Saturday, March 24, 2018


In 2007 we bought a Toyota Sienna mini-van. It came to be known as "The Clown Car," because it was frequently crammed with people—usually actors (most of whom could, by at least one definition, be considered clowns). It was red—not a bright, gaudy red, but a classy-looking shade of red called "Salsa Red Pearl." It was the vehicle I drove to work every day.

On most of those days, on most of my route between our neighborhood and my office in the next town, I found myself following an identical 2007 Salsa-Red-Pearl Sienna.

Pretty Twilight Zoney, right? Hang on. It gets even Twilight Zonier.

About a year and a half ago, the Clown Car was in a high-speed freeway accident involving a pickup truck towing a deflated bounce house on a trailer. (That in itself is a story, but it's a story for another time.) If I had been driving, we would probably be dead. Fortunately Loretta was driving, and thanks to her quick reflexes, no one was hurt.

The Clown Car, however, was totaled.

We decided to replace it with a smaller vehicle because, since I have pretty much retired from acting, I no longer find myself needing to haul carloads of clowns around. The Clown Car's replacement is a 2016 Honda CR-V. It's gray—not a dull, boring gray, but a classy-looking shade of gray called "Modern Steel Metallic." It's the vehicle I now drive to work every day.

About the same time the Clown Car was taken out of circulation, I stopped seeing the other Salsa-Red-Pearl Sienna on my way to work. Then I began to notice that, on most days, on most of my route, I was following a 2016 Modern-Steel-Metallic Honda CR-V.

Yesterday, while stopped at a light, I managed to get a picture of its license plate frame:

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Between the Lights

"Then, wearied with exercise and emotion, we had assembled again for tea in the hall, a room of shadows and panels on which the light from the wide open fireplace, where there burned a divine mixture of peat and logs, flickered and grew bright again on the walls. Then, as was proper, ghost-stories, for the narration of which the electric light was put out, so that the listeners might conjecture anything they pleased to be lurking in the corners, succeeded, and we vied with each other in blood, bones, skeletons, armour and shrieks."

—E. F. Benson, Between the Lights

Merry Christmas—and since this will likely be my last post of 2017, Happy New Year as well. As John Lennon said, "Let's hope it's a good one, without any fear." Because this year has been a pretty scary one, hasn't it?

So what better way to end it than with a ghost story?

Last week's story, like most Christmas ghost stories of the Victorian era, was more sentimental and morally instructive than frightening. However, later English writers, such as M. R. James, E. F. Benson, and Algernon Blackwood, produced some genuinely scary stories for the season—stories that hark back to more primitive times, when people believed the tales they told round the fire on the longest night of the year. Between the Lights is a perfect example. It begins with a group of civilized English party guests sitting before the fire telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve—just as their uncivilized ancestors must have done ages ago, when the boundary between the natural and the supernatural was far more tenuous.

E. F. Benson is probably best known as the author of a series of comic novels about the rivalries of a pair of Machiavellian social climbers in a small English village. The Mapp and Lucia novels are still popular, and have been adapted multiple times for British television and radio. It's hard to believe that someone who wrote something so funny could also write something as spooky as Between the Lights.

Between the Lights
by E. F. Benson (1912)

The day had been one unceasing fall of snow from sunrise until the gradual withdrawal of the vague white light outside indicated that the sun had set again. But as usual at this hospitable and delightful house of Everard Chandler where I often spent Christmas, and was spending it now, there had been no lack of entertainment, and the hours had passed with a rapidity that had surprised us. A short billiard tournament had filled up the time between breakfast and lunch, with Badminton and the morning papers for those who were temporarily not engaged, while afterwards, the interval till tea-time had been occupied by the majority of the party in a huge game of hide-and-seek all over the house, barring the billiard-room, which was sanctuary for any who desired peace. But few had done that; the enchantment of Christmas, I must suppose, had, like some spell, made children of us again, and it was with palsied terror and trembling misgivings that we had tip-toed up and down the dim passages, from any corner of which some wild screaming form might dart out on us. Then, wearied with exercise and emotion, we had assembled again for tea in the hall, a room of shadows and panels on which the light from the wide open fireplace, where there burned a divine mixture of peat and logs, flickered and grew bright again on the walls. Then, as was proper, ghost-stories, for the narration of which the electric light was put out, so that the listeners might conjecture anything they pleased to be lurking in the corners, succeeded, and we vied with each other in blood, bones, skeletons, armour and shrieks. I had just given my contribution, and was reflecting with some complacency that probably the worst was now known, when Everard, who had not yet administered to the horror of his guests, spoke. He was sitting opposite me in the full blaze of the fire, looking, after the illness he had gone through during the autumn, still rather pale and delicate. All the same he had been among the boldest and best in the exploration of dark places that afternoon, and the look on his face now rather startled me.

“No, I don’t mind that sort of thing,” he said. “The paraphernalia of ghosts has become somehow rather hackneyed, and when I hear of screams and skeletons I feel I am on familiar ground, and can at least hide my head under the bed-clothes.”

“Ah, but the bed-clothes were twitched away by my skeleton,” said I, in self-defence.

“I know, but I don’t even mind that. Why, there are seven, eight skeletons in this room now, covered with blood and skin and other horrors. No, the nightmares of one’s childhood were the really frightening things, because they were vague. There was the true atmosphere of horror about them because one didn’t know what one feared. Now if one could recapture that—”

Mrs. Chandler got quickly out of her seat.

“Oh, Everard,” she said, “surely you don’t wish to recapture it again. I should have thought once was enough.”

This was enchanting. A chorus of invitation asked him to proceed: the real true ghost-story first-hand, which was what seemed to be indicated, was too precious a thing to lose.

Everard laughed. “No, dear, I don’t want to recapture it again at all,” he said to his wife.

Then to us: “But really the—well, the nightmare perhaps, to which I was referring, is of the vaguest and most unsatisfactory kind. It has no apparatus about it at all. You will probably all say that it was nothing, and wonder why I was frightened. But I was; it frightened me out of my wits. And I only just saw something, without being able to swear what it was, and heard something which might have been a falling stone.”

“Anyhow, tell us about the falling stone,” said I.

There was a stir of movement about the circle round the fire, and the movement was not of purely physical order. It was as if—this is only what I personally felt—it was as if the childish gaiety of the hours we had passed that day was suddenly withdrawn; we had jested on certain subjects, we had played hide-and-seek with all the power of earnestness that was in us. But now—so it seemed to me—there was going to be real hide-and-seek, real terrors were going to lurk in dark corners, or if not real terrors, terrors so convincing as to assume the garb of reality, were going to pounce on us. And Mrs. Chandler’s exclamation as she sat down again, “Oh, Everard, won’t it excite you?” tended in any case to excite us. The room still remained in dubious darkness except for the sudden lights disclosed on the walls by the leaping flames on the hearth, and there was wide field for conjecture as to what might lurk in the dim corners. Everard, moreover, who had been sitting in bright light before, was banished by the extinction of some flaming log into the shadows. A voice alone spoke to us, as he sat back in his low chair, a voice rather slow but very distinct.

“Last year,” he said, “on the twenty-fourth of December, we were down here, as usual, Amy and I, for Christmas. Several of you who are here now were here then. Three or four of you at least.”

I was one of these, but like the others kept silence, for the identification, so it seemed to me, was not asked for. And he went on again without a pause.

