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.


Sunday, September 9, 2012


Man, there is a backlog of ignorance built up here! I think that to start digging myself out from under, I'll go back to the post of a couple of weeks back on codling. Because I never did exactly address the homophone, "coddling". It came up a little, tangentially, but I haven't exactly got my head around it. Does it mean to envelope as in a nice sack, as the word codling might lead you to expect? Or, as I am guessing, is there a completely different derivation?

Before we get to it, I wonder if everyone else here thinks that "coddled" is a slightly pejorative term. Not that I think any of us minds much if we are coddled ourselves. It's just when someone else gets the treatment that we get restive...


All right. Coddled eggs are not just eggs that have been treated in a pampered sort of way, they are actually eggs that have gone through a particular process of cooking. To be precise, to coddle is to cook them in water at  a temperature just below boiling. Or to immerse them briefly in boiling water. I was going to give you a coddled egg recipe, but frankly they are contradictory. One person says use only very fresh eggs because the whites thin out over time, while another says it is best to use older eggs, because they are easier to peel. I suppose you will have to judge the advantages and disadvantages yourself.

Although not certain, the best guess about the origins of the word coddle seems to be that it is a variant spelling of "caudle", which was a warm drink of weak gruel fortified with wine or ale. It goes all the way back through the Anglo French (of course--when does anything I ever write about here not go back through the Anglo French?) to the Latin calidium, which, in a remarkably consistent way,was also a warm drink, often of wine and water. The root word is calere, be warm, which connects it to another modern and anxiety invoking word, calorie.

A cool, but probably little known fact is that the first instance of its use in writing was by Jane Austen in Emma. It is spoken by John Knightly, the more famous Mr. Knightly's brother, to Isabelle, his wife and Emma's sister, after the invalid Mr. Woodhouse, Emma's father, has said that he doesn't look well.

"My dear Isabella,"--exclaimed he hastily--"pray do not concern yourself about my looks. Be satisfied with doctoring and coddling yourself and the children, and let me look as I choose."

The interesting thing to me, though, is that Austen may not be thinking of coddle in quite the way we do yet, because this bit of dialogue comes right in between two different discussions of, you guessed it, gruel. Thin gruel, but not too thin. This is all in the vicinity of page 88-89, if you happen to want to look it up on Google's ebook.

I'm guessing that coddle first meant to pamper in a particular, medicinal sort of way, and only gradually extended its meaning to more general applications. I see that Thackeray uses it in The Newcomes (which is my favorite Thackeray novel--a minority opinion, I know):

"How many of our English princes have been coddled at home by their fond papas and mammas,walled up in inaccessible castles, with a tutor and a library"  

This seems to be more along the lines of our contemporary meaning, though Thackeray is writing only 40 years after Emma.


Monday, September 3, 2012

Going viral--and not the good way

It's unlikely that anybody even noticed that this blog has been down for awhile, but it wasn't laziness or even a running out of ideas for posts that was behind it. I didn't go on any brilliant vacations, though it was a busy August and I didn't particularly need a break from blogging, or didn't think I did. No, my computer caught a cold from someone that not even my virus protection caught, and it's been convalescing elsewhere for a bit. I really wasn't expecting to have it back on Labor Day of all days, but like me and pretty much everyone else I know, the computer guys were working this morning and called me to tell me the surgery had been a success. Although, like surgeons leaving stuff inside the patient after operating, or really the opposite of that, I brought it out of the bag to discover that the bottom covering was missing, and all the innards are exposed. Ah, well. You can't have everything.

I've had enough virus and malware problems over the time I've had computers that this one left me not so much anxious as a little depressed. I think it was only the first time that I really can say the blame lay with me--every other time I've had what I thought was sufficient security, only to find it gotten around in some way. This time I didn't even know I had a virus issue--I thought it was a modem problem. The depression comes from thinking, "So, this easily compromised network is what we've really decided to hand over our thoughts and memory to?" It's a little like living in California, knowing another earthquake is inevitable. Which is another crazy position I happen to be in.

But putting this all into perspective a bit, there's been another virus lurking around California. A couple of people have died up in Yosemite as the result of coming into contact with deer mice droppings, which spread the hantavirus. Deer mice are cute, but I'd rather get a computer virus any day of the week, no matter how much data I lost.

  Oddly enough, my first real job out of high school was working as a maid in Yosemite, and although I didn't live in the tent cabins, which is where people have contracted the virus, I had friends who did. And I have stayed in them since. I am sure there are thousands of people who have nostalgic memories of their stay in these dwellings, and it's a shame that their image is a bit tarnished by all this. 

As for my week or so away from the internet, well, it's not really a real abstinence when you can check your email at work. I'm not sure how far any of us are from the internet anymore, really. But I did find myself going through a kind of withdrawal at home, because I would reflexively want to turn the machine on, and then have to think of something else to do. Not that I used that time so wonderfully--I caught up on some TV shows I'd missed and got sucked into the Republican convention spectacle. And I did actually take care of a few things around here that I wouldn't have--not that you could tell.

And I wrote a short story that I sent off--I'll let you know if that goes anywhere. It took some ingenuity to pull off, frankly. I typed it on to this little gizmo I bought called an Alphasmart Neo.

These are really simple little word processing machines, and I bought one a long time ago on a hunch that it would come in handy, which it has on several occasions. You can keep many files going at once, it runs on a couple of small batteries forever, and when you're using it, all you can do is type. No games, no internet connections, no email. And when you're done, you can find a computer with Word on it, or whatever you use and upload it by means of a cable. It's fun watching a mysterious invisible hand type out your words on to the screen. Okay--I live for simple joys.

One thing I did realize from that process in particular--or realized again-- is that blogging and writing stories are two very different activities. I've somehow fallen into the world of blogging, and I'm not planning to give it up, but writing fiction is a different thing and closer to my real self. I don't make any claims for the result, but it is a different process, and one that has a more mysterious or magical component for me. It does different things to my brain than this does, and I need to remember that. A friend told me today that the way to do that is to  put a post-it on the mirror, and though I know that reminders to myself become invisible to me in a remarkably short span of time, I'll try to put a post-it on my mental mirror all the same.