Monday, February 28, 2005

"Where Two or More Are Gathered"

At a small college in my home state, a sophomore one evening, settling down for quiet study, sensed a strong, strange compulsion to go to the campus chapel. Why? He had no idea. Was he supposed to pray for someone or for some event? He could pray on his knees right where he was, if he only knew what to pray for. Yet, he was moved to go.

The dim-lit chapel was empty. He dutifully took a pew and waited for something to happen. Nothing. On the brink of leaving, he later reported, he virtually “heard” a voice command him to remain. Soon, there began to arrive at the chapel, one after another, several of his friends -- each drawn with the same feeling of mysterious urgency. As they discussed the bizarre premonition that had brought them together, a student they little knew entered. She was in tears, visibly shattered by some dreadful crisis. They went to her side, listened to her story, offered what counsel they could, and prayed for her. By the end of the evening she was calm and restored, resolved to face and conquer her adversity . . . and she had accepted the personal salvation and Lordship of Jesus Christ.

True story.

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Made in Madagascar

They’re cute -- although a few species look intrinsically repulsive -- and if you want to see one in its natural habitat you have to go to the western Indian Ocean. Lemurs dwell only on the island nation of Madagascar and the nearby Comoro Islands. I got to “meet” them while researching Southeast Africa, part of the “Exploration of Africa” series published several years ago by Chelsea House. The long-tailed, tree-hopping, monkey-ish creatures, like so many around the world, have been losing their habitat in recent decades to tree cutters.

I especially like them (from a distance) probably because they’re so weird and diverse (and, for the most part, cute). The indri grows more than two feet tall and weighs perhaps 20 pounds; the dwarf lemur is about the size of a squirrel; the adult pygmy mouse lemur is just eight inches long, tail and all, and tips the scales at about one ounce! Some species eat only flowers and leaves; some also eat insects, birds, frogs. Their personal hygiene leaves a bit to be desired; we shan’t go into that. Although the word lemures in Latin means “nocturnal spirits,” certain types of lemur are diurnal rather than nocturnal. Scientists speculate that the reason lemurs survived into modern times, unlike many small animals from prehistory, is because the larger predators common on the African continent don’t exist on the offshore islands. They "escaped to a secluded island," quite literally!

Incidentally, more than half the world’s species of chameleons also call Madagascar home. It's a very interesting place. You should read some of the chronicles of Charles F. Swingle, who explored Madagascar's croc-infested rivers in an overloaded, shallow-draft boat during the 1920s.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Losing the "Lost Parkway Blues"

The parkway was closed and I was bummed. . . .

An extra incentive to periodically visit my daughter, an art student at Radford University in southern Virginia, is the Blue Ridge Parkway. I look forward to cruising 50 or 100 miles of it on the trip home -- stopping to hike a bit, weather permitting. A light snow covered the ground when we awoke yesterday morning. The parkway would be barricaded.

I loathe interstate traffic, but there was no alternate route southward out of Christiansburg. Cold rain had replaced snow and sleet, though, by the time I reached Statesville, NC, on I-77. Off I went into the heart of the state. A fine rainy day (I love dreary days) and new roads to discover! I can’t reconstruct the zig-zaggy route I fingered out on the map as I drove along, but it was perfect. Lunchtime found me at a roadside eatery called Norman’s Café -- again, perfect. (Check it out on Highway 10, North Carolina.) We’re talking beef liver smothered in onions (the good kind) underneath a bed of French fries (the very good kind). I loaded it down with catsup so I could really gross out our youngest sophisticant daughter when I described it to her later.

Country cooking, country roads, new towns to see and a grey day ideal for pondering. By the time I arrived home, I’d forgotten my "Lost Parkway Blues."

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Weekly Folk Music Quiz (24fe05)

The traditional Scottish ballad “Loch Lomond” revolves around: a) a prison escape, b) a wedding, c) a royal coronation, d) a scenic lake.

