When Words Have a Long Tail

Independence Hall

Dan Smith, creative commons license

At a time when the U.S. Senate is considering a new member of the Supreme Court, the wisdom of viewing today’s problems and challenges through a 250-year-old lens is once again under scrutiny. No words put on paper today are likely to have as long and as consequential a tail for Americans as the Constitution of the United States.

In this month’s Language Lounge for Visual Thesaurus, linguistic provocateur Orin Hargraves returns to Independence Hall to consider the Founding Fathers’ accomplishment. In contrast to the typically fleeting nature of oral pronouncements (perhaps of the kind delivered in Senate hearings), Hargraves says, written language can have a “practically unlimited” afterlife. At the same time, it has weaknesses. It is missing context (quill pens versus the Internet) and, in the case of something written in the 1700s, people of today—our Senators, for example—cannot query the Founding Fathers for clarification and relevance.

Hargraves says the Constitution’s drafters of significant documents, like the U.S. Constitution, are aware “that the force of their words will long outlive them.” As a result, they choose those words with extreme care and provide a way to alter and update it, not easily though. Our Constitution now has 27 Amendments.

Despite the founders’ care, debate over the context and meaning of some of the Constitution’s provisions, especially the Second Amendment, is virulent. Even within such a presumably sedate setting as the Language Lounge, Hargraves says, past posts on this topic have inspired reader rants requiring “editorial intervention” by the Language Lounge masters. The prospects for consensus on a range of divisive topics seems remote, and The Washington Post says the first day of Kavanaugh’s hearings provided “a world-class display of bickering across party lines.”

Alice in Wonderland, words, Humpty DumptyOne helpful resource ought to be the Corpus of Founding Era American English, based on some 100 million words of text from 1760 to 1799 from various sources. (See how one source suggests this body of work should inform the Supreme Court nomination hearings of Judge Kavanaugh.) Yet, a historical perspective on the meaning of language in the late 1700s may not satisfy partisans “deeply invested in one view or the other,” Hargraves says. I suspect he’s correct. However much the advocates claim their interpretations are based on long-ago principles, in fact they serve current interests.

While no one would insist on using an owner’s manual for a Model T Ford to repair their Fusion Hybrid, the Constitution is not given room to breathe and grow to serve society today. That was then. This is the uncomfortable now. Attempting to return to some earlier meaning (if we even were clear what that was) may be just another way to avoid doing the hard work of making our systems and even our brilliant Constitution work in the 21st century.

Bison and Eagles and Elk!

Old Faithful

Old Faithful – photo: pixabay

Recently my family spent nine days in Yellowstone National Park and the Grand Tetons. Seven people, three under 10, stayed in four different historic hotels in different areas of the park, in order to see the most, yet avoid the park’s infamous traffic. The hotels were each different and fascinating, and early morning starts meant we had few problems. We also covered a lot of territory on foot, with at least some short hiking every day, manageable for all ages (that is, me).

The first three nights we stayed at the beautiful Old Faithful Inn, right by the eponymous attraction. Much within walking distance of the Inn is every bit as interesting as Old Faithful itself—hot springs, steaming geysers, mud pots—all connected by boardwalk, since you cannot walk on the hot ground without injury to yourself or it. As the park contains the world’s largest collection of steaming, bubbling, and bursting features, you have to wonder what early visitors thought of it, whether migrating natives or European trappers and fur-traders. I was reminded of the 70-year-old adventure story written by Pulitzer-winner A. B. Guthrie, The Big Sky. You’ll get an indelible picture of how those early explorers felt about the American West.

A short drive takes you to the nearby Geyser fields include the Grand Prismatic hot spring, largest in the United States, which is one of those things that looks like it can’t be real, but is.

GrandPrismatic

Grand Prismatic – photo: supercarwaar

We were pleased to find so many tourists enjoying the park, a million a month in the summer, and a good many of them were French, German, Spanish, and lots of Chinese, especially.

We had a tour of the Inn (in the park, lodging and food services have been privatized and are run by Xanterra, with varying success from one property to another). The food was better and more interesting at the Snow Lodge behind the Inn, we learned belatedly.

