Archive for September, 2007

On Getting Lost

Today, as usual, Muttboy and I went for our morning walk in the big park a few miles from home.  Muttboy was in a sort of rambunctious mood.  Before we left, I was sitting here at my computer, reading the news and various blogs, but he was not at all content to wait until later.  He sighed heavily.  I looked at him, and he was watching me carefully, so I knew that was a theatrical sigh.  Then he started grunting.  When I ignored that, he placed a paw on my shoulder.  I got the hint.  It was time to go for our walk.

Because of Muttboy’s excess of energy, I decided to go on a little longer hike, and to make it more interesting, I veered off the trail after about a mile and started bushwhacking.  For a time, I followed familiar features–the ridge of rocks, the seasonal stream (dry now), the huge toppled oak.  Then I took a left turn and found myself in a swamp.  Since the weather has been dry for several weeks, the swamp was firm mud, so the footing was easy.  However, the thick vines, leaning tree trunks, and clinging plants made the passage tortuous; I had to walk bent over double to squeeze through some passages.  Finally, I made it through with only one huge gash on my ankle.

Soon we crossed a trail carpeted in fallen yellow leaves.  We followed that until it ended in a pile of rocks and someone’s backyard.  After some backtracking, we cut to the right, dropping through a forest of ferns turning a pale, silvery gold and onto another path.  This was a new path for me, and I felt embarrassed–I thought I knew every single trail in this park.  The new path widened into perfectly gorgeous doubletrack, winding and dipping gently along meandering stone walls.  I felt I had discovered a new world, and I was sure that almost no one ever walked on this trail.  After a mile or so, I realized that I really had no idea where I was.  I knew I was somewhere in the north end of the park, and I suspected that I had actually walked out of the park.  But, after the path we were following twisted and turned a dozen times, I did not know where we were in relation to the paths I did know.  We kept walking, though, and eventually came to another pile of stones and someone else’s backyard.  We backtracked again, bushwhacked some more, and finally, after almost an hour of wandering, made it back to recognizable trails.

Getting lost was fun.  I knew I could not get in too much trouble on the paths in the park, and if I kept walking I would eventually find my way out.  There was something magical about discovering this perfect path, the old stone walls, the turning trees–an undiscovered wilderness.  It was as if I had found a new country in my own yard.  Muttboy, too, felt the excitement.  he loves to explore new places with new smells, and he frolicked and sprinted as if possessed.  We will return for more adventures.

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Hippie Kid Lit

When I was little, my dad’s best friend was a fellow Vietnam vet who grew out his hair and beard and drove an old, decrepit VW Beetle.  Rich and his wife Julie owned a leather shop, but don’t get the wrong idea–this was not a kinky S&M leather shop but a hippie leather shop with belts and sandals and wallets and purses.  The shop always smelled like wood, sawdust, leather, cigarette smoke, and beer.  It was the last shop on the left in a funky modernist California redwood and glass building that jutted out into the bay.  Right across the walkway from the leather shop was the Hofbrau, a restaurant where you could get anything you wanted as long as it was a sandwich piled with thick, juicy slabs of roast beef with a little metal bowl holding au jus on the side.

My parents used to hang out with Rich and Julie what seemed like every weekend.  We would sit at the tables outside that overlooked the water, watching the sailboats and seagulls.  Dad and Rich would talk, tell stories, drink beer.  Sometimes I would be allowed to go down on the private docks below the shops and look at the boats.  Sometimes I took my fishing pole–which we got on layaway from the Thrifty store in town–and hang over the edge of the dock to pry off mussels to use for bait.  Once or twice I even caught something, and on one memorable occasion, after I succeeded in pulling in a particularly feisty fish, the tourists watching me from the restaurant above burst into applause.