Weekly History Quiz (24fe05)

The sinking of the Andrea Doria in 1956 was regarded by many as the worst peacetime sea tragedy since the Titanic. The ship that collided with the Andrea Doria and sent it to the bottom of the Atlantic was the: a) Wilhelm II, b) Stockholm, c) Tropic, d) Sea Leopard.

Weekly Amusement (24fe05)

Psychiatrist: “In your own words, please describe your problem.”

Patient: “Well, I think I’m a horse, if that’s what you mean -- but I’m not sure I’d define that as a problem.”

Psychiatrist: “If you think you’re a horse, I certainly would define it as a problem. Now, I can help you out of this delusion, but it may take some time and incur substantial expense.”

Patient: “Money is no object. I won the Kentucky Derby last year.”

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Stop Losing; Start Learning

Hopefully, you’re nothing like me. I’m sure you have better discipline than I do. For example, those computer games which come installed on your new PC system (free!) don't lure you into time-squandering Never Never Land the way they lure me . . . do they?

Just for the benefit of those who, like me, are quickly addicted to the computer games created by unthinking or outright malevolent programmers, here’s an idea: Flush the games immediately after you set up your new PC. Start spending your time learning something during the moments (or hours) when you feel you have nothing to do while sitting at the keypad. You might have yourself quite a bit of fun doing so.

At a department store last year I found, for $9.95, the “31 Languages of the World” CD from Transparent Language. Learning Italian has been my lifelong quest. Five college courses in Italian failed to drill it into me, yet, I remain determined that someday I will learn to speak (or at least read) this beautiful language. I installed the Italian section of the CD (you also can load Spanish, French, German, Japanese . . . Bengali, Norwegian, Tagalog . . . whatever your interest). Now, instead of clicking on Freecell or Minesweeper to take a break from work, I click on the language program and practice Italian. It contains excellent audio tutorials, with the transcripts broken down and analyzed onscreen as it reads, word by word. I still can’t speak Italian or even read very much of it. But I think I truly am making progress. I’m certainly “winning” more with this cheap software than I ever won from Hearts or Freecell.

Stop losing to King Solitaire. With the same computer time, you can begin learning a language -- or an ethnic cuisine, or the Bible, or gardening tips, or encyclopedic knowledge. There’s much to be said for the software bargain bin these days.

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Dogs in Unison, Please

Here in South Carolina is a small town (we'll keep it nameless) to which a friend of mine contemplates retiring. He’s investigated. He tells me -- and I promise I’m not makin’ this up -- the key rule, if a newcomer wants to fit in with the established residents, is the “dog rule.” I quote Bryan, my friend: “You can’t have your dog barkin’ at four o’clock in the mornin’ . . . unless everybody else’s dogs are barkin’, in which case it’s okay.”

Monday, February 21, 2005

Holiday? WHAT Holiday?

So . . . how many of you non-government employees are off work today?

Hey, I admire and honor our American presidents at least as much as the next American citizen. But really -- what’s this for? Are government holidays scripted for the benefit of the American populace, or for folks with political agendas and for government employees who relish extra down time?

Are you getting your down time today? I’m not. Please forgive my rankled attitude, but I assert such holidays as this one simply don't benefit the average American. I, for one, have to work today . . . but I can’t receive a paycheck in the mail today for the work I’ve done, because the mail isn’t moving. If I need to talk to someone in our government on this particular MONDAY about the way our government is affecting my life on this particular MONDAY, I’m going to find it difficult to reach that special individual.

I suppose I should just shut up. If I were a government employee having to deal with people like myself on a daily basis, I, too, probably would eagerly claim “PRESIDENTS DAY!!” as a momentary excuse from real life.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Horse Time

Warm sunlight floods my office this February Saturday morning, a reminder that spring is near. In my state, South Carolina, the pending seasonal excitement includes horse racing. Aiken has been the training ground of some 40 national champions over the years. Right now they’re preparing thoroughbreds for the annual Aiken Trials.

