Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Literary Analysis of Rip Van Winkle's Precursor (800 A.D.), Sucking on Lemons and Other Hazards of Life on Earth

Due to the wonders of Blogger "Stats," I've noticed that a substantial number of the people who find their way to the Van Winkle Project do so by googling "Rip Van Winkle literary analysis."

My best guess is that these searchers are young people who have a paper or presentation to make about the story "Rip Van Winkle" by Washington Irving and are looking for some solid information they can appropriate.

What do they find instead? A blog where, in lieu of any comment on real news, I post about whatever cloud of thought is passing through my mind.

But I think it's time to offer some value-added for these ardent scholars. What I'd like to propose is that if they want to write something interesting about the Rip Van Winkle story it might be useful for them to consider by way of contrast an earlier incarnation of a man who lost track of time.

I'm thinking of a Japanese folk tale I recently found out about from a former student of mine whose father used to read it to him when he was a child.

Let's go back, way back...to the 8th Century B.C. and the story of Urashima Taro. And if you want to get into the proper mood for it, you might want to mix up an especially sour batch of lemonade...

Once Upon a Time in Japan
Urashima Taro was  a fisherman and a good hearted man, so good hearted that he saved a young sea turtle from children who were abusing it...

Taro saved the turtle.

The sea turtle returned later, full grown, and offered Taro a reward. He took him on his back to an undersea palace where there dwelt dancing girls and a beautiful princess. They wanted Taro to stay here where no one ever experienced sorrow or ever grew old or died...

Taro rode the turtle.
Life was good in the undersea palace. There were dancing girls
and a beautiful princes, but after a while Taro longed for home.

Three years passed (some versions say three days) and Taro remembered his parents. He wished to return home. The princess said, all right, but she gave him an ornate box to take with him. "Never open it," she sternly instructed...

As he was leaving the magical undersea kingdom, Taro received the box.

The turtle took Taro across the sea and back home.

Taro journeyed home with the mysterious box he must not open.

But something was wrong. Taro's house was gone. He recognized no one. Finally someone said that he remembered hearing stories as a boy about a Urashima Taro who 300 years ago went away to sea on the back of a turtle and was never heard from again.

The old man spoke of a Urashima Taro who rode away to sea...300 years ago!

How could this be? Three hundred years had passed! It was true and Taro was sad. Almost without thinking (or perhaps hoping for a magical stroke of luck) he fumbled open the box the princess had given him. Suddenly smoke emerged and he aged instantly. His old age was what had been kept in the box.

Oh no! Taro opened the box and aged at once. The end!

Teasing Out Meanings
At this point it might be fair to ask what on earth is this tale trying to tell us?

1) That Taro should have obeyed the princess--and human precedent. If someone tells you not to touch or open something, don't let curiosity get the better of you. There is always a good reason for a taboo and, if you test your limits, you'll be sorry.


2) Taro had to be punished for leaving his chance at immortality. By allowing himself to be pulled back into the world of mortals, it was inevitable he would become like the others and lose his life as well.


3) It's a lesson in the need for the purist form altruism. If you do someone a favor, do not accept any compensation or reward.


4) If you spend time with dancing girls the rest of life can pass you by a lot faster than you realize. And once the entertainment is over what do you have?



Comparison to Rip Van Winkle
I made myself a little chart as I tried to puzzle out what was similar and dissimilar in these two tales of men who inadvertently step outside of time. It rather quickly became apparent that there were more differences than similarities.
The main thing I notice when comparing the older tale to Washington Irving's more recent one is that things turn out much more happily in America than they do in Japan. Taro's time away from his people sows the seeds of his destruction. By contrast, Rip's extended nap lead to his rebirth as a man (widowed and freed of a nagging wife) and as the citizen of a new country (freed from the rule of the King George).

In the end, Urashima Taro seems to have more in common with Planet of the Apes than Rip Van Winkle. In the POTA film, if you'll recall, Charleton Heston and his crew return to earth, but they are unaware they've slipped through some kind of time warp. Earth has aged; they have not. They can't understand how political rule has shifted from people to talking apes. They fight until they realize that all the rest of humanity has been destroyed in a nuclear war. Their position is hopeless.

"Damn dirty apes!" Charleton Heston cries in the film.

"Damn turtle!" Urashima Taro might shout as well as he considers how he's been carried to an ending that leaves him old and desolated.