“Those of you who were here then,” he said, “and are here now, will remember how very warm it was this day year. You will remember, too, that we played croquet that day on the lawn. It was perhaps a little cold for croquet, and we played it rather in order to be able to say—with sound evidence to back the statement—that we had done so.”

Then he turned and addressed the whole little circle.

“We played ties of half-games,” he said, “just as we have played billiards to-day, and it was certainly as warm on the lawn then as it was in the billiard-room this morning directly after breakfast, while to-day I should not wonder if there was three feet of snow outside. More, probably; listen.”

A sudden draught fluted in the chimney, and the fire flared up as the current of air caught it.

The wind also drove the snow against the windows, and as he said, “Listen,” we heard a soft scurry of the falling flakes against the panes, like the soft tread of many little people who stepped lightly, but with the persistence of multitudes who were flocking to some rendezvous. Hundreds of little feet seemed to be gathering outside; only the glass kept them out. And of the eight skeletons present four or five, anyhow, turned and looked at the windows. These were small-paned, with leaden bars. On the leaden bars little heaps of snow had accumulated, but there was nothing else to be seen.

“Yes, last Christmas Eve was very warm and sunny,” went on Everard. “We had had no frost that autumn, and a temerarious dahlia was still in flower. I have always thought that it must have been mad.”

He paused a moment.

“And I wonder if I were not mad too,” he added.

No one interrupted him; there was something arresting, I must suppose, in what he was saying; it chimed in anyhow with the hide-and-seek, with the suggestions of the lonely snow.

Mrs. Chandler had sat down again, but I heard her stir in her chair. But never was there a gay party so reduced as we had been in the last five minutes. Instead of laughing at ourselves for playing silly games, we were all taking a serious game seriously.

“Anyhow, I was sitting out,” he said to me, “while you and my wife played your half-game of croquet. Then it struck me that it was not so warm as I had supposed, because quite suddenly I shivered. And shivering I looked up. But I did not see you and her playing croquet at all. I saw something which had no relation to you and her—at least I hope not.”

Now the angler lands his fish, the stalker kills his stag, and the speaker holds his audience.

And as the fish is gaffed, and as the stag is shot, so were we held. There was no getting away till he had finished with us.

“You all know the croquet lawn,” he said, “and how it is bounded all round by a flower border with a brick wall behind it, through which, you will remember, there is only one gate.

“Well, I looked up and saw that the lawn—I could for one moment see it was still a lawn—was shrinking, and the walls closing in upon it. As they closed in too, they grew higher, and simultaneously the light began to fade and be sucked from the sky, till it grew quite dark overhead and only a glimmer of light came in through the gate.

“There was, as I told you, a dahlia in flower that day, and as this dreadful darkness and bewilderment came over me, I remember that my eyes sought it in a kind of despair, holding on, as it were, to any familiar object. But it was no longer a dahlia, and for the red of its petals I saw only the red of some feeble firelight. And at that moment the hallucination was complete. I was no longer sitting on the lawn watching croquet, but I was in a low-roofed room, something like a cattle-shed, but round. Close above my head, though I was sitting down, ran rafters from wall to wall. It was nearly dark, but a little light came in from the door opposite to me, which seemed to lead into a passage that communicated with the exterior of the place. Little, however, of the wholesome air came into this dreadful den; the atmosphere was oppressive and foul beyond all telling, it was as if for years it had been the place of some human menagerie, and for those years had been uncleaned and unsweetened by the winds of heaven. Yet that oppressiveness was nothing to the awful horror of the place from the view of the spirit. Some dreadful atmosphere of crime and abomination dwelt heavy in it, its denizens, whoever they were, were scarce human, so it seemed to me, and though men and women, were akin more to the beasts of the field. And in addition there was present to me some sense of the weight of years; I had been taken and thrust down into some epoch of dim antiquity.”

He paused a moment, and the fire on the hearth leaped up for a second and then died down again. But in that gleam I saw that all faces were turned to Everard, and that all wore some look of dreadful expectancy. Certainly I felt it myself, and waited in a sort of shrinking horror for what was coming.

“As I told you,” he continued, “where there had been that unseasonable dahlia, there now burned a dim firelight, and my eyes were drawn there. Shapes were gathered round it; what they were I could not at first see. Then perhaps my eyes got more accustomed to the dusk, or the fire burned better, for I perceived that they were of human form, but very small, for when one rose with a horrible chattering, to his feet, his head was still some inches off the low roof. He was dressed in a sort of shirt that came to his knees, but his arms were bare and covered with hair.

“Then the gesticulation and chattering increased, and I knew that they were talking about me, for they kept pointing in my direction. At that my horror suddenly deepened, for I became aware that I was powerless and could not move hand or foot; a helpless, nightmare impotence had possession of me. I could not lift a finger or turn my head. And in the paralysis of that fear I tried to scream, but not a sound could I utter.

“All this I suppose took place with the instantaneousness of a dream, for at once, and without transition, the whole thing had vanished, and I was back on the lawn again, while the stroke for which my wife was aiming was still unplayed. But my face was dripping with perspiration, and I was trembling all over.

“Now you may all say that I had fallen asleep, and had a sudden nightmare. That may be so; but I was conscious of no sense of sleepiness before, and I was conscious of none afterwards. It was as if someone had held a book before me, whisked the pages open for a second and closed them again.”

Somebody, I don’t know who, got up from his chair with a sudden movement that made me start, and turned on the electric light. I do not mind confessing that I was rather glad of this.

Everard laughed.

“Really I feel like Hamlet in the play-scene,” he said, “and as if there was a guilty uncle present. Shall I go on?”

I don’t think anyone replied, and he went on.

“Well, let us say for the moment that it was not a dream exactly, but a hallucination.

“Whichever it was, in any case it haunted me; for months, I think, it was never quite out of my mind, but lingered somewhere in the dusk of consciousness, sometimes sleeping quietly, so to speak, but sometimes stirring in its sleep. It was no good my telling myself that I was disquieting myself in vain, for it was as if something had actually entered into my very soul, as if some seed of horror had been planted there. And as the weeks went on the seed began to sprout, so that I could no longer even tell myself that that vision had been a moment’s disorderment only. I can’t say that it actually affected my health. I did not, as far as I know, sleep or eat insufficiently, but morning after morning I used to wake, not gradually and through pleasant dozings into full consciousness, but with absolute suddenness, and find myself plunged in an abyss of despair.

“Often too, eating or drinking, I used to pause and wonder if it was worth while.

“Eventually, I told two people about my trouble, hoping that perhaps the mere communication would help matters, hoping also, but very distantly, that though I could not believe at present that digestion or the obscurities of the nervous system were at fault, a doctor by some simple dose might convince me of it. In other words I told my wife, who laughed at me, and my doctor, who laughed also, and assured me that my health was quite unnecessarily robust.

“At the same time he suggested that change of air and scene does wonders for the delusions that exist merely in the imagination. He also told me, in answer to a direct question, that he would stake his reputation on the certainty that I was not going mad.

“Well, we went up to London as usual for the season, and though nothing whatever occurred to remind me in any way of that single moment on Christmas Eve, the reminding was seen to all right, the moment itself took care of that, for instead of fading as is the way of sleeping or waking dreams, it grew every day more vivid, and ate, so to speak, like some corrosive acid into my mind, etching itself there. And to London succeeded Scotland.

