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The Professor and the Madman-a book review

When was the last time you used a dictionary to look up a word?

Not online.

A hardbound or paperback book that you hold in your hands and in which you turn real paper pages.

Been a while?

It has for me.

Other than using Merriam Webster’s online dictionary, I keep three books on my desk:

  1. Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories by Wilfred Funk (yes, THE “Funk” of Funk and Wagnalls.)
  2. Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words by J.H. Byrne (a gift from a close friend)
  3. The Book of Hard Words – Read it, See it, Know it, Use it. by David Bramwell

What was the last murder mystery you read?

Would it live up to this description, “…the linguistic detective story of the decade?”  That’s how New York Times Magazine writer, William Safire described, The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester.

Did you ever wonder how, and by whom dictionaries were written?

The Oxford English Dictionary is perhaps the most famous of them all. For many, it is the gold standard. (It certainly is for lexicographers and members of the London Philological Society.) We would have never expected it to have been the product of mad dogs and Americans. Yes, an American madman played a significant role in creating the OED. These days, most Americans would define a madman as one who voted for the OTHER candidate.  Things were a bit different in 1871 London, and the States were still rebounding from their brush with being dis-united.oed

The story involves two protagonists eponymously referred to in the title. In a manner of speaking, there is also a third man–not Orson Welles’ Harry Lime.

Winchester treats readers to a sampling from the OED with a definition at the beginning of each chapter. The Preface is prefaced with the word, “mysterious,” and Chapter One begins with, “murder.”

And murder is where one of the two stories begins.

Dr. W. C. Minor was a battlefield surgeon (a Yankee)  in the War Between the States. As a result of his experiences in the war, he apparently suffered from what we know today as post traumatic stress disorder, a term likely not found in the first edition of the OED. In retrospect, researchers today speculate that his PTSD hastened, or perhaps even was responsible for a posthumous diagnosis of bipolar disorder. His untreated illness referred to in Victorian England as, “madness,” combined with a deep seated racism for the Irish. It eventually led to his choice of victims and the perpetuation of a crime that would result in his availability to volunteer an unlimited amount of his time to the research required to help write a literary masterpiece.

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James Murray at work on the OED

 

James Murray was a Scot who, by the time he was thirty, in 1867, had learned twenty-two languages in addition to English. Despite a stellar resume, he was turned down for a much coveted job in a British museum. Eventually, he was chosen by the committee at Oxford to lead the project that would take seventy years  and define over a half million words. The first edition consisted of twelve tombstone-sized volumes.

A rigorous dependence on gathering quotations to illustrate the use of the sense of every single word in the language sets the OED apart from most other dictionaries. The previously mentioned definition of the word, murder, consumes more than two pages in the paperback edition of The Professor and the Madman. It seemed a monumental if not impossible task requiring an unbelievable number of hours which were supplied by volunteers. Who better to volunteer than an incarcerated word savant who was also a prolific reader?

Murray soon became buried under thousands of handwritten notes from Dr. Minor (by far the most prolific contributor) and hundreds of other volunteers. As the timelines of Murray and Minor converge, readers see their denouement as the dictionary is created while developing an appreciation for the men and their relationship. Winchester leaves us with the conclusion of their lives (not a Hollywood ending) and an appreciation for how their collaboration was essential  to the success of the project.

Casual readers will enjoy the story; writers and other word aficionados will feel this book is essential to have in their personal libraries.

Hard Words

The Book of Hard Words – Read it, See it, Know it, Use it. by David Bramwell

It’s hard to remember now, years later, what I was doing.

A series of loud bumps on the front door signaled the arrival of a visitor.

On my way to the door, I noticed through a side window that it was my neighbor’s son.

Dad was waiting several steps back at the sidewalk by the street.

The kid continued to pound on the door and as it began to open, he shouted, “Open up! You gotta buy something!”

The Ernest Hemingway approach to sales.

Simple.41o078qvm8l-_sy344_bo1204203200_

No frills.

Minimalist.

