Category Archives: specialized knowledge

“The rhyme scheme is scattered throughout the poem.”

I’m sorry, but if it’s scattered, it ain’t a scheme.

The two words may actually occupy the same page of a dictionary (they do in my Webster’s), but, despite Zelda Gilroy’s belief, propinquity does not make a relationship.

“A systematic or organized framework; a plan” is how Webster’s defines “scheme.” All the other definitions, dependent as they are on context, still share that central idea of planning and structure (even when the planning is “crafty or secret,” as in “The brokers devised an investment scheme crafted entirely of regulatory loopholes…”).

“To scatter,” on the other hand, means “to fling away heedlessly; to distribute irregularly; to sow by casting in all directions; to divide into ineffectual small portions; to occur or fall irregularly or at random.” You can scatter chopped pecans over the apple-pie filling, but that lattice crust is a scheme.

I evidently set my students up for failure when it comes to talking about poetry. They would like to cut to the chase, starting right off with pronouncements like “I think what the poem is trying to say is to never give up!” But I insist that they begin the discussion of any poem by noting its title, its length, and its structure—the way a musician takes note of the clef, key, and meter before launching into the concerto. I know they’ve had lessons on rhyme and meter in high school, but I scrupulously review those things, and also present examples of the major traditional forms. I review definitions. I even have a little game I play with them to try to get them to hear different metrical forms. And still I have a number of students who can’t even tell the difference between “rhyme” and “rhythm” (okay, they look alike, but so do “Mother” and “Mothra” and I’ll bet most people don’t confuse them), let alone “meter” and “rhythm.”

So what’s going on here is that my student is conscientiously looking for a rhyme scheme but isn’t quite sure what that means.

She may be looking at a piece of blank or free verse, in which case she’ll never find that scheme. Or perhaps it’s a poem by Dylan Thomas such as “Poem in October,” where rhymes may be pure ( turning/burning), or in some way imperfect (heaven/heron/beckon; wood/rook/foot; chapels/parables), or very nearly perfect (snail/tales). Or, heaven help her, she may be looking at a regularly-rhymed poem (Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” for example). She just isn’t sure what it is, or how to hear it. But, she assures us, there’s rhyming going on somewhere.

When I decided in the ninth grade that I would one day win the Nobel Prize for Literature for my poetry (still waiting, by the way, Oslo!), my notion of poetry was guided to a great extent by my then-favorite poet, e.e. cummings, and my sketchy understanding of what he was doing. My words were all lower-case, and the words themselves were “scattered” all over the page. If they were willing to behave in a more pedestrian manner, as sometimes happened, they were still simple and beautiful (no fancy vocabulary or references to mundane things like cars or school or airplanes). But, although cummings frequently rhymes, I cast that off with the ankle socks of childhood (all my poems rhymed when I was a child, but I was determined to put off childish things). And of course, everything I wrote was actually a soul-spill, heart-cry, my endlessly fascinating adolescent emotions making their way onto paper the way I would walk: one foot after the other, one word after the other. I had not yet fallen in love with structure, and so I wasn’t particularly interested in, or curious about, it.

Most of my students seem to think that writing is largely a matter of one word after the other, and they want to start with the first word and stagger ever forward. What happens in the course of writing, then, has a certain random, or at least ad hoc, quality, and they assume that’s the way it is for everyone. No surprise, then, to find them stating that “the themes of love and death are littered all over the work” or “an example of how there is no rhyme scheme can be found anywhere.

It’s all chance. Maybe if you plan to rely on chance, the result is a scattered scheme?

“Everything was gun ho for America.”

According to my notes, this Horror dates back to 1978, but it seems to get more and more interesting every year.

What the context is I don’t know. It could be referring to almost any moment in U.S. history when national spirit was high.

I knew perfectly well that what my student meant was that everyone was gung-ho. This phrase, for enthusiastic and active team spirit, comes from World War II Marine slang, an adaptation of a Chinese-language phrase. To read its interesting history you can go to a number of sites; most prominent is, of course, Wikipedia.

I don’t know when I first saw “gung-ho” written, but I heard it plenty of times, in plenty of contexts, while growing up, and I never thought it was anything but “gung-ho.”