“I took last year for the first time a small forest up in Sutherland, called Glen Callan, very remote and wild, but affording excellent stalking. It was not far from the sea, and the gillies used always to warn me to carry a compass on the hill, because sea-mists were liable to come up with frightful rapidity, and there was always a danger of being caught by one, and of having perhaps to wait hours till it cleared again. This at first I always used to do, but, as everyone knows, any precaution that one takes which continues to be unjustified gets gradually relaxed, and at the end of a few weeks, since the weather had been uniformly clear, it was natural that, as often as not, my compass remained at home.

“One day the stalk took me on to a part of my ground that I had seldom been on before, a very high table-land on the limit of my forest, which went down very steeply on one side to a loch that lay below it, and on the other, by gentler gradations, to the river that came from the loch, six miles below which stood the lodge. The wind had necessitated our climbing up—or so my stalker had insisted—not by the easier way, but up the crags from the loch. I had argued the point with him for it seemed to me that it was impossible that the deer could get our scent if we went by the more natural path, but he still held to his opinion; and therefore, since after all this was his part of the job, I yielded. A dreadful climb we had of it, over big boulders with deep holes in between, masked by clumps of heather, so that a wary eye and a prodding stick were necessary for each step if one wished to avoid broken bones. Adders also literally swarmed in the heather; we must have seen a dozen at least on our way up, and adders are a beast for which I have no manner of use. But a couple of hours saw us to the top, only to find that the stalker had been utterly at fault, and that the deer must quite infallibly have got wind of us, if they had remained in the place where we last saw them. That, when we could spy the ground again, we saw had happened; in any case they had gone. The man insisted the wind had changed, a palpably stupid excuse, and I wondered at that moment what other reason he had—for reason I felt sure there must be—for not wishing to take what would clearly now have been a better route. But this piece of bad management did not spoil our luck, for within an hour we had spied more deer, and about two o’clock I got a shot, killing a heavy stag. Then sitting on the heather I ate lunch, and enjoyed a well-earned bask and smoke in the sun. The pony meantime had been saddled with the stag, and was plodding homewards.

“The morning had been extraordinarily warm, with a little wind blowing off the sea, which lay a few miles off sparkling beneath a blue haze, and all morning in spite of our abominable climb I had had an extreme sense of peace, so much so that several times I had probed my mind, so to speak, to find if the horror still lingered there. But I could scarcely get any response from it.

“Never since Christmas had I been so free of fear, and it was with a great sense of repose, both physical and spiritual, that I lay looking up into the blue sky, watching my smoke-whorls curl slowly away into nothingness. But I was not allowed to take my ease long, for Sandy came and begged that I would move. The weather had changed, he said, the wind had shifted again, and he wanted me to be off this high ground and on the path again as soon as possible, because it looked to him as if a sea-mist would presently come up.”

“’And yon’s a bad place to get down in the mist,’ he added, nodding towards the crags we had come up.

“I looked at the man in amazement, for to our right lay a gentle slope down on to the river, and there was now no possible reason for again tackling those hideous rocks up which we had climbed this morning. More than ever I was sure he had some secret reason for not wishing to go the obvious way. But about one thing he was certainly right, the mist was coming up from the sea, and I felt in my pocket for the compass, and found I had forgotten to bring it.

“Then there followed a curious scene which lost us time that we could really ill afford to waste, I insisting on going down by the way that common sense directed, he imploring me to take his word for it that the crags were the better way. Eventually, I marched off to the easier descent, and told him not to argue any more but follow. What annoyed me about him was that he would only give the most senseless reasons for preferring the crags. There were mossy places, he said, on the way I wished to go, a thing patently false, since the summer had been one spell of unbroken weather; or it was longer, also obviously untrue; or there were so many vipers about.

“But seeing that none of these arguments produced any effect, at last he desisted, and came after me in silence.

“We were not yet half down when the mist was upon us, shooting up from the valley like the broken water of a wave, and in three minutes we were enveloped in a cloud of fog so thick that we could barely see a dozen yards in front of us. It was therefore another cause for self-congratulation that we were not now, as we should otherwise have been, precariously clambering on the face of those crags up which we had come with such difficulty in the morning, and as I rather prided myself on my powers of generalship in the matter of direction, I continued leading, feeling sure that before long we should strike the track by the river. More than all, the absolute freedom from fear elated me; since Christmas I had not known the instinctive joy of that; I felt like a schoolboy home for the holidays. But the mist grew thicker and thicker, and whether it was that real rain-clouds had formed above it, or that it was of an extraordinary density itself, I got wetter in the next hour than I have ever been before or since. The wet seemed to penetrate the skin, and chill the very bones. And still there was no sign of the track for which I was making.

“Behind me, muttering to himself, followed the stalker, but his arguments and protestations were dumb, and it seemed as if he kept close to me, as if afraid.

“Now there are many unpleasant companions in this world; I would not, for instance, care to be on the hill with a drunkard or a maniac, but worse than either, I think, is a frightened man, because his trouble is infectious, and, insensibly, I began to be afraid of being frightened too.

“From that it is but a short step to fear. Other perplexities too beset us. At one time we seemed to be walking on flat ground, at another I felt sure we were climbing again, whereas all the time we ought to have been descending, unless we had missed the way very badly indeed. Also, for the month was October, it was beginning to get dark, and it was with a sense of relief that I remembered that the full moon would rise soon after sunset. But it had grown very much colder, and soon, instead of rain, we found we were walking through a steady fall of snow.

“Things were pretty bad, but then for the moment they seemed to mend, for, far away to the left, I suddenly heard the brawling of the river. It should, it is true, have been straight in front of me and we were perhaps a mile out of our way, but this was better than the blind wandering of the last hour, and turning to the left, I walked towards it. But before I had gone a hundred yards, I heard a sudden choked cry behind me, and just saw Sandy’s form flying as if in terror of pursuit, into the mists. I called to him, but got no reply, and heard only the spurned stones of his running.

“What had frightened him I had no idea, but certainly with his disappearance, the infection of his fear disappeared also, and I went on, I may almost say, with gaiety. On the moment, however, I saw a sudden well-defined blackness in front of me, and before I knew what I was doing I was half stumbling, half walking up a very steep grass slope.

“During the last few minutes the wind had got up, and the driving snow was peculiarly uncomfortable, but there had been a certain consolation in thinking that the wind would soon disperse these mists, and I had nothing more than a moonlight walk home. But as I paused on this slope, I became aware of two things, one, that the blackness in front of me was very close, the other that, whatever it was, it sheltered me from the snow. So I climbed on a dozen yards into its friendly shelter, for it seemed to me to be friendly.

“A wall some twelve feet high crowned the slope, and exactly where I struck it there was a hole in it, or door rather, through which a little light appeared. Wondering at this I pushed on, bending down, for the passage was very low, and in a dozen yards came out on the other side.

“Just as I did this the sky suddenly grew lighter, the wind, I suppose, having dispersed the mists, and the moon, though not yet visible through the flying skirts of cloud, made sufficient illumination.

“I was in a circular enclosure, and above me there projected from the walls some four feet from the ground, broken stones which must have been intended to support a floor. Then simultaneously two things occurred.

“The whole of my nine months’ terror came back to me, for I saw that the vision in the garden was fulfilled, and at the same moment I saw stealing towards me a little figure as of a man, but only about three foot six in height. That my eyes told me; my ears told me that he stumbled on a stone; my nostrils told me that the air I breathed was of an overpowering foulness, and my soul told me that it was sick unto death. I think I tried to scream, but could not; I know I tried to move and could not. And it crept closer.

