Turtles and Rain

The Navajo Indians Think that Turtles Bring Rain

The Navajo Indians Think that Turtles Bring Rain

As Southern California is currently engulfed in several mammoth wind-driven brush fires, I think of how the Navajo and other Indian tribes believe that turtles are instrumental in bringing rain. They draw the outline of a turtle in the sand. The stick that is used to draw the figure is then driven into the ground through the back of the turtle. This supposedly brings rain, some say immediately, some say within a few days.

It is supposed to rain a little tomorrow, but given the time of year, I think it will be what a call a “dirty drizzle”—good for nothing but spotting the windshield of my car.

I have a small collection of turtle figurines I’ve purchased in years past driving through the Navajo Reservation in Arizona and New Mexico. Since we get an average of 15 inches of rainfall a year (this year we have only a third the amount), we need all the help we can get. I’m counting on my turtles to open the floodgates of the heavens.

The picture above was taken at Mulberry Pond at Descanso Gardens last week.


A Writer of Feuilletons and Causeries

Apparently, Writer’s Block Is Not Much of a Problem for Me

Apparently, Writer’s Block Is Not Much of a Problem for Me

When I was in high school, I thought I’d like to write the Great American Novel. I made several attempts at telling stories, but I found I just didn’t have the knack of inventing a character other than myself. In fact, I thought later of writing a series of short stories using a private investigator named Emeric Toth, patterned after me, of course; but the stories just did not take wing.

I have come to realize that I am what the French would call a writer of feuilletons, or to be even more exact, causeries. According to Wikipedia, the latter term refers to a piece that is:

generally short, light and humorous and is often published as a newspaper column (although it is not defined by its format). Often the causerie is a current-opinion piece, but it contains more verbal acrobatics and humor than a regular opinion or column. In English, causerie is commonly known as “personal story”, “funny story” or “column” instead.

The term feuilleton refers to a kind of op-ed newspaper piece, but can mean a whole lot of other things besides, such as (in today’s France) a soap opera.

Essentially, I write short essays on a multiplicity of topics that run the gamut from politics (though not so much any more, since politics in America got so dirty), religion, literature, film, travel, meditations, humor, science and the Internet, weekend excursions, to you name it. I’ll take on virtually any subject, though I am averse to Internet flame wars and quickly dump water on their beginnings. While I like to say what I feel, I am averse to back-and-forth debates. This is not so much because of any uncertainty in my convictions as an unwillingness to participate in the Grand Ego Theatre of the Internet.

As a literary medium, feuilletons and causeries are definitely writing in a minor key. My words will never be carved into stone or memorized by legions of school children. They are not detailed enough to change anyone’s mind about anything. They serve to entertain and inform, and perhaps point the way to other sources that do a better job in that area.

A few days ago, I re-read Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens. I could have chosen instead to re-read one of the Bard’s better-known works, but I have a certain affection for his minor plays. Maybe that’s why I write the way I do.


Some Icelandic Humor

The Juck Is on You!

The Juck Is on You!

I have become a fan of Jóhannes Benediktsson of the Iceland Review staff. The following text and illustrations are from an article in the Review’s “Daily Life” section on February 13 earlier this year entitled “An Urgent Message from the Lighthouse Bureau”. We begin with the text accompanying the above illustration:

Yuck!  Yuck!  Yuck!

What is YUCK?
You talk like an ignorant woman.
YUCK is world class quality.
YUCK is available everywhere.

International Yuck Co. Ldt.



There is a large hole in the road next to Pétursborg. Should anyone stick a foot in, he or she could be badly hurt. For that reason, I advise all to proceed with caution, except for the Bureau of Public Roads.

oldad_blauturthvotturIt was wet laundry that Húlli and Ási carried in that tub down Bergstaðastræti on Monday the 14th of September 1924, at 6 o’clock.


From abroad

there are no particular news. The Germans don’t seem to be up to very much at Verdun, but they probably have some trickery up their sleeves, be it on land or sea. Only some minor skirmishes between the Austrians and the Italians. The Russians claim to be launching an attack on the Germans in the near future. No news of the conflict in Turkey.

