Ashley Dippel at the Sundance Film Festival 2024 (a guest post)

Attending the Sundance Film Festival 2024 was my friend’s idea. He said he had always wanted to attend and that this was the year. As a sucker for road trips, good movies and time with friends, I made it my mission as well. We recruited two others, booked a budget Airbnb and made the twelve-hour drive in a 2009 Honda CR-V. 

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We spent the first two days in Park City, Utah to catch the Sundance Lights at their brightest. The snowy nightlife was alive in a way I’d never seen. We kicked off the weekend at the Alpine Distillery Social Aid & Pleasure Club, a swanky underground bar with communal seating and fruity cocktails. The following days of the festival, I spent my time writing poetry, exploring Salt Lake City, and watching film makers share their masterpieces with the public for the first time.

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The films moved me, the camaraderie of my friends brought me to tears, and the fresh breath of Utah’s crisp air gave my body the reset it needed to start the year off right. The weekend’s keylight shines directly on the creative and connecting atmosphere that the Sundance Film Festival and its attendees created. While it’s not about the destination, Salt Lake City was a beautiful backdrop for the journey Sundance brought me. It is a journey that will live in my heart until my dying day.

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What I’m Reading

How to Talk Language Science with Everybody by Laura Wagner and Cecile McKee.

This book should be required reader for every PhD and master’s student in linguists. Wagner and McKee explain how to build the necessary skills to communicate language science (really any science or technical field) to general public. Those of us who have fumbled when trying to explain linguistics to family members, friends, reports, and colleagues and administrators will appreciate the well organized and systematic presentation. In twenty bite-sized chapters – with plenty of examples – the authors explain how and why the of generating interest, building credibility and scaffolding knowing about linguistics to a variety of audiences. Wish I had had this when I first started teaching, back in the last century.

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense (1980) , Success with the Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense, (1989) The Last Word on the Gentle Art of Self-Defense, by Suzette Haden Elgin (1987)

A few years ago I picked up these three books in a thrift shop. I had known about Elgin’s work and occasionally taught her linguistic science fiction and Laadan, so I thought someday I’d read through my investment. The three books are a sort of applied linguistics—or applied semantics more exactly—focusing on way to recognize conversational presuppositions in interactions. More importantly, the books suggest how to challenge presuppositions to redirect (or derail) conversations that are unproduction. Elgin sets things up by taking about various modes of interaction: the placate, the blamer, the computer, the distracter, and the leveler (based on Virgina Satir’s psychotherapeutic model) and shows how different modes respond to verbal aggression.

As you can infer from the titles, the books are written in the self-help style, with sample conversations, journaling exercises, and so on. Some of the scenarios seem clunky, but overall ones get a nice set of examples of thinks like “I you really wanted me to get an A in math, you’d buy me a calculator” or “Even a nurse ought to be able to tell I’m really in a lot of pain.” Elgin touches on power networks and charisma and has special chapters “For men” For women” and “For College students” in the 1980s).

Success … is a bit more interesting linguistically, with discussion of factives, metaphor, time adverbs, and more., with a long section on language and public relations. The Last Word … adds in the idea of sensory modes from the Neurolinguistic Programming Work of Grinder and Bandler and introduces something called Syntonics which involves matching the sensory mode of others. Throughout the three books Elgin blends in linguistic ideas, with advice on

The most fun idea was what she called “the twirk” referring to language that calls attention to itself as a means of creating a distraction. I had thought I would skim the books and discard them, but I think I’ll hold onto them, just in case….

Spassky’s Best Games: A Chess Biography by Alexey Bezgodov and Dmitry Aleynikov

Boris Spassky is one of my chess heroes—I was rooting for him to beat Fischer (both times). Bezgodov and Aleynikov’s biography (pp 15-148) answers paints a comprehensive profile of Spassky’s life and career, and it answers some of the questions I’ve always had. We see Spassky’s intellectual and rebellious side, questioning communist orthodoxy, his need for father figures like Zak and Bondarevsky, his periodic laziness in preparation but also his deep understanding of the finding the critical moment in a game, his overload and burnout as world champion. We also see his sportsmanship and too acquiescent respect for Fischer as well as Spassky’s relationships with players like Tal, Korchnoi, and Karpov. And we see Spassky’s post championship life and career as a not quite expatriate Russian and chess ambassador. Spassky has written little of his own biography—and at this stage probably won’t—so this volume is likely to remain the definitive work for a time. The 61 “best games” portion of the book (pp 155-274) includes both familiar and less games of Spassky’s including the famous game with Bronstein that appeared in the was used in From Russia with Love.

Razorblade Tears by S. A. Cosby

Continuing my way through S. A. Cosby’s books with Razorblade Tears. It’s a fast-paced story of two ex-cons, one black and one white, whose gays sons are killed in an apparent hate crime. Ike and Buddy Lee do what has to be done and uncover secrets within secrets. It’s noir at its best.

Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden

Set on and around the Rosebud Sioux Reservation, Winter Counts follows Virgil Wounded Horse, who provides street justice for wrongs the legal system won’t address. He a Lakota of mixed ancestry, dealing with the prejudices of white people and full blooded Lakotas. His latest client is close to home—his own nephew – and Virgil and his girlfriend Marie get involved tracking down drug gangs and other unsavory characters to keep Nathan safe. Good action, a twisty plots, nice sense of place, and subtle commentary on Native life. Weiden has promised another novel and I’ll be watching for it.

Red Queen by Bourne Morris

A quick-moving and engaging murder mystery set in a journalism school. Plenty of academic rivalries to drive the story – and for a change the killer isn’t the provost. Wherever you are you’ll recognize a colleague or two.

Who Killed Truth? by Jill Lepore

You can’t go wrong with Jill Lepore. In this podcast/audiobook Who Killed Truth? she tackles epistemology through a wide-ranging series of explorations of lesser known events in the history of evidence—from the use of lie detectors in court, a history of meteorology, to the use of vaccines for combat polio and the 1976 swine flu, to climate science, women’s right and the Scopes trial, and World War II propaganda. No philosophers were harmed in this podcast.



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An Interview with David G. Lewis, author of Tribal Histories of the Willamette Valley

David G. Lewis is a specialist in the history of Kalapuyans and other Western Oregon tribes which he has been studying for more than two decades. A member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, a descendant of the Santiam, Takelma and Chinook peoples, he has an extensive record of publications and collaborative projects with regional scholars, tribes, local governments, and communities. Lewis has a PhD in anthropology from the University of Oregon and is an Assistant Professor of anthropology and Indigenous studies at Oregon State University. He is a former Cultural Department Manager of the Grande Ronde Tribe.

He currently resides in Chemeketa, now Salem, Oregon, with his wife, Donna, and two sons, Saghaley and Inatye.

Ed Battistella: Congratulations on your book Tribal Histories of the Willamette Valley, which was really eye-opening for me. You documented a lot of history that we often don’t hear about, like the slave trade in Oregon, the passbook system in the late 1800s and the path to US citizenship. What was the research process like—and what was most surprising to you?

David G. Lewis: This took some time. I was initially only studying Grand Ronde tribal histories then some 12 years ago branched out to all western Oregon and so much opened up for me. The histories of all the tribes and reservations are linked in many ways. I found that I could not study only one tribe, because then the history did not include the interrelationships we all have in treaties, US Indian policies, and events of the time.

EB: You describe what you call “an alternative history of Native peoples in the Willamette Valley,” what do you mean by that?

DGL: Well, I think we all are aware that most histories have been and are written without Native people involved in them, few native people are consulted and in early histories our people are completely discounted. So, this represents the other “alternative perspective” those of Native people not seen in most histories. I hope this becomes mainstream as people realize how little of US history has been told. I tried to get to Native perspectives as much as possible as they lost land, people, rights, and struggled through generations of mistreatment. This all stands counter to “normal” US histories that have aggrandized the actions and intents of the settlers.

EB: How have attempts to engage with and present Native history evolved?

DGL: I think changes come when I make new discoveries or gain a new perspective. Two years ago I found a bunch of census counts most scholars had never used or perhaps seen before. These became available when UO and OHS Library put the Palmer papers online. This find opened up the events of 1855 and 1856 and showed me the exact daily movement of the tribes from living in their traditional lands to the reservations at Grand Ronde. From this my ideas changed, and this has begun to change the written history of the tribes. Then about 3 years ago I found 2 new pages belonging to the Willamette Valley Treaty- never mentioned before in scholarship. This brought 5 tribes to the treaty in microfilm records, and this opened the history of treaty-making a lot. Some 15 years ago I found the Grand Ronde Passbook in the Siletz collection at OHS library, and it seems that now whenever I delve into an archive, I find something new that can answer key questions in Tribal history. Just recently the National Archives made their maps and treaty files available for digital download online, I have not fully investigated this, but the maps are in color now, in high definition, and new placenames and details are emerging that can address Native history. As new resources are available, made available through technology and innovation this opens up the possibilities of research quite a bit, makes it easier with less barriers to finding the actual history. I, no longer must travel to archives to find documents, there is now a good record online, and this is dramatically altering the ways history can be researched.

EB: Who is your ideal reader? It seems to me that Tribal Histories of the Willamette Valley would be a great text for courses in Native history and in Oregon history.

DGL: Yes, exactly. I initially wanted this to be a text for high school students, but the book can easily be for college. I also wanted to not have too much academic jargon, a more narrative style with some personal perspectives in it. It is a more accessible text for a wider audience. I have heard from readers that this is appreciated.

EB: I had not heard of the Grande Ronde Guard. What was that?

DGL: Another discovery. For about a month and a half, Joel Palmer hired about 60 men to guard the reservation from white settlers. There were lots of rumors of people in the Willamette Valley who were going to attempt genocide on the tribes, in retribution for the “Indian Wars.” Governor Curry was not a friend to the Tribes and his militias were committing genocides in Southern Oregon and Washington Territory. They were also upset Palmer had placed the tribes near the valley and I think a few settlers feared the tribes would band together and attack the valley, something which never happened. Palmer put good plans in place to hire these guards, build a fence, and protect the Natives. They were disbanded on May after it was clear the threat was not going to manifest. But Palmer did the right thing to protect the people and for this he should be honored.

EB: You document some instances in which there are parallel histories of events, different accounts from different tribes or different groups of settlers. What can we learn from those parallel histories?

DGL: There has been a lot of rewriting and reconfiguring of history by historians, sometimes to fulfill their vision of an “American National History.” This has altered many histories of Native peoples significantly. Sometimes histories have been written with contemporary politics in mind. Because of these different agendas we end up with a lot of parallel histories, which do not match up. I really try to keep politics out of my history, I was not funded by any entity to write this history, this is purely my creation based on what I have found in records. No support for this came from Grand Ronde, the tribe I am enrolled in.

EB: What other scholarly projects are you working on?

DGL: For some years now, I have been working on an edited volume Kalapuyans of Western Oregon with fellow editors Tom Connelly and Henry Zenk. This volume will have essays from a number of scholars, archaeologists, linguists, historians, both tribal and non-tribal. I want to submit the manuscript to OSU press next summer. I have additional histories of the Kalapuyans in this volume which is a bit more academically focused. I also have plans for a reworking of my dissertation to tell the history of termination from the tribal perspective. I have had a hard time finding many of those perspectives but I know where many oral accounts are now.

EB: What was the process of working with Ooligan Press like? They’ve produced a very handsome book.

DGL: It was interesting, every term there were new students to work with, over the course of two years they did an excellent job at all aspects of the manuscript. It works for a non-academic text, if it were more academic, I think a more intense editorial process would be better. But the suggestions they made to have personal experiential essays, to create the cover out of Greg Robinson’s art, and to help recreate maps were all very helpful. Their timeline was helpful too, to keep me on track to complete the book.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

DGL: Thank you for reaching out, I think this book will make waves in Tribal history and I know the histories of the tribes here will never be the same. I feel in many ways like I am giving back to the community for the tribe supporting my education, and to other tribes who worked with me on projects throughout the years. As a Native person I feel a strong responsibility to work on behalf of the Native community. And I think this book does that.

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An Interview with Tim Maleeny, author of Hanging the Devil

Tim Maleeny is author of the award-winning Cape Weathers series of mysteries (Greasing the Piñata, Beating the Babushka, Stealing the Dragon, Boxing the Octopus and now Hanging the Devil) and the standalone thriller Jump.

A New Jersey native, he grew up in a house filled with classic pulp mysteries and began writing crime fiction when he moved to San Francisco, where his proximity to Chinatown inspired many of his early stories. Tim Maleeny’s short fiction appears in several major anthologies and has won the prestigious Macavity Award for best story of the year.

These days he lives in New York, where he writes novels and also works for a global marketing and communication firm.

Ed Battistella: Congratulations on Hanging the Devil. Cape Weathers is one of my favorite characters. How do you come up with such great dialogue?

Tim Maleeny: Thanks, Ed, this has been an incredibly fun series to write, so I’m always thrilled when readers connect with the characters. I think of dialogue as action, no different than a car chase or a gunfight, with each character using their voice to gain an advantage, divert suspicion or bring the temperature down in an overheated situation. I also read constantly and watch several movies a week, often rewatching favorite films to listen for syntax and rhythms of speech, because hearing distinct voices can sharpen your own writing when you want unique characters who don’t sound like anyone else. Once I’ve drawn the characters clearly and know their backstory it’s hard to get their voices out of my head, so the dialogue comes naturally as your characters start to collide.

EB: Some things in this book had me going “Wow, could that be real?” Genetically engineered macaques? State-sponsored art theft? Ninjas with cloaking devices? There are all made up. Or are they?

TM: Believe it or not, all the crimes are based on actual events, with the exception of the helicopter heist at the opening of the book, which is plausible but something I made up. A number of the museum break-ins referenced in the rest of the novel did occur, and some experts in the art community suggested a state-sponsored connection at the time that was never proven or pursued, for obvious political reasons. As for gadgets and tech twists, such as genetically engineered monkeys, a quick online search shows similar experiments were conducted a few years ago, along with some unsanctioned tests involving gene splicing of human DNA, which is both disconcerting and bizarre, so I decided to bring a bit of Mary Shelley to the mystery world, with a touch of Orwell added for good measure.

EB: Your books are very character-driven, and you seem to be able get in the heads of everyone from Russian gangsters or the orphaned Chinese girl, Grace? How do you get in character’s heads?

They say reading fiction increases empathy, so think of writing as an exercise in building empathy one character at a time. If you can’t personally relate to—or channel—your characters, then you need to do more homework until they appear fully three-dimensional on the page.

I spend a lot of time building a backstory for each character, then live with them for a while before I start writing. Characters’ actions are an extension of their personalities, so I usually know how they’ll react to any situation, but if one of them says or does something that feels inauthentic, I catch it during the edit of the first draft. I know I’ve gotten it right when I feel the emotional highs and lows my characters are going through—then I figure I must be inside their heads because they’re tugging at my heart.

EB: Are Russian gangsters hooked on America’s Got Talent?

TM: I am not at liberty to discuss the fandoms of Russian gangsters, but why wouldn’t they be into AGT? It was either that or The Voice, and I figured professional criminals would want more drama in their television shows.

EB: I always enjoy the signature jump cuts you use between chapters. Do you ever get stuck on a jump?

TM: I heard a great piece of advice when I first started writing novels, which was to begin the next chapter as soon as you finish the one you’re working on—do not close the laptop or take a break. In other words, when a chapter is finished, force yourself to write the opening line of the next chapter, so the next day you’re not staring at a blank page. As a result, the jump cuts are a natural way of writing for me, to keep the pages turning, as opposed to a technique added after the fact to link the story together.

The only challenging part of this comes when—during the editing process—I decide to change the order of events and move chapters around. Then I have to take a step back and rework how each scene flows seamlessly into the next, but what mystery writer doesn’t love a good jigsaw puzzle?

EB: Will we be seeing more of ex-Interpol agent Maria Diaz and young Grace in future books?

TM: My three non-committal answers are: I hope so; probably; almost definitely.

Grace is clearly an important character, not only in her own right but also in the context of Sally’s story arc, as Sally tries to protect Grace from the childhood trauma she experienced at the hand of the Triads.

Maria is an intriguing character, whose role expanded as the story developed. Her relationship with Cape walks the line between collaboration and flirtation, and as a fan of The Thin Man and The Thomas Crown Affair, it will be fun to see if they maintain a healthy balance between two very strong personalities. I wouldn’t mind seeing her again, and neither would Cape.

EB: What’s next for Cape and Sally Mei?

TM: The black market for stolen art was an area I hadn’t explored before, and my research for Hanging the Devil uncovered all sorts of connections to other global syndicates involved in criminal mischief. I find the best way to cast a light into dark corners is to make the stories as fast and fun as possible, so readers enjoy the ride but bring something back that will stay with them, maybe even give them a fresh perspective on what’s happening behind the façade of our daily lives. That’s why all the Cape and Sally adventures begin as local crimes but quickly expand to the scope of a global thriller. If you pull on a loose thread hard enough, as they always do, eventually you’ll untangle the rest of the mystery.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I’m going back to reread Stealing the Dragon.

TM: Thanks, Ed, always great to catch up. Enjoy the underground tour of Chinatown in Stealing the Dragon; glad Cape and Sally have kept you coming back for more!


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An Interview with Lt. Colonel Stan Luther

Stanley R. “Stan” Luther, grew up in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Idaho during the era of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. He joined the US Navy during World War II and later joined the Air Force to become a pilot. During his 28 years in the Air Force, he flew everything from bombers and transport aircraft to fighter jets and reconnaissance planes in Vietnam. In 1969, he was awarded the Bronze Star.

With over 13,000 hours of flight time, Stanley R. Luther knows his way around an airplane. After serving as an attaché to Madagascar, Stan retired to the Pacific Northwest where he worked as a community college professor, flight instructor, and air ambulance pilot. He lives in the Rogue Valley of Southern Oregon where he enjoys a view of the local airport.

Working with Daniel Alrick and Julie Kanta of Plumb Creative, Lt. Colonel Luther has, at 96, penned A Lifetime in the Atmosphere is a memoir that takes readers on an extraordinary journey.

Ed Battistella: Thanks for your service and congratulations on A Lifetime in the Atmosphere. When did you decide to put together a memoir of your life and career?

Stan Luther: Years ago. It was mostly about my career. I wanted to make sure I got the Cuban Missile Crisis in there, it was the driving force. I didn’t have a serious plan, I thought someday I’ll write a book. Once that (the CMC) happened, I figured hey, I gotta tell this story. It had a life of its own.

My late wife Nellie had a lot of interest in family history and saved a lot of photos and papers. I had given speeches and talked to the news media about my time in the service and experience flying, but my own interest in writing a book was approximately 10 years ago, when Nellie was progressing into Alzheimer’s and I had time to start curating those records.

Ed Battistella: This month is the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and you were a Lieutenant Colonel and one of the B-47 jet pilots on alert at the time after President Kennedy announced that the Soviets were deploying ballistic missiles in Cuba. Tell us about that experience?

Stan Luther: Well, being on alert in a B47 made it pretty close to the skin when we were called into a room to watch President Kennedy on TV. Nobody spoke. We all looked at the TV and you could hear a pin drop. We just looked at each other afterwards and just silently thought this might be it. For eight years, our mission had been to train for bombing runs with nuclear weapons, preparing for the unthinkable possibility of war with the Soviet Union. I directed a team of five aircraft to the municipal airport in Columbus, Ohio. The urgency of the situation meant that we were airborne before anyone at the Columbus airport was informed of our impending arrival or the reason behind it. Each of our aircraft carried a menacing payload of thermonuclear bombs, each packing 20 megatons of firepower, ominously nicknamed “Big Ugly.” These weapons were nothing short of monstrous, barely fitting into the bomb bay. The increase of nuclear readiness to DEFCON 2 on October 24th raised the tension and anxiety considerably. B-47s remained grounded to conserve fuel while B-52s patrolled the skies around the clock, carrying thousands of nuclear weapons. For about three days, we remained on alert until tensions finally deescalated as the USSR agreed to begin removing its missiles from Cuba on October 27.

Ed Battistella: For a farm kid from Kansas and Idaho, what was the attraction of flying? How did you get interested in aviation?

Stan Luther: I was a farm boy during the Great Depression when conditions were arid during the Dust Bowl and almost impossible for a farmer to make a living. That didn’t make farming seem appealing. More importantly, I did not want to stay at home working for my father. Interest in flight came immediately, just in my blood, as soon as I saw a plane fly overhead in the plains I knew I wanted to get inside one of them. This unyielding passion led me to incessantly pester my father until he relented and took me to the airport. He told a flight instructor that the only way to get me to be quiet about flying was to take me up for a lesson. As soon as we were in the air, it felt right. Amidst the whir of engines, the rushing wind, and the exhilaration of flight, I discovered an affection for aviation that resonated deeply within me.

Ed Battistella: You visited Vietnam in 2015, many years after the war you served in. What was that experience like?

Stan Luther: It was a trip back through time. Revisiting the old bases brought back a lot of memories, and crossing into the North Vietnam I was able to have civil conversations with Vietnam guerrillas who were my enemies during the war. The kinds of guys I was directing F4s to bomb into submission. They were fascinated and wanted to know the details. It tells you something about war. When I was on combat missions, I was focused on the objective, but I would think later and especially over the years about those guys down below my plane and what I would have thought and done if I was in their shoes, so it was a good conversation for me too. What used to be South Vietnam exuded prosperity, vibrancy, and warmth, while, even after all these years, the North maintained a lower standard of living, and the demeanor of its people—especially in Hanoi—appeared more somber. People on the street wanted to discuss the war, asking about my role, the aircraft I flew, our assignments, and whether we had faced enemy fire. It seemed as if they couldn’t get enough of my stories.

Ed Battistella: For several years you were a military attaché in Madagascar. What did that entail?

Stan Luther: My attaché training encompassed a wide array of skills and knowledge, from report compilation to the application of various technologies. I learned to operate effectively in a diplomatic environment, navigating the bureaucratic intricacies of the Department of Defense’s military assistance programs. The job encompassed a wide range of responsibilities, from drafting reports on military and political developments within the country to providing crucial support to the U.S. Ambassador and other embassy staff. We attended numerous diplomatic functions, further strengthening our ties, and played a pivotal role in coordinating U.S. military assistance to Madagascar. Additionally, we had the privilege of piloting our designated C-47 passenger aircraft, affectionately known as the “Gooney Bird,” which allowed us to conduct official business across the country and support the embassy’s transportation requirements. It was a great assignment, and the Malagasy people were wonderful.

Ed Battistella: A question for Julie. I’m tremendously impressed with the quality of the book, the design and the quality of the many photographs. Can you say something about Plumb Creative and the work you do?

Julie Kanta: Thank you! I started out in graphic design in 2006, founding Plumb Creative in 2009 doing branding and websites. But when I was a kid, I would make my own newsletters for family members, so I’ve really always loved both writing and design. When I graduated from SOU in 2014, my capstone was a “Living Legacy” project: combining written memoir with photographs. Eventually that became a beautiful book for my mother. I love combining the written word with visual design, bringing stories to life and preserving people’s memories. I think my experience in branding has really helped me with making projects as beautiful as they can be on top of a good story. My perfectionism helps with the editing process as well, ha ha. So I also have the ability to see the project as a whole, ensuring each piece is going to capture the spirit of the story. I care about quality, both as a final physical product and that my client’s voice has come through. I believe that everyone’s story is worth preserving, and I’m proud to be a part of it.

Ed Battistella: I also have a question for Daniel. What was the experience like of working with Stan? What impressed you most?

Daniel Alrick: I’d like the reader to imagine how much of the book was composed from Stan and I on our hands and knees on his living room floor going over notes and archival material. Some of it was formal sitting side by side at his iMac typing, usually me composing a passage and he giving notes, sometimes the opposite. But usually it was recorded wide ranging meandering conversations that were transcribed and made literary, or Stan’s firsthand notes that were stashed away, or his tape and video recordings, or fresh handwritten yellow pad pages that Stan would write and I’d rewrite and he’d review, and then we would rewrite again. And then in the final edit Julie helped make our tome of inserts more flowing.

What impressed me the most was Stan’s ability to contextualize. He had an idea that the Cuban Missile Crisis section of the book was the most important, and larger than him. And so from that I came up with the idea of structuring the book in flashback with the Cuban Missile Crisis at the beginning, illustrating the stakes his life as a cog in the wheel during nuclear war would rise to. But from that Stan then realized that there was more texture to gain from his lived experience as one of the dwindling members of the “Greatest Generation.” But not in a corny or sentimental way. On the contrary, Stan wanted to convey a generational lesson in all the complexities of that, as someone who is still learning at 96 years old.

What I hope we succeeded at is giving the texture of a life lived, along with Stan’s themes of duty, sacrifice, love, and pursuing one’s dreams. A lot of autobiographies simplify things, or they get bogged down in minutiae. I wanted to realize a collective dream between the three of us of what Stan’s life was like.

Ed Battistella: Thanks for talking with us.



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What I’m Reading

All the Sinners Bleed by S. A. Cosby

Just discovered S.A. Cosby. All the Sinners Bleed is a fast-paced story of an African America ex-FBI agent turned sheriff. Titus Crown has moved to his hometown in rural eastern Virginia. A school shooting starts a chain of events that reveals the ugly secrets of his town. Great story and pointed commentary on race, religion, and small-town politics. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland and Razorblade Tears are on my list.

Seldom Disappointed by Tony Hillerman

A wide-ranging memoir that takes us from Oklahoma to World War II to  newspaperdom, university life and the best-seller list. There are some poignant observations on war, ironic tales about being a reporter, and later a university administrator and professor at the University of New Mexico, and helpful advice about being a writer. The title is an accurate description.

The Peoples Tongue ed. By Ilan Stavans 

I reviewed this collection for Choice, so check it out there.

Small Mercies by Dennis Lehane

I’ve been a Dennis Lehane fan since A Drink Before the War (and still miss the duo of Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro). Small Mercies has echoes of that first book in fact, with race, class, and gang violence figuring in the story. The action takes place in 1974 at the height of tensions over court-mandated busing in South Boston. The unlikely protagonist is Mary Pat Fennessy, a life-long Southie resident who’s lost two husbands (one dead, one divorced) and a son (to drugs). Now her daughter, Jules goes missing and Mary Pat goes ballistic, taking on the gang that runs Southie. She needs to find out how Jules was mixed up in the killing of a young Black man whose car broke down and why she has disappeared.

Lehane captures the emotions and language of generational poverty and racism in his portrait of 1970s Dorchester and creates in Mary Pat Fennessy an unlikely avenger. The story and the morality play fit seamlessly.

Teach From Your Best Self  by Jay Schroder

Teaching is one of the careers with the highest burnout rate—more so now that ever. Jay Schroder, a twenty-four-year veteran teacher—recipient of the Oregon Council of Teachers of English High School English Teacher of Excellence Award, shares his experience and his understanding of burnout and resisilency.

. Grounded in research about the profession and personal experience, he offers ways to thrive as a teacher so that your students thrive—ways to reflect on your own “hurtspots” and overcome them. Most teachers are not ninjas, but they can learn a lot from the way of ninja to achieve maximum impact with minimal effort. to be extremely to be able to improvise as circumstances changed. It’s a great, helpful read for the teachers in your life.

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro

By the Argentine crime fiction writer Claudia Piñeiro, it’s the story of Elena, a woman with Parkinson’s disease who is trying to uncover her daughter’s murder. The police have ruled it a suicide; the Catholic church has labelled it a sin; and the “whore of an illness” makes her investigation painfully arduous. The structure and style of the book are ties to Elena’s illness and, like the best noir, it offers social commentary as well as a mystery.

Fishing for Fallen Light by John Forsythe

John Forsyth’s Fishing for Fallen Light is the sort of project that every educated person  should take on in their later years. Forsyth is a retired physician with a long-standing interest in philosophy and here he offers an intellectual memoir of sorts, tracing his readings, conversations, and thoughts and concerns about truth (and Truth and TRUTH). It was prompted by the events of January 6, 2021, and by the continual lies of Donald Trump (who takes over the book for a time).

Forsyth begins in a unique and clever way, with a fifty-some item annotated bibliography of what he has read on the topic, given the readers some scholarly context. Then he turns to a more or less chronology of philosophers and others thinking about truth and reason, from the Greeks to people like Sissela Bok, Daniel Kahneman, and Johnathan Haidt.  Finally he applies his thinking to gain an understanding of why people resist or are impervious to the truth. It was an engaging and personal study by someone who has thought deeply about Truth and cares about it, and it will make readers think about their own conceptions of truth.

Hanging the Devil by Tim Maleeny

I’ve been a fan of Tim Maleeny for several years now, since reading his Jump and Stealing the Dragon. For my money, he’s probably the funniest mystery writer I can think of. In this book San Fransisco-based Cape Weathers and his much tougher ninja-partner Sally Mei try to protect an orphaned Chinese girl and help a roguish Interpol agent foil an attempt to steal back Chinese art treasures. There’s another ninja to challenge Sally, genetically-engineered macaques, state-sponsored art forgery, and gangsters aplenty. If you like your crime fiction served with a smile, this one’s for you.

The Village Healer’s Book of Cures by Jennifer Sherman Roberts

Jennifer Sherman Roberts’s debut novel, The Village Healers Book of Cures, is set in seventeenth-century England, is her debut novel, and based on an actual witch hunter in England, a smarmy character named Matthew Hopkins. (The real-life Hopkins was responsible for the death of 300 women.)

Mary Fawcett is a village healer,  a woman who cures ills with recipes handed down to her and her own empathy and acumen. When a husband on one of her patients is murdered, Mary comes under suspicion by Hopkins. Together with her young brother and her new friend, the mysteriously scarred alchemist Robert Sudbury, Mary must uncover the mystery of the witches’ symbols on the body. The Village Healer’s Book of Cures is a tense, well-paced and brings in some interesting history and some clever plot twists. Bonus: Jennifer Sherman Roberts is an expert on medieval recipes and she weaves in healing recipes with each chapter (but don’t try the at home).


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An Interview with Jennifer Sherman Roberts, author of The Village Healers Book of Cures

Southern Oregon writer Jennifer Sherman Roberts holds a PhD in Renaissance literature from the University of Minnesota, as well as master’s and bachelor’s degrees from Villanova University and the University of California, Berkeley. She is also a facilitator for Oregon Humanities, leading community conversations on the topic “Conspiracy Theories: Truth, Facts, and Tinfoil Hats” She has also taught at southern Oregon University and worked as the Interim Executive director of Josephine Community Libraries Inc. She lives in Grants Pass, where she is a debut novelist, fierce library advocate, occasional knitter, and aspiring mead maker.

Her debut novel, The Village Healers Book of Cures, is in seventeenth-century England, is her debut novel. Based on actual witch hunt in England, it’s a surprisingly modern tale of murder, revenge, alchemy, and evil.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed the Village Healer’s Book of Cures. How did you come up with the idea?

Jennifer Sherman Roberts: Oh, I’m so glad you enjoyed it!

The idea for the novel sort of crystalized when I was doing a conversation project with Oregon Humanities called “Stone Soup: How Recipes Can Preserve History and Nourish Community.” We were discussing a seventeenth-century healing recipe for “The Biting of a Mad Dogge” that required crabapple be harvested at a certain time of year, and one of the participants pointed out that it sounded sort of witchy. That gelled in my mind with a blog post I was writing about Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, et voila!

EB: There were several nice plot twists, including one involving the smarmy witch hunter Matthew Hopkins. That character was based on a real person, I understand.

JSR: Yes, and a horrible one at that. Though there have been many witch hunts and many witchfinders, he is probably the most notorious, having written a witchfinding manual called “The Discovery of Witches.” He began hunting witches in his hometown of Manningtree in England when, according to his own account, he overheard women talking about meeting the Devil in the forest. Witch-hunting became a profitable trade for him, as towns would levy a hefty tax for his services.

The method he used most for “discovering” witches was the pricking test. It was thought that witches had a “witch’s mark” (often considered a third nipple used to suckle the Devil) that would not bleed when pricked, so these poor women were poked all over with pins, needles, and even daggers.

By the time he ended his witchfinding career, Hopkins was responsible for the death of 300 women.

EB: Each chapter starts off with a brief recipe for curing some ailment, like dried mistletoe for convulsions or powdered goats blood mixed with ale for kidney stones. When I got to the end of the book, you answered the burning question I had, whether these were real historic cures or one’s you made up. Where did the recipes come from?

JSR: I found the recipes in digitized collections ranging from the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC to the Wellcome Library in London. They’re all open access, so anybody can read them. The handwriting can be difficult, though, so I also looked at an online research project for transcribing the recipes called “Shakespeare’s World.”

EB: Have you tried any of them? Have modern researchers looked into this?

JSR: Oh, heavens no, not by me! I have a healthy respect for the potency of herbs and would only want somebody with a whole lot of experience and training to make them. Lots of researchers have duplicated food recipes though, and the results are fun and delicious. I once made a “hedgehog pudding” with my kids—I was horrified when I saw the name of the recipe, but then I read on and realized it wasn’t made from hedgehogs but rather was a pleasant kind of vanilla pudding molded into the shape of a hedgehog with toasted almonds for the prickly bits.

