The Wordy Shipmates

“The Wordy Shipmates” by Sarah Vowell is less a short book than a long essay on the New England Puritans with sarcastic commentaries.

This book suffers from what I call History Channel Disease. The lone symptom of this ailment is writing about the past in the present tense. Vowell’s folksy style is a little more informal than is appropriate (she uses “this here” at least three times, or at least two times too many).

By looking through the popular stereotypes of the Puritans and examining the writings of John Winthrop, Roger Williams, and their contemporaries, Vowell gives a more complex account of their beliefs and actions. Though she cracks wise about them, she also puts them in historical context and presents their point of view.

I was never comfortable with the Puritans. They seem very far removed from our modern nation; their intolerance meant their town meetings nothing better than a superficial democracy. After reading “The Wordy Shipmates” I can appreciate their love of literacy and their repressed capacity for free thought.


Here’s why I’m twenty-five pounds heaver than I was a few years ago: I now like to eat good food. Back in my abnormally thin days I used to be content with a couple of plain rice cakes for a meal. Of course I didn’t make much money so I didn’t spend much on food.

A few years ago I was eating a sandwich on white Wonder Bread. Wonder Bread really is a wonder. It’s mostly air from what I can tell. You can press a slice with your fingers into a hard white tablet the size of a sore throat lozenge. I must have mentioned in passing that I only bought the stuff because it was cheap. The lady I mentioned it to chided me, “That’s not where you should skimp.”

And she was right. If I was going to buy bread I might as well buy something with nutritional value that tasted good. I can afford it and I can save money from other things I don’t need.

I’m not blaming Ursula’s comment for making me gain weight. My abrupt transition into a very sedentary job is the real reason. But I eat too much for the amount of exercise I get. And in Iowa City, you can get good food. They grow it near here.

The problem is that I like having food in my mouth more than in my stomach. And what food you put in your mouth to you ought to swallow. However, this is merely a convention and not a law. I propose that if I spit out one third of the food I chew I can lose twenty-five pounds in no time flat without having to sacrifice outstanding flavors and textures. The added social benefit is that the people around me will lose weight along with their appetites.

The would-be Samaritan

“What are you doing that you’re always seeing this?” Lore asked me “I’ve never in my life seen a car with the lights left on, but every time we go out you see one.”

“It has nothing to do with me,” I explained. “It’s other people who leave their car lights on.”

Twice when I was in college I came across cars with the lights left on and both times I found them unlocked, so I opened the doors and shut the lights off. The resulting cognitive distortion means whenever I see a car with lights left on, I believe the doors must be unlocked.

Lore said she wouldn’t want somebody opening her car door even if the lights were left on. She understands that the battery could go dead, but she still doesn’t like it. I, however, have at least twice been that guy who left the lights on and came back to find a dead battery.

So I always try to open the door (if the coast is clear) and if it’s locked I always tell the people inside about it. Why don’t I channel this Gandhi-like propensity for action toward to something important, say clothing the naked and feeding the hungry? Is it because I’ve never been naked and hungry (meaning involuntarily and at the same time)? It must mean only that I can relate best to the absent-minded.


We’ve been going to the pool a few times a week since the winter weather set in. I may very well be the world’s slowest swimmer but I’m getting better and I feel better. I’ve accomplished the short-term goal of not being totally exhausted after half an hour or twenty laps. I forget how much better I feel with even minimal exercise, and during the winter eclipse of bicycling weather I need something to do. I think other people underestimate its usefulness too.

Even though I swam a lot as a kid (the ocean beaches were only as far as the traffic jams made them seem to be), I’ve gone through significant chunks of my life without even putting on a bathing suit. That’s pretty sad. Iowa City has at least four public pools, which is amazing to me. It’s unbelievable I didn’t jump in sooner.

Capitol curves

I can’t get enough of the interior staircase at the Old Capitol. It’s so curvy and weird. I went with my folks a couple of years ago and took some photos. We went for a little while today and I took some more pictures of the curvy things.


I accidentally deleted my custom theme files. Even though I back up my database and lots of other things, for some reason I never backed them up. So the template files and the style sheet for the nice prairie theme is gone. I do have a screen capture of it so I can remember it:

Prairie theme in green, orange, yellow, and purple.
Prairie theme in green, orange, yellow, and purple.

I can’t believe it. Well, this is one of those crisis-opportunity moments so I’ll be slowly rebuilding and redesigning the site again.

Still freezing but better

Today was quite comfortable compared to the glacial blast we had this week. At least until the wind kicked up again. We went out to West Branch to see the National Historic Site and the Presidential Library.

The simple design of the Hoovers’ gravesite is quite striking in the snow:

Two plain marble slabs and their landscape plantings in the snow.
Two plain marble slabs and their landscape plantings in the snow.

Something odd

I went to the pool for a quick swim and as I was getting dressed, something caught my eye: a woman’s bathing suit hanging from the hook on the toilet stall door. I have no idea why it was there but there certainly weren’t any naked women walking around in the men’s locker room. Curious.

Lincoln’s Melancholy

If I didn’t sometimes read a good book after a dismal one I might stop reading them altogether. “Lincoln’s Melancholy”, by Joshua Wolf Shenk is one of the good ones.

I confess that even though I am a student of history and have worked at parks with Civil War themes, I know very little about Abraham Lincoln. With the bicentennial anniversary of his birth next month (I presume it’s not called his “200th birthday” because he’s dead), I thought him a fit topic for a read.

I found some worthwhile reviews, one from the New York Times and another from The Times review implies that Shenk overstates his evidence for, and understands what we can’t know about, Lincoln’s depression. I do not agree; Shenk presents the both the compelling evidence and the obstacles to understanding it. The book is informed and reasonable and does what all biographies must do: put the subject in the context of his or her times.