From the Old Faithful Inn, the more reckless of our party went ziplining in Bozeman, while I took a watercolor class. There were artists-in-residence at each hotel, as well as nightly musicians, usually pianists, and one violinist. Gift shops too—the nicest at the Lake Hotel.

We took a wildlife tour, and over the entire trip we saw moose (with binoculars), elk, deer, prong-horns, bison (at a distance, close up, and in the road), a coyote, bald eagles, marmots, ospreys, trumpeter swans, and trout (on our plates). No wolves or bears, which is too bad, because we wanted to get a picture of the kids petting one. (Really, people have done that!) Lots of warnings about keeping your distance from bears and bison and instructions in how to use bear spray. Moose and bear had mostly moved to higher elevations for the summer where it’s cooler, though the park is 7000 to 8000 feet above sea level already.

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone

Mammoth Hot Springs – photo: Vicki Weisfeld

We moved on to the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel, where elk graze on the lawn in the evening. The hot springs themselves are fascinating, looking like terraced rice paddies formed by the minerals in the spring water.

Then two nights at the Canyon Lodge, which was the least congenial spot, though a convenient jumping off place for seeing the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with its spectacular gorge and waterfalls. At almost 700 miles long, the Yellowstone River is America’s longest undammed river, a tributary of the Missouri. We skirted the edge of the wildlife-heavy Lamar Valley, and had a Ranger-led boat tour on Lake Yellowstone. The Ranger tours in national parks are usually fantastic and not crowded.

Finally, we spent two days in Grand Teton National Park at the luxurious by comparison Grand Teton Lodge, not a Xanterra property. From there we set out for a whitewater rafting trip on the Snake River, which is one place we saw bald eagles. They were gliding down the river in front of us—fantastic! We spent the day waiting for our flight in Jackson, visiting the ski area in summertime.

A great trip thanks to family trip-planner in chief, Neil!

Grand Tetons

Grand Tetons – photo: goodfreephotos.com

 

****The Cypher Bureau

Enigma machine

PX Here, creative commons license

By Eilidh McGinness – This fictionalized history of the breaking of the Germans’ Enigma code methods in World War II is as tense as any thriller and more consequential, based, as it is, on true events.

Although readers around the world are familiar with the accomplishments of Alan Turing and the British code-breaking team at Bletchley Park—most recently popularized in the Benedict Cumberbatch movie, The Imitation Game—the substantial contribution of youthful Polish mathematicians to the unraveling of the Nazis’ coding system is less well known. This novelization of the life of Polish mathematician Marian Rejewski and his colleagues attempts to fill this historical blank spot.

As children, Rejewski and his two friends and fellow mathematics stars, Henry Zygalski and Jerzy Rozycki, lived through the German occupation and depredations of the First World War. Now, on the cusp of completing their university studies, war clouds are once again amassing on their country’s western border, and the Polish authorities are desperate to expose the Germans’ secrets and help foil their plans.

Rejewski, Zygalski, and Rozycki are successfully recruited to work for the Cypher Bureau, although, as invasion approaches, the danger of such work grows by the by day. They have successfully solved numerous important decryption problems, yet Rejewski longs for a chance to try cracking the Enigma—the coding machine the Germans considered unbreakable. Finally, he gets this super-secret assignment. Thanks to documents obtained by French intelligence and the lucky acquisition of an Enigma machine, he is able to reconstruct its internal wiring. Once that is accomplished, the method for determining the master key for a given day is the remaining challenge.

The insight that allows his breakthrough is not mathematical or technical, it is psychological. Having had German tutors in his youth, Rejewski knows how they think. As the author of the book on which The Imitation Game was based wrote about the Poles, “They had not broken the machine, they had beaten the system.”

Once Germany invades Poland, the code-breaking team flees, working its way across Europe, stopping briefly here and there to decode messages, deal with Germany’s efforts to make Enigma increasingly complex, and making hair’s-breadth escapes from the enemy. Although this book aims to be a true account and the writing style is never hyperbolic, its substance is akin to an action thriller.

The bravery and intellectual contributions of the Polish mathematicians and their team is clear. Equally so is the commitment of a great many people in Poland and elsewhere to keeping the secret of their accomplishments. Not one person ever revealed this information throughout the long years of the war, and the Germans never knew they’d been hacked. This in itself is an astonishing feat!