Such dark pessimism. Such sour sucking lemons. But don't blame me. I didn't write the story. And I never make it a practice to recommend that anyone open boxes (or blogs) whose contents are unknown. - V.W.


Friday, March 25, 2011

To Be Seizure Free

I will miss the National Walk for Epilepsy which takes place this Sunday in Washington, D.C. Since I'm "Van Winkled" I won't know what the turn-out is like either.

But I do know that with the cherry trees in blossom, thousands of people will gather on the National Mall and walk together to draw attention to this disease and lobby for more research to find a cure.

It's an American habit to walk or run for this or that malady. We gather, listen to speeches, collect money from the sponsors of our walk, and then we go home and hope something changes over time...

...that the life of someone whom we love gets better. Or, if it's too late for that, that others don't have to live with the disease.

But what about epilepsy? In the past I would have shrugged my shoulders. It wouldn't have mattered if you told me that 200,000 people will be diagnosed with it this year. It wouldn't have caught my attention if you said that the prevalence of epilepsy would fill 30 cities the size of the one I live in.This disease was invisible to me.

Not any more.

It Looked Just Like He was Dying
There was a bright, happy only child living an idyllic life. He was a straight A student, he loved to read and draw and make things. He sang in the shower.

I speak of our son.

My wife and I sometimes joke that for two melancholics like ourselves to have such an upbeat, cheerful offspring amounts to a natural cure. As long as he's in the house and pulling us toward sunlight and rainbows, we'll never have to start taking anti-depressants.

But a cloud came over this ideal family portrait. On May 26, 2008, our son had his first seizure.

Quickly, it went like this...

He had been running a fever for several days. He had a stomachache and he vomited several times. He was a bit better and napping with his mom that afternoon. Suddenly he began to tremble and moan.

His mother, phone in hand, punching 9-1-1, ran to the outbuilding where I was lifting weights and listening to loud rock music. She screamed at me. She then ran barefoot across the street to where our neighbor, a fireman lived.

I ran into the house and reached the bedroom. Our son's eyes were rolled up. He was pale, shaking all over, and completely unresponsive.

I held on to him and said, "It's all right, buddy. Stay on your side. Be comfortable." I was terrified.

This had come out of nowhere.

It looked like he was dying.

He was turning blue.

The EMTs arrived.

I"ll always remember what record was playing on my old turntable when my wife interrupted my workout. I ran out of the room with the needle still riding in the groove. It was the second album by a band called Steppenwolf. The song was "Magic Carpet Ride."

I have never listened to the song since.

A Literary History of Epilepsy
What little previous knowledge I had of epilepsy came from literature.

We read William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in high school. The mighty ruler collapses early in the play and is said to have "the falling sickness."

I was surprised to learn that Shakespeare hadn't just stuck this in for dramatic effect, but that it was believed to be historically true. Caesar had suffered in his adulthood from what appeared to be what today we call epilepsy . At school I was assigned to lead discussion of the play. I thought I was clever when I began by writing on the chalkboard.

My other literary exposure to this disease came around the same time when I read The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The great Russian writer, afflicted with epilepsy himself, knew what he was doing when he gave his Christ figure protagonist, Prince Myshkin, the disease.

Through Myshkin's perceptions we understand the sort of pre-seizure halo effect that some epileptics experience. It's a feeling of connectedness and calm that is so great that Myshkin briefly considers that it might be worth be dying for just to have those few seconds.

Prince Myshkin decides this exquisite feeling isn't worth dying for. The violence and the distress of the seizure upon himself and others are horrific. At one point he is attacked by a knife wielding adversary. The shock of the assault causes him to go into a "fit" and he falls down a set of stairs. This actually saves him from being stabbed to death.

At the time I thought, "Oh nice! This Russian writer guy may have a reputation, but this is pure melodrama!"

I didn't know what I was talking about. I would have to wait almost forty years to read the scene right. With tears in my eyes.

When a second seizure occurred a week later (after our son's other symptoms had gone away) we knew he not had a "febrile seizure," i.e., one brought on by a fever. Something else was going on. An MRI revealed a "white area" in the temporal lobe, an indication of excessive neural activity and a clearcut diagnosis of epilepsy could be given.

He began taking 300 mg. of Tegretol each day. He would do this for two years. Last year, because he had remained seizure free, the doctor took him off the medication.