Mexican bandits have caused damage in the United States. Some insist that the government send the army to Mexico to disperse their posse. As of yet, it remains unclear what will happen.


Spoken Words Rescinded

I wish to make it known to all that the words spoken by me in inebriety and carelessness to Ms. Sigríður Þórðarsen of Akureyri on the 16th of this month are hereby declared null and void.

Randver Pétursson.


An announcement from the Lighthouse Bureau Commissioner: – There is no announcement from the Lighthouse Bureau Commissioner today.

Commissioner of the Lighthouse Bureau.


A Dead Language

Ancient Rome

Ancient Rome

My own career is a good example of many things, but none more than in my experience of the language and the literature of Ancient Rome. Like millions of my fellows, I was brought up in the 1930s to study Latin. When I was seventeen I switched to English, which nevertheless meant that I continued to study the classics, though less inflexibly than before. When I secured an award in English and went up to Oxford in 1941 I had the advantage of a classical training, for all that it seldom felt like any sort of advantage at the time.

The foregoing is a mere exordium in that I have no intention of going on to say that to have studied Latin is in itself somehow good for you or for your English style. It is not that a knowledge of Latin protects anybody from making mistakes about the meaning of English words, because the meanings of words are not fixed, they change in and after their move from one language to another. It is true that defendo means ‘I defend,’ but a muscle is not a little mouse, which etymologically it is, nor is a pencil what its origins declare it to be, a doubly small penis. Neither is it the case that, as schoolmasters are supposed to have thought or said at one time, one was helped to think by mastering that language, as if it were a course of mental gymnastics. Nevertheless the student of Latin, as of any considerable dead language, must constantly be trying to choose the right word to give the meaning of a Latin expression in English or an English expression in Latin. And if the writing of English generally is in decline, as many would say it is, we may be tempted to say that people no longer try to choose the right word as they once did. They often got it wrong, but they tried. Do they now?

Something like the foregoing sketch might be developed to accompany an analysis of English poetry as written over the last fifty years or so. If this is seen as having become not only less formally organised but less exact in its expression, then the loss of Latin has surely had a hand in the matter somewhere. Again, I do not simply mean that an acquaintance with Propertius or Catullus in the original is beneficial to any sort of poet, though I think I do think so, but just as simply that translation into and out of Latin verse calls for exactness, and that that quality is demanded in the writing of poetry as nowhere else. Exactness, by the way, is to be understood as applying to more than denotation: a word or phrase must be suitable to its context, so that a dialectal or slang term, for instance, is on the whole unlikely to fit well into a passage of high seriousness — except for special effect, as teachers used to add.

The chances are that no particular virtue attaches to Latin as a language, although its role in our culture is unique and uniquely important. Any dead language will do as the kind of trainer I mean, such as Ancient Greek or, were it copious enough and intelligible, Etruscan. But deadness is necessary. A living language is by definition unfixed, in a state of continuous development and change, adapting and often dropping dialecticisms, provincialisms, technical terms, slang of all sorts, foreign expressions and more. It has no choice but to be useless as any sort of example.

The preceding paragraphs are no doubt speculative. What follows is all too manifest. Not just Latin itself has disappeared but in many cases any certain knowledge of what it was. A phrase like mutatis mutandis, apart from being offensively unintelligible to almost every British person, will be taken as a bit of Italian or French or (it’s tempting to add) Choctaw rather than Latin. You come across it on old gravestones and monks used to sing it, or in it. The rest is silence. Latin is not only dead but cancelled.—Kingley Amis, “The Disappearance of Latin,” The King’s English: A Guide to Modern Usage

Full Frontal Nudity

Yes, That’s Me at the Age of 18 Months

Yep, That’s Me at the Age of 18 Months

This is a picture that has a history in our family. My Mom thought it was ever so cute, so she showed it to all her friends and their good-looking daughters as I was growing up—while I cringed and swore offstage.I think the very existence of this picture postponed the beginning of my sex life by several years.

At the time the picture was taken, we were living in Lake Worth, Florida. In the 1940s and 1950s, it was a separate city; but now it’s more or less merged into the West Palm Beach metro area. While Mom worked as a supermarket checker, Dad had the all-time worst job in the world, especially for one with his delicate stomach: He was part of a crew that removed dead alligators from the waterways around Lake Worth. He didn’t last a year, so we moved right back to Cleveland.

