 

Monday, October 15, 2012

do si do

This is just a fun one. One of my friends at work asked me how to spell 'do si do' for a press release, and I had no idea, so I looked it up. Answer: there are various spellings. Why? This was a bit surprising.  I'm sure most people reading here will associate the term with Western squaredancing. If you're like me, you kind of assume one of the callers just made it up on the spot at some point. It just sounds kind of right, doesn't it?

Well, as almost always with words, there is a little bit more to it than that. And we'll get to that. But first:


Wanted to make it simple for you... A do si do is a square dance figure in which two partners approach each other back to back before returning to their original spots. Now if I had to guess, I'd have thought that that "dos" sound would have had something to do with two, if it wasn't just a nonsense word. But it doesn't. The phrase 'do si do' comes from the French dos-à-dos, or "back to back". This relates it to a couple of surprising phrases. First of all, that dos connects it to "dossier", which actually relates to the whole idea of "back" in several hypothetical ways. It's a bundle of papers, sure, but the term is related to the idea of having a label on the back or being shaped like a hump on the back. Tellingly, I think, the Old French dossiere was a back strap on a horse's harness.

And  what of 'vis-à-vis', which we now tend to think of as 'in regard to, or in relation to' ? Well, it's simply this term's opposite--namely, 'face to face'.

Although I don't think it's a squaredance term.  

Saturday, October 13, 2012

One small, underreported (nonpolitical) and heartening consequence of the vice-presidential debates

I don't tend to check the stats on this blog too often. I find it kind of cramps my style to think about that stuff too much. But every once in awhile I'll end up on the design page and take a look, and yesterday was one of those days. I was a bit surprised to see a huge spike in hits, but it didn't take long to figure out why. No, people were not mad to learn what I would have to say about obstetric fistulas, which was my last post here. What they wanted to know about was malarkey.

Unfortunately, not a whole lot of information was to be had, so I'm sure they skipped on through. The heartening part, though, is that there were a fair number of knowledge seekers out there on debate night who were curious enough to try and find out a little bit more about what that word Joe Biden used meant.

Since I didn't hold up my end very well, I thought I'd repost this bit from Anatoly Liberman, which ended up in the comments field rather than the main post. He's always worth reading, and as he'd say, I think, some people's guesses are more intelligent than others...

Malarkey “nonsense.” Several conjectures about it are on record, some of which are not worthy of mention. Eric Partridge derived malarkey from Modern Greek malakia, defined as “masturbation” and “tricky.” In my opinion, his guess holds out no promise. Other people traced the word to an Irish family name. Irish names have fared badly in English etymology: hooligan, hoodlum, and larrikin (Australian slang for hoodlum) have been given Irish lineage, but no one will be convinced until it can be shown who the first infamous Hooligan, Hoodlum, and “little Larry” were. Peter Tamony, an unrivaled expert in the history of Californian slang and San Francisco street life, traced malarkey to a certain Mullarkey (of San Francisco), the son of Joe Mallorca, a Portuguese. “This son assumed the name Jerry Mullarkey under the delusion he was of Irish descent.” He left his mark as oyster shucker (opener) and great boaster. Malarkey became the pseudonym of Thomas Aloysius Dorgan (TAD), a celebrated cartoonist and sports writer, and indeed a man of Irish descent. According to Tamony, this is how the word malarkey “talk, bunkum, and baloney” came into being (Western Folklore 33, 1974, 158-162).

Thursday, October 11, 2012


I suppose a word of caution is needed here, as this contains some pretty difficult and graphic material. Not for kids, I'd think. Although, sadly, it's pretty much about kids.

Last week was pretty heavy in the TV watching department when it came to thinking about women's rights and issues around the world. Not only did I end up watching Half the Sky, which is a four hour documentary about tackling women's issues around the globe, but somehow ended up keeping the television on and thus seeing  a Nova segment called A Walk to Beautiful, which was about a clinic in Ethiopia  where they treat the apparently enormous problem of obstetric fistulas in the country.

To cut to the chase a bit, many rural women in Ethiopia suffer devastating shame and ostracism because of a complication of giving birth which leaves them unable to hold their urine and in some cases their feces. The reasons have to do with heavy lifting and malnutrition in early childhood, early marriage and lack of prenatal care, to name but a few. The immediate cause however, is a fistula.