Anti-seizure meds are a blessing and a curse. For most people they are powerful enough to keep the brain from kicking into the hyper activity mode that causes seizures. However, they can eventually lead to side effects including sexual dysfunction and organ damage and a shortened lifespan.

This is why it's fortunate that 70% of epileptics are eventually able to be taken off medication.

Still, this is not the same as being "cured." All these years after Shakespeare and Dostoevsky, little is understood of this disease. A Newsweek cover story a couple of years ago explored this--how epilepsy is as widespread as breast cancer, yet research dollars directed toward it are only a fraction. Why is this? Could one reason be that the disease is invisible? That it is kept further "undercover" by an unwillingness to talk about it?

Hence the need for a Walk for Epilepsy.

By the Cherry Blossoms
In Washington, D.C. there will be several messages conveyed by the walkers.

1 - This disease strikes primarily the young and the old. It does not single out more than anyone else the gifted like Julius Caesar and Fyodor Dostoevsky or, most recently, it has been theorized the great composer and pianist Frederic Chopin. Thus there is no silver lining: have the disease and you'll be compensated with some special talent or genius.

2- Epilepsy can happen to anyone. Chances are someone you know has it or knows someone who does. The woman who comes to clean our house has a grandson with epilepsy. You can tell how he's doing when you see the expression on her face when she arrives at the door each week.

3 - Epileptics and their families live in the shadow of not knowing. Will it happen again? What if I'm driving a car or operating equipment or standing in the bathtub when I have a seizure?

4 - People are afraid if they happen to see someone having a seizure. Little wonder. As I've tried to relate it's one of the most frightening things one can witness. This is why in old days epileptics were considered demon possessed. It was so bad looking it had to be happening at the behest of forces of evil or because the person was an "idiot." There's still that social pariah aspect of the disease. This needs to change.

So they are walking in Washington, D.C. to show everyone we are your neighbors, we are just like you except we have this thing we have to live with. We seek your acceptance and your understanding. We walk in the hope that something can be done. - V.W.


Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Reading Stone!

The following is true.

It does not amount to news or entertainment which keeps it in the safe zone, i.e., it is not a blatant violation of The Van Winkle Project. What I'm about to reveal has been a fact for a good long while, although it's either gone unobserved or not often remarked upon.

That makes this piece of information akin to "history." It's something I found in a 1995 book that perhaps you might be interested in knowing about, especially, if like me, you are somewhat fixated on writing and good books and rock 'n' roll.

Here's the book...

Next item. Do you recognize this face?

With its deep canyons tracing out the evidence of a cigarette and drug fueled life lived at mach speed, one might say this is every rock 'n' roll guitarist's poster child. Any bad boy Van Halen or Slash or Flea who ever put his fingers on the frets has had to measure himself against this gold standard of decadence and pure riff generating genius.

Of course, we're talking about Mr. Jumping Jack Flash himself, Rolling Stone Keith Richards.

But did you know something else? This is the face of a reader of books.

Keith Richards has long been a bibliophile. He may have turned the pages of lots of women in his nearly seventy years of life, but he's loved many more books.

You see, Mr. Richards collects books. He's built libraries to house his collection. Most importantly, he enjoys spending hours in...reading.

And perhaps you thought I was going to say "sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll"?

Give Him Shelter and a Good Book
As I was perusing my recently acquired used copy of the above-mentioned lavish coffee table book, I found inspiring information about how to create and maintain one's own collection of cherished books. There were also profiles of individuals who had made a library a part of their lifestyle.

This was where Keith Richards entered with five strings and an "open book" tuning.

Sure his home library is messy, but he is a Rolling Stone...

Of course, as a man of wealth and taste, Richards has lavish homes around the world. However, his home in Connecticut, where he spends a short while each year, is different. He had a octagonal room built just to house his books.

Keith's collection includes some leatherbound classics his wife gave him, books on art, and his favorite subject, military strategy and history.

According to Keith the screaming adulation directed the band's way whenever they're on stage gives him pause. He tries to understand it through his reading:

   "I'm interested in how people can fall for dictators, and in the origins
   of the mass psychosis they provoke. That's what I do for a living,
   after all. Time to go to the office--go out in front of hordes of
   howling people!...You become part of the mass hysteria.
   You forget yourself in the moment. Is that what Hitler experienced?"