I’m not a racing fan, but I enjoy outdoors and excitement. One spring, friends invited me to tailgate with them on a Saturday in Aiken. They’d prepared a basket feast; so had their neighbors parked along the rail. We shared delicacies, made remarkable new acquaintances, laughed a lot and generally forgot the cares of the week -- while horses periodically charged past so close we could hear the oaths of the jockeys. (I came to understand graphically that day how the term “jockey for position” derived.) Even though I had no idea how to distinguish a future Belmont contender from a hapless nag, it was a terrific outing.

Now that I think of it, maybe I can look up some of those old cronies, make a phone call or two, see if I can wrangle myself a place at the rail next month. . . .

Friday, February 18, 2005

Funniest Verse in the Bible

We Christians sometimes ask one another our favorite Bible verses. John 3:16 and several other crucial passages always are among the responses. The 23rd Psalm -- sometimes simply the first verse of it -- typically receives a mention.

No one ever asks me what I consider the funniest verse in the Bible, so I’ll tell you. Actually, it’s a matter of translation. Proverbs 17:12, as stated in the Good News Bible (TEV), reads: “It is better to meet a mother bear robbed of her cubs than to meet some fool busy with a stupid project.” (It loses the comic imagery in other versions.)

Probably the reason I remember it is that it reminds me so much of me.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Weekly Folk Music Quiz (17fe05)

Thanks to Jean Ritchie, a performing/recording artist from Kentucky, this instrument enjoyed a popular revival in the 1960s and 1970s: a) pennywhistle, b) mountain dulcimer, c) hammered dulcimer, d) open-back (claw-hammer) banjo.

Weekly History Quiz (17fe05)

Scottish author Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was trained in what profession? a) law, b) medicine, c) military, d) literary arts.

Weekly Amusement (17fe05)

Medical School 101, Lesson 1: “Prescriptions you may scribble. Billing information always should be typed into your computer system.”

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Timothy Murphy, Mystery Marksman

He was a fearsome rifle shot, a frontiersman in New Jersey during the pre-Revolutionary War years when parts of New Jersey truly were on the American frontier. When the war began, he joined legendary Daniel Morgan’s riflemen. In autumn 1777, he found himself in the upper New York colony among the growing army of Patriots massing to resist Gen. John Burgoyne’s British invasion from Quebec.

Burgoyne’s Saratoga Campaign might have ended the war quickly in England’s favor, but for the staunch defense of Patriots like Timothy Murphy. Murphy was an astonishing if comparatively obscure hero of independence. He once captured an enemy officer from the middle of an encampment. Learning the password, he and a companion gained entry by night. Murphy, posing as a friendly Tory, made his way amid the campfires to an officer’s tent, forced the soldier away at bayonet point and brought him into American custody.

Soon afterward, the climactic engagement of the Saratoga Campaign occurred at the Second Battle of Freeman’s Farm. A rifle ball brought down Gen. Simon Fraser, Burgoyne’s best field commander. Who fired the shot? Many contend it was Murphy – a difficult claim to prove. If true, it might be argued that Murphy’s was the single most important shot of the Revolution. Fraser’s death was a primary factor in Burgoyne’s defeat and surrender of his invasion force. If there was in fact a “decisive battle” of the Revolution, many historians point to Saratoga.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

What's in a Book? Perhaps Too Much

“The covers of this book are too far apart.” TRIVIA CHALLENGE: Who said that? Answer: Ambrose Bierce, a gifted, mysterious author of odd stuff who died, possibly, in 1914.

I love books. But lest we take them too seriously, critics like Bierce periodically put them in their place. Other bookish quotes you may find edifying, or at least amusing:

* “The reason why so few good books are written is that so few people who can write know anything.” (Walter Bagehot)
* “Everywhere I have sought rest and not found it, except sitting in a corner by myself with a little book.” (Thomas à Kempis)
* “. . . . Books of the true sort, not . . . what they club for at book clubs.” (Charles Lamb)
* “A bad book is as much of a labour to write as a good one; it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.” (Aldous Huxley)
* “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” (Francis Bacon)

And probably my favorite -- for its off-beat value if nothing more: “[H]e took me into his library and showed me his books, of which he had a complete set.” (Ring Lardner)

Monday, February 14, 2005

What ABOUT That Whale, Exactly?