Shenk combines his case that Lincoln suffered from major depression with commentary about the values that present and past Americans attach to the disease. He argues that the current American addiction to Reagan-style optimism in our elected officials may result in unrealistic public policy. Lincoln’s realism was rooted in his depression; dealing with depression helped him hone his skills at dealing with crises.

While reading this book, I was surprised to learn how much source material is available on Lincoln. After Lincoln was killed, his law partner collected interviews with many people who knew him. Shenk describes how both these oral histories and discussion of Lincoln’s depression collection went in and out of favor among historians.

If you want to celebrate the man, learn something new about him. I suggest this book.

Iron Man and Indiana Jones

Attention! Plot spoilers for lame movies below.

Haven’t I seen these movies before? Isn’t “Iron Man” the same as “Batman”? A disgustingly rich guy who can whip up a high-tech crime-fighting machine in a few hours?

I will always associate Indiana Jones, much like I do “Star Wars”, with my childhood. That was back when I was a little easier to please, so I tried not to hold “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” to that standard. People tend to forget they were kids when “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was new, and a lot of what we liked about it was really childish stuff. This latest incarnation has the signature truck chases, creepy-crawlies, and unforgivable villains. I thought the plot was a bit over the top even for this franchise, and the self-destructing amazing lost city–heck, that was pioneered in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, but I had to watch it in “Tomb Raider”, and “National Treasure” (both with Jon Voight? Hmmm), and… I think there was one in “Brokeback Mountain”.

I hear this Shia Laboeuf guy’s name in the news a lot. He is terrible actor. I hope he never loses his looks.

An icy blast of January

Last week the weather was calm and the snow was melting away, but it’s snowing again this week. We have a blizzard warning for tonight. I bet the weather people on the local news are excited.

Here is photo of some icicles taken yesterday unambitiously from my living room window:

Long, thin icicles and red berries hang from a leafless branch.
Long, thin icicles and red berries hang from a leafless branch.

It’s funny how the berries are still hanging on.

Between You and I

I happened upon “Between You and I– A Little Book of Bad English”, by James Cochrane, at the library. It is quite little but is full of corrections to commonly misused, misspelled, misconstructed, or mispronounced words and phrases.

For example, Cochrane explains the difference between “comprise” and “compose”:

The basic rule is that the parts compose the whole; the whole comprises (or consists of or is composed of) the parts.

The book is filled with a lot of commentary as well. Cochrane doesn’t like euphemisms (the word itself, he explains, is Greek for the “use of an auspicious word for an inauspicious one”), especially when applied to terms for killing people or firing them from their jobs. He identifies the roots of misused words to show their original meanings. He also doesn’t like the creeping of jargon and technical words into common use: terms like forensic, transpire, and quantum leap should be not be used too freely.

Pretty handy, right? I’m tempted to own a copy, but maybe I could just crack open my dictionary before using a word I’m not sure about.

The Forgotten Man

I’ve been meaning to write about “The Forgotten Man”, by Amity Shlaes, which I read before Christmas. I returned it to the library yesterday before I had a chance to write about it. So here’s the gist.

It’s a history of the Great Depression, one that is not friendly to the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt, or the Brain Trusters. I am very curious about the Great Depression and am always looking for good books about it. This is not one of them.

Shlaes contends that Hoover’s and Roosevelt’s policies prolonged the Depression by creating so much uncertainty in the economy that they strangled two or three recoveries. She presents anecdotal evidence centered around a handful of colorful Depression-era figures like Wendell Willkie, Father Divine, and Rexford Tugwell.

“The Forgotten Man” is not well-referenced. The first chapter has only three citations. The notes are in bibliographical essay form, a type of academic sleight-of-hand that cloaks bad scholarship. Shlaes doesn’t like unions. You would think from her scathing assessment of the Wagner Act that industrial workers were never abused or exploited. The book ends abruptly with the election in 1940, and has no discussion of the long-term effects of the Depression or the New Deal.

Code surgery

The functions in WordPress 2.7.1 for inserting images into posts are deranged and at odds with my style sheet. After much gnashing of teeth I finally went into the program’s source code and deleted a few short snippets. I don’t like to mess with the source code, but it solved two problems I was having. Usually when I do that it causes more.

Star Wars

Lore has never seen any of the “Star Wars” saga. I can hardly believe when someone my age has never seen these movies, but I’ll cut her some slack because she’s from overseas. However, we’ve been renting them one at a time, starting in proper order with Episode IV. So far, we’ve watched the original trilogy plus Episode I.

More tweaks

Though I’ve separated the home page from the blog, the blog is still the main feature. I need something on the home page that will lead into the blog, so I’ve moved the latest excerpt up to the top and linked it to both the blog and the latest post.

The big photo of me on the home page, as Lore put it, puts me and what I like right in front. Something bothered me about it. It was just stuck there like a big obstacle, so I moved it down and will use it to lead into my new Photos page, which is still under construction but I’m concocting a way to display all of my photos there. WordPress is primarily a writing program and is a little slow to develop its multimedia features, so I will have to either monkey around with the existing functions or write some of my own.

I also simplified the sidebar menu (now completely “widgetized”, or automated), and moved the calendar and the archives, categories, and tags menus onto the blog pages. I hope they don’t get in the way, but I don’t like it when the sidebar gets too long with options.

R&D continues

Research and development on the home page continues. The categorical updates seemed a little wrong since there are a couple of categories I don’t post in very often. Now I am posting excerpts from the last five posts on the home page in what I hope is a more attractive format.

As an aside, I will post my web design notes in Site News more often. However, I still have to find the best way to include raw PHP code into the post without WordPress rendering it into HTML.