“Then I suppose the terror which held me spellbound so spurred me that I must move, for next moment I heard a cry break from my lips, and was stumbling through the passage. I made one leap of it down the grass slope, and ran as I hope never to have to run again. What direction I took I did not pause to consider, so long as I put distance between me and that place. Luck, however, favoured me, and before long I struck the track by the river, and an hour afterwards reached the lodge.

“Next day I developed a chill, and as you know pneumonia laid me on my back for six weeks.

“Well, that is my story, and there are many explanations. You may say that I fell asleep on the lawn, and was reminded of that by finding myself, under discouraging circumstances, in an old Picts’ castle, where a sheep or a goat that, like myself, had taken shelter from the storm, was moving about. Yes, there are hundreds of ways in which you may explain it. But the coincidence was an odd one, and those who believe in second sight might find an instance of their hobby in it.”

“And that is all?” I asked.

“Yes, it was nearly too much for me. I think the dressing-bell has sounded.”

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Man Who Was Largely Responsible for the Revival of Many All-But-Forgotten English Christmas Traditions

“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childish days; that can recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth; that can transport the sailor and the traveller, thousands of miles away, back to his own fireside and his quiet home!”

—Charles Dickens, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club

Two years ago I began posting ghost stories this time of year because, believe it or not, once upon a time ghost stories were as much a part of the Christmas season as Toyotathons are today. To date I have posted five Christmas ghost stories, including one I wrote myself. However, I have not as yet posted anything by Charles Dickens. This may seem odd, because after all, Dickens was "The Man Who Invented Christmas"—at least according to the title of a major motion picture that came out this year.

Obviously, Charles Dickens did not invent Christmas. He did not even invent the Christmas ghost story. It could be argued that he was largely responsible for the revival of many all-but-forgotten English Christmas traditions, including the Christmas ghost story. But "The Man Who Was Largely Responsible for the Revival of Many All-But-Forgotten English Christmas Traditions" is not nearly as catchy a title.

It could also be argued that the Victorian Christmas revival began at least seven years before the 1843 publication of A Christmas Carol. Dickens' first novel, The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, was wildly popular and ensured his literary career. The tenth installment* of The Pickwick Papers was published in December of 1836, just in time for Christmas. It included Chapter 28, “A Good-Humoured Christmas Chapter,” containing all the English Christmas traditions one might expect to find in a chapter so titled: holly and mistletoe, games of blind-man's buff and snap-dragon, a wassail bowl, a roaring fire, a Christmas song, and in the chapter that follows (because the author "had quite forgotten all such petty restrictions as chapters") a ghost story.

Well, strictly speaking, not a ghost story. A goblin story.

You may notice some similarity to A Christmas Carol in the following story. The protagonist, Gabriel Grub, is described as "a morose and lonely man, who consorted with nobody but himself...and who eyed each merry face, as it passed him by, with such a deep scowl of malice and ill-humour, as it was difficult to meet without feeling something the worse for." Remind you of someone else we all know?


‘In an old abbey town, down in this part of the country, a long, long while ago—so long, that the story must be a true one, because our great-grandfathers implicitly believed it—there officiated as sexton and grave-digger in the churchyard, one Gabriel Grub. It by no means follows that because a man is a sexton, and constantly surrounded by the emblems of mortality, therefore he should be a morose and melancholy man; your undertakers are the merriest fellows in the world; and I once had the honour of being on intimate terms with a mute, who in private life, and off duty, was as comical and jocose a little fellow as ever chirped out a devil-may-care song, without a hitch in his memory, or drained off a good stiff glass without stopping for breath. But notwithstanding these precedents to the contrary, Gabriel Grub was an ill-conditioned, cross-grained, surly fellow—a morose and lonely man, who consorted with nobody but himself, and an old wicker bottle which fitted into his large deep waistcoat pocket—and who eyed each merry face, as it passed him by, with such a deep scowl of malice and ill-humour, as it was difficult to meet without feeling something the worse for.

‘A little before twilight, one Christmas Eve, Gabriel shouldered his spade, lighted his lantern, and betook himself towards the old churchyard; for he had got a grave to finish by next morning, and, feeling very low, he thought it might raise his spirits, perhaps, if he went on with his work at once. As he went his way, up the ancient street, he saw the cheerful light of the blazing fires gleam through the old casements, and heard the loud laugh and the cheerful shouts of those who were assembled around them; he marked the bustling preparations for next day’s cheer, and smelled the numerous savoury odours consequent thereupon, as they steamed up from the kitchen windows in clouds. All this was gall and wormwood to the heart of Gabriel Grub; and when groups of children bounded out of the houses, tripped across the road, and were met, before they could knock at the opposite door, by half a dozen curly-headed little rascals who crowded round them as they flocked upstairs to spend the evening in their Christmas games, Gabriel smiled grimly, and clutched the handle of his spade with a firmer grasp, as he thought of measles, scarlet fever, thrush, whooping-cough, and a good many other sources of consolation besides.

‘In this happy frame of mind, Gabriel strode along, returning a short, sullen growl to the good-humoured greetings of such of his neighbours as now and then passed him, until he turned into the dark lane which led to the churchyard. Now, Gabriel had been looking forward to reaching the dark lane, because it was, generally speaking, a nice, gloomy, mournful place, into which the townspeople did not much care to go, except in broad daylight, and when the sun was shining; consequently, he was not a little indignant to hear a young urchin roaring out some jolly song about a merry Christmas, in this very sanctuary which had been called Coffin Lane ever since the days of the old abbey, and the time of the shaven-headed monks. As Gabriel walked on, and the voice drew nearer, he found it proceeded from a small boy, who was hurrying along, to join one of the little parties in the old street, and who, partly to keep himself company, and partly to prepare himself for the occasion, was shouting out the song at the highest pitch of his lungs. So Gabriel waited until the boy came up, and then dodged him into a corner, and rapped him over the head with his lantern five or six times, just to teach him to modulate his voice. And as the boy hurried away with his hand to his head, singing quite a different sort of tune, Gabriel Grub chuckled very heartily to himself, and entered the churchyard, locking the gate behind him.

‘He took off his coat, set down his lantern, and getting into the unfinished grave, worked at it for an hour or so with right good-will. But the earth was hardened with the frost, and it was no very easy matter to break it up, and shovel it out; and although there was a moon, it was a very young one, and shed little light upon the grave, which was in the shadow of the church. At any other time, these obstacles would have made Gabriel Grub very moody and miserable, but he was so well pleased with having stopped the small boy’s singing, that he took little heed of the scanty progress he had made, and looked down into the grave, when he had finished work for the night, with grim satisfaction, murmuring as he gathered up his things—
Brave lodgings for one, brave lodgings for one,
A few feet of cold earth, when life is done;
A stone at the head, a stone at the feet,
A rich, juicy meal for the worms to eat;
Rank grass overhead, and damp clay around,
Brave lodgings for one, these, in holy ground!

‘“Ho! ho!” laughed Gabriel Grub, as he sat himself down on a flat tombstone which was a favourite resting-place of his, and drew forth his wicker bottle. “A coffin at Christmas! A Christmas box! Ho! ho! ho!”

‘“Ho! ho! ho!” repeated a voice which sounded close behind him.

