Wow, it’s almost exactly two years since I last posted anything. I don’t even have a cosmic reason why – something for which I am profoundly grateful, by the way. My life has been reasonably cataclysm-free, I just seem to piss away huge amounts of it on stuff that doesn’t make any difference to anybody including me.

The word in the middle of “procrastination” is “cras”, which is Latin for “tomorrow”. Pushing things off to tomorrow is a pretty universal human habit and we always think we’ve got another tomorrow to push things off to. I’ve been thinking of that a lot, because I have just reached an obscure milestone – as of July 19, I am older than my father. I’ve been older than my mother for upwards of twelve years, but now I am older than either of my parents ever lived to be.

I’m not going to do anything dramatic with that reminder that tomorrows are not infinite. I won’t be climbing Everest or skydiving or writing what would surely be the worst symphony since the one in Mr. Holland’s Opus. I’m just going to keep on creeping in this petty pace from day to day. But there is a lot of stuff I have been shoving off to tomorrow – this blog, my midden of a house, a staggering number of phone calls and emails – and it’s time for me to decide that today is tomorrow before tomorrow becomes yesterday and it is too late. 

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Naughty stuff

This is not going to get anywhere near Shakespeare.  In case you don’t already know it, anything in Shakespeare that you suspect of having a sexual meaning almost certainly does, and most of the stuff you don’t suspect of having a sexual meaning has one anyway.  This is about a few writers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who are often mentioned by people who are shocked — shocked! at sexual innuendo in modern writing.

When I was a TA, almost nothing drove me crazier than undergraduates calling Jane Austen “Victorian”.  She wasn’t Victorian no matter how you define it.  In the first place, she died in 1817, two years before the birth of Princess Alexandrina Victoria, who took the throne as Queen Victoria in 1837.  Secondly, “Victorian”, especially when used by an undergraduate, implies prudishness about sex (a concept that would have stunned Queen Victoria herself, but that’s another post).  Jane Austen was not a prude.  She was a vicar’s unmarried daughter, and had she been born in 1875 rather than 1775, she might have gone to her grave without knowing where babies come from.  But she was born in a freer age and she not only knew about sex, she wrote novels that include premarital sex, adultery, children born out of wedlock, and at least one stunningly bawdy joke.  In Mansfield Park we see Mary Crawford, an admiral’s niece, who is asked whether she might be acquainted with a certain captain.  She says, “…we know very little of the inferior ranks.  Post-captains may be very good sort of men, but they do not belong to us…. Certainly, my home at my uncle’s brought me acquainted with a circle of admirals. Of Rears and Vices, I saw enough. Now do not be suspecting me of a pun, I entreat.”

Did you see that?  Miss Austen, the clergyman’s daughter, has just given us a buggery joke.  She did it to show us that Miss Crawford is not a nice person, but she did it.  Now you have some idea of why her niece wrote years later that she was “too coarse” for the “refined” tastes of the Victorians.

But what about the Victorians themselves?  Well, we have Charlotte Brontë writing in Jane Eyre about Mr. Rochester’s “ward” Adèle.  Readers would certainly have understood that Adèle was Mr. Rochester’s daughter by his Parisian mistress.  George Eliot, who lived openly with a man not her husband, also wrote about love and sex in a way at odds with our ideas of Victorian thinking.  Besides various illicit passions in some of her better-known novels, she has a little passage in Felix Holt: The Radical (don’t waste your time reading it; I really mean that) in which Felix sees a beautiful woman and his first thought is that he would like to cut off all her hair and make her cry.  George Eliot, Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell — they and others of their time knew how to hint at the dark side of sexual passion in such a way that, well, if you get it you get it, and if you don’t get it you can still enjoy the story.

How about Lucy Maud Montgomery, a few decades later?  Surely there’s nothing naughty in any of the Anne of Green Gables books?  All the children are born safely in wedlock, including the orphan Anne Shirley.  Not all marriages are happy, but the ones in the foreground are.  And yet in Anne of the Island, we see Anne receiving this tidbit in a letter from her friend Philippa:

“Cousin Emily has only five boarders besides myself – four old ladies and one young man. My right-hand neighbor is Mrs. Lilly. She is one of those people who seem to take a gruesome pleasure in detailing all their many aches and pains and sicknesses. You cannot mention any ailment but she says, shaking her head, ‘Ah, I know too well what that is’ – and then you get all the details. Jonas declares he once spoke of locomotor ataxia in hearing and she said she knew too well what that was. She suffered from it for ten years and was finally cured by a traveling doctor.”

Now, when I first read that I didn’t know what locomotor ataxia was — I figured it was some kind of degenerative nerve disease — but Philippa, Jonas, and Anne would all certainly have known, as would their contemporary readers.  Locomotor ataxia is a symptom of third-stage syphilis.  It’s an interesting part of the subtext of what really is a pretty funny story that two up-to-date young single women had more information about syphilis than an elderly widow.