EB: There were several nice turns of phrasing in the book, like the earlier use of the term “cunning woman?” Did your academic training give you an ear for the earlier language?

JSR: It’s funny you should mention that, as the book was originally titled “The Cunning Woman’s Book of Receipts” (changed because another book was recently published had too similar a name). As I hope I described well enough in the book, cunning women were healers, advice-givers, and dealers in small charms. I’ve read a lot about cunning women and how they played so many roles in the community, and yet came under such suspicion.

Having read so much from the period, I think I have an easier time replicating the cadence and rhythms of 17th century English. As a novelist, though, I have to be careful that it doesn’t sound too stilted to a modern reader. That’s why, for example, I use contractions in the novel. To be absolutely faithful to the language of the time would mean pulling the reader out of the story. It’s a fine balance and a bit of a dance doing both.

Where I think my research most affected my language–where I was able to let the formality take over–was in the trial of Agnes Shepherd. I had read so many transcripts of which trials that Hopkins’s accusations and 17th-century legalese came more naturally.

EB: More generally, what was the research like for the book?

JSR: Oh, I loved the research: The history of the English civil war, humoral medical theory, the use of medicinals and herbals, and as much as I could absorb about everyday life in a small 17th century village. I also read a ton about witches (particularly Owen Davies’s amazing work) and alchemy.

I’d written some blog posts about these recipes for the academic blog The Recipes Project. I’m fascinated by how the recipe books from that period are a jumble of food, perfume, and medical cookery. We’ve separated and codified each of those areas in the modern world, and seeing them side by side, I think, leads one to thinking of the ways these discrete areas intertwine.

I’m fascinated, too, by how the recipes seem to resemble some alchemical instructions and healing potions while presaging modern chemistry. I thought about that continuum while writing Mary, who has a deep thirst to know about the efficacy of her cures.

EB: One of the things that struck me early on was your comment that healers are motivated by wanting to understand as well as to cure. I had never though of their motivation that way. How did that realization come to you?

JSR: My take may be modern, and it may be that I’m imposing that thirst to discover the causes of things on my characters, but I don’t think so. The novel is set during the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, after all—not long after Francis Bacon famously called a new way of understanding knowledge. I think that drive to understand can’t have just been exclusive to the elite and aristocratic. I figured surely a woman hunting for herbs and cooking for long hours would want to know whether—and why—they worked.

The medical ideas that had been circulating for centuries—especially of the four humors (yellow bile, black bile, phlegm, and blood) —point to a desire to understand the fundamental working of these materials in the body, and indeed the recipes reference phlegm, blood, and bile. We have lots of evidence that men were thinking in these ways, but since almost all women were forbidden to circulate their own ideas in writing, we can’t share their thinking as easily. I guess this is my way of imagining what it must have been like.

EB: Is there a moral of the tale for today’s readers?

JSR: Oh, that’s a great question. The novel grapples with the fear of knowledge and the prejudices that are allowed to possess communities. Of charlatans and villains and cowards. But it also, I hope, explores the many varieties of love and belonging. Personally, I think there are a lot of parallels with scientific, political, and cultural controversies happening now—not least of which is a recasting of the phrase “witch hunt.”

But I leave that up to the reader.

EB: If you were casting this story as a movie, who would you get to play Mary?

JSR: Oh, I’ve had a running cast in my head since the beginning! For Mary, I’ve imagined Emilia Clarke (of Games of Thrones/ Daenerys Targaryen fame). I’ve also imagined Fiona Shaw as Agnes.

EB: Have you got plans to bring Mary Fawcett and Robert Sudbury back for another book?

JSR: I’m not sure. There’s definitely more to their story, and there are characters in the novel I’d love to explore more. We’ll have to see what the demand is, I guess!

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Best of luck with The Village Healer’s Book of Recipes?

JSR: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much!


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An Interview with Christina Ward, author of Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat—An American History

Christina Ward is an independent cultural historian of food and food history, exploring what we eat and why we eat it. She is the author of American Advertising Cookbooks-How Corporations Taught Us To Love, Spam, Bananas, and Jell-O, and Preservation-The Art and Science of Canning, Fermentation, and Dehydration.

She is a contributor to Serious Eats, Edible Milwaukee, The Wall Street Journal, Food & Wine magazine and more. She also rode around town in the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile with Padma Lakshmi on the hottest day in July of 2019 for “Taste the Nation.”

Her current book is Holy Food: How Cults, Communes, and Religious Movements Influenced What We Eat—An American History (September 26, 2023).

Ed Battistella: I’ve taught courses on the language of food and on the rhetoric of cults, so Holy Food was a really interesting book to me. How did you think to combine the history of spiritual movements with the history of food?

Christina Ward: Food and religion are the twinned obsessions of my life. I remember as a young child being fascinated when I heard people saying they could or could not eat something because of their religion. I grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin—a very Catholic city—and there were kids in the neighborhood “giving up” foods for Lent. The notion that someone’s god (or gods) would care about what a person eats set me down this path. It took five years of active research and writing to get Holy Food to “book”, but I’ve been thinking about how food and religion are intertwined for decades.

EB: What does the history of food tell us about culture?

CW: Based on my research, I think humans tend to “sacralize” foods we enjoy and elevate their significance in ways that help us identify our community of like-minded people. The food itself is often inconsequential—the recipes from these groups show that many are following trends and fads—it’s the notion that specific foods have importance assigned to them that makes an item part the culture. The foods themselves are benign, it’s the meaning we give it. While not entirely a closed loop, our food reflects our culture, and our culture reflects our food. There is a built-in tension between what and how to eat and how we interact with our culture. That includes religious culture. In the US, we often view food through a judgmental lens–teasing among friends and family when someone in the group adopts a different eating pattern to the extreme of “dosing” vegetarians and vegans with meat. In mainstream America, rejecting a type of popular food is often viewed as a judgement against American culture.

EB: What was it about the Great Awakening of the nineteenth century that brought about so many food fads, I guess you could call them?

CW: The advances in tech sped everything along. A mechanized printing process allowed for an exponential increase in newspapers, books, and tracts. New religious ideas, coupled with food prohibitions and ideas for a new type of diet flooded the country. The Book of Mormon was printed in 1830 and has remained in print to this day. By early 1844, apocalyptic preacher William Miller’s tract about his divinely revealed system for calculating the end of the world had reached 500,000 people.

Access to cheap printing also allowed many groups to publish cookbooks which had the double-pronged goal of teaching new converts about a group’s diet and act as an attractant for potential new believers who were interested in the food. For groups like the Seventh Day Adventists, which was formed out of the chaos among Millerites when the world did not end in 1844, their vegetarian cookbook became a lodestone for numerous groups embracing vegetarianism.

EB: You discussed the Nation of Islam diet in Elijah Muhammed’s How to Eat Live. How did that come about?

CW: Rarely discussed is how much of a role personal taste of a group’s leader plays in their cuisine, but it happens. For the Nation of Islam, food became a core concern under the leadership of Elijah Muhammed. His philosophy was partially informed by the “Tuskegee Idea” that Blacks should form separate and self-sufficient communities and never rely on white people for anything. Muhammed felt the processed foods made by white-owned corporations and sold to the Black community were a method of poisoning and controlling Black bodies. He advocated for a spartan diet of one meal a day of mostly grains and vegetables with fish and chicken proteins as acceptable in small amounts. He imbued NoI food culture with political meaning as well by forbidding foods associated with southern enslavement of Black people. Specific beans were allowed while others prohibited. He felt that overuse of salt was making people sluggish. While not every member of the NoI followed every dictate in How to Eat to Live, enough people followed most of them. Adhering to Muhammad’s diet results in a healthy body to this day. The NoI breakdown of 50% vegetables, 30% bean proteins and grains, and about 20% meat proteins is nearly the same macro breakdown of what is recommended by USDA nutritionists.

EB: One of the fascinating things for me was hearing about how many of our common foods got their start as specialties of religious communities, things like strawberry shortcake and veggie burgers, which then made their way into the mainstream and becoming commodified. Are we still seeing that with today’s cult foods?

CW: Absolutely yes! Tofurkey was developed at The Farm Community in the 1970s and is sold throughout the US in mainstream chain grocery stores. The Kettle brand of potato chips is owned by the 3HO group founded by Yogi Bhajan. Celestial Seasonings Tea’s founder was a devoted adherent of the Urantia Book. I’m sure that there is a small group somewhere in the United States that will come up with the next big food brand in the coming decade.

EB: Holy Food has 75 historical recipes for things like Rejuvelac, Moor Salad and Dilly Bread, and you’ve updated and tested all of these. Do you have a favorite? And a least favorite?

CW: I have a sweet tooth and am partial to desserts! Shaker Apple Pie is good and surprising because it uses rosewater as its main flavoring agent instead of the now familiar cinnamon. The Apple-Corn Cookies are great. They’re gluten-free but delicious even if you’re a wheat eater. On the savory side, the House of David’s Walnut Loaf is quite good as are Tassajara’s Nut-Buttered Beans.

The misses for me are entirely about personal taste as well as food allergies. I can’t eat fish or any meat and relied on chef friends to test and refine those recipes. I know they did a good job but that will be up to folks who try those recipes out. Of the recipes I tested, the ones that were really disgusting I left out of the book. One of my goals was to include foods that modern eaters could make and potentially enjoy. Eating what these groups did helps give more insights into their lives and beliefs. The worst item tested was from the True Light Beavers who had a recipe for Mock Chopped Liver Pate made from mushrooms and other ingredients. My initial thought from analyzing the ingredients was that it would taste pretty good; it did not. One of the few foods that honestly made me gag.

EB: Holy Food is a very visual book. You’ve got photos of spiritual leaders, communes, and cookbooks and on just about every other page. How did you manage to track down all those great images?

CW: Holy Food is not an academic book (though I researched and wrote it with academic rigor) and is for general readers. I feel that images provide another form of information for readers to fully understand what people believe.

I think it’s also too easy to take the cheap shot and mock people who followed religious gurus or charlatans. As a researcher and cookbook collector, I’ve felt that there is too much great visual language lost when we don’t see contextual images. Seeing pictures of people laughing at Jonestown adds nuance to the story we think we know. Seeing George Washington Carver as a vigorous young man standing in a field of his hybrid plants communicates so much about him. Moreso when most images of Carver online and in books depict him as an old man.

I spent time (maybe too much time) in museums and libraries seeking out images. Oftentimes finding one image would lead to others. Pictures of Nation of Islam founder Wallace Farad (sometimes Fard) are notoriously rare. On an unrelated trip to Detroit, I visited the main library who holds the Detroit Free Press photo archives and within minutes—and with the invaluable assistance of the librarians—I found an image of Farad. Even the librarians were thrilled. And of course, in the case of many of the 20th century groups, they have images of their members and founders. Most groups were happy to share images. That they were willing to share was based on my approach to the material, I tried to refrain from judging any group or their beliefs unless those beliefs were coercive and destructive.

EB: If you had your own cult, what would the cuisine be like?

CW: I mentioned that I’m a vegetarian with a sweet tooth, so my cuisine would be most similar to the Hare Krishna diet but with more cakes, pies, and cookies. I would also sacralize chocolate into a ritual that gives me the authority to eat a few candy bars per day. Not a very healthy diet but when one declares themselves godhead, anything goes.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

CW: Thank you for your interest! My hope above all else is that readers marvel at how relatively small groups and individuals have an outsized influence on our modern food.


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An Interview with Thomas Dodson, author of No Use Pretending

Thomas Dodson is an assistant professor and librarian at Southern Oregon University.  His story collection, No Use Pretending, was selected by Gish Jen for the Iowa Short Fiction Prize and is forthcoming from University of Iowa Press.

He holds graduate degrees from the Ohio State University, Kent State University, and the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction.

His fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Gulf Coast, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. His short stories have been awarded the 2022 Robert and Adele Shiff Award and the 2020 Jeffrey E. Smith Editors’ Prize. His story “Keeping” was selected by the editors of Best American Short Stories as a distinguished story of 2022. He has been the runner-up for the Autumn House Fiction Contest and a finalist for the WICW Fiction Fellowship, the Glimmer Train Award for New Writers, and the Hamlin Garland Award for the Short Story.

Thomas Dodson grew up in northeast Missouri and has graduate degrees in comparative cultural studies and in library science. He lives in Ashland.

No Use Pretending was praised for its “range of emotions and voices (Jess Walter, author of The Angel of Rome and Other Stories), the “complicated humanity” of its characters (Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy), and its “captivating vision of hope, regret, and resilience” (Tom Drury, author of Pacific).

Thomas Dodson will be reading from No Use Pretending at Bloomsbury Books, on October 30, at 7 pm and in the Meese Room of the Hannon Library on November 9, at 5:30 pm.

Ed Battistella: Congratulations on No Use Pretending.

Thomas Dodson: Thanks, and thanks so much for your interest in the book!

EB: This is a wide-ranging, ideas-based collection, covering everything from beekeeping, drone warfare, fracking, Buddhism, and Greek mythology. These aren’t everyday fiction topics. Can you talk a bit about the research you do—and where your expertise as a librarian fits in?

TD: I think a lot of writers begin with a character that interests them and build out from there. I do that sometimes, but just as often for me it’s an idea or a curiosity about something that’s happening in the world.

Like with the story about the drone pilot stationed just outside Las Vegas. I was interested in these two forms of American power, both of which have to do with vision—the power to see and act at a great distance with drones, and then, with Las Vegas, the bright lights, casinos, and strip clubs, the power to sort of overwhelm the senses with capitalist spectacle and sex-as-commodity.

I could try to write an essay about all this, but honestly, I’m much more interested in exploring those issues and ideas through the lived experience of a character. That experience is fascinating to me. And getting at it—what it’s like to be a drone pilot, to be fighting a war on another continent and then clocking out and helping your kids with their homework—that requires a good amount of research that goes beyond abstractions about the ethics of drone warfare or understanding the policy positions. I needed to know, for example, what slang the pilots used among themselves, what the trailers they worked in smelled like (not good), what it was like to be married to someone living that life. The work of getting that kind of information is made a lot easier because of my training as a librarian.

Also, I agree with what John Gardner says in The Art of Fiction, that a conventional story should evoke a “vivid and continuous dream” in the mind of the reader. That dream is a delicate thing and lots of things can jolt the reader out of it—bad prose or flat characters, for example. So, it really wouldn’t make sense to load down a story with a bunch of footnotes like an academic work. Still, I want to credit the work of the journalists, philosophers, and others that made it possible for me to write each story. To that end, and to give the reader interested in a topic explored in one of the stories a place to go for more, I have a page on my website dedicated to the sources I’ve drawn from:

EB: What goes through your mind as you are developing a character? I found myself noticing a lot of small details that shaped my understanding of the characters, like the way that you mention the cat as Kenzie’s “familiar” in “Fault Trace” or the description of Sandy’s perm as being “like a halo of dishwater foam” in “Creek People.”

TD: In developing and presenting characters, I think I’m always striving for details that are particular and feel authentic. I also try not to shy away from characters who are “difficult.” I want characters to feel real, and real people are flawed in the most interesting ways. That’s occasionally gotten me into a little trouble with readers who want characters to be “likeable” or “relatable,” which isn’t at all what I’m going for. I really like what Steve Almond has said about difficult or unappealing characters; he says he’s opposed to “a mind-set that position[s] fiction as a place we go to have our virtues affirmed rather than having the confused and wounded parts of ourselves exposed.”

I’ve always been a reader who is most drawn in by stories that render the complexity, confusion—and yes, even the darkness—in human beings and their relationships to one another. Likeable or not, I hope my characters have that complexity, that they may be messed up in some ways, behave badly in some situations, but that doesn’t exhaust who they are. The reader may not always like them, but I hope as a story progresses, the reader comes to understand them and empathize with their struggles.

EB: I’m curious about the title of the collection. For me, it seemed that many—or at least several–of the stories were about characters pretending this are one way not another—trying to skip out on reality.

TD: Yes, exactly. The title has several meanings for me. Denis Johnson, probably my favorite writer, has said: “There’s nobody who can disguise himself. Eventually we’re all outed in one way or another.” In one sense, I think the stories are about that. How we try to disguise ourselves, present an idealized or false version of ourselves, to others, but also to ourselves because facing up to our flaws is difficult and humbling. We’d rather not go there. I try in these stories to put characters in situations where they have to confront who they really are beyond those superficialities and disguises.

I also want to push back a little against the idea that art should serve some social purpose beyond itself, that it needs to be subordinated to the ends of politics or edification or whatever to be truly worthwhile. I would say that art shouldn’t have to have utility in that sense; it shouldn’t be expected to “do” something to improve society or the reader. But, of course, this is a point on which reasonable people can disagree. I just intend with the title to playfully position myself on one side of that argument.

And speaking of playfulness, a more straight-forward sense of the title is simply that this kind of storytelling is a kind of adult “pretending.” I get to pretend to be someone else writing the story and the reader gets to pretend to be someone else reading it. I try to deal with serious things in the story, but I don’t want to completely abandon that sense of being a kid and playing and making up stories.

EB: I’m curious too about the arrangement of the eleven a stories in No Use Pretending. Was it difficult to put them put them in order or did it come easily?

TD: Well, I feel like with a story collection you want to try to both start and go out with a bit of a bang. So, I’ve positioned what I think are my strongest stories first and last; they also happen to be my most recent ones, written while I wrapped up my time at Iowa. Beyond that, I think the middle section all has to do with mythology in some way—a Greek myth, a sort of Kafkaesque fairytale, and a little flash piece about the mythmaking we engage in as we try to understand our relationships with our parents. Also, addiction is a definitely a theme in the book and even though there isn’t a clear arc across the stories—like a redemption narrative or something—I did want to end with “The Watchman,” which is a story about recovery and making meaning out of life after addiction rather than just the pain of being stuck in the midst of it.

EB: Can you say something about your process as a writer. The stories in No Use Pretending seem finely polished.

TD: Thanks; I’m glad you think so. I used to have some pretty dumb ideas about genre—what was “literary” and what wasn’t, but I like to think I’m past that now. I do think the kind of fiction I enjoy reading and want to write is very concerned with the style of the prose, shows that the writer has taken great care with that, is trying to engage the reader with the language at the paragraph and sentence level.

Not all fiction aspires to do that, or needs to do that; in some genres, the readers might even find it annoying: “yes, yes, get on with the plot, would you?” I used to fit these differences into a hierarchy of “quality,” or “literary” fiction versus “commercial fiction.” I can still fall into that sometimes, but now I mostly just see this as a matter of genre conventions and personal taste—even “taste” is a loaded word; let’s say “preference.” I have my preferences and I guess I just hope to reach readers who also appreciate a good line for its own sake beyond how it functions to further plot or character or some other element.

As for process, I worked on these stories over many years, workshopping to get feedback from other writers, revising each several times, and publishing them as I went along. As for my process, it’s a mess really; I have long fallow periods, or periods when I’m mostly jotting down ideas and doing research. I’ve been researching a novel over the summer, for example, but I hope to be back to the writing desk again this fall. Writing fiction has always been a bit fraught for me. I write confidently and without much stress or doubt all the time. But fiction is different. Each time I sit down to work on a story draft, I wonder all over again if I’m still going to be able to do it. Luckily, so far at least, it’s worked out.

EB: Your website warns readers “Don’t even get him started about typography, continental philosophy, or climate fiction.” Dare I ask?

TD: Not unless you want to fire up a whole other interview. That said, I’m happy to talk to pretty much anyone anytime about those topics.

EB: What’s your backstory as a writer? Who are some of the writers who have influenced you?

TD: Really a lot. I learned a great deal from reading Mary Gaitskill, Denis Johnson, Lorrie Moore, Toni Morrison. I could go on and on.

EB: What are you currently working on writer-wise?

TD: I’m working on a novel draft called “The Tower of Abraham,” about an imagined community that forms in a vacant and half-constructed office tower in Boston’s financial district. It’s based on an actual community that occupied an office tower in Venezuela, Torre David.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

TD: Thanks so much for having me!

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An Interview Jay Schroder, author of Teach from Your Best Self

Jay Schroder has taught high school in both traditional and alternative education settings for 24 years. During this time, he developed approaches to teaching that allow him to thrive in the challenging profession.

In 2021, the Oregon Council of Teachers of English (OCTE) awarded Schroder the High School English Teacher of Excellence Award, and in 2022, Jay received the High School Teacher of Excellence Award from the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE).

Jay Schroder is an affiliate faculty member at Southern Oregon University and has recently begun working with Southern Oregon Regional Educator Network (SOREN) as an Implementation Coach. Jay is also a certified instructor of Social Emotional Learning and Character Development and a sixth-degree black belt in karate.

In his Teach From Your Best Self workshops, he shares the approach to teaching that changed his life. He has brought that together in his book Teach From Your Best Self: A Teacher’s Guide to Thriving in the Classroom (Routledge, 2023).

Ed Battistella: I enjoyed Teach From Your Best Self. It caused me to reflect on my own teaching over the years. Thanks for writing this.

Jay Schroder: Thank you, Ed. I wrote the book while teaching full time and leading teacher trainings during the summer and on weekends, so this has definitely been a high-effort labor of love. It means a great deal that you found the book impactful.

EB: What should prospective teachers know going into the field?

JS: First, I think it’s important that new teachers have a sense of how hard this job is. As an incoming teacher, I didn’t fully grasp the depth of difficulty involved in teaching, so once I was plunged into the reality of it, I just thought I must be uniquely bad at it. This led me to get unnecessarily down on myself, which didn’t help. I would have loved it if someone who had done the job for a while had come along and said, “teaching is one of the hardest jobs in the world—that’s why you’re struggling.” This would have kept me from being so hard on myself, so that’s the first thing I would offer.

Second, if you want to teach well, your well-being matters. Whether you show up to your job frazzled and fried or nourished and rejuvenated will have a huge impact on your ability to help your students. It’s really easy in education to let the job consume us. We tell ourselves that we’re making a worthy sacrifice for the students, but from my perspective that’s a mistake. Students thrive when their teacher is thriving. If you want your students to thrive, prioritize your own well-being.

EB: There was an impressive amount of research in your book, along with your own experiences and perspective. What should people who don’t teach know about the work of teachers?

JS: Teachers show up every day, to do a tough job under extremely difficult conditions. How difficult is it? Well, according to the results of a 2023 Gallup Poll, conditions in K-12 education are so tough that K-12 employees are the most burned-out employees in America. And, among this group of K-12 employees, teachers are the most burned out. Incidentally, the second most burned out employees in America are people who work in colleges and universities.

The burnout gap between teachers and people who work in other industries isn’t even close. For example, whereas 31% of people who work in healthcare report always or very often feeling burned out, 55% of K-12 teachers report feeling burned out all, or much of, the time.

So, the first thing I would want people to know is that the job is hard, and the people who do it need to feel supported. A kind word or a small gesture of appreciation goes a long way.

The second thing I want people to know is that teaching and learning are extremely complex processes. One of the criticisms I hear from people is that teachers should just teach academics. What they don’t realize is that before students can begin to learn academics, they need to feel safe at school (physically, emotionally, and psychologically). They need to have the social skills to interact with their classmates in productive ways. They need to have the emotional resilience to persevere with a difficult task. They need, collectively with their classmates and their teacher, to have the social skills to create a classroom environment in which everyone feels safe to share, to express, and to learn. All of these skills are important foundational pieces to learning academics. This is why telling teachers to simply teach academics is unrealistic, and frankly, wouldn’t work.

EB: What did you learn from writing Teach from Your Best Self?

JS: I wrote the first draft of the book in 4 months. Writing the book proposal and revising the book took an additional three years, and I worked on it every single day. So, the revision process actually took nine times as long as it took me to write the first draft. I kept a file that contained all of the big chunks I wrote and then cut from the book, and that file is now larger than the entire finished book. So, I learned something about the kind of labor involved in writing the best book I possibly could.

Another thing I learned had to do with what it means to be an author. Author’s typically get all the credit for writing a book, so I used to imagine that writing a book was a solitary process. In my case, however, writing this involved 15 educator beta readers, Carolyn Bond, my wonderful editor, my mentor Paul Richards who early in the process gave me the feedback I needed to get the book on a solid track, and my fabulous wife Judy (also a teacher) who gave me ongoing feedback and kept the house from falling apart while I worked on the book. So, I learned that writing a book is a team effort. Now when I read a book, I pay much closer attention to the acknowledgment section because I have a much deeper understanding of how important all the supporting people are to a successful book.

EB: I like that way you’ve applied life lessons to teaching and incorporated your karate practice. Can you tell our readers what’s mean by in shin tonkei and zanshin.

JS: In shin tonkei comes from the ninja of feudal Japan. Ninja were stealthy fighters who emerged during the warring states period of Japanese history as mercenary spies and assassins. They were hired by warlords to do the kind of dirty work that was beneath the dignity of the samurai. The ninja worked behind the scenes conducting night raids, ambushes, and assassinations. There were both male and female ninja, and rather than the brute force and swordsmanship that the Samurai relied on, the ninja would use surprise and cunning. The way of the ninja was in shin tonkei which means maximum impact with minimal effort. This means that the ninja had to be extremely patient and calculating, and in each case, know what mattered most and be able to improvise as circumstances changed.

In Teach from Your Best Self I suggest that teachers apply in shin tonkei to their jobs. Like the ninja, teachers are continually outnumbered and face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They need to know what matters most, be patient and calculating, so they can strategically focus their efforts where it will have the most impact on student learning. Trying to do everything at the same time is a big part of what has led teachers down the path of becoming the most burned-out employees in America and applying in shin tonkei can help.

Zanshin is another concept that comes from Japan. I’ve been training in karate for the past 24 years, and learning to embody zanshin has been an important part of my training. Essentially, zanshin is a mental state of relaxed alertness—a kind of open, responsive mindset in which a person is ready to respond to whatever happens. With zanshin the mind is completely relaxed and simultaneously aware and alert. It’s a state of both effortlessness and complete involvement. I think the closest term we have for this in the west is the idea of being in the zone, or in the flow state.

For the martial artist, it isn’t enough to be in this state while meditating undisturbed; the real challenge is to maintain this state under the pressure of someone’s attack.

In my own case, learning to maintain this mental state in the dojo bled into my teaching practice. As I grew in my ability to main zanshin, my students gave up trying to get the best of me. They began telling me how much they enjoyed the relaxed vibe of my class. Teaching became more fun.

In Teach from Your Best Self, I offer approaches and understandings people can use to deepen their capacity to attain zanshin and maintain it, even under stressful circumstances.

EB: You mentioned that your black belt test involved about 4 hours of sparring and that you ended up with three cracked ribs, a broken nose, and two black eyes. I’m curious how your students reacted to your appearance.

JS: On that Monday morning, I was met with a ton of questions, “Oh my God, Mr. Schroder, what happened to you?!” They wanted to know if I had gotten into a fight. Indeed, I had—100 rounds with experienced black belts.

EB: You mentioned that negativity and anxiety can be contagious. Can you give an example or two?

JS: In the novel Don Quixote, Cervantes has Don Quixote’s wise and loyal servant Sancho say, “tell me your company and I will tell you what you are.” When someone tried to attribute the quote to Cervantes, Cervantes disclaimed it, saying it was proverbial. Indeed, the Greek philosopher Euripides, in the 4th century BC wrote “every man is like the company he is wont to keep.” And in the Old Testament book of Proverbs (13:20) there are warnings about how the people around us can either make us better or reduce us. So, this idea that the mindsets and emotions of others are contagious has been observed in human beings for a long time.

As parents, we can see the impact that our children’s friends have on them. People who served time in prison will often start their story by saying, “as a teenager, I got in with a bad crowd.”

The truth is, we are all highly influenceable by the people around us. Sometimes this can happen on a cultural scale, for instance, the way people simultaneously started panic buying toilet paper at the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic in 2020.

In 1992, scientists discovered an important part of the explanation when they discovered mirror neurons in brain research involving monkeys. Mirror neurons are neurons in our brain that mimic the firing patterns of people around us. This is a great advantage when learning a complex task. We can watch someone do something and as we do, the mirror neurons in our brain will mimic the firing pattern required to perform the task ourselves. Mirror neurons appear to be integral for babies learning language. They are why when someone smiles at us, we tend to smile back.

However, these same mirror neurons make us susceptible to embodying other people’s negativity and distressing emotional states.

This has huge repercussions in the classroom as when teachers are anxious or frustrated or overwhelmed, the mirror neurons of their students copy the firing patterns of their teacher. This leads to a situation in which the teacher’s brain isn’t firing optimally for teaching, and the students’ brains aren’t firing optimally for learning.

When teachers can maintain their best selves as they teach, the mirror neurons in their students’ brains will fire accordingly, and the students will tend toward responding to the teacher from their best selves. This simultaneously maximizes student learning while making the teacher’s job easier.

EB: You talk about “hurtspots.” What are those and how can you identify them?

JS: What I am calling hurtspots are pockets of pain left behind in our minds and bodies from unprocessed trauma. Typically, we don’t have the time, space, or support to process trauma in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event, so we tuck the pain away to be processed later. Then, we try to forget about it and get on with our lives.

But those pockets of pain aren’t gone, so at some point we’ll face an event or circumstance that contain elements similar to the original traumatic experience. When this happens, the hurtspot awakens, flooding our systems with the unprocessed pain from the original trauma.

Because all of this is happening below our conscious awareness, we will look to the real time situation and blame it for our emotional and physiological distress. This is why we’ve all observed people having an intense emotional meltdown, or blowing up over something that looks, to an outside observer, to be pretty minor. Hurtspots lead people to react in proportion to how they feel, not in proportion to what actually happens.

Reacting out of proportion to the situation is actually one way we can learn to recognize hurtspots in ourselves. For instance, I once punched a hole through a wall because my girlfriend at the time was out later than I thought she would be.

Another tell-tale sign that I’ve been caught in the undertow of a hurtspot is if I’m obsessing or ruminating on the triggering event for hours, days, and sometimes maybe weeks after it’s happened. Usually, my rumination will be about how horrible someone else is, how right I am to feel the way I do, or what I should have done or said.

In time, the hurtspot will die down and we’ll try to put the episode behind us. But because we’ve not actually processed the underlying trauma, the hurtspot will go into hibernation, certain to ambush us the next time we face a similar experience. People can spend their whole lives cycling in and out of hurtspots, blaming the people and circumstances that trigger them into pain.

Activated hurtspots negatively affect our ability to meet circumstances in our own best way. Whether we are teaching a class, parenting a child, interacting with a friend, or dealing with an undesirable event, learning to respond from the best version of ourselves, rather than reacting from a hurtspot, will determine how things turn out—both for us, and for the people around us.

In the book, I offer Expressive Writing as a research backed approach for bringing healing and resolution to our hurtspots so they don’t continue to dog us in our lives.

EB: What’s next for you and Teach From Your Best Self?

JS: After 24 years as a classroom teacher, I’ve recently taken a job working for Southern Oregon Regional Educator Network (SOREN) where I will be available to support, coach, and mentor educators. Meanwhile, I will be continuing to grow the Teach from Your Best Self community through leading TFYBS trainings and taking advantage of opportunities to talk about Teach From Your Best Self. Ultimately, I want to be a voice in education reform, helping to steer education policy towards creating a sustainable education system in which staff and students alike are supported and inspired to bring their best every day.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Best of luck with your work.

JS: This has been an absolute pleasure. Anyone who wants to learn more about Teach from Your Best Self and the work we are doing can go to I always love to hear from readers, so when you do read the book, feel free to reach out to me at


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What I’m Reading

Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day by Judith Tschann

The words that we use for food and eating say a lot about the history of the world and they ways that humans build culture. In Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day, Judith Tschann, an emerita professor of linguistic and English, gives us the etymologies of hundreds of words for food and drink (I didn’t count—but the word index seems to be about 500). Tschann seasons the work with relevant linguistic concepts and Peter Grimm’s clever illustrations provide the garnish. We get not just the words from Old English (brēowa > brew, eyren > eggs, raedic > radish) and French (estuve > stew, dresser > dressing, ragoûter > ragout) but others like toddy (from Hindi), port (from Oporto, Portugal), ketchup (from Chinese) and yogurt (form Turkish). Bread, spaghetti, and eggs are staples and there is plenty to drink. Tschann is clearly having fun with the book and occasionally treats readers to some etymologies or food facts “Off the Menu.” It’s a great complement to Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food.

Dynamiting the Siskiyou Pass by Bill Meuelemans

Bill Meulemans is a political scientist who gets in the thick of his profession—in his 47 year career at Southern Oregon College, the University of Belfast, and Portland State University, he’s studied the mindsets of diverse political groups—mainstream and extreme in the US, Israel, and Northern Ireland. Dynamiting the Siskiyou Pass is a memoir of his experiences teaching and doing research in southern Oregon, Israel, and Belfast. Many of the stories are centered in Oregon where he taught for 28 years, had a radio show on Jefferson Public Radio, and worked as a political organizer. Meulemans invited extremists left and right to visit his classes and tell their stories, and he often researched groups by showing up at their meetings.

