Thursday, February 27, 2014
March 2 is around the corner, and that marks the annual celebration—via Read Across America Day—of the birthday of Dr. Seuss. This time around, he would have turned 110 years old. So we at the Why Not 100 are going to honor the man by taking a trip.
Someone, somewhere, should create a Seuss globe—a whimsical world of Seussian places, from Boober Bay and the Kingdom of Binn to North Nitch and South Stitch. It would be impossible, of course. And it would have to be some sort of oblong-trapezoidal-misshapen bit of a whimsy-world, in keeping with Dr. Seuss’s perspective of things. But maybe somebody can conjure up some sort of magnificent map.
Meanwhile, this will have to do: I scoured Theodor Geisel’s catalog of books and came up with 62 places mentioned (or in the case of several, serving as the setting) in the pages of Dr. Seuss’s daring imagination. The first ones are iconic, of course. The others? I ranked them according to how much I love the names:
1. Who-ville (Horton Hears a Who, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas)
Civilization on a speck of dust. Christmas cheer, presents or not. Small folks, big hearts.
2. Mulberry Street (And To Think That I Saw it On Mulberry Street)
Where else can you find zebra-drawn chariots, a Rajah with rubies, a big brass band, a big magician doing tricks, and a fellow with a ten-foot beard? No surprise that (look it up) Mulberry Street intersects with Bliss.
Saturday, February 22, 2014
I don’t remember much about Gettysburg, South Dakota. In fact, nothing at all—except the sign welcoming you to town. That I remember, mostly because it cracked me up: “Gettysburg, South Dakota. Where the Battle Wasn’t.”
How often is it that you can rumble along a rural highway, languidly turn your eyes to a billboard on the side of the road… and burst out laughing? Well, the answer is: More often that you might think. A good number of rural hiccups have learned not to take themselves too seriously. When attempting to make their mark on the memories of passersby, they’ve discovered that self-deprecation often does the trick.
Say, you’re in Manhattan, for instance. Not the one in New York. The one in Kansas. You know what they call themselves? The Little Apple. Maybe a while later you’re still in Kansas, but you’ve driven some 100 miles southeast – to the town of Gas. There, you can spot a bright red water tower looming over the tiny town of some 560 souls. It says simply, GAS KAN. Perhaps you then head into Oklahoma’s panhandle, to a hamlet that goes by the name of—believe it or not—Hooker. The welcome sign includes an image of a 19th-century prostitute. The town slogan: “It’s a location, not a vocation.”
I mean, c’mon. That’s just great stuff.
Monday, February 17, 2014
Happy 51st birthday, Michael Jordan. You almost didn’t make it to age four.
In 1967 Jordan’s father was tuning up his car in the backyard of his parents house in Wallace, North Carolina. He used a couple of extension cords to stretch a lamp from the kitchen to the under the hood of the car. It had rained earlier, and the ground was still wet. And out toddled three-year-old Mike Jordan.
James Jordan started toward him, but it was too late. The boy walked right up to the juncture of the two extension cords and began playing with the live wires. A sudden surge of current sent him flying backward several feet. He was too shocked to cry, but he survived. And—who knows?—maybe that was the shock that turned him into a flying machine.
Wednesday, February 12, 2014
The actual title of the collection of German fairy titles published by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1812 was not Grimm’s Fairy Tales. It was Children’s and Household Tales. But, given the uber-creepy and disturbing factor in many of the tales, one contributor to the website BetterBookTitles.com posited that instead it should have been titled Children Should Be Traumatized.
Yes, that’s right. Hansel and Gretel wound up “lost” in the forest because their family was starving during a famine and their mother played a cruel trick on them in an attempt to have two fewer mouths to feed. Now go to sleep, little Tommy. And the evil queen asked the huntsman to bring back Snow White’s liver and lungs—as the main course for dinner. But don’t worry, the queen winds up being forced to dance to death in red hot iron shoes. Sweet dreams...
Friday, February 7, 2014
Among the scores of people about whom I’ve written magazine articles over the past couple of decades, perhaps the one person who enters my thoughts the most is Allan Metcalf. I suppose I should explain: It’s because, as a writer, I deal in words.
Metcalf is an English professor at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Illinois. He is a longtime member of the more than 120-year-old American Dialect Society, which gathers annually—a collection of lexicographers and linguists, the kind of people who spend their down time debating, say, the possessive form of y’all in the central South—to choose the new Word of the Year. The only real rule is that they must choose a newly prominent unit of expression, which includes phrases (millennium bug in 1997), prefixes (e- in 1998), abbreviations (Y2K in 1999), words (chad in 2000) and even dates (9-11 in 2001).
