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A churchyard in France—the last rose of summer. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.” Paul Goldfinger ©

 

By Charles Layton, formerly Editor @Blogfinger:

Good morning, class. Today we’ll study the poetic tradition known as carpe diem, which means “seize the day.”  It’s a phrase from the Roman poet Horace, who felt that life is short and unpredictable so let’s bring and make love and party on.

The poet Robert Herrick was in this tradition when he wrote his poem “To the Virgins, to Make much of Time.”  Its most famous line is Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. But it’s not about gardening.

Here is an American popular song in the carpe diem tradition. It’s been recorded by Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack and Wynton Marsalis. Johnny Harman sang it on the soundtrack to the movie The Bridges of Madison County. I especially like the concluding lines:

For all we know this may only be a dream.
We come and go like the ripples in a stream.
So love me tonight tomorrow was made for some,
Tomorrow may never come for all we know.

Susannah McCorkle:

 

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By Charles Layton

Happy new year, word wonks.

I’m thinking that our linguistic new year’s resolution should be about clichés. I hate clichés like sin. So in 2013 I resolve to avoid them like the plague. Avoiding clichés is going to be Job One. It’s going to be a game changer. A no-brainer. That’s what I’m talkin’ about!

Seriously, was this past year more cliché-packed than most? Especially in politics? It seemed so.

What if, in the coming year, our politicos and their enablers and hirelings and flacks made a real effort not to talk about (to pick one example) “kicking the can down the road.” That used to be an extremely apt image – much better than the older expression, “punt.” But after you’ve heard it three or four times a day it loses its magic.

Many clichés got to be clichés because they were magical — originally. When I first heard someone talk about “throwing out the baby with the bath water,” I was in wonderment at the pure genius of that. Now, through repetition, the image has lost impact. So it goes. (I’m always reminded of the man who read Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the first time and complained that it was full of clichés.)

Anyway, I’m for a bipartisan agreement that we stop referring to roads with cans in them. And that we forego the use of the word “spin” in its political sense; it’s making people dizzy. Also, no more references to a “fiscal cliff.” And no more accusing people of “politics as usual.” That trite little phrase that has come to mean both anything and nothing. In fact, accusing someone of politics as usual has itself become politics as usual.

I’d also ask Christian conservatives to stop accusing secular liberals of waging a “war on Christmas” – a phrase as seasonally predictable as an Andy Williams song — and that liberals, in return, stop calling out conservatives over “the war on women.” Discarding the “war on” shorthand might allow both groups to frame their complaints more precisely.

The “war on” motif began in the 60s, to my recollection, when Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty. It sounded pretty cool back then – until the war on poverty got displaced by a real war in Vietnam. But in the 70s Nixon tried to have a war on cancer. And then came the war on drugs, which has had a longer run than Cats. Bush launched a war on terror. More recently, according to the New York newspapers, Mayor Bloomberg has had both a “war on guns” and a “war on soda.” In between, we’ve had various “culture wars” along with wars on crime, inflation, obesity, germs – everything except a war on wars. I read a headline the other day that said: “Putin Declares War on Orphans.” Thus does a once-vigorous metaphor become shriveled and exhausted, and thus do its users betray their linguistic laziness. “War on” has become a headline writer’s cute little joke.

Sports produces even more clichés than government and politics. It’s amazing how long baseball announcers have been yelling, “It’s outta here!”

But basic sports terms have a way of transmogrifying into political clichés. Horse race terms predominate during election campaigns, when candidates try to “break out of the pack” and become “front runners.” Sometimes they run “neck and neck” or even have a “photo finish.”

Just to shock us out of our cataleptic boredom, I would challenge the commentators to take up another sport. How about cricket? Wouldn’t it be great if they started announcing that Obama had served up a zooter to Congress, or that the New Jersey Democrats had denounced Christie for bowling grubbers and beamers. I’d buy tickets to that.