I have heard the word fistula before, but never really knew what it was. Due to the similar sound in English, I could never escape thinking of it as a little fist, but that idea didn't really serve me very well.

So, unless you've already gone on over to watch the documentary, which I highly recommend, shall we explore what a fistula is?

Oh, well--I can always do it on my own.


A fistula is a permanent abnormal passage between two hollow or tubular organs in the body, or between an organ and the body's surface. An obstetric fistula makes a passage between either the vagina and the bladder or the vagina and the rectum, or, in some really horrific cases, both.

Fistula doesn't have anything to do with the word fist, however, which probably goes back to an early root having to do with five.  In Latin, fistula means a pipe, reed, or even a flute. Tellingly, it also means ulcer, from which I suppose our present meaning derives. What lies beneath or behind that, no one seems to know.

Watch A Walk to Beautiful. These young women need all the empathy they can get.

Sunday, October 7, 2012



What particularly interested me out of the above segment was the following quote:

MADDOW: Today, President Obama sent to the Federal Register this notice. Look, "Consistent with section 202D of the National Emergencies Act, I`m continuing for one year the national emergency previously declared on September 14th, 2001. Because the terrorist threat continues, the national emergency declared on September 14th, 2001 and the powers and authorities adopted to deal with that emergency must continue in effect beyond September 14th, 2012. Therefore, I`m continuing in effect for an additional year the national emergency that was declared in 2001 with respect to the terrorist threat." What does the word "emergency" even mean anymore if we establish one for a year in advance? And what we`re calling an emergency now is starting its 12th straight year? It will be a good day in America and a good day in the English language when the word emergency is allowed to get its meaning back.

All right, that's an interesting question, but even more interesting is where did the word emergency come from in the first place? I have a friend who is very interested in what is currently termed 'emergent theology', which is about a theology that being born in response to what we think we know about the world, physics, etc. now. So, does emergency have any relation to this sense of emerging? I feel it must, but can't quite pin it down. Not all emerging is an emergency, after all...


Emergency does come out of emerge--in a way, it's "emerge's" own emergency. The definition of an emergency is "an unforeseen occurrence requiring immediate attention". Emerge, which means to rise out or up (rather than to merge, which is to dip, sink, plunge--think "immersion", or "submersible" sink) is from the 1560s, while emergency doesn't appear in written form till 1620. It all stems from the usual middle French, which in turn stems from the usual Latin. 

I spent a fairly fruitless time trying to get how emergency came to have its more specific meaning of "crisis", but didn't really get anywhere, and actually came upon a couple of blogs that had trodden these paths before. You can check them out HERE and HERE if you want to try and find something I missed. They're interesting, even if there is a lot of invective against Judge Judy in the comment threads on one.

I suppose in a way, an unforeseen occurrence always has some potential for crisis about it. And of course, as I can never remember enough, the drift of words changes their meanings quite often.

As apparently now one can be called by presidential order...

Thursday, October 4, 2012

OED Appeals

Just found this in my blog roll. The OED has opened up a dedicated space on their website where they're asking the public to  help research the history of words.

As a friend told me once, and as the website confirms, this has always been the method of the OED.

The OED has been a collaboration between lexicographers and the public since its earliest days, from the appeal issued by the Philological Society in 1859, to the television programme “Balderdash & Piffle,” broadcast in 2005 and 2007. OED Appeals continues this tradition by using the reach of the web and social media to connect lexicographers with those who may hold hidden clues to word history without even realizing it.

For the word enthusiast, this sounds like great news. Readers here might think this would be right up my alley, but actually I'm not really a researcher of this ilk. I'm mostly concerned to dig into my own murkiness and misconceptions. But I know there are people out there who will have a field day with this kind of crowd sourcing idea. If that's you, what are you waiting for? Have at it!

*10/7/12 Amending this to say that I just took a look over there and realized I had something to contribute on the word "cootie". Take a look--you might remember something too.


Sunday, September 30, 2012


I was watching a segment of Michael Sandel's Justice the other night and heard him describe some hypothetical candidate going "out on the hustings". It's a nice word, hustings, and in context, I thought I knew what it meant. It's basically going out and meeting the public and speechifying in front of them. Right? I think of a small rural or provincial makeshift stage for the candidate.

