Happy Birthday Robert Burns!

burnsJanuary 25th, 1759.

A weary Winter soon will pass

And spring will cleed the birken shaw.

(Spring will clothe the birch woods, that is)

From “The Bonnie Lad That’s Far Awa,” 1788

Why do I mark Burns’s birthday each year, even though I am not from Scotland?

1. He was prolific. I admire a guy who did not make it to age 40 but yet wrote . . .  however many poems he wrote. Project Gutenberg has about 500 poems, songs etc.:


2. I also admire a guy who wrote so much in a dialect that most English-speakers would not understand. It’s like Melville sitting down to write 500 pages about whales, or Richard Adams grinding out a novel about rabbits. Just imagine the confidence it takes to know that what you’re writing is so good, people will work to figure it out.

3. He was politically a right-on guy, for his time; he spoke of support for democratic movements in France and the U.S.

4. His birthday is a good excuse for food and Scotch in a slow time of year.


A peace book for children!

port cover dec 29 jpgA Map and a Mule is the story of Queen Isabel of Portugal, a workaholic peacemaker of the late 13th and early 14th Centuries who prevented several battles, including one between her husband and their son (ah, the Middle Ages!). For ages 5 to 8. 22 pages, 14 illustrations, including a vintage map and the cover watercolor.  The picture here is a link to its Amazon listing.

And this is the entire interior:


From a reviewer:

” . . . most important is the idea of seeking peaceful solutions to disagreements. A Map and a Mule is a great little book with a great big message” – Wayne S. Walker, Home School Book Review.  http://homeschoolbookreviewblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/a-map-and-a-mule-a-peace-story-of-queen-isabel-of-portugal/

This post is the same as the permanent “page” tab above — that page is the rock-steady presence on this blog, whereas this post will get the headlines . . .

Autumn reading – “not unlike a gigantic gravestone” . . .

rmb coverOften in November I read a novel or short story to get myself into an autumn state of mind . . . I’m not sure why; I don’t do this for other seasons. For one thing, I think, I used to love autumn when I was a kid, and now as an adult I find that it often rushes by before I can take time to appreciate it; a book helps me notice the leaves, the faded goldfinches, and so on.

One such story is “Roger Malvin’s Burial” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Roger Malvin is a mortally wounded farmer walking home from a battle, accompanied by another, younger, likewise seriously wounded man, Reuben Bourne; Roger convinces Reuben to abandon him (Roger) in the wilderness (New England woods, circa 1725) so that Reuben himself can get the medical attention he needs.

The conversation between these two generous men, each prepared to sacrifice for the other, is the first part of the story; the second part is Reuben’s bitter lifelong guilt that results from the abandonment. The ending is tragedy worthy of Shakespeare.

And we have a giant slab of granite “not unlike a gigantic gravestone;” beds of oak leaves; and old trees groaning in fear.  It’s a perfect autumnal story — set in May, ahem.

Not to be read as a lesson in cultural awareness regarding Native Americans.

Oppressing my children with Latin

I often bore my children with Latin trivia. They might ask me what “purlieu” means, for example, and I’ll ramble on about divining the meaning from the Latin roots; that “lieu” means “place,” as they can guess from the Spanish word lugar, which they know (or should know); and they could also guess it from the word “lieutenant,” if they think about it, since a lieutenant literally takes (the Latin root behind “-tenant,” kids; think of Spanish tener) the place (the “lieu,” again) of someone.

My kids are sick of this already. But I envision them valuing my knowledge someday. My daughter and I will be riding a train somewhere, and there will be rain hitting the windows as we look out on the countryside; she will be a mature young adult, and we’ll be traveling to . . . somewhere impressive, maybe her internship at a renewable energy nonprofit in France, or something like that; and she’ll say that some challenge facing her is obvious; and I’ll agree that it is obvious, and I’ll make a wry little joke that it clearly is indeed standing in her way; from “ob,” in front of you or opposite you, and “vious,” the way, the path. But we’ll both know that she can surmount the challenge. And she will appreciate the way I illustrate the point through the etymology. We’ll gaze out the window together, two smart people making our way in the world.

Yeah, right. She’ll be on a plane reading a magazine, and I’ll be back home with my wife, wondering what we’ll do with ourselves now that the house is so quiet.

But anyway – how about that word “surmount?” Seems to be literally “climbing over” a “mountain,” doesn’t it . . .

Clement weather! (Just in time for the long weekend)

There is a terrific word used today by Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post: clement.  We hear about inclement weather all the time, but nice weather can indeed be termed clement (I looked it up).

“The approximately 150-foot-tall seasonal inflatable structure would be inflated during clement months for special events . . . “

The article is about a temporary dome that might be added to the Hirshhorn Museum.


On a related note, please do not add any nocuous comments to this post.

I’m still waiting for a description of someone who grew up with moderate challenges in a somewhat well-off town as having had a medium-scrabble upbringing.

Puzzle: What do these words have in common: mate, peck . . .

Picture 147. . . miss, pot, and blunder ?

This puzzle is the challenge used by Will Shortz this week on the NPR Weekend Edition Puzzle. Here it is, narrated — it’s the last bit of the segment:


I suggested it to the show a few weeks ago — of course Shortz knew the answer already, but decided to use it.

I’ve been collecting these for years.  I have a few more, also.

(N.B. the palm tree photo has nothing to do with it.  I just like palm trees.)

Once again overtaken by Walter the Farting Dog

port cover dec 29 jpgAnother chapter in my glorious march to writing success: If an Amazon customer searches books forpeace story for children,” my book about Queen Isabel of Portugal comes up (this morning anyway) at #35, three spaces behind . . . Walter the Farting Dog, by William Kotzwinkle.

Walter has long been a nemesis of mine — well, at least since December, when A Map came out. For some time his book came up in such a “peace story” search well ahead of mine; then Isabel dashed in front for awhile; now she has fallen behind again.

A Map and a Mule is a peace story because Isabel nipped at least one war and one battle in their buds, through diplomacy (which I don’t bore the kids with, don’t worry) and also by riding a mule onto a battlefield. And Walter the dog is an equally distinguished peacemaker, apparently.

You might ask: Does anyone really search “peace story for children”?  Yes, they do, judging by traffic to my other blog, my peace blog. Just ask Walter.

walter jpg