Archive for January, 2009

John Updike Again: The Magic of Sentences

January 30, 2009

Some of you readers are doubtless aware of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the informal title for what is formally known as “The Program in Creative Writing” at the University of Iowa.  It culminates in the awarding of a Master of Fine Arts in English.

Although the threads of its history at Iowa go back as far as 1897, in its full-fledged status as a true Workshop it dates to 1936 and reached its earliest heyday under the directorship of Paul Engle (from 1941 to 1966).  It is still divided into two sections: poetry and fiction. The alumni of the Workshop have won numerous Pulitzer Prizers, and four U.S. Poet Laureates are graduates.

One of the emphases of the Workshop is the writing of structurally sound and rhythmically pleasing sentences. 

An advertisement that appeared in a recent issue of a magazine I subscribe to offered,   in 24 thirty-minute lectures on DVDs,  to teach its students that “great writing begins–and ends–with the sentence.”  Just to give you a clear idea of the diversity of these lectures,  here are the topics,  all taught by Professor Brooks Landon of the University of Iowa,   of the first ten lectures:

         1.  A Sequence of Words

         2.  Grammar and Rhetoric

         3. Propositions and Meaning

         4.  How Sentences Grow

          5.  Adjectival Steps

          6.  The Rhythm of Cumulative Syntax

         7.   Direction of Modification

         8.  Coordinate,  Subordinate, and Mixed Patterns

         9.  Coordinate Cumulative Sentences

        10. Subordinate and Mixed Cumulatives

It is easy,  but maybe also necessary,  to compare John Updike to Joseph Mitchell as incomparable stylists within the constraints of the sentence.

Calvin Trillin once told Mitchell, whom he admired immensely, that a CCNY teacher (most likely Trillin’s wife Alice)  had told her students that he (Mitchell) was the “greatest living master of the English declarative sentence.”

Verlyn Klinkenborg,  who writes for both “The New York Times” and “National Geographic” and whom I admire greatly (he wrote a 1992 review of “Up in the Old Hotel”  in “The New York Times Book Review”),  said in his appreciation of Updike in yesterday’s “New York Times,” this:   “No matter what Updike’s books accomplished, he was, above all, a maker of sentences, one of the very best.  You can read him for his books, but it’s better to read him for his sentences, any one of which–anywhere–can rise up to startle you with its wry perfection.”

Joe Posnanski,   a sports writer for “The Kansas City Star” (my “hometown newspaper”),  in his appreciative essay on Updike at his passing reminded readers of Mr. Updike’s great essay on Ted Williams as he played his last game for the Boston Red Sox.  That essay was titled  “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”   Posnanski recalls from memory one of Updike’s memorable sentences in that newspaper story:   “‘For me,’ Updike wrote, ‘Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill.'”  No wonder, say I, that Mr. Updike was so taken by the game of golf.



“Better Writer Than a Golfer”–John Updike (1932-2009)

January 29, 2009

Eliot Asinof, the author of a story of the “Black Sox” scandal of 1908 (“Eight Men Out,” for which he also cowrote the screenplay for the 1988 cinematic adaptation), was quite well-acquainted with John Updike, who passed away earlier this week.  Asinof passed away last June.  There is not room enough, nor need enough for now, to write more about the colorful life of Mr. Asinof.  But you might want to check that out for yourself.

Jennings Smith and I had the pleasure of playing a round of golf with Mr. Asinof at Cypress Lakes about fifteen years ago.  For some reason Don Whiteman and son Ed, the usual other pairing in our weekend foursome,  were not available for play.  Just as we were approaching the first tee, a gentleman somewhat older than either of us, came walking up behind us, also pulling his bag on a pull cart.  He consented to our invitation to play with us, and we set out for our four hours’ stroll (“a good walk spoiled” as Mark Twain reputedly once described it).  We learned his first name first, “Eliot” and then, as the day and our conversation progressed, I found out his last name was “Asinof” (not to be confused with the prolific biochemist and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, who was also born in 1920) and that he was a roving journalist and writer, best-known for “Eight Men Out.”