We learn about a group of right-wing patriots who practiced dynamiting the Siskiyou Pass separating California and Oregon–convinced that one day they would have to stop California Communists from invading. We hear about a planned protest and counter-protest over the raising of the campus flag after the Kent State killings which was thwarted by some quick-thinking campus maintenance workers. When members of the John Birch call for Meuelmans to be fired, he crashed their Christmas Party to set them straight. Meulemans visited the Rajneesh compound, interviewed the leader of Oakland’s Hell’s Angels, interviewed Ku Klux Klan members in Louisiana, and talked his way into the Soviet Embassy in Washington when he took students on a field trip. Meuelemans has also worked as a journalist, political organizer, and as a staff aide in the House of Representative, so the stories have a fast-paced journalistic tone rather than being ponderously academic. He offers more than just stories though. The memoir is filled his bits of political and sociological analysis—the role of empathy, single issue politics, the Hell’s Angels’ political views, and more. A first-rate memoir.

Chris Ware Conversations edited by Jean Braithwaite

I had not known about the University of Mississippi’s before I read this. It’s are series of carefully selected interviews with the Chris Ware—the author of Jimmy Corrigan, Building Stories, ACME Novelty Library and Rusty Brown. Spanning 25 years, the interviews bring us Ware unique voice, personal history, literary, his influences, and creative process. Bonus material includes Braithwaite’s interview with Marnie Ware, and Chris Wares own cover design, and over 40 illustrations from Ware’s work.

The Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay

Mark Genevich is a Boston private detective who suffers from narcolepsy and narcolepsy-related hallucinations, who starts unravelling a long-buried secret when the DA’s celebrity daughter appears in his office—or does she. Genevich evokes Jonathan Lethem and Raymond Chandler: Genevich is part Phillip Marlowe, part Lionel Essrog; And his mother is his helper. Some good plot twists and it all adds up in the end.

The Keeper of Lost Causes by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The first of the Department Q series, featuring Danish homicide detective Carl Mørck. Injured in a shooting that killed one colleague and paralyzed another, Mørck is promoted out of the way to head a cold case squad. But he discovered begins to suspect that a five-year old death has more to it that it seems. Good characters and a good plot, but I have to quibble about the somewhat unrealistic methods of the villain. I’ll definitely read more of this series.

The Golden State by Ben H. Winters

I’m a big fan of Ben H. Winters’ world-building books (the Last Policeman Trilogy, Underground Airlines, etc.). In this one, he drops us into the future in the a “The Golden State” a dystopia where lies are illegal. Greetings are replaced by the recitation of facts “Two plus two is four”) and everyone tracks events in a collection of daybooks which one another by spouting facts. An elaborate system of tracking and archiving the minute details of everyone’s lives has been set up. The line between lies and other bits of speculation, imagination, and non-literalness is thin do a whole bureaucracy and enforcement arm are required to monitor and verify information. The enforcers of the truth are part of the Speculative Services, elite agents who can detect lies and are also licensed to speculate, hypothesize or lie themselves, in pursuit of the truth.

This is their story. It’s centered around Laszlo Ratesic, a bulky loner with a unruly red beard and a failed marriage. As Laszlo explains it to his trainee:

“Unwarranted speculation is no better than lying, Ms. Paige. It is worse. You want to see how it’s done, here’s how it’s done: it’s better when it’s not done at all. Our job is to reinforce the Objectively So. Not conjure realities, every one of which might extend, evolve, metastasize.” “And none of those realities can be collected back once released. Our job is to find the facts and travel between them, walk carefully along the lines of what’s true. And when we do speculate? When we do hypothesize, we do it carefully, conscientiously, in a controlled environment, and we don’t do it at all unless and until the facts support it. The Speculative Service is a bulwark.”

And later “Shared understanding is a bulwark. Clear and agreed-upon definitions of common terms are defenses against infelicity. Words mean what they fucking mean.”

Laszlo discovers the truth about the truth and the state dedicated to maintaining it. What’s especially fun it’s the extent to which Winters has thought through the ideas about language. There is, for example, a Court of Small Infelicities, which deals with “knucklehead kerfluffles like when a car dealer is challenges about the truth of “lowest rates around.”

There is The Everyday Citizens’ Dictionary, where some words are redefined, such as novel: “A true story, that is, organized into chapters or incidents, featuring a historical character or characters, building to a conclusion, suggesting or implying an inspirational message about the nature of the Golden State.”

Humor is allowed, however:

”Humor causes no oscillation in the So, any more than any other form of small social falsehood: obvious hyperbole, inoffensive teasing, plain flattery—the whole constellation of innocuous and lubricating half-truths.” Idioms too are permitted “Given that their intention and literal meaning can be gleaned from context and familiarity. They’re like humorous remarks in that regard.”

Thought provoking stuff for linguistically-minded readers.


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An Interview with Judith Tschann, author of Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day

Judith Tschann is medievalist and Professor Emerita at the University of Redlands where she courses the History of the English Language, English literature, and Food in Literature, among others. She has a Ph.D. from Stony Brook University and has received numerous awards, including a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship and a Mortarboard Professor of the Year Award.

Judith Tschann grew up in the Midwest and now lives, writes, and enjoys meals in Redlands, California.

Her book Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day: The Delightful History of Food Language was published by Little, Brown in 2023 under its Voracious imprint.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day. How did you get interested in food history and the history of food words?

Judith Tschann: As a kid from a family of eight, I loved our crowded, noisy dinner table. I was also a dictionary reader, flipping pages in that fat book and marking words that intrigued me. In graduate school I specialized in Old and Middle English literature and language, and as a professor teaching those subjects and various topics in linguistics, I amassed a huge pile of notes on interesting etymologies. During the pandemic, I pulled the notes on food words together into a book, and in some ways the pandemic inspired the work. I was reminded daily of missing the pleasure that comes from talking and eating with a big group around a table. Writing about food and language was not only a consolation but a source of joy.

EB: Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day has a lot of great world and word history. How long did it take you to track all of these down? What was the hardest to pin down?

JT: The word history research started long ago and included (sometimes serendipitously) other research projects, including a study of French loan words in English as evidenced by a thirteenth-century trilingual manuscript. Many of the literary works I taught over the years, from Homer’s Odyssey to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, to Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, gave me the chance to investigate the symbolic importance of food. I also read medieval recipes, cookbooks, and menus (some included porpoise and hedgehog) and many helpful historical studies like William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, and Judith Bennet’s Ale, Beer, and Brewsters in England. The final checking and tracking down of information took about a year and a half.

One time-consuming but enjoyable aspect of pursuing the history of food language was getting caught up in stories about (e.g.) the role of coffee in the invention of the webcam, and the influence of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake on physicist Gell-Mann’s choice of the word quark. Likewise, it was fun to get caught up in the many webs of words that spin out from the same source, like sass, sassy, saucy, salsa, salad, salami, sausage, and salary, all coming from Latin sal, “salt.”

Words that proved tricky include carrot, parsnip, celery, and parsley, because it was not always clear what exact vegetable a particular word referred to centuries ago.

EB: A lot of food terms seem to be related to the who or where of their origin, but they sometimes take mysterious turns, like the word cocktail. Can you tell us about that?

JT: The history of the word cocktail sounds like the kind of explanation you might hear when playing Fictionary. The word comes from the practice of docking a horse’s tail, cutting it so it stuck up like a cock’s tail. A carriage horse’s tail might be docked, but not a thoroughbred’s, so if a racehorse was found to have a cocktailed horse in its lineage, its pedigree was considered impure. By the time the word cocktail was applied to mixed drinks in the nineteenth century, it had lost the sense of impurity, suggesting only a mixture—to many people, a delicious, sophisticated mix of spirits and other ingredients like bitters, fruit juice or liqueur.

EB: There were so many surprising etymologies, but one that will stick with me is cabbage. I had never made the connection of cabbage and Latin caput, so now I’ll never think the cabbage the same way again. Have you ever called anyone a little cabbage?

JT: I think I did call my children mon petit chou (“my little cabbage”) on occasion when they were little. It’s amusing that cabbage is both a term of endearment and a slur (if you call someone a cabbagehead). I also like cabbage for a slightly embarrassing reason. The coffee cup I reach for, when I’ve put tushy on the cushy and fingers on the keyboard, has a charming scene on one side of a man and woman tending a cabbage patch, and a huge rooster with an impressive cock’s tail on the other side. I’ve wasted a lot of time analyzing this cup—the ways in which it depicts nature vs. culture (as if!). Like the lilies of the field, the rooster looks glorious and doesn’t toil. The man and woman, on the other hand (or side of the cup), with their tidy house and little fence in the background, have clearly worked hard cultivating those many neat rows of cabbage. To me the scene says, “Get to work,” “Weed that messy essay,” though often I only get up and peer longingly into the pantry.

EB: I was amazed at the number of food words that seemed related to smells–and farts in particular—and also to body metaphors. Do you have a couple of favorite examples?

JT: Souffle, pumpernickel, partridge, and nuns’ farts come to mind, because they illustrate different aspects of lexical evolution or semantic change, as well as the difficulty of fully accounting for a word’s history and meaning. The Latin word flāre, “to blow,” gave us a many words, including flavor, flatulence, conflate, deflate, inflate, and (via French) souffle. Even if some members of this group of related words seem almost contradictory, it’s still possible to see how they could all come from a word meaning “to blow.” But with food terms like pumpernickel, partridge, and nuns’ farts, it’s not a matter of how words with very different meanings can derive from the same ancestor word, but rather a question of how some foods ever acquire a seemingly unappealing name, one that suggests yucky rather than yummy. The why and how of the name are often a matter of speculation.

Pumpernickel comes from early German pumper, “to fart,” and “Nicholas,” a personal name that could also mean a “lout or bumpkin.” Perhaps this coarse-ground bread was called “farting Nicholas” because it was hard to digest, and when others got wind of the nonce name, it stuck, and eventually over many decades, the literal meaning faded away. A similar process probably occurred with partridge, from Greek perdesthai, “to fart,” apparently because the bird makes a whirring noise when startled. The history of “nuns’ farts” isn’t about literal meaning being forgotten but rather highlighted. English speakers have usually absorbed food words from other languages without translating those words (though Anglicizing goes on), from beef to taco, bibimbap, pho, jollof. But the fritter called “nuns’ farts” is a calque or loan translation of the French “pets de nonnes.” Perhaps “nuns’ farts” sells more fritters.

Thinking about food and body connections, I’m reminded of the first time I came upon the term pets de nonnes, in a 1966 book of recipes written by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Maurice Joyant and illustrated by Toulouse-Lautrec. The pets de nonne recipe is printed on top of a dancer’s rear as she bends over and her tutu fans out, encircling the recipe. The drawing doesn’t sound subtle, but perhaps because the name of the recipe isn’t translated into English (editor’s decision?), it’s easy to overlook the visual pun, a backside version of “you are what you eat.”

Thinking about smell, food, and body connections, I’m reminded of a cluster of words pertaining to the nose. Speech sounds sometimes acquire semantic associations, and the “sn” sound of nose words can be mildly derogatory (sniffle, snivel, snort, snout, snooty, snot, snotty). Does “sn” seem like a sound-combination to avoid when naming a new food? Maybe, but not in the case of Snickers. What about positive associations between speech sounds and nose words? A vital bit of nose work is to pass along to the brain the information that something smells good. It’s an essential part of enjoying the taste of something. There doesn’t seem to be a long list of words indicating that a particular sound cluster is associated with good smells, though the oh ah mm of aroma comes close.

Sneeze, by the way, isn’t etymologically related to any of the words noted above. It derives from the Middle English word fnese, and may be the result of scribes misreading the letter “f” for “s” and then preferring the misreading, maybe because of the “sn” association with the nose.

EB: I see that you grew up in the Midwest. Are you a dinner person or a supper person?

JT: I started out a supper person in a small town and turned into a dinner person when we moved to the big city. I remember my parents discussing the words dinner, supper, and lunch when I was about five, and we were eating a meal at noon. This was ages ago, in a town small enough that my father could easily go home for the noon meal. My parents declared that farmers called a midday meal dinner and an evening meal supper. Like the farmers, we also called the evening meal supper, but like urbanites, we called the noon meal lunch. Later, when we moved to the Twin Cities, the word dinner became the more common word for the evening meal. That conversation made an impression on me. I suppose it reinforced the simple fact that different people use different names for the same thing, and it also made that fact more complicated. It mattered what words you used, because it said something about you, and others might judge you by it.

EB: Do you have another writing project in the works? I hope so.

JT: I have a novel that I hope may someday leap out of the drawer and onto the bookstore shelf, many short “food adjacent” articles, and a couple academic papers underway. One of them concerns ways of reading in the sixteenth century.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Bon appétit.

JT: My pleasure, thank you!


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Interview with Bill Meulemans, author of Dynamiting the Siskiyou Pass: And Other Short Stories from Oregon and Beyond

Bill Meulemans is an emeritus professor of political science at Southern Oregon University, where he taught from 1964-1992. A former Danforth Fellow, Fulbright scholar, and Army veteran, he has a PhD from the University of Idaho and also taught at Queen’s University in Belfast, and at Portland State University.

Meulemans is the author of How the Left and Right Think: The Roots of Division in American Politics, published in 2019, and Belfast: Both Sides Now published in 2013. His latest book, Dynamiting the Siskiyou Pass (Hellgate Press 2023), recounts experiences from his forty-seven-year career studying political forces that have shaped American society. His first-hand research includes interviews with Southern Oregon minutemen, members of the Rajneesh cult, and Hells Angels.

Ed Battistella: Congratulations on your memoir, Dynamiting the Siskiyou Pass, which I really enjoyed. What prompted you to write a book based on stories?

Bill Meulemans: I’ve always been aware that my students learned the most when I could present ideas in the form of a story. I firmly believe the human mind is rigged to better remember information in a story form rather than in points of isolated knowledge. I also discovered that story-telling was a great instructional tool. My students always did better in examination questions when stories were involved. An interesting anecdote gave them a context in which to remember information that might otherwise be forgotten. This book gave me an opportunity to find various “lessons” that were embedded in memorable tales. Story-telling for me is the best form of teaching. It also makes reading more enjoyable.

Ed Battistella: I was impressed with the way in which you got out into the community, interviewing people of political different views, some quite extreme. Was that sort of community involvement unusual for an academic at the time? What sorts of reactions did you get? I read that some community members wanted you fired and you even got death threats.

Bill Meulemans: I found that regular folks love to tell the stories of their lives; they want to talk about things that make them angry or proud. I enjoy listening to people and letting them develop their ideas without interruption. I always counseled my student to ask “soft-ball” questions if they really wanted to learn what makes a person tick. People who are passionate about their beliefs are more truthful when you let them talk. With this as a backdrop I invited in persons of extreme points of view into my classroom. My only rule was they couldn’t bring weapons into the room. I found that other academic people often focused on how to convert controversial speakers to a peaceful approach or proving that they were “wrong’ in their beliefs. I told my students that our job was to understand the other person, not change their minds. But my invitation to welcome extremists into the classroom was very controversial. Some local folks didn’t think my students could handle “dangerous ideas.” It seemed to me that many people missed the opportunity to understand why these guests were challenging our democratic institutions. As a people we will never be able to combat anti-democratic ideas unless we first understand why those ideas were being propagated. We need to listen to people’s stories especially when their accounts are politically disruptive in the body politic.

Ed Battistella: You mention some of your teaching experiences, inviting extremists left and right to campus. What did students learn from those visits?

Bill Meulemans: My approach in teaching was to build models that enabled students to understand the basic differences between the left and the right in political affairs, and to understand why some folks justify violence. First of all, I set out the models, then my students and I brought in moderates, activists and extremists to see if their realities fit into the models. Again, it was critical that each visitor could tell their story without interruption. When we had a friendly atmosphere, they would voice the “truth” as they perceived it. But that was also when right-wing groups thought I was endangering the minds of our youth. I found that many people spent all their energies shutting down extremists without giving any thought as to why those radical ideas were being believed.

Ed Battistella: You had some great stories. I had heard about Vortex 1, which people called Governor Tom McCall’s Pot Party, but I didn’t know about the Kent State protests at Southern Oregon College and the clever action by the college’s maintenance staff. Could you tell our reader a bit about those?

Bill Meulemans: The killing by the Ohio National Guard of four unarmed students in 1970 at Kent State University sent political shock waves to college campuses across the country. In response, students a Southern Oregon College in Ashland decided that the US Flag should fly on campus at half-mast the next day in commemoration of the those killed at Kent State. When word of this leaked out to the right-wing non-student population a determination was made by them to be ready to use any means available to raise the Flag to full-mast. Early the next morning a small fleet of pickup trucks with gunracks in the back windows showed up to raise the Flag despite the unarmed students who, by this time, were afraid for their lives. At this point it looked like another “Kent State” was in the offing. But when the Flag was attached to the rope, it was discovered that the pulley had been smashed, perhaps by a hammer. The students were relieved, the fleet of pickup trucks left, and everyone breathed a little easier. Several days later everyone on the campus found out that two unnamed college maintenance men had smashed the pully to “save us from ourselves.” These state workers became local heroes, demonstrating that maybe a bit of common sense had saved some lives that morning on a small college campus in Oregon.

Ed Battistella: You’ve also written on the roots of division in politics and the different mindsets of both ordinary voters and extremists. Do you think that things have gotten more divisive over the years? I’ve often thought that the loss of the Fairness Doctrine was a crucial turning point.

Bill Meulemans: You raise the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine which I believe is one of the fundamental reasons why we are so politically polarized today. President Ronald Reagan appointed members of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that repealed the requirements for radio and television stations to provide equal time for competing ideas and candidates on the American airwaves. When Congress tried to reinstate the Fairness Doctrine, Reagan vetoed the measure. Since then, some radio and television programs have intentionally permitted lies to be told in the form of newscasts. The American people are now subject to a barrage of propaganda presented as though it was the work of “fair and balanced” journalists. In my mind the attempted insurrection of January 6, 2021`is directly linked to the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine.

Ed Battistella: You’ve also taught in Northern Ireland and done research in Israel. How would you compare the political situations there with that in the US?

Bill Meulemans: One of the stories in the book records the account of young Protestants and Catholics from Belfast I brought to Oregon on a program funded by the British government. In Oregon these young Irish students were asked about the Northern Ireland conflict is a searching question: “What’s it all about?” They couldn’t offer a meaningful answer. One of my colleagues at The Queen’s University of Belfast once told me, “The conflict was about everything and nothing.” By this he meant the dispute included everything in their lives, but it couldn’t be reduced to one topic that could be delineated and understood. I think the conflicts in Israel, Northern Ireland and the United States are all about “everything and nothing.” So much of the conflict in these three countries are in the realm of mythology, half-truths, and propaganda. Because of this, the average person is often deluged by a maze of disturbing ideas that cause them, in anger, to turn on each other. In my judgment, it would be wise, in all three nations, that a Fairness Doctrine be observed by the media. It is absolutely necessary for both sides to be heard honestly if our democracies are to survive.

Ed Battistella: You were involved in researching groups as diverse as the Hell’s Angels, the Rajneeshees, the Ku Klux Klan and more. How did you manage to gain access to these groups?

Bill Meulemans: My approach was to ask simple questions in such a way that individuals could analyze themselves. For example, when I was with the Hell’s Angels, I asked their leader, Sonny Barger, how he visualized himself in the stretch of history. At this point his eyes sort of glazed over and he said if he had been born in the middle of the nineteenth century, he would have been an outlaw that led a gang on horseback that robbed stagecoaches. I found that the rank-in-file Rajneeshees loved to see themselves as being the first to create a “perfect society” where “complete freedom” could prevail. And Ku Klux Klan members I interviewed saw themselves as an embattled minority that were sorely misunderstood by the American people. I found these folks loved to tell their stories, and we owe them the respect to listen, especially when they are threatening to undermine American democracy.

Ed Battistella: You taught at SOU—then-Southern Oregon College—for almost 30 years and served as chair of the faculty Senate. Any favorite campus recollections you’d like to share?

Bill Meulemans: First of all, I am a firm believer in faculty governance. Members of the university community should bear responsibility for the quality of education and the manner for handling academic disputes. But I am also aware that college faculty members are not noted for making clear decisions. After being on the faculty senate for several years, I became aware that our agenda was often like a carousel, in that the same issues came up again and again, year-after-year. We discussed all the finer points of academic policies without finding any solutions. Our disagreements were often lively and memorable, but we seldom changed important procedures. This topic reminds of a comment made by a colleague at The Queen’s University of Belfast. He said, “the debate among college professors is so vicious because the stakes are so low.” I say this as one who was deeply involved in the process.

Ed Battistella: As an expert observer, do you have any predictions for the current election cycle?

Bill Meulemans: I go back to the comments about the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. So far that action is, in part, responsible for the near destruction of one of our two great political parties and the deterioration of our former widespread believe in democratic values. In my judgment, the upcoming primary and general elections may decide whether American political institutions will stand or be put aside in favor of an emerging authoritarian system that is evolving in the current campaign. This may be the most important election season of our entire political history.

Ed Battistella: Thanks for talking with us.

Bill Meulemans: Thank you for the opportunity to talk with you.


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What I’m Reading

Like, Literally, Dude by Valerie Fridland

Like, Literally, Dude is one of those books that makes me wish I was still teaching, so I could assign it. Fridland, a professor of linguistics at the University of Nevada, Reno, brings together the research on just about all of the bits of usage that your misinformed, snooty relatives rant about: the use of uh and um, the use of like, vocal fry, saying workin’ rather than working, referring to any manner  of dudes and, of course, the much-maligned figurative use of literally. I learned new things about each of these phenoms. What’s more, Fridland writes in an engaging and funny manner without stinting on linguistic accuracy. So before you opine about anyone’s bad English—or fret about your own—give Like, Literally Dude, a read.

Voices of Our Ancestors: Language Contact in Early South Carolina. By Patricia Causey Nichols.

For a long time, I’ve hoped that some publisher would produce a series of linguistic histories of all 50 states (publishers, are you listening?). When they do, they can use Patricia Nichols’s fine sociolinguistic history of South Carolina as a model. Nichols brings together insight from has historical records and social sciences along with her own observations as field researcher in her home state. The book is organized in two-parts: the first describes the people in colonial South Carolina (Natives, Europeans, and African) and their diverse languages – more than I imagined—The second part focused especially on Gullah (drawing on Nichols’s own field research) and on the English that arose from the language contact situation in the state. Nichols pays careful attention to the rhetorical situations of speech communities and offers a number of illustrative short narrative texts to round things out.

The Thief  by Fuminori Nakamura

A noirish tale about a veteran pickpocket, an anonymous crook who steals by reflex and lives a solitary life, hiding from his past. He gets pulled into more a new crime when an old partner makes him an offer he can’t refuse and he becomes enmeshed in forced beyond his control. Some interesting social criticism, but I though the ending was disappointing. I’ll read more Nakamura though!

The Critic by Peter May

A book I was supposed to read last summer but just got around to. It‘s the story of a Scots-Italian criminology professor who gets involved in solving the murder of a wine critic. The plot was good and the wine detail fascinating, but I’m not sure I liked the self-involved main character Enzo Macleod.

Ratking by Michael Dibdin

The first in the Aurelia Zen series and I’m trying to decide whether to recommend it for my mystery book club. The scheming and creepy Miletti family in Perugia was a lot of fun to read about and Zen is a good character—a cynical outside. The pace may be a bit slow. Bonus fact: apparently a ratking is a real phenomenon and a good metaphor as well.

Von Neumann, Morgenstern, and the creation of game theory: from chess to social science, 1900–1960 by Robert Leonard, 

I stumbled upon this while looking for a biography of Emanual Lasker, the world chess champion from 1894–1921,  whose is undergoing a resurgence of interest. Robert Leonard’s book (not the linguist/Sha-Na-Na Robert Leonard, btw) is mostly about John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, who co-authored the 1944 book Theory of Games and Economic Behavior. Leonard draws in biography, history, and politics of the early twentieth century and does a clear, efficient job of explicating the mathematics and economics. Plenty of archival detail and sociohistory.

Hammett: A life at the edge by William Nolan and Raymond Chandler by Jerry Speir

These have been sitting on my to read pile (don’t ask) for a while now and I’ve finally gotten to them, curious about these two writers and the milieu of early twentieth century detective fictions. Speir’s book is light on the biography of Chandler (1888-1959) and focuses on works — The Big Sleep and Farewell My Lovely along with nearly two dozen short stories. Speir draws out the interplay of irony and social criticism, recounts Chandler’s career and marriage to Cissy Pascal, his drinking and depression, and his sad death. Speir’s book makes me want to read Frank MacShane’s The life of Raymond Chandler.

William Nolan’s biography of Hammett (1894-1961) is longer and more detailed, recounting his recurring tuberculosis, career as a Pinkerton, service in both world wars, his relationship with Lilian Hellman, his drinking,  his growing activism and his courage and persecution during the McCarthy era. And we learn much about the Continental Op, Sam Spade, and the Thin Man.

Hammett and Chandler apparently met just once, in 1936 at a dinner for Black Mask writers.


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An Interview with Erika Bare and Tiffany Burns, authors of Connecting Through Conversation

Erika Bare and Tiffany Burns are the co-authors of Connecting Through Conversation: A Playbook for Talking with Students (ConnectEDD Publishing, 2023).

Erika Bare currently serves as the Assistant Superintendent for the Ashland School District and has more than twenty years of experience as a teacher and administrator. She has a Master’s in Education from University of Oregon and an administrative credential from Southern Oregon University. She has developed and led workshops and professional development activities on topics in education, communication, and leadership.

Tiffany Burns is currently an elementary school principal in the Ashland School District and has two decades of experiences in elementary, middle, high school, and university students in public, private, bilingual, and homeschool settings in Oregon, Alaska, and Mexico. She has served as an instructional and extracurricular coach, curriculum writer and consultant, and creator and facilitator of workshops and professional development in education, equity, leadership, and communication. She has two master’s degrees from Southern Oregon University.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed Connecting Through Conversation: A Playbook for Talking with Students, which caused me to think about some of my own teaching practices with college students and also gave me a new appreciation for all educators. How did the book, and your collaboration, come about?

Erika Bare & Tiffany Burns: We connected in our administrative preparation program over 10 years ago and then both became administrators in Ashland at that same time. The two of us formed an unofficial new administrators’ group, connecting over dinner or during on-the-fly phone calls during the day, discussing all of the complexities of this work, bouncing ideas off each other, giving and asking for advice, and generally making each other better. We have talked about doing a project together for years, and in a meeting during the fall of 2021 we were debriefing some powerful conversations that Tiffany had leveraged to move some things forward for some students at her school. We also talked about the support she had provided for some of the educational assistants in the form of sentence stems and conversation coaching. As Erika was leaving, Tiffany said – that’s the book that is needed: How to Talk with Kids. Erika thought she meant this was a book we needed to purchase for a book study with staff. When Erika got back to her office she looked high and low and was unable to find anything on the topic. When she connected with Tiffany about it later, Tiffany started laughing and said – No! That’s the book we should write! We began the fun and invigorating journey of writing a book. Connecting Through Conversation: A Playbook for Talking With Students was born.

Ed Battistella: What exactly is a Connected Communicator?

Erika Bare & Tiffany Burns: On the first page of our book we say “Whether we talk to big kids or little kids, we have one thing that connects us. We all love children. If this doesn’t resonate with you, we invite you to rethink your career choice. For real.” That is the literal heart of a Connected Communicator. They love kids, and let them know every day through both words and actions. Beyond that, it is someone who understands that behavior is what a student did, not who they are. They can differentiate between an impulsive action a student may have made and a conscious choice. They then use this information to respond accordingly, teaching the whole way. A Connected Communicator uses body language, tone, and volume to communicate safety and invite connection. They are someone who gets to know their students well, and makes it clear to them how much they care about them. Connected Communicators understand that if they engage in a power struggle with a student they have already lost, and use effective strategies and sentence stems to avoid them. When the Connected Communicator makes a mistake, which we all will, they apologize and take responsibility. The Connected Communicator uses their daily conversations, as well as the higher stakes interactions to build Connected Relationships for Learning.

Ed Battistella: I was intrigued by the Care Out Loud Behavioral Approach. Can you describe that for our readers?

Erika Bare & Tiffany Burns: We talk a lot about how important it is to let our students know how much we care about them. This becomes all the more critical when a student has demonstrated unexpected behaviors. It usually sounds something like, “I know you are a really good kid, sometimes even really good kids make mistakes.” This demonstrates to the student that you have separated what they did from who they are, and shows them that you care about them. Depending on the student’s age or the behavior you are addressing, this can take many forms. For an older student who has cheated on an assignment, you might say, “I have always known you as a student who works hard to uphold our value of integrity. Sometimes even those of us who consistently act with integrity slip up. The most important thing to do when that happens is to take responsibility.” Again the idea is to demonstrate to both the student and yourself that whatever the unexpected behavior was, it is something they did, not who they are.

Ed Battistella: You mention many of the issues that teachers are confronted with arising from stresses in their student’s lives–I wonder if you can comment on some of these and the way the pandemic exacerbated those issues, for students, families and teachers?

Erika Bare & Tiffany Burns: When we returned from the years of disrupted learning after the pandemic, we saw clearly that the number of students lagging in social skills, experiencing mental and emotional challenges, and having difficulty communicating their needs in a healthy way had increased exponentially. Their parents were trying to parent, work, educate their children, and keep their family safe during a time of extreme upheaval in our society. So many families were under tremendous stress. As students returned to school, educators reported that challenging behaviors were occurring at an unprecedented rate. The shared global trauma of COVID-19 had a tremendous impact on our students and families. At the same time, educators were experiencing the most difficult years of their careers. This created a crisis of culture in our schools.

Ed Battistella: One of the chapters is about the importance of educators’ attending to their own physical, emotional, and mental health, because emotions are contagious. How can teachers project good emotionality? It seems that the job of teachers has gotten more and more challenging.

Erika Bare & Tiffany Burns: Educators do extremely emotional work. We know that humans are hardwired for connection. We all have mirror neurons, as part of our nervous system, that reflect or match the emotions of others. We like to think of these neurons as empathy neurons. As empathetic beings, we are susceptible to catching others emotions, including our students. So, when they are escalated, we go lower and slower, being careful not to pick up their energy. Mirror neurons work both ways so we want to project emotions that are worth catching. This is not as easy as it sounds. Many educators have a hard time attending to their own needs before trying to take care of our students. At the same time, when we are taking care of our own body, mind, and emotions, we are less stressed, have more energy, are more creative, have improved happiness levels, and a host of other benefits. All of this makes us more effective educators. Sometimes just reminding ourselves and fellow educators that we are taking care of ourselves for our students can help us remember to prioritize this important work.

Ed Battistella: Who should read Connecting Through Conversation? Teachers, administrators, parents, school boards? Students?

Erika Bare & Tiffany Burns: This book is for anyone who talks with kids! That includes bus drivers, educational assistants, teachers, custodians, principals, coaches, really anyone who works with young people. We have had a number of folks tell us this book has helped with their parenting as well! Essentially, if you want to be more effective in your communication with big kids and little kids, this book is for you.

Ed Battistella: You include eight appendices with sentence stems, scenarios, and other tools for planning communicating and responding communicating. What are a couple of your favorite tools?

Erika Bare & Tiffany Burns: It is hard to choose a favorite! We both make frequent use of the Conversation Planning Guide and Sentence Stems. The Care Out Loud strategies are a helpful reference for folks who are setting up systems in their classroom or school. We love using the scripts when working with groups of educators, as they help demonstrate how all of the tools work together in conversation.

Ed Battistella: How can people get your book?

Erika Bare & Tiffany Burns: You can buy our book, and find some free practical resources and content on our website: It is also available on Amazon. For those interested in ordering a multiple book for a book study or for a staff of educators, you can do this through our publisher at

Ed Battistella: Thanks for talking with us. I really enjoyed and learned a lot from your book.

Erika Bare & Tiffany Burns: We are so glad, it was a lot of fun to write! This was a very enjoyable conversation, thank you so much. We love all opportunities to talk about how to build connections with our young people. Thank you!


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What I’m Reading

The Babel Apocalypse by Vyvyan Evans (Nephilm, 2023)

Part of a new series of by linguist Vyvyan Evans: what will happen if (when?!) most of the world’s people a “chipped” with tech that streams Unilanguage technology controlled by corporations. And what will happen when there is an outage. A great addition to the corpus of linguistic sci-fi.

From Rome to Roseburg by Hilde Baughman (Sauce Publishing, 2023)

A charming memoir that brings together the rural West and cosmopolitan Europe. It’s the story of a young Bavarian women who falls in love with an American GI and find a herself in a new land—first California and then southern Oregon. We follow her adventures and transformation from one culture to another all the while anchored in her love of family, nature, and literature. A witty and captivating life story.

Night Flight to Paris by Cara Black (Soho Crime, 2023)

Cara Black brings back her World Word II spy: a sharpshooter who grew up in—Klamath Falls, Oregon. Spy craft, plot twists, and fast-paced action.

From Strength to Strength by Arthur C. Brooks (Penguin, 2022)

A friend recommended this book on finding purpose in the second half of life. It tended a bit too spiritual for my taste, but offered plenty of useful advice on transitioning from work to post-work.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman (Atria, 2014)

The utterly charming book that was the basis for the film A Man Called Otto. You get hooked right away and even though you can predict what’s going to happen to Ove, you keep reading with a grin on your face.