But what are hustings, exactly? For some reason I have always imagined hustings as a temporary stage that wear a sort of dry corn husk as a skirt. This can't be right, however, and before I reveal too much more of my thinking by process of association method, I think we had better press on...


Well, the stage or platform is right, the corn husks, not surprisingly, are wrong. According to Charles Dickens World (where I also got the picture):

The hustings were temporary wooden platforms, constructed in the street, from which parliamentary hopefuls were nominated, presented to the crowd and made their election speeches. Before the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872, a show of hands was sufficient to give a candidate a majority. If that proved inconclusive a public ballot was called for.

"Husting" comes to us from the Scandinavians, probably Old Norse, via the Brits. The husting was originally the Old Norse husthing (or really húsþing) with the second "h" sound getting lost somewhere in the transition. It meant "house-thing". "Thing" is one of those words that has a lot greater range and depth than might first appear. It isn't just about objects or a way to talk about something imprecisely ("that thing over there"). It originally had to do with a meeting or assembly. So a house-thing was either a meeting held in a house, or a meeting of the household of the clan chief--I've seen both explanations. The term survives in the Folleting of Denmark, the Althing (Alþingi) of Iceland, and the Storting of Norway, all of which are the assembly houses or parliaments of their individual countries. So when someone puts you off by saying, "I've got a thing", you can be pretty sure they're secretly a pretty high up Nordic official in disguise. (I'm kidding.)

Stortinget, Norway
After the British took over the idea, they eventualy began to use "hustings court" as a name for the kinds of courts set up to deal with the civil matters of a community. In London, the court was presided over by the Lord Mayor and was held in the Guildhall. Apparently this court was held on a platform, and by 1719,  the sense of hustings as a platform for political speeches had taken hold.

Modern Day Guildhall, London
I was surprised to learn that hustings courts made their way over to the U.S. as well, notably in Viriginia. But that also there was a tradition of hustings courts in parts of the Midwest, where they were set up as temporary courts in remote regions. (In addition to the usual suspects, such as Wikipedia and the Online Etymology Dictionary, I'm gathering a lot of this information from a very concise article at Random House's The Maven's Word Of the Day, which as a Random House project now seems to be defunct.)

It had never occurred to me before, but the more American term, stump speech, bears a relationship to "on the hustings". Of course, in America it was more expedient to find the nearest stump than to take time to build a platform. But the impulse of the politician is everywhere the same--get up on top of something where people can see (and especially hear) you.

Stump Speaking, by George Caleb Bingham 1853-54

Monday, September 24, 2012


The Dissolute Family, by Jan Steen

Okay, back to our regularly scheduled broadcasting. First though, I have to give an update on my relationship with the new Blogger interface. Tonight, I find that for the first time since using it, there is no error message as I open pages. I have no idea why, but I'm happy to attribute it to some change made by Google after reading my feedback. We can only hope, since they certainly aren't going to tell me.

I was reading an interesting article by Kerry Howley  in Bookforum at the register the other day. It was called "Fifty Shades of Beige" and you can find it in its entirety here . It's one of those things that I can't explain, but though I really have no interest in reading the books, I'm fascinated to read commentary on the phenomenon. For a bookseller, it's always interesting to try to understand why one particular book breaks out like that. Almost always, there are plenty of other books in the same genre, and usually a lot of them are at least as good or better. But this one book for some reason lands in fertile soil at a propitious moment.

Anyway. I liked this article and it brought up an interesting question.

 When the French philosopher Georges Bataille described eroticism as “assenting to life up to the point of death,” he was talking about a moment of freedom from the prison of isolated existence, a moment in which an essentially discontinuous body might experience the kind of continuity with the universe we’ll all presumably find when our lives are over. In the erotic we bump up against the possibility of dissolution; there is a reason we call a certain kind of person “dissolute.” 

Okay, but is this the reason we call a certain kind of person dissolute? That's what I'd like to find out.


