Friday, September 22, 2017

Language Notes

A student asked a punctuation question yesterday in my comp class. A student wrote: "It was so hot, I felt sick." She wondered if there should be a period instead of a comma. The answer depends on the meaning she wanted to convey. "It was so hot. I felt sick" separates the two ideas so that they are coincidental. Both are true. It's hot. She felt sick. Both are occurring at the same time, but there is no causal connection implied. "It was so hot, I felt sick" says there is a causal connection: the reason she felt sick was because it was so hot. In speaking those two versions, suprasegmental phonemes would provide verbal cues to a listener. Suprasegmental phonemes include differences in stress and pitch. In the causal formulation, the word "hot" would likely be accented and might either raise or lower a bit in pitch, and "I felt sick" would lower in pitch. In the non-causal formulation, "hot" would likely lower in pitch, and the "I" in "I felt" would likely raise in pitch and be equally stressed and the "sick" would lower a bit in pitch. In the examples above, the punctuation drives the meaning in written English and the suprasegmental phonemes in spoken English. Unlike Victor Borge's comedy routine about punctuation, we do not normally provide punctuation in speech, although we might say, "I'm not going, period." ***********************

Another student wrote: "the crickets’ chirping, the birds’ singing, and the rooster crows." This was at the end of a perfectly good English sentence about helping her grandmother in a rice paddy in her home country of Vietnam. Several grammatic aspects came to mind when I read this: the plural genitive case of "crickets''" and "birds''", but not "rooster," the participle/gerund forms of chirping and singing, but not "crows." And perhaps there was only one rooster. And the word "crow" can also be a different species of bird. "Chirping" in the usage above is a gerund, a noun, as is "singing." "Crows" can either be a verb or a noun in the phrase above. I would prefer "crowing" above to be parallel in form to "chirping" and "singing," that is to say, the present participle form of the verb as a gerund. The phrase "and the rooster crows" can either be the last element of a series, a, b, and c as a noun phrase, or it can be a new independent clause at the end of the sentence. "The crickets chirping" emphasizes the crickets as a plural form; "the crickets' chirping" emphasizes the chirping, as so also "bird's singing" and "birds singing." In one formulation the emphasis is on the action of chirping. In the other, the emphasis is on the aggregation of chirps. The construction is a melange of gerunds, participles, genitive case v. plurals, parallel verb/noun forms as a style issue, with each version or possibility with slightly different nuanced meanings. As English was the student's second language, and she had bigger language fish to fry, I let most of that go and suggested "rooster's crows."

The painting above is my latest: The Garden of Earthly Delights. mixed media and acrylic on canvas. 20x 26 in. $295 contact me at

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Teaching Punctuation of the Age of Trump

This morning I awoke to news of a devastating earthquake in Mexico City, Hurricane Maria clobbering islands in the Caribbean, our president (no capital ‘p’ for him) threatening nuclear annihilation on North Korea, Republicans wanting to take away affordable health insurance from tens of millions of people, more protests of a police shooting in St. Louis, wildfires raging throughout the western part of the country, Texas and Gulf States dealing with flood damage from Hurricane Irma, and my job this morning is to go teach writing. You know, the proper usage of semi-colons, what a grammatic sentence is, principles of rhetoric and persuasion, critical reading/writing/thinking, the Oxford comma, syntactic structures, what a gerund phrase is, how to write a good simile or metaphor, subject/verb agreement, and on and on......infinitive phrases, participial phrases, absolute phrases. ***************************
How important is it really that one use an Oxford comma, when our president (no capital ‘p’ for him) lies about virtually everything, everyday, all the time, and suffers no consequence? One hint regarding discernment: if the president (no capital ‘p’ for him) calls something ‘fake news’, you can bet it’s true. How important is it really that a semi-colon be properly placed while rivers are being polluted, air dirtied, chemicals dumped? How important is it to be literate, when our president (no capital ‘p’ for him) shuns literacy and bluster-blathers at the level of a seventh grade bully? You get the idea by now, I’m sure. *************************
Ultimately, I think the answer is ‘very’. Standards should be upheld, communication should be clear, profound and uplifting ideas should be expressed well, and rhetoric should advance knowledge, reflect truth, motivate our higher selves, and not obfuscate, corrupt, mislead, or inflict hurt on innocents.
That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Secret World of Women

So I was shopping
at a local department store,
and inadvertently found
myself walking down
the women's undergarment
aisle. I tried to look
straight ahead, not
noticing the lacy underwear,
the delicately translucent fabrics,
the gently uplifting bras,
the ............oh, nevermind.
Fortunately, there were
no women shoppers
to encounter in that
foreign land.
I safely made it out
of that secret world
and found my new
dish wash scrubbers and
a windshield wiper and
made my way back home.

Distant Thunder

Saturday morning,
distant thunder
rumbles closer.
For some, it's not distant
at all, but a surprise
violent bark
outside a window
or in a baseball game sky.
Time to head
for cover.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Olivia de Havilland