Three Identical Strangers

Three Identical StrangersReviewer Bilge Ebiri in The Village Voice says, “The best way to experience Tim Wardle’s documentary Three Identical Strangers is to do so without knowing a single thing about it.”

The makers of the trailer must have felt much the same way because (uncharacteristically), they didn’t give away much of the story (trailer), except to focus on the surprise reunion of 19-year-old triplets, separated at six months of age, and adopted into separate homes. They find each other by a fluke. The whole idea of “separated at birth” is vaguely sentimental, because in it is the notion that siblings eventually find each other. That there’s a happy reunion. In this film, that’s just the beginning.

I can only agree with Ebiri in saying, see it. It has surprising depths. It will leave you shaking your head, first at the power of coincidence, then everything else. Says an aunt, “When  you play with humans, you do something very wrong.”

Plus, you have the pleasure of seeing interviews with veteran journalist Lawrence Wright.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 96%; audiences: 87%.

Noir at the Bar

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

Last Sunday, the Manhattan efflorescence of Noir at the Bar had one of its irregular celebrations of crime fiction writing at Greenwich Village’s Shade Bar (where the food is pretty darn good too). Ten crime fiction authors read from their works in three sets, with intermissions for nonstop talking and grabbing another beer.

Jen Conley and Scot Adlerberg are the m.c.’s, of the Manhattan group, and make an effort to exert some organization (no doubt plenty goes on behind the scenes). But the vibe is more good-natured free-for-all. Jen is an editor at Shotgun Honey and read her short short story about the meetup of two teenage girls’ soccer teams—one preppy, the other from the “New Jersey girls, they have big hair” school. It doesn’t end well. Scott also read from his crime fiction, and he has written novels and short stories and conducts a series or two of Manhattan-based meet-ups about films.

The stories live up to the billing with their emphasis on noir. Dark deeds and dark characters on the underside of down-and-out. Jennifer Hillier’s excerpt from her new novel, Jar of Hearts, featured a woman about to be released from prison; Rick Ollerman’s story about a bunch of lowlifes in Las Vegas (I think), ends with a real ouch! twist; and Danny Gardner read a chapter from new work. At a previous Noir at the Bar I attended, he read from his highly rated A Negro and an Ofay, and the new work sounded just as powerful.

photo: Jo Sutera, with permission

What else? Especially enjoyable was the glamorous Hilary Davidson’s excerpt from “Answered Prayers,” a story that appeared in the May/June Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Even though we only heard a few minutes’ worth, the conviction that a diabolical imagination lay behind what she read had everyone chuckling. Shout-outs also to Rob Hart, Alex Segura, and Kenneth Wishnia. My writing group does a public reading in March and October, and I can attest to how helpful it is for authors to have a live audience and get that feedback.

In the book raffle, I was delighted to choose a copy of James McCrone’s Faithless Elector. Now what made him think that the people who actually elect U.S. presidents would be of any interest at all? Go figure.

Many U.S. cities have Noir at the Bar events. Including, but not limited to Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Durham, N.C., Washington, D.C., St. Louis, New Orleans, St. Paul, the Bay Area, Dallas, Chicago, Denver, Baltimore, Miami, Queens and Staten Island, Seattle, Monterey, and cities around the world, from Glasgow to Melbourne. It may take a bit of sleuthing to find one near you—try Facebook—but it’s a fun evening meeting authors, hearing new work. Treat yourself!

Borg vs. McEnroe

Borg vs. McEnroeRight in the middle of Wimbledon’s 150th Championships we scored a Netflix copy of director Janus Metz’s 2017 movie about the classic 1980 matchup between Ice-Borg and the Superbrat, with a script by Ronnie Sandahl (trailer). While their rivalry makes an entertaining film, I’d still flunk a quiz on how to score the game.

Sverrir Gudnason plays Björn Borg, instantly recognizable, lean and riddled with doubt, and Shia LaBeouf does fine work as the temperamental, foul-mouthed McEnroe. Apparently, Gudnason had to put on muscle for the role, while LaBeouf had to take some off. They both looked in fine form for the on-court scenes at the 1980 Wimbledon. In what is regarded as one of the greatest tennis matches of all time, Borg blew seven match points as he attempted to win his fifth straight Wimbledon victory. McEnroe might be a bad boy, but he could play some tennis, and, in the end, he got a standing ovation from the Wimbledon fans who’d started the competition by booing him.