Well, I'm kind of striking out here. The Online Etymology dictionary tells us that it entered our language in the late 14th century and meant loose, morally or religiously lax. It does of course have a relationship to the word "dissolve", and comes from the Latin dissolutus, "loose, disconnected" and was a figurative use of a more literal word. And in fact, most of the definitions I found searching around on the web use dissolute as the definition for other words--words like profligate, libertine, rakish.

What I still don't know is why looseness and a dissolved state symbolize the state of being outside the bounds of our current morality.

Maybe Kerry Howley has the answer. Certainly it's the most interesting I've come across so far.

Friday, September 21, 2012

September 21st, 2012

It is a year today since Troy Anthony Davis was executed. The time has flown by so fast that I found it a little hard to believe when I realized it last week. I've wondered a bit how to commemorate this day, and in the end almost decided to let it pass in the blog world. But tonight I thought maybe it would be appropriate to say a little something.

In California, there is a proposition coming up in the fall, Prop 34, to end the death penalty. I'd hope any Californians reading along here would vote for it, but I decline to make Troy Davis a rallying point. My reasons for my activism around Troy were to keep him alive--that possibility is over. I'm against the death penalty. I've always been against the death penalty. But my willingness to enter the struggle to save Troy's life was personal. I had a bit of correspondence with him over the time I knew of his situation, and I would have preferred to keep the person that I knew through that correspondence alive. That is all.

I have had a curious and contrary reaction about making his situation into a broader metaphor. I view his death very much like the deaths of people I've known much better who faced the Grim Reaper in a very similar way because of terminal cancers. After the tragedy of their too early deaths, there is a certain sense of peace. Whether it's a selfish peace, I do not know. But the impossible task of trying to be there for a person who faces a graver lot than you do is over.

Perhaps oddly, now that Troy is beyond the question of guilt and innocence, I find myself most moved by the position of the MacPhail family. They did in fact lose a son, brother, husband and father that night in 1989 to murder. Whatever their hopes out of Troy Davis's trials, they are not the ones who put him on trial and not the ones who executed him. And they are not the ones who should be blamed for what happened to him. I couldn't believe that the MacPhail family became the target of hate from the community supporting Troy Davis, and I do know that this message didn't come from him. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the MacPhail family received a lot of letters and phone calls, but that only one was not anonymous. Mark MacPhail's mother, a widow, is 72 years old, for Christ's sake. Leave the poor woman alone.

If there is anyone who should be exempt from feeling mercy towards Troy Davis, it is the MacPhail family. This is why we have a system of legal justice--so that people who have been wounded aren't the ones making the life or death decisions.

So let's give a thought to the surviving members of Troy Davis's family tonight. But let's also give a thought to the surviving MacPhail family too.

The Troy I think I knew would have wanted you to. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

I don't like the new blogger interface

Having been forced abruptly from one day to the next to use the new interface, I just have to say it--I'm agin it. For one thing, I get an error message every time I change the page. For another, given that it's been forced on us, it doesn't actually seem to do anything new. And for a third and more general complaint, how about that you can never even get close to actually talking to anyone at Google? I mean, even by email. All you get is FAQs and user forums. And some sort of known issues page. You can write your complaint, and you'll get a note saying how Google is appreciative of your concern and how you must realize that they can't respond to everyone.

I know the strategy here is that people complain and then they adjust. Well, I don't. I still complain every day about the computer upgrade at work, which given that it was the same company's software upgraded has just some unbelievably stupid elements now, and I still complain about how stupid air travel has become in this millennium.

More kindly souls around me are always pointing out that complaining doesn't do any good. But I don't agree. As with all of these things, I don't actually have a lot of choice in the matter. I could quit flying, or quit my job, or quit blogging, but I'm probably not going to do any of these things. Complaining is still a form of dissent, though. Complaining is the way an individual gets to say, you may hold all the cards, powers that be, but that still doesn't make what you're doing all right.       

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Wheelus Air Base--Part 2

Blogs are funny things. You never know exactly what is going to make an impression out there in the wide wide world, and for the most part, I assume I don't make much of one anyway. But every once in awhile, it turns out that your posts do count for something, and such is the case with the blog post I put up in March of 2011 on Wheelus Air Base in Tripoli.