Honky Tonk Books
According to Keith, it's not so surprising, that someone in his business would sustain a life of reading. He points to all the boring travel and the hours cooped up in a hotel room before playing a show. It's perfect for passing the time with a good book.

My favorite quote by Keith: "One must always handle a book with respect. I never read one with sticky fingers."

No, wait. I made that up. But the rest? It's true and you can check it out. See here. - V.W.


Friday, March 18, 2011

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Galactic Writer's Block

Last week it was Douglas Adams' birthday.
It happened on March 11, to be precise, and I wouldn't be surprised if at that anniversary moment somewhere in England a man was lying down in front of a bulldozer trying to prevent his house from being demolished. At the same time he was scheming how to slip off to the pub for a pint just before the entire planet is blown up...

As for the rest of the world, I'm sure some of us took notice as well. Adams was a writer and a successful one with books in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series selling over 15 million copies and continuing to sell to this day.

Douglas Adams was less successful at living his life as a long, sustained series.

A native of Cambridge, England, he moved to the palm studded west coast of America in the 1980s. He died in Montecito, California, of a heart attack while working out a private gym in 2001. He was 49.

Something that interests me about Adams was that he didn't much like to write. It started with churning out the original BBC radio scripts of The Hitchhiker's Guide. Adams was often still writing just hours before the actors had to record an episode.

Our well loved, beat-up,
former library copy
Still, he did well, leading his readers on a Monty-Pynthonesque romp through the nether regions of outer space,  highlighting humanity's absurdity along the way. Adams dared to suggest that:
  • The most important thing a space traveler carries is his towel.
  • The answer to the ultimate question about life, the universe and everything is "42."
  • The third worst poetry in the universe is written by an ugly, pompous species called Vogons. Their poetry is so bad that to be forced to listen to it amounts to unspeakable torture that will cause any enemy to confess and give up all his secrets.
  • The very worst poetry in the universe has been written by Paula Nancy Milstone Jennings of Sussex, England who died when the Earth was destroyed because it was in the path of an hyperspatial space lane that was being built.
I came to Adams' work rather late. I was looking for entertaining material to read to our son at bed time when he was around nine years old. A friend, who is a computer programmer, had been reading Adams' "five book trilogy" to his daughter and so I thought, Why not?

Soon my favorite character was Marvin, the perpetually depressed and irritable robot. Marvin was a sort of tin Eeyore or silicon chip Henny Youngman who said things like...

   "I've been ordered to take you down to the bridge.
    Here I am, brain the size of a planet and they ask
    me to take you down to the bridge. Call that job
    satisfaction? 'Cos I don't."

When people had ideas about how Adams could make a lot of money if he would only rewrite his radio scripts in book form and sell them globally, he had difficulty disciplining himself to sit down and put the words on paper.

According to Adams' lore, his editor had to lock Douglas in a hotel room for three weeks to force him to finish So Long and Thanks For All the Fish.

With this I can sympathize.

It can be much more fun to read books than to actually write them. Or to spend delightful time planning and thinking about the writing of one's books.

Even writing something less extravagant than the marathon of a composing an entire book can cause one to rebel.

It's time for another blog post? And it should be ready today?

If you should ever find yourself "stuck" as writers like to say (we're never "mired," just "stuck") and unable to write anything from a novel to a love letter to a memo to your boss, here at The Van Winkle Project we've been passing time compiling a useful short guide to overcoming your writer's block.

The first step is to realize that you've landed in a mental and emotional space that is equivalent of a uninhabitable planet. We call this "Planet Frozen Muse." There is no likelihood that you will be able to rehabilitate this planet by warming it up, sowing seeds, etc.

Instead, you must remove yourself from the planet ex post haste and return to fertile fields elsewhere in the writing galaxy. To stay on Planet Frozen Muse is to be condemned to never write more than a few words of unbearable Utter Drivel.

So how do you lift off from Planet Frozen Muse? You read the "guide" and learn techniques and useful information that can help secure your freedom and get you writing again.


Adams, Douglas: Successful writer who died not writing but doing sit-ups at the gym. It is debatable which might be the more painful way to perish.

Writing: The act of heading in the possible direction of Utter Drivel (see below) and (if you're lucky) missing it entirely.