My student, though, heard it differently. Again we have a case of alien sounds interpreted through the listener’s resident lexicon: “‘Gung’? How can that be a word? Must be ‘gun.’ Of course! Now, that makes sense!”

Alas, as a society we seem to be more and more gun ho. Snipers; drive-by shooters; Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pres. John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Texas Tower, Columbine, Virginia Tech, etc., mass attacks; domestic murders; police overreactions (Amadou Diallo); Gabrielle Giffords; Trayvon Martin. To this we answer: concealed handguns, assault weapons, gun-show purchases, armed vigilantes. Bills advocating weapons on campuses, in state houses, in bars, at public meetings.

Everything is gun ho for America. (About the word “ho” I will not comment, since I don’t want to offend the NRA….)

Funny mistake my student made, no?

This post is, among other things, in memoriam all those who have died as a consequence of being too close to someone who was gun ho.

“She is described as quietly standing in the door way, thus appearing as a statute…”

I have a feeling this student was trying to write about Mangan’s sister, the object of her young brother’s friend’s crush in James Joyce’s “Araby.”

When I teach “Araby,” I like to ask my students to identify all the words and images in the story that have, or could have, religious connotations. It’s a great way into understanding the way Joyce creates the urgency, depth, and complexity of the first stirrings of attraction and romance. I cherish the memories of my adolescent crushes, and I think a lot about the components of those passions and the ways in which such attachments mediate between childhood and adulthood. Joyce’s mature narrator is looking back at such an experience in his own life with pity and amusement—and tender admiration too, I think: love exalts the boy in the story; his crashing disillusionment at the end can’t be understood unless the reader can appreciate the exaltation (the narrator calls it “confused adoration”) that precedes it.

In class we take a look at these religious images (most of which I have to point out and, quite frequently, explain, heigh-ho), and I always suggest that the narrator’s description of the light falling on Mangan’s sister as she stands in the doorway of her house is suggestive of light falling on a statue of Mary in a church niche, even though in Joyce’s story the light picks out details that imply sexuality (her hair, the hem of her petticoat, for example):

…She was waiting for us, her figure defined by the light from the half-opened door. …and I stood by the railings looking at her. Her dress swung as she moved her body, and the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side.

And later, on the same stoop on another evening,

…She …bow[ed] her head towards me. The light from the lamp opposite our door caught the white curve of her neck, lit up her hair that rested there and, falling, lit up the hand upon the railing. It fell over one side of her dress and caught the white border of a petticoat, just visible as she stood at ease.

And my student here seems to have been trying to write about that. But he takes it in entirely the wrong direction. Here’s his sentence:

“She is described as quietly standing in the door way, thus appearing as a statute, something that is cold and hard and does not change.”

For a moment let’s pretend he wrote “statue,” which is obviously what he meant. The equation of girl with statue is accomplished much too quickly: just a “thus” and the process is evidently complete. Teacher immediately suspects that student didn’t really follow the discussion and therefore can’t explain the point beyond stating it, thus the “thus.” And what follows bears out that suspicion, I’m afraid. He didn’t catch the idea that describing a girl as if she were a holy statue in a Catholic church sanctifies her attraction and mystery; he thinks “statue” and gets “stone,” despite the narrator’s characterization of her hair as a “soft rope.” “Cold and hard” would never enter the mind of Joyce’s narrator here: the boy is fascinated and silently adoring. It’s true that Mangan’s sister “does not change” in the story: she remains her sweet self, oblivious of the boy’s worship even when he offers, in what he hopes seems a mature and casual way, to buy her something at the bazaar called Araby that’s being held while she’s away on a religious retreat with her school. After all, the story isn’t about Mangan’s sister, but about the boy’s romantic dreams of Mangan’s sister. The fact that she does not change, then, is not a fault; it is a fact of life, as all of us who have had and survived crushes can attest, alas.

Reading the student’s intended sentence, then, is depressing for the person who tried so hard to get him to read the story with his whole self. But my Book of Horrors isn’t full of depressing misinterpretations; I put things in that book that, horror or not, make me laugh.