I also found out that he played in a tournament on occasion with other writers, one of whom was John Updike.  I knew that Updike was an avid golfer, and I asked Eliot who among the writing fraternity was the better golfer.  Eliot took little time to reply,  “Updike is a better writer than a golfer.”  One of the proud notes in Asinof’s obituary reports that he shot his age for the first time when he was 79.   The day he played at Cypress Lakes with Jennings and me, he shot,  as I recall, somehere in the mid-eighties.

I confess to not having read a great deal by Updike.  I dipped into his (for the time, scandalous) novel “Couples,” and I did read most of “Rabbit, Run,”  the first in his tetralogy about an American “antihero,”  “Rabbit” Angstrom, the last of which appeared only several years ago.  And more recently has come in 2008 “The Widows of Eastwick,”  the successor to his novel, “The Witches of Eastwick,”  which was made in a very successful film starring Jack Nicholson and with  Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer.

My familiarity with Updike’s writing comes mainly from his contributions to “The New Yorker” where, for the greater part of his life, he wrote brilliantly and with great versatility.  I was continually astounded by how much Updike had read and how much he knew–  about other writers from everywhere few of whom I had ever heard of. 

His versatility can be seen in the variety of forms and modes of his published work.  In the March 18, 1999, issue of “The New Yorker,” for instance, he contributes a poem titled “Country Music,” which cleverly targets and spoofs the Monica Lewinsky/President Clinton affair, the first stanza (of four) which goes,

Oh Monica,  you Monica/In your little black beret/You beguiled our saintly Billy/And led that creep astray.

In the July 31,  2000, issue Updike contributed (he also wrote a poem about his love for golf that I may have stowed away elsewhere) an essay about the king of sports, titled “The Sporting World:  An Ode to Golf.”  Rivalling Andrew Marvell’s wonderful Restoration ode, “To His Coy Mistress,”  this essay richly brings to the surface all of the sensual and sexual appeal that makes this sport so seductively appealing to the male of the species.

His last published piece, so far as I recall,  appeared in  the October 20, 2008, issue,  in the occasional “Life and Letters” column.  It is titled “A Desert Encounter.”  Although it is likely that by this time Mr. Updike was aware of his fragile health,  the essay does not have the tone or the posture of an “ave atque vale”  (hail and farewell).  Yet it was for me an unusually personal and touching piece of writing, in which a “Roto-Rooter operative” and an aging, genial, and inquisitive neighbor cause him to explore out loud some deep emotions to strangers, an act quite  completely unlike him:  prompted by his gratitude for their finding a cherished hat that had disappeared as he was pruning on this, his fifth winter in the Southwest, some thick and spiny octotillo,  he reveals to them a great deal of his inner life.   

For some reason, he feels compelled to explain to them, but especially to the old and inquisitive neighbor, what the logo on the lost cap is:  the badge of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of which Updike is a member (only 250 living Americans are so honored at any time)  and also Chairman of the Centennial Observance Committee that decided to give the hats to each member.      

It seems as if the older man represents the “ideal listener” that we would like to have.  Thus he is able, like Updike’s “New Yorker” colleague Joseph Mitchell, to wring from his interlocutor personal revelations, which others are usually denied:  

       “‘Isn’t that wonderful!’ he exclaimed.  ‘Did you hear that?” he asked the Roto-Rooter man, who softly slammed his truck’s back door.  ‘Did you ever hear of such a nice organization?  Writers, composers, painters, and sculptors, the best in the country?'”

Updike is completely taken in by the fellow’s interest and enthusiasm and consents to signing his name on the back on one of the Roto-Rooter man’s invoices.  One cannot now escape the realization that the last paragraph of the essay is an epiphany, one  that reaches deep into Updike’s soul:

         “The dusk was threatening to enwrap us.  The calls of the golfers to one another had been silenced.  At our feet a sizable city had begun to display its shimmering grid.  The Roto-Rooter operative moved, uncertainly, toward the back of the truck.  I felt that some concluding statement was expected from me. ‘I am delighted,’ I announced, to have my hat back,’ and tipped it, floppy as it was, to the two of them, first one and then the other, overcoming my fear that they might expect irony, where none was intended.”