Writer's Block: [ ? ]

Paper:  The bright white dwelling place of every brilliant thought and marvelous character and inventive thought you'll ever have, demanding only that you squint hard until you see characters start to form on the page. Then you trace over them and voila!

Pen: A tool with a pointed end that is useful for pricking oneself until blood pours forth. Painful, yes, but the blood gives you something to put on paper. Now you're writing! (See "Walter Wellesley 'Red' Smith, quotes by.)

Cafe: A place where some writers are known to order drinks and sit at a corner table and quietly write. (See Paris, 1920s.)

Bar: A place some writers frequent, order drinks, and never write. (See any airport, 2011.)

Coffee: A beverage found in all known corners of the writing universe with the mysterious property of  causing the imbiber to write words without having to press as hard on the pen or the keyboard; at its best a sort of cruise control for the wordsmith.

Muse: May manifest itself in frozen or liquid form depending upon circumstances beyond one's control. If encountered in frozen form you are at risk of  writing Utter Drivel (see below); apply blow torch immediately and hope for lift-off.

Drivel, Utter: An oversupply of words already written, and therefore redundant or cliche; or words that never should have been written in the first place. Writers must alertly avoid Utter Drivel which masses in layers like asteroids belts. Colliding with Utter Drivel will surely doom any writing project as it sucks all the oxygen and life out of it.

Loathing, Pure: What every good writer feels for his or her early or failed drafts. Utter Loathing is a ready-to-hand blow torch. Direct toward one's words or frozen muse and BURN...

Book: Someone else's success. Almost always depressing. If the book is very good, it shows the would-be writer how far there is to go before becoming an John Updike or an Annie Dillard. If the published book is Utter Drivel, it reminds you that if you wrote this badly no one would ever publish it, so what is going on here?

Time: A critical item for success. Almost never will enough of it be taken by bad writers which leads to lightweight or poor literary productions. (See Drivel, Utter above.) Good writers always want to take too much time. (See Adams, Douglas  above.)

Keyboard: A series of Chiclet-like plastic, springy thingies with alphabetic characters on them that when pressed randomly generate horrible writing and when pressed intentionally, more often than not, generate Utter Drivel. A keyboard should never be trusted.

Delete Key: The master control switch that allows one to leave Planet Frozen Muse in a flash. Using this key in conjunction with "Select All" will remove all traces of Utter Drivel and immediately launch one in new directions. (See "Restaurant" "Bar" above.)

Justin Bieber: Person with odd surname in the early 21st century about whom too much Utter Drivel is being written. All writers should use force field protection in presence of J.B. U.D. to avoid contamination of thought processes.

Rave Review: Whatever one's mother and one's friends always say about your writing.

ItTrulySucks.com: Imaginary website where you have nightmare visions of capable critics posting their honest opinions of your best-intentioned work.

Short Story or Poetry Contest: Opportunity to submit one's writing and a $20 fee in order to fund someone else's writing success.

Sanity: Rare among first-rate writers who seldom or never frequent Planet Frozen Muse. Sanity may be an ideal quality if one wishes other people to be around you, but it will get in the way of one's writing like a locked escape hatch.

Van Winkle Project: A frail, outer-galactic writing vessel of the variety "blog" which at least twice a week has successfully (so far) dodged Planet Frozen Muse, but its pilot's hands are white from gripping the wheel and he just requested another cup of coffee be brought to the bridge while muttering beneath his breath, "Don't panic!"

- V.W.


Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Reaching the Six-Month Mark: A Quick Update

As of today I have "slept" away one-half year of news, entertainment, sports and weather.

Even though in my mind this represents a notable achievement, I recognize that any celebrating would be massively premature. Read on.

A day ago my brother emailed me. He was wondering how I'm doing. More specifically he wanted to know if I've been able to continue to sustain my 21st century imitation of Rip Van Winkle in light of certain major world events:

   How's your news blackout holding up?  I checked your blog
   to see if it might have cratered on the weight of recent events,  
   but I see no evidence of that.  I expect to see a posting soon
   explaining how impossible it is to stay completely unaware of
   what goes on. 

To my brother, and anyone else kind enough to read this, I want to say that I haven't cratered. But my brother is right. There's suddenly been more of a challenge than before if I want to remain ignorant of what's happening in the world.