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By Charles Layton

A stranger came up to me this week and asked me about the cap I was wearing, a blue one with the words “CAN/AM Hockey” on the front. He wanted to know what that meant.

The words refer to an organization that runs hockey tournaments in Montreal and Lake Placid. I picked up the cap one year when my grandson’s team was competing, and I always enjoy wearing it because it reminds me of that happy weekend. Also, I sometimes wear it when I want to feel tough. I believe people are less likely to mess with you when you’re wearing an article of clothing that says “hockey” on it. (For instance, if I’m confronted by thugs on a dark street, I’d much rather have on my “CAN/AM Hockey” cap than, say, my “J. S. Bach” tee-shirt.)

This week marks the second time I’ve had a stranger question me about that hockey cap. The first time, I was walking along Mt. Hermon when a garbage truck stopped and one of the collectors, an athletic-looking young man, jumped down off the back and asked me, “Where did you get that hat?” Turned out he had once competed in a Can/Am tournament. We were instant buddies.

A man of many hats. iPhone self portrait

A man of many hats. iPhone self-portrait

I have a collection of caps hanging on hooks in my foyer. I choose which one to wear on a given day based mainly on my mood. They all say something different. One says “The Inquirer,” because I used to work at that paper in Philadelphia. Another, which says “WNYC,” I received as a thank-you gift for contributing to that radio station. I wear that one a lot in cold weather, because it is warmer than most of my others, although my orange “Ocean Grove Homeowners” cap is also especially warm.

I have a “Blogfinger” cap, of course, and two different “OGCP” caps, which I’m only supposed to wear when on duty with the Citizens Patrol. The blue one I think of as my “dress uniform” cap. The white one is less formal; actually, it looks like a painter’s cap.

These caps are all constructed alike. They’re made of six triangular pieces of fabric sewn together with a button at the top and a bill in front to ward off the sun. They used to just be called baseball caps, but now they’re also known variously as trucker caps, feed caps and “gimme” caps.

The term “feed cap” is a little dated; it comes from the fact that feed stores and farming equipment companies used to give out caps to their customers as a promotional dodge, with names like “John Deere” and “International Harvester” and “Standard Feed and Seed” on the front.

The first baseball cap I ever owned, as a small boy, was just solid red — nothing written on it. That cap remains my all-time favorite, and for years I tried to find one exactly like it, usually without success. Now, of course, it’s practically impossible to find a cap that doesn’t have something on it promoting a product or a cause or an organization. Or, they may have a cartoon on them, or something weird like “I ♥ Lizards.” It can be anything — “Trophy Husband,” “Amish Gone Wild,” “The Fish Whisperer,” “I’m Not With This Guy” — but it’s always something. Just like tee-shirts. I don’t own a single tee-shirt anymore without some kind of message on it.

Thus have we all been turned into walking billboards.

I like every one of the signs emblazoned on my caps; otherwise I wouldn’t wear them. But what I cannot stand, and would never wear, is an article of clothing that simply promotes a commercial product brand. It puzzles me that people will actually enter a store and buy a cap or other garment that says “Calvin Klein” or “Ralph Lauren” or “Aeropostale.” If those retailers want me to endorse and promote their merchandise, they should be paying me, not the other way around. There, I’ve said it.

The only joke I have ever heard about lettering on caps is this:

A man walked into a religious book store. He found himself looking at a display of caps, all of which bore the letters “WWJD.”

“What does that mean?” he asked the sales lady. She explained that the letters stood for “What would Jesus do?” It’s a question one should ask when confronted with a difficult decision, she said.

The man looked again at the display, scratched his chin in thought, and finally said, “I don’t think Jesus would pay $19.95 for this hat.”

MUSIC: by Joe Cocker.

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The University of Texas tower — the perfect place for a sniper

By Charles Layton

Before last week’s massacre at Newtown, Connecticut — and before the others at Virginia Tech, at Fort Hood, Texas, at Aurora, Colorado, and all the way back to the 1999 slaughter at Columbine High School — decades before all those, there was the sniper shooting by Charles Whitman at the University of Texas.