While the competition between them was always billed as a rivalry between opposites, fire and ice, what the movie shows is that from his youth Borg wanted to be best in the world. (The young  Borg is played by his son Leo.) As a teen, Borg (played by Markus Mossberg) was every bit as fiery as McEnroe, arguing with the refs and his coach, throwing his racket, stomping off the court. They’re also alike in how deeply they care about winning.

Finally, Borg’s coach (Stellan Skarsgård) told him he was through unless he channeled his anger and frustration into his game. He needed to become emotionless. It sounds impossibly difficult, but he did it. What he also did was develop a lot of peculiar habits and rituals that had to be followed to the letter: the way his rackets were strung, the kind of car they rented. Sports stars are legendary for having “good luck” rituals, and his were all-encompassing.

McEnroe also got his comeuppance from friend and fellow tennis-player Peter Fleming (Scott Arthur) who told him he’d never be regarded as one of the greats because nobody liked him. At Wimbledon, his volcanic persona was in check after that, at least in the film.

We see less about McEnroe as a young man (it’s a Scandi movie after all), and I would have liked to. Still, it’s an engrossing film even for someone not obsessed with tennis (me!), and it deserves more attention.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 83%; audiences: 73%.

See These Inspiring Documentary Biopics: RBG and Mr. Rogers

Ruth Bader GinsburgOverwhelmed by the tsunami of pettiness and downright meanness in the news this summer? These biopics make a refreshing change. RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? properly celebrate two talented individuals who single-mindedly dedicated themselves to making better the lives of others.

RBG

The story of how Ruth Bader Ginsburg became an icon for women’s rights began when, as a newly minted law school graduate (Harvard and Columbia), she had trouble getting a job (trailer). Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy Ward are obvious admirers, but then, there’s lots to admire. The film includes plenty of archival footage of Ginsburg as a quite beautiful young woman, as well as audio of her earliest arguments before the Supreme Court supporting “gender blindness.”

This historical footage is supplemented by present-day interviews with legal scholars, journalists, politicians, Ginsburg’s children, and RBG herself. Although she fought fiercely for women’s rights, as a person, she’s shy and unassuming. Her parents taught her that angry displays were “self-defeating,” and she kept her calm demeanor in her court battles, even though she says she felt like a kindergarten teacher, helping judges and even members of earlier Supreme Courts to an understanding of the systematic discrimination women faced and its costs. Of course, the battle isn’t over yet and has opened on a new front with #metoo.

If she never shows anger, she shows plenty of love for her husband Marty, who died in 2010. His support enabled her to achieve much of what she has, which every woman in America benefits from today, whether she knows it or not.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 93%; audiences: 80%.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Fred Rogers 2When I saw previews of this Morgan Neville documentary about children’s television personality Fred Rogers, I was afraid it might be overly saccharine (trailer). But Rogers himself puts that issue to rest by his absolute sincerity and persuasiveness. Himself a child development expert, convinced by research showing the value of young children knowing they are loved for who they are, he used television to carry that message.

Over the years his slow delivery and habits (putting on his sweater, changing his shoes) have been mocked by numerous comedians—clips of these skits are included. OK, but the relevance of those critiques is completely undermined when the film juxtaposes scenes from his program with the usual pie-in-the-face comedy, the frantic action, the fights and violence more typical of children’s programming. There can be no question which is healthier for small children. Yet his show didn’t duck difficult issues. It took on divorce, death, 9/11, assassination—issues kids hear about, but may not get much help in understanding and processing.

Under Rogers’s gentle exterior beat the heart of a “true radical,” said Odie Henderson for RogerEbert.com. The opening song with which he greeted his audience every day said, “I have always wanted to have a neighbor just like you,” and that “you” included children of all races, abilities, and religions, wherever they lived, recent immigrants or the scions of old Boston families. He loved them, each and every one, just as they were. And they knew it.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 99%; audiences: 98%.