I bought whatever it was he was selling.

A Hemingway detractor, William Faulkner, once complained that Papa “…has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary.”

In a little over fifty-five years of reading, I’ve been motivated to look up many words in dictionaries while reading. One thing’s for sure, though, I never put down a “page-turner” and interrupted a captivating story to study vocabulary.

On the other hand, learning new words and making an effort to use them has always been of interest. A well-read person should have a deep vocabulary — shouldn’t they?

It stands to reason.

This seemingly worthwhile pursuit has on occasion caused me some grief. In conversation or informal writing, if the listener doesn’t know what you’re talking about, then you have to explain it. The requirement of stopping and explaining word usage takes a lot away from the original intent of the message. It also leaves the impression that you might be a bit “snooty.”

“Don’t come around here using no five dollar words on me!” was a warning I didn’t want to hear very often. It does, now, in retrospect, cause me to wonder, ‘How much is a hard word worth today?”  Hmmm…

Whatever they’re worth, David Bramwell has got 112 for you for just over ten dollars in his book, The Book of Hard Words – Read it, See it, Know it, Use it.

Bramwell makes it easy to learn about the words in his book. An entire page is dedicated to each word complete with illustrations, pronunciation guide, sample usages, etymology and genealogy. The layout includes three sections titled, “Hard,” “Harder,” and of course, “Hardest.” The author acknowledges that this is not intended to be a complete compendium because, for example, one reader may consider a given word as being hard and another would not, from previous experience.  In my own case, it was a pleasant surprise to scan down the list of words and find many with which I was familiar.  Some of them, I use every day.

Back in my direct sales days, when I lived in Louisiana, it was advisable to write marketing pieces and especially letters on an eighth grade reading level. That was thirty years ago. It would not surprise me at all to discover that writing for any demographic today would benefit with that same advice. An author friend of mine received the following comment in a review of one of his books: “Only 7 percent of the population is going to understand several of the words the author uses.” In my own case, I would be thrilled if seven percent of the population owned a copy of one of my books, but is that what an author wants to do in attempts to sell more books?  I don’t think Hemingway had that problem, but I’m certain that Faulkner did.

Authors who have a word that might be considered difficult by some can take inspiration from the late William Safire, New York Times wordsmith-in-residence. In several of his books, he would use the device of having a character use a “hard” word in conversation. During that conversation, he or she would discuss that word and how it had been used. Another viable option for today’s writers — write a blog about it.

That would be mellifluous!

PBS to rebroadcast “More Than One Vote”

Care about the Future? Don’t Miss “More than One Vote” on PBS

(A review written by Bob Etier)
A deeply thought-provoking examination of the state of education in America and its impact on  politics, More than One Vote debuts this week on public television stations (see local listings for day and time). In an era when voters—and citizens eligible

voting-booth

I remember voting booths like this one from the 60’s and 70’s.

to vote who can’t be bothered—question the value of their votes and resent their exclusion from the processes of government “by the people,” More than One Vote examines Americans’ attitudes about self-governing and their familiarity with how government works.
According to More than One Vote, “A better educated and informed electorate will demand a more  responsible government.” The program explores the work and ideals of individuals and institutions developing programs to teach how government works; classes in Civics, American History, and Free Enterprise for school-aged students; activities including essay and poster contests; and programs that encourage voters to be better informed.
In addition to fostering education, an advocacy program is being designed, aimed to develop non-biased congressional watch groups, monitor congressional attendance and voting records, establish educational oversight groups, and  conduct government efficiency studies. Skeptics, such as this reviewer, may wonder if such an expansive project is too ambitious to succeed, but will secretly cross their fingers and hope this initiative will have a positive impact on American politics and society.
Participating in More than One Vote, are journalists, educators, activists, and representatives of organizations dedicated to improving education, social issues, government, and politics. Also interviewed are notables such as Henry Kissinger, Benita Bogart, Danny Glover, Lise Egstrom, Julian F. Thibaut,and Rupert Murdoch.