On Friday,March 11 an email from a colleague addressed to all members of our English Department arrived in my in-box:

    Good morning,

   Many of you remember our former grad student, NAME OMITTED,
   who is currently teaching in Japan.

   She communicated through Facebook that she is shaken,

   her apartment "in shambles," but she is unhurt.
   Remember her in prayers as she will feel both vulnerable and lonely,
   but also as she will have many opportunities to minister to those
   around her

Oh my. What does that sound like? Duh. An earthquake in Japan, one of the most earthquake-prone regions of the world. In the next couple of days I overheard enough people speaking the word "Japan" to sense that a disaster there had captured their attention because it was devastating.

This sounds frightening. It's the kind of thing where under normal circumstances I would immediately seek out photos and then hope to read tales of survivors or people being rescued.

At a minimum, I want to glance at some headlines and get a sense of the dimensions of what is being dealt with.

What I really want to hear is something positive along the lines that the number of those who perished is perhaps fewer than was first thought.

How many people died? How much was destroyed? I have no idea...

I can't let myself go in that direction. I won't know what happened when the earth shook until Sept. 11 and the end of the Van Winkle Project rolls around. - V.W.


Friday, March 11, 2011

The Spelling Bee and D-a-d-d-y

Speller No. 9 is studying word lists right up to the last minute
I acquired a bit of local news this past Saturday in the only way permissible as long as I'm engaged in this project. I didn't need to read it in the newspaper or find it on the Web or see it on TV.

I lived through it.

There I was seated and yawning on a Saturday morning, in an auditorium full of parents and family members. We were steeling ourselves for the city-wide spelling bee.

I now know something that I didn't before.  I know who won that spelling bee. More importantly, I am coming to terms with the contradictory fact that I like spelling bees except when I don't like spelling bees.

What I like about spelling bees is that we have a rare opportunity to witness a word under construction. The pronouncer at the podium says the word and the student speller hovers over the microphone, mentally preparing to make for us a thing of beauty.  The lips part, the mouth opens...


In those seconds, human breath creates acoustical waves that are no mere noise. The speller peforms a feat only our species is capable of. From organized sounds emerge symbols representative of our language. These symbols adhere to one another in such a way as to allow us to communicate without being physically present. That is why you can read this sentence made of up these words and know what I am communicating. Yet where am I at the moment you read it? Far, far away... in distance and in time.

As much as the word-nerd in me likes hearing words spelled, there is a certain situation that leads to my not enjoying the spelling bee. It is when our seventh grade son is up on stage, hammering and sawing and putting together a word letter by letter. An all expenses-paid trip to the National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. this June awaits the winner. The suspense kills me.


If at any pont he says a wrong letter, it's in the air and in microseconds it enters the judges' ears and registers in their brains, and now it can't be taken back. His word house collapses, a fact that will be soberly registered by one of the four judges sitting at the table who reaches toward a bell.


And this is what eventually happens. In the wake of the misspelling, our son, following directions, walks off the stage and goes to the "comfort room." Waiting there are cookies, bottles of water, and his mom who gives him a hug and whisper in his ear that it doesn't matter; we're proud of him.

So our son didn't win. He didn't totally lose either. The city-wide event began with 21 students, fifth grade through eighth. They each had won a spellilng bee at their respective schools, public and private. They were the best spellers their institution had to offer.

Less than an hour later there were 16 empty chairs on stage. Our son was one of the remaining five spellers still in contention.

To ease the tension I felt, I thought of the weeks he'd spent in preparation. He took his study lists of words and read each word out loud multiple times to impress it like a physical thing into his mind.

The word might have been a stone and his brain damp mud.

He would say the characters in sequence over and over:


Then we quizzed him on the words. It was during this process I realized that there are words that I know the meaning of and use from time to time in my writing, and perhaps--on a good day with a strong spelling wind a my back--I can even spell them correctly, BUT I've never heard anyone deploy them in a sentence. This means, lacking an audible model, I am uncertain of how to pronounce the word.

It turned out there were many words like this on the spelling bee list that troubled me in this way.

Is wainscot pronounced "wayne's cot" or "wayne-scoat"?

It's been said that Shakespeare must have known around 60,000 different words although I've heard that an actual word count of his plays and sonnets yields a figure far lower (17,500).

