4.15.2014

Not Caving In

When I mentioned Mark and Tristan in my entry on “bounce/bounds” (p. 42) I knew some people would immediately think of the opera Tristan und Isolde. But there’s no cave in Wagner’s version of the story. I was thinking instead of Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan, my favorite Medieval romance. I taught it in an early European survey class for many years.

In one episode, when jealous King Mark banishes his wife Isolde and her lover Mark they take refuge in a cave in the mountains. Gottfried tells us that some say they spent part of the time hunting, but others say they lived on love alone.

Hearing a hunting party in the woods nearby one night, Tristan placed his sword ready at hand. When Mark discovered them sleeping side by side in the cave he allowed his love for Isolde and his affection for Mark to convince him that the sword separating the two was a sign that they were leading a chaste life. This was not the first time that Mark let himself be deceived. In the story he continually vacillates between jealous suspicion and love-blinded credulity.

I made the king less credulous in my entry by writing “Mark thought that it was was out of bounds for his wife to go spelunking with Tristan.”

You do know what spelunking means, don’t you?

4.02.2014

Midnight

In the entry on “born/borne” on p. 41, a sample sentence is “Midnight has borne another litter of kittens in Dad’s old fishing hat.”

Midnight was an outdoor black cat that adopted several families in our old Pullman neighborhood, and a particular favorite of my wife. He was, however, a male.

3.22.2014

Goodbye, Jim—and Thanks for the Memories

I haven't posted here for a while because Jim Leisy, founder and publisher of William, James & Co. recently died of a sudden heart attack.

For a tribute by his colleague and friend (and my editor and friend) Tom Sumner, see http://wmjasco.blogspot.com/2014/03/goodbye-james-goodbye-franklin_14.html.

I’ve worked with several publishers over the decades, and William, James & Co. has been by far the best, dedicated to producing excellent books in the arts and humanities in an age when publishing is dominated by giant corporations churning out junk.

When I was approached by Bill Hoffmann for suggestions for an “evergreen” book that could sell continuously over the years, I showed him my Common Errors in English Usage Web site and asked if he thought it could be made into a book. My condition was that I would continue to provide the material on the site free to anyone who had access to the Web. What followed was an amazing exception to the narrative that the Internet is killing publishing.

Bill (the “William” of “William, James”) left the project before it got off the ground and it took Jim a year to decide to go ahead with it, but I was surprised and delighted when he did. Most publishers try to nail down all rights throughout the galaxy and until the end of time, but Jim took a chance on Common Errors in English Usage with full knowledge that I would retain my rights to the material in other formats. He offered a generous royalty rate, numerous author copies, and terrific support.

He was very particular about wanting an attractive design and high-quality printing. Adding the illustrative cartoons based on vintage engravings was a brilliant idea, executed by Tom (with help from his family).

Jim wasn't satisfied with just selling tens of thousands of copies of my book, he also had promotional t-shirts made, got me speaking engagements in Portland (twice at Wordstock), and hosted us at his house and in lovely restaurants. He negotiated an astounding deal with NBC News for the right to use the material in the book for a Web project of their own, giving me half of the very large sum they paid for nonexclusive rights.

He really wanted to design a set of greeting cards based on the book. Though I appreciated his enthusiasm, I couldn’t think of a way to make an appropriate greeting card aimed at correcting the recipient’s English. My whole philosophy is to offer my advice only to those who seek it out on a “take or leave it” basis. I have no patience with “zero-tolerance” usage mavens like Lynne Truss.

When I put together my photo book project, Four Seasons on Bainbridge Island, although it was too specialized for William, James, he volunteered his services to act as middleman in negotiating a deal with a printer in Malaysia specializing in color photographic work. He also authorized Tom to help me design the book. I offered to pay his expenses, but he declined. Without his extraordinary generosity the book would never have seen the light of day.

Jim was a fine photographer himself (see samples on his site), and he wound up publishing or distributing several fine-art books. As the years passed, William, James became more and more a distributor for other small publishers as well as putting out its own books. This was someone working in a tiny niche who had grand visions, and the business acumen to actually carry them out.