Standing by the Wall: The Collected Slough House Novellas by Mick Herron (Soho, 2022) Espionage. Blackmail. Revenge. Cunning. Slapstick. State secrets dating back to the fall of the Berlin Wall. All this and more in a tight package of five novellas.


The Immortal Game by David Shenk (Achor Books, 2007)

Shenk describes his fascination with chess and the history, sociology and psychology of the game, from metaphors to technology. And he does a neat literary trick: interspersing the expository chapters with a description of the actual Immortal Game play by Adolf Anderssen versus Lionel Kieseritzky in 1851.

Brainiac by Ken Jennings (Random House, 2006)

It was a bit slow at the start for my taste, but Jennings offers not just a memoir of his first Jeopardy! experience but a compellingly written history of trivia. And of course, each chapter has some clues: like “Hoss” Cartwright’s given name, Barbie’s full name, or the state that consumes the most Jell-O.*




* (Eric Cartwright, Barbara Millicent Roberts, and California)


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An Interview with Valerie Fridland, author of Like, Literally, Dude

Valerie Fridland is a professor of English at the University of Nevada in Reno.  She has has a PhD in sociolinguistics from Michigan State University, and is an expert on the relationship between language and society, her work has appeared in numerous academic journals. 

She has appeared as a language expert on a variety of media outlets such as CBS News, NPR and Newsy’s The Why and is regularly featured on podcasts and radio. Her language blog, Language in the Wild, appears in Psychology Today and her lecture series, Language and Society, is featured with The Great Courses

Fridland is the co-author, with Tyler Kendall, of the book Sociophonetics.  Her most recent book, Like, Literally, Dude: Arguing for the Good in Bad English is available from Viking/Penguin Press.  Publishers Weekly called the book “Scholarly yet accessible, and often very witty” and “a winning look at how language evolves.”

She lives with her husband and two teenagers in the beautiful Reno/Tahoe area.

Ed Battistella: What prompted you to write Like, Literally, Dude?

Valerie Fridland: On the first day every semester when I teach my sociolinguistics class, I ask my students to talk about what speech habit they find most noticeable and why. I don’t say anything about it being something that bothers them – it could be something wonderful about language – but, by far, something they perceive as a ‘bad’ speech feature is what they come up with, e.g., ‘like,’ ‘um,’ vocal fry. Likewise, these very same features have come up after every public talk I have given which suggests that people are curious about why these things come into our speech and what they do for us despite the fact that most people say they dislike them. So, I figured I would save a lot of time if I just recorded my answers in book form.

EB: Is there a particular way the tittle should be pronounced, intonation-wise?

VF: It’s been great fun listening to all the different intonational patterns that people have used when saying the title, but I usually put the emphasis on the first syllable of literally: Like, LITerally, dude! But I want people to pronounce it however captures the vibe for them.

EB: You point out that there is a logic and history to the bits of language that become the targets of peeves. Why do you think some folks get so snarky about things like like, literally, dude, vocal fry, g-droppin’ and so on??

VF: We definitely have firm convictions about language. A fundamental reason we are so vested in believing in ‘good’ language and ‘bad’ language is that we have been taught that such forms exist and that we should aspire to them since we were very young. Every year from early childhood on, this idea is reinforced by parents and by English teachers. Because we hear these norms framed as the ‘correct’ ones all our lives and with such unanimity, we forget that grammar books essentially describe the norms of formal language and writing, not conversational speech, and that prescriptivism itself has only been around since the 18th century, which is when we first started to concern ourselves with notions of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ mainly on the basis of class standing. It is important to note that my goal here is not to wipe away everything people have come to know about language from English class, but to provide an additional viewpoint based on using a historical and scientific approach to language that offers a bit more insight into why we say the things we do and how they are surprisingly purposeful and powerful, despite what the naysayers think.

I think people get snarky about it because language revolves around shared conventions for use and, when someone defies those conventions in ways that are unfamiliar and especially if those doing the defying are from less favored social groups, it can really rub people the wrong way. In other words, speech has a strong social component and, like fashion, what’s ‘in’ changes over time, but those of us who still cling to our shoulder pads and Farrah bangs might not welcome the change.

EB: Do you have any pet peeves? There must be something that peeves you.

VF: Ha! None that I would ever admit publicly! In all seriousness, of course, there are things that make me cringe reflexively, for example, the dropping of –ly on adverbs. I do notice when people do that, but the linguist in me knows that dropping the -ly doesn’t change the fact that listeners recognize it still as adverbial modification, not to mention that I know that –ly derives from and is a clipped version of the –like suffix (as in slow-like) so it is just a continuation of a shortening process begun long ago.

EB: Age and gender seem to be big factors in linguistic innovation. Who is on the leading edge of change?

VF: Yes! When we look at both historical and contemporary data, there are some very clear and consistent patterns that emerge. Almost all new forms and features – from using ‘going to’ instead of ‘will,’ ‘have to’ instead of ‘must,’ the preference for ‘really’ over ‘very,’ and the increasing use of ‘like’ – start in the mouths of the young. And it is young women, far more than young men, which seem to drive this train forward. Women tend to be at least a generation ahead of men in leading changes – as they are in all the changes just mentioned. Why? Because women seem to be very sensitive to the small differences in the pool of language forms around them and subconsciously pick up on these features as they come to take on whatever social qualities are associated with the speakers in whose speech they first emerge. Stylistic leaders, most of whom are young women, then transmit these forms (usually without conscious awareness) to others within their social network and beyond as long as whatever quality those features represent is attractive beyond the initiating group.

EB: What was the most fun fact you came across in researching your book. For me, it was the connection of “Yankee Doodle Dandy” with the history of dude. Who knew?

VF: Hmmm…that is a little bit like asking a mother to pick a favorite child but I do find the history of the –ing progressive ending (as in walking or walkin’) to be one of the most fascinating evolutionary speech tales I uncovered. It turns out the –in’pronunciation (walkin’) is closer to the original Old English participial ending (which was –ind, as in Old English “sprecende”, or speaking)) while -ing was actually from a completely separate Old English ending for nouns. Over time, both the -ing and -ind endings were affected by sound changes that lead to the dropping of the final consonant which resulted in both being pronounced as ‘in’ up through the Early Modern period. An -ing pronunciation did not become common until the 19th Century when, with increasing literacy, seeing the ending written as –ing led people to think they were supposed to have a ‘g’ on the end. This is also when we start to see the apostrophe added in writing to the -in form, branding it as colloquialism.

EB: You note that critics get it precisely wrong when they say that uh and um are signs of inarticulate speech. How are uh and um used to facilitate communication?

VF: Filled pauses are a great example of how social benefits and linguistic benefits sometimes don’t align. Filled pauses are essentially flags of a greater cognitive processing load, so research finds that they occur most often before longer syntactic structures (such as at the beginning of a sentence) as well as before more abstract, less common, or more difficult words – which shows we tend to use them most when we are putting effort into what we are about to say. They also play a communicative role as they indicate to a listener that a speaker does not intend to give up the conversational floor, but just needs a sec and, even more fascinating also provides a hint as to how long a delay they should expect with -uh- preceding shorter delays and -um- preceding slightly longer delays. To top it off, several psycholinguistic studies have found that when words were preceded by a filled pause in word recognition experiments, it helped participants identify words more quickly and boosted recall of those words in later tests. Not too shabby for something we think of as bad speech.

EB: I have to admit, the snarky or discourse marking Um was something I hadn’t, um, considered before. Can you say something about that?

VF: Sure. Think about how many tweets we see nowadays that begin with ‘um’ before saying something silly or snarky – this seems to reflect an increase in using this particular filled pause metaphorically. Up through the 1950s and 60s, we don’t really see filled pauses (um and uh) at all in writing, but, since the 2000s, they have occurred more and more frequently in this way to indicate that something is to be taken as tongue in cheek, to offset something potentially disagreeable (e.g., “Um, not on your life.”) or as a sign of something being a bit indelicate (as in, “He was, um, a tad bit indecent.”). This seems to be a use of ‘um’ to communicate the meaning of thinking or pausing in an intentional way, rather than just as a more automatic cognitive flag. Even more interesting, this metaphorical ‘taking a pause’ um that has made inroads into speech and writing seems to have been propelled by its increasing use in speech for this type of signaling by young people and, particularly, women. This trend is not only true of English, but a number of Germanic languages including Dutch, Faroese and German, all of which show an increase in the use of “um” forms led by young women.

EB: Did writing about these linguistic innovations your speech at all? When I talk about um and like in classes, it seems that students use it more often. Or maybe they are just noticing it more.

VF: My students and I always laugh at how often we notice ‘like’ or ‘um’ for the rest of the class period once we discuss it as a linguistic feature. This likely is not so much an increase in our use of these forms as an example of what’s been called a frequency illusion – which is that, once you notice something, you notice it seemingly everywhere. But I have also found that, when giving interviews in person or via zoom, the interviewer starts to be a little paranoid about every time they say ‘like’ or ‘um’ or ‘you know’ for the rest of the interview. I seem to have what I call the “like -um” effect on people, which is not exactly the kind of awareness I am generally aiming for.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Congratulations on Like, Literally, Dude.

VF: You’re so welcome! Language is such an amazing and fun topic – I had a great time writing it.


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What I’m reading: Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its languages

Peggy Mohan’s Wanderers, Kings, Merchants: The Story of India through its languages is a fascinating history of the languages of India.

There are two key, intersecting themes: one is the idea that existing local language form a forming a substratum, which shapes the development of new invading languages and forms the basis of slow creolization. The other is the gendered nature of the invasion of one language area by another: the invaders tend be males at first and as intermarriage and settlement occurs the invading language becomes the language of prestige and the invaded language the language of the home. In time the language of the home adopts words and other features of the prestige language but retains its grammatical features, yielding a slow-cooked creole.

We learn, for example, how early on Sanskrit and Dravidian languages intermingled with the former adopting retroflection, how the Namboodiri Brahmins of Kerala region in southwest India incorporated Sanskrit nouns into the Malayalam they adopted, how Uzbek developed into Urdu. We also learn about the mysterious Harrapan language of the early Indus Valley, the emergence of Nagamese as a new offshoot of the Māgadhan languages in far northeastern India, and the Sanskritization of Hindi in the 1800s. And we learn about the role of English in India under the raj and in post-colonial India.

The book plays in challenging the folk ideas of the history of Indian languages such as the status of Sanskrit as the mother tongue of all Indian language, wishful thinking the globalization of English, and harmful notions about the purity of languages.

Mohan’s writing is clear, crisp, and not overbearingly academic. For a reader, there are two potential challenges to the book: I did not have enough background in the language history of India to fully appreciate nuances of the historical exposition. And I imagine non-linguist readers who are versed in the history of India might find ergativity, creolization, and other technical terms to be stumbling blocks. But the book would work splendidly for a course on the history of Indian language taught by which an instructor who could guide folks along and fill in the parts they need. Wanderers, Kings, Merchants definitely piqued my curiosity to learn more.

And for those interested, here is a Wikimedia map of the language of India (not part of the book).

By Soumya-8974 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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An Interview with Vyvyan Evans, author of The Babel Apocalypse

Vyvyan Evans

Vyvyan Evans is an expert on language and digital communication. He holds a PhD in linguistics from Georgetown University, and has taught linguistics in Asia, Europe, and North America.

His popular science essays and articles have been featured in The Guardian, Psychology Today, the New York Post, New Scientist, Newsweek and The New Republic, and he is the author of The Emoji Code: The Linguistics behind Smiley Faces and Scaredy Cats, The Language Myth: Why Language Is Not an Instinct, The Crucible of Language: How Language and Mind Create Meaning, The Structure of Time: Language, Meaning and Temporal Cognition, and other books.

The Babel Apocalypse, published by Nephilim Publishing is his science fiction debut. For further details, the book website is here.

Ed Battistella: You set The Babel Apocalypse in the twenty second century. What’s happened to language?

Vyvyan Evans: The Babel Apocalypse imagines a future in which we stream language directly to neural implants in our heads.

Today, we stream anything from movies, to books, to music, to our ‘smart’ devices, and consume that content. Smart devices use streaming signals—data encoded in IP data packets—encoded and distributed via wi-fi internet. Language streaming would work, in principle, in the same way. With a ‘language chip’ implanted in our brains, we will be able to ‘stream’ language from internet-in-space on demand, 24/7.

Moreover, based on an individual’s level of subscription to a language streaming provider, they would be able to stream any language they chose, with any level of lexical complexity. This means that someone could, potentially, apply for a job in any country in the world, without needing to be concerned about knowing the local language. Rather, the individual would just draw upon the words and grammar they need, to function in the language, by syncing to a language database, stored on a server in space. And call it up, over the internet, in real time, as they think and talk. It means that everything someone needs to know, to be able to use a language, is streamed over the internet, rather than being stored in someone’s head. Language learning, thus, becomes obsolete.

Science fiction has a long and illustrious habit of predicting the future. In 1940, with his first in the Robot series of stories, Isaac Asimov predicted some of the ethical issues that would arise as artificial intelligence comes to have a more pervasive influence in our daily lives.

Today in the twentieth first century, we are on the brink of a Fourth Industrial Revolution, sometimes dubbed 4IR. This is where automation and connectivity, via the internet, will dramatically alter the way in which we interact with each other, as well as everything around us, in our increasingly joined-up technological environment. And I predict, in less than one hundred years from now, this new technology will transform many aspects of our daily lives that we currently take for granted, including language itself.

Indeed, in 2015, many of the world’s leading scientists, warned, in an Open Letter and accompanying report, against the new dangers of AI, as a consequence of 4IR. This Open Letter was issued in response to new breakthroughs in AI that, without adequate control, might pose short and long-term existential threats to humans.

But potential dangers come not just from the use of AI, in the sense of, for instance, The Terminator series of movies, in which AI seeks to wage war and destroy the human race. New implantable devices, that will enhance how we as humans can interact with our new tech-landscape, will also give rise to potential dangers. Language is, arguably, the single trait that is the hallmark of what it is to be human. And yet, in the near-future, language-chipped humans, or ‘transhumans’, will have enhanced abilities that bring new opportunities, as well as ethical challenges and even threats.

Of course, for a new ecosystem of implantable language chips to gain traction, as predicted in The Babel Apocalypse, big tech would need to lead with the initial investment, once the value of the product has been established. And there are significant initial costs, in terms of implanting the body-borne hardware.

The Babel Apocalypse imagines the process beginning with a public referendum, in California, after which all adults must undergo “chipping”. And there would be a transitional generation, as minors also undergo language chipping at the age of eighteen, and newborns at birth, moving forward. And from there, the initial benefits of language streaming would appear to outweigh any ethical or civil liberty concerns.

An ancillary benefit of language streaming would also include a dramatic decrease in crime, due to population registration via continual connectivity of the ‘always on’ language chip. This would enable the immediate detection of responsibility for crime. Basically, as someone’s brain becomes a ‘smart’ device, an individual’s location will always be traceable with a time and date stamp.

Other benefits would include security improvements—unique ‘voice prints’ due to biometric data unique to an individual, transmitted from the language chip each time someone speaks—would facilitate the unlocking of homes, to accessing bank accounts, without the need for keys, or passcodes. Hence, in the initial stages at least, it will seem that the new technology is a win-win: there are no losers.

In terms of hardware required, The Babel Apocalypse envisages an implantable language chip—connected to the major language areas of the brain (Broca’s area—responsible for language production, assembling the neural code that underpins speech, by controlling the motor cortex, and facilitating mouth movements etc., and Wernicke’s area—which is the area responsible for understanding what is being heard).

Second, there would be a wi-fi transceiver, most likely an ear implant—modelled on the technology currently being developed—which would facilitate bi-directional streaming signals, between the brain’s language chip and language servers that encircle the globe, via an internet-from-space system—the very systems that are currently being launched by Starlink, for instance: the world’s first and largest satellite constellation using a low Earth orbit to deliver broadband internet capable of supporting streaming.

The ear implant would communicate with the brain’s language chip. Hence, as thoughts are processed, words in the selected language could be called up, on demand, by the individual’s brain, and produced, potentially in any modality (speech, gesture, graphical representations, such as writing, etc.)

There would also likely need to be a body-borne computing system, for the individual to control their language selections and subscriptions. In The Babel Apocalypse, this is conceived as a ‘holotab’: a holographic smart computer, eighteen centimeters wide, that can be projected on demand from an individual’s implanted wrist chip. This allows, via eye-fusion sensor tech, full eye-blink, touch and voice commands to be deployed, to control the ‘holotab’, to have the language chip switch between languages at the blink of an eye.

EB: So language is no longer learned but acquired by neutral implants. What could possibly go wrong?

VE: As humans “give up” on language, and offload language learning, allowing AI to take over, language becomes a commodity (like any other, such as movies, music, etc., that we now stream on demand for a fee). In short, language would become a proprietary product, controlled for and by big tech, in service of shareholders and corporate interests.

Such a development leads to a slippery slope of issues ranging from potential censorship, to control of thought, and even, through cyberterrorism, the prospect of an existential crisis for the human race. The latter is manifested in The Babel Apocalypse most notably by a global language outage, which prevents large numbers of people from being able to communicate.

Self-evidently, in a world where most people have undergone language chipping, this would soon lead to a situation in which in the automated world there are no native speakers of language left. And with an entire population entirely dependent on language, were that language streaming ecosystem to fail, then the consequences would be catastrophic.

The Babel Apocalypse imagines a situation in which a cyberterrorist attack on language streaming servers in low Earth orbit leads to just such a global language outage. Such an event, with its low probability, would be one for which humans would be completely unprepared. In The Babel Apocalypse, entire populations of people, literally at a stroke, lose the ability to use language, becoming feral. And hence, the consequences for civilization become catastrophic.

Hence, the concerns alluded to in the book relate, ultimately, to what it means to be human; and whether implantable AI can and should be allowed to replace previously fundamental aspects of the human experience. Moreover, these concerns highlight the abuse that arises from the commoditization of what we previously assumed to be a human birth-right, namely language.

EB: You’ve predicted that neuro-prosthetic technology using AI is on the horizon. When do you think this will be a reality? And what will it mean for society? I’d hate to have Chat GPT in my head?

VE: One response to the existential human threat posed by AI, and one championed by Elon Musk (who incidentally was one of the signatories of the 2015 Open Letter, warning of the dangers posed by AI to humans), has been to embrace the research challenge of creating a so-called ‘hybrid’ human mind. Through his leadership of the neuro-prosthetic tech company, Neuralink, Musk advocates implantable chips as the future: by creating so-called ‘transhumans’.

Neuralink is one of several new companies that seeks to develop neuro-prosthetic technology that, ultimately, might allow the human brain to become hybridized with AI. The rationale for Elon Musk, and others, is that by embracing AI, the new “transhuman” can stay one step ahead of non-human AI, and hence avoid existential threats. Yet, this is the very research trajectory that potentially leads to the prospect of language becoming a commodity, thereby posing other existential dangers, as predicted in The Babel Apocalypse.

Back in 2020, Elon Musk predicted that neural implants would make the need to learn language obsolete within five to ten years. Yet, as with many of his predictions, this one is wide of the mark. There are considerable challenges to be overcome, beyond the immediate surgical challenge of safely and accurately inserting a neural implant in someone’s brain. And to date, human testing has not yet even begun.

Current research is focusing solely on medical uses of such technology, in order to enable patients to make use of neural code from the brain to communicate with external devices. The medical goal is that such technology will improve the quality of life of patients who suffer from motor and other neurological disabilities, as well as improving diagnostic abilities of their conditions.

In terms of the ultimate goal, of making language learning obsolete, one challenge is that the concepts upon which vocabulary and grammar systems depend are not neatly located in a small number of specific areas of the brain. An individual’s inventory of concepts (aka thoughts), the ideas that we use language to encode and externalize, are widely distributed. This means that a language chip would need to be connected to many different brain areas, even assuming it becomes possible to provide an accurate means of mapping the neural code that all these different regions of the brain use to communicate with one another.

Another challenge is the huge cost involved. Neural implant technology, while in its relative infancy, comes with a huge price tag. But just as the early computers and mobile phones were bulky and expensive, and hence exclusive, today they are ubiquitous. And so will it be with language streaming technology.

My guess, based on the current research trajectory, is that the technology that forms the basis for language streaming will already exist by early in the twenty-second century, which is to say, in less than one hundred years from now—perhaps even sooner.

EB: Elon Musk has said that neural implant will make language learning obsolete. What would be lost if languages are treated as simply data?

VE: In a future era of language-as-commodity, it is inevitable that whether a language lives or dies would be based on economics. In other words, those languages with little demand on streaming services would cease to exist.

As language would be stored entirely on servers, language would, in effect, be controlled by the big tech companies that lease it back to human populations that have undergone language chipping.

The Babel Apocalypse imagines a system where language is controlled by a body based in California, called Unilanguage. This is modelled on the very system in place for vetting new emojis, which are controlled and approved by Unicode (also based in California, controlled by just a few of the world’s leading tech firms).

One consequence would be that as languages fall out of demand, there would be little incentive for big tech firms to continue to store them, tying up valuable server space. And as populations undergo language chipping, native speakers would cease to exist. Hence, lesser-used languages would simply die out—a consequence of lack of demand, which is simple economics at work. If there is no demand, it doesn’t pay. Hence, providers stop offering it.

The Babel Apocalypse imagines a future in which there are just 250 surviving languages (compared to around 7,000 today).

National governments would, inevitably, try to preserve cultural unity, while ensuring subscriptions are affordable for the poorest citizens. Hence, The Babel Apocalypse posits a situation in which (most) states require all public security systems (referred to as VirDas—short for Virtual Digital Assistants) to run on a single state language. For context, VirDas are the mechanisms for processing voice commands, and hence the main security portals for accessing everything from grocery stores to offices, from vehicles to homes.

As an example, the national state language in France, on which all public VirDas would run, would be French. In the US, it would likely be English. In practice, this would mean that in France, say, it would be sufficient to only need to pay for a single language streaming package. And to gain entry to a supermarket, for instance, the language user would identify at the store entrance, using voice commands, by speaking into the VirDa. Incidentally, this technology would also mean that stores and supermarkets are fully automated (no need for human clerks or cashiers). Label sensor fusion tech, already being trialed, would mean that a shopper’s groceries can be located with each individual shopper, who would use their voice command authorization to pay for their purchase at self-checkout, prior to being “allowed” to leave the store.

Of course, there are multiple consequences of all this for language. Regional accents and dialects, being non-standard, would require more expensive streaming subscriptions—this entails that regional accents would become status symbols. The working classes would be, in effect, priced out of their own local language varieties.

The range and variety of human language would be erased at a stroke. This, self-evidently, has implications for identity, ethnicity, and so on. It also has consequences for who controls language, and how new words are coined, or come to fall out of use. These would become decisions for big tech and government, not individual speakers of languages.

EB: I know your work primarily from your career as a linguist. Was writing fiction a new challenge? Which type of writing comes most naturally?

VE: I think that whatever the genre of writing, there are specific challenges, as well as some broad similarities. I have written and published technical books on language and mind, works of reference such as glossaries and textbooks, as well popular science books. Each of these genres requires a different style of presentation. But the commonality is that the writing style is expository: the message is key, and that must be explained clearly in an audience-specific way, whether writing for students, interested lay-readers of language and science, or seasoned academic experts.

In terms of writing genre fiction (such as science fiction), the key difference is that the message emerges through the story. Hence, the exposition (of a more academic style) takes a backseat. In genre fiction, as the messages derive from (and through) the story, which is the central driver of fiction, the aphorism ‘show, don’t tell’ becomes key.

This was the essential challenge for me, at least, in early versions of what eventually became The Babel Apocalypse. I learned and honed creative writing techniques for revealing ideas and details through the story, making the story itself the central driver from which messages could be gleaned.

That said, I find science fiction to be appealing as a genre, as it really is an advantage to be a subject matter expert. To write convincingly, especially in so-called ‘hard’ science fiction, such as The Babel Apocalypse, which strives for scientific accuracy, it is important to have relevant background in the story and the ideas being conveyed. And it seems to me that this cannot be adequately replicated without some meaningful level of expertise.

Isaac Asimov, whom I mentioned earlier, for instance, was a Professor of Biochemistry at Boston University, also possessing a background in physics and mathematics. In short, it’s important to write what you know. And from that perspective, it was a relatively easy step to move from writing about language for a technical audience to writing about the future of language for a speculative fiction audience.

What has always drawn me to science fiction is the fact that it is the literature of ideas. And in that regard, it is arguably the genre that is closest to the other genres I have spent an academic career operating in.

EB: Sometime life imitates fiction. Are you at all worried that you are giving corporations and governments a road map to dystopia?

VE: I very much hope that The Babel Apocalypse is received as a warning, rather than as a roadmap. When we lose language, we all lose.

The mouthpiece for the warning, in the novel, comes in the form of Professor Ebba Black, the last native speaker of language in the automated world. In her words: “They who control language control everything.” And within a landscape where entire populations have given up on language learning, for reasons of convenience, and hence must lease it back for monthly streaming subs, then these populations really are entirely dependent on big tech.

The book’s warning comes in several forms, given language streaming technology would have significant societal, ethical and civil liberty implications.

The first warning relates to the consequences for language itself. And that is, in just one generation there would no longer be any native speakers of language left; hence, there could be no going back to how it was before.

This entails that individuals become constrained by decisions made by big tech and governments, in terms of words and lexical choice. As one example, imagine a particular state that outlaws abortion under all circumstances. Such a government might then proscribe the word “abortion” itself. Hence, say in the US, someone might stream English and not be able to describe the concept, using the word. This, in effect, also outlaws the very concept itself.

There would then be the Kafkaesque situation whereby in another English-speaking territory, where abortion remains legal, language streaming providers censor the word in one state, but not in another.

But this kind of potential for censorship of thought, by permanently canceling words, might also lead to a situation where autocratic regimes can abuse the technology for their own ends. The concerns are perhaps obvious, and even worse than imagined in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Thought itself can be controlled at a stroke, for entire populations, by limiting freedom of expression in language.

In terms of population registration, this would become a de facto consequence of language streaming technology. A language chip would be assigned a unique serial number, encoded in metadata every few seconds as the individual’s language chip connects and communicates with the language streaming servers (via the ear implant transceiver). This means that every individual is instantly identifiable 24/7, by virtue of being linked to internet-in-space language servers.

What this means, in practical terms, is that the concept of privacy is gone forever. Everyone’s location, whom they interact with, is identifiable; and with permanent records stored on file, this ensures that everyone’s lives are being recorded in real time, providing a ‘forever record’ of where they have ever been.

While such technology would inevitably reduce crime, it would come at a huge cost in terms of civil liberties. And it obviously means that overreach by the state is a significant danger, given how easy it would be for governments to spy on all its citizens all the time.

And of course, technology that makes most people in the world wholly dependent on big tech is at risk of exactly the global disaster predicted in The Babel Apocalypse. A global language outage, in such a future, should be viewed very much as a warning, and certainly not a roadmap for overreach by big tech and a big state.

EB: The Babel Apocalypse is the first in a planned series. What can readers expect next?

VE: There are six projected books in the series which, in increasing turns, examine the role and nature of language, and communication. The thematic premise is that, in the wrong hands, language can serve as a weapon of mass destruction. This overarching motif is explored, across the six books, both from Earth-bound and galaxies-wide bases.

As language involves symbol use and processing, the book series, perhaps naturally, also dwells on other aspects of human imagination and symbolic behaviour, including religious experience and belief systems, themselves made possible by language.

The second book in the series, The Dark Court, is set five years after the events of the great language outage depicted in The Babel Apocalypse. It explores how the language chips in people’s heads can themselves be hacked, leading to a global insomnia pandemic. The Dark Court will be published in 2024, as book 2 in the series.

EB: Language and linguistics plays a big role in science fiction. Do you have some favorites?

VE: There are two books that stand out for me, in terms of ingeniously exploring the impact of language on how we think and experience (illustrated through the conceit of a protagonist learning an entirely new, and alien, language).

The first, Babel-17 is by Samuel R. Delany. It was first published in 1966 and was joint winner of the Nebula Award for best novel in 1967.

The eponymous Babel-17 is a language that alters the perceptions and world-view of any who speak it. This is a conceit that draws upon the principle of linguistic relativity.

Linguistic Relativity holds that divergence in the grammatical organization and lexical structure of the language we speak alters the habitual perception of the world around us, even dramatically changing how we think. As an example, we now know that the brains of Greek speakers perceive certain colours differently from speakers of English because of how Greek labels for colour divide up the colour spectrum. This is an unconscious consequence of speaking Greek versus English.

In the novel, Babel-17 is the language spoken by Invaders, as they wage an interstellar war against the Alliance. The novel’s protagonist, Rydra Wong, is a linguist and cryptographer who possesses a rare ability to learn languages. She is recruited by the Alliance to try and decode the language of the invaders, Babel-17, to uncover clues for attack vectors.

Babel-17 is an exemplar of a very high-concept conceit. When Delany was writing the novel, linguistic relativity was still only a hypothesis, first dubbed the Spair-Whorf hypothesis in 1954.

Delany asks a classic ‘what if’ question: What if the language we speak fundamentally changes the way we see the world, the way we feel, our belief systems, the way we act? Babel-17 then explores the logical, and extreme consequences of this proposition.

In the novel, as Rydra Wong learns the strange, alien tongue, she starts to see the world, and think as the invaders do. And the consequence is that she starts to become one of them. She ultimately betrays her own command and her government, acting as an agent of the Invaders.

And in this way, Delany shows that in the context of warfare, when the notion of linguistic relativity is taken to its logical extreme, language can serve as the most powerful weapon of all.

The second is the novella, Story of Your Life, written by Ted Chiang and first published in 1998. This story was subsequently adapted as the major motion picture Arrival.

Again, this story features a linguist as its main protagonist, Dr. Louise Banks. The story involves Banks narrating the events that led to the arrival of her new-born daughter. In so doing, she explains how her work, translating the language of the alien Heptapod species, led her to understanding time in a new way, where she could perceive her past and future simultaneously.

The consequence is that as learning a new (alien) language transforms thought, the novella explores issues relating to linguistic relativity, determinism and freewill.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Good luck with the Songs of the Sage series.

VE: Thank you!


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Listening to Someone Else Teach: Timothy Snyder’s The Making of Modern Ukraine

I’ve been listening to the podcasts of Timothy Snyder’s course on The Making of Modern Ukraine.  I started watching the YouTube versions back in the fall, but couldn’t quite sit in front of the computer for an hour at a time without multitasking. But the audio versions are great for long walk and gym time.

The course is excellent and takes the long view, situating the history of Ukraine in world history,   If you are at all interested in the complexities of the current war, set aside some time to listen to The Making of Modern Ukraine.  The overall point of the course is the interconnection of history and myth–not just Putin’s current myth of the historical unity of Russia and Ukraine but myths and justification for nations and empire going back over a thousand years.   Around lecture 5 we get to the founding of a state in Kyiv starting in 988 CE, with the baptism of Volodymyr the Great. Snyder (and the occasional guest lecturer) takes us through the realities of European politics that we don’t often get through the simple Cold War lens most of us were exposed to in school.

Snyder is also fascinated with the language, the power and subtleties of names and national narratives.  And the lectures a perfect antidote for the narrative that the humanities are dead:  as Snyder says in one lecture (I’m paraphrasing), the best way to avoid being surprised by current events is to study history; in another lecture, he reminds us of the dangers of thinking that history has ended.  And though Eurasianism isn’t specifically mentioned, listening to the clash us Byzantine and Western cultures gave me a new perspective on Nikolai Trubetzkoy’s ideas from the 1920s.

The additional bonus for me is listening to Snyder teach first-year students at Yale.  He’s relaxed, spontaneous, and tells the right amount of jokes poking fun at pretensions and sacred cows, (I thought the jokes were all bombing until Snyder pointed out that the audio didn’t pick up the students’ laughter).

It did my heart good to see that Snyder was one of us in the classroom, making difficulty material interesting with the right combination of important generalizations about historical forces, spellbinding details, humorous segues, and reinforcement.

Give The Making of Modern Ukraine a careful listen. You’ll learn a lot.

By Lencer – own work, used:Ukraine_adm_location_map.svg by User:NordNordWestUkraine_2022-02-21.svg by User:NordNordWestReliefkarte_Ukraine.png by User:TschubbyListe der Städte in der Ukraine, CC BY-SA 3.0,
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An Interview with Jeffrey Max LaLande, author of The Jackson County Rebellion

Jeffrey Max LaLande, photo by Lee Webb

For over 30 years, Jeff LaLande worked as an archaeologist and historian for the U.S. Forest Service in Medford. During many of those same years he taught history and anthropology courses as an adjunct professor at Southern Oregon University. He has served on Oregon’s State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation, the editorial board of the Oregon Historical Quarterly, and on other boards. He is one of the editors-in-chief of the Oregon Encyclopedia.