The English language's No. 1 wordsmith...Will
In any event, Elizabethans had the opportunity to be "ear-witnesses" to Shakespeare's command of the English language which by all accounts was prodigious. Presumably, if theater-goers were listening closely and often enough, they would come to know how to pronounce the most unfamiliar words themselves.

Using a word in everyday speech is key to keeping it alive and relevant to ourselves. Words that are never spoken, remain stuck inside books. They are like pressed flowers that await the day the book is opened. Then the word tumbles out. Brittle, faded. Not as useful and "alive" as one might wish.

But even if we know a lot of words, there may be constraining factors in our using them.
Speller No. 9 bides his time...

One doesn't want to use words others don't understand. And it might not be a good idea to sound too literary or as if we are "putting on airs" and bearing down with some kind of class distinction.

Our spoken vocabulary is further impoverished by the cultural influence of the vocabulary we receive from electronic media. The movies and television do not draw upon an extensive vocabulary. It's a simple if not simplistic word pallette.

And what can one say about texting? This medium turns fertile fields for vocabulary into parched patches of tiny screen views where only a few weedy shoots are allowed to sprout.

Shout wher ur wen u a min  Thx

This could be a reason why one study published in a journal contends that a teen in 1950 had a vocabulary of 25,000 words and that today's teen has one of 10,000.

I face a problem that's not going to go away. With so few of us speaking actual smart, non-ordinary spelling bee-type words, even when I'm in a language-appreciative crowd, it's hard for me to use certain wordswithout risking mispronouncing them. I could sound foolish to some rare soul out there who has total mastery of the word.

I think we need a word for these words that out of auditory ignornance I tend to fumble as soon as they come out of my mouth. I wish to call each of them a...

Thanks heavens for pronouncing dictionaries which can be found on-line. Before that I had to turn to a physical dictionary, leaf to the proper word entry, and then try to decipher the esoteric pronunciation and accent marks.

It's much better to hear a real, albeit disembodied voice saying the word and then allow myself to imitate it. Which leads me to my partial personal list of "vergewords" that I'm still working on.


If you hear me saying one of these words and mangling the pronunciation, please give me credit for trying. And then after my cookie in the comfort room, you may kindly, so kindly correct me! - V.W.


Thursday, March 3, 2011

On Not Being a "Blog of Note"

Are the folks at Blogger watching VWP? Not likely!
When I began this blog it was a logical way of keeping track of the mental and emotional ups and downs of my project of avoiding the news. I went into it mostly ignorant of the larger world of blogging.

At the same time I was excited by the opportunity to write in perhaps a new way in a medium that allowed me to combine pictures and words. As I saw it, I would be publishing my own digital magazine articles reflecting my life and my sensibilities.

Because this "blog-zine" is solipsistic at heart, i.e., about me, I initially never expected very many people to come to it, much less read it. Hugh Hefner has Playboy, Oprah has O, and I have VWP. Come on. There's no comparison! I do not have what one might call a "competitive lifestyle" that will attract avid, loyal readers.

But early on there was a surprise.

Blogger allows one to peer behind the scenes using the almost magical "Stats" tab. I could see how often people were coming to my site hour by hour. At first traffic was slow, but I never found myself staring at an insultingly flat line.

This is where I was tempted to become grandiose. My favorite writers seem to prove over and over that if you write well enough you can make almost anything interesting. And if it's interesting, people will find it and read it. That became my goal. I would write so well that I would magnetically attract more people.

I spent hours polishing my prose. Upwards of eight hours per post. And I began dreaming of becoming a Blogger "Blog of Note". If I achieved such an honor, perhaps my pageviews would spike in an Everest-like fashion.

At that point somebody needed to slap me. I was out of my mind.

The growth in the blog phenomenon is stunning. According to the people who have the electronic means to achieve a rough count, in  2001 there were 2 million blogs. By 2005 we were up to 50 million. In 2009, according to BlogPulse, there were126 million blogs.

Take all the bloggers in the world...
try to fit them into the UK. Ugh!
This is more than three times the entire population of the United Kingdom.

Since the Van Winkle Project has placed me more squarely on the Web than ever before, I've become aware of just how widespread blogging is. There are blogs for everyone, including companies and corporations. When I tell people about my blog, they usually mention they started one, too. If I go to their blog and click on their "About Me", I often find that they're being modest: they've started multiple blogs to reflect different interests and audiences they want to address. 