I was there that day and witnessed it.

It was the summer of 1966. My first wife and I were students at UT. She had a class that day, and we had planned to meet for lunch as soon as her class let out. Driving in to meet her, I heard a radio report that a sniper had opened fire from the observation deck of the tower of the Main Library. He had already killed and wounded an unknown number of people and was still said to be firing down randomly as I parked my car nearby. “It’s like a battle scene,” the radio reporter said. “He fires a shot, and another shot, and another shot … it’s a battle between the sniper and the police.”

The radio said the sniper seemed to be a good shot. Some of those he hit had been several blocks away from the tower, about as far away as I then was. People were urged to stay clear of the campus.

But there was no way I was going to stay clear; I was worried about the safety of my wife. For all I knew she was one of those who had already been shot. She would have had to pass very near that library tower on her way to meet me for lunch.

By the time I parked, I could hear the rifle fire. Moving onto the campus, I tried to keep out of sight of the top of the tower where Whitman (we didn’t yet know his name) would have been. I dodged behind the Education Building, then behind a corner of Parlin Hall, which housed the English Department, and then behind a high stone wall running along the edge of a large grass-and-pavement expanse directly in front of the tower. Once behind that stone wall, there was nothing to do but stay put.

Policemen, sheriff’s deputies and other lawmen had taken cover along the wall, leaning out occasionally to fire a shot in Whitman’s direction. By the time I arrived they pretty much had him pinned down, although once in a while a hurried shot still issued from up on the observation deck.

I had been on that observation deck myself many times — we all had; it was the most peaceful spot on campus, just a beautiful place to stand in the fresh breeze and look out across the city of Austin and beyond, westward, toward the hill country. Anyone could go up there during library hours. You simply took an elevator to the 27th floor, then up one flight of stairs, then through a door that put you out on the landing. That’s what Whitman had done.

From where I stood, I had a partial view of the expanse of lawns and paved promenade between the place where I had taken cover and the tower building. It was an area called The South Mall, a large open space where students would often lie on the grass and read a book, or eat a sandwich, or play with a dog. It was the first place I ever saw a dog catch a frisbie.

On the day of the shooting, acts of high drama took place there. People were shot while trying to help other people who had been shot. These casualties, both dead and wounded, were lying on the ground when I arrived. I could see a young woman, alive and well, who had been caught in the open by Whitman’s gunfire and was now crouched behind the concrete base of a flag pole, out of his view but unable to move. She must have been terrified.

What none of us on the ground knew at the time was that three Austin police officers were making their way to the top of the tower in order to access the landing where Whitman was. The top of the building was square, with a somewhat ridiculous-looking Greek temple at its apex, clock faces just below that, and then below the clock faces a walkway that reached around the building on all four sides. It was an impressive act of bravery for those policemen to step out onto that walkway, not knowing around which corner the sniper might suddenly appear, rifle blazing. As it happened, they got the drop on Whitman and killed him.

I don’t recall how we on the ground learned that the gun fight was over and the sniper was dead. Maybe the news came by radio to one or more of the policemen nearby. But somehow we all knew at once, and we surged out from our hiding places, intending, I guess, to see to the wounded. Along with grief and shock, one could also feel a sense of rage in that crowd, as if we wanted to find the sniper’s corpse and desecrate it, hang it from a pole.

I saw a stretcher being carried out of the building with a body on it — one of three people Whitman had murdered inside the tower building. A blanket covered the body, and there was blood. After killing the three inside, Whitman had begun his potshot barrage across the campus, killing 11 other people. Earlier that day he had also killed his wife and his mother. He killed 16 souls in all and wounded 32.

I cannot claim that having seen that incident gives me any special insight into how people may be feeling now in Connecticut. The Connecticut victims were mainly small children. Ours were college students and employees. I didn’t know any of the UT victims personally.

