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Unlike previous entries in this more than occasional series, the current book does not offer a front-to-back, fiction or nonfiction narrative. Its genesis was a Brain Pickings post in which David Foster Wallace extolled the virtues of the usage dictionary. I hunted for mine, a book I’ve had since college. Discovering it had gone off into the ozone layer, following any number of other books, offered the best excuse to order another. Online sleuthing produced a recommendation for the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.
It is the sort of book that can fill some minutes before an appointment. Want to know the history of the word lawman? MW has the movie version. Have fun with “councillor, councilor, counselor, and counsellor.”
As these examples demonstrate, MW supplies history and context. Foster Wallace treats the usage dictionary as great bathroom reading. I wouldn’t subject it to the humidity and potential for landing in a bathtub full of water and suds. Plus, in hardcover form it’s not portable without risk of injury.
I do agree it’s great for non-linear reading. Unlike the standard version, usage dictionaries supply history and context.
Of course it offers an analysis of “usage” and how it differs from “use,” or doesn’t. Language is a game not to be played by the faint of heart!
For the story of benefits and detriments, history and context, read the page-long entry on “very,” a word I banned from my English composition classes.
Here’s a shorter example. MW traces the criticism of the word “nice” as a “general purpose term of approval” to the early nineteenth century, some fifty years after it arrived on the scene. Relying on a huge variety of sources, MW cites examples of great writers (and others) who continued to use “nice” in an unselfconscious way into the twentieth century. MW’s conclusion: “There is certainly nothing wrong with an effort to get college freshmen to use a greater variety of adjectives in their writing, but there is also nothing inherently wrong with nice in its generalized use.”
Larry had a fabulous Pay It Forward moment today. He’s drinking Dunkachino (sp?!) every day, sometimes more than once. I told him I was contemplating a stock purchase.
Anyway, this morning the server told him the lady in front of him had paid for his coffee — I refuse to repeat the “D” word. She handed him a little card that said the “Pay It Forward” campaign was in memory of this little boy named Ben. In this day of terrorism, police brutality, hate speech, and political insanity, it is a blessing to know that some are spreading grace and beauty.
Today is the fifteen anniversary of my father’s death. He was such a huge part of my life for so long, his death left a rift that continues . He taught me pretty much everything I know about gardening. I remember following him around as we pulled Japanese beetles off plants, which we dropped in a can of kerosene. Besides the usual tomatoes, peppers, etc., we planted peanuts, and kale years it became the “it” vegetable. His trick was to wait until the first frost to harvest it. I remember it was sweet, much more savory than spinach or chard. The only failure (my opinion) was okra because I had clean the pan after he cooked it.
Daddy also taught me basic plumbing. I can change washers and repair toilets. Well, I could until the faucets became washerless and the toilets went high-tech.
I learned to play softball. He was the favorite adult team member for the neighborhood game, usually played in our yard, because he could pitch and hit leftie or rightie. That talent was thanks to years of Catholic school education in which the nuns tied his left arm behind his back. The only sport I never got was football. He’d say, “Watch, the quarterback is going to throw the ball to the guy at the top of the screen.” I’d ask how he knew, and he’d get mad.
More successful were the games of checkers and dominoes and concentration. What little arithmetic I learned came from dominoes.
He also had an outrageous sense of humor. He introduced me to Mad Magazine. We bonded over “Spy vs. Spy” and the contents of celebrity wallets. I had pretty much left home by the time they bought a television, so we didn’t have family time. I do remember his glee at Archie Bunker — he carried the same prejudices, except that Jews received a pass because of their respect for education.
He spoke French to me when I was a little kid with the result that I picked up the language much faster when I began studying it in school.
George David Petry was an incredibly bright man who could never have a job that matched his intellectual abilities.
On the night before he died, he asked, “Why do people fight wars?” Naturally I didn’t have an answer. He made the transition on Pearl Harbor Day.
No Friday follies. No levity. Not even a good book or movie review. I’m too distraught over the never-ending killings and the mindless shouting at each other over solutions.
Please cherish each other.
“We Were There,” the veterans’ writing workshop, took a break from compiling memoirs to have dinner. We gathered at El Loco Perro in East Hampton. (I never did learn the source of its name.)
I took a break this afternoon from my various projects to attend a Reiki share. It filled a void.
To all of you who have been receiving Reiki from me, I hope you now have triple the energy. And for those of you who are suffering in silence, know that you received it, too. Collectively we sent peace and healing to this world so torn by violence and hurt.
Most Reiki sessions are one-on-one. The practitioner offers Reiki to the subject. When two or more people are offering, the results are exponential as in 3 x 3 x 3. The recipient has the same benefit in a much shorter time. When it was my turn, I was glad that there were hands on me, otherwise I would have floated up to the ceiling. No more sinus headache. No more anxiety. No more freezing toes. Just an aura of calm and well-being.
Peace and love and healing to all.