So out of this rising number of blogs that has become an ocean of language and imagery, each week the wise, innovative, and very nice folks at Blogger (no, I'm not sucking up) choose a handful to join their "Blogs of Note" and  they post the links on Blogger In Draft.

If as a blogger you seek pageviews, becoming a "Blog of Note" is the equivalent of winning the lottery or lining up five cherries on the slot machine. When it happens, your pageviews and followers will jump as if a 9.0 earthquake has rocked the sensitive needle on the graph.

As I continued to fantasize about the Van Winkle Project becoming a "Blog of Note" (because no one had yet slapped me) I saw cause for hope. My Blogger data showed where my pageviews were coming from. What was this? Slovenia? India? Singapore? Columbia? New Zealand? Wow! Van Winkle had gone global!

Blogger's helpful visual about where people who have visited this blog are located.

The wheels began to spin in my mind. If I became a B.O.N., I could put it on my curriculum vita (this is the name the university world gives a "resume"). I could tell my friends! In the midst of his own newsless project, Van Winkle would have fabricated his own news!

After a while I began to realize how out of reach the entire fantasy was. Blogs that are truly "of note" get as many pageviews in a day as I've accumulated in six months. Why movie critic Roger Ebert had 104 million pageviews in 2010! How many per day is that? Never mind; you do the math...

This is when I thought of Tantalus. He was the son of Zeus who was given special dining privileges and could eat nectar with the gods.

But one day he offended the gods (the accounts vary as to why). Because of this, Tantalus was perpetually punished in a most devious fashion.

He was placed in a locale where every time he tried to bend down and drink from a pool of water it receded. If he reached up to a tree to pick fruit, the wind blew the luscious, juicy orbs beyond his grasp.

He would always be close but never quite able to satisfy his basic desires.

From the tragedy of Tantalus we get the verb "to tantalize." It's a verb that applies to me. Every time I think of being a "Blog of Note" I am tantalized. It's a crazy way to live.

Rather than live a life of being constant, unfulfilled craving, I've decided I do not wish to attract mass followers by becoming a Blogger "Blog of Note." Should you blog from time to time and feel inclined to follow in Van Winkle's nearly invisible footsteps, here are four sound tips on how to achieve this kind of ideal non-recognition.

1 - Simply exist.
That's right. As soon as you create your blog you virtually guarantee that no one of significance, including Blogger, will get around to visiting you. There are way too many blogs out there.

2 - Have a laissez-faire attitude about graphic images.
Every time I upload an image to a post, Blogger gives me a message that some images are copyrighted blah, blah and I should take this into account. For that reason I prefer using my own photos, but frankly that's not always possible. If I violate anyone's intellectual property rights, I will cheerfully remove the image when they request. But this is the Web. Images are strewn like confetti in a wide city street. Who can resist picked up a few pieces? So my blog is not "pure." Can I still be a "Blog of Note"? Does Miss America have to be a virgin?

3 - Write posts that are more than a few hundred words in length.
This is a great way to guarantee that even if someone lands on your blog they won't read it. When they see that it will take more than a few seconds to find out what's there, they're on to the next website. I've decided because I'm a writer, what I have to do is write. I'm not going to write more than is necessary, but I'm not going to ration my words or truncate my thoughts any more than a composer would try to alter a twenty-minute sonata for piano forte to conform to the length and format of a cell phone ring tone.

4 - Start a year-long project.
Come on., Van Winkle. This has been done! No one likely cares about a year-long project unless one's life hangs in the balance. If a person wants to attract notice, he or she is better off blogging about popular niche subjects: music, movies, food, travel, crafts, hobbies, politics, pets, and pole dancing.

At the Van Winkle Project I blog because I gotta blog. Each time I post I think of it as being like building a sand castle at the beach.

As I look up and down the beach I notice nearly everyone is building their own castles. But this is not about them or the rare visitor who strolls along and compares our sand castles and says one is "of note" and, by implication, the others are not. In the great scheme of things the incoming tide of time rolls over each person's castle and he or she must build/post a new one as soon as the tide goes out again.

So why do this? Because those ephemeral castles are are a result of one's best thoughts and creativity. Within the sandy digital walls I erect, I place the essence of my hands, breath and heartbeat and I communicate, "I'm alive. I was here." - V.W.

Get yours at Toysplash.com
and start digging...