But Metcalf has taken the notion further. In the nearly four centuries since English speakers began living in the New World, tens of thousands of words have been added to the language. In 1997, Metcalf and New York-based dictionary-maker David Barnhart co-authored a book, America in So Many Words, in which they retroactively chose a new Word of the Year for every year since 1750 – and for selected years before that, dating as far back as 1555 (for which canoe was selected). The two men examined scholarly research from books, magazines, diaries, letters and legal documents in an effort to determine exactly when the building blocks of everyday American conversation were first forged.
Sunday, February 2, 2014
When I speak to elementary school students as a visiting author, we usually create a story together. We talk about setting and description and plot. But first, we give our characters names. I ask them to tell me the name of the evil character in the Harry Potter series, and they shout out, “Voldemort!” I tell them it’s a great bad-guy name. It sounds wicked. “Would it be as scary,” I ask, “if that character’s name was Daisy Dolittle?” It always gets a big laugh from the little folks.
But the point is made. Names matter.
In the literary pantheon, there are great characters, but they don’t always (in my humble opinion) have great names. Holden Caulfield? An unforgettable creation. But the name? Eh. Then again, I’m not even a fan of the name Jay Gatsby.
Some authors, like Ernest Hemingway for instance, didn’t seem to think an unusual name was the key to an outstanding character. Robert Cohn. Nick Adams. Jake Barnes. Meh. On the other hand, Charles Dickens was positively brimming with memorable monikers—Oliver Twist, Uriah Heep, Nicholas Nickleby, Philip Pirrip. For both authors, it was obviously purposeful.
Great character names can come from anywhere, of course. Washington Irving’s Ichabod Crane was almost certainly taken from a real-life military officer of the same name. Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking was named by her nine-year-old daughter (full name: Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim's Daughter Longstocking). Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot was a combination of names from two other fictional detectives of the time. And Sherlock Holmes? He was supposedly THIS CLOSE to being named Sherringford.
Regardless of origins, let’s celebrate the best of the best—one reader’s list of the 70 finest names in literature:
1. Ebenezer Scrooge (A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens)
2. Atticus Finch (To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee)
3. Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote)
4. Phileas Fogg (Around the World in 80 Days, Jules Verne)
5. Dr. Fu-Manchu (The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu, Sax Rohmer)
As I took off on my first epic American road trip, a journey that eventually coalesced into my first travel memoir States of Mind, I read three books right off the bat—the aim being to motivate, to jolt me into the proper frame of mind. The first was On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Vivid prose, trippy read. The second was Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck. My favorite author, dogged observer. But the book that really did it for me was Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon.
His account of a cross-country excursion in the late 1970s opened portals for me—insight into the potential for exploration, the possibilities of literary description, and extracting profundities from the seemingly mundane. I still think it’s the best American travel narrative ever written—and this comes from a writer with an ego and a trilogy of travelogues of my own.
So to celebrate the golden prose of Blue Highways, here are 39 passages that evoked, impressed and inspired. First, I’ll start with 17 bits of insight, collections of words that make you want to collect your thoughts:
1. “A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go. He could quit trying to get out of the way of life. Chuck routine. Live the real jeopardy of circumstance.”
2. “There are two kinds of adventurers: those who go truly hoping to find adventure and those who go secretly hoping they won’t.”
3. “I named my truck Ghost Dancing… Ghost dances, desperate resurrection rituals, were the dying rattles of a people whose last defense was delusion—about all that remained to them in their futility.”
4. “Life doesn’t happen along interstates. It’s against the law.”
In his superb book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King contends that the paragraph, not the sentence, is the basic unit of writing. He describes it as “the place where coherence begins and words stand a chance of becoming more than mere words. If the moment of quickening is to come, it comes at the level of the paragraph. It is a marvelous and flexible instrument that can be a single word long or run on for pages.”
When I read that, I had a moment of epiphany that, yes, that’s how I write, too. I pay attention to the rhythm of sentence sequences, the shapes of paragraphs. My thoughts tend to come in blocks of several sentences. Now if only King and I shared royalty checks, too. Oh, the horror.
So that’s how Stephen King writes. But it’s not how Steven Wright writes.
I’m not talking about the New York City novelist Stephen Wright, by the way. Never read him. Can’t comment on his scribbling technique. I’m talking about Steven with a “V”— the droll comedian, the man with the funky hair and the deadpan delivery, the paragon of the paraprosdokian (that would be a figure of speech in which the last part of a sentence is so unexpected that it makes you reinterpret the first part).