__________________________________________

PresidentsClub-new covr 2-8-15 NOTE:
This review appeared first as an appendix in The Presidents Club, by FCEtier.

More Than One Vote and this related review are works of fiction. Names, characters, corporations, institutions, and organizations mentioned are the product of the author’s imagination, or, if real, are used fictitiously without any intent to describe their actual conduct. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events is entirely coincidental.

Leon Redbone Tribute

Anytime you’re feeling lonely

Anytime you’re feeling blue

Anytime you feel down hearted…

That’s the time to dial up Leon Redbone on YouTube.

A few minutes in the time warp of this anachronistic nostalgia and you’ll be smiling for hours.

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From my pictorial salute to Mr. Redbone.

 

When it comes to Leon Redbone himself,

There’s a great big mystery

It sure has worried me

And, it’s not diddy wah diddy (which was a popular cover of Redbone’s.)

Urban legends took on a life of their own with claims that he was Frank Zappa or Andy Kaufman–until he outlived them both.

 

I first saw Leon Redbone asking about diddy wah diddy on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson back in the Eighties. The “great big mystery” for most of us is who is this guy, where did he come from, and how does an artist with few (if any) charted recordings become so popular?

 

The voice, attire, style, demeanor, and repertoire combined to get my attention. The more I heard and saw, the more interested I became in this unique entertainer, whom I hear has now retired due to health reasons.

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From my pictorial salute to Mr. Redbone.

Since posting my pictorial tribute on Facebook, several friends have reported new interest among their friends as they shared the photos on their pages. Regardless of the source of interest, or whose mouth spreads the word, it seems like Mr. Leon Redbone will continue to acquire new fans even in his retirement.

 

 

 

The First Anniversary

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We met with the lead doctor of the transplant team.

He said, “Come back in July and we’ll get her on the waiting list for a liver.”

One year ago today, my wife had exactly seventeen days to live.

No one expected such a timeline.

We received the news in February she needed a liver transplant.

My attention was focused on how our lives would change and what it might be like after the surgery. I had made plans to retire so I could take care of her.

It never occurred to me she wouldn’t make it to the surgery.

Monday, 4-20-15

Bob’s doctor admitted her to the hospital for fluids and tube feeding. Gastric problems had made it impossible for her to gain much needed weight to prepare for the transplant. A feeding tube would bypass the stomach and avoid problems.After four days, it appeared as though the plan was working. She had gained a few pounds and lab values looked good.

Saturday, 4-25-15

X-rays to check on the placement of the feeding tube revealed the presence of double pneumonia.

Bob and I have a mutual friend we both admire and love. Miriam Goldberg has a hobby of watching the news for celebrity deaths. Anytime a celebrity dies, she knows the story. Every time we would ask her something like, “What happened to Merle Haggard? How did he die?”  Miriam would reply, “His heart stopped beating.”

4-27 calendarMonday, 4-27-15 at 4:37 P.M. Bob’s heart stopped beating.
Seventeen days from today, family members will be in town to join me in observing the first anniversary of Bob’s death.

It will be a special day for us all. Not because she died, but because she lived, our lives will never be the same again.What a blessing.

I’m at peace.

 

 

Goodbye

In English literature class, we were taught a pun is a “play on words.” Officially, according to Merriam-Webster, it’s “the usually humorous use of a word in such a way as to suggest two or more of its meanings or the meaning of another word similar in sound.” The degree of humor varies with the listener. Often times, puns are greeted with groans and a roll of the eyes.

My late wife and I loved puns and often discussed several potential puns as subjects of photography. Some readers may not be familiar with a 1967 hit by the Rolling Stones, the subject of several of our conversations and this photo:

Ruby Tuesday

 

In November 2009, the New York Times reported, “[Ruby Tuesday founder, Sandy Beall] was never much of a Rolling Stones fan; the name for his restaurant was suggested by one of several fraternity brothers who were co-investors.” Obviously, his frat brothers were fans of the Stones. I was (still am.) The first time I heard the name of the restaurant, the Stones’ song came to mind as fast as you can say, Jack Robinson.