A 1969 graduate of Georgetown University, LaLande earned a master’s degree in archaeology from Oregon State University and a Ph.D. in history from the University of Oregon. He is the author of several books and articles on the history of our region. His most recent book is The Jackson County Rebellion: A Populist Uprising in Depression-Era Oregon, published by Oregon State University Press in 2023.

The Jackson County Rebellion will be available from bookstores in early April or can be ordered directly from the OSU Press.

Battistella: I enjoyed reading The Jackson County Rebellion, and I appreciated the background you gave in the beginning about the populism of the 1890s and early twentieth century. What were some of the factors in the politics of the era?

Jeff LaLande: That second chapter, “Southern Oregon, A Place Apart,” sets the stage for the book’s narrative that follows. It points out the distinctively “different” character of our own part of the state compared to other areas of Oregon – a difference that dates from the earliest days of White settlement and continued on into the twentieth century. Among the factors in this difference were this region’s geographical isolation (mountainous, no navigable rivers, no decent seaports), as well as its settlement during the 1850s-1860s largely by people from the Border States who had Southern sympathies (e.g., White supremacy) and an aversion to Black people, enslaved or free.

There were other reasons as well (discussed in the book). Just one example of this political distinctiveness: in the crucial election of 1860 (the results of which led to the Civil War), Oregon voters gave victory to Republican Abraham Lincoln, while Southern Oregon (i.e., the southwestern part of the state) gave a majority of its votes to the pro-slavery Democratic candidate John Breckenridge. During the nation’s agrarian “Populist Revolt” of the 1890s, our corner of the state was a hotbed of People’s Party. The votes of our angry farmers were in stark contrast to most of the rest of Oregon.

One interesting twist: During the 1905-1912 orchard boom, affluent newcomers (many of them graduates of Ivy League colleges) came to Jackson County as orchardists and professionals. It was a distinctive social stratum unlike that of any other place in the state, outside of Portland.

EB: Do you see some of those same populist-type factors in today’s Jackson County politics?

JL: I do, at least to some extent. There is a continuing strain of very strong political discontent and resentment here. Of course, most politics is (and always has been) rooted in those same tendencies. But our county commissioners are well-practiced in “running against” the urban/liberal electorate of Portland and condemning many of the laws that come out of Salem.

EB: The two main characters in the story of the rebellion were Llewellyn Banks and Earl Fehl, demagogues whose newspapers vilified the Medford establishment, espoused a form of Christian nationalism and advocated a “New Order.” Who were these guys?

JL: Earl Fehl was a Medford building contractor (e.g., the Holly Theater and a number of homes) who’d come to the Valley soon after World War One. A perennial (and perennially unsuccessful) candidate for mayor throughout the Twenties, he also published a weekly newspaper, the Pacific Record Herald, that for years relentlessly castigated Medford’s “establishment” — prominent politicos, attorneys, owner/editor Robert Ruhl of the Medford Mail Tribune, and other such figures (in other words the county’s “elite”) as a corrupt and conspiratorial “Gang” (his term) that plotted against the rights of the common people.

Llewellyn Banks is a fascinating character. He had been a wealthy citrus orchardist in southern California who, after visiting the Valley, decided to move here in 1926. He held large tracts of pear-orchard land and challenged the existing power structure here of fruit marketing (i.e., on consignment). By confronting the existing, allegedly unfair order of things, Banks earned the admiration of many of the Valley’s smaller fruit growers. He also started his own daily newspaper, the Medford Daily News, in which he called for a dictator (he proposed that senator Huey Long should take on that role) to lead America out of the Depression. Banks steadily turned the News into a virulently “anti-elite” (and, with some regularity, antisemitic) voice, in marked contrast to the moderate editorial tone of the Tribune. Banks believed in himself as a great leader and “man of destiny.” (I’m not a psychologist but I believe Banks likely suffered from an intense megalomania and a malignant form of narcissism.)

EB: What was their Good Government Congress?

JL: When the Great Depression brought hard times to so many people living here, from orchardists to residents of the more remote parts of the Jackson County, Banks and Fehl joined forces – both with their newspapers and with their own local political movement, which they named the “Good Government Congress.” The movement that became the GGC has several thousand active members as well as many other supporters, especially in Medford’s working-class neighborhoods, the Valley’s orchard districts, and in backcountry communities like Butte Falls and Wimer. The aim of the GGC was, whether by legal means (voting) or illegal means (ballot theft) to overturn the alleged “Gang Rule,” and give the reins of government over to the “common people (but actually to Banks and Fehl, who were then drowning in foreclosures from unpaid debts and libel suits). Today, I think we Americans have a difficult time of realizing just how traumatic and frightening the Depression was for so very many people.

EB: Things came to a crisis in the early 1930s with a botched burglary to steal ballots and with Llewellyn Banks later killing a police officer who came to arrest him. What was the aftermath for Banks and Fehl and for Southern Oregon? How did the rest of the state see the Rogue Valley?

JL: The rest of Oregon read with growing interest, in papers such as the Oregonian (which sent a special correspondent down to Medford to cover the story) about the increasing turmoil and threat of violence in Jackson County. The climax came with Banks’s fatal shooting of officer George Prescott, a crime for which he spent the rest of his life behind bars. That story evem made the front page of the New York Herald Tribune.

EB: Tell us a bit about Robert Ruhl, the Pulitzer-winning publisher of the Medford Mail Tribune.

JL: Robert Ruhl came from a well-off family that lived in the affluent Oak Park suburb of Chicago. He went to the exclusive Phillips Andover prep school in Massachusetts, and then on to Harvard (where he worked on the college newspaper with schoolmate Franklin Roosevelt). He came to Jackson County as a young newspaperman in about 1910 as the Valley’s phenomenal orchard boom was winding down.

During the early 1920s he took a notably courageous editorial stand again the local Ku Klux Klan (whose main targets at that time were Roman Catholics and Jews). He did the same thing during the early 1930s — facing boycott and threats of sabotage against his printing press — during the turbulent Jackson County Rebellion (his name for the GGC episode), for which the Trib won a Pulitzer Prize. And in the early 1950s he was one of very few Oregon newspapermen to criticize the demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

EB: The print media turned out to be a crucial factor, both in fomenting the rebellion, in exposing it, and in documenting it. I was amazed at the wealth of media you cited from the Medford Mail Tribune, The Daily News, The Pacific Record Herald, and more. As a historian, do you worry that we are losing source of future documentation today?

JL: Yes, definitely. These spreading “news deserts” of today will remain as “history deserts” for future historians and other researchers. (With the sad demise of the Mail Tribune, I’m hopeful that the Rogue Valley Times, Daily Courier, Ashland News, and other such endeavors can succeed where the final owner of the Tribune failed.)

Also, the massive quantities of un-digitized governmental archives are under threat. The Trump Administration wanted the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to remove the Pacific Northwest’s entire massive collection of regional federal archives from Seattle to some place far away. The Jackson County Archives proved crucial to my research, especially the fascinating evidence provided by the district attorney’s investigatory files. The county archives were open to the public at that time, but now they’ve been turned over to management by a private company. I’ve been told that, as a result, the archives are now difficult to access and may even require a fee charged to taxpayers simply to examine some of the material there. Definitely not an improvement!

EB: A writerly question. You originally researched the Jackson County Rebellion for your PhD dissertation. How is the present book publication different? Did you do much rewriting? It read better than the average dissertation and I was pleased to see citations at the end rather than clogging the arteries of the text.

JL: The book is substantially shorter for one thing. I heavily revised (reduced the length of) the first chapters, on the history of the KKK here. In the final chapter, I incorporated substantial new scholarship, studies that came out in the years after my dissertation (e.g., on such things as agricultural marketing, agrarian unrest, and fascism).

EB: The story of the Jackson County Rebellion seems very timely (even eerily prophetic) to me, given recent events in American politics. Do you agree?

JL: I’m glad you asked that question! Most definitely there are a number of parallels between then and now: The profound divide between urban/college-educated (i.e., today’s Blue America) versus the rural and White working-class population (Red America). I think the newspapers of both Banks and Fehl acted much like today’s Fox News and other such right-wing media. Furthermore, they relentlessly accused the Mail Tribune of lying (i.e., charges of “Fake News!”). Many of Banks’s and Fehl’s readers refused to read the Trib, similar to those today who get all their news only from Fox. The GGC’s actual 1933 theft of Jackson County ballots has, I believe, similarities to the goals of the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, and so on.

However, other than a very brief and subtle allusion to our current politics in the book’s preface, I purposely did not raise such parallels and comparisons in the narrative. That wasn’t my job as a historian. Such things are better left to the reader.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

JL: Thanks, Ed. I really enjoyed it.



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An Interview with Doug McDonald of Voice Images

Doug McDonald

Doug McDonald is an independent audiobook producer and narrator in Medford, Oregon. He is a graduate of Knox College in 1970 with degree in Theater Arts and had a career in the computer software industry where, among other things he created instructional videos for customers.

Since 2017, he has been working as an audiobook narrator and producer specializing often working with authors who choose to narrate their own books. You can visit his website at

Ed Battistella: Welcome, Doug. I’m curious about what an audiobook producer does? What goes into the process of making an audiobook?

Doug McDonald: Essentially an audiobook is produced by having a narrator record the print-version, usually word-for-word to match the print version. The narrator may be a professional or an author who can be engaging and easily understood, or even an amateur who is telling their own life-story. Once recording is finished an audiobook production company or producer such as myself will 1) proof the audio files to ensure they match the print version; 2) edit out mistakes, distracting noises such as mouth-clicks, bumps, thumps, etc.; 3)any sections of audio that can’t be fixed cleanly or misreads, mispronunciations, etc. that were caught in proofing are re-recorded and integrated into the previously recorded audio; 4)after proofing/editing is complete the audio is ‘mastered’ with audio software enhancement tools to even out the volume, pacing and ‘presence’ of the speaker’s voice and ensure the background sound level is not distracting; 5)and lastly, each audio file such as the Credits, Introduction, each Chapter and so on is created to industry production file specs, such as Audible or iTunes or many others require, and then uploaded to a distribution platform.

EB: How did you get into the audiobook business?

DM: In 2016 I was contemplating retiring from my job with Procare Software, where at the time I was creating instructional videos for our customers. I learned that audio quality in producing these videos was as important or more important than the video portion when it came to retention of the content. I studied how to make the audio better, which led me into the software tools that are used in audiobook production. Upon retiring, I started auditioning and got several books almost right away. I’ve been at it now for almost 6 years and love it!

EB: What services do you offer to potential clients?

DM: I offer everything described above – narration (or casting a narrator), editing, proofing, mastering, and uploading the files. I also offer extra tools for authors who want to narrate their own works, such as a memoir or personal-brand business or life-coach approach to a common problem. I have recording equipment I loan out as needed or offer suggestions on what they need to buy. I offer live direction of the author-narrator during recording to ensure consistency and engagement/energy levels, and to proof the text as they record. I then perform the production steps for the finished audio.

EB: Your company, Voice Images, specialize in working with authors who want to narrate their own work. What do they need to know about the narration process? It seems like it would be easy to flub if you are inexperienced.

DM: A great author-narrator is one who can be easily understood, has a clear approach to delivering their message, and most importantly is engaging the listener in their message! Recording technique can be taught pretty easily, but may require them to practice if they are new to it. I have found that authors who do public speaking and lectures for their books usually have the chops for an audiobook – it’s just a matter of teaching them the technical details. One caveat is that narration is physically taxing, so it’s easy to run out of steam. It takes a lot of concentration and effort. This is where live direction helps them know when to take a break and recharge.

EB: Do authors need a sound studio and special equipment?

DM: They need a consistently quiet recording space, with no distractions and good acoustics, and a good-quality microphone and computer audio interface. The recording software I have my clients use is free and I teach them how to use it. If they live in a quiet neighborhood with an isolated section of the house (perhaps a walk-in closet) where they can set up their equipment and the acoustics work, that usually works fine; if not, they can usually record at a local sound studio for a cost of around $60-$75 per hour. If they are local, I can help to set up their equipment in their own space.

EB: Are there some types of books that don’t make good audiobooks? I imagine math would be tough. I listened to a book on cosmology once and it was hard to follow.

DM: Yes! Math and science books with many graphs, charts, or complex ideas are not great candidates. Cookbooks with recipes are challenging as well. For author-narrated works, unless the author is a well-known personality or has great acting chops, I recommend they don’t try to record fiction, action- adventure, suspense/thriller, mysteries and so on that require great acting technique. But personal memoirs or poetry or personal-brand works are usually good candidates for self-narration.

EB: What do you listen to? Do you have some favorite audiobooks?

DM: I listen to all kinds of audiobooks, but usually non-fiction or well-narrated fiction, and I usually listen in the car while driving. At home, I like reading my kindle or regular paperback. In the last six months I’ve listened to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, William Maxwell’s So Long, See You Tomorrow, The Stranger in the Lifeboat by Mitch Albom, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris, Educated by Tara Westover, and Becoming by Michelle Obama.

EB: How can people get in touch with you?

DM: I can be reached by email at or by phone at 541-840-2189. My website is

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

DM: The pleasure was all mine. Thanks so much, Ed!


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What I’m reading: Frederick J. Newmeyer’s American Linguistics in Transition

One of the benefits of retirement–a permanent sabbatical–is more time to more time to read, and I’m hoping to post more reaction to what I’m reading here. Today, a snowy end to February, is American Linguistics in Transition.

When I first started teaching, one of the books that grounded me in the history of my field was Frederick J. Newmeyer’s Linguistic Theory in America: the first Quarter-Century of Generative Linguistics (Academic Press, 1980). In his new history, American Linguistics in Transition: From Post-Bloomfieldian Structuralism to Generative Grammar, (Oxford UP, 2022), he revisits some of the issues from his earlier work and extends his history of linguistic back to the period of the founding of the Linguistic Society of America in 1924 and forward through the 1980s.

The nine chapters of American Linguistics in Transition cover the founding of the Linguistic Society and the ascendancy of a distinct American tradition of methodological structuralism. These were practices and postulate largely associated with Leonard Bloomfield and Edward Sapir articulated in such works the volume Readings in Linguistic I, edited by Martin Joos (1957) and published by the American Council of Learned Society.  In addition, Newmeyer focuses on the European influence on the LSA founders, the evolving contents of the journal Language and the activities of early LSA Summer Institutes.

Newmeyer draws on material from the Linguistic Society at the University of Missouri, published reviews of key works and archives of Bernard Bloch, Charles Hockett, Franz Boas, and others.  In addition, he included personal interviews with structuralist and generativist scholars.

Central to Newmeyer’s exposition are bits of folklore that he explores and dispels, both about structuralist linguistics and about the spread of generative grammar, concluding that “the intellectual success of generative grammar in the 1970s and 1980s was not matched by the ability of its advocates to dominate the fields organs of power or secure a major share of grant funding.” (320).  Reader will find much enlightening commentary here, including Newmeyer’s observations on the extent that the structuralists went to disseminate their ideas, his commentary on the relation of military funding to linguistics research, and his documenting of some of Noam Chomsky’s conflicting comment on the publication history of his early various works.

Notable in this work is Newmeyer’s attention to the international reception of American structuralism (Ch. 2 “American structuralism and European structuralism: How they saw each other,”) and to the reception of generative linguistics (in Ch. 6 “The European reception of early transformational generative grammar,” which goes pretty much country by country.)

There are also vignettes of important historical moment in twentieth century linguistics and portraits of some of its colorful but sometimes forgotten figures. A chapter is devoted to the genesis of Readings in Linguistics I, and two chapters are devoted to the contested presidential election of 1970, and its aftermath.   Along the way are some descriptions of key players and supporting characters. H. L. Menken complains that “the Linguistic Society has given a great deal more attention to Hittite … than to the American spoken by 140,000,000-odd, free, idealistic, and more or less human Americans” (5). Charles Hockett is cited as calling generative grammar “a theory spawned by vipers” whose analyses are “worse than horoscopes.” (287). But my favorite bit of snark concerns structuralist George Trager, of whom it was said that he was “so difficult that he would even be fired from George Trager University.”  You can find out who the quote is attributed to on page 268 of American Linguistics in Transition.




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An Interview with Sharon L. Dean

Sharon L. Dean grew up immersed in the literature of New England. She taught writing and literature at Rivier University in New Hampshire, where she lived until moving to Oregon.

After giving up writing scholarly books that required footnotes, she became a writer of mysteries. Her first mystery series features retired professor Susan Warner and her second features librarian sleuth Deborah Strong. Between the two series, Dean published a stand-alone novel, Leaving Freedom. In it, thirty-year-old Connie Lewis sees only irony in the name of the town where she grew up, Freedom, Massachusetts. The novel follows Connie from Massachusetts to Florida and Oregon. A sequel, Finding Freedom, will be published by Encircle Publications in June, 2023. It will bring Connie, now eighty years old from Oregon back to Freedom.

Recently, Dean published a collection of short stories titled Six Old Women and Other Stories.

Ed Battistella: I enjoyed reading the stories in Six Old Women which all about about the secrets we keep with us as we age. What prompted you to write about secrets?

Sharon Dean: I remember that when I reached adulthood, my mother told me some of the secrets about people in the small town where I grew up. It’s said that in New England “people don’t air their dirty laundry in public.” That doesn’t mean there isn’t some lurking along with the skeleton in the closet.

EB: You mentioned that the title story, Six Old Women, came from an idea you and your college roommates once had about all living together in a lakeside commune when you were older. Are the characters based on your erstwhile roommates?

SD: Actually, we gathered on the seacoast in Maine. The houses are part of the setting of my Deborah Strong novel, Calderwood Cove. The island in Six Old Women is imagined, but I know the setting of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee well. I like to visualize houses, so the one in Six Old Women is designed after a house where I vacationed on the Massachusetts seacoast. Characters based on my roommates? Not if I want to keep them as friends. Seriously, the characters are all imagined.

EB: You’ve written both novels and short stories. Do you have a preference for one form over the other? Or does it depend on the story?

SD: I like both. It depends on the story. Even when I was writing papers in college, my feeling was that when it’s done, it’s done. I actually have trouble writing a novel much longer than 65,000 words. I don’t like to pad my fiction.

EB: I’ve always enjoyed your mystery novels. The stories in Six Old Women aren’t mysteries but they are mysterious. Did your experience writing one type of story find its way into these, or is life just mysterious?

SD: I published an article on this in Mystery and Suspense Magazine called “The Classics are Mysteries, too” (March 28, 2022). I also recently posted a guest blog on the subject in Writers Who Kill (January 21, 2023). As different as it is from science, fiction seeks “the answer to the riddle of the universe.” Life is, indeed, mysterious.

EB: I thought of these stories as fast-paced psychological studies. How did you manage pacing as a writer?

SD: I’m glad you read them that way. I’ve always been more interested in the setting and the psychology of a character than in the plot. My wonderful critique group, Monday Mayhem, helps me move the plot along. They remind me not to over-analyze, to avoid “fact dumps,” to use dialogue. Kudos to Carole Beers, Clive Rosengren, Michael Niemann, and Jenn Ashton.

EB: Are the other stories—”Shuffleboard,” “Hardscrabble,” “Pavlov’s Puppies,” “The Man Who Loved Cribbage”–based on real incidents? New Hampshire is starting to seem like a scary place.

SD: No real incidents, but definitely real settings. They indulge my nostalgia for New England. I used to vacation with my cousin at a place where we always played shuffleboard, I skied the Hardscrabble trail on Cannon Mountain many times, and the recluses in “Pavlov Puppies” and “The Man Who Loved Cribbage” live in houses whose exteriors are much like ones in my town. Is New Hampshire scary? Not in my experience, but I confess that I was a child who imagined monsters under my bed.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

SD: Thank you for having me. I’m glad that Literary Ashland lives on this blog even though it’s no longer live on the radio.

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An Interview with John Frohnmayer, author of Blood and Faith

John Frohnmayer is a lawyer, writer, and arts leader who served as the fifth chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts (from 1989-1992) and as the chair of both the Oregon Arts Commission and Oregon Humanities.

Born in Medford, where he now lives, Frohnmayer attended Stanford University, the Union Theological Seminary in New York and then the University of Chicago, where he studied Christian ethics. He also earned a law degree from the University of Oregon, serving as editor-in-chief of the Oregon Law Review.

His books include a memoir, Leaving Town Alive: Confessions of an Arts Warrior, a series of essays titled Out of Tune: Listening to the First Amendment, a musical comedy called SPIN! about his experiences at the NEA, and a trilogy of books on sport.

Blood and Faith, published in 2022, is his first novel.  

Ed Battistella:  How did you come up with the idea for Blood and Faith?

John Frohnmayer:  I have always been interested in the interplay between politics and religion.  As the famous theologian Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, it is an uncomfortable interaction because religion is about absolutes and politics is about compromise (at least it is supposed to be).  Article Six of the Constitution prohibits any religious test as a qualification for any office or position of public trust.  Yet, during my tenure as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, I got a snootful of drivel from conservative religious leaders about art they perceived as being blasphemous, so I thought I would explore this issue in fiction and see what happened.

EB: I have to admit that I did not know about the Vladimir Mother of God icon.  I had to look it up and found that it was a real 12th century icon now in a Moscow museum.  It never occurred to me that such a work might be an object of fundamentalist protests.

JF:  Symbolism is the stock and trade of both art and religion.  Likewise, both religion and art go through periods of reductionism—stripping away the baggage and getting back to the fundamental essence. As examples that might prove either too much or too little, consider the Renaissance and the impressionist movements.

So in Blood and Faith, the main religious character is preaching religion as being of the word and the word alone.  As he and his followers perceive the Mother of God Icon, it is a graven image like the Biblical golden calf and, wrapping themselves in the First Amendment, they see its presence as a governmental endorsement of religion.

EB: I especially enjoyed the history of Eastern Orthodoxy and discussion of the role of icons. As a writer, how did you work through the exposition of history and the story-telling?  Other writers have told me that can be a challenge.

JF: Trying to explain or deconstruct the power of an artwork, let alone a religious artwork, is a fool’s errand (for example, one can’t say in words why a Bach chorale is inspirational).  But I have always loved both history and research.  What I found most interesting about Icons is that they play a role similar to sacraments in western religion whereby the icon is an intercessor—a window—to help the believer communicate with God. The Icon thus becomes extraordinarily powerful and I wanted to put that power in the political realm and see what happened. The results proved to be explosive.

EB: You’ve written memoir, nonfiction about the First Amendment, and books about the philosophy of rowing, ethics in golf, and the poetry of skiing, but this was your first novel.  What was the experience like for you?  Was it much different from your other literary efforts?

JF: The irony of all this is that I wrote this novel 30 years ago, just after I had written Leaving Town Alive. I showed a draft to a writer friend and he suggested that I put it in a drawer which I did for the next decade and a half.  Then I almost threw it away, but realized the conflict between Russia, Ukraine, and the United States made it more relevant today that when I was making it up.

But the short answer to your question is that I love making up the story and playing with history and life experiences such as doubt and faith.  I have already drafted a sequel to get my protagonist, Lara Cole, in some more trouble.

EB: You had a robust cast of characters: politicians, fundamentalists, lawyers, museum staff, art experts, FBI agents, assorted scoundrels, most with.  Did you base any of them on real people or simply imagineer their backstories?

JF:  All of the characters are composites of people I have known or known about, so all are thoroughly fictional, but the Judge in the trial scene is based on the Honorable Gus Solomon who sat on the Federal Bench in Oregon for 40 years and scared the pants off the lawyers who appeared before him.

EB: Blood and Faith has prompted me to want to read more about the history of Ukraine and its relation with Russian.  Any books you’d recommend?

JF:  The Art of the Icon by Paul Evdokimov is a thorough exposition of both iconography and the history of the Eastern Church.  While Rome fell in the early fifth century, not a crash bang fall, but a slow dissolution leading to the dark ages in western Europe, Constantinople soldiered on with orthodoxy until the fifteenth century and was a fascinating center of art and learning.

EB:  What are your plans for a further novel?

JF: Stay tuned.  Thanks for the interview.



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What’s your word of the year?

What words epitomized 2022?

Earlier this month, the attendees at the American Dialect Society selected –ussy as the Word of the Year for 2022. It’s a word part, a suffix, that according to linguist Ben Zimmer, who emcees the Word of the Year event, “snowballed as a playful way of extending a somewhat taboo concept in all sorts of unforeseen directions — especially among the LGBTQ+ community, where this kind of racy wordplay is often prized.” It seems to have begun with the blend “bussy,” a combination of “boy” and “pussy” to refer to an orifice. The usage got extended to things like pizzussy, bairstussy, winussy, and SCOTUSSY.

-ussy seemed a bit too ironic and TIKTOKy for me. I was pulling for rizz meaning “effortless attractiveness or style.” It a clipping of “charisma.

The ADS has been selecting a Word of the Year since 1990, when it was a promotional idea developed y by the late Allan Metcalf. It was a fitting complement to the Society’s long-running Among the New Words featuring in American speech and the first WOTY was bushlips, for “insincere political rhetoric.” You can find a complete list here.

The ADS event is always a raucous one, with a slate of candidates in different categories—MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED, POLITICAL WORD OF THE YEAR, DIGITAL WORD OF THE YEAR, INFORMAL WORD OF THE YEAR, EUPHEMISM OF THE YEAR, and more. People speak in support or against the contenders, and offer up linguistic, cultural, or personal reasons for this or that choice.

The American Dialect Society is not the only word of the year around.

All the major dictionaries select one. The Oxford English Dictionary’s was decided by a public vote this year, rather than by lexicographers. Over 340,000 people voted and goblin mode won in a landslide. That’s behavior that is “unapologetically self-indulgent.”

It’s an aging Twitterism that got news legs in 2022.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary makes its pick based on the word that shows the biggest rise in lookups in a year. The winner gaslighting, defined as “the act or practice of grossly misleading someone especially for one’s own advantage.”

It showed a 1,740% rise in searches for the term in 2022. also chooses their word of the year based on look ups. The winner: woman. It’s not a new word by any stretch of the imagination, but it showed a 1,400% spike in searches. Why, you ask? Discussions of transgender rights prompted people to see what the dictionary says a woman is.

You can look it up here.

The venerable British Collins Dictionary selected permacrisis (“an extended period of instability and insecurity”) as it choice. From Brexit to COVID to Ukraine to the monarchy, revolving prime ministers, climate extremes, and the cost-of-living, permacrisis captures the moment and more. Collins chooses its word of the year from a short list selected by monitoring its eight billion-word Collins Corpus database of words, along with other sources. The other nine were Carolean (“Of or relating to Charles III”), Kyiv, lawfare, partygate, quiet quitting, splooting, sportswashing, vibe shift, and warm bank.

Cambridge Dictionary selected homer as its word of the year. Not the Simpson patriarch but the Wordle solution on May 5th

According to Cambridge, homer was looked up 75,000 times on the Cambridge Dictionary website during the first week of May, mostly from outside of North America.

Lynne Murphy is an American who has been living in the English for a number of years and the author of The Prodigal Tongue. Her Separated by a Common Tongue blog picks words of the year that have travelled from the UK to the US and vice versa. The UK-to-US word was fit, a bit of UK slang meaning “sexy.” . Her US-to-UK words for 2022 was also homer. She called it “possibly the most talked-about Americanism in British social media this year.”

Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl, put her word-of-the-year to a series of elimination votes on LinkedIn, asking followers to vote on the word that captured the 2022 zeitgeist. The eventual winner, inflation, beating out quiet quitting, slava Ukraini, democracy, polarized, long COVID and 58 other contenders.

The list could go on and on. The National Council of Teachers of English makes a Doublespeak Award of words and phrases designed to mislead and deceive (in 2022 it was China Virus). Lake Superior State University puts out a hit list of words that should be banished and their snarkussy 2023 list is GOAT, inflection point, quiet quitting, gaslighting, moving forward, amazing, Does that make sense?, irregardless, absolutely and It is what it is.

And this just in: the American Name Society has made its picks. Their Names of the Year:  Ukraine.

The words we choose are more than just a curiousity, as Valerie Fridland reminds us. They tell us about who we are, what we know and don’t know, and what captures our attention, event for a moment.

It’s not too soon to be thinking about the word of the year for 2023.  Throughout the year, I’ll try to list some contenders, but I’ll probably get them wrong.  After all, I voted for rizz.

My January picks: extraordinary measures, from Janet Yellen and bunny boiler from Senator John Kennedy (referring to George Santos).

February: balloonacy


Check back for updates.


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An Interview with Jon Raymond

Jon Raymond is the author of the novels The Half-LifeRain Dragon, and Freebird, and the story collection Livability, winner of the Oregon Book Award. He was the editor of Plazm Magazine, associate and contributing editor at Tin House magazine, and a member of the Board of Directors at Literary Arts. He lives in Portland.

His writing has appeared in Zoetrope, Playboy, Tin House, The Village Voice, Artforum, Bookforum, and other places.

Raymond is also a screenwriter and has collaborated on six films with the director Kelly Reichardt, including Old JoyWendy and LucyMeek’s CutoffNight MovesFirst Cow, and the forthcoming Showing Up, numerous of which have been based on his fiction. He received an Emmy Award nomination for his screenwriting on the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce.

Jon Raymond’s most recent book is Denial (Simon and Schuster, 2022), futuristic which Kirkus Reviews called Denial “A cool, compelling take on an incendiary topic,” and Newsweek said it was “subtle and morally engaging.”

Ed Battistella:  I really enjoyed Denial, which is set in 2052 after a series of climate disaster leave to world-wide protests known as the Upheaval, after which environmental criminals were tried, Nuremberg-like. How did you come up with the idea for the novel?

Jon Raymond: I’d say the book stemmed from an argument I’ve been having for a long time in my brain with post-apocalyptic and dystopian literature and film in general. Pretty much my whole life I’ve been reading and watching stories about the destruction of the planet. I’ve seen the world destroyed by meteor, zombie, pandemic, patriarchy, nuclear bomb, etc., etc., ad nauseum. At some point, to me, the fantasy has started to seem like a death wish. Humanity obsessively fantasizing its own annihilation, almost willing the worst possible fate to unfold. I decided I wanted to write a book that got off those rails and foretold a future wherein human and plant-life continues to survive, and in some ways, even, to thrive. That’s a much harder act of imagination, I think, but one that’s really necessary right now. It’s beyond time we started putting our minds to what a plausible, livable future might look like, given our situation.

More specifically, I’d heard of this idea for Nuremberg-style trials for climate criminals, and with that in mind, I could see a kind of Nazi-hunter story in eco-garb. I thought that idea had potential.

EB:  Your protagonist, journalist Jack Henry makes contact with the fugitive pipeline executive Bob Cave when it turns out they are both reading Mark Twain novels in a coffee shop.  What prompted you to use Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer? 

JR: In this future world I was imagining, I wanted the characters to be reading novels. That was part of the optimism I was projecting, people still reading. And I decided early on that I wanted the novel they read to be Huckleberry Finn. I felt like that book’s themes of friendship and disguise kind of feathered with my own themes, as I saw them, and the never-ending racial controversies pointed at a sadly permanent fixture of the American experience, even decades beyond our current times.

I was also thinking about Huckleberry Finn because of the sculpture by the artist Charles Ray. It’s a stainless steel double portrait of Huck and Jim as nine foot tall nudes, an incredibly simple but potent piece of art, I think. Just this pubescent white boy, Huck, and this middle-aged Black man, Jim, standing beside each other, naked. Back in 2014, the Whitney had to de-install  it due to the controversy it sparked. I guess something about a naked Black man and white boy in close proximity is still real hot potatoes.

Anyway, I’ve thought about the book differently ever since seeing images of the sculpture. How often does that happen, a sculpture changing how you read? I wanted my characters to be reading Huckleberry Finn in the spirit of Charles Ray. I wanted my two characters to talk about Huck and Jim and grapple with the longevity of Twain’s text in the American imagination.

EB:  A lot of the suspense is psychological and that seems to be reflected in the title.  It seems that all of the main characters were in some sort of denial.

JR: For sure. There’s barely a scene that isn’t structured by some unstated duplicity or self-delusion. Jack the reporter lives in denial; Bob the climate criminal lives in denial; humanity lives in denial. I was interested in the idea of denial as as an epistemology of sorts, a way of knowing. Denial as a prerequisite for consciousness, even. I deny, therefore I am.

EB: There was a point near the end when I felt a bit sorry for Bob Cave, one of the Empty Chairs tried in absentia.  How did you build his character?

JR: I wanted him to be pretty likable. Otherwise, who cares if he gets caught and unmasked or not? So I made him a fairly sophisticated, possibly even somewhat repentant representative of the petrol-empire. In particular, I made him a Sunday painter in the style of LBJ or George W. Bush, two war criminals who found their artistic muses after their retirements from death-dealing. It’s a good tactic, it turns out. People forget what you did while you were in power while they’re looking at your paintings.

EB: It seemed to me that there was a great deal of interesting research involved in the book, eclipses, prions, bullfighting, journalism, the art of Guadalajara, Mexican culture and Aztec mythology.  As a writer how do you research and weave those details in.  The details felt very intentional.