Seafaring long has been a keen interest of mine -- mysteries, shipping disasters, exploration, feats of endurance, fishing, travel. I love nautical ballads as well as literature. A favorite ballad is the traditional “Greenland Whale Fisheries,” about the whale winning the duel with the harpooners. The anticlimactic verse is the captain’s lament over the loss. I’ve always sung the version I first learned, which has been performed and recorded with slight variations by many American and British Isles musicians:

“To lose that whalefish,” the captain cried, “it grieves me heart full sore,
“But to lose four of me gallant men, it grieves me ten times more. . .”

Then I encountered a version by a topical-minded British group who chose to cast the captain in a condemning light:

“The losing of my gallant men, it grieves my heart full sore,
“But the losing of that jolly sperm whale, oh, it grieves me ten times more.”

What a difference a little transposition of lines makes. I’m not sure which version (if either) projects the original spin on the situation. It’s apparent, however, that somewhere along the way -- to paraphrase a saying -- someone has stopped storytellin’ and gone to politickin’.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Rediscovering Kipling

To me, certain movies are “Saturday night movies” (like Waking Ned Devine -- I suppose because it opens on a Saturday night in an Irish coastal village). Others are “Sunday night movies” (like any of the Titanic movies; the ship sank on a Sunday night). For some reason, Driving Miss Daisy is a weeknight movie; Gone With the Wind is a Sunday afternoon movie; the old “Sherlock Holmes” serials are Thursday night flicks.

It’s the same with my favorite reading matter. This is Saturday afternoon, so on my break from work I'm indulging in a few minutes of “Saturday afternoon reading.” Saturday afternoon reading, to me, includes stories and poetry by classic 19th- and early 20th-Century authors. Robert Service (“The Cremation of Sam McGee,” “The Men That Don’t Fit In”) is a good Saturday afternoon author. Today it’s Rudyard Kipling. My familiarity with the writings of Kipling (1865-1936), a Nobel laureate, perhaps like yours derives from grade school studies in literature. You may have been required to read Captains Courageous or The Jungle Books or Kim, and to memorize passages from such time-honored poems as “If” (“If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you. . . .”).

I’m especially captivated by Kipling’s poems set against late-Victorian British army life. This is the span of history which most interests me, for it’s the span during which I’ve set my own mystery short story series (“The Harper Chronicles”). Kipling penned gripping verse, each line concise, each completed piece near perfect. The morbid “Danny Deever” probably is the best-known of this particular genre from Kipling’s mixed bag. (“For they’re hangin’ Danny Deever, you can hear the Dead March play/The Regiment’s in ’ollow square – they’re hangin’ ’im to-day. . . .”) Other of his poetic images are even more soberingly gruesome. From “The Young British Soldier”:

When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

Many are challenging and exciting. From “The Explorer”:

Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges --
Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go.

Kipling's subjects range from jungle life to economics. From “Big Steamers”:

“Oh, where are you going to, all you Big Steamers,
With England’s own coal, up and down the salt seas?”
“We are going to fetch you your bread and your butter,
Your beef, pork, and mutton, eggs, apples, and cheese.”

Cheese. Hmmm. Not a healthy thought for a man simultaneously on a diet and on a break. Better get back to work.

Friday, February 11, 2005

A House for a Week's Salary

The advertisement was for “the $725 house” – built, painted and finished, “ready for occupancy.” What a bargain! And it was less than a century ago. . . .