‘Gabriel paused, in some alarm, in the act of raising the wicker bottle to his lips, and looked round. The bottom of the oldest grave about him was not more still and quiet than the churchyard in the pale moonlight. The cold hoar frost glistened on the tombstones, and sparkled like rows of gems, among the stone carvings of the old church. The snow lay hard and crisp upon the ground; and spread over the thickly-strewn mounds of earth, so white and smooth a cover that it seemed as if corpses lay there, hidden only by their winding sheets. Not the faintest rustle broke the profound tranquillity of the solemn scene. Sound itself appeared to be frozen up, all was so cold and still.

‘“It was the echoes,” said Gabriel Grub, raising the bottle to his lips again.

‘“It was not,” said a deep voice.

‘Gabriel started up, and stood rooted to the spot with astonishment and terror; for his eyes rested on a form that made his blood run cold.

‘Seated on an upright tombstone, close to him, was a strange, unearthly figure, whom Gabriel felt at once, was no being of this world. His long, fantastic legs which might have reached the ground, were cocked up, and crossed after a quaint, fantastic fashion; his sinewy arms were bare; and his hands rested on his knees. On his short, round body, he wore a close covering, ornamented with small slashes; a short cloak dangled at his back; the collar was cut into curious peaks, which served the goblin in lieu of ruff or neckerchief; and his shoes curled up at his toes into long points. On his head, he wore a broad-brimmed sugar-loaf hat, garnished with a single feather. The hat was covered with the white frost; and the goblin looked as if he had sat on the same tombstone very comfortably, for two or three hundred years. He was sitting perfectly still; his tongue was put out, as if in derision; and he was grinning at Gabriel Grub with such a grin as only a goblin could call up.

‘“It was not the echoes,” said the goblin.

‘Gabriel Grub was paralysed, and could make no reply.

‘“What do you do here on Christmas Eve?” said the goblin sternly.

‘“I came to dig a grave, Sir,” stammered Gabriel Grub.

‘“What man wanders among graves and churchyards on such a night as this?” cried the goblin.

‘“Gabriel Grub! Gabriel Grub!” screamed a wild chorus of voices that seemed to fill the churchyard. Gabriel looked fearfully round—nothing was to be seen.

‘“What have you got in that bottle?” said the goblin.

‘“Hollands, sir,” replied the sexton, trembling more than ever; for he had bought it of the smugglers, and he thought that perhaps his questioner might be in the excise department of the goblins.

‘“Who drinks Hollands alone, and in a churchyard, on such a night as this?” said the goblin.

‘“Gabriel Grub! Gabriel Grub!” exclaimed the wild voices again.

‘The goblin leered maliciously at the terrified sexton, and then raising his voice, exclaimed—

‘“And who, then, is our fair and lawful prize?”

‘To this inquiry the invisible chorus replied, in a strain that sounded like the voices of many choristers singing to the mighty swell of the old church organ—a strain that seemed borne to the sexton’s ears upon a wild wind, and to die away as it passed onward; but the burden of the reply was still the same, “Gabriel Grub! Gabriel Grub!”

‘The goblin grinned a broader grin than before, as he said, “Well, Gabriel, what do you say to this?”

‘The sexton gasped for breath.

‘“What do you think of this, Gabriel?” said the goblin, kicking up his feet in the air on either side of the tombstone, and looking at the turned-up points with as much complacency as if he had been contemplating the most fashionable pair of Wellingtons in all Bond Street.

‘“It’s—it’s—very curious, Sir,” replied the sexton, half dead with fright; “very curious, and very pretty, but I think I’ll go back and finish my work, Sir, if you please.”

‘“Work!” said the goblin, “what work?”

‘“The grave, Sir; making the grave,” stammered the sexton.

‘“Oh, the grave, eh?” said the goblin; “who makes graves at a time when all other men are merry, and takes a pleasure in it?”

‘Again the mysterious voices replied, “Gabriel Grub! Gabriel Grub!”

‘“I am afraid my friends want you, Gabriel,” said the goblin, thrusting his tongue farther into his cheek than ever—and a most astonishing tongue it was—“I’m afraid my friends want you, Gabriel,” said the goblin.

‘“Under favour, Sir,” replied the horror-stricken sexton, “I don’t think they can, Sir; they don’t know me, Sir; I don’t think the gentlemen have ever seen me, Sir.”

‘“Oh, yes, they have,” replied the goblin; “we know the man with the sulky face and grim scowl, that came down the street to-night, throwing his evil looks at the children, and grasping his burying-spade the tighter. We know the man who struck the boy in the envious malice of his heart, because the boy could be merry, and he could not. We know him, we know him.”

‘Here, the goblin gave a loud, shrill laugh, which the echoes returned twentyfold; and throwing his legs up in the air, stood upon his head, or rather upon the very point of his sugar-loaf hat, on the narrow edge of the tombstone, whence he threw a Somerset with extraordinary agility, right to the sexton’s feet, at which he planted himself in the attitude in which tailors generally sit upon the shop-board.

‘“I—I—am afraid I must leave you, Sir,” said the sexton, making an effort to move.

‘“Leave us!” said the goblin, “Gabriel Grub going to leave us. Ho! ho! ho!”

‘As the goblin laughed, the sexton observed, for one instant, a brilliant illumination within the windows of the church, as if the whole building were lighted up; it disappeared, the organ pealed forth a lively air, and whole troops of goblins, the very counterpart of the first one, poured into the churchyard, and began playing at leap-frog with the tombstones, never stopping for an instant to take breath, but “overing” the highest among them, one after the other, with the most marvellous dexterity. The first goblin was a most astonishing leaper, and none of the others could come near him; even in the extremity of his terror the sexton could not help observing, that while his friends were content to leap over the common-sized gravestones, the first one took the family vaults, iron railings and all, with as much ease as if they had been so many street-posts.

‘At last the game reached to a most exciting pitch; the organ played quicker and quicker, and the goblins leaped faster and faster, coiling themselves up, rolling head over heels upon the ground, and bounding over the tombstones like footballs. The sexton’s brain whirled round with the rapidity of the motion he beheld, and his legs reeled beneath him, as the spirits flew before his eyes; when the goblin king, suddenly darting towards him, laid his hand upon his collar, and sank with him through the earth.

‘When Gabriel Grub had had time to fetch his breath, which the rapidity of his descent had for the moment taken away, he found himself in what appeared to be a large cavern, surrounded on all sides by crowds of goblins, ugly and grim; in the centre of the room, on an elevated seat, was stationed his friend of the churchyard; and close behind him stood Gabriel Grub himself, without power of motion.

‘“Cold to-night,” said the king of the goblins, “very cold. A glass of something warm here!”

‘At this command, half a dozen officious goblins, with a perpetual smile upon their faces, whom Gabriel Grub imagined to be courtiers, on that account, hastily disappeared, and presently returned with a goblet of liquid fire, which they presented to the king.

‘“Ah!” cried the goblin, whose cheeks and throat were transparent, as he tossed down the flame, “this warms one, indeed! Bring a bumper of the same, for Mr. Grub.”

‘It was in vain for the unfortunate sexton to protest that he was not in the habit of taking anything warm at night; one of the goblins held him while another poured the blazing liquid down his throat; the whole assembly screeched with laughter, as he coughed and choked, and wiped away the tears which gushed plentifully from his eyes, after swallowing the burning draught.

‘“And now,” said the king, fantastically poking the taper corner of his sugar-loaf hat into the sexton’s eye, and thereby occasioning him the most exquisite pain; “and now, show the man of misery and gloom, a few of the pictures from our own great storehouse!”