JR: I tend to do research that’s only explicitly necessary to the story and character at hand. I don’t spend a lot of time doing “deep dives” or chasing any kind of mastery of anything. I figure out what I need for a given character or scene, and find out what I need to know to maintain the illusion of competence. That’s my method! Of course, it never goes like that. I end up having to figure out a bunch of extraneous stuff along the way. But I really try to let the story guide me.

And then sometimes there’s something I want to get in there one way or another. I knew I wanted the characters to visit the murals by Orozco in this book, for instance. I knew them and loved them and wanted to force my characters to deal with them together. So in that case, I had some knowledge and I shoehorned it into the pages.

EB:  I was stuck by how normal the future seemed after the upheavals.  Your telling reflected catastrophic change but also adaptation. It wasn’t a full-on sci-fi dystopia.  Do you think we’ve had enough of dystopia?  

JR: Personally, I’m super bored of dystopia. As I said above, I think it’s usually at best cliched, at worst a kind of death trip. Not to say the future looks very great, but I think we have a better chance of survival if we start thinking in more measured, non-hyperbolic ways.

EB:  What was the toughest part about writing the book?

JR: This book actually came really easily. I wrote it during lockdown, so the writing conditions were very conducive. No distractions, no obligations. And I felt like the traumas of the world were resonating with the story I was trying to tell, which gave me a sense of urgency in the writing. Also, it was always going to be short, so I could see it was going to work pretty quickly. I’m pretty sure the book I’m working on now will not be so simple. Sometimes they go easy and sometimes they’re hard. I wish I knew how to predict which was which but so far I can’t.

EB:  Thanks for talking with us.

JR: Thank you!

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Nostalgia for old-school papers

It was sad to see the Mail Tribune close last week. A once-proud paper, known for its local journalism, felled by economic forces and carpet-bagger ownership. It was the first Oregon newspaper to win a Pulitzer Prize, for taking on unscrupulous politicians in 1934.

Those were the days.

I grew up with newspapers all around: the Asbury Park Press and the Red Bank Register, which I delivered on my bicycle and the New York Times, which I delivered in high school. In college, I got the Sunday Times or years by accident, when a former tenant in my apartment continued to receive it every week. In grad school, I bought the Times and picked up the Daily News and the New York Post when the other bus commuters left them behind. Later, as I moved here and there, other papers caught my attention and when we moved to Oregon in 2000, I subscribed at various times to the Mail Tribune and the Ashland Tidings.

It’s been sad to see print newspapers go.

But there’s some hope.

When the Ashland Tidings was closed by the Mail Tribune’s owner, Bert Etling stepped up with Ashland.News, which deserves your support. And after the Mail Tribune closed, the locally-owned Grants Pass Daily Courier, has promised to increase coverage in Jackson County. Kudos to publisher Travis Moore. I’m a subscriber now.

On the Sunday after the Mail Tribune closed, we bought paper copies of the Times and the San Francisco Chronicle and relived the serendipity of finding unexpected stories—news we didn’t click on. I think we’ll continue to get some paper papers here and there, to see what we are missing on the screen.

In the meantime, the old newsroom term “morgue” is taking on a new meaning.


  • Rogue Valley Messenger, (2014-2022)
  • Mail Tribune (1906-2023)
  • Ashland Tidings (1876-2021)

Long Live the Daily Courier and Ashland.News.


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Save the date

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An Interview with Jim Gilkeson

Born and raised in Kansas, Jim Gilkeson studied languages in college in the 1960s, was a brother in an order of mystics, which took him to Europe. After leaving the order in the early 1980s, he studied energy healing with teachers in Germany and Denmark. Jim returned to the US, he worked for many years in Northern California at a hot springs retreat center. He and his partner, Diane Tegtmeier, live in Ashland, Oregon.

Gilkeson is the author of three books, A Pilgrim in Your Body: Energy Healing and Spiritual Process, Energy Healing: A Pathway to Inner Growth, and most recently Three Lost Worlds.  You can find more at his website.

Ed Battistella: I’m enjoying reading about your life. What are the Three Lost Words of your title?

Jim Gilkeson: Thank you, Ed. Your introduction makes me suddenly aware that all my books have long titles! The full title of this most recent one is Three Lost Worlds: A Memoir of Life Among Mystics, Healers, and Life-Artists.

It’s my story of “running off with the circus” in my early twenties, (a lot of us did that, of course), ending up under vows in a semi-monastic order of Christian mystics, in an apprenticeship in energy healing in northern Europe and, finally, working on the health services staff at a clothing-optional hot springs retreat center in Northern California. Those are the “three lost worlds,” because none of them exist anymore.

EB: How was writing a memoir different from the other books you’ve written?

JG: The first two books were my gloss on the art and craft of energy healing, and I wrote them mainly with my students in massage schools in mind. I was encouraged by the publisher of my first book to sprinkle a few stories in with the instruction, and that turned out one a good way to connect with the reader.

The memoir, on the other hand, is all story. I had to develop an eye for the narrative arcs in my own life. I would write and let my memory speak, and suddenly I would be sitting there with pieces of my life all over the page. It was then a process of assembling those fragments of my life into something whole. In a funny way, writing memoir strikes me as a form of digestion.

EB: Your earlier books were about energy healing. Can you unpack that for our readers? You described it as a “world of self-ordained practitioners.”

JG: Energy healing is a broad category of practices that use the human energy field therapeutically. Many people have heard of Polarity Therapy and Reiki, and those would be examples. Classes on various forms of energy healing are now standard fare in schools of massage and bodywork, but it hasn’t always been like that.

When I talk about “self-ordained practitioners” in my book, it harks back to a time before the proliferation of massage schools and standards and regulations for professional bodywork. At that time, a person who became proficient and confident in their skills in energy healing would just declare themselves ready and hang out their shingle.

In my case, I learned energy healing from my former wife and her teacher, Bob Moore, and these energy practices struck me as an adjunct to my meditation practice. At the time, it was all about meditation and spiritual growth. I knew nothing about hands-on healing practices. By and by, I had training in various forms of therapeutic bodywork. As I got more sure of what I was doing, I began blending energy healing with other bodywork disciplines.

EB: In Three Lost Worlds, you describe the years you spent with a group called The Holy Order of MANS in San Francisco in the 1970s. You mentioned that some people would describe it as a cult, but it didn’t seem that way to you.  How so?

JG: The cult question is an interesting one. The Holy Order of MANS was one of a myriad of “new age” spiritual groups that formed on the West Coast in the 1960s and ‘70s. What made it different from most of the spiritual movements back then was that it had strong elements of western Christian monasticism and roots in mystic traditions like those of the Rosicrucians.

I devote part of a chapter in Three Lost Worlds to the question of whether the Order was a cult or not. It’s a hairball and, to me, there’s no clearcut answer. The Order certainly had cultish features. We wore clothes that identified us, and there was a uniformity in the Order’s teachings and self-image, but you could also say the same things about Catholic monastic orders and the US military.

I was a member of the Order at the time of the Jonestown mass suicide in the late 1970s. There was a lot about that in the press and a huge uptick in general concern about cults. It was a pretty fraught issue. The Order did a lot to distance itself from all that. I remember at the time the director of the Order making a scholarly distinction between a “cult” and a “sect.” I think most people in the Order saw themselves in the latter category.

Here’s a weird thing: not long after all this, the Order made a, for me, baffling swerve from being a “new age” spiritual enclave to joining the Orthodox Church. This was in the early 1980s. In the process, of course, they had to renounce their “heretical” beliefs in reincarnation and other esoteric teachings. I left the Order in 1983, before all this took effect. Cult or not, I was glad to move on from the Order.

EB: I enjoyed hearing about Harbin Hot Springs, where I went once years ago.  What was that experience like?

JG: Like going into the Order and my apprenticeship in energy healing, it was a big turning point in my life to become part of the Harbin community. Harbin Hot Springs was the home of of Watsu, a form of aquatic bodywork. My partner Diane was a Watsu therapist at Harbin, and I came on board as a bodywork therapist at Harbin Health Services in 2001.

As with the Order, Harbin had its own quirky outside-the-mainstream culture, which I adapted to. Of course, people make a big deal out of the “clothing-optional” aspect of Harbin culture. It’s a sure-fire conversation piece with people who don’t live in that environment, but you get used to it quickly. Being on the bodywork staff and in and out of the pools all the time, you get used to being around a lot of naked people.

Harbin attracted colorful, interesting, creative people from all over the world, so I got to learn my craft on all kinds of bodies and people you don’t run into in Wichita. For me, Harbin was the place where I hit my stride in hands-on healing work. That’s where I developed my own hybrid of massage, craniosacral work, and energy healing and began to teach it.

When Harbin burned down in the wildfires of 2015, it was a huge loss. Workplace, community, it all went up in smoke. Our little cabin outside of Middletown didn’t burn, but we had to evacuate and, in many ways, start over. It’s what got us to Ashland.

EB: What’s next for you?  More books?

JG: I am finishing up a collection of short pieces, mostly from vignettes that were edited out of the memoir. The working title is Stopping the World on Kansas Highway 4.

In addition, I have a practice here in Ashland—craniosacral and subtle energy therapy, and I teach energy healing in a couple of massage schools.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

JG: Thank you, Ed. It’s been a pleasure.


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Summer Reading 2022

It’s back to school time! But there’s still time to report on my summer reading. In no particular order, with my mini-comments:

The Critic– by Peter May Who would kill a wine critic? Who wouldn’t?

The Call by P D Viner You’ll never answer you phone at night again.

Every Cloak Rolled in Blood by James Lee Burke America’s best novelist (and an eighty-year old protagonist)

The Lunar Housewife by Caroline Woods 1950 noir (Russians, CIA spies, a woman trying to get a break in publishing, and cameos by Hemingway and Baldwin.)

Cultish by Amanda Montell The language of cults; I learned about thought-terminating clichés.

Bad Actors by Mick Herron The latest in the Slough House series featuring; the outsiders prevail again. A great ensemble series anchored by the Jackson Lamb. Imagine Falstaff as a MI5 spy…

Sleepwalk by Dan Chaon A splendidly dystopian romp, with an affable mercenary in the lead.

The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill Lots of layers but I guessed the killer too soon.

Stalin’s Curse: Battling for Communism in War and Cold War by Robert Gellately Still working on this one, but it’s relevant to today’s Russia

The Three Language of Politics by Arnold Kling It turned up in my mailbox but turned out to have some interesting stuff on framing—progressive, conservative and libertarian.

Secret Identity by Alex Segura If you grew up reading comics this one’s for you. Carmen Valdez  tries to break into the comics industry with a “The Lethal Lynx,” but her front man winds up dead.

Secret Identity

The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams A comic thriller not for everyone, but just right for linguists.

Wiley’s Lament & Wiley’s Shuffle by Lono Waiwaiole Set in the seamy side of Portland, Wiley and Leon are tough guys doing good in a bad world.

Death of a Red Heroine by Qiu Xiaolong An oldie but goody featuring corrupt high cadre offspring in post-Tiananmen China

The Constitution of Knowledge by Jonathan Rauch On my list for the fall.

The Geography of Words (by Danko Sipka), The Babel Lexicon of Language (a glossary by BABEL’s editors), and Writing a War of Words (by Lynda Mugglestone) I reviewed these for CHOICE

What did you read this summer?


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The Disappearing Act-cent, a guest post by Weather Lenczewski

Weather Lenczewski  is a junior in the Honors College at SOU. She is a Sociology and Anthropology major with a History minor. She hails from Woodstock, Illinois, but currently resides in the Rogue Valley.




The Disappearing Act-cent

In 2020, I packed almost everything I owned into three suitcases and moved all the way across the country for college. I’m sure going off to college is weird and scary for everyone, but it was especially scary for me. I lived in my hometown for 15 years; in the same house for 15 years. Almost all of my conscious memories occurred in the 15 years that I lived in that house. I moved almost 2,000 miles away from my home, my friends, my family, and my cat. I missed everything about my home. The people, my house, the Dunkin Donuts… I didn’t originally want to leave the state. My parents wanted to move to California. It’s too hot for me in California. I needed seasons, at least two or three, instead of the perpetual summer of Southern California. I had never been to Oregon. It had pretty trees and temperatures below 80, so it seemed like a fine choice. I was going to be living alone and attending college all in a new state. Quite scary, indeed.

A common question you’re asked in college is: “where are you from?” My college is in Oregon, so most people respond “Oh, I’m from Bend, Oregon,” or “I’m from Sacramento.” I’m always excited to tell people where I’m from, and also nervous to tell people where I’m from because when people ask me where I’m from, I lie. I lie and say: “Oh, I’m from Chicago.” I’m not from Chicago. I was raised in a small town about an hour and a half away from Chicago. My town is barely considered a part of the suburbs of Chicago. If, anything my house was closer to Wisconsin than Chicago. Yet, when people ask me where I’m from, I say Chicago. Why do I say that I’m from Chicago? Maybe it’s because no one has ever heard of Wonder Lake, Illinois. Maybe it’s because I like it when people’s faces light up when I say Chicago. It’s a big, exciting city. I’m sure my face lights up when I talk about it too.

I wish I could say that I am from Chicago and not be lying. I can barely say that I’m from the Chicagoland area. Sure, I love Portillo’s, watch the bears, and take the L, but I’m not really a Chicagoan. I say pop and gym shoes, but I don’t sound like a Chicagoan. My mom does. She says “Can I get you a baaax?” or “We’re having haht dahgs for dinner.” When I tell people in Oregon that I’m from Chicago they say: “Wow, I never would’ve guessed! You don’t have an accent at all!” Which, hurts a little inside. I wonder why my mom, who sounds like she’s from Chicago, has an accent, but I don’t. I was raised by her, shouldn’t I sound like her?

Apparently, this isn’t just my experience. The Chicago accent seems to be disappearing. Gone are the classic blue-collar Chicagoans taking their dahg on a wak and instead people who have lived in Chicago their whole lives are starting to sound more and more like…me. The “Chicago Accent” is turning into more of a “Chicago Dialect” it seems. That’s what inspired me to look into the disappearance of the Chicago accent. The generational shift in accents, from my great-grandma to my grandma, to my mom, to me. We all sound different and I wondered why.

What differentiates the Chicago accent from the New York or Boston accent? Many people believe they all sound similar, but are they all actually the same? The New Chicago Accent is actually the result of an interesting phonological happening. The Chicago accent has its roots in the Inland North Dialect, also referred to as the Great Lakes dialect. While the dialect was originally referred to as “Standard Midwestern,” it became Inland North when the region experienced the Northern Cities Vowel Shift, which is what switched the Classic Chicago accent to the New Chicago accent.

The Northern Cities Vowel Shift features a specific chain shift that occurs in 6 stages (Inland Northern American English). The first stage is the raising and tensing of the “short a” so that cat sounds more like “cay-at (Northern Cities Vowel Shift).” The second stage is the shift in the “short o” or “broad a,” like in the words hot or father. This vowel changes to sound more of an “ah” sound, like the Boston accent’s “cahr” or “pahrk.” This vowel change I notice in my own accent. Instead of calling my mom, I call my “mahm.” I don’t notice the “short a” change as much as the “short a/broad o” change, though it’s likely more potent in downtown Chicago. I associate the “short a” change with Boston more than Chicago, but that might just be my experience.

The next stage backs and lowers the “short e” sound (Northern Cities Vowel Shift). The “short e” like the e in bet or egg, turns into more of an “ae” sound, turning words like egg into “aegg.” I catch myself doing this one a lot, which is funny because I used to pick on my mom when she said she was going to make me an “aegg sandwich.” I can’t tell if I was repressing my pronunciation of egg, so my accent has changed over time. The next shift is the “short u” sound. The vowel shift changes the u in bus, so that instead of being pronounced like bus, it’s pronounced like “boss (Northern Cities Vowel Shift).” The next shift is with the “short i” vowel, which can be heard in the word bit or knit (Northern Cities Vowel Shift). This “short i” shifts to sound like a “short e,” like in ten. This is sometimes referred to as a “pin-pen merger.” I don’t hear either of these two in my accent. I have heard some of my family members have the “short i” shift in their accents, but the “short u” shift is less familiar to me.

The last stage doesn’t occur in the Inland North Dialect, but it does happen in the neighboring “Upper Midwest’ dialect (Northern Cities Vowel Shift). The shift in the “aw” vowel, like in the word stalk, shifted to sound more like the vowel in the work stock. This vowel shift, often called the cot-caught merger is common among Canadian and Upper Midwest dialects. I’ve heard this vowel shift a lot in the accents of people from Wisconsin and Minnesota. Every summer we’d go up to Minnesota for a camping trip and a lot of the locals will say they “cot a fish and are going to sleep on their cot.” I can recognize that my family and most people that I know do not pronounce cot and caught the same way.

The vowel shift still seems prominent in the Chicago accent. Based on my personal experience, people around my age still have shifted vowels. It’s more obvious in my mom’s accent than in my friends’ accents, but I can’t say that that is due to a generational divide or just where in the Chicagoland area each of them grew up. Depending on the location, someone’s accent might not feature all six stages of the vowel shift. Some accents, like mine, only have a few, while other accents may feature all of them. This makes it hard to pinpoint what exactly qualifies as a disappearing Chicago accent and what is just a naturally occurring difference in accent. It also makes it hard to pinpoint exactly where the Chicago accent changes from the classic “Da Bears” Chicago accent to the more modern “Haht Dahg and Pahp” Chicago accent, or if the two are different at all.

Is the Chicago accent disappearing? Well, yes and no.

The “Classic” Chicago accent is definitely disappearing, but it seems to have been trickling down the generational line as it goes. The Chicagoland Language Project looked at the change in the prominence of the “Classic” Chicago accent in older generations versus younger generations (McClelland, 2021b). Annette D’Onforio, a linguist at Northwestern University, and Sharese King, a linguist at the University of Chicago, found that the Northern Cities Vowel Shift has become less prominent among younger generations (McClelland, 2021b). The older generations and working-class citizens retained the accent. Their theory is that the younger generation views the Chicago accent as a piece of Chicago’s history of “white-flight” neighborhoods and retaining that accent would be playing into that history. While I doubt that that’s the only reason for the accent’s disappearance, I do think that it’s interesting to consider, especially since Chicago is now one of the most diverse cities in America. The younger generations increased contact with people of different races, ethnicities, and accents would probably affect their accents, so I think this D’Onforio and King do make a solid point here. I do think it’s important to look at the disappearance of the accent among older generations too, though, and to do that we have to look at the history of the Chicago accent.

The “Classic” Chicago accent’s history begins with immigrants from the East Coast coming to Chicago and settling near the Great Lakes, hence the Great Lakes dialect (McClelland, 2021a). The dialect brought by these East coasters is what turned into the Northern Cities vowel shift (McClelland, 2021a). Irish immigrants also had a large influence on the Chicago accent. A large population of Chicago was Irish and a lot of their accent and dialect can still be heard today. For example, our plural of you, “youse”, comes from Irish immigrants (McClelland, 2021a). The “original” Chicago accent has close ties with the Irish and with the working class. The Chicago accent is that of the blue-collar, working-class of Chicago. It’s theorized that one reason the Chicago accent may be disappearing is the influx of white-collar, high-rise workers. When the children of blue-collar workers went off to college, they lost their “dem, dere, does,” pronunciation and adopted “educated,” business speech. The gentrification of Chicago and its new label of “Second City” has made it a hot spot for finance and business, which shifted the population, and accent, from a mostly blue-collar to a mostly white-collar one.

Another theory is that the people of Chicago have become aware of their accents and are proactively changing the way that they speak. After the famous SNL skit “Bill Swerski’s Superfans,” it’s possible that Chicagoans became embarrassed of their accent after it was publicly mocked on television (McClelland, 2021a). This would be unfortunate. While the Chicago accent has never been considered the sexiest accent, I would hate to see it go away.

America is built on diversity. We’re diverse in race, culture, food, and accents. It’s cool that just by hearing someone speak you can tell if they’re from New Jersey or Beverly Hills. I especially think the Chicago accent is cool. It has a deep history in Irish and Polish steel workers and represents the working class of Chicago that made the city what it is today. Every field trip, birthday, or day out I’ve had in Chicago feels exciting, and being a part of the culture of Chicago is something that means a lot to me. My great-grandparents moved here from Greece and Poland to start a new life. They adopted the working-class accent, working in restaurants and factories, and passed it down to my grandparents, who gave it to my parents. My parents moved us to the suburbs, but even on the outskirts of Chicago, you feel like a Chicagoan. I’m not from Chicago, I’m from Wonder Lake, Illinois, but I’m a Chicagoan. I don’t sound like a true Chicagoan, but I do sound like a new Chicagoan. Even though I don’t bet on da bears, I do call my mahm and call Chi-CAH-go home.


Inland Northern American English. Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias. (n.d.). Retrieved June 9, 2022, from

McClelland, E. (2021a, August 18). The disappearing Chicago accent is layered with local history. Chicago Reader. Retrieved May 11, 2022, from

McClelland, E. (2021b, May 27). Why the classic Chicago accent is disappearing. Chicago Magazine. Retrieved May 11, 2022, from

Northern Cities Vowel Shift. Academic Dictionaries and Encyclopedias. (n.d.). Retrieved June 9, 2022, from


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An Interview with P D Viner, author of THE CALL

P. D. Viner was born in South London and developed an early interest in the theatre and film. He earned an MA from the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography in Moscow, the world’s oldest film school, and later lived in New York and in New Zealand. He now lives in Brighton.

Viner is an award-winning film-maker, audio book producer and novelist. He is the author of The Last Winter of Dani Lancing (Crown, 2013) and Summer of Ghosts (Ebury Press, 2014) as well as several novellas and short stories. His most recent novel, THE CALL was released by Hera Books in 2022.

Ed Battistella: I enjoyed reading THE CALL, which start of when Ben gets a late night call from this wife who tells him she’s killed a man. Then all manner of hell breaks loose. Where did you get the idea for the story?

P. D. Viner: There is no eureka moment – but I write in visuals and key scenes. The first moment I thought about was… but that’s a spoiler. There is an absolute Jesus-H-Christ-that-is-crazy-intense moment on page 101, the final moment of chapter six, and that was my opening image. How do you cope with that? From there I went forwards with characters and set myself a whole series of rules (see below) to guide my writing. That explosive image set me on a rollercoaster of twists and turns and the result is The Call.

EB: The cliff-hanger pace made it hard to put down. As a writer, how did you manage that, technique-wise?

PDV: First thing I did was set myself rules – there is nothing better than a rule to force you into creative solutions. The first rule was that this book would run in real time (think the show 24) and it would last from midnight until 8 am. Second rule – the action would run forwards, I would not use flashback (I cheat a little twice to remember a pivotal moment in their relationship but it is not plot affecting) so there is no action that is created from a past event – everything occurs in the here-and-now and we feel it with the characters. Rule three – this is a two-hander with no sub plot and limited input from a very small supporting cast. Rule four – the couple share the narrative and the narration moves between them seamlessly.

Apart from these rules, after writing 5 novels (three of them unpublished) and the two Sad Man novellas, I feel like I have a good grip on creating pace and flow. The great Denise Mina told me that the only responsibility a crime writer (and I think all writers) have is to make it difficult for the reader to stop and put the book down. So I structured the novel in half-hour segments and at the end of each half hour there is a twist or reveal or an oh-my-god-i-didn’t-see-that-coming moment that catapults you into the next half hour.

EB: Ben and Mia were interesting characters. I was rooting for them, but I couldn’t decide if I liked them. Is that the sort of reaction you had in mind? Did you like one more than the other?

PDV: Yes. There is no reason you should like a character in a novel. What I hope is that over the course of the book you can come to empathise with the character and understand why they do what they do, even if their choices would not be your own. In this novel the characters are ordinary people thrown into extraordinary circumstances and they have to find a way to get out, to survive what’s happened to them, but also work through the flaws in their own characters that have landed them in this mess. I think at the start that Ben is far easier to relate to and ‘like’ but for me Mia is the one I root for because she fights tooth and nail for her freedom. I like strong women, my mum worked three jobs and she would have lifted a bus off me if I needed it. Mia is far harder to like at the start but at the end…

EB: The redemptive ending—which I won’t spoil—was a nice surprise. Did you have that in mind all along?

PDV: I am really happy you have said this, as I love the ending. I read a hell-of-a-lot of crime and often it leaves me feeling empty because so much effort is put into setting up an amazing, intriguing premise but it all deflates in the final stage. I wanted the ending to be unpredictable and give full closure to the night. I also wanted to move from the self-destruction and self-sabotage of the rest of the book and have external forces come to bear to show how the couple have grown over the night.

EB: What’s been the reaction to the book from people you know? Are they afraid of you? Just kidding.

PDV: I am a lovely, kind and thoughtful man. A loving husband and father. But I have a dark imagination in that I can and will ask – what is the very worst thing that could happen and how would I or a character respond to that. I don’t think I write gruesomely… at least I don’t revel in gore… but I am fully aware that in war sometimes you have to cover yourself in blood and lie down in a field of corpses to survive. That is courage and bravery to me, and that is what I write about in a modern world context. Bravery and love – what will we do to save or defend those we care about?

I have been caught off guard a few times when people have said ‘you are so dark’ or ‘how can you think such things’ and I generally respond with – ‘Why don’t you?’

EB: Can you tell us about some of your other projects? What is your writing life like?

PDV: I am now with Hera/Canelo and am very happy with my fantastic editor Keshini Naidoo, and the reality of this new deal is that I am looking at two books a year. So I have a new novel coming out in October, The Choice. It is again time sensitive – though takes place over one week rather than one night, and is a road crime novel. It opens in my hometown of Brighton and ends on the Isle of Skye. It opens with Sarah stabbing her boyfriend through the heart mere minutes after making love with him… why? She swears she had no Choice, but how is that possible? To prove her innocence and get her life back,  she has to run – back to the beginning of all this. Back 15 years to when this hunt first began, because she has been in hiding for all that time and now they’ve found her.

I love this book again because we are pitched into a horrendous act and then have to run with the character and learn about her as we go along and as she meets friends and enemies along the way. I love road movies and chases are so exciting. I am really looking forward to having people read this and seeing how they react to Sarah and her plight. Again, she is hard to like in many ways but she is quite incredible as a woman.

My next novel (I am 60,000 words into the first draft) is (at the moment) titled The School Gates and deals with murder on the school run. It has a dark comedy running through it, but is a story of a best friend fighting to save the woman who saved her as a child. The book opens with two parents (not a couple, but having an affair) who meet up in the middle of the night for sex – on a Year 4 class camping trip – just yards away from the tents of all their friends and their spouses. In the middle of their tryst they find a dead body in the firepit and… it hits the fan. I am loving writing this book as I spent years in the PTA and on these bloody camping trips dreaming of killing the other parents – now I get my wish.

In terms of writing, I organize at least two Shut-Up-and-write days a week. I open up my house to other writers (a core group of about 10) and each day some of them join me to write. We start at 10am and end at 5pm and write for about 5 hours, with breaks and lunch in between. I get 4-6,000 words a day from that. The other days I dream about what I will write, so when I get in front of the laptop – I absolutely know where I’m going and can get quality writing done.

My dreaming consists of me creating the story-world in my head and running scenarios, like the Star Trek holodeck or Sherlock’s mind palace. My characters talk, move, kill etc. and I run through the scenes making changes and saying what if… what it… its like improvisation with actors. I keep going forward until I decide the architecture of the scene. I might make notes, or dictate lines I like so I have them when I write, but I don’t enforce the structure of writing on myself until I know what I am writing.

The last thing I would like to say is that if you go to Amazon then you can download the two novellas, The Sad Man and The Ugly Man for free. Because of my audiobook past I directed The Call as a two-hander with both actors (a married couple) in full-on arguing mode. Some people complain that it isn’t an audiobook – not just someone reading to you – but I think it gives you what is in my head far better than some person reading five books that month and this just being the latest they were sent by the audiobook company. I believe in the craft of writing, of a balance between plot and character and entertainment. My books should be the best ride at the funfair.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Best of luck with THE CALL.

PDV: For news about me I have a website at, I’m on Twitter @philviner and on Facebook  I love talking to book groups and am available for events, weddings, and chats about books. Thanks.


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An Exit Interview with Kemble Yates

Kemble Yates is from Pullman, Washington. He graduated from the University of Puget Sound in 1982 with degrees in economics and mathematics and went on to earn a master’s degree in mathematics in 1984 and a PhD in 1987, both from Washington State University. His area of expertise is mathematical modeling in biology and astronomy. He has published research on mathematical modeling and has served as an expertise witness in court cases on age discrimination and as a mathematical consultant in industry.

He joined the faculty of Southern Oregon University in 1987 and was promoted to full professor in 1999. He has served as chair of the Math Department from 2003 – 2008. He has also served many terms as a faculty senator and was twice the President of the Faculty Senate and served a term as president of the statewide Inter-institutional Faculty Senate. He twice served as the president of the Associated Professors of Southern Oregon University and was the chief union negotiator several times. From 2003 — 2022, Yates served as the Southern Oregon University representative to Association of Oregon Faculties.

He is an accomplished amateur bridge player.

In 2018, Kemble Yates received the Outstanding Service Award at Southern Oregon University. He retired in 2022.

Ed Battistella: How did you make your way to SOU?

Kemble Yates: As it worked out, I decided late in the 1986-87 employment cycle to look for a job, and only a few universities still had openings. One of those was Southern Oregon State College. I got an interview, and ultimately a job offer. At the time, I was thinking this would be a good “starter job” and I’d move on in a few years. I fell in love with the university and the area, and I really never seriously considered leaving after my first couple of years.

EB: Do you remember what you taught in your first years at SOU?

KY: I taught college algebra, first term calculus, and multivariate calculus my first term. I fell in love with teaching collegiate mathematics in graduate school, and one thing that I’ve really loved about my Southern experience is that I got to teach a wide variety of courses.

EB: What else stands out from your first years?

KY: I arrived the same year a new President, Joe Cox, did. Prior to Cox, a pretty unpopular President (at least to the faculty and staff) had left in a cloud. The university seemed to ride a nice optimistic wave my first three years. Unfortunately, Oregon’s Measure 5 passed in 1990, and higher education funding has been a painful challenge ever since.

EB: What’s been your favorite thing about being an academic life?

KY: Perhaps unusually for a mathematician, I am a people person – I really like interacting with people. The faculty and staff at Southern have always been inspiring to me. And of course, working with bright, (mostly) younger students is a true joy. I really loved being a professor at SOU.

EB: What were some high points of your work at SOU?

KY: As your bio on me points out, I have been very active in the life of the university. Through committees, Faculty Senate, and our faculty union, APSOU, I’ve had multiple opportunities to take part in discussions and decisions which have shaped the university and especially the lives of faculty. And I really enjoyed my colleagues in the Mathematics Department: their dedication to building and improving our curriculum, to helping our students learn and succeed, and to being a supportive team to one another has profoundly impacted me. In my last several years, two major highlights were: I got to help start a graduate program in mathematics, and I was the department point person for guiding senior math majors in their capstone projects.

EB: How did you get interested in mathematics?

KY: My road to a mathematics PhD was actually pretty indirect. My true love as an undergraduate at the University of Puget Sound was economics. My Econ professors gave good advice – they said if you want to pursue a graduate degree, you need to have a solid mathematics background. So I backed into a double major of math and econ. And when it came time to go to graduate school, again my Econ professors suggested getting a Master’s in mathematics before switching to a doctoral program in economics. When I arrived at Washington State as a mathematics graduate student, I was awarded a Teaching Assistantship; this meant I taught one math course per term to “earn my keep”. It was then that I realized I really liked math a lot, and I especially liked teaching math. I never made it back to economics!

EB: You are a live-music aficionado. Who are some of your favorites?

KY: I do in fact love live music. I’m really kind of a mutt – I like many different kinds of music (classical, rock, bluegrass, country). And I love everything from a small club show all the way to a stadium show. I have been to over 600 different live music performances. Some of my favorite shows have been Fleetwood Mac, The Cure, Little Feat, AC/DC, and Roger Waters (of Pink Floyd fame). But over the last five years, I’ve actually “graduated” to 3-4 day music festivals. I just returned from the Northwest String Summit (bluegrass and rock) and two weeks prior, my wife and I attended the High Sierra Music Festival (again bluegrass and rock). Next week I travel to Alaska to attend Salmonfest. And of course we are members of Britt & attend 10-15 shows each summer.

EB: What are your plans, post-SOU?

KY: So I’ve always been good at filling my time, and I’m looking forward to having even more time with which to play. In addition to many live music activities, I will play more bridge (both locally and traveling to tournaments), Diana and I will travel more, and I’m really looking forward to reading more books again. I also have an eye on creating and teaching some OLLI classes, as well as taking a few OLLI classes. We will stay in Ashland – we love this area and our home is definitely here.

EB: Thanks for talking with me. I’m right behind you, retirement-wise.

KY: Thanks Ed! I look forward to your joining me in our post-SOU world!


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An Interview with Louise Wagenknecht

Louise Wagenknecht is the author of a trilogy of books about life in northwest California: White Poplar, Black Locust (2003, republished in 2021), Light on the Devils: Coming of Age on the Klamath (2011), and Shadows on the Klamath: A Woman in the Woods (2021), all available from Oregon State University Press.