Most of us in Austin had never heard of such an indiscriminately murderous act before. We had little with which to compare it. I believe most of us considered it a lamentable, freakish, once-in-a-lifetime aberration. Times were different in 1966. As my ex-wife told me in an email the other day, “My memory, very vivid, is how shocked we were that someone would take a gun to kill random groups of people. Now we are not so shocked.”

Not so shocked, but maybe even more distressed, and very saddened.

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By Charles Layton

There in the foyer by the front window stands our Christmas tree, cheerfully radiant with colored bulbs and ornaments.

We’ve accumulated these ornaments over years; many came as gifts from friends. Some have a sidelong reference to the birth of Jesus — figures of angels, stars — but most don’t. Most either signify winter in a general way (snow, icicles, a sleigh) or they’re just randomly decorative: a paper mâché apple, a pig with a festive ribbon around its neck, a little elephant painted in what looks like a Hindu decorative style.

Which is fine, because the Christmas tree tradition does flow from manifold sources. The Romans, the ancient Egyptians, the druids, the Vikings and many others saw greenery in winter as a symbol of eternal life. So they brought holly, mistletoe, a small fir tree, green palm rushes – whatever green vegetation they had – into the house around the time of the winter solstice, which is when the days start to get longer, pointing toward the return of spring, the renewal of life. Once you had a tree in the house, of course, you’d want to decorate it.

The early Roman church began to observe Jesus’s birth toward the end of the year to supplant the most popular Roman holiday, Saturnalia, and other pagan solstice celebrations. The transition wasn’t such a stretch. Saturnalia was a time of merriment, family gatherings, gift-giving and religious rites, much like what Christmas became.

Saturnalia began on December 17 and lasted for several days. The early Christians didn’t agree on exactly when their holiday should be observed. Various months — March, April, May, November– were suggested. There was no record of Jesus’s actual birthday. Eastern Orthodox branches celebrated it on January 7. The Armenians went with January 6. Western Christians settled on December 25. According to ChristianHistory.net, this latter choice was influenced by Origen, a Christian scholar who wanted the date to correspond to existing pagan celebrations. These included the birthday of Sol, the Roman sun god, and the birthday of Mithras, an Iranian fertility god who was especially popular with Roman soldiers.

German Christians were early to adopt the pagan custom of putting up an indoor tree, and German settlers brought that custom to America. For a long time, though, most Americans rejected it. An early governor of Massachusetts, William Bradford, considered such frivolities a “pagan mockery” of the sanctity of the holiday. In 1659 Massachusetts passed a law making it a penal offense to display ornaments at Christmas.

Another famous Puritan, the British leader Oliver Cromwell, opposed the Christmas tree on account of its“heathen tradition.”

Still, there was something so appealing about a Christmas tree that the Puritans couldn’t stamp it out. In 1846 the Christmas tree tradition gained considerable respectability in England when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing  in front of one with their children.

The first American president to put a tree in the White House was Franklin Pierce, in the 1850s. Teddy Roosevelt interrupted that tradition, not because of heathenism but rather his concern for the environment. This concern was shared by many. For example, in 1899 the Minneapolis Times stated that “The annual harvest of Christmas trees threatens to strip our forests of their fir and spruce.” The article went on to suggest that some inventor ought to come forward with a wire Christmas tree, which would not only solve the environmental problem but also would be “absolutely fire proof.”

Speaking of fire, it’s been written (probably falsely) that Martin Luther first got the idea to put lighted candles on an indoor tree – a really bad idea that endured for centuries. But it was an American who thought to replace the candles with electric lights: New Jersey’s own Thomas Edison.

The first tree at Rockefeller Center went up in 1931. It was unlit, but two years later another tree was placed there, this time with electric lights.