The photo above was taken by a Ruby Tuesday associate in the Orlando airport. I was returning home from a four day golf outing with Mickey Mouse et al. The trip was planned months ago as an element of my grief recovery. The loss of my spouse was devastating. The solo trip was healing.

I studied the photo closely and have come to realize something I wasn’t conscious of during the shoot. Once the woman had agreed to take the photo and we had the setup arranged, I got into character. Notice my left heel is lifted a bit, my arm extended, my head tilted back a bit as though I’m straining to see someone in the crowd inside the restaurant. A slight blur in my fingers shows movement in the wave. The carry-on bag shows I’m traveling.

In addition to the obvious pun, I’m waving goodbye to my past.

A constant struggle for me in dealing with her death has been to live in the present while honoring many great memories.

This photo proves to me I’m there.

Blogging in 2016

Blogging 101 – Intro

NOTE: To all my long time followers, I’m beginning 2016 with a course from WordPress to improve my blog. First assignment is this introductory piece.

I’m a father, grandfather, pharmacist, photographer, published author

QuadSelfPort8x10

Quadruple self portrait inspired by Norman Rockwell’s triple.

and as of 2015, a widower. Home is a one hundred year old farm house in the Great Smoky Mountains of Western North Carolina. I do not live alone. Here with me are dozens of plastic flamingos along with four dogs and two cats—all rescues.

My first published writing was a commentary on self control for Blogcritics.org on October 21, 2009. It was followed by a series of book, audio CD, and movie reviews through May 2011.

My first personal blog article appeared on March 6, 2009 on another platform. That blog is still active today and topics include everything from “attitude” to “zebras.” I have opinions on just about everything although I rarely write about politics.

My first blog on WordPress went live February 26, 2011 and the topic was my efforts in travel photography.

My first novel, The Tourist Killer,  made its debut on Amazon November 7, 2012.

I write for the same reason many readers read—escape. It’s fun to spend time with people whose origins began with the stroke of my pen, or more accurately, the caress of my fingers on the keyboard. Once I’ve established their identity, I turn them loose and see what happens. They tell their stories in dialog and move the plot along. I never know what they’ll do next. That’s the thrill I get from writing.

Fortunately, I have talented associates who read my work (including this piece) for content, grammar, and spelling.

For 2016, my blogging goal is to connect with readers who might enjoy my work and anyone who appreciates photography. My photography and writing influence each other and have proven to be a synergistic combination.

My writing goal is to finish my third novel, A Year Without Killing, which is currently presented in serial form HERE.

Won’t you join me for a year of blogging adventure?

Any and all feedback is appreciated.

Art Ambush Founder Interviewed

A sixty-nine year old woman sits in her late husband’s favorite easy chair.

The only sound is the crackling of the dry wood in the stone fireplace.

The flames provide her only light in the early winter morning.

Her trusted hound snuggles against her feet.

She isn’t sad, she’d grown accustomed to living alone years ago. She smiles and lays her head back in the wingback chair. A conscious reverie segues into a rare morning nap–and a dream.

Luger’s bark at the mail carrier awakens her and she pats him on the head, “Let’s go check the mail.”

She didn’t have to go far.

Tony left her mail on the front porch.

In boxes.

Three boxes, each a bit larger than shoe boxes, all full of mail, and one package.

She called out for him, “Tony!” but he was gone. “Surely this can’t all be for me.”

But it was.

She was the victim of another “art ambush.”

Cards, letters, small photographs, and one original oil painting had arrived to show her she wasn’t forgotten.

Anonymous expressions of care from artists (and friends of artists) all over the world.

If she had known who to thank, it would have been Lisa Brandel.

We caught up with Lisa last week for a brief telephone interview.

Welcome, Lisa!  We’re excited to find out more about Art Ambush.  Once our readers are familiar with your project, the name will be obvious and quite descriptive. Tell us how the project was born and how the name was chosen.