Once, when I was about 8 or so, Rich called me behind the high counter in the shop.  He had a miniature workshop back there with all kinds of dies to stamp patterns into the leather, knives, bottles of leather stain, needles and waxed thread, awls, and punches.  He pushed aside some scraps of leather that he saved and would someday make into something small, like a little leather ring fastened with a single brass rivet.  Hiding behind the scraps was a paperback book, which he handed to me.  It was small but fat, with pages that were wrinkled from many fond readings and swollen with moisture.  It smelled of leather and moldy paper.  The Wind in the Willows it said in ornate script on the cover.  The ink line drawings inside–pictures of Toad, Mole, good ol’ Ratty, and Badger–pulled me in an made me wish that I could live forever in that neat little world where well-tended fires and tea with lots of toasted bread and dripping butter were inside every snug little cottage.

A couple of years later, when I read The Hobbit for the first time, I felt the same sense of nostalgic homesickness for a home that I had never known.  The Water Rat’s messy but comfortable little place appealed to me much more than Toad’s ostentatious brick pile, and Badger’s meandering tunnels filled me with excited joy, much the same say Bag End made me long for a house with round doors and windows.  The world of the animals, even keeping in mind Toad’s crazy escapade in gaol, seemed both safe and exciting, exhilarating and soothing.  At times I longed so wistfully for animals who could talk to me that I felt ill with disappointment.  I wanted a perfect little house on the bank of a river–or more properly, The River–a small boat to mess about in, and an ever-changing but never-changing view of flowing water outside my windows.

I read the book, which now, upon my second reading seems far too richly complex to be cast aside as “children’s literature,” and handed it back reluctantly.  I was not so much reluctant to give up the book but reluctant to give up the world in that book.  Already I was learning from watching my parents that the world was not a nice place for families and little kids and dogs and kittens, but it was a cold, unfair, heartless place sadly deficient in friendly Badgers and comforting, steaming cups of tea.

A year later after we moved away to Oceanside, a group of older boys whose dads were at Pendleton beat me up because of the little leather ring I wore on my right hand.  “Fag,” they called me and punched me in the stomach.  A few weeks later, the same boys stole my bicycle.  I didn’t have Toad’s friends to help me battle against the weasels and stoats who had stolen my things.  I didn’t really have any friends at all but my books, with their comforting lies and imaginary worlds transporting me briefly away from sad, angry parents, unfriendly new schools, and poverty.

Rereading the book now leaves a bittersweet taste in my mouth.  I can still feel the longing for that world, can still sense the magic in Grahame’s words–a magic my own words are miserably unable to replicate.  Like all old emotions recollected decades later, they have a light layer of parlor dust on them, so light the slightest breath will blow it away.  The colors have faded and mellowed, but inside the goofy little hippie kid displays a gap-toothed smile and settles in with his old friends Mole, Water Rat, Toad, and Badger.

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Jerome Squared’s Three Men on Wheels really is not about the bike.  Instead, he focuses on the travel itself, creating a broad, satiric travelogue that seems to capture perfectly the British, height of Empire, self-effacing, gently condescending tone.  All of this is done in a narrative that completely lacks any sort of coherent direction since any “plot” is utterly destroyed by Jerome’s frequent–and very funny–digressions.  Here is a typical chapter:  The narrator starts to describe how he and Harris make their plans for departure, and they decide George will stay overnight at the Harris home.  Before the plans can be finalized, the narrator begins a long, involved, tortuous story about a time he stayed with the Harrises and how the Harris children kept him up all night.  Finally, after pages of this gently mocking account, he gets back to his point.

In another chapter, the narrator tries to persuade Harris that the three friends most definitely do not want to go on a boating holiday (which is why the bikes finally come in).  This sets him off on a long story about hiring a boat and running into problems with the reluctant skipper, who feels that there really is no safe time to leave the harbor, so it’s best to stay put.

Once the friends arrive in Europe the digressions take off.  The narrator explains that he is not going to describe things he sees, since that is ultimately very boring writing.  Instead, he provides long, rambling discourses on the inhabitants of the country and their habits.  Since the journey is through the Black Forest, the Germans are in for a lot of amateur sociological analysis at the hands of the narrator, though even the British themselves take a hit.