The reasons for putting up the post were twofold--my mother had died the fall before and my sisters and I were all still in the process of sorting through her things and recalling her life. Then too, there was the little matter of a civil war in Libya that was unfolding just then. I simply wanted to find out a little more about this place where my parents had met, which we had heard tales of all our lives, and where, it turns out, I was actually conceived.

And now again, I have a twofold reason for revisiting the topic. One is that my sister left me a message last week, wondering if I too didn't feel a particular sadness and depression over the tragic deaths at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The second was that I got an email, or actually several from a woman whose father had been in the military, but who had actually been in Libya after that, involved in oil exploration. Barbara (I'll leave it to her to identify herself more fully if she chooses) had known the base growing up because her dad was entitled to use the officers' club. She informed me that there were many American families living and working in Libya who led their lives outside the safety of the base, which was new and interesting information to me.

Anyway, I'll share some links she gave me at the end here, but what I'd like to emphasize is that she is far from the only person who has gotten in touch with me by comments or email in the intervening time since I put up that post. It is the post that has gained by far the most comments from people I didn't already know in some fashion. (But if you're reading this blog, perhaps you do know or remember them--go to the link and check them out if you're interested.)

What struck me in reading the comments over time, is that blogs and websites and the like are really the only way people who knew each other there can now help reconstitute it in memory. Because Wheelus, a once thriving, very solid place in the lives of many Americans--more apparently than even statistics for the base itself might convey--is gone. Utterly, totally gone.

In my first blog post about Wheelus, I mentioned that I had met a man who had grown up on that base for a time and now lived in Santa Cruz, California, as I do. I eventually ran into him again in the bookstore I work in and he happened to have his mother with him. He told me that she would have loved to show me her slides of Libya, but that they had burnt in a fire some years ago. This seemed sort of doubly unfortunate--the memorabilia of the place that had vanished now vanished too. When he introduced me  to this now little old lady, she came up to me and hugged me and said, "Bless you!" and began to recount her days there. I believe she told me that the military families didn't tend to go into Tripoli much, but that she and some of her friends rented a cab and stole out to a district where they could watch belly dancing. She must have been a  bit of a firecracker in her day.

When I first heard the news about Ambassador Stevens and the others who died in Benghazi, my first reaction was a kind of flippant, "You're welcome, Libya." And I was kind of happy to hear Secretary of State Clinton voice exactly this initial sense of an ungrateful nation, turning on the U.S. after its help. But then she went on to say that the perpetrators of violence represented such a tiny portion of the Libyan people. Which of course is true.  The peaceful protest that is said to have been going on initially is not the same thing as the armed assault that followed, and is in fact free speech of the kind we say that we value.

It's not just in the Islamic world that peaceful crowds are being exploited by small groups with more violent aims these days. It's an odd thing, but the town I live in now, a university town, not particularly a war zone, except sometimes between gangs, experienced exactly this sort of violent assault under the cover of a peaceful activity just a couple of years ago. I wrote about it here a while ago, and there's a grainy video clip of what that night was like if you're interested at the end of that post.

In any case, I would hope that people who have an actual connection to Libya through Wheelus Air Base might still long for a positive evolving relation to the Libyan people rather than retracting in a hardened and hurt position.

If you haven't discovered Bahrain DC and you have memories of Wheelus, you should hop on over. From the time I first posted their link, when there were about 160 comments, there have now grown to be over 1200. And just scrolling down them right now, I came upon this site, which has video and photos from that era that you'll get a kick out of.

Barbara has given me the link to a trailer of a documentary about military brats, which I'll post below.
She's also shown me a site  called TCK World: The Official Home of Third Culture Kids , which might be useful to a lot of people who have that neither fish nor fowl sense of identity. Actually, a commenter in the last blog post, "circuitmouse" mentioned the book that connects to this in the comments there:  The Third Culture Kid Experience: Growing Up among Worlds by David Pollock & Ruth Van Reken. I remember thinking that, though I'm not a military kid per se, my family's history of moving around a lot during childhood in some ways mirrors that reality.
And finally, here's AOSHS--American Overseas Schools Historical Society. The group is attempting to document the lives of over four million American kids who were educated abroad during their parents' military service. It has a cool archive of first hand accounts, though I haven't looked at it enough to see if you can sort by country.