And I did laugh at the “statute” error, which was probably an uncorrected typo rather than a mistaken word choice. I laughed because the definition that follows the word is certainly one way to view the law. Certainly laws are cold, in that they define and describe acts held to be criminal without regard to the individual human stories that might prompt commission of those acts. They are hard in a similar way, unyielding to attempts to color or blur their definitions and thus weaken their sway. And although laws can be changed, they do not change of their own volition, and making changes to them takes sustained and vigorous effort. Justice, I believe, involves factoring human realities into the legal equation; but my student has offered a legitimate definition of a statute in his sentence—even though he had intended to discuss love, not law.

Finally, Bob Dylan sneaks into my thoughts: “Don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall.” As my student accurately (!) observes, Mangan’s sister stands quietly in the doorway, not stubbornly or implacably or defiantly or obstructively. Putting myself in the narrator’s place and looking up at her, I see promise, benevolence, beauty, sanctified presence. But my reader sees something cold and hard and unchanging, and if that’s what she is, then she’s got to be blocking the (half-open) door, shutting the narrator out, shutting the reader out. Where is the story, then? Where is the wonder?

Reading isn’t just being able to “decode” the words. The sentence my student wrote betrays not just a failure of proof-reading, but a failure of reading itself.

I probably shouldn’t have even tried to talk about the ways in which an image pattern can enrich a literary work. Imagery of religion seems particularly opaque to them, even at the Catholic-related university that is one of the places I currently teach. None of the students who read the sentence “I imagined that I bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes” even noticed the word “chalice,” so beautifully chosen, evoking not only communion but also the Holy Grail and the knights who sought it. The name of the bazaar, “Araby,” makes the boy a crusader on a holy quest (and, for the reader, Valentino in The Sheik of Araby, and the popular song “I am the sheik of Araby, Your love belongs to me…,” both of which appeared some years after Joyce wrote the story but both of which also complement the images in the story. Actually my mother used occasionally to sing that song, even though she was just a kid when it was popular). That the boy’s uncle drunkenly recites “The Arab’s Farewell to His Steed” emphasizes the exotic romance of the word.

What makes me really sad is that I did recognize the pattern of religious allusions when I read this story for the first time as a freshman in college. I hope popular culture has given my students some new rich trove to replace what has evidently been lost. But what has been lost provided a link between reader and writer that can’t be supplied by newer references, and that means that the readers are steadily losing the means to enjoy the wonderful works of writers dead and gone—and with that, I fear, the understanding of the worlds that words can evoke.

Anyway, clicking on my first mention of “Araby” will take you to the full text of the story. Read it for yourself, or re-read it if you’ve already read it. Read it once for the story; read it a second time for the resonances. Daydream about your own first “love.” Offer up a little tear at the boy’s moment of disillusionment. Try not to think of statutes.

“First degree murder is when you kill someone…”

Two problems already, and the sentence is only half-over. Every teacher of writing will note the glaring “is when.” This usage is very common in speech and, alas, also characterizes many a student’s definition sentences. Very rarely is this construction “correct,” in its purest sense. After all, verbs of being translate into equal signs (=) and, just as in math, the equation must balance. The noun on the left-hand side of the = is usually not equivalent to an adverb, or adverb clause. A clause on the other side of the = has to be a noun clause, and the argument can certainly be made that “when you kill someone” can function as a noun clause, if it does the job of a noun (here, it does) AND, in this particular construction, if it means the same thing as the noun on the other side of the =. But it doesn’t. “Murder” is an act; “when you kill someone” is an occasion or event. Here’s a sentence where the “is when” works: “The month before Christmas is when children are on their best behavior.” My student’s sentence does not fit this conceptual pattern.

I’ve mentioned this problematic structure before, and in the context of the other problem in this entry, too: my student has chosen to offer his reader a definition straight out of the dictionary. Why students feel their readers have weaker vocabularies than they, and less access to a dictionary than they, is beyond me. No matter how many times I talk about “defining your terms” as clarifying or establishing a limited or UNorthodox application of a word, what the students seem to  hear is “so be sure to look the word up in the dictionary and tell your reader what the dictionary says!” Perhaps they feel their readers are even more like them than I like to face: ignorant of the standard meaning of the word but too lazy or unresourceful to look it up.