Born in Boise, Idaho, Wagenknecht was raised in Hilt and Happy Camp, California, and received a degree in English from California State University, Chico. She also studied range, botany, forestry, and wildlife management at Humboldt State University and worked for the U.S. Forest Service for more than thirty years.

Her writing has appeared in High Country News, American Nature Writing, The River Reader, and Ring of Fire: Writers of the Yellowstone Region.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed reading your work. How would you describe yourself as a writer? Memoirist, historian, naturalist?

Louise Wagenknecht: All of the above, I suppose. When I started writing, I was trying to make sense of the place in which I grew up, and the family in which I grew up. I knew a great deal about what had happened, but why things happened was often pretty murky.

Especially while writing the first book, I read everything I could find about the Klamath-Siskiyou region, starting with its geology, which is so tied in with the Gold Rush history of the region. I had been very interested in natural history since childhood, but the unique qualities of the bioregion were barely taught in school. When I was seven, someone gave me a children’s book about birds, which I loved, but it focused on eastern species which I had never seen, and didn’t mention most of the birds around Hilt.

At Humboldt State University, I took two semesters of plant taxonomy, taught by a specialist in northwestern California plants. That was a terrific eye-opener to the world of endemic plant species, and I gained context for what I had seen up until then.

Another resource was the library at Chico State and its northern California history collection, including all of the yearbooks of the Siskiyou County Historical Society. I stumbled onto a book called California Called Them, by Robert O’Brien, a columnist for a Bay Area newspaper, who in the 1950s wrote a series of articles about the history of the Gold Rush country. He included three chapters on Siskiyou County – Mount Shasta and Yreka – and his evocative writing style blew me away. Nobody had ever talked that way to me about my home country, or written about California history that way.

Right after I found O’Brien, I picked up Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, and was astounded to find myself reading about Grider Creek, a place I knew intimately. I stood there and read that and I thought the top of my head would come off. That’s when it hit me: people could and did write imaginatively about precisely the places I loved. It took me another thirty years to attempt it myself, but I think that’s when the germ took root.

EB: Did you start out with a trilogy in mind? How do the three books fit together in your mind?

LW: In the beginning, I just concentrated on writing about Hilt. After the first book came out, people started asking me, “what’s next?” and while thinking about what that could be, I started transcribing the diaries I had kept in high school, and by the time I finished, the theme was there: moving from Hilt to Happy Camp was still the same ecoregion, the same natural resource issues still present. Once I carved out the second book, then dealing with the years I worked for the Forest Service, in the belly of the timber beast, so to speak, was the obvious next step. But it still took me a long time to write about it.

I think now that all the books are chapters of a long tale called “The Decline and Fall of the Western Timber Industry,” which of course continues today, but with the addition of climate change as a factor. It’s another human impact, like logging, but at one remove.

EB: Something that struck me throughout was the coming together of a sense of place and the sense of people. But there is also a sense of history. How do you balance all those things as a writer?

LW: Well, that was rather difficult to do. I was fortunate, when I was trying to write the first book, to be able to attend a few really good writing seminars. Bill Kittredge was very enthusiastic about the first project. “Nobody has written about that country,” he told me. He grew up near the headwaters of the Klamath River and was interested in the history of the whole drainage. Kim Barnes recognized the same elements of patriarchy and of families dependent on the lumber industry that she wrote about in her first memoir. Mary Clearman Blew – wonderful to recall – looked me in the eye and said, “You’re really a good writer.” And Rick Bass – defender of the Yaak – recognized the ecological and political undercurrents and encouraged me to write about them.

I had some good Forest Service sources to draw on, too. Several veterans of the Klamath National Forest – Gil Davies, Russ Bower, and Al Groncki – gathered a lot of material from both their own recollections and interviews with the Forest’s first generation, and also took care that old documents were preserved. The Forest published some of their work in-house. They were compilers rather than analyzers, but the raw material is there.

I mention Paul Hirt’s A Conspiracy of Optimism in the bibliographies. He dove deep into the layers of Forest Service and Congressional politics that drove resource extraction. He first made the connection for me between what I saw happening on the ground on the Happy Camp District and what was going on – and had long been going on — in Washington, D.C. I read it while working on the Salmon-Challis National Forest, where I could see the same dynamics at work.

EB: It seems to me that it is important to document stories like the ones you tell – stories of the small towns like Hilt and Happy Camp and of people that are experiencing a vanishing way of life. Are you optimistic about the future of the region?

LW: (I’m glad to hear you say that stories about small towns are important!) As a member of the post-World War II generation, I was raised with optimism, with the idea that things would get better, but when I look at the scientific consensus about warming and drying trends in the region, it’s hard to maintain a lot of optimism. Still, I am very glad to see the Karuk and Yurok people on the middle and lower Klamath River reestablishing traditional burning practices. I’m happy to learn of California condors soaring over the north coast once more. And I hope to be able to see for myself those four Klamath River dams come down, very soon. That will give me a bit of optimism for at least the near term future of salmon and steelhead on the Klamath.

EB: How has your writing changed in the period since White Poplar, Black Locust? Do some matters of technique and style strike you as evolving?

LW: I think I’m more confident now in my ability to just dive right into a story, and more confident that it will interest readers. That was a big hurdle for me with the first book: I knew that I was passionate about this place called Hilt, which was embedded so deeply in me. I couldn’t not write about it, but the challenge was to write well enough for publishers and readers to be interested. As far as style goes, I think I’m now better about cutting, and then cutting some more, than I used to be.

Literature of place – especially of place in the West – and memoirs by Western women have come of age over the past thirty-some years, and I’m sure reading in those genres has affected my style. Strangely enough, one of my earliest influences was Betty MacDonald, who wrote The Egg and I in the 1940s. The book was smoothly written and very funny, but it was its sense of place – the still-wild Pacific Northwest – that spoke to me. Her later memoir about the Depression, Anybody Can Do Anything, is in my opinion even better, with its focus on a family of (mostly) women struggling to (sometimes literally) survive in 1930s Seattle.

EB: At some points you mention the archeologist Jim Rock, whose historic can collection is documented in the Southern Oregon University library. Any recollections you can share?

LW: Jim was such a wonderful person, it’s hard to know where to stop once I get started. At the time that the first book came out, his wife Mary Ellen owned the bookstore on Miner Street in Yreka, and they put on a great book-signing event for me. I talked to Jim on the phone several times when I was writing the second book, and he actually tried to track down the details about a couple of incidents that I write about in Light on the Devils. His cynicism about the poor record-keeping on the part of Siskiyou County law enforcement turned out to be prescient; often, records either had not been kept or had been lost.

He was a grounded and practical person. He probably would have preferred that some of his friends not dig up old cabin sites and can dumps, but he once told me that to him the important thing was to document their locations, especially those inhabited by the Chinese miners. As far as artifacts went, all of the post-1850 sites contained the same mass-produced goods – at first brought in by pack trains from the coast, and later by wagon from inland. He was much more protective of the Native American sites. Those, as far as he was concerned, were not to be messed with.

Jim often put on archeological training sessions on the ranger districts, and the ones at Happy Camp were always fun. His slide show about how to date tin cans was an education in itself. I still remember him standing there at the front of the room, talking around the pipe clenched in his teeth. Unfortunately that pipe – or rather the tobacco he burned in it – would eventually kill him. Whenever I read an interesting news story about Siskiyou County, I wish I could call him up and get his acerbic take on it.

EB: Are you working on another book?

LW: Yes – two of them, in fact. It turns out that over thirty years of living in an Idaho valley bordered by three mountain ranges generates some stories. Who knew? The Forest Service will be back – with some of the same issues, and some new ones – and also showing up will be sheep, wolves, moose, and of course some neighbors. And – because I obviously don’t have enough to do – I’m taking a stab at writing a murder mystery based extremely loosely on the first job I ever had – working at a girls’ summer camp in the Sierra Nevadas.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

LW: Thank you very much for talking with me, and I hope you have a wonderful summer out there in that good country under Mount Ashland.



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An Interview with Ellen Jovin, author of Rebel with a Clause

Ellen JovinEllen Jovin has a B.A. from Harvard College and an M.A. from UCLA and has studied twenty-five languages for fun. Jovin is a cofounder of Syntaxis, a communication consultancy, and the author of four books on English and writing,

She is the creator—and staff—of a traveling pop-up grammar advice stand called the Grammar Table, and her adventures as a traveling grammarian are recounted in her book Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian (HarperCollins, July 2022).

Ellen Jovin and her Grammar Table have traveled nearly 30,000 miles around the U.S. to address the most pressing—and amusing—grammar questions of our time. When not on the road and at the table, she lives with her husband, Brandt Johnson, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed Rebel with a Clause. How did you get the idea to become a roving street grammarian?

Ellen Jovin: At first I was a street grammarian without much roving. My first stops involved roving from my apartment building to less than one block from my apartment building and plopping down a table with a sign. I’m not entirely sure why the Grammar Table occurred to me; one day it just did. I do know I was sick of spending so much time online in language chat groups, and I wanted more real-world contact. The computer lifestyle makes me cranky—I am a people person—so it seemed like a natural step to move backwards technologically off the internet to a no-tech, face-to-face medium. And by the way, I load the table up with actual physical reference books, with pages people can touch. I try to keep this grammar life very physical when I’m out there.

EB: You travelled far and wide. Did you have a grammarmobile?

EJ: I haven’t had a grammarmobile, but I’ve definitely had grammarmobile fantasies. My husband and I don’t even own a car here in Manhattan, so we had to rent a car for each Grammar Table road trip. For fun I’ve spent a little recreational time looking at trailers as well as cars with big trunks that could fit a Grammar Table plus luggage, and I’ve actually pondered what could go on the outside of the vehicle, but then I wondered—would a grammarmobile be a special target for anti-grammar graffiti? It might be! Therefore, if I ever did have a grammarmobile, it would probably need to be a special unmarked grammarmobile.

EB: So what are the best spots to talk grammar?

EJ: I follow the feet. I am dependent on foot traffic for my grammar customers. Without people, there are no questions. It’s easier to get visitors in dense urban areas with lots of foot traffic. After New York City, I found Detroit to be one of the pedestrian-friendlier stops we made. But smaller, more remote places are a lot of fun. Red Cloud, Nebraska, has only about 1,000 people in it, but I had tons of conversation with local residents there. In Austin, Texas, I set up along a dirt park path with tree parts hanging down into my hair. Traffic was sparser there in the trees and dirt, but where there is a path, there are people, and where there are people, there are grammar questions.

EB: I was really impressed with how much the people you talked with—from all walks of life—seemed to know about grammar and relieved to find that people are not as judgmental as I feared. Do you think grammar is divisive or does it have the potential to bring us together?

EJ: The field of linguistics has had an effect on popular attitudes toward grammar. More people understand that a language is neither monolithic nor immutable. You have less of the “This is how it has to be” attitude,” and often people I encounter have heard of prescriptivism and descriptivism. Those weren’t terms I knew when I was in school. Also, the underlying philosophy of the Grammar Table matters. If I approached the subject as a grammar snob, people would feel intimidated, or angered, or put off. And if your discussion of, say, colons is as much fun as a colonoscopy, it will not get a great response either. To me, participles are like a party, and language variety, while maybe not the spice of life, is a spice of life. We play with language at the Grammar Table. It’s a grammar party! And parties are unifying.

EB: What was the hardest grammar question you got along the way?

EJ: The hardest questions are always the ones that aren’t about grammar. For example: Where is the nearest public bathroom? Usually I have no idea. Or this: What is the centuries-long history of a particular word? A word-history question can be a whole research project.

In the realm of grammar, though, one of the hardest topics to explain, in my experience, is the difference between restrictive and nonrestrictive appositives. Hearing that terminology already puts people off, so never mind—let me just give you an example:

1. The witness Sarah Still was convincing.

2. The witness, Sarah Still, was convincing.

In one sentence there are multiple witnesses, and Sarah Still is one of them. In the other sentence, there is just one witness, and her name is Sarah Still. Which is which? Can we put the answer at the end of this interview and give people a chance to think about it while we continue with other things?

EB: Sure!  How did the experience change you? What did you discover or learn along the way?

EJ: I already knew people were full of surprises, but they are even fuller of surprises than I expected. The Grammar Table has reminded me to assume nothing. That unsmiling couple in biker gear standing far away from me may actually be concocting a question about gerunds. The homeless person carrying a sleeping bag may want to discuss dictionaries. The unkempt person with holes in his sweatpants may be a scholar of English literature. I got excellent questions and comments from all walks of life—from lawyers and editors to people who didn’t finish high school, people who work with their hands, high school students all dressed up for a homecoming dance, and so on. Handled with tact and openness, grammar chat isn’t sad and it isn’t inflammatory—it is happy and fun—and when you open a door to people, they will often walk in.

EB: You’ve studied a lot of languages—twenty-five, I read. Do you have a favorite, grammar-wise?

EJ: I hate to be predictable, because I feel this is going to sound trite, but I absolutely loved studying Italian. I love all the different ways you can say the word “the,” I love that lower-case “i” is an actual word, I love Italian past participles, I love the rolling r’s, I love the plural formation patterns for nouns, and so on. There is nothing quite like learning a new writing system, though, and acquiring skills in reading and writing words in Arabic—which lack vowel data and are written right to left and have sounds we don’t have in English—was, and still is, a magical language trip beyond what I could ever have expected. Language-learning keeps you young, by the way. Maybe it’s not scientifically proven, but I think it’s excellent brain lubrication.

EB: Can you tell us about your husband/videographer Brandt Johnson and the Rebel with a Clause documentary?

EJ: I met Brandt in 1994 at a party I didn’t want to go to, thrown by a mutual friend who had tried to set us up six months earlier but who had failed, because neither of us wanted to go on a blind date. We have been together ever since that party and have a communication skills training firm together called Syntaxis. Brandt is a hunky language nerd. He played professional basketball in Europe but then will bring up some totally random language point at three in the morning, which is hot. During our travels, he accumulated 366 hours of Grammar Table footage, including lots of B-roll. He stuck GoPros to our windshield wherever we went! He’s at about ninety minutes now of a movie draft—I don’t know that you are allowed to say “draft” for movies, but I like it—and is hard at work editing the material.

EB: What’s next? I love the idea of a Grammar Table musical. Just sayin’.

EJ: I’m so happy to hear that! Definitely the movie comes first, but I do really love the idea of a grammar musical. One of my favorite musicals ever was The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. I was in heaven for every minute of that show. If I could have a Grammar Table musical and a grammarmobile, I would be out of my mind with joy. In the meantime, I do respond to grammergencies at my Twitter account at @grammartable, so people can tag me or message me there.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I’m recommending Rebel with a Clause to all my friends!

EJ: Well, I am recommending this interview to all my friends! I loved your questions. And thank you for reading my book.

Answer to the grammar question above:

1. The witness Sarah Still was convincing.

This sentence indicates that there are multiple witnesses; Sarah is just one of them. No commas.

2. The witness, Sarah Still, was convincing.

In this sentence, there is only one witness: Sarah Still. More on this topic in Rebel with a Clause!


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Coffee Houses and History, a guest post by Gray Blair

Coffee Houses and History: How Their Reputation has Evolved

Coffee houses are known today as places for first dates and novel writing, but their history is much more politically radical. Originally popularized in the Middle East during the ottoman empire, coffeehouses quickly gained a reputation as spaces for political debate and social interaction between classes. Coffee houses were similarly adopted by intellectuals and political revolutionaries in Europe and the United States. Though originally controversial, the increased commerciality of coffee houses and the growing popularity of online spaces for debate has led to a more subdued atmosphere in modern coffee shops. The association with academics and informal social conventions has remained, however. Where historic coffee houses were known for their lively debates and political nature, modern coffee shops have become a haven for uninterrupted study and comfortable conversation.

Originally favored as a way to boycott British imported tea, coffee soon became the prefered drink of American revolutionaries. In the chapter “Coffee Controversies and Threats to Social Order”, from her book Coffee Culture Local Experiences, Global Connections, Catherine Tucker describes how “American coffee houses offered opportunities for patriots to gather surreptitiously” (56). In France, coffee houses similarly played an integral role in the formation of the French Revolution. Many French political figures and revolutionaries, including Napoleon and Camille Desmoulins, frequented Parisian coffee houses as places for lively discussions and political debates (57). Coffee shops were a space for debating social issues and political unrest, and the overthrow of the French government was planned in some of Paris’ many coffee houses. How, then, did these radical political spaces evolve into the docile coffee shops of today?

Coffee houses were associated with social unrest from their very invention. As Gaudio writes in his article “Coffeetalk: Starbucks™ and the Commercialization of Casual Conversation”, “Almost from the moment of their inception, the earliest coffeehouses of western Europe, founded in Oxford and London in the mid-seventeenth century, were characterized as places where commoners and aristocrats alike could meet and socialize without regard to rank” (670). Even before they spread to London, coffee houses were integral to the development of the social sphere. The introduction of coffee houses in the Ottoman Empire started a shift in international social decorum. Coffee shops were some of the first non-religious spaces for people to gather and speak freely. Because alcohol consumption was not allowed under the Islamic faith, and restaurants were not widely used, there were few spaces for people to socialize outside of the home. Like the aforementioned coffee houses of London, these older shops provided a social meeting place for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Unlike the coffee shops of today, these coffee houses were accused of encouraging “raucous noise late at night […] animated conversation, political debate, playing games […] and perhaps conducting certain prohibited activities” (Tucker, “Coffee Controversies and Threats to Social Order” 54). There were several attempts to ban coffee shops because of this, though none were successful (55). Instead, coffee shops developed into some of the most popular places for social interaction and discussion, with coffee becoming an iconic drink within the Ottoman empire.

Rather than encouraging “raucous noise” or “prohibited activities” as critics claimed, the caffeine kept people stimulated and without the drunkenness that comes with alcohol. The association between coffee shops and social unrest seems less based on the drink itself, and more on the atmosphere the shops provide. According to Tucker, “The introduction of coffee drinking […] subtly changed the social environment because it entailed a new context for social interactions. Caffeine drinkers tend to become more active and engaged intellectually, in sharp contrast to those who rely on alcoholic beverages for refreshment” (57). Later incarnations of Ottoman coffee houses were indeed much calmer and gained a reputation for their civil, intellectual conversations. Later these coffee houses were spread to England, where despite being loud and rowdy, coffee shops became popular with academics. Gaudio describes how “the classic English coffeehouse was thus characterized not just by its lively conversation […] but by the sophistication of its clientele, who were increasingly literate and eager to read and discuss contemporary works of literature that had become widely available thanks to recent advances in printing technology” (671). This combination of alert and increasingly educated customers led to the English phenomena of ‘penny universities’, where even the working class could access discussions of literature and culture for the price of a coffee. It was these calmer coffee houses from England and the late ottoman empire that gave way to the cafes we know today.

While modern cafes no longer incite revolutions, at least not on weeknights, the unique social atmosphere remains. Internet cafes have helped coffee houses retain their reputation for intellectual study while allowing for a new social niche to develop. After the invention of the printing press led to increased literacy, many coffee houses in London started printing newsletters and essays for their customers. As Gaudio writes, “the literary debates that took place in coffeehouses constituted a site of democratic political participation – a ‘sphere of public opinion’” (671). As the public sphere shifted online, cafes adapted as well. Modern coffee shops offer their patrons internet access, which has become increasingly important for pursuing an education and staying informed. According to Tucker in the chapter “Culture, Caffeine, and Coffee” from her book Coffee Culture Local Experiences, Global Connections, “The Internet allows coffeehouses to extend their reach as places of social interaction and centers to exchange news and information. The interactions may be virtual, but coffeehouses provide a physical bridge for communicating through cyberspace” (9). Coffee shops appeal to the desire for an in-person community and social interaction, while still offering a relatively peaceful atmosphere for individual study or online interaction. Where the freedom from social taboo in historic coffee houses encouraged lively debate and revolutionary thought, modern cafes offer a space for people to relax as individuals free from social pressures.

As modern cafes have become more individualistic, social expectations for cafe meetings have become fairly unique. In a 2015 study by Benjamin Garner researching the interpersonal rituals of coffee shops, participants described how “the environment [of cafes] represented casualness, relaxation, inspiration, and even self-disclosure […] the atmosphere was conducive for conversation and was quiet enough to enable listening and conversing” (8). Garner further describes how cafes offer a social ‘script’ conducive to informal but structured meetings, perfect for a first date or reconnecting with an old friend. The relaxed atmosphere still offers the social freedoms of old coffee houses, blended with the courtesy of meeting in a public space and a respect for personal privacy. This paradoxical blend of public and private life is best summarized by Tucker, who describes modern cafes as “the ideal place for people who want to be alone but need company for it” (“Culture, Caffeine, and Coffee Shops” 8). Tucker further posits that the peaceful atmosphere of coffee shops is what makes them so popular as communal spaces. She describes how “through coffeehouses, people can sense or imagine the ‘small world’ nature of society[…] such as learning that someone we just met has a friend who grew up in our neighborhood” (8). The small world theory refers to the idea that everyone is connected by only a few degrees of separation. Since their invention coffee shops have attracted a wide range of customers, and today they retain their reputation as a common ground for people from different social classes and backgrounds. Where this social mixing used to lead to lively debates, today it has created a calmer, more welcoming environment.

While coffee houses have their roots in political and social unrest, modern cafes are known as quiet spaces for study and relaxed conversation. The shift from controversial to casual nature for coffee shops was gradual, stretching across centuries and continents before settling into their current place in society. Nevertheless, the freedom from social boundaries and reputation as a neutral space for interpersonal connection has remained. Cafes have always been a place where people from different backgrounds can interact with each other freely and exist without expectation. As the idea of social demographics interacting became more commonplace, coffee culture lost the political edge it used to have. Coffee houses have not radically changed, they have merely adapted to modern society.

Gray Blair is a Junior at Southern Oregon University with an interest in writing.

Works Cited

Garner, Benjamin. “Interpersonal Coffee Drinking Communication Rituals.” International Journal of Marketing and Business Communication, vol. 4, no. 4, 2015. Crossref,

Gaudio, Rudolf P. “Coffeetalk: StarbucksTM and the Commercialization of Casual Conversation.” Language in Society, vol. 32, no. 5, 2003, pp. 659–91. Crossref,

Tucker, Catherine M. “Coffee Controversies and Threats to Social Order.” Coffee Culture Local Experiences, Global Connections, 2nd Edition, New York, Routledge, 2017, pp. 53–58.. “Culture, Caffeine, and Coffee Shops.” Coffee Culture Local Experiences, Global Connections, 2nd Edition, New York, Routledge, 2017, pp. 3–10.

— “Coffee Controversies and Threats to Social Order.” Coffee Culture Local Experiences, Global Connections, 2nd Edition, New York, Routledge, 2017, pp. 53–58.


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An Interview with John R. Rickford

photo credit: Linda Cicero

John R. Rickford is the J.E. Wallace Sterling Professor of Linguistics and the Humanities (emeritus) at Stanford University, where he has been since 1980. He won a Dean’s Award for distinguished teaching in 1984 and a Bing Fellowship for excellence in teaching in 1992. He has a BA from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.

John R. Rickford is a Past President of the Linguistic Society of America. In 2017 he was elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2021, he was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences.

He is the author or editor of many books, including Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English (co-authored, with Russell John Rickford and winner of an American Book Award). In 2022, Routledge published his memoir titled Speaking My Soul: Race, Life and Language,  available from Routledge and from Amazon.

Ed Battistella: Congratulations on writing Speaking My Soul: Race, Life and Language. It’s a terrific memoir of your life and career from British Guyana to the United States of the 1960s. When did you decide that it was time to document your journey in a memoir?

John R. Rickford: As I note in the Prologue, “the Gift of Stroke,” I decided to write my memoir ten days after retiring on August 31, 1999, when I suffered a stroke, which made me painfully aware of my mortality. While still in the San Jose Rehabilitation Center, I began going to Rachael Herron’s Stanford Continuing Studies course on memoir writing. At first my goal was just to write something for my family and friends, but then the project grew bigger, especially after Routledge expressed interest. Frankly, I never thought I would live to see the memoir published! But luckily, and thanks to some of the best medical care in the world, I did!

EB: You were the first person ever to get an undergraduate degree in Sociolinguistics, in 1971, and you mention falling in love with black talk and linguistics as an undergraduate. How did that love affair come about?

JRR: Well I started my undergrad studies as a Literature major, but largely as a result of the influence of my UCSC Anthropology professor and mentor, Roger Keesing, I decided to switch to an individually designed major in Sociolinguistics. UC Santa Cruz was a very innovative campus, and Sociolinguistics was a brand new field at the time (late 1960s), with apparently unlimited scope for new theoretical and applied research. An article by British linguist R. B. LePage also influenced me, as did courses by professors Charles Ferguson, Joshua Fishman and Richard Tucker among others, at Stanford in the summer of 1970.

My love of black talk also began as an undergraduate, especially through the influence of my other major UCSC mentor, African American Sociology professor J. Herman Blake. It was through his Extra-Mural program that I spent a quarter living and working among the Gullah speakers on Daufuskie Island. The similarities between their Gullah variety of Black Talk and my native Guyanese Creole were amazing. I discuss the powerful Gullah praying of Deacon Plummy Simmons in chap. 11 of my memoir “How I fell in love with Linguistics and Black Talk” and note how it was bolstered by working with Bill Labov at the University of Pennsylvania, when I went there as a graduate student.

EB: Your memoir provides insights into race in Guyana and the United States and the ways that your perceptions changed when you came to US in 1968. Could you share some of that experience with our readers?

JRR: The switch from Literature to Linguistics was, as I note, one of two major transformations that accompanied my coming to the US. The other was identifying as Black in keeping with the “one drop” tradition of the US (see Yada Blay’s revealing 2021 One Drop book), rather than the more variegated system of racial classification in Guyana according to which I was mixed-race, colored, or mulatto. While my DNA revealed that my ancestry was 48% to 50% European (similar to that of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, of “Finding Your Roots” fame), it also revealed that my ancestry is 34% African, 13% East Indian, and 3% Amerindian. From the time I arrived at Santa Cruz, Black students began calling me “brother” and I have embraced my Black identity and my status as a “person of color” ever since.

EB: You mention several historic moments in African American history and your involvement and reactions, like leading the UC-Santa Cruz Black Students Association, hosting Rosa Parks at Stanford and South African poet Dennis Brutus at Stanford, and the work that you and Sharese King did on behalf of Rachel Jeantel. Do you think that academics have a special role and responsibility to promote justice and equality?

JRR: Yes, particularly when the issues involve language, as they so often do when it comes to increasing educational opportunity or overcoming criminal injustice, especially for Black people in the US. In the words of Cornel West, which I cite in the Epilogue, “Justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love looks like in private.” As I note in chapter 11, “black people face discrimination in almost every area of life—when encountering police and courts, applying for jobs and apartments, seeking health care or education and more. In almost every case, the discrimination is worse when those black people speak Black Talk.” It’s not enough to love Black Talk—we need to use our special knowledge of Black Talk to make a positive difference in the world.

EB: I enjoyed all the photos your shared and especially your poetry. I had not known you were a poet. Have you written poetry all your life? Do you have a favorite poem?

JRR: Yes, at least since high school, when John Agard (who wrote the Foreword to my book, incidentally), Brian Chan, myself and several others published our poems in Expression magazine. My favorite poem is “Epitaph” by Jamaican Dennis Scott, a class-mate of my wife Angela when she a student at the University of the West Indies, Mona, from 1968 to 1971. This relatively unknown and uncelebrated poem is extremely complex and powerful, much of its power deriving from the double meaning and unusual use of its words (clement, hanged vs hung, black apostrophe, and so on):

“Epitaph” by Dennis Scott 

They hanged him on a clement morning, swung
between the falling sunlight and the women’s
breathing, like a black apostrophe to pain.
All morning while the children hushed
their hopscotch joy and the cane kept growing
he hung there sweet and low.

At least that’s how
they tell it. It was long ago
and what can we recall of a dead slave or two
except that when we punctuate our island tale
they swing like sighs across the brutal
sentences, and anger pauses
till they pass away.

EB: I was impressed with the honesty and detail of your memoir. What was the writing process like for you? Writing your life must be different than writing an academic work.

JRR: It WAS very different from writing an academic work, but also more personal and revealing. I was learning about myself and my passions and fears as I wrote, and in many ways the process, once started, is continuing.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I hope every linguist reads your memoir.

JRR: Thank you, Ed. I hope many do!


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An Interview with Lynn Ransford

Lynn Ransford grew up on a chicken farm in the San Fernando Valley, where she was surrounded by a variety of animals. A little like Beverly Cleary’s Ramona, or L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables, Lynn often got into small bits of trouble. Years later she married Grandpa Jack, a mountaineer, who introduced her to animals in the wild and some wild adventures. Grandpa adds, “She still gets herself into a little trouble occasionally.”

Lynn Ransford has a Master’s degree in Education, three lifetime credentials and is an Early Childhood Specialist. She recently earned her Naturalist Certificate from Siskiyou Field Institute in Selma. She writes the scripts for her docent work at the Historic Beekman House in Jacksonville, Oregon, and for Living History programs offered at historic cemeteries in both Ashland and Jacksonville. Lynn says, “dressing up” in period costumes for the roles of Oregon pioneers is “a lot of fun.”

She also enjoys hiking, camping, quilting.

Maureen Flanagan Battistella interview Lynn Ransford about her book Grandma, Tell Me a Story… About Bears.

For more information “…About Bear“ stories, please go to

Maureen Flanagan Battistella: You got started telling stories to your children and grandchildren, so you must have a lot of experience telling stories. What’s your storytelling background?

Lynn Ransford: Thank you for the opportunity to tell a story about my story-telling! Storytelling has been part of my background for as long as I can remember. All the way back to my daddy: “I’ll tell you a story about Johnny Manory; now my story’s begun. I’ll tell you another about Johnny’s brother. Now my story is done.” My siblings and I would wail and scream, “No, Daddy! A real story! Tell us a real story!” And he’d repeat “Johnny Manory…” until we all laughing hysterically. Storytelling is an integral part of our family tradition to this day. Three generations of us still enjoy sitting around the dinner table, recalling fine old memories, entertaining one another with tales of past (and sometimes current) events.

My professional storytelling background began when I was a teenager and my mother employed me in her pre-school, with the instructions: “Never turn your back, remove ’no’ from your vocabulary, plan an activity for every 5 minutes, and be ready to tell them a story.” One of my responsibilities was to transport preschoolers home from school and I told stories to them the whole way. Earning my way through college and then after graduation, I continued storytelling to preschoolers. Later, throughout my 50 years of teaching all grade levels, reading, writing, and telling stories was an everyday occurrence. As you know, I continue telling stories at Beekman House in Jacksonville, at the Historic Jacksonville Cemetery, and at the Genealogy Library.

MFB: How have your stories influenced and affected your children and grandchildren?

LR: Of course, I continued to read to and tell stories to my own children, who did (and still do!) the same with their children. Those grandchildren are the main reason that I decided to publish some of our favorite family stories. Especially on our long trips to and from camping adventures, there was always a request from the back seat, “Grandma, Tell Me A Story.” Stories about our adventures with bears were ones they never tired of hearing, over and over. You ask how storytelling affected them: our two oldest granddaughters are professional writers; all are storytellers themselves.

MFB: What are you hoping to convey, to teach with your “Grandma …Tell Me a Story” series?

LR: What I hoped to accomplish with writing “…Bear Stories” was to record for them some of our family history. It was my granddaughters who said, “Grandma, you need to write down all the stories so we’ll always have them…” I hope, hidden in the stories, are lessons on how to conduct yourself responsibly in the wild, respect and care for animals and our environment, and also family values: appreciation and care for one another, enjoyment of life, curiosity, adventure, humor… In this way, “…Bear Stories” is like memoir writing — giving something of myself, my love, to my children and grandchildren.

MFB: Is “About Bears” a cautionary tale?

LR: I don’t consider “…Bears” to be a cautionary tale though there are cautions to be taken in the wild, of course, and I do address those, including how to conduct yourself in bear territory. But I certainly don’t want readers to be cautioned to avoid the wilderness; on the contrary. I hope readers will be amused by the stories and eager for their own adventures!

MFB: What has been your most exciting bear experience? Your most dangerous?

LR: The most dangerous bear encounters are detailed in the book, namely in the last chapter when Grandpa Jack was charged by three grizzlies. That incident and others during some of our hikes in Alaska when we came face-to-face with grizzly bears, were definitely scary. Any time you spot a bear, it’s exciting!

MFB: How was storytelling transformed from an oral tradition into a printed book? And why? What was your process?

LR: Transforming storytelling into a book is easy. Once you’ve told stories over and over, you have them down. They are in your head, along with the vivid pictures and clear memories. It’s just the task of choosing the right words to put on paper, not being too repetitive or too verbose, trying to keep up interest and suspense…checking for punctuation and syntax… I was taught that “keeping your audience in mind” is important. I think of those eager faces in the back seat of the car, and I want to keep them nodding, attentive, grinning, and wishing for more.

MFB: What’s your favorite story and why?