I was a born critic even then. There was a family that I didn’t like that lived on Federal Highway, so I would go there and have my ripest bowel movements right on top of their welcome mat. After all, the sign did say “Welcome.”


Breaking News

Don’t Put Your Trust in the News—Ever!

Don’t Put Your Trust in the News—Ever!

It would appear that the news is always breaking, but what if it is already broken—irretrievably? When something like the Boston Marathon bombing or the ricin mailings occur, our first impulse is to turn on the television and wait on the edge of our seats while we are fed a steady stream of speculation, suppositions, and outright lies.

As I have said on a number of occasions, I don’t watch television news at all, mainly because I don’t trust it. At some point between my childhood and today, the news organizations have been taken over by large corporations who have an interest in making people believe what they want them to believe.

If you want a balanced picture of what is happening, you don’t automatically turn to your favorite news outlet: You try several different media—and not always just from the United States—and compare. You might find that the BBC and Aljazeera have a better handle on things—not in the sense of being more up to date, but being more skeptical of the way that news stories are spoon fed to the media.

Take the Boston Marathon bombings. Here are just some of the false trails the news media followed:

  • The Boston Police said the Tsarnaev brothers were heavily armed. Yeah, with weapons of mass cuisine, e.g., pressure cookers. Oh, and one pistol.
  • When Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was trapped in the boat, the report came that he was firing at officers. Yet he was unarmed when the police finally stormed the boat.
  • Reports said that the brothers held up a Seven-Eleven Convenience Store and shot an MIT officer who intervened. They did not, in fact, rob a Seven-Eleven, and the facts are still not known as to how the MIT officer got involved.
  • Details about the carjacking are incredibly fuzzy, although a number of different alternatives have been floated in the news.

For more information about news miscues regarding the Tsarnaev’s bombing, check out this story from Salon.Com.

It is sad that Americans don’t know when they are being manipulated by the news media. To me, the media have some responsibility to find out the truth, not just provide a plausible cover for people to believe.

Learn Your Classics!

Botticelli’s Venus

Botticelli’s Venus

The English letters are twenty-six in number. There is nothing like beginning at the beginning; and we shall now therefore enumerate them, with the view also of rendering their insertion subsidiary to mythological instruction, in conformity with the plan on which some account of the Heathen Deities and ancient heroes is prefixed or subjoined to a Dictionary. We present the reader with a form of Alphabet composed in humble imitation of that famous one, which, while appreciable by the dullest taste, and level to the meanest capacity, is nevertheless that by which the greatest minds have been agreeably inducted into knowledge.


A was Apollo, the god of the carol,
B stood for Bacchus, astride on his barrel;
C for good Ceres, the goddess of grist,
D was Diana, that wouldn’t be kiss’d;
E was nymph Echo, that pined to a sound,
F was sweet Flora, with buttercups crown’d;
G was Jove’s pot-boy, young Ganymede hight,
H was fair Hebe, his barmaid so tight;
I, little Io, turn’d into a cow,
J, jealous Juno, that spiteful old sow;
K was Kitty, more lovely than goddess or muse;
L, Laocoon—I would’nt have been in his shoes!
M was blue-eyed Minerva, with stockings to match,
N was Nestor, with grey beard and silvery thatch;
O was lofty Olympus, King Jupiter’s shop,
P, Parnassus, Apollo hung out on its top;
Q stood for Quirites, the Romans, to wit;
R, for rantipole Roscius, that made such a hit;
S, for Sappho, so famous for felo-de-se,
T, for Thales the wise, F.R.S. and M.D.
U was crafty Ulysses, so artful a dodger,
V was hop-a-kick Vulcan, that limping old codger;
Wenus—Venus I mean—with a W begins,
(Vell, if I ham a Cockney, wot need of your grins?)
X was Xantippe, the scratch-cat and shrew,
Y, I don’t know what Y was, whack me if I do!
Z was Zeno the Stoic, Zenobia the clever,
And Zoilus the critic, Victoria for ever!—Percival Leigh (1813-1889), Paul Prendergast, or: The Comic Schoolmaster