But we must move on to the second half of the sentence, as implicitly promised by that ellipsis:

“First degree murder is when you kill someone and it was premeditated with malice after thought.”

That “after thought” is wonderful, isn’t it? The problem it presents is that premeditating something after thought, while possible (first you think about something, and then you think in a focused way about what to do about it, and then, since that was premeditating, you actually do something), is still strange, or at least strange to tease out into separate  processes. In my student’s sentence, the “thought” must have generated “malice,” and the malice led to “premeditation,” planning the killing.

The phrase most of us know, though, is “malice aforethought.” This is a legal term, and a legal concept. It betokens a conscious decision to kill (or, more generally, commit a crime) before doing the act. That malevolent intention is what distinguishes first-degree murder from other kinds of homicide. “Afore” means, more or less, “before,” and thus the malice precedes the actual planning of the act, or even just the act without conscious planning.

But most of my students don’t know the word “afore,” let alone “aforethought”—although they probably know the word “afterthought.” I’ve had writers refer to “malice of forethought,” implying that thinking ahead is actually the bad part; and here, of course, I have the writer with the “malice after thought,” which I guess sounds sort of like “malice aforethought.”

If my student was intent on providing a dictionary definition, though, I do wish he had actually gone to a dictionary, where he would have found the correct term and its spelling. I have to assume, then, that his offer of a definition was meant to save the reader time unnecessarily riffling through Webster’s: my guy, wiser than his reader, to the rescue! With friends like that….

More even than regular discourse, the law depends on language. Precision, accuracy: quite often, you need only a moment to get it right. I wish my student had acknowledged the importance of getting it right and taken that moment. Knowing to do so depends, though, on an intellectual humility and self-awareness that may not be part of the arsenal of youth.

“…a deeper, more perplexed theory…”

Ah, how I wish I had saved the context for this one!

I think I knew what my student meant. I think she meant to refer to a deeper, more COMPLEX theory.

“Perplexed” must have gotten in there by means of the back door invented by Herr S. Freud: my student’s own state of mind attached itself to the theory she meant to characterize. This is a good possibility; if she had been characterizing the theory itself, surely she would have said “more perplexing,” not “more perplexed.” That the theory could have been perplexed is highly unlikely, at least in the universe as we know it—or as we have constructed it by means of language.

I wouldn’t blame my student for being perplexed. As students arrive at college with smaller and smaller working vocabularies (as opposed to SAT-crammed ones) and weaker and weaker analytical skills, the critical and other scholarly articles we expect them to deploy in research papers are written in increasingly obscure and esoteric language. I’m a pretty good and fairly savvy reader, and I find articles in my own discipline rough going (too long since grad school, I guess; too far from instruction in the prevailing lingo). The Sokal hoax—the fact that the article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” was taken seriously by academic editors and then by quite a few academic readers even after its perpetrator announced he had tailored the scholarly equivalent of the Emperor’s new clothes and the scales fell from all eyes—should be still vivid enough in every scholar’s consciousness to keep us honest and humble, even if it makes no dent in the way many continue to insist on writing.

No wonder so many students plagiarize parts of their research papers, or write assemblages rather than arguments. The sources were Published, for heaven’s sake, which means they are Important and True; but the hapless student writer can’t make heads or tails of what the sources say, while still being pretty sure the sources should be in there. The only way not to get the ideas wrong is to copy the source straight out…or, I guess, to hire another writer who does understand them, or who claims to understand them. I don’t excuse this behavior, but I do sympathize with the desperation in the student who engages in it.

I’d like to start a “Back to English” movement in scholarly writing. I have no objection to complicated sentences, as long as they’re well punctuated and grammatically coherent—no surprise there, eh? But I do feel that there’s a point at which, or an audience for whom, words concocted to carry exquisitely precise but also vastly abstract meanings aren’t worth using, and words that mean one thing shouldn’t be preempted to mean something quite other (“rubric,” anyone? please! I know a matrix when I see one!). And I also feel that no matter how complex an idea is, there must be some point at which it can be uttered in a straightforward way: clear syntax, accessible vocabulary. Anchor the reader with a general, concrete, or simplified utterance and then go ahead and refine the hell out of it until you get to what you really mean (or really think you mean). In fact, I’d hazard the opinion that a writer who can’t do this—can’t lay a discernible foundation for the intellectual structure that follows—isn’t a writer….