In one train station, the narrator sees what every sophisticated travelers dreads seeing: the Britisher.  The Britisher is a caricature of the British traveler, a loud, old-fashioned, obtuse, linguistically challenged, buffoon.  Here is his description of father and daughter:

They were not content with appearance; they acted the thing to the letter.  They walked gaping round them at every step.  The gentleman had an open Baedeker in his hand, and the lady carried a phrase-book.  They talked French that nobody could understand, and German that they could not translate themselves.  The man poked at officials with his alpenstock to attract their attention, and the lady, her eye catching sight of an advertisement of someone’s cocoa, said, “Shocking!” and turned the other way.

The continental ads for cocoa, the narrator goes on to explain, feature illustrations of a woman who dispenses with the “yard or so of art muslin” that clothes the models in the English ads.  Shocking, indeed.  And still true today.

But the Germans are the source of most of Jerome’s jokes.  They are, of course, industrious people, but they are also, of course, bound by rules.  Harris one day exits a public garden after stepping over a sign commanding “DURCHGANG VERBOTEN,” or, as the narrator helpfully translates, “going through forbidden.”  A policeman sees Harris’s misdemeanor, and orders him to return to the garden and exit the proper way.  When Harris points out that doing so would mean that he would again go through the forbidden area if he were to do so, the policeman quickly sees his point.  Therefore, the policeman tells him, he must enter the garden through the correct gate and then turn around and exit immediately, thus making sure he would have exited properly.  Harris, the pragmatic Englishman, refuses.

And so on.  The caricatures of Germans and German traits are broad and not really all that different from the stereotypical view that non-Germans still have of Germans.  However, what is interesting to me is the obviously apparent affection Jerome and his narrator have for Germany.  Their greatest crime seems to be that they are not quite up to English standards, but then again, only English can hope to reach those standards, and then not all English can do so.  Jerome sits on his comfortable English gentleman’s seat, content with the world and the Empire’s place in it, judging others, but not too harshly.

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The Bummel

A few weeks ago, I picked up Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men on Wheels at a library book sale.  I did not know much about Jerome, who apparently was quite popular at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century, but was intrigued by the promise of an adventure on bicycles.  The book, which is a very fast read, is light on the adventure, but long on the dry and witty digressions, broad satire, and fond absurdity.  Jerome seems to be the spiritual father of Bill Bryson, Monty Python, and the Fat Cyclist.

One of the things that struck me is the timelessness of some of his satiric points, especially since satire does not always age very well.  As the narrator is preparing for his trip, one of his friends, who will also be making the bicycle journey through the Black Forest, arrives with an advertisement for some new device for bicycles.  In this case, the newfangled thing happens to be brakes, but the narrator recalls one of Harris’s other short-lived love affairs with slickly advertised bicycle accessories.  He admonishes his friend:

You give up that idea; this is an imperfect world, a world of joy and sorrow mingled.  There may be a Better Land where bicycle saddles are made our of rainbow, stuffed with cloud; in this world the simplest thing is to get used to something hard.  There was that saddle you bought in Birmingham; it was divided in the middle, and looked like a pair of kidneys.

I laughed at this: one can still buy a saddle that looks just like this, and it is still touted as something daring, new, and fresh.  And of course it promises the rainbow and cloud-upholstered comfort of this saddle from over 100 years ago.  The narrator goes on for pages, criticizing the various new contraptions that gullible Harris has at one time or another bolted to his poor machine, while Harris blushingly tries to justify his purchases.

Later, one of the other travelers, George, complains bitterly that the cycle he is riding must be defective for it does not act at all like the machines featured on the advertising posters.  This complaint tempts the narrator to launch into a brilliantly funny satiric sketch dissecting various bicycle ads.  He says:

Generally speaking, the rider is a lady, and then one feels, that for perfect bodily rest combined with entire freedom from mental anxiety, slumber upon a water-bed cannot compare with bicycle riding upon a hilly road.  No fairy traveling on a summer cloud could take things more easily than does the bicycle girl, according to the poster.  Her costume for cycling in hot weather is ideal.  Old-fashioned landladies might refuse her lunch, it is true; and a narrow-minded police force might desire to secure her and wrap her in a rug preliminary to summoning her, but such she heeds not.