It was an amazing career for someone who started in the very different business of publishing computer science textbooks (under the “Franklin, Beedle” imprint, still very much an ongoing business).

He was always looking for new ways to present Common Errors. He attended a professional workshop on the publishing of calendars in order to create the Common Errors in English “boxed daily calendar.” (Turns out the phrase “Page-A Day” as it refers to daily calendars is copyrighted—who knew?) The calendars, created by Tom, sold very well for five years. When that market dwindled, we switched to an e-mail daily entry, also posted on Facebook. This blog gave Tom and  me a chance to further develop ideas related to the subject matter of the book.

Common Errors always sold well on Amazon, so it was natural to make it into a Kindle, and then recently into an iBook.

Jim had the smarts to keep the price of the book low, which is an important reason it has sold so well. He also disdained gimmicky prices ending in $.95—a disdain I share. It listed originally for $15, and although greatly expanded in its latest edition, it’s still only $19.

 I have been used to being treated with bland indifference by publishers: low pay, little publicity, next to no support.

Jim was a prince of a publisher and a lovely human being. He provided voluntary services not only to the publishing community, but supported theatre and classical music in Portland through his volunteer work.

We’ll miss him.

A lot.


3.14.2014

Goodbye, James | Goodbye, Franklin

Jim Leisy,
New York 2005
I've written memorials here before. When you're in the biz you have your favorites, you know—people you would like to pay tribute to because they hung on to their integrity while much of the industry would abandon values in favor of an instant buck.

But now I have to write in memory of someone I would so much rather not write up. It's completely loathsome, to be honest. Not that he does not deserve it, don't get me wrong: it's not the person part, it's the "in memory of" part.

William, James & Company was founded as an imprint of Franklin, Beedle & Associates Inc. Both bear the name of their founder, James Franklin Leisy, Jr. The joke in naming William, James & Company was that the imprint was meant to handle English language reference and philosophy, and the founders (Bill Hoffman and Jim Leisy) could contribute the long forms of their first names to play on the great American writer/philosopher William James.

Today we are saying goodbye to the James of William, James and the Franklin of Franklin, Beedle. On his way in to work in Portland Wednesday of this week, Jim suffered a fatal heart attack, and so it was that we in the office had already seen Jim for the final time two days before. If the word were not so overused I'd call things around here "surreal"; I'll opt for "weird" instead.

For myself, I came to work at Franklin, Beedle in late 1992. That company, focused on computer science textbooks for the college market, thrived until a bit after the dot-com bust of the late-90s. It became apparent that it would be wise at that point to diversify a bit, and so Bill Hoffman came over from another publisher to help us start the William, James & Company imprint. The general economy was to go sour just then, as Jim and Bill had agreed to founding the imprint on September 10, 2001. Bill felt he needed to leave at that point to seek stability as an editor for an established press. And so it was that Jim became the publisher of two publishing imprints—one academic and one trade.

But I've always known Jim to be much more than the guy running the company. He had far-reaching interests, and that always made it possible to pick up just about any conversation thread. He had two main interests outside of publishing: photography and guitar. But really he could find himself enthralled by just about anything.