My wife, Mary, loves Christmas trees. She treats ours as if it were a sentient being, a family pet. As soon as we got it into the house this week she fed it a dose of her home-made Christmas tree preservative, kneeling down and pouring the liquid carefully into the tree’s metal base. The tree slurped it right up. “The poor thing is thirsty,” Mary declared, pouring in more liquid.

Here is her recipe: 12 ounces of Sprite to a gallon of water plus a dash of Clorox and an optional dash of vinegar.

Unfortunately, I happened to read that plain tap water is better for hydrating a tree than any commercial or home-made elixir. In fact, says the National Christmas Tree Association’s website, “Some commercial additives and home concoctions can actually be detrimental to a tree’s moisture retention and increase needle loss.” The NCTA especially warns against bleach.

When I read this to Mary, she pronounced herself “nonplussed.” After a moment’s thought, figuring that the NCTA must know what it’s talking about, she decided to throw out her home-made concoction. “A whole big bottle of Sprite wasted,” she said.

Change of mood: Here is a Joni Mitchell song, “River,” performed by Sarah McLachlan:

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Downtown Ocean Grove. 2003. By Paul Goldfinger

Downtown Ocean Grove, morning.  2003. By Paul Goldfinger

By Charles Layton

It was right around this time of year, 15 winters ago, that Mary and I moved to Ocean Grove. The weather was similar to now – gray, overcast skies and chilly temps. We didn’t know a soul in town except for Janet, the realtor who had sold us our house, and Dick, the contractor who was renovating it. We were living in a construction zone. While Dick tore down walls and sawed and hammered and refinished floors in one part of the house, we’d take shelter in another part. Then we and Dick would switch places. For a time we had no functioning kitchen.

We were both freelance writers during that period, operating out of a single, cramped home office, so we had no work colleagues other than two or three editors with whom we talked on the phone. It was a season of isolation.

Ocean Grove was much different then; it felt half-abandoned in winter. Nagle’s had closed as a pharmacy and hadn’t yet reopened as a restaurant. The Starving Artist was also closed during the dead of winter. There was no Pizza Shoppe on Main, no Devil’s Food, no Bia, no Seagrass.

Asbury was in ruins. Nothing was open on the boardwalk, it was a slum. The Cookman Avenue renaissance hadn’t happened yet. The housing renaissance had barely begun. Except for a gay bar or two, there was almost nothing commercial anywhere near the ocean in Asbury, unless you counted the crack trade. I remember seeing grafitti on a wall that read, “Asbury Park: Where Debris Meets the Sea.”

Ocean Grove was somewhat blighted. On any given block you might see a derelict house. A huge corner house on our block was empty and in apparent danger of collapse. (Then two guys from New York bought it and turned it into a showplace.)

What always lifted my spirits during that first winter was a trip to The Daily Grind, a tiny coffee shop with a few chairs and about three extremely small, cramped tables. It was on Main Avenue in the small room that’s off to the right-hand side of what’s now The Barbaric Bean.

The Daily Grind was a refuge. The woman who ran it turned out wonderful scones – as good as I’ve ever eaten. She would haul out big pans of them from her little kitchen. She baked muffins, too. She always had a pot of chili on the counter, and one or two pots of soup. All of it was delicious. She was open seven days a week, except maybe for Christmas day. It was the coziest little joint I’ve ever seen, the ideal place to drop into on a cold, raw day.

Of course I prefer today’s version of Ocean Grove, with all its activities and amenities. There’s no comparison. But bleak gray days like we’re having now always remind me of that first winter here, when I would squeeze up to one of those little round tables in The Grind, read the letters to the editor in The Coaster, drink my coffee and spoon down a hot bowl of chili. Sheltered and snug as a clam.

MUSIC by Nat King Cole:

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Blarney Castle in County Cork, Ireland

Blarney Castle in County Cork, Ireland

By Charles Layton

Recently, in passing, I mentioned the word malarkey, which Joe Biden had used in a debate. Last week I ran across the word again, this time in a political op-ed piece — further evidence that this sprightly little expression has lately, like a sperm, wiggled its way into our national intercourse.