It is somehow reassuring to know that, despite the many technological changes in bicycles, they are essentially the same machines, even down to their advertising schemes.  I’ll have more to say about this book in a subsequent post.

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Writers’ Rooms

The Guardian has an interesting illustrated feature on writers’ rooms, with commentary by the authors.

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The Name Meme

From Yogamum and Charlotte:

  1. Rock Star Name (name of first pet plus the name of your current car): Gus Hyundai. Or Gus Accent.
  2. Gangsta Name (ice cream flavor plus cookie): Chocolate Lace Marble.
  3. Fly boy name (first letter of first name plus three letters of last name): R Mag
  4. Detective Name (favorite color plus favorite animal): Green Wolf
  5. Soap Opera Name (middle name plus birth city): Michael Taft
  6. Star Wars Name (first three letters of last name plus first two letters of first name): Mag-Ri
  7. Superhero Name (second favorite color plus favorite drink, add “the”): The Blue Hobgoblin (I cheated a bit here.)
  8. Nascar Name (First two names of grandfathers): John Delbert
  9. Stripper Name (favorite perfume plus favorite sweet): I don’t have a favorite perfume because Dorothy doesn’t wear any! I like the smell of sandalwood, though. Sandalwood Chocolate Chip Cookie sounds very stupid, though.
  10. Witness Protection Name (parents’ middle names): Jean Michael. Or Michael Jean.
  11. Weather Anchor Name (fifth grade teacher’s name plus a city beginning with the same letter): Who the hell was my fifth grade teacher? The only teacher’s name I remember is my orchestra teacher, Barney Boggs, which, come to think of it works very well. How about Barney Bakersfield?
  12. Spy Name (favorite season plus favorite flower): Spring Nasturtium.
  13. Cartoon Name (favorite fruit plus what you’re wearing, with a “y” or “ie” added): Orange Cargo Shortsie
  14. Hippie Name (breakfast food plus favorite tree): Kashi Sequoia. I like it a lot.
  15. Rock Star Tour Name (favorite hobby plus weather element, with “the”): The Criterium Thunderstorm Tour. Perfect.

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How not to Write a Paper

I wrote a sample paper to share with my students How not to Write a Paper, and I liked it so much, I thought I would post it for your reading pleasure.  If you teach, and want to use it to show how not to write a paper, feel free.  Sadly, this is not broad parody at all, but could very well show up in my files to be graded.  In fact, it might be better than some papers I have seen.

 Anne Bradstreet 

Throughout history, people have written about their emotions.  One important emotion that people have written about is love.  Love is probably the most important emotion in literature because it is a universal feeling that all people can relate to.  Anne Bradstreet writes about love in many of her poems.  Some of her poems write about her love for God, while some of her poems write about her love for her husband.  These poems are important because they express a universal feeling that many readers can understand.

Anne Bradstreet’s poem, To My Dear and Loving Husband, was written in 1678.  It is 12 lines long and is in iambic pentameter.  According to Wikipedia.com, iambic pentameter “consists of five iambic feet.  The word “pentameter” simply means that there are five feet in the line” (Wikipedia.com).  Sonnets are also written in iambic pentameter, but a sonnet has 14 lines instead of 12.  The rhyme scheme is also different.  A rhyme scheme is “the pattern of rhyming lines in a poem or in lyrics for music” (Wikipedia.com).  The rhyme scheme in Anne’s poem is AABBCCDDEEFF.  This means that she writes in couplets, which is a set of two lines that rhyme.

Anne Bradstreet starts the poem with a line talking about how she is one with her husband.  “If ever two were one, then surely we” (Norton Anthology of American Literature pg. 206).  This means that she sees herself and her husband as joined together as one person.  She then says that she knows that her husband loves her.  “If ever man were loved by wife, then thee” (Norton Anthology of American Literature pg. 206).  This makes Anne happy, and she tells her husband that she is happy that she is married to him.  “If ever wife was happy in a man” (Norton Anthology of American Literature pg. 206).  All of these lines start with the same words, If ever.  This is important because some poems repeat phrases for effect.