…or, alternatively, that the writer’s theory is itself perplexed, despite its depth. I guess there could be such a thing as a theory so deep that it’s out of its depth.

“This woman is suffering from post pardon depression.”

He is writing about the narrator/main character in “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s gripping picture of a descent into madness. In 1892, when the story was first published, the term “post-partum depression” and indeed the very concept were unknown; but to the modern eye, that does seem to be where the narrator begins. My student, too, seems unfamiliar with the term, even though it had been mentioned in the class’s speculative discussion. “Post pardon” is the closest his inner lexicon will let him get.

In Shakespeare’s day and for some time after—and indeed, possibly today, if the speaker is bold enough or imaginative enough—one could be pregnant with something other than a fetus (or child or homunculus). It could be an idea, a task, an expectation of any kind; in fact, in a sixteenth-century play I read, it was imprisonment. We do still call some pauses, the ones that seem freighted with potential meaning, “pregnant.” Metaphorical usages of “labor” and “delivery” also abounded, as they do today. I think referring to an extended, intense, and hopeful task as a pregnancy is really not only useful, but also appropriate.

A lot of us have experienced the emotional equivalent of a step off an unexpected curb: a sudden disconcerting, briefly disorienting not-there-ness. Sometimes this feeling is followed by a kind of hollow wandering, a sense of loss of we know not what, even a kind of depression. All my fellow grad students and I remarked on this after passing our PhD qualifying exams: two years of course work and then a summer of unimaginably intense study (sometimes punctuated by brief flights into alcohol or the mists of marijuana), and then three days of written and oral exams, and then… “Congratulations! Go ahead and make arrangements with a dissertation director!” Rush to the phone booth, “Daddy, I passed! Yes! Whew!” Stagger home, take housemates out to dinner, hit the mattress, sweet dreams. And wake up the next morning to…what? what? what?

I’m feeling it this morning, after the closing performance yesterday of a show that was sheer delight and very intense work and suspense and high gratification with a cast and crew that were top-notch in their individual work and even more so as an ensemble, in Conor McPherson’s fabulous The Seafarer, to the kind of audience response that directors dream of. This morning I wake up to: forgot to put the garbage out, get myself together for two weeks of finals at my two schools, try to clean the house we call the Slough of Despond…where’s the excitement? where’s the joy? Where’s the rush?

I could call both these moments, and others like them over the years, step-off-the-curbs, or curb crises, or some such. But for a long time I’ve referred to them as post-partum depression. The great adventure has been accomplished. Now what?

In this light, my student’s Horror can almost pass. Think of a convict serving years in prison for a crime he or she did not commit. The lawyers, the petitions, the arguments, the appeals, the hope… What if it’s successful? Reading about The Innocence Project, that noble and eye-opening endeavor that began as an assignment for a journalism class, I rejoice in the lives rescued from at least total injustice, but I’m also saddened to read of a number of people freed by that and similar efforts who, after a flutter in the free air, commit a crime and go to jail, or fall into despair, dislocation, and inertia. I think post pardon depression may be a real thing.

My student’s error is funny, certainly. But does it have a grain of truth he wasn’t aware of?

I think I’ll pick up some candy canes to take to today’s exam.

“For fundamentalist Mormons, having three or more wives is seen as an act of God.”

Is having two wives a mere act of man?

This student was writing about a new religion in Utah claiming the right to erect a tablet of its basic precepts in a public park alongside a monument to Mormon pioneers and another presenting the Ten Commandments. His point was that although some of the new religion’s practices and beliefs seem very strange, the same can be said of more established religions when viewed by non-believers. I think that’s a very good point.

His explanation of Mormonism is a little stranger than he intends.