‘As the goblin said this, a thick cloud which obscured the remoter end of the cavern rolled gradually away, and disclosed, apparently at a great distance, a small and scantily furnished, but neat and clean apartment. A crowd of little children were gathered round a bright fire, clinging to their mother’s gown, and gambolling around her chair. The mother occasionally rose, and drew aside the window-curtain, as if to look for some expected object; a frugal meal was ready spread upon the table; and an elbow chair was placed near the fire. A knock was heard at the door; the mother opened it, and the children crowded round her, and clapped their hands for joy, as their father entered. He was wet and weary, and shook the snow from his garments, as the children crowded round him, and seizing his cloak, hat, stick, and gloves, with busy zeal, ran with them from the room. Then, as he sat down to his meal before the fire, the children climbed about his knee, and the mother sat by his side, and all seemed happiness and comfort.

‘But a change came upon the view, almost imperceptibly. The scene was altered to a small bedroom, where the fairest and youngest child lay dying; the roses had fled from his cheek, and the light from his eye; and even as the sexton looked upon him with an interest he had never felt or known before, he died. His young brothers and sisters crowded round his little bed, and seized his tiny hand, so cold and heavy; but they shrank back from its touch, and looked with awe on his infant face; for calm and tranquil as it was, and sleeping in rest and peace as the beautiful child seemed to be, they saw that he was dead, and they knew that he was an angel looking down upon, and blessing them, from a bright and happy Heaven.

‘Again the light cloud passed across the picture, and again the subject changed. The father and mother were old and helpless now, and the number of those about them was diminished more than half; but content and cheerfulness sat on every face, and beamed in every eye, as they crowded round the fireside, and told and listened to old stories of earlier and bygone days. Slowly and peacefully, the father sank into the grave, and, soon after, the sharer of all his cares and troubles followed him to a place of rest. The few who yet survived them, kneeled by their tomb, and watered the green turf which covered it with their tears; then rose, and turned away, sadly and mournfully, but not with bitter cries, or despairing lamentations, for they knew that they should one day meet again; and once more they mixed with the busy world, and their content and cheerfulness were restored. The cloud settled upon the picture, and concealed it from the sexton’s view.

‘“What do you think of that?” said the goblin, turning his large face towards Gabriel Grub.

‘Gabriel murmured out something about its being very pretty, and looked somewhat ashamed, as the goblin bent his fiery eyes upon him.

‘“You a miserable man!” said the goblin, in a tone of excessive contempt. “You!” He appeared disposed to add more, but indignation choked his utterance, so he lifted up one of his very pliable legs, and, flourishing it above his head a little, to insure his aim, administered a good sound kick to Gabriel Grub; immediately after which, all the goblins in waiting crowded round the wretched sexton, and kicked him without mercy, according to the established and invariable custom of courtiers upon earth, who kick whom royalty kicks, and hug whom royalty hugs.

‘“Show him some more!” said the king of the goblins.

‘At these words, the cloud was dispelled, and a rich and beautiful landscape was disclosed to view—there is just such another, to this day, within half a mile of the old abbey town. The sun shone from out the clear blue sky, the water sparkled beneath his rays, and the trees looked greener, and the flowers more gay, beneath its cheering influence. The water rippled on with a pleasant sound, the trees rustled in the light wind that murmured among their leaves, the birds sang upon the boughs, and the lark carolled on high her welcome to the morning. Yes, it was morning; the bright, balmy morning of summer; the minutest leaf, the smallest blade of grass, was instinct with life. The ant crept forth to her daily toil, the butterfly fluttered and basked in the warm rays of the sun; myriads of insects spread their transparent wings, and revelled in their brief but happy existence. Man walked forth, elated with the scene; and all was brightness and splendour.

‘“You a miserable man!” said the king of the goblins, in a more contemptuous tone than before. And again the king of the goblins gave his leg a flourish; again it descended on the shoulders of the sexton; and again the attendant goblins imitated the example of their chief.

‘Many a time the cloud went and came, and many a lesson it taught to Gabriel Grub, who, although his shoulders smarted with pain from the frequent applications of the goblins’ feet thereunto, looked on with an interest that nothing could diminish. He saw that men who worked hard, and earned their scanty bread with lives of labour, were cheerful and happy; and that to the most ignorant, the sweet face of Nature was a never-failing source of cheerfulness and joy. He saw those who had been delicately nurtured, and tenderly brought up, cheerful under privations, and superior to suffering, that would have crushed many of a rougher grain, because they bore within their own bosoms the materials of happiness, contentment, and peace. He saw that women, the tenderest and most fragile of all God’s creatures, were the oftenest superior to sorrow, adversity, and distress; and he saw that it was because they bore, in their own hearts, an inexhaustible well-spring of affection and devotion. Above all, he saw that men like himself, who snarled at the mirth and cheerfulness of others, were the foulest weeds on the fair surface of the earth; and setting all the good of the world against the evil, he came to the conclusion that it was a very decent and respectable sort of world after all. No sooner had he formed it, than the cloud which had closed over the last picture, seemed to settle on his senses, and lull him to repose. One by one, the goblins faded from his sight; and, as the last one disappeared, he sank to sleep.

‘The day had broken when Gabriel Grub awoke, and found himself lying at full length on the flat gravestone in the churchyard, with the wicker bottle lying empty by his side, and his coat, spade, and lantern, all well whitened by the last night’s frost, scattered on the ground. The stone on which he had first seen the goblin seated, stood bolt upright before him, and the grave at which he had worked, the night before, was not far off. At first, he began to doubt the reality of his adventures, but the acute pain in his shoulders when he attempted to rise, assured him that the kicking of the goblins was certainly not ideal. He was staggered again, by observing no traces of footsteps in the snow on which the goblins had played at leap-frog with the gravestones, but he speedily accounted for this circumstance when he remembered that, being spirits, they would leave no visible impression behind them. So, Gabriel Grub got on his feet as well as he could, for the pain in his back; and, brushing the frost off his coat, put it on, and turned his face towards the town.

‘But he was an altered man, and he could not bear the thought of returning to a place where his repentance would be scoffed at, and his reformation disbelieved. He hesitated for a few moments; and then turned away to wander where he might, and seek his bread elsewhere.

‘The lantern, the spade, and the wicker bottle were found, that day, in the churchyard. There were a great many speculations about the sexton’s fate, at first, but it was speedily determined that he had been carried away by the goblins; and there were not wanting some very credible witnesses who had distinctly seen him whisked through the air on the back of a chestnut horse blind of one eye, with the hind-quarters of a lion, and the tail of a bear. At length all this was devoutly believed; and the new sexton used to exhibit to the curious, for a trifling emolument, a good-sized piece of the church weathercock which had been accidentally kicked off by the aforesaid horse in his aerial flight, and picked up by himself in the churchyard, a year or two afterwards.

‘Unfortunately, these stories were somewhat disturbed by the unlooked-for reappearance of Gabriel Grub himself, some ten years afterwards, a ragged, contented, rheumatic old man. He told his story to the clergyman, and also to the mayor; and in course of time it began to be received as a matter of history, in which form it has continued down to this very day. The believers in the weathercock tale, having misplaced their confidence once, were not easily prevailed upon to part with it again, so they looked as wise as they could, shrugged their shoulders, touched their foreheads, and murmured something about Gabriel Grub having drunk all the Hollands, and then fallen asleep on the flat tombstone; and they affected to explain what he supposed he had witnessed in the goblin’s cavern, by saying that he had seen the world, and grown wiser. But this opinion, which was by no means a popular one at any time, gradually died off; and be the matter how it may, as Gabriel Grub was afflicted with rheumatism to the end of his days, this story has at least one moral, if it teach no better one—and that is, that if a man turn sulky and drink by himself at Christmas time, he may make up his mind to be not a bit the better for it: let the spirits be never so good, or let them be even as many degrees beyond proof, as those which Gabriel Grub saw in the goblin’s cavern.’