My father, who had Scotch-Irish roots, used to say malarkey quite often, and also another, similar word, blarney, which he pronounced with three syllables: buh-LAR-nee. Blarney and Malarkey both mean the same thing: misleading talk or nonsense. Baloney, if you will.

The rock musician Mark Knopfler partnered the two terms in the lyric of his 2009 song “Cleaning My Gun” —

Blarney and Malarkey, they’re a devious firm / They’ll take you to the cleaners or let you burn …

The word blarney comes from Blarney Castle and its famous “blarney stone.” This stone, set in the castle’s wall, is said to invest a person who kisses it with the “gift of gab.”

According to one account, the present meaning of blarney dates from the time of Queen Elizabeth I, who was attempting to wrest control of Irish lands from their feudalist owners, one of whom was Cormac MacCarthy, the lord of Blarney Castle. In an effort to negotiate away as little as possible to the crown, he used elaborate evasions and stalling tactics. One day, in frustration, Elizabeth is said to have screamed, “This is all blarney! What he says he never means.”

The source of malarkey is more obscure. It seems not to be of Irish origin at all, although it sounds like it, and it probably does derive somehow from the Irish-American surname Malarkey.

Cartoonist and word-slinger Tad Dorgan

Cartoonist and word-slinger Tad Dorgan

 According to the website World Wide Words, malarkey was first used in print in 1922 by the American cartoonist Tad Dorgan, who also either created or helped popularize other colorful slang expressions such as “hard-boiled,” “dumbbell,” “kibitzer,” “cat’s pajamas” and “drugstore cowboy.” His obituary credits him with coining the Roaring Twenties exclamation “Twenty-three, Skiddoo!” We really should write a column about him sometime.

Malarkey was first listed in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1929.

Various theories of origin have been advanced – that it might derive from Madame Misharty, supposedly the name of a British fortune teller, or that it might have a connection to the Greek malakia, meaning “softness,” but both those theories are flimsy.

So we’re left with the presumption that the word did arise in connection with the surname Malarkey. Maybe someone with that name once had a reputation for being full of it. Or (my own suggestion) maybe Tad Dorgan just made it up, as he did so many other slang expressions.

Many English words do derive from personal names. “Quisling,” which means a traitor, comes from the name of Major Vidkun Quisling, who collaborated with the Nazis in Norway. “Bowdlerize,” meaning to censor a work of literature, comes from Dr. Thomas Bowdler, who in 1818 excised those parts of Shakespeare which, in his wisdom, he deemed unfit to be read by women and children.

General Joe Hooker, a fighter and a lover.

General Joe Hooker, a fighter and a lover.

But one must be careful in making these name associations without good evidence. I have read more than once that the word “hooker,” meaning a prostitute, came from the shady morals of the Civil War general Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker. Although this has been widely reported as fact, I’ve just learned that it’s all wrong. A letter unearthed by a historian and dated c. 1845 – well before the time of Fighting Joe – says this: “If he comes by way of Norfolk he will find any number of pretty Hookers in the Brick row not far from French’s hotel. Take my advice and touch nothing in the shape of a prostitute when you come through Raleigh, for in honest truth the clap is there of luxuriant growth.”

So the claim that the word hooker was derived from the name of the Civil War general turns out to be a bunch of malarkey.

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A portrait of the author

By Charles Layton

Here is my problem: I don’t want anything for Christmas.

I don’t need clothes, I’m retired. My daily uniform is jeans and flannel shirts. My closet and attic are bursting with stuff I never wear. I put on a suit and tie about once a year – twice if it’s a really bad year.

Do I need gloves? Not really. I have two pairs.

A new parka? – got one last year, and it’s great.

How about a watch? Don’t wear one anymore. Like I said, I’m retired.

People used to give me music CDs and books at Christmas, but now I download all that to iTunes and Kindle. There’s nothing to wrap and put under a tree, unless it would be an Amazon gift certificate, which is embarrassingly unfestive.