It appeared on Page 595 of the 1908 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalogue. That particular house – plain, but with six rooms on two floors (plus a pantry) -- would cost more than a hundred times as much today. In our present American economy, some of you reading this earn more than $725 is one week.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Weekly Folk Music Quiz (10fe05)

Who was the Irish band Planxty’s noted Uileann piper during the 1970s and 1980s?

Weekly History Quiz (10fe05)

What was the middle name of Chester A. Arthur, 21st U.S. president (1881-85)? a) Adam, b) Alan, c) Andrew, d) no middle name -- he simply used “A.” as a middle initial.

Weekly Amusement (10fe05)

Clause contained in a will: “. . . . And I always promised my sister Julia that I would mention her son, my lazy nephew Perry, in my will. Hi, there, Perry!”

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

A Diamond Named George

Diamond, Missouri. . . . “Never heard of it,” most of us conclude.

It was the birthplace of George Washington Carver -- a “diamond” in the rough if ever there was one. His parents were slaves, but the year was 1864 and American slavery was coming to an end. He went off to Kansas as a boy, worked his way through grade school, graduated from what is now Iowa State University, took a post in agricultural research at what is now Tuskegee University . . . and the rest is history. The peanut became perhaps the metaphor of his hard upbringing -- he scientifically demonstrated hundreds of uses for it. All the while, he showed the world you can be born a slave and die a renowned scientist with a national monument (dedicated in Tuskegee, AL, shortly after his passing there in 1943) as your marker.

And that’s why he’s one of my heroes.

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

There's Security in Obsolescence!

Folks laugh at those of us who still access the Internet with dial-up connections. They especially laugh at people like me, whose work includes editing a legal technology newsletter. My wife and teen-age daughters practically guffawed when I declined to accept a wireless connection to the cable system they installed in our home last year. They stopped guffawing when one daughter’s desktop PC began grinding to a virtual halt (despite the blazing speed of cable access) and the other’s new notebook became so bug-infested it had to undergo techno-brain surgery.

Brett Burney, a Cleveland legal professional writing in the January issue of Law Technology News (“PC Security 101,” Page 8), reminded that “always-on cable or DSL hookup is prime breeding ground for malware.” In the same issue of the magazine, law firm IS manager Wayne Smith warned of “an increasingly hostile Internet” (“IT” column, Page 11).

My personal M.O.: Dial in, log on, do what you need to do, and get the heck offline.

Monday, February 07, 2005

A Bit About William. . . .

Did you know that William Faulkner (1897-1962), who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1949, sometimes wrote sentences a full book page in length? Little wonder many readers found his works difficult to digest. Nonetheless, he was considered a literary genius and one of greatest novelists of the 20th Century.

Faulkner Factoids: He never earned a college degree. . . . He was rejected when he tried to enlist in the Army during World War I (too short). . . . He was fired from his job as postmaster at the University of Mississippi in 1924. . . . He, like legions of writers today, found fiction to be a not particularly lucrative form of writing; he had to work odd jobs to earn a living after Soldier’s Pay, his first novel, was published in 1926.

Only One "Champion"

“Who do you want to win the Super Bowl?” You probably heard that last week at least as often as I did. I told people the truth: I didn’t care much who won. I suppose the inquirers inferred a) I was bummed because my team wasn’t in the bowl or b) I have some weird disinterest in professional football.

They got it right the second time. Two years as a sports editor during the early 1980s soured me on sports. I simply got sick of it. I allow credit where it’s due for teamwork, quality athletic performance and coaching, but I find home crowds invariably annoying and I have a chronic problem trying to reconcile sports with scripture. Team and personal pride -- evidenced with blatant, often vulgar arrogance, in the post-Christian era -- and the objective of being “number one” stand in stark contrast to Christ’s teachings. A Super Bowl winning player (even a Super Bowl losing player) gets to call himself “champion” and to stash millions of dollars in a bank account. So . . . what? He’s rich, he’s proud and he’s famous. Christ wasn’t rich or proud and He never gloated over the body of some opposing player He knocked down. He’s still famous after 2,000 years.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