It’s been one of those days, so I’m taking a break from blogging about the books and movies in the pipeline. We’re in early New England winter: raw, wet, wind out of the northeast. The resulting sinus attack made for daylong light-headed sleepiness despite a good jolt of espresso. After a restorative session volunteering at the hospital, I ran to get copies made since my copier can’t handle fourteen-inch paper. Then to the grocery store, where I managed to escape through the quick check line. And then …
The traffic filled two lanes, but it flowed so I decided on the most direct route. Bad move. Just after my last turn opportunity I saw multiple flashing lights — red and blue, red and white, yellow. Tail lights filled my vision, and two solid lines of headlights faced me.
Motorists were more or less courteous (mostly less) about letting people in to the single lane. The firetruck driver intimidated a couple of people who were going to cut off those of us already in line.
Arriving home with groceries, copies, and my gear from the hospital, I launched into making gumbo z’herbes. Despite its roux, this gumbo serves as a perfect antidote to the butter, cheese, piecrust, etc., etc. from Thanksgiving. It is all vegetables — onions and scallions, greens, green pepper, celery. Copious amounts of Tabasco will clear the sinuses.
Enjoying a hearty, healthy gumbo on a cold and rainy night.
Another in what’s become more than an occasional series. Bryan Dorries’ The Theater of War is among the most harrowing and uplifting books I’ve read. It mines a variety of modern applications for Greek tragedy. Like its subject, it achieves its purpose by taking readers to the depths of fear, anger, despair. Then Dorries clears out the detritus of those human emotions. One can debate whether he achieves catharsis, the aim of Greek tragedy.
But before I ever got to the stories of the veterans and active-duty military personnel who have benefited from the productions, I had my own days of wallowing in regret. You see, I was a theater major in college and studied ancient Greek. I’ve been walking around wondering why I didn’t pursue one or both. Then perhaps I might have been the one to bring Ajax and the other plays to audiences who could truly benefit. It didn’t take long to overcome the regret about not pursuing Greek, but I still mourn giving up my first love, theater.
That mourning grew painful when I read the NYTimes article, “On the Margins, With a Front-Row Seat.” It describes how Michelle Hensley’s barebones company Ten Thousand Things stages productions of Shakespeare and other classics. Among other adventures, she brings Waiting for Godot to prisons with a woman playing Vladimir.
So with all that regret washing around, I dove into the stories of PTSD, violence against self and others.
Theater of War opens with the story of Ajax, a decorated veteran of the nine-years war against Troy. His best friend Achilles has died in battle, and the authorities reject Ajax for the honor of receiving the dead man’s armor. Grief and pain smother him until he kills a herd of cattle, which he believes are humans. Feeling he has disgraced himself, Ajax commits suicide.
When Dorries was launching script readings, he asked his military audience why General Sophocles wrote the play. A “junior enlisted soldier” responds, “He wrote it boost morale.” When pressed, the man says, “It’s the truth … we’re all here watching it together.” With that, Dorries puts his theme out front as “a message for our time. Sophocles didn’t whitewash the horrors of war. … [b]y presenting the truth of war to combat veterans, he sought to give voice to their struggles and to convey to them they were not alone.”
Dorries continues the tradition with his own translations of the plays. The dialogue appears far clearer, more realistic, and less obscure than any translation I’ve ever read. He also frames the work with his own personal tragedy, describing the brief life and tormented death of his girlfriend from cystic fibrosis at age twenty-two.
As Sophocles did, Dorries personalizes the effect of war and loss on family members, wives in particular. He makes clear that the wife of Ajax was in fact a “battle bride” or prize of war, forced to choose between slavery and “marriage” to the man who had killed her brothers and father. Just as Ajax’s suffering and death can uplift the spirit of the military person, Tecmessa’s reaction to him and his moods helped the wives speak their truth as they watched the men they loved turn into people they didn’t recognize and in some cases threaten or harm them and their children.
Though they seem unrelated, the final two sections of Theater of War add new dimensions. Dorries brought Prometheus Bound to Missouri corrections officers and Women of Trachis to hospice workers. Each group has a potential connection to his original audience of active and former military people. The plays offer a necessary insight in to our current situation. In the Aeschylus tragedy, Prometheus the god brings fire to humans. For his crime he is chained to a rock and subjected to what Dorries terms “extreme incarceration.” Prometheus refuses to bow to authority despite the infliction of never-ending pain. The corrections officers do not react in the same immediate and compelling way as the soldiers did, but the account nevertheless provides a telling commentary on the state of our society.
The short final chapter, framed around Sophocles’ Women of Trachis has immediacy and even more global appeal. Heracles returns home once again in triumph, but this time he brings a pretty young woman. Thinking she has a love potion, his wife sends him a cloak permeated with the blood of a centaur that Heracles had killed years before. In fact the blood acts like a flesh-eating bacteria. Heracles begs his fellow soldiers and others witnessing his suffering to kill him. Everyone, including his son, declines. I have been on the receiving end of that request though in less direct form and never want to experience it again. With Dorries as his interpreter, Sophocles brings it home in a way that is excruciating and necessary.
My only hesitation in this magnificent work: Maybe I needed to watch a performance because, as mentioned above, the catharsis that is the promise of the Greek plays never arrives.
Despite that reservation, this is a book for the ages. Anyone with any interest in veterans or military affairs, the theater, prison reform, or the hospice movement, or even just a passing interest in ancient Greece must read The Theater of War.