Joseph Smith, Jr., said that God endorsed polygamy for selected Mormon men (including Joseph Smith, Jr.); the next generation of Mormons broadened this notion; and the issue of polygamy became a public cause involving multiple prohibitions and some hair-splitting on the subject of religious freedom (U.S. law could not restrict beliefs but could legitimately restrict practices). An agreement by Mormons to disavow the practice of polygamy while not disavowing a belief in it as a concept was key to Utah’s achieving statehood. There are still fundamentalist Mormons—possibly a growing number—who practice polygamy without much interference; but such practice is not endorsed by the Church of the Latterday Saints. It is not legal as an act of men.

What does my student mean by “an act of God,” exactly? Does he mean that God can have three or more wives? The JudeoChristian God doesn’t have any wives at all, as far as I know; but there are religions with married gods, and some of them are polygamous. For those gods, having three or more wives would, by definition, be an act of God.

More likely he means fundamentalist Mormons believe God wants them to have three or more wives. But what is the mechanism? If a hurricane brings a tree down onto your roof and you file a claim for damages with your insurance company, you can be pretty sure the company will try to interpret the tree’s behavior as an act of God (it’s always fun when corporations get religion, isn’t it?). This model would suggest that suddenly one day a Mormon man wakes up with three or more wives puttering around in the kitchen or rolling around in his bed: “Where did all these women come from?” he asks, puzzled, and then has the revelation “Ah! It’s an Act of God! God wants me to have these wives He sent by overnight delivery! Come on, ladies—it’s meant to be!”

Oh, of course not. He meant to say that having three or more wives is condoned by God, or is an act God approves of, or is the act of a godly man. He must have meant that.

Maybe one of Mitt Romney’s problems with voters is that, as outsiders to his religion, they view his beliefs and practices as strange—even the beliefs he doesn’t practice. He should just tell them not to get hung up about what is, when it occurs, an act of God. If insurance companies don’t care about such things, neither should they.

“The clown’s name is Touchtone.”

The play’s name is As You Like It, and I used to like to invite my students to contemplate the clown’s name (let’s call him the Fool rather than the Clown) in relation to the title and to the multiple weddings that end the play.

The Fool, if you recall, lusts after Audrey, a country wench who considers herself “honest.” She’s attracted to him for his nimble wit, perhaps, and certainly for his courtly sophistication, stark contrasts to her friendly local suitor William, who can more accurately be called the clown in this play. The Fool-Audrey relationship nicely balances the other “country copulatives,” Phoebe and Silvius, a one-sided love match that becomes a marriage by default when Phoebe learns that the “man” she has a crush on is actually Rosalind. In the Phoebe-Silvius relationship, the male pines for lyrically pastoral love; in the Fool-Audrey relationship, the male just wants to jump some toothsome country bones.

So he has to find a way around her honesty, and he does: he proposes marriage, and she delightedly consents. Then he finds himself a drunken country priest who, he is sure, will not marry them “well,” in case he later needs to “leave my wife.” Unluckily for him, Hymen, God of Marriage, comes in in the last scene and blesses all four of the play’s marriages, which might tighten the bonds of wedlock just a bit.

Why do I invite the students to consider the Fool’s name? Because it’s Touchstone. Please note the “s”! The stone used by goldsmiths to test the purity of gold (rub this wedding ring on the stone, for example, and then apply certain solvents and observe the reaction: aha! 24k! aha! 18k! oy oy oy, base metal lightly plated…) is the name of the character in this play whose only motive for marriage is a case of the hots.

So when we look at the other couples—Silvius and Phoebe unevenly joined, Celia and Oliver newly but surely in love, Rosalind and Orlando over their crush and into earned devotion—and test their relationships by way of the carnal coupling of Touchstone and Audrey, do we find love that is spiritual, sane, practical, and lasting, or do we find that lust makes the world go round? Is Touchstone’s marriage the way we all secretly “like it,” or would if we could? or is it the cautionary note we should bring to our relationships, sorting out the motives and weighing their value?

The word “touchstone” may be unfamiliar to my students (although I can’t understand why: I knew it and had heard it frequently enough in various contexts by the time I was in college), but most people in Shakespeare’s audience would have picked up on it right away. Since the priest he finds is called Sir Oliver Martext, someone sure to make mistakes in the ceremony, the audience can entertain the probability that Touchstone’s name is substantive as well. Thus my question.