I have all the electronics I can use. Desktop computer — check. Laptop — check. iPhone — got a new one. iPod – got one. Digital recorder — got one, seldom use it. Camera equipment – I use my wife’s. Don’t need more.

I don’t have an iPad or any other kind of tablet device, but that’s because I can’t figure out what I’d use one for, or why I’d want to carry it around.

What about some tools? I have all the tools I need. Anyway, I really don’t know how to fix anything.

You would think that having all the possessions one wants in life would be a good thing, wouldn’t you? And for most of the year it is. I am happy, I am blessed, my cup runneth over.

But come December, thanks to the commercially oppressive nature of the season, having all my earthly needs already fulfilled is awkward. Not wanting more makes me seem standoffish, alienated, uncooperative. I remember that my father used to feel something similar. “Christmas ought to be just for children,” he would say. I now think I know what he was getting at.

I stroll the malls, checking out the stores, and there’s just nothing there that appeals. If they were selling extra closet space, I would ask people to give me that.

I understand that people like to give gifts, that the impulse is natural and good, and I hate to be a Grinch, although I do recall that in the Dr. Seuss story the spirit of Christmas survived and flourished after the Grinch stole all the presents.

Here’s what I’m thinking. What if, this year, I just ask all my loved ones, instead of giving me something, to make a donation to the local food pantry or to Hurricane Sandy relief.

Would that be so awful? It’s what would really make me the happiest.

But OK, if anyone still insists on giving me something, I guess I could use some socks.

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The Milky Way. Photo from the Internet

By Charles Layton

A few years ago we lived for three weeks in Nicaragua, in a house at the edge of a small, very remote fishing village called Casares. It was a spectacular place. Instead of shooshing and murmuring, as they mostly do in Ocean Grove, the waves on that shore towered and crashed and sucked and splattered and spat. They were never subdued.

From our porch, looking out on the Pacific Ocean, we watched pelicans dive bombing for fish. Each afternoon huge flocks – a hundred or more at a time – would fly right past us, headed for their nesting grounds.

But even better was the sky at night. After all the meager lights in that little town went dark, the sky became a light show of blazing stars and star clusters, plunging meteors, wandering planets. Sometimes, very late, when the call of nature roused me from bed, I would walk out on the patio alone and stare and stare at the universe, and especially at the Milky Way, wheeling above me. Stars by the thousands, unbelievably distinct and clear.

In Ocean Grove, on most nights, you can actually count the number of visible stars. Often it’s no more than a dozen. Sometimes it’s none. Living under a permanent scrim of light pollution, we forget how many stars are out there. Many of us have never actually seen the night sky in its true state – as I saw it on the coast of Nicaragua, and as our ancestors knew it.

In a couple of weeks we’ll hear jokes about the Mayan calendar coming to an end, and how that will be the destruction of the earth and all mankind. No need to do your Christmas shopping or pay your taxes now, our doom is written in the stars, har har. What idiots, those Mayans.

But really, the Mayans and all ancient peoples lived their lives in constant communion with the teeming, moving lights in the natural sky. The ancient peoples had no idea what those lights were. They noted that the lights moved in strange ways. Sometimes one could be seen to streak and fall out of the sky. Sometimes a comet would appear, ominously hovering. (What did that portent? Something important, right?) The night sky was those people’s television, fraught with drama and bad news.

The constellation Orion. The three middle stars are his belt

Religions arose to explain all those moving lights. Stories were told. People saw pictures in the sky – a lion, a crab, a hunter named Orion holding a bow in one hand and a club in the other. Because the planets moved independently of the rest of the turning firmament, the ancients associated those special lights with gods – Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn.

But because the sky was so brilliant, prominent, ever-present and mysterious, ancient people studied it methodically. They built observatories and took and recorded measurements. They found that the heavenly bodies displayed repeating patterns which, when plotted, yielded information useful to hunters, farmers, nomads and sailors. Astrologers tried to discern when “the stars were right” for planting or marrying or doing business or giving birth.