I will post another commentary very soon on Updike as a masterful writer, maybe one of the last of a now-lost generation. . . .



A Couple of Conundrums

January 25, 2009


        If you wonder what happened to the “Gigapan” posting, I deleted it at the urgent request of son Ron.  He was, I think, concerned that his “facetious” remark might be taken literally.  I think Ron underestimates the acute intelligence and linguistic savvy of the readers and contributors to this Blog site, but I will give him the benefit of the doubt this time.

         I can make something out of that entry, though, that might be interesting to play with:  an unusual quality of the word “facetious.”  If you can tell us what that quality is and give us one more word with the same quality,  you could win a BIG PRIZE:  your name in this place!  (So much for conundrum # 1).

Here is another, a sentence found in the “Off the Rack” column yesterday (Saturday, 1/24/09).  What is the problem in this sentence, which describes a shopper’s urge to purchase something at a Haymount gift shop?  “But when she saw the new Lily Pulitizer stationary, she couldn’t help [buying] it.”

And I suppose we’re all interested in the latest resurgence of controversy about Mark Twain’s use of the “N-word” is his famous novel,  “Huckleberry F-word.”  Let’s weigh in on that after I introduce the problem a bit more fully.


Graven in Our Minds: Memorable American Lines

January 21, 2009

Our newest President,  Barack Obama, has already been compared to several predecessors:  George Washington,  Andrew Jackson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt,  John F. Kennedy, and most often Abraham Lincoln.

President Obama’s gift for poetic and empowering rhetoric may result, in the annals of history, in his becoming not only comparable to some of our greatest Presidents but also perhaps as one of the most remembered because of his masterful use of the English language.

As Roger Simon cautions us, however, in his today’s (Wednesday’s) column, “Nobody remembers the words of failed administrations.  Great words are made immortal by great presidents.”

In his story also today about the inauguration and Mr. Obama’s nearly 20-minute speech,  AP writer Ted Anthony muses about the memorable phrases that have chronicled significant times and affected significant events in the “American story,”  not all by Presidents.  But isn’t Anthony’s list incomplete?  Here is the paragraph from his report:

          “The American story has taken myriad forms and worn many coats.  A shining city upon a hill.  We, the people. Manifest Destiny.  No more auction block. Huddled masses yearning to breathe free.  Brother, can you spare a dime?  A date that will live in infamy.  The torch has been passed. Morning in America.  United we stand.  Yes, we can.”

I think I can add quite a few memorable phrases and  sentences to Mr. Anthony’s list:

Give me liberty or give me death. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Go West, young man, go West.  Government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not vanish from the earth. With malice toward none, with charity for all.  Land of the free and the home of the brave. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.  Hitch your wagon to a star.  Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.  If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.   I hear American singing, the varied carols I hear.  It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.  Speak softly and carry a big stick. Ask what you can do for your country. I have a dream that one day my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land. One giant leap for mankind.  Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!

Please feel free to add one or more such adages, pleasantries, or “Great Truths” to this list.  Just make sure that are true to the American story as told so far.


How Do Students of Today Learn? The New Epistemology

January 21, 2009

Dr. King of the Office of Student Effectiveness at UNCP recommends a recent article in the “Chronicle of Higher Education” for faculty reading.

 I would recommend it also.  It suggests that the revolution in students’ processes of learning today is real and increasing. 

A fact in tonight’s CNN report underscores how students are getting most of their knowledge: for every six hours they sit in front of a computer screen, one-half of an hour is spent sitting behind an open book.

Should we be alarmed?  Or should we accept and herald such a tidal change in how the college students of today are learning and how they value so much less traditional education, such as lectures?

Go to the link below to read the entire article–on a screen, of course, unless you prefer to print it out first, as I often do:


What’s Your Poison: Math or English?

January 20, 2009

The ambiguity possible in an English sentence is often brought about by the very fact that English is syntactic, rather than, for example, inflected.  That is, the function of a word is determined by its relationship to other words in a phrase, clause, or sentence.  “Adverbs” in particular like to roam, and where they stop to rest often affects the meaning of the constituent parts of the phrase, clause, or sentence.