Illustration by Phiz (Hablot Knight Browne)


* Like most of Dickens' novels, The Pickwick Papers was originally published as a serial, in monthly installments.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


Imagine walking into your kitchen in the middle of the night, turning on the light, and seeing hundreds of cockroaches scurrying around your feet. You would feel horror and disgust, I'm sure. You would probably also feel some degree of shame, because what kind of good-for-nothing slob allows hundreds of cockroaches to take over their kitchen?

Thirty-some years ago, my two aunts and I were driving through my grandmother's hometown of Angola, Indiana, when we found ourselves in the midst of a massive Ku Klux Klan rally. We experienced much the same horror, disgust, and shame we would have felt if our kitchen had been overrun with cockroaches. We wanted to open our car windows and scream at the creeps to get out, to tell them that they had no business in our town, our state, our country. I am by nature a peace-loving person (not to mention a coward), but I confess that I had the urge to jump out of the car and beat the living crap out of each and every one of them.

What we did, of course, was lock our car doors and got the hell out of town because, let's face it, we were terrified.

Having had that experience, I believe I have an inkling of the horror, disgust, and shame the citizens of Charlottesville, Virginia, must have felt last weekend, as hundreds of terrorists paraded through the streets of their normally peaceful college town, carrying symbols and chanting slogans of hate.

We should all feel horror, disgust, and shame. The cockroaches that invaded Charlottesville came from all over America. In fact, the one who willfully drove his car into a crowd of citizens taking a stand against the hatred, killing a young woman far braver than I will ever be—that particular cockroach came from a small town in northern Ohio not far from Angola, Indiana.

The president made a statement eloquently expressing what every true American felt about the events in Charlottesville:
Our Founders fought a revolution for the idea that all men are created equal. The heirs of that revolution fought a Civil War to save our nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to that revolutionary proposition.

Nothing less is at stake on the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, where a violent attack has taken at least one American life and injured many others in a confrontation between our better angels and our worst demons.

White supremacists and neo-Nazis are, by definition, opposed to American patriotism and the ideals that define us as a people and make our nation special.

As we mourn the tragedy that has occurred in Charlottesville, American patriots of all colors and creeds must come together to defy those who raise the flag of hatred and bigotry.

Just kidding. That statement came from Senator John McCain. It's what the president should have said. Instead he said this:
We condemn in strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry, and violence — on many sides.

He looked into the camera as he said "on many sides," and then he repeated the words for emphasis.
On many sides.

Many sides? There are only two sides to what happened in Charlottesville: human beings and cockroaches. Mr. President, which side are you on?

He was unwilling to denounce the cockroaches when he was running for president, because he needed their votes. (You may recall that he claimed not to even know who David Duke was.) Apparently he is still unwilling to denounce them. Oh, he finally came out with a stronger statement on Monday, after receiving harsh criticism from "many sides." But in a press conference on Tuesday he reversed himself, doubling down on what he said the first time, calling it "a fine statement," and saying that he believes there were both "very fine people on both sides" and "blame on both sides."

At least he can now count the number of sides.

The cockroaches have no doubt about which side the president is on. After Tuesday's press conference David Duke, one of the very finest of those "very fine people" (You know who he is now, don't you, Mr. President?), heartily praised Trump for his "honesty & courage."

Mr. President, let me give you a hint: when a cockroach praises you—especially when it's the head cockroach—you're on the wrong side.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Why Can't We Agree?

A couple of days ago, I was reading a BBC news story when I came across the following passage:
And what's happened since the election?

The investigation remains closed but the debate about Mr Comey's actions rage on.

The anger felt by Clinton supporters were compounded when it emerged that the FBI had been looking into any links between the Trump campaign and Russia, but Mr Comey chose not to go public with it.

In May, he gave evidence to a Senate Judiciary Committee and defended himself.

He said that it was a "painful" dilemma when he decided to make his October pronouncement, but if he had not come forward about the new Clinton emails, he would have been guilty of concealment.

Mr Comey said he felt "nauseous" at the thought he might have had an impact.
I felt a little "nauseous" myself. Can you guess why? (If you're an English major, I'm sure you can. If not, I'll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with politics.)

I immediately fired off an e-mail to "the Beeb," the gist of which was:
I spotted a couple of glaring grammatical errors in your article. I have been hearing such errors more and more frequently on TV and radio, but to see two of them in writing (and from the BBC!) makes me despair for the future of the English language. You should be better than this.
Okay, that was pretty harsh, but BBC newswriters really should be better, as should anyone who writes for a living. Subject-verb agreement is pretty basic grammar—although I can see where a layperson might get lost when there are prepositional phrases involved. In such cases, it can help to diagram the sentence. For example, here's a diagram I found of the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence:

Don't worry. We're not going to do that, because I hate diagramming sentences. All you really need to do to ensure subject-verb agreement is to ask yourself three questions:
  1. What is the verb in the sentence?,
  2. What is the subject of that verb?, and
  3. Do they agree?
Let's take a look at the first sentence in the passage:
The investigation remains closed but the debate about Mr Comey's actions rage on.
This is a compound sentence, with two clauses separated by the conjunction "but." Actually, it's a run-on sentence; there should be a comma before the "but," but I won't quibble about that now. See what I did there? In pointing out the missing comma, I gave you an example of a correctly punctuated compound sentence. Impressed? (Never mind; don't answer that.)

In the second clause of this compound sentence, the verb is obviously "rage." Now, we ask ourselves, what is the subject of that verb? What is it that is raging? Is it "Mr Comey's actions?" Well, let's try it:
Mr Comey's actions rage on.
Please! The only way that sentence could possibly make sense is if it were part of the dialogue from some far-fetched science fiction film:
First Scientist: "Mr. Comey's actions have taken on a life of their own! They are destroying the city!"

Second Scientist: "They cannot be stopped! Mr. Comey's actions rage on!"
Okay, maybe not so far-fetched, and I should seriously think about developing it into a screenplay, but the fact is, "Mr Comey's actions" is not the subject of the verb "rage," it is the object of the preposition "about." The phrase "about Mr Comey's actions" modifies the noun "debate." If we remove the phrase, we are left with the simple sentence:
The debate rage on.
Does that sound right to you? Of course not! That's because "debate" is a singular subject, and "rage" is a plural verb. They do not agree. Here's the corrected sentence (just for fun, we'll put that missing comma in—and what the heck, because we are a bit OCD, a period after "Mr" as well):
The investigation remains closed, but the debate about Mr. Comey's actions rages on.
Much better! See if you can find the second subject-verb error in the passage. If you didn't notice it before, it should be much easier now. After you've done this sort of analysis a few times, you should be able to spot such errors immediately. If only politics were that simple.

Oh, and by the way, Mr. Comey, the word is nauseated.

(Note: Before publishing this post, I took another look at the story and found that both errors had been fixed. Bravo, BBC!)