I’m not sure why it’s taken me three weeks to get this finished and posted, except that I am a devotee of St. Procrastinatus (who doesn’t have a feast day because no one’s gotten around to assigning one yet).  I don’t even have a profound point to make, except that there is naughty stuff in unexpected places, and the very best of it will fly right by anyone who isn’t prepared to deal with it.

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You wouldn’t think it to look at me, but I have a genuine varsity letter.  I lettered in fencing, although in actual fact I earned the letter more for being a good armourer than for being a mediocre fencer.  But I really did enjoy fencing, except for the part about being unable to walk for several days after practice began each fall, when I rediscovered a lot of obscure muscles.  And I loved the vocabulary, which is mostly archaic French.

So what is a foible?  Well, it’s the opposite of a forte.  If the little voice in your head pronounced that last word “fortay”, you’ve got the wrong metaphor.  “Forte” comes from fencing, not music.  It’s not something you do loudly and in Italian (forte pronounced “fortay”), it’s something you do strongly and in French (forte pronounced “fort”).

The forte of your blade is the thickest part, near the hilt.  The foible is the thin part nearest the tip.  If you put “foible” through its Grimm’s Law paces, it turns into the modern French word faible, which means “weak”.  You always try to catch your opponent’s foible with your forte, which puts the leverage on your side and gives you a chance to get your opponent’s blade out of the way while you go in and, well, run your opponent through.

Oh, all right.  You’re not really running anyone through.  You’re hitting your opponent with the tip of your weapon somewhere on the upper body exclusive of the head and arms (foil) or anywhere at all (épée) or with the tip or side of your weapon anywhere above the waist (sabre).  But here’s the thing: the rules and techniques of fencing were developed in the days when you would have been using a real weapon, when you would have been trying to maim or kill your opponent.  Fencing is a profoundly civilized and courteous representation of lethal violence.

There is something here about the way we argue, I think.  You can carry a battle-axe into every fight.  It won’t leave you with many people who are willing to take you on again.  Or you can give up the urge to annihilate everyone who disagrees with you.  You can learn to use not just your forte but also your foible.  Because one thing that is as true off the fencing strip as on it is that a weapon without a foible is incomplete.  It is broken.  We may try to present ourselves as all forte, but it is our foibles that make us complete.  You might go so far as to say that courtesy, even civilization itself, depends on the interplay between forte and foible.

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It’s one of my favorite words.  Yes, I wish I had scads of it, but what I really love is its history.  Take a peek behind that handful of change that you got at the supermarket and you’ll see geese, Gauls, and a goddess.

In ancient Rome there was a temple to Juno.  Within the temple precincts was a flock of sacred geese.  When the Gauls were besieging Rome in 390 B.C.E., some of them decided to come over the wall one night, and the geese put up the kind of fuss that only geese can.  They made so much noise that they roused the city and the Gauls were thrown back out.  So the temple became known as the temple of Juno Moneta — Juno who warns.  (I just found out that a half-century later a new temple was built on the same site by L. Furius Camillus, about whom I know nothing else, but there should be more people named L. Furius Camillus.)

Centuries later, the building where coins were stamped during the Republic was near the temple, and it too became known as “moneta”.  Eventually the stuff that was made there was called “moneta” as well.  (That’s a lovely version of metonymy, by the way — the container for the thing contained, “moneta” for the place that coins are made and also for the coins that are made there.)  The word descended to us as both “money” and “mint”.  So “money” and “premonition” have the same root, and if you listen closely when you get your change you can hear the sacred geese squawking.

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The R word

I work in tech support for a Large Company.  Last night I was talking to a customer who had things hooked up wrong.  I walked him through correcting the hookup and he said, “I guess I’m retarded.”  I wanted to crawl through the phone and slap him silly.  If coworkers say things like that I can call them on it, but what do you say to a customer?  Or what do you say to a customer who comes out with some other kind of nasty bigoted shit?  “Tell your managers that I’m an American in America and I don’t expect to have to press 1 for English.”  “Okay, you can set up a trouble call for me, but don’t send me one of those Hmong.”  I’ve even had a customer ask me if I was white.  It’s hard not to reach the conclusion that, as a species, we suck.

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My life on a tangent

In Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers, Harriet Vane asks Lord Peter Wimsey if he finds it easy to get drunk on words.  He says, “So much so that I am seldom perfectly sober.  Which accounts for my talking so much.”  This blog is, for now, about words and being so drunk on them that I wander off on a path that barely intersects with whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing — a tangent, in other words.  I can’t promise that it’s always going to be about the same thing because even my tangents have tangents.  If you remember enough high-school geometry to know why that doesn’t make any sense, shut up and let me have my metaphor, okay?

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