What follows are some random sketches of memories I have of Jim, especially of working together with him all these years. Those who knew Jim will recognize some of this.
  • Ping-pong. When I arrived at Franklin, Beedle in the early-90s, the revolution in the workplace was in full swing, and at FBA that meant there was a full-sized ping-pong table in the center of the office. Lots of space surrounding the table meant the games often became something more than casual. But on late Friday afternoon there was often time for beer pong, as taught to us by an actual fraternity member and graduate of Cal Berkeley. All of this tomfoolery among us editors and salespeople and order processors was endorsed by (and often joined-in-on by) Jim, who resisted stodginess outright at Franklin, Beedle.
  • Social gathering. Was there an occasion to celebrate? An author in town on a visit? A pivotal announcement? These were often marked by Jim-led dinners and lunches, often at some top-of-the-line restaurant or hotel. There was no such thing as business without pleasure (and often vice-versa) with Jim.
  • Music. Jim was a music-on-in-the-background worker by nature. A bit of a jazz-head, he was extra fond of Miles Davis, Pat Metheny, Michael Hedges. For popular music he, like everyone else his age, had a strong Beatles inclination, but he and I really bonded over Steely Dan. The last thing he lent me was his copy of Donald Fagan's Eminent Hipsters, which I returned to him on Monday, the last time I saw him. We had a thoroughly energetic and engaged conversation about the Boswell Sisters and a history of jazz clubs in the Village.
  • Gadgets. Oh, man, did Jim love gadgets. Part of it may have sprung from his love of guitars and guitar amps, and part of it may have been from his love of photography and his near-encyclopedic understanding of cameras and lenses. But whatever—he was extremely fond of all manner of electronics. For a long time he held on to the idea that he would establish or endow a computer museum with his collection of old computers. He held on to ancient hardware, he said, for that purpose. Really, though, I think he just thought that stuff was cool, and he could always remember how cool it all was when it was new, such as his Apple II and his Commodore 64. The last time I saw Jim he had just been given an Arduino that he was eager to check out and start putting together.
  • Photography. This is such a huge topic, and there is no way I can do it justice when it comes to Jim. He had talent for it, to be sure (I am especially fond of his Amateur Physics series), and there was also his work on the Photo Council for the Portland Art Museum, but my personal favorite story was about the time he butted heads with the Photo Council about bringing in Police-guitarist Andy Summers to give a talk about his photography, which had recently been collected and published by a Portland publisher, Nazraeli Press. Jim had had success bringing David Byrne to town to lecture—a big money-raiser for the council—and thought Andy Summers could draw a similar crowd. The Photo Council rejected it as a bit of grandstanding, though, and it was up to Jim to pass the bad news along to Andy. And so it was that one otherwise-quiet afternoon at the office I picked up the phone to hear a British accent on the other end asking for Jim. "Can I tell him who's calling?" I asked, but knowing full well what would come next (I just wanted to hear it): "Sure. It's Andy Summers."
  • Cars and bikes: Know about a car? A bike? Guess what—Jim knew about it, too! And probably what years it was made and when significant engine and body changes came in. As with cameras and guitars, Jim's knowledge was fairly encyclopedic. I spent many hours talking cars and bikes with Jim, though I have to confess I added zero information to any of it. That was another quality Jim had, though: exceptionally tolerant of uninformed opinion for the sake of moving the conversation forward.
  • Guitars, drums, musical instruments: In the leanest years of our publishing days together, Jim and I shared a 7000 square-foot office and warehouse space, just the two of us. That was when the ping-pong table came down and Jim decided to set up a place to play music. He brought in the pieces of the drum kit he was assembling, several of his guitars, a bass, a mic and stand, and some amps. There was a ukulele in there somewhere, too. This was to be our new recreational activity. We got into this habit of talking through a topic that had come up doing with the business, then reach a natural pause. At this point we'd look at one another knowingly and wander to the instruments, flip some switches, and crank out a tune or two. We settled in to Jim was the drummer, and I was the singer/guitar player. The fact is that Jim's guitar playing would have been so much better, but we had to face the fact that my drumming was untenable, even for a really crummy spontaneous jam on some rock standard. The last time I saw Jim play guitar was when he brought out his Lowden at his Christmas party last year to do something he had said he wanted to do for quite a while: Play tunes to accompany my son (unlike me, a musician who could hold his own with Jim) on fiddle. I won't forget the joy of watching those two work the room. Earlier this month Jim had acquired a 1960 Guild hollow body that he was very excited about but in the end only got to play a few days.

There are so many other memories I have of Jim, but mainly I just want to say that working for and with Jim on so many book projects and with so many other people has had this huge, gigantic impact on my life. He showed me a lot of things along the way, but the only thought I'm having right this minute is that I did not learn enough, there was still so much more for us to be doing together.