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Science Matters

“The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.”
—Neil deGrasse Tyson

Without science I would literally not be here. I know the word “literally” is often misused by people who actually mean “figuratively,” but in this case I literally mean literally. When I was born I had a severe allergy to milk and had to be given soy formula. Without it, I doubt I would have survived. At this point, I would like to have given a shout-out to the scientist(s) who invented soy formula. Unfortunately, I could not discover their name(s). The only information I could find was a paragraph on the National Institutes of Health website, which states: “In the 1920s, scientists also began developing nonmilk-based formulas for infants allergic to cow's milk. The first nonmilk formula was based on soy flour and became available to the public in 1929.” Whoever those scientists were, I thank them.

Science has saved me in other ways, too: from the decongestants, antihistamines, and antibiotics that got me through countless respiratory infections as a child, to the three-point safety belt and curtain airbag that protected me in an automobile accident last year. Let’s face it, without science most of us would not be here. Those few of us with the fortitude to survive would still be living in caves, chewing on bloody hunks of raw meat. Because the first scientist had to have been the person who discovered fire. I can just imagine the scientific paper he/she might have written in support of his/her theory. Of course, it would not have been an actual paper, as paper had not been invented yet. It would likely have been pictures drawn on a cave wall, the translation of which would be something like:

by Ogg
University of Cave

Fire burn. Make meat tasty.

After peer review, fire would have been patented and marketed to the general public, and that early scientist would have no doubt gone on to invent other important things, like the wheel and beer.

My point is, science matters, and I'm sure that most of you reading this agree. But, as difficult as this may be for us to comprehend, there are quite a lot of people in America—supposedly one of the most advanced countries in the world—who reject science. They are the people who steadfastly refuse to believe the scientific evidence that vaccinations are a good thing, or that continuing to burn fossil fuels will give future generations the choice of living in an arid wasteland or under water.

Ironically, many of these same people believe, unquestioningly and without a shred of evidence, all manner of pseudoscience, from colon cleansing to conversion therapy. There are even an alarming number of Americans who reject evolution in favor of a theory that states, despite all geologic and paleontologic evidence to the contrary, that the Earth was created less than 10,000 years ago, and that human beings rode around on dinosaurs. (Admit it, you are thinking how cool would that be? and humming the theme from The Flintstones.)

I blame the Internet. There have always been crackpots, but most of us knew they were crackpots and ignored them. Now, thanks to the Internet, crackpots have a platform for their theories and a way to network with other crackpots. Pretty soon, you have a consensus of crackpots. Then other people—people who are not necessarily crackpots but who are unable to discern between science and pseudoscience—start to take notice. These undiscerning people think, "By golly, if that many people agree about this, there must be something to it!"

None of this matters to the rest of us until, thanks to special interest groups, gerrymandering, and undiscerning voters, we end up with undiscerning elected officials who make undiscerning decisions that affect us all.

In 1970, Richard M. Nixon, a very bad president (I used to think the worst I would see in my lifetime), did a very good thing: he established the Environmental Protection Agency. In a message to Congress he stated: "The Congress, the Administration and the public all share a profound commitment to the rescue of our natural environment, and the preservation of the Earth as a place both habitable by and hospitable to man." Unfortunately, our undiscerning current administration and congress do not share that "profound commitment." Both the EPA and the NIH (whose web page I referenced in the first paragraph) are slated for massive cuts in the president's proposed budget.

Of course, a budget cut will make no difference to the EPA if the agency is terminated, as a house bill introduced in February proposes to do.

I'm sure the president's new EPA administrator would have no problem with that. While Attorney General of Oklahoma, he filed fourteen lawsuits against the EPA to block the enforcement of clean air, clean water and climate regulations. Unlike the president, he has not gone so far as to claim global warming is a hoax. He has, however, stated that "there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact" of human activity on climate change. In fact, there is virtually no disagreement. There is a 97% consensus among climate scientists that human activity—specifically the release of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels—is a major contributor to global warming.

In a 1983 Playboy interview, appalled by a secretary of the interior whose idea of conservation was to "mine more, drill more, cut more timber," photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams said, "It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment."

The time has come when those who care about the environment must fight again. That is why today, on Earth Day 2017, Loretta and I will be joining the March for Science.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Golden Apples of the Sun

For some time now, I have been patiently waiting for The Golden Apples of the Sun to be released on Kindle. It contains some of my favorite Ray Bradbury short stories, including "The Fog Horn" and "A Sound of Thunder." I have the paperback, of course, but I find reading books on Kindle to be so much easier. As I get older I especially appreciate the ability to enlarge the print. (I took a glance at my 1970 Bantam paperback before writing this. It's hard to believe my eyes were ever good enough to read such tiny print. And without glasses!)

Last week I discovered that The Golden Apples of the Sun is available for Kindle now, and probably has been for years. The reason I couldn't find it was that the publisher had changed the title to A Sound of Thunder.

I won't dispute the fact that "A Sound of Thunder" is a better story than "The Golden Apples of the Sun," the story from which the book takes its title. The former is about time travel and dinosaurs; the latter is about a rocket trip to the surface of the sun. Time travel? Yes! Dinosaurs? Absolutely! The surface of the sun? Are you kidding me?! (Well, there is that old joke about going at night.) "A Sound of Thunder" is generally considered to be one of Ray Bradbury's finest stories, but I'm pretty sure that's not why the publisher changed the title.

In 2005, a film version of "A Sound of Thunder," was released. The late Roger Ebert said of it: "[T]here is something almost endearing about the clunky special effects and clumsy construction.... The movie is made with a gee-whiz spirit, and although I cannot endorse it I can appreciate it." (Sounds like a perfect movie for the new Mystery Science 3000 crew, doesn't it?)

The publisher obviously changed the title of the book to the title of the movie in order to boost sales. In the corporate world, this is what's known as "synergy."

I was outraged by this callous act of corporate greed. Well, maybe not exactly outraged, but at least mildly vexed. I'm sure Ray Bradbury would have been more than mildly vexed. He did not choose his title randomly; he chose it because he was a poet. He loved poetry, wrote poetry, and breathed poetry into his prose. Consider this passage from "The Fog Horn," first story in The Golden Apples of the Sun and basis for the 1953 sci-fi film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms:
I'll make a voice like all of time and all of the fog that ever was; I'll make a voice that is like an empty bed beside you all night long, and like an empty house when you open the door, and like trees in autumn with no leaves. A sound like the birds flying south, crying, and a sound like November wind and the sea on the hard, cold shore. I'll make a sound that's so alone that no one can miss it, that whoever hears it will weep in their souls, and hearths will seem warmer, and being inside will seem better to all who hear it in the distant towns. I'll make me a sound and an apparatus and they'll call it a Fog Horn and whoever hears it will know the sadness of eternity and the briefness of life.

He also borrowed some of his story titles, including "The Golden Apples of the Sun," from poetry—a different sort of synergy, motivated by artistic choice rather than profit. Decades after I became a Ray Bradbury fan, I became a William Butler Yeats fan, and I discovered the poem that was the source of Bradbury's title:
The Song of Wandering Aengus
W. B. Yeats

I went out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.

When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And someone called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Lovely, isn't it? Especially those last few lines. Bradbury put them at the beginning of the book, just beneath the dedication to his beloved Aunt Neva—a lover of books who introduced him to some of his greatest influences: L. Frank Baum, Edgar Allan Poe, and, I'd be willing to bet, William Butler Yeats.
...And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

Happy National Poetry Month!

1970 Bantam Paperback Cover