Austin’s Plant-Based Attractions

Not counting an early morning trip to my cousin’s impressive community garden in Austin, Texas, where we picked tomatoes, tomatoes, and more tomatoes, as well as peppers, onions, and eggplant, most of our touristy activities in the capital of the Lone Star State involved plants.

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center

It was hot, yeah, but the walkways through this lovely 284-acre facility are abundantly shaded. The center is the botanic garden for the University of Texas at Austin, and its educational mission is evident, but it’s not just for students. Homeowners go there to learn about the conservation of native plants and creating back yard environments compatible with local conditions. It was great to see little kids enjoying the water features, a sandy play area, and the animal sculptures. The grounds are planted with more than 800 native Texas species that, over the seasons, display successive waves of color. Naturally, the one plant that didn’t have a label was the one that fascinated us (woolly ironweed, above, which looked like fireworks), but the volunteers and staff were quick to sort us out! A lovely facility and nice gift shop too.

Zilker Park, Austin, waterfall

photo (cropped): Glen Pope, creative commons license

Zilker Botanical Garden

Located on 26 hilly acres in the heart of Austin, this is another shady retreat, with a lovely waterlily pond out front. Its Japanese garden has a small pavilion and a meandering stream stocked with koi that runs under a classically arched wooden bridge.

We walked the Woodland Faerie Trail, where organizations and families have constructed tiny scenes in which fairies might live. Those that used natural materials were the most charming. Minimal gift shop with excellent air conditioning! The facility includes many specialty and seasonal gardens, including a vigorously blooming rose garden. Alluring, but in full sun, no.

Umlauf Sculpture Garden

Umlauf Sculpture Garden

photo: Lanie, creative commons license

Charles Umlauf (1911-1994) was a widely-collected American sculptor, born in Michigan, and a long-time art professor at the Austin campus of the University of Texas. He donated his home, studio, and the surrounding lands to the city of Austin, along with some 168 sculptures. The grounds are now an outdoor sculpture garden displaying mostly his works, and an indoor pavilion houses temporary or more weather-susceptible exhibitions. Many of his bronze and stone sculptures on display here have classical or biblical themes, and he went for stylized facial features. Although his artistic style is not my favorite, it’s a pleasure to see his work in such a beautiful setting.

Books to toss in your suitcase

Paper Ghosts – by Julia Heaberlin, a young woman’s Texas road trip with a possible serial killer in her passenger seat

Fonda San Miguel: Forty Years of Food and Art – we ate at this beautiful restaurant. You can drool over the cookbook while you’re there, and recreate awesome Mexican food on your return home

Texas Two-Step – new crime novel by Michael Pool. Two Colorado stoners plan to sell their last marijuana crop in rural east Texas and become embroiled in bigger problems, with a Texas Ranger and Austin police detective on their tails.

Writing about Risky Encounters

woman with groceries

photo: Charles Nadeau, creative commons license

The Gift of Fear is a two-decades old book about recognizing the subtle signs of personal danger in many situations. So often in news stories about the capture of a murderer—whether of a spouse, a girlfriend, or a mass shooting—people say, “We had no idea he’d . . .” This book, like the FBI report released yesterday, says baloney to that. There are signs. People just have to recognize them and accept their validity.

As a crime writer, I hoped those signs might be usefully incorporated in my stories, whether my bad-guy characters were aware of sending them and whether my good-guy characters perceived them. Or not. Especially or not.

The book’s author is Gavin de Becker, who has worked with government agencies and law enforcement on ways to prevent violence and as a private consultant on personal threat assessment for media figures, victims of stalking, and others. Much of the book is written in the grating “you can do it!” style of a self-help book, but his examples are excellent.

Especially useful was the chapter on “survival signals.” In it, he deconstructs the experience of a young woman he calls Kelly who encountered a helpful stranger in the lobby of her apartment building. When one of Kelly’s grocery bags spilled, he insisted on carrying bags up to her apartment. He followed her inside, then held her captive for three hours and raped her. She barely escaped with her life. Other women had not.

From the outset, Kelly received numerous signals that something about the man was “off,” which made her uneasy, though she couldn’t say why. De Becker says, “the capable face-to-face criminal is an expert at keeping his victim from seeing survival signals, but the very methods he uses to conceal them can reveal them.” The signals in Kelly’s case are easily adaptable to fiction.