One word I'll carry with me about Jim, one word that will resonate and sum up my thinking: Creativity.

3.02.2014

Moody Blues

“Once in a blue moon” is a traditional expression meaning “once in a great while.” Here’s the entry on this saying from the American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms:
Rarely, once in a very long time, as in We only see our daughter once in a blue moon. This term is something of a misnomer, because an actual blue moon—that is, the appearance of a second full moon in the same calendar month—occurs ever 32 months or so. Further, the moon can appear blue in color at any time, depending on weather conditions. [Early 1800s]
But the Oxford English Dictionary gives as its first definition the literal meaning:
A moon (real, depicted, or imagined) that appears blue. On rare occasions the moon can appear distinctly blue owing to the presence of smoke or dust particles in the atmosphere.
Only with the second definition do we get the figurative meaning: “A long or indefinite length of time; a rarely recurring period or event.” The OED cites this as its first example, written in 1821: "How's Harry and Ben?—haven't seen you this blue moon.”

Then it defines “once in a blue moon” as “rarely, exceptionally” and gives the first example from 1833: “We are no advocates for the eternal system of producing foreign operas to the exclusion of the works of English composers, but once in a blue moon such a thing may be allowed.”

Finally, it has an extensive note on modern American usage which makes clear that the definition provided by the Dictionary of Idioms is not the one intended in the early 19th century:
           U.S. Originally: the third full moon in a season which (exceptionally) contains four full moons (each season, as defined by the mean sun, normally containing three full moons) (now hist.). In later use: a second full moon in a calendar month.
           As shown in Sky & Telescope (1999) May 36–8, the later use of the term originated in a misunderstanding of the source of quot. 1937   by the author of quot. 1946. A blue moon in the original Maine Farmers' Almanac sense can only occur in the months of February, May, August, and November. In the later sense, one can occur in any month except February. This later sense gained currency from its use in a United States radio programme, StarDate, in 1980, and its inclusion in the game Trivial Pursuit in 1986.            Earlier occurrences of the sense given in the Maine Farmers' Almanac have not been traced, either in editions of the Almanac prior to 1937, or elsewhere; the source of this application of the term (if it is not a coinage by the editor, H. P. Trefethen) is unclear.

           1937   Maine Farmers' Almanac Aug. 21/2   This extra moon had a way of coming in each of the seasons so that it could not be given a name appropriate to the time of year like the other moons. It was usually called the Blue Moon. There are seven Blue Moons in a Lunar Cycle of nineteen years.
1946   J. H. Pruett in Sky & Telescope Mar. 3   Dr. L. J. Lafleur quotes an explanation found in the Maine Farmers' Almanac for 1937... Full moons of the year were given names..provided there was only one per month. These names were as follows: Moon after Yule, Wolf Moon, Lenten Moon, [etc.]... But seven times in 19 years there were—and still are—13 full moons in a year. This gives 11 months with one full moon each and one with two. This second in a month, so I interpret it, was called Blue Moon. 
So the supposed origin of the expression “once in a blue moon” has nothing to do with astronomy and everything to do with condition of the atmosphere on rare occasions.

So rare is this condition that some people suppose that the expression is “once in a blue mood.” You can read a number of examples in the Eggcorn Forum.

To have the blues is to be moody so it's not surprising that “blue” should be more readily associated by some people with “mood” than with “moon.” Of course the variant lacks the intended meaning since blue moons are all too common among many people. Note that the examples given in the Eggcorn Forum refer mostly to happy events, not depressing ones.

In popular music blues are often sad, but upbeat songs can be written in blues form as well, as noted in this statement on Wikibooks:
Many blues songs also deal with the topics of personal pride, defiance, or other powerful emotions than woe such as love or anger. While blues lyrics seldom turn to extremely happy topics, they are often uplifting and empowering or humorous. It cannot be said that blues is a 'sad' genre. The blues are a way of dealing with sorrow, rather than wallowing in it.
My favorite allusion to “blue” meaning “sad” is in the title of Duke Ellington’s classic  Mood Indigo (1930).