South Carolina's "Young Rebels"

Many history buffs know my native South Carolina primarily as “the secession state.” It was the first state to exit the Union in December 1860 (the act which brought down upon it the unbridled wrath of Sherman at the end of the Civil War). To me, though, its role in America's original independence effort is far more interesting. More Revolutionary War actions are believed to have been fought here than in any other colony. Thanks to South Carolina rebels, England’s southern strategy failed during the decisive years 1780-81, sending Lord Charles Cornwallis’ army to its melancholy demise at Yorktown, VA. South Carolina became the eighth new state to ratify the United States Constitution in 1788.

A striking detail I’ve uncovered while researching and writing a current Revolutionary War series for Sandlapper: The Magazine of South Carolina is that three of the colony’s four signers of the Declaration of Independence (Thomas Heyward Jr., Thomas Lynch Jr. and Edward Rutledge) in July 1776 were only in their 20s. The fourth, “old man” Arthur Middleton, was 34. On the average, they were the youngest delegation to the Continental Congress.

I suppose if the term “young rebels” applies to anyone anywhere, it’s here.

Friday, February 04, 2005

"Nearer, My God, to Thee"

In several movies about the Titanic over half a century, British and American filmmakers accepted the report of the ship’s orchestra bidding farewell with a rendition of “Nearer, My God, to Thee.” Some survivors disputed this; wireless operator Harold Bride, for example, said the band went down playing “Autumn,” an Episcopal hymn. The question still is debated. If the band indeed played “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” which variation of the tune did they play? It seems unlikely the British musicians in their hour of trauma would have rendered the American melody composed by Lowell Mason in 1856.

Regardless, “Nearer, My God, to Thee” certainly would have been appropriate. Interestingly, the hymn was inspired by a biblical episode that occurred far from the ocean depths. Lyricist Sarah F. Adams based the verses on the 28th chapter of Genesis. She called to mind the ordeal of Jacob, fleeing the wrath of his older brother Esau after contriving to steal Esau’s birthright. Sleeping in the wilderness with his head on a pillow of stones, Jacob dreamed of the ladder to heaven and made his historic pact with God. The message of the hymn is timeless: God uses tribulations to draw us closer to Him. “So by my woes to be nearer, my God, to Thee. . . .” In the end, our troubles will be over, the Lord will be there, and that's all that really matters.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Wisdom From a Dulcimist

Earlier this week at The Hornpipe folk music Web site, I posted an interview with Michael Shull, one of America’s foremost dulcimer players. His conclusion was a slice of good, old-fashioned profundity. He said: “Most people have a desire to play a musical instrument. Most never try. Some do and give up. The mountain dulcimer is within the reach of most people if they will just give it a try. Their level of success could be just sitting out on the back porch and playing for their own enjoyment. Of course, that is what we all play for.” For Michael, who annually is among the crème de la crème at the national dulcimer championships, it all boils down to back porch pleasure.

Shouldn’t that apply to every endeavor that’s meaningful in our lives?

Weekly Folk Music Quiz (3fe05)

In the mandolin family of instruments, the yuet chin comes from China, the balalaika from Russia and the dutar from: a) Portugal, b) Central Asia, c) India, d) Chile.

Weekly History Quiz (3fe05)

Dr. Frederick A. Cook was an arctic explorer and anthropoligist of the early 1900s -- but he's known to history for his hoaxes. Besides claiming to have reached the North Pole in 1908, a year before Peary, Cook claimed to have reached the summit of a famous peak that was the ultimate challenge to North American climbers. A detail detected in his own aerie photograph, which he submitted as proof of his feat, put the lie to his story. What was the mountain in question?

Weekly Amusement (3fe05)

A cynical diner at the end of a meal hurled a barb at the waiter. "Are you sure this is blueberry pie?" she snapped. "Tastes like cardboard."

"Ah, yes, ma'am. That would be our blueberry. Our strawberry pie tastes like duct tape."