Seven Key Survival Signals

  • Forced teaming—Kelly’s attacker tried to establish rapport with her, with statements like, “We’ve got to get these groceries upstairs.” A fictional criminal could plausibly say many similar things, like, “Luckily, we’re on the same side here.” David Mamet’s characters use this strategy superbly in his fascinating movie, House of Games.
  • Charm and niceness—Charm is a strategy, de Becker maintains, “a verb, not a trait.” The person trying to charm is a person who wants something. In two words: Ted Bundy.
  • Too many details—People trying to deceive pile on information, in the hope of being more persuasive. Details distract a potential victim from the bigger picture, which is that the encounter was (possibly) unsought and potentially problematic.
  • Typecasting—It’s human nature to want to be thought well of. Women, especially, are likely to demur or try to disprove a mild criticism, such as, “Someone like you probably wouldn’t give me the time of day.”
  • Loan sharking—A person may offer—indeed, may insist on—helping a potential victim, as Kelly’s assailant did. Putting her even slightly in his debt made it harder for her to rebuff him.
  • Unsolicited promises—“I’ll just put these groceries down, then leave. I promise.” De Becker says any unsolicited promise shows merely “the speaker’s desire to convince you of something.”
  • Discounting the word ‘no’—people with ill intent ignore a ‘no’ or try to negotiate it away. Either they are seeking control, or refusing to give it up.

Though even a benign character might display one or two of these behavioral traits, start piling them on and readers will recognize the danger, even subliminally. They give characters real menace and ratchet up the tension long before the weapons come out!

Travel Tips: Columbus, Indiana

Columbus, Indiana

National Historic Landmark by Myron Goldsmith

Enticed by seeing the small movie Columbus last year, we put this mecca of modernist architecture on our post-Derby travel itinerary. It had long lurked in the back of my mind as a place to visit one day, but the movie crystallized that wish. In it, an architect’s son, played by John Cho, stays at an elegant bed and breakfast (The Inn at Irwin Gardens, where we stayed too!) and helps a young Columbus resident (Haley Lu Richardson), understand what’s so great about the buildings she’s been surrounded by her whole life.

It started during World War II with a church. First Christian Church member J. Irwin Miller, the head of the area’s largest employer, Cummins Engine Company, persuaded the congregation not to build another faux-gothic pile, but a modern church. Eliel Saarinen’s design became the country’s first “modern” church. It was followed by the first modern bank building.

Post-war, the city experienced the baby boom and the need for new schools. The first were pre-fab structures, truly awful. Miller gave the school board a list of five U.S. architects and promised that, if they chose one of them for the next school, his foundation would pay the design fee. The result was so successful that many more architect-designed schools, followed by fire houses and libraries, as well as other churches, banks, and factories followed.

Flamenco

Flamenco by Ruth Aizuss Migdal; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Buildings by such architectural luminaries as the Saarinens (Eliel and Eero), Robert A.M. Stern, Harry Weese, Cesar Pelli, Robert Venturi, Richard Meier, and I.M. Pei. Landscape architects and significant sculptural pieces followed, with installations by Henry Moore, Dessa Kirk, Dale Chihuly, and Ruth Aizuss Migdal (Her “Flamenco” was a favorite).

Miller and his  wife (a woman from a modest background, whom he met over the bargaining table. He was Management, she was Labor) built a home designed by Eero Saarinen, with interiors by noted graphic artist and architect Alexander Girard, that is both modest and magnificent. One of seven Columbus buildings deemed a National Historic Landmark, its most appealing feature for me was Saarinen’s ingenious tic-tac-toe lines of skylights that deliver bright outdoor light to almost every room of the house.

The Visitor’s Center provides maps, tours of the Miller House, and a lovely gift shop.

So near?

From Louisville: 72 miles
From Columbus, Ohio: 189 miles
From Chicago: 227 miles
From St. Louis: 284 miles

Books to toss in your suitcase

Columbus, Indiana – photographic essay by Thomas R. Schiff
The Cathedral Builder –  Biography of J. Irwin Miller by Charles E. Mitchell Rentschler
Alexander Girard: Popular Edition – by Kiera Coffee and Todd Oldham