Or take a look in the dictionary at the many parts of speech and the large number of meanings of the single word “set.”

Let’s take a quick look at the adverb “only.”    There is a great difference in the meanings of these sentences:  (1) I only have eyes for you ;  (2) Only I have eyes for you; (3) I have only eyes for you.  

A sequence of more than two “form words” (nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives) can also sometimes cause misunderstandings.  This occurred recently on the most recent (as, last Sunday on USA) episode in one of my favorite TV dramedies,  “Monk.”

For those not familiar,  Adrian Monk is a former policeman/detective turned P.I. who has a terrible obsessive-compulsive complex, especially when it comes to cleanliness and order.  Some of the disorder that plagues him is the fault of the English language.

The last episode was about a mysterious bike theft.   In this episode,  Monk is shot in the leg by the purported thief.  When the thief’s cousin Vince appears to inquire, he is told that Monk was hurt by a parolee, “a former cop shooter.”  Vince:  “You mean a former cop shot him?” Reply: “No, this guy [Monk] who was shot by your cousin used to be a cop.”  Vince, “Well, why didn’t you say so in the first place?”


A while back I posted a blog on the sentence, claiming it to be the “greatest invention of the human mind.”  And I suggested three different ways to classify sentences:  structurally, rhetorically, and stylistically or aesthetically.

More on that specific topic later.

 What I’d like to do now,  hoisting myself on my own petard (as the Bard of Avon might say), however, is to take a contrary view and suggest that perhaps the greatest invention of the mind of the mathematician (going back in time to Ancient Egypt) was the concept of pi. 

As Richard Preston defines it in a wonderful “New Yorker” article that appeared in the March 2, 1992, issue, “Pi is approximatelty 3.14–the number of times that a circle’s diameter will fit around the circle.”  Mathematicians have tried for many years to reduce the value of pi to a specific calculation and have been eternally baffled by the refusal of the concept of pi to be cornered.

Preston’s article is obviously outdated so far as using supercomputers to try to arrive at a solution to the code that some are certain would bring pi to bay.  His article is essentially about two immigrant brothers,  Gregory and David Chudnovsky, who, living in an apartment in Brooklyn, not far from Columbia University (where they hold special positions as “senior research scientists in the Department of Mathematics”) have themselves made their apartment into a supercomputer, rivalling  those possessed by research institutions, think tanks, and so forth.

After getting so far as a stretch of two billion sequential numbers (which , printed out, would stretch as far from their apartment as to the middle of Kansas), they reach the tentative conclusion that there is still no pattern found and therefore that “Pi goes on forever. . . .”  Yet they  wonder whether “the digits contain a hidden code, an as yet unseen architecture, close to the mind of God.”

I will soon offer more on a separate post about the continuing seduction and beauty of the English sentence and why it should be respectfully studied as well as carefully deployed in discourse.



Why Not “Approxinym”?

January 14, 2009

A while back CPA and County Commissioner and faithful reader and commentator Marshall Faircloth pointed out correctly that two words that I had shown as often mixed up were not truly “homonyms.”  And that is true of a number of such confusions, including a couple that I will get to a bit later.

Let me say again that the useful word “malapropism” does not refer just to exact homonym errors but to errors (most often in oral speech from, in earlier days at least, the uneducated/illiterate) in confusing two words that are similar in sound but widely variant in spelling and meaning.  Such confusions might include “ironing” for “irony” or “Oldtimer’s” for “Alzheimer’s.”

I suggest that we adopt a new term,  “approxinym,” for such confusions or misusages.  Here again are some that have leapt off the pages of text as I’ve perused the local newspaper or scanned the print on my monitor’s screen.

(1)  Here is an occasional columnist (for the second time recently, as I recall) using an “approxinym” while writing about the feature story from “Time” that dealt with the poor test scores of American public school students:  “What did surprise me in this article is the explanation that the biggest attributing factor for this failure is ineffective teaching.”  Did you locate right away the problem? 