Well, I am an insomniac and one night when I couldn’t sleep I was searching for

Lisa B-1

Art Ambush founder, Lisa Brandel

inspirational quotes to use in the Widow Lady-to write about- and I found a picture of a man who I thought I needed to paint him.  I started doing the painting and someone asked me what I planned on doing with the painting.  I said I was going to send it to the man (who happens to be a stage actor) as like an ambush of art he didn’t expect.  Then my friend, who was also an artist, sent me some art and I sent him some art all out of the blue and we ended up putting together the page and decided that we’d give this gift of giving to other people.  That was three years and 1500 ambushes ago.

  • How has Art Ambush been promoted and how many active participants are there worldwide?

We have a stable of about 40 regular artists and then we have closer to 100 people who jump in when they see something that pulls at them.  I opened up the ability to ambush to ‘non-artists’ or people who don’t want to be listed but want to give and it’s been incredible the response.  It is now growing all the time and we have artists and non-artists in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, Canada, and all over the U.S.

  • How are recipients of Art Ambush’s attention chosen?

People nominate them to me.  They send me an email on FB or in my private email  telling me the story of the person and why they feel they should get a bit of ambushed love.  Sometimes we’ll catch a story on the news about someone going through a hard time, or being a hero and the group kind of just calls for the want to give to someone.  So it’s varied.

  • Other than the price of a stamp and perhaps a greeting card, what expenses might a new participant expect?

It’s really up to the giver.  I’ve sent thousand dollar oil paintings at random to people and I know others who have done the same.  We have jewelry artists who send pieces that I know are expensive, but we don’t talk cost really none of us ever have.  So, it’s really at your own comfort level.  If you want to send a card and that’s where you are good, then by all means it is as priceless as what I might send. I see no distinction.  We’ve had some non-artist send art supplies to people, CD…even some of our writer friends have sent autographed copies of their books.  The things sent are as varied as the people we send them to.

Lisa at work

Brandel at work in her Ohio studio.

  • Some well meaning, caring types out there who won’t or can’t take the time to send a card, would take the easy way out and say, “Just let me throw some money at the problem.” Does Art Ambush accept donations and if so how might a philanthropist contribute?

     

We actually have only ever gotten one cash donation and the person just sent it to me.  I used it to help us buy our ambush cards and mailing labels for those who send out packages.  We’ve not asked for donations really even when we’ve sent large boxes of things to groups for the shipping.  I just absorb the expense and that’s fine with me.

  • We suspect there must be associations of artists of all media who could get involved. Which art groups have supported your efforts?

We have supporters all over the place and all over Facebook, but we as a group have kept in the shadows.  We aren’t trying to go viral, nor do we expect or want spotlight for what we do.  That kind of defeats the purpose in some ways.  We like the whole ninja aspect of what we do…we slide out from the shadows, dump some happy on people, and then retreat back to the shadows again.  Our giving is an act of faith.  You don’t see what happens or how it helps people you just do it and hope.

  • What are your future plans for Art Ambush? How big can this become? Do you have any celebrity endorsements or participants?

The Ambush has been gaining ground since it was founded, and honestly keeping it small has been harder than growing it.  People want to do good things and this just kind of gives a direction for it, a focus.  I would like to see in the future a home base for the group, a physical location, things to be more organized on a bigger scale without losing the personal touch, and to be able to employ some people so people can work in something they love, but that is all down the road.  As far as celebrity endorsements, well…We have ambushed some famous people both here and in England, but we don’t advertise that nor do we want to really…it’s a personal experience made person to person without care of status, age, religious leanings, anything really. No one person and no one ambush is more important than another.  We keep the names to ourselves and just do the work.  The work, the art, the giving, that is what we celebrate.

Want to participate in the next ambush? Check with Lisa via Facebook for two current Art Ambushes.

To visit  the Art Ambush page on Facebook, click HERE.

To see Lisa Brandel’s art, click HERE.

Steak Dinner for One (or…I’m Alright)

IMG_20150812_190157988

This night, I dined alfresco on the back deck.