When the slightly racy stage play The Moon is Blue was made into a film in 1953 it caused a controversy which helped break down the prudish Hollywood Production Code.  “Blue” can also mean “erotic” when it refers to reading matter or movies.

Isn’t the moon supposed to be made of blue cheese? Nope—green cheese; but not in the way you might suppose.

But a lot of blue movies are cheesy.



2.20.2014

In With the New; In With the Old Too

Today I’m resuming my series of notes on entries in Common Errors in English Usage with a note on the “Bible” entry (p. 37).

I taught “The Bible as Literature” at Washington State University for many years. Because in nonsectarian one-semester courses like this the vast majority of the material covered comes from the Jewish Bible, I told my classes that we would not be using the Christian terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament.”

For me and many other teachers the principal interest of Biblical texts is as part of the history of ideas. An important aspect of such a course is to discuss the evolution of the Biblical text in its original contexts, and most of that is Jewish. For each selection studied I would try to begin with elucidating the literal meaning of the text, then go on to explain the various modern scholarly theories about its original meaning.

I would often then go on to trace the development of varying views on the text, sometimes within the Bible itself, or among Jewish scholars, Christians and.Muslims. Occasionally I would branch off into Medieval interpretations when they were important for literary purposes, as for instance in the use of the Song of Songs to venerate the Virgin Mary.

The label “Old Testament” forecloses the debate on all this complexity by accepting the view of the Gospel writers that the Jewish scriptures are an incomplete foreshadowing of Christian revelation. So in class the terms we used were “Jewish Bible” and “Christian Scriptures.”

These are neutral terms, offensive to hardly anyone, but unfortunately many teachers and students are committed to either a Christian or Jewish view which makes them reluctant to abandon their own religious terminology. I offer the terminology I prefer because I hope that at least some of my readers will find it attractive.

“Old Testament” is a slippery term for other reasons too. For Jews and Protestants it excludes several books originally written in Greek rather than Hebrew which are included in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles (the so-called “deuterocanonical” books). These books include some of the finest and historically most influential writing in the Bible, such as Ecclesiasticus and the additions to the Book of Daniel. I always tried to include at least some selections from them.

Then there is the Samaritan Bible, which consists solely of the the first five books of the traditional Hebrew Bible—the Torah.

“Old Testament” is just too narrow a term for this complex collection of material.

I once participated in a grant that tried to convey to public high school teachers how they could incorporate the study of the Bible into their classes without violating the Constitutional separation of Church and State—a particularly strong legal distinction in the state of Washington. Many were eager to hear what we had to say but dismayed when we explained they would have to treat the subject from a neutral, purely human point of view, without promoting a particular religious interpretation.

For similar reasons, instead of the Christian-based terminology “BC” (“before Christ”) and “AD” (Anno Domino, Latin for “year of the Lord”) I always used “BCE” (“before the common era”) and “CE” (the common era).  Although this terminology was popularized at first by Jewish writers, it has spread among all sorts of scholars engaged in historical study. Of course “Common Era” has a Christian bias in that the period covered by it is identical to that referred to by the old “AD.”

But the fact is that even though Jews, Muslims, and others continue to use their traditional calendars for religious purposes, in the globalized world we inhabit the calendar which puts us in the year 2014 predominates. It really is “common” in both senses of the word: “shared” and “popular.”

If you’re curious about nonsectarian Bible study, you might look at the textbook I used, Stephen L. Harris’s Understanding the Bible. A new copy is pricey, but you can find earlier editions being offered quite cheaply. They are perfectly adequate for a beginner.

If you want to dig further into historical/literary Bible study, you can explore some of the books on the bibliography I put together for my course. Nothing new has been added since I retired, but anyone seeking to understand modern Biblical studies should start with the classics. And yes, I have read most of them.