Here are several more, for which I’ve given what I would consider the misusage as found in the source as printed or written:

(2)  In a Letter to the Observer offering sarcastic commentary about the Hope Mills Dam and Lake Project:  “Surely, such a sight will convenience one and all, that the $12 million spent to bring this monumental masterpiece into being was money well spent.”

(3)  Several years ago, in a letter to Chief Editorial Writer Gene Smith of the Observer,  I commented on a staff report from the “Saturday Extra” section that spoke about Dr. Valerie Wynne-Hall’s new dental offices on South Main street as having a “consolation room.”  (I could be wrong here in my assumption about wrongness.)

(4) In a recent story about homeowners in the area saving money by refinancing their homes:  “Gilbert said with closing costs, homeowners who plan to sell within a couple of years may not have enough time to recuperate their expenses.”

(5) And finally, from a University Newswire report about the groundbreaking for a Holiday Express in Pembroke:  “‘Despite the economic downturn,  I am proud that the investors have not waivered because they saw the need for a hotel in this community,’ Dr.  Cummings said.”

Have fun!  I hope to be back fairly often for the nonce and then some with some more peckish quibbles and quandaries involving our wondrous, shared tongue, which admittedly at times becomes a bit twisted.


A Couple of Notes on the Parts of Verbs

January 14, 2009

The tendency of any language is to regularize its structures and became disciplined in its varied functions so that all users and all those who aspire to use it can succeed.

English as a language is more complex and varied than most because of the diverse languages that have made significant contributions to its lexicon (vocabulary) and have often affected its patterns of usage and its grammatical “rules.”

The old system of “diagramming” as a device to teach students about their language did much to familiarize them with at least the rudiments of the sentence and the variations especially of verbs as contributors to sentence patterns.

Recently, in our local paper, I have come across some interesting uses of irregular verbs, one colorful and the other confused.  Here’s the amusing one, a quotation from a Detroit Lions fan taken down by an AP reporter after that NFL team had the dubious distinction of being the first to end a complete season with a 0-16 record.  Here was long-time fan Adam Gadsby’s reaction, “As a Lions fan, we’re used to them stinking. . . . But they’ve never stunk as well as they’re stinking this year.”

Mr. Gadsby may not know how to improve his team’s record, but he certainly knows the principal parts of  the iregular verb “stink.”

The frequent confusion of the principal parts of the verbs “lie” and “lay” was shown in a recent “Saturday Extra” column about animal care.  The errors in using these two irregular verbs are probably seen about as often in writing or print as they are in speech.  Here is the sentence from that column: “My dog has no interest in laying on the couch now.”

Trying to keep it simple, I would offer this distinction.  The verb “lie” means either to tell a falsehood and is thus is a completely regular intransitive verb (“Sometimes I lie.  I may be lying now. Yesterday I lied.  I have lied too often”),  or it means to recline or to rest and has somewhat different principal parts: lie, lying, lay, and lain (Sometimes my dog lies on the couch.  He was lying on the couch today. He lay on the couch yesterday. He has lain on the couch often.”)

The confusion then comes because the similarity of the principal parts of the verb with second meaning of “lie”  and those parts of the transitive verb “lay.”   The principal parts of the latter verb are “lay, laying, laid, laid” (The chicken lays eggs every day.  Today the chicken is/was laying an egg.  Yesterday the chicken laid an egg. The chicken has laid an egg every day this week.”)

Not so simple?  Agreed.  But once learned, seldom forgotten.

And let’s end with a little teaser that was addressed recently in something I read.  The past tense form and the past participle of “sneak”:  is it  “sneaked” or is it “snuck”?  What do you think or know about this?


William Safire on Profanities, Obscenities, etc.

January 4, 2009

Son Ron suggests that Mr. Safire, perhaps the premier American lexicographer of out time, has been reading my blog on the N-word, F-word, and so on.

Very doubtful, Ron.  However, here is the link from Ron to Mr. Safire’s erudite, yet casually written, column:

RJR  (and many thanks to all and best wishes for a very Happy New Year!)