Olivia de Havilland

I don’t know much about
Olivia de Havilland.
Now 101 years old, she
resides in Paris, France.
She was a Hollywood star
and made movies from the 1930s
to the 1970s. She had affairs
with Howard Hughes and
James Stewart, and campaigned
for Franklin Delano Roosevelt
in 1944. She made dozens of movies,
married twice and had children.
But what you may not know
is that Olivia de Havilland
once rode in an elevator with my
mother at Robinson’s department
store, a high end store of the day,
in Los Angeles when my
mother was a “skinny” young
teen, to use her words.
It must have been the late
1930s or early 40s we figured
as we sat around the dining room
table telling stories on the evening
before her 92nd birthday. All of us
siblings will be in town.
Mother was visiting her
Aunt Gertrude who worked in the
fabric department designing
drapery for Hollywood stars
and regular folk.
Olivia was wearing
a royal blue suite and a
“pill box” hat, mother said.
I didn't know what a "pill box" hat was,
but it was explained to me.
Mother also shared another teenage
story of visiting her cousin Charlainde
in LA. Mother lived in San Jose at the time.
She and Charlainde went to a dance
sponsored by a local celebrity
for visiting troops during
the early years of WWII.
The dance was at a Hollywood mansion.
Mother would have been 18 or 19.
She danced with one soldier all
evening long and heard his many stories.
He was “very handsome,” she said.
And finally, mother told the story of
flying above Hollywood in a
Goodyear blimp. The cabin was
like a small bus. We saw mansions, swimming
pools, and tennis courts,” she said.
We will let mother know today
that Olivia is still living.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Eclipse

Not satisfied with 98%,
I drove with a friend
to Beatrice, Nebraska,
about 100 miles southwest
of Omaha to find the totality.
We checked weather reports,
and radar maps, and had
several possible destinations:
Grand Island, or Beatrice,
or Falls City, or St. Joseph,
Missouri, or hundreds of
towns between, and settled on
Beatrice as the most promising.
As though a Cornhusker
football game was on the
schedule that day,
traffic was heavy on the
drive to Lincoln.
We noted the water level
of the Platte River,
the two wind towers
north of Lincoln -only one
was working in the morning.
Both were working on the
return trip. We saw the
capitol building, and the
license plates from many states.
The corn was withering a bit
here and there,
but the soy beans looked good.
Through Cortland, I noted the
gas prices were bit higher than
in Papillion. The Walmart
bathroom in Beatrice was a
welcome first stop. From
there we headed to Homestead
National Monument to check
that out and look for parking.
None there, but try the Fairgrounds
one fellow said. We wandered
a few country roads and found a few
entrepreneurial camp sites with
observing parties in full swing.
The Big Blue River was full
of the last night's thunderstorms.
Eventually, we found our way
to the fairgrounds, found parking
in a large open field and set up
our chairs and my telescope with
its solar filter. Dan had a couple of
astronomy magazines with eclipse
articles and those glasses everyone
was wearing. The clouds broke
just enough and often enough
so we got to see almost all of it,
including the totality.
Through my telescope,
the image was forty times larger
than through the naked eye, and with
an orange tint, due to the filter.
I watched the moon encroach
the sun's disk, covering,
one by one, several sun spots.
Clouds came and went
obscuring and then revealing
the event sequence,
and the clouds parted like the Red Sea
just before the
totality occurred and it was a
spectacular sight, that bright ring
around that black void
where the sun used to be.
For a bit longer than two minutes,
darkness gently collapsed around us
with a subtle sunrise/sunset all around.
People cheered, and a few firecrackers
went off. I looked for stars, but
the clouds may have obscured them.
Venus, or it might have been Mercury,
was clearly visible though.
I'm told animals
get confused, and behave as though
night has fallen, but the few dogs I
saw seemed oblivious to it all.
Then the sun gradually
emerged from the other side
of the moon,
daylight filtered back down,
more clouds moved in
obscuring much of the moon's
exit. It was interesting to me
that we could see the
moon only as it blocked the sun.
I don't know if that was true
in other parts of the country
where skies were clear.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Cumulus Clouds

I golfed today with
my friend Bob and
shot a 72. We played
the senior tees today
since we're both accumulating
the years, he more than I.
A blue sky was filled
with fluffy white cumulus
clouds with flat gray bottoms.
Later I researched
why they had flat bottoms
and it has to with temperature
gradients, humidity,
and air currents.
Temperature gradients
tend to be horizontal
so at a certain altitude
the water vapor condenses
in tiny particles attached
to dust particles and floats in
the air. A larger accumulation
of these small droplets
blocks more sunlight
and therefore appear gray.
They float because they are
so tiny and light and the
fact that updrafts are an element
in their formation.
If they grow sufficiently,
they fall as rain drops.
A 72 is a pretty good score
for a golfer on a summer day.
Those floating white cumulus
clouds with their gray flat
bottoms was just a bonus.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Edward Babe Gomez Avenue

Edward Babe Gomez Avenue

The Metropolitan Community College
Campus where I work
Is on the land where the
Omaha Stockyards used to be,
bounded by L St and Q St to
the north and south and
30th St and 33rd St to
the east and west, give or take.
The Livestock Exchange Building
Is still on the site but has
Been converted into apartments
And businesses.
I attended a ROTC Ball there
When in high school. The top floor
Was a ballroom. Might still be.
But the stockyards are gone.
The MCC hallways are lined
With photographs, black and white,
Of the stockyards in full operation, and other
South Omaha’s businesses of the day.
The campus is on Edward Babe Gomez Avenue.
Babe Gomez earned a posthumous
Medal of Honor for covering a grenade
Tossed into his group of soldiers
During the Korean War, a “police action”
By the United Nations.
An elementary school is named after him, too.
Other Nebraskans earning a Medal of Honor
Include Wild Bill Cody and former
Governor and Senator Bob Kerrey.
As I arrive in the mornings about 9:30
I will often pass long lines of brown UPS trucks
Headed the other direction out into the community
Delivering their goods.
I will also pass long lines of areated semi-trucks trailers,
Filled with cattle at one of the
Remaining processing plants
Up on the hill just north and west.
One by one they back up to the
unloading dock to dispense their cargo.
“Processing plant” has a much better
Sound that slaughterhouse, but those cattle
When unloaded meet a sudden fate
At the hands of workers, mostly immigrants,
Making their living.
On warm humid days,
In the MCC parking lots,
You can often smell the “processing” odors
Wafting up from the sewer grate storm drains,
Another reminder of days long gone.