Dining alone has never been my first choice. In fact, if pressed to rank my preferences, it would come in dead last. At some point in our lives, I suppose we’ve all had to endure a solitary dining experience. Over the last forty or so years, I’ve had my share of solo meals.

During the last fifteen years, it was a rare occurrence. Now, it seems as though it is my destiny.

Fate stepped in. Seems like that happens a lot to us mortal humans.

I’ve always been the optimist. Not sure if it’s the result of genes or a learned behavior, but I have forever seen that proverbial glass as half full. My feet seem to always find the sunny side of the street and I accentuate the positive. It’s become a lifelong habit.

In a twelve week span that included May, June, and most of July, my brother-in-law, John, and his wife, Veronica, taught me how to cook, plan meals, manage my refrigerator and freezer and gave me some tips on shopping. I now use my slow cooker and rice cooker regularly and freeze my leftovers for later meals. Veronica taught me the importance of an attractive presentation of a meal. That made sense to me. Get the visual appeal in tune with the aromas and flavors.

Last week, I decided to prove to myself that I could do it and at the same time, assure my family and friends that I’ve learned a few things. Planning and shopping started the project. A white cotton table cloth and white “hotel” napkins came from Amazon. At the grocery story, I purchased a bag with nineteen different kinds of lettuce for my salad. Chopped walnuts and dried cranberries have always been a favorite in my salad and I found some Texas toast croutons in the cupboard. Add in the Marzetti Sweet & Sour dressing, and the salad was done. IMG_20150812_193400675

My favorite cut of beef is a rib eye steak. I prepared that on the grill while enjoying a cocktail of Wild Turkey and Coke. After I turned it the last time, I cut a few holes into it and filled them with blue cheese. Voila!  Black and blue rib eye. A can of corn warmed with real butter (it’s better for you than margarine) rounded out the main course. Complementing the steak dinner was a glass   of  Bell’Agio Chianti.

For dessert, I had vanilla ice cream with chopped up Oreos and a fresh cup of Community Coffee. Finally, I finished off the evening with an after dinner drink (Amaretto) and a fine cigar (Arturo Fuente Flor Fina 8-5-8).

Everything worked out well. While I was the only diner physically present, I’m certain I was not alone. I enjoyed it so much, I’ll definitely do it again. In fact, I’ve purchased a red and white checkered table cloth for the next time. The fare will be Italian—probably pork chops (instead of meatballs) and spaghetti.

Dinner anyone?

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After dinner drink and cigar. (Yes, the photos are out of sequence, but I don’t know how to fix that.)

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Where’s the steak?

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Dessert: vanilla ice cream with Oreo bits and Community Coffee.

Time to eat!

Time to eat!

My Life as an Animal

904b8-aaa-wwwThe Excerpt:

Owls-1

Miss Bob’s cross stitch. It hangs on the wall in my studio, near where I’m typing this blog post.

The television series, Twin Peaks, featured a memorable dream sequence in which a giant man appears to Special Agent Dale Cooper. In the dream, the giant says, among other things, “The owls are not what they seem.” My wife said that I was an owl, too, because I turned out to me something I didn’t seem to be originally (a friend who later became her husband.) Eventually, we had a collection of owl memorabilia from cross stitch to various sized replicas. It was nice to be an owl for her. She had been a “Kat” and morphed into a flamingo.

Maybe we were birds of a feather?

The Setup:

We’re all animals anyway, but there are times in all of our lives when we seem to be something other than homo sapiens.

Today’s sample comes from a blog that will post on Friday, the 31st on my publisher’s site. OK, it’s HERE.

I was a

I was a “zebra” for sixteen years. In this shot, I’m conducting a coin toss.

Got a sample of your work?

Join us here at Weekend Writing Warriors.The  same link will take you to the work of dozens of talented writers. For a treat, please check out their work, too.

Many of the contributors to Weekend Writing Warriors alsoSundaySnip

participate in the Snippet Sunday group on FaceBook.

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