The Bible says the “wise men” (men who understood signs in the sky) were guided to Bethlehem by a star. If such a beckoning star rose in the sky now, I doubt we’d even see it — unless JCP&L suffered a major blackout.

Hurricane Sandy taught us the value of electricity, and I’m happy to have the power back on; I would never want to do without it. Still, it’s not a trivial thing, our loss of that ancient awareness of the richness of the sky.

MUSIC: “Lost in the Stars” is a song by Kurt Weill. This rendering is by Tony Bennett.

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By Charles Layton

The Blogfinger Grammarian makes no apology for being totally out of it.

He does not apologize for the fact that his fashion consciousness is about the same as it was in high school. Nor for the fact that, of all the performers at the Bamboozle music festival, the only one he’d heard of was Bon Jovi. Nor for the fact that he doesn’t know who the Kardashians are, has never once watched American Idol, and has never heard Lady Gaga sing.

He no longer follows any sports teams except the Lakewood Blueclaws, having decided that performance-enhancing drugs, money, television, childishly egotistical acting-out and pedophilia have made big-time sports unworthy of serious attention.

When the Blogfinger Grammarian passes the magazine racks at the Wegmans checkout counter, he doesn’t recognize any of the celebrities on the covers (except for Brad and Jen, whom he does kind of hope may one day get back together, although he knows they never will).

Being ignorant of so many cultural references, the Blogfinger Grammarian no longer gets half the jokes on Saturday Night Live, and so he doesn’t watch it any more. (He wishes Chevy Chase and Dan Ackroyd would come back, although he knows that would be a disaster.)

However, one thing that I (let’s drop the third-person affectation) do know something about is the English language, since I made my living off of it. At least I thought I knew the English language; I thought I knew words.

But now I’ve just read that the Oxford American Dictionary has announced its annual “word of the year,” and it is a word I’d never heard of. The dictionary claims that its word of the year is chosen for being “a word that has attracted interest and that embodies in some way the ethos of the year.” Well if that’s true, I must have wandered right out of the ethos and right into the anti-ethos.

Because the word of the year is – ta-daaah! – GIF.

But not GIF as a noun – that’s supposedly old-hat. What’s new and exciting, according to Oxford American, is that people are now using GIF as a verb. To GIF means to perform the act of creating a GIF. Or posting a GIF online, or something.

This is a travesty. In the first place, show of hands, how many of you know what the heck a GIF is, or what the verb “to GIF” means? If you were asked to GIF, what would you do? (It’s pronounced with a soft “g,” by the way, as in “giant.”)

I looked it up. Turns out the letters stand for Graphics Interchange Format. And a GIF is a series of images put together via computer in a short, loop-repeating sequence.

Here’s a link. Check out a few GIFs and then hit the back arrow and come on back.

Back now?

OK. Although GIFs are empty calories, they can be kind of fun. They’re all over the Internet. People share them in emails.

Still, if I’d had a vote I certainly would not have supported GIF as word of the year. Just because some Internet geeks with too much time on their hands started using it as a verb? Please.

Some of the other choices Oxford American considered but turned down seem way more appealing to me. They turned down “Super PAC,” which has the advantage that you hear and read that word constantly. It really is part of the ethos of the year 2012. So is “superstorm,” but the judges passed on that one as well.

 “Malarkey” was even a contender, because Joe Biden used it in the debate with Paul Ryan. It has been reported that moments after Biden said “That’s a bunch of malarkey” people on the Internet went wild appreciating the word, discussing its meaning, its derivation, variations on its spelling. Malarkey reportedly was mentioned on Twitter 30,000 times in one minute.

It’s a good word. A great word. Maybe not deserving to be anyone’s word of the year, but it beats the heck out of GIF.

Can I please get an amen on that?

MUSIC by Ella Fitzgerald:

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