After this, Anne says how much she loves her husband and how much he means to her.  She compares her love with many treasures.  “I prize thy love more than whole mines of gold” (Norton Anthology of American Literature pg. 206).  This shows how important her love is because she thinks her love for him is more valuable than a gold mine. 

She also knows that her love will last forever.  “That when we live no more, we may live ever” (Norton Anthology of American Literature pg. 206).  This line is important because it is the last line of the poem, and it sums up Anne’s love for her husband.  She believes in God because she is a Puritan, and Puritans, like Christians and Catholics believe that they can have eternal life in heaven.  Anne shows that she believes in heaven and she will live there forever with her husband.

In conclusion, Anne Bradstreet writes about a universal human emotion, love.  Her loving poem To My Dear and Loving Husband expresses her deep emotions and also shows her religious beliefs.  Truly, if more people today could feel their love for each other the way Anne feels love for her husband, there would not be as much divorce.    

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I hate to do this to Litlove, especially since she’s been unwell lately.  However, it must be said:  She is in serious danger of getting completely humiliated in the Race of Rejection™.  As Regular Readers® may remember, Litlove and I are in a fierce competition to determine who can first compile twenty rejections from publishers or agents.  When last we checked our standings, I had racked up an impressive four rejections.  Litlove, sad to say, had none.

Today the humiliation continues.  Yes, friends, I have received another rejection, bringing my total up to five.  According to my admittedly weak math skills, that means I am twenty-five percent of the way to complete victory.  It may not be too soon to raise my arms in a victory salute.

I strongly suspect Litlove will soon have no choice but to concede defeat, as I am sure her first query will result in an acceptance, leaving me the unchallenged King of Rejection©.  As King, I promise a benevolent rule and publications for all.

Now, I understand there are a lot of Litlove partisans out there in Blogland who might say, “But Hobgoblin, your article is going to be published in Americana–surely that means you have already lost!”  To this I must reply, “Not so fast, oh doubters and naysayers!  The competition rules clearly stated that the rejections were for my novel, virtually assuring me a swift and decisive victory!”  Allow me an evil and despotic laugh: “Bwahahahaha!”

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The Rewards of Racing

Cyclists in southwestern Connecticut  are lucky to have race promoters who know what they’re doing.  I’ve mentioned the races Aki promotes as being models of perfectly organized events.  Rick, the guy who promotes the Tuesday Night Worlds, puts on a four-month long series that has become, for me at least, the best thing to do during the summer.  Last night we had a big barbecue and awards ceremony that included the debut of the race video.

At many of the races, we rode in front of video cameras.  There were cameras along the sidelines of the race, one helmetcam for in-the-pack action, a bike frame camera mounted low on the forks, and motocam (a cameraman hanging off the back of a scooter), just like the pros have.  The photographer put together an awesome 45 minute DVD with spectacular race footage, still photos, and interviews with some of the racers.  Since I tried playing for the cameras in more than one race, I got some decent air time.  I have to say, I look pretty professional there, which is, I’m sure, all a photographer’s trick.

We also got our awards last night.  Since Rick gave out awards for the top ten, I got a plaque proclaiming me the eighth place finisher in the B race (I missed seventh by ONE POINT!).  Not only that, but our team took third in the team classification.  I feel especially pleased with this for several reasons.  First, it underscores just how much of a team sport cycling is.  Second, our prize is a formal team portrait done by the photographer who did the pictures and DVD, so everyone on the team will get something.  Finally, we scored 135 points, of which I contributed 58.

Races like this work because everyone involved is excited by cycling and hugely committed to making racing fun and popular.  Most of the racers, as I have said in earlier posts, are typical New England professionals, with real jobs, who compete just for the fun of it.  When we get the chance to feel like Tour de France racers, with videos, interviews, and prizes, we get to realize our Walter Mitty fantasies and, just as important, we feel like coming back next year for more racing.

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Check out the American popular culture newsletter–I’m the “featured article.”  The article itself will appear in the fall edition of Americana, and I’ll post the link when it comes out.

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