But this student here, and others of her generation, didn’t hear “touchstone,” probably because the word meant nothing to her; she heard “touchtone,” the latest and coolest kind of telephone.  She was a serious student, so I’m pretty sure she also read the play, but in that case her eye must have elided the “s” that made the word alien to her.

There goes the discussion. There goes the character—since the intrusion of communication mechanics into ideas of love and marriage may tempt students to think about the importance of communication in a relationship (but for that they would already have the clown William, a man of few words but those fairly honest) but not about the far more relevant issue that can be gleaned from the character’s behavior. Can you imagine looking at the Fool and seeing a phone receiver, or assuming all his clever words are nothing but beeps? (Well, now that I mention it, some of them arguably are.…)

Of course nowadays I never hear the word “touchtone,” either. I think we’re past it. The name is possibly now past all meaning—just a name.

So who’s the Fool now?

“He got kicked out of the military for ‘medical discharge.'”

Only one word crashed this sentence, but it crashed it big-time.

The story behind the statement arose from a disparity in marriage laws between Nebraska and Kansas. A 22-year-old man was being charged with the statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl; the evidence was her pregnancy. The couple had crossed from their home state to Kansas, where girls as young as 12 could legally marry with their parents’ approval, which they had. When they came home to Nebraska, the trouble started. My students were asked to argue that they should, or should not, have been permitted to marry.

News reports suggested the young man was emotionally much younger than his years. The couple had begun dating when the girl was eleven—he got to know her when he was at her house playing video games with her slightly older brother. His mother said he had never been comfortable with kids his own age, and his high school work also reflected adjustment difficulties. One piece of evidence in the case that suggested he had not yet matured was the report that he had joined the Marines but after only four months had been released on a medical discharge. (The news reporter made no mention of a medical condition either before or after his military career.)

My student’s sentence seems to reflect some understanding of the situation but not of the language of military status. Too young to have watched M*A*S*H* except perhaps in late-night re-runs, she had not heard Klinger’s plans to “get a medical discharge” or “get discharged” by means of his frocks and hats: she didn’t realize “discharge” means “dismissal” in the military (and “to discharge” means “to dismiss”). So she said he had been “kicked out” but then, unfamiliar with the military idiom, just stuck the term in, put quotation marks around it, and moved on.

The young man was released from the military on a medical discharge. Yes, “kicked out” will do, although it’s a lapse of tone, since the military does use the medical discharge to dismiss soldiers who are unfit for military service for mental or emotional problems as well as physical ones. But the preposition that must follow is on.

Oh, yes, there certainly is something that might be referred to as a “medical discharge” that could follow the preposition “for”: something that is emitted or flows out, as the discharge from a suppurating wound. And alas, that’s what I see in my mind’s eye when I read her sentence—a perfectly okay young man turns into a guy so fetid with the discharge from an unhealed wound that the military doesn’t want him around anymore.

Disgusting picture on a beautiful Sunday morning in November.

But at least Kathleen Sebelius, who was governor of Kansas at the time, found the marriage laws of her state pretty disgusting too, and vowed to urge the legislature to make some changes—changes which seem, thank goodness, to have been made.

Anyway, on the “English” aspect of this post: I find it not uncommon for students to be nervous about terminology they read in their texts or research sources but unaware that a little more research might clear up their confusion. Some students obsessively quote their sources because they’re too impressed with the importance of the author, but many more quote because they don’t have a good enough grasp of the idea to try to rephrase it, and they’re at a loss as to how to proceed.

It’s these latter students that make me sad. Stanley Crane, late and still-greatly-missed head librarian of the Pequot Library in Southport, Connecticut, used to lament that students were always eager to use the summaries in Cliff’s Notes rather than “trust their own lovely minds”; and he’s right not only about Cliff’s, and now Spark Notes and Wikipedia, but also about most of the sources they read. They’re often right not to trust the sketchy ideas and half-understandings they begin with; but they’re so, so wrong not to trust their own lovely minds to seek out, think through, and then express understood information and ideas for themselves.

“It is in my best interest not to drive as though Interstate 95 were the Audubon.”

What could I say that would add to the perfection of this?

on an Audubon trail

on the Autobahn