LR: My favorite bear story is probably the first in the book — my first encounter with a bear outside the zoo. It’s my favorite because the three other characters in the story (my parents and my brother) are now dead. Retelling that story keeps them alive for me. I can then freshly recall everything: their voices, the affection and warmth we shared, and the laughter.

MFB: About Bears is only the first story you’ve published. Will there be others? Will Grandpa tell any stories?

LR: “…Bears” is not the only book I have published. Years ago, I wrote “Creepy Crawlies for Curious Kids,” “Happy, Healthy Bodies,” and “ABC Crafts and Cooking.” Those were books for teachers, with lessons and hands-on activities for preschool through 2nd grade students. I am currently working on the second in a series of “Grandma, Tell Me A Story…” books. This one is “…About Critters.” Again, it is inspired by our grandchildren’s frequent requests…this time for snake stories, stink bugs and crickets, rats and moles, tarantulas… These are all true stories, most of them quite funny.

MFB: Where can we pick up a copy of About Bears and your next works?

LR: “Grandma, Tell Me A Story…About Bears” can be found at books stores in Ashland (Bloomsbury’s, Tree House, Northwest Nature Store, The Book Exchange, Hermeticus Books, Paddington Station’s Oregon Store) and in Jacksonville at Art Presence Gallery and Rebel Heart Books. It can also be ordered online through Amazon or Barnes and Noble.


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An Interview with Rick Bleiweiss, Author of Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives

Rick Bleiweiss began his career in the music industry as a recording artist, Grammy-nominated producer, recorded songwriter and record label senior executive. He worked with such music industry legends as Clive Davis, Robert Stigwood, Pink, Alicia Keys, Kiss, Donna Summer, U2, The Village People, Young MC, Tone Loc, The BeeGees, Run-DMC, Wu Tang Clan, John Mellencamp, Whitney Houston and scores of other superstars. He was named Music Executive of the Year by the Coalition of Independent Music Stores and at times ran his own record labels.

He has written numerous local and national newspaper and magazine columns and articles (including for the Ashland Sneak Preview), chapters in anthologies and books about music, and an award-winning short political humor book.

Bleiweiss is the Head of New Business Development at Blackstone Publishing & Audio, where he has worked since 2006. For Blackstone he secured works by James Clavell, Leon Uris, Catherine Coulter, Gregory McDonald, PC & Kristin Cast, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Andrews & Wilson, Rex Pickett, HP Lovecraft and scores of other well-known and debut authors. He served on the boards of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for eight years and the Ashland Independent Film Festival for two years and on SOU’s President’s Advisory Group for ten years.

He lives in Ashland with his wife, Deborah Morgan, and a Havanese named Gracie.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives. What should readers know about the book? Who is Pignon Scorbion?

Rick Bleiweiss: The book is very much in the vein of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. It takes place in England in 1910, when the eccentric Scorbion becomes the new Chief Police Inspector for the countryside town of Haxford. Scorbion is very much cut out of the mold of Poirot and Holmes, but he solves his cases in a very unique environment and manner – he holds his interrogations in Haxford’s barbershop where he is assisted by a colorful group of amateur sleuths including the three barbers, the shoeshine man, a young reporter, and a beautiful and brilliant female bookshop owner. The book is a combination of historical fiction, a good old-fashioned whodunit and a cozy mystery.

Scorbion is a complex character whose heritage is Egyptian and Haitian (while he was born in Paris and raised in England). He is an immaculate dresser whose distinctive custom-made clothes are not worn by any others of the time period, he holds opinions and attitudes advanced for the era, and he has foibles – of which he is self-aware.

Pignon Scorbion & the Barbershop Detectives publishes on February 8, 2022 and is available for preorder now as a hardcover, eBook or audiobook most everywhere (on-line and at brick and mortar locations), including Bloomsbury Books in Ashland.


EB: Scorbion is from the same time period as Sherlock Holmes and I think you even mention that Dr. Watson was a friend of his. Was Holmes an inspiration?

RB: I have been an avid reader and fan of both Holmes and Poirot my whole life and wanted to recreate the style of writing that worked so successfully for those characters. In the numerous endorsements and reviews that the advance copies of Scorbion have received, many have mentioned the book as being similar to Poirot and Holmes books, but unique in its own right. And I have set it up so that the reality that Scorbion is in (the ‘universe’ of the book) is one in which Holmes, Poirot and Watson exist as well. In the book Scorbion does talk about having met Watson and them befriending each other, and also about Scorbion’s planning to travel to meet Poirot at some time.

EB: When you think of Scorbion, whose face do you see? Who would play him in a movie?

RB: If this was 60 years ago, I would have said Anthony Quinn, but I’m withholding comment about this in the present as we are approaching actors to play him in a TV series or film, and I’d rather wait until we see who is most interested before I fully comment on that.

EB: What’s the fascination of detective – or detecting – fiction in your opinion?

RB: To me, people like detective fiction because it challenges them as they try to figure out who did it before the detective does, and also because, in most cases, the characters in a mystery book are interesting and people want to know what happens to them. In the case of my book, I have written Scorbion and the supporting characters as colorful individuals who, hopefully, become a reader’s friends during the course of the book. Also, as opposed to hard-core bloody thrillers, Scorbion’s kind of mystery is lighter fare that won’t make you cringe. Hopefully it will make people smile. In fact, Nancy Pickard, one of mystery writing’s most decorated authors, talks about how much she laughed out loud while reading the book. To be clear though, the book is not a comedy, it’s a full-on mystery with humorous elements.

I find it gratifying that the book has appealed to authors who write in many different genres, all of whom have endorsed it, including Rex Pickett (Sideways), Heather Graham (paranormal, suspense, romance), Andrews & Wilson (military fiction), Shelley Shepherd Gray (romance), Natasha Boyd and Pamela Binnings Ewen (historical fiction), Robert Arellano, Dick Lochte, Nancy Pickard, Amanda Flower and Reed Farrel Coleman (mystery), James Wade (literary fiction), Eric Maikranz (science fiction). And you as well. People just plain like a fun whodunit with interesting cases and good characters.

EB: Scorbion has a whole ensemble of helpers—the Barbershop detectives—what’s their function in the story?

RB: They serve as his foils and assistants and lend color, humor and interest to the book. They help him solve cases, and together become an ensemble that hopefully readers enjoy meeting and knowing. The female bookshop owner serves in that role as well, but also becomes a love interest for Scorbion. She is beautiful and brilliant – a match for Scorbion – and provides a voice for the modern woman of 1910 as she engages in the women’s suffragette movement and other causes. The young reporter serves as Scorbion’s chronicler, somewhat in the way that Watson was for Homes, but also contributes a different perspective at times for Scorbion to consider.

EB: The story and the roles of all the characters was really complex, so there was a lot for you to keep track of, it seemed. Any tricks you can share about the plotting a mystery?

RB: I didn’t start with an outline or anything like that. In fact, I started writing Scorbion as a short story in 2015. I, and the Ashland writing group that I was a member of at the time, so fell in love with him and his associates, that I wrote a second short story. Then, I just kept writing and writing until I expanded the stories to become this book.

You are totally correct, it is complex, and during the writing, I had to continually go back and remind myself what had happened previously in the story, so I made sure to have the entire book be consistent. I also regularly returned to the earlier parts of the book and added more red-herrings and plot points to make the story work to its fullest.

All that said, I didn’t know exactly where the book was going at any specific time. I am fortunate that the characters/story plays out in my head almost as though I am watching a movie of it and my job is to write down what I’m seeing in my mind and make sure I describe it in a way that the reader sees what I see and meets the people I meet.

Also, I did a ton of research for the book. I wanted to make sure it was accurate to the time period and the place (even though Haxford is a fictional town). Also, in the book I incorporated real-life people and events that were taking place in both England and in the world at that time so I had to make certain that everything felt and read like it could have really happened.

EB: I think you’ve mentioned that you have a series in mind? What’s Scorbion’s next case?

RB: I am pleased to say that at this time, the next Scorbion book is written, and those who have read the early, unfinished manuscript have said they love it– which of course, I’m very pleased about. The next cases Scorbion and his amateur sleuths take on are a hot-air balloonist who is shot and killed by an arrow while aloft alone in the balloon, a blacksmith who is murdered on his way home from birthing twin calves, a usurious money lender who suddenly dies in one of the barbers’ chairs and a visiting cousin of one of the characters who is attacked and left unconscious.

EB: What else are you working on?

RB: For Scorbion, video game developers FalconInteractive are creating a Scorbion “find the hidden objects” video game, centered around the book, its scenes and the characters. The game is free and already in app stores, but the last two of the six levels are locked, and the unlock code is in the book and audiobook.

I have also written, played and recorded a theme song for Scorbion called – what else(?) – Scorbion’s Theme. It will be in the audiobook and the video game, is in the video trailer for the book and will be used other places as well. In addition, Blackstone and I are making Scorbion t-shirts for both promotional purposes and to sell.

There’s a fabulous video trailer for the book on my YouTube channel (and Blackstone’s as well). I had no idea that the video maker was going to use me in it as the voiceover, but he did, and I think it came out really well.

I have just completed having my new website created – – and one of the unique features in it is a listing of most every independent bookstore in the U.S. so that people can find ones in their area easily. At present the list is over 1300 bookstores. I am a huge supporter of independent bookstores and libraries. Also on the website is a Cast of Characters for the Scorbion book.

I have created and am hosting a YouTube video show called Rick Bleiweiss’s Chapter & Verse. Each “episode” is a recorded video conversation between me and a best-selling author, literary agent, film/tv executive and others from the literary and entertainment industries talking about their careers, their books, their jobs and giving advice for aspiring authors and tips on writing. I am in the process of repurposing the audio tracks into a podcast. As of this writing the Chapter & Verse sessions I’ve done, or have on tap, include ones with authors Catherine Coulter, PC Cast, Rex Pickett, Heather Graham, Andrews & Wilson, Susan Purvis, and Howard Bloom, as well as literary agent Mark Gottlieb, tv/film executive Brendan Deneen, author/agent Richard Curtis, and agents Nicole Resciniti & Julie Gwinn. Many more to come. I think of it as the Inside the Actor’s Studio for authors and writing.

I have a story in a short story mystery anthology that’s being published in May called Hotel California. The book includes newly written stories by Heather Graham, Jennifer Dornbush, Don Bruns, Andrew Child (he has taken over the Jack Reacher books from his brother Lee and has contributed a new Reacher story for the book), John Gilstrap, Reed Farrel Coleman, and Amanda Flower – all best-selling and award-winning authors.

My story centers around a New York City hitman named Walker who escapes to Hawaii when he becomes the target of a hit himself, and his adventures on Maui as he plays a cat and mouse game of survival with the hitman sent to finish him off.

I also have a short story in what will be the follow-up anthology, Thriller.

For the past two years I’ve been writing, playing and recording pop/rock songs with singers Jake Howard and William Ray. And lastly, at least for now, I am finishing up a science fiction rock opera that I have co-written with an ex-bandmate of mine (from back when I was a working rock musician) called The Eye of Jupiter. It’s something like what Star Wars would be like if it was a musical combined with the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The demo music from the rock opera and my other recordings can be accessed through my second website

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

RB: Thank you for asking me to and thank you for the kind words you personally wrote about Scorbion.

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Literary Ashland Interview with Michael Niemann, author of The Last Straw

Award winning author Michael Niemann is the author of six novels featuring UN investigator Valentin Vermeulen. Niemann grew up in a small town in western Germany before moving to the United States. He has studied at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms Universität in Bonn, Germany, and the Graduate School of International Studies, University of Denver where he received a PhD in International Studies.

His novels Legitimate Business and Illicit Trade came out in 2017. Illegal Holdings appeared in 2018 and won the 2019 Silver Falchion Award for Best Thriller at Killer NashvilleNo Right Way and Percentages of Guilt followed in 2019 and 2020. All are published by Coffeetown Press.

His short stories have appeared in Vengeance, the 2012 Mystery Writers of America anthology edited by Lee Child, and Mysterical-EAfrica Always Needs Guns, Big Dreams Cost Too Much and Some Kind of Justice are available as Kindle singles. You can learn more at

His book The Last Straw, set on the US-Mexico border, is available in November 2021.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed THE LAST STRAW and its plot ripped from the headlines. Can you tell us a bit about the story?

Michael Niemann: The tragedy of what was happening at the border over the past few years really gripped me. I’ve taught human rights for thirty-four years and so I knew that the US treatment of refugees was in violation of international law. The Refugee convention is binding for the US.

Talking about this with a friend of mine, she said, “You’ve got to bring Vermeulen to the border.” To which I could only say, “How?” He has no authority, no way of doing anything inside the US. That meant I had to bring him into the story apart from his regular job. Ostensibly he’s on a break, accompanying his partner Tessa Bishonga, who’s a journalist writing about the border. His vacation is interrupted almost immediately after he lands in Tucson. A skeleton is found in the desert. Next to the skeleton lies a notebook in a foreign language. It contains a Manhattan phone number. The number is Vermeulen’s. Since the skeleton was murdered, Vermeulen is drawn into the investigation of the local DA. It doesn’t take long before he realizes that a seven-year-old case has come back to haunt him, and he begins to investigate to get ahead of the authorities. In the process, he gets a closeup view of the mess that’s happening at the southern border.

EB: What was the biggest challenge for you in doing the book?

MN: After developing the premise—a challenge in itself—the biggest challenge was writing about the plight of refugees and asylum seekers with empathy, but also casting them as whole people with complex lives who are caught in a cruel machinery that has been built over the past decades.

The history of this border is complex and painful to read. It’s easy to do that with a “fact dump” that explains how things got to be so bad. At the same time, this is a thriller, exposition must be matched by action. So I struggled a little on how to weave that history into the story in a way that furthered the plot.

That’s the challenge of bringing current politics into a novel. It has to be in service of the story being told. If it isn’t, the story falters and readers will stop reading. Not because they don’t want to read about politics, but because they bought a novel, not a non-fiction book. So the novel has to satisfy those expectations.

EB: What was the research like? I noticed you had some forensic anthropology, some criminal law and more. Do you have a group of consultants you rely on for all that?

MN: No consultants for me. My royalties don’t quite add up to what it takes to make that possible. As I indicated, I’m pretty familiar with refugees and the legal rights to which they are entitled (despite the failure of many countries to honor those). As to the rest, the internet and especially Wikipedia is a wonderful source of detailed information. I had some prior knowledge of forensic anthropology—some of the worst human rights violations in the world were documented by forensic anthropologists who examined mass graves. It so happens that the medical examiner of Pima County (Tucson) does indeed employ such a specialist. It simply takes digging a little deeper to learn how determine the approximate age, sex, and other characteristics of a skeleton.

Learning about Arizona grand juries was a bit of a challenge, but I lucked out when I found a complete transcript of a grand jury session held in Cochise County, the very county where Vermeulen has to testify. A disgruntled citizen had put it on the internet. It gave me a sense of the questions posed, the role of the county attorney and the involvement of individual jurors.

EB: What was your favorite part of this story?

MN: I must say, I had a really good time creating the key confrontations and then developing strategies for the protagonists to escape from them. Delano’s confrontation with the Cartel De Jalisco Nueva Generación was a lot of fun to develop. It’s easy getting characters into trouble, but much more difficult getting them out again in ways that are plausible but not obvious. Who knew that potatoes are a cheap and effective means to disable cars?

But I had the most fun making readers root for one villain over another. At least that was my intention and I hope I succeeded.

EB: It was nice to see Camille Delano, who appeared in Illicit Trade, return. Was that part of the idea from the beginning?

MN: Honestly, I don’t remember. All I had was the skeleton. Then I needed to find a way to link it to Vermeulen. That brought back the memories of the sad-looking character from Illicit Trade. Once he was in the story, Camille Delano became the obvious choice since she disappeared at the end of the second novel.

EB: The book ends with some changes for Valentin Vermeulen. What’s next for him?

MN: Yes, the ending does bring changes. What those changes are is up in the air for now. I wanted to keep my options open because I like Vermeulen as a character.

EB: Where can readers get THE LAST STRAW and your other books.

MN: All my books are available where books are sold. Local readers can get them at Bloomsbury Books in Ashland. Readers farther afield can try the usual online places.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Good luck with THE LAST STRAW

MN: Thanks, Ed. I appreciate the opportunity of being a guest on your blog.

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An Interview with Arika Okrent, author of Highly Irregular

Arika Okrent has an undergraduate degree from Carleton College, an M.A. in Linguistics from Gallaudet University, and a Ph.D. in Psycholinguistics from University of Chicago. A winner of the Linguistic Society of America’s Linguistic Journalism Award in 2016 and a former contributing editor at Mental Floss, she writes about language for a popular audience.

She is the author of the 2009 book In the Land of Invented Languages, a sparkling tour of artificial languages from Blissymbolics to Esperanto to Klingon. Her latest book is Highly Irregular: Why Tough, Through, andDough Don’t Rhyme and Other Oddities of the English Language, an illustrated history of English that reveals why the language is so weird.

Ed Battistella: How did you get interested in linguistics?

Arika Okrent: I was always interested in languages, their rules, and how they differ from each other. I didn’t discover linguistics until after college (a shame, because I went to one of the few small undergraduate colleges that actually has a linguistics department, Carleton College), but I was so relieved when I did. So I wasn’t just flaky, flitting from language to language! There was a whole field for what I wanted to study! Not languages, considered one at a time and independently from each other, but LANGUAGE, that thing that underlies them all (whatever it may be).

EB: In Highly Irregular, you managed to home in on exactly the questions about English that I hear from students –and relatives—weird spellings, unlikely meanings, the pronunciation of colonel. How did you determine what to include?

AO: I wanted to include a good distribution of questions, from different levels of language: letters, spellings, sounds, words, meanings, phrases, sentence structures. I think weird spellings are the most noticeable irregularities about English, but there is weirdness at every level, and it can get harder to see the more fluent you are. But kids and non-native speakers see it right away. The best questions come from them.

I also wanted a good distribution across time periods, of where in the history of the development of English the awkward bits originated. Some we can blame on the oldest layer; things that got stuck and didn’t change. Some come in later with developments in literacy, printing, and social attitudes.

EB: What was the research like in telling the stories of all these oddities? It seems daunting.

AO: There is a lot! But I could tackle each question one at a time, and after a while it became clearer from the beginning where each explanation would fit in the general, larger historical picture. It was interesting to me that some of the stories I already “knew” from my linguistics background turned out to be not exactly what I thought they were when looked at in the larger historical frame. For example I knew that there was an l in would and should because they come from will and shall, but I never thought about the fact that the l had already fallen silent by the time of printing and the spread of literacy, making it much easier for could to then acquire an l. Could got its l from the printed form of would and should and their frequency. But if the l was still pronounced there, it probably wouldn’t have picked it up.

EB: I really loved the way that the illustrations punctuated the prose. Can you tell us a bit about your collaboration with Sean O’Neill? You two have worked before.

AO: We worked together on a series of whiteboard videos for Mental Floss, 2 or 3 minute explanations of various language topics. These are on my YouTube channel. At first the idea was that I could pack more information in by having words+pictures going simultaneously, but what his drawings ended up doing was not just adding another angle to get at the information but really humanizing the things I was explaining. Linguists can get caught up in the abstractions of words, sounds, syntax, but all of those things only have identity through humans using them, and he brings that to life in a light, humorous way. For years our workflow has been this: I send him text, he creates drawings to go with it, and the work goes up. I almost never request any changes. I’m a word person, happy to have found a picture person who can come up with ways to visualize wordy concepts.

EB: I loved the unusual words you came up with—like the fancy-pants addubitation and the down-to-earth witcraft. Are there any words or forms you’d like to bring back to life?

AO: I think we could use some of the verbs from the old patterns that disappeared or became irregular. We could say, “yesterday I boke a cake.” Or “he already clamb that mountain.” Sounds more to the point somehow!

EB: You talk about some words that are trying too hard. I loved that idea. Can you give an example?

AO: The funny thing is that there are words that sound ridiculous to us now, and sounded a bit “too much” when they were coined, that have counterparts that are just as gussied up but don’t sound ridiculous at all anymore, maybe a little fancy, but not ridiculous. So there was the ridiculous inexcogitable, meaning unable (in-, -able) to be developed (-it) out of (ex-) thought (cog-). But we have inconceivable and incomprehensible which are just as cobbled together from Latinate parts. Are they trying too hard? Maybe a little, but we use them and don’t notice so much. Inexcogitable just couldn’t get over the usage hump. It’s trying way too hard.

Shakespeare made fun of this trend in Love’s Labour Lost with the word honorificabilitudinitatibus. It would mean something like “the state of being able to achieve honors” but it is used in the play to mock a couple of scholarly types. He didn’t make it up. It was a Latin word that people knew about and found very out of place in English.

EB: What’s your favorite oddity about English?

AO: I think the way that some words have been split into two words just because someone decided it should be so. Discrete and discreet, for example. We spend a lot of time learning the spelling difference and trying to keep track of which is which, but originally they were the same word. Someone decided to use one spelling for the “separation” aspect of the meaning and another for the “able to be discerning” aspect and a few people went along with that and then everyone not only decided to go along with that, but to enforce it as if it were some inviolable rule handed down from heaven. It’s similar to the way we are starting to use two different spellings for aesthetics (in art) and esthetics (in the cosmetic beauty business). The spelling difference is not yet really enforced as a rule, but some day people may say these are totally different words. We really want spelling differences to correspond to meaning differences!

EB: Are there some emerging oddities that you are tracking?

AO: It’s so hard to predict what future speakers might perceive as odd. Why would a 12th century English speaker think the silent k in knot would ever be odd? They actually pronounced it and didn’t know it would stop being pronounced. But there are some things having to do with technologies that have already disappeared that might seem odd someday. Or already do seem odd to a young person. For example, why podcast? What is that pod in there? If you’re a teenager you’ve probably never seen an iPod, and you listen to podcasts on your phone. My lifetime experience of technology as a middle-aged person means I know why we say “roll up” a car window, and “hang up” a phone, and “rewind” a video but a teenager will be using those words without any experiential connection to the technology that produced them. They’ll probably end up like “eggplant” words. There is a good reason why there’s an egg in there, but we’ve lost our cultural connection to it.

EB: I saw that you once worked in a brain lab. What was that like?

AO: It was exciting! Can you believe it’s actually possible to see an image of brain activity as people are performing mental tasks? (After the fact, with a lot of math involved, but still!) It’s also frustrating in that while it’s possible to locate tasks in the brain, to see what areas light up when tasks are performed, it’s a lot harder to say what that means or what the significance is, especially when it comes to language.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

AO: Thank you so much for inviting me. I appreciate the thoughtful questions.

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An Interview with Michael Rousell, author of THE POWER OF SURPRISE

Dr. Michael A. Rousell is a teacher, psychologist, and professor emeritus at Southern Oregon University. Rousell studied life-changing events for over three decades and established his expertise by writing the internationally successful book Sudden Influence: How Spontaneous Events Shape Our Lives (2007). His pioneering work draws on research from a wide variety of brain sciences that show when, how, and why we instantly form new beliefs. He lives with his spouse in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.


Ed Battistella: Tell us about your forthcoming book THE POWER OF SURPRISE: HOW YOUR BRAIN SECRETLY CHANGES YOUR BELIEFS.

Mike Rousell: Formative moments always fascinated me, those moments that make us who we are, the ones that form beliefs about ourselves. But it’s hard to trace back a belief to when it first formed. For example, do you believe you are clever If so, how did that belief develop? Was it incremental, parents and teachers praising your efforts and commenting on your brilliant creative efforts? Did this belief erupt suddenly through a surprise? Here’s an example. Jane thinks she isn’t creative. One day her boss surprises her by saying, “You keep coming up with clever solutions.” While this isn’t all that stunning, it’s potentially transformative. If Jane already believes she is clever, she accepts this comment as praise. But, if it surprised her, a host of neurological and cognitive processes take place that just might generate an instant new belief: “I’m clever.” That’s what surprises do. And this all takes place instantly, usually outside our awareness because it happens so fast.

EB: You write about the evolutionary purpose of beliefs and your work involves neurological and cognitive research.

MR: Here’s the fascinating part. In our evolutionary past, a surprise often meant immense opportunity or imminent danger. Alert! Am I safe? Is this an opportunity? Those who stopped to think didn’t make it to the gene pool. Accordingly, evolution hard wired us to learn instantly during a moment of surprise.

Let’s take a look at the Jane example about being clever. Once the brain signals a surprise, it needs to make sense of the surprise so it doesn’t happen again. First, you need to know a little about dopamine. We usually think of it as our motivator neurotransmitter. High levels mean approach. Low levels mean avoid. But a sudden spike in dopamine is an error signal, our brain’s way of saying stop what you’re doing, pay attention, and learn. Neurologically, a surprise is a two-phase burst of dopamine, what scientists call phasic dopamine. Here’s how it works. Phase one is a sudden spike signaling that something important is going on. It only lasts milliseconds. Phase two produces a long-lasting change in the dopamine concentration, tagged to the cause or outcome. In Jane’s case, it means she shows signs of cleverness.

Here’s the cognitive part. If you see a monkey in your yard, you’d be surprised, and you’d check it out. We can confirm or disconfirm events in the concrete world. With beliefs about our identity, that doesn’t work. Our brains take a markedly different approach. They do an instant Google search in your repertoire of experiences. In Jane’s case her brain searches for and inevitable finds “times I was clever.” Also like any Google search, she will get pages of hits. That confirms her cleverness. And that’s not all. Now that her cleverness is confirmed, she starts to view life through the lens of “I’m clever.” She sees examples of her cleverness everywhere, more affirmation. That’s our friend confirmation bias at work.

Here’s a key aspect. If you asked Jane how she formed her belief about cleverness, she’d likely say she didn’t know. That’s the secret part. Her boss merely noted it. The belief formation happened so fast it bypassed conscious radar. Her instinctive Google search tells her she’s always been clever. Or her search may find an old memory when she won a coloring contest in third grade.

EB: How does surprise affect learning?

MR: Surprise boosts attention and facilitates long-term memory. So, use it as much as you can. Here’s an example I use in my teacher-preparation classes. I ask my students to predict the correlation between self-esteem and school success. Is it positive, as one increases, so does the other, and if so, is it strong, moderate, or weak? I give them a moment to think about it, then right down their answers, then discuss it within their groups. After a minute, I tell them to openly discuss their responses. The vast majority predict a strong positive correlation. They now expect me to begin a lesson on how to raise students’ self-esteem. I tricked them. I tell them that the correlation does not even exist. This surprises them, “What the,” and this surprise drives curiosity, a need to know. Now they listen thoughtfully as I give challenging examples. You know, the bully who loves himself but gets low grades, victims of ridicule that earn great grades but feel horrible about themselves. If I had simply lectured on the topic, it would have the same results as any lecture material. But because I surprised them, they will all remember this lesson and maybe even try to surprise other teachers. The media and entertainment use surprise strategically all the time to keep your attention. Think of news teasers, “And you thought dogs were your best friend—stay tuned. You won’t believe it.”

EB: How did you get interested in surprise and spontaneity?

MR: As a young man I was fascinated with hypnosis, so I gave it a try. I hypnotized everybody I could. People asked, “Can you hypnotize someone without them knowing? What if they never came out of it.” Epiphany! I started to think, are we all just hypnotized, acting out someone else’s inadvertent suggestions. That lead to a three-decade research agenda on formative moments, events that form beliefs we hold about ourselves. When I asked people to tell me about moments that changed a belief, they often told me about events in their lives that surprised them. Aha, I thought. So I started studying surprise as a catalyst of formative moments.

EB: This may seem like an odd question, but is it possible to plan surprise?

MR: If you mean, “Can we use surprise strategically,” yes, we can. Here’s an example from one of my graduate students. Karla taught junior English. Her student Jeremy regularly requested a library pass because he thought he wasn’t smart enough to participate in class. Karla knows he has impressive technical savvy because he helps his father repair computers. During one of his regular requests, she decided to surprise him by saying, “Are you kidding me? You’re one of the smartest kids I know. Anyone who can do what you do with computers is brilliant.” After that, his attendance improved, and he didn’t request library passes anymore. Karla surprised Jeremy by saying the opposite of what he thought about himself. If this comment surprised him, he has to make sense of it. He probably moved from “I’m not smart enough” to “I am smart enough, just not that interested.” And that’s a much more productive mindset.

Caveat: I don’t want to leave the impression just saying anything to someone that is opposite to what they expect will suddenly cause a character transformation. Most comments that challenge our beliefs get dismissed. The delivery of belief-changing comments requires artful and scientific wherewithal. But we can all learn it. For example, praise often sounds phony, and it’s easily dismissed. State something most others miss, like it’s an objective observation. Instead of “Wow! You’re creative.” Something like, “Your ability to think outside the box makes inventive ideas.”

EB: Do we ever surprise ourselves?

MR: That’s a fun question. Yes, we can surprise ourselves, but we can’t do it intentionally. Here’s an example. Someone challenges you to see how many pushups you can do. You haven’t done any in 10 years and think you’ll do 4 or 5 at most. You do 25. What! That surprised you. Here’s what happens instantly at a cognitive level. You instantly form a new belief, “I guess I’m in better shape than I thought.” And your brain does this Google search to understand why and it automatically finds pages of reasons: working on cabinets for the last few months, trimming overhead branches from trees in the yard, and so on. We surprise ourselves all the time.

EB: You’ve recently retired from teaching? How do you spend your time?

MR: I had planned a wonderful retirement, but COVID postponed it. I write, exercise, read, and make time to do interviews and podcasts.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I really enjoyed THE POWER OF SURPRISE.

MR: Thank you for the opportunity. It’s a pleasure to share my passion for making lives richer.

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An Interview with Margaret Perrow, author of A Hidden History of Youth Development in South Africa

Dr. Margaret Perrow is Professor of English and English Education at Southern Oregon University, where she has taught since 2006. She has a BA from Yale University and an MA and PhD in Language, Literacy, and Culture in Education from the University of California, Berkeley and is the co-director of the Oregon Writing Project at SOU. Prior to joining Southern Oregon University, she worked at the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools.

As part of its Perspectives on Education in Africa, Routledge has just released her book A Hidden History of Youth Development in South Africa: Learning in Transition, which draws on two decades of interviews and ethnographic fieldwork with a South African non-governmental organization called the Joint Enrichment Project.

Ed Battistella: Congratulations on A Hidden History of Youth Development in South Africa: Learning in Transition, which reflects your long involvement with education and democracy in south Africa. Can you tell us a little about your history and how this book came about?

Margaret Perrow: This book was nearly 25 years in the making! In 1997, I took an exploratory research trip to South Africa. I had both personal and professional reasons for that trip. My father, who’d passed away in 1982, was South African – but he had never really talked much about his childhood or his young adulthood there. I had relatives in Johannesburg and Cape Town, and I wanted to explore some family history.

On the professional front, I had been teaching in an alternative education (GED) program for young adults in San Francisco. My master’s thesis had investigated their perceptions of learning — what learning meant for them — and I was feeling around for a good related focus for my PhD dissertation. South Africa had recently held its first democratic elections after years of anti-apartheid struggle, and it seemed like an interesting place to do a similar study, looking at what learning might mean in alternative education settings for young adults in a country that was undergoing rapid socio-economic and political transition. Post-apartheid South Africa was also a good bet for finding research funding at the time. Several grants, including a Fulbright dissertation fellowship, made it possible for me to spend 18 months in Johannesburg. A series of fortuitous connections led me to the Joint Enrichment Project (JEP). JEP was a prominent youth-development NGO with strong roots in anti-apartheid resistance. I was privileged to be invited into JEP as a visiting researcher, where I got to know a group of young adults from Soweto, the townships outside Johannesburg.

I returned to California, completed my dissertation in 2000, and then did not follow the advice of my advisors at the time, to “write the book now!” But the friends I had made, both participants and staff at the NGO, tugged at my heart. I returned for several extended visits over the years, and periodically toyed with the idea of writing a book. By the time of my sabbatical from SOU in 2018, I was finally ready! In fact, the intervening years presented a unique opportunity to look back at how the lives of JEP’s participants and staff had changed over two decades. It was exciting and gratifying to reconnect with so many people who’d been young adults in the late ‘90s.

EB: I was intrigued by the idea that one of your interviewees had that they were “old youth”. What did that mean?

MP: Great question! In 1994, Nelson Mandela officially declared June 16 as Youth Day, making it a public holiday commemorating the young people who led and participated in the 1976 anti-apartheid uprising in Soweto. That man who wrote “we are all old youth” to me in a text message, replying to my “Happy Youth Day” message, was in his early 50s. The collective memory of the important role that youth played in the anti-apartheid struggle is still powerful today, 45 years after the Soweto uprising. You might even say that the idea of youth evokes a sort of nostalgia for agency and power that people today – particularly black South Africans, who make up the majority of the population – do not experience in their daily lives.

The people featured in my book were in their 20s when South Africa was emerging from apartheid. They were too young to have been leaders in the 1976 uprising, but as participants at JEP in the late 1990s they experienced a strong sense of purpose and agency. The memory of this feeling stuck with them – that’s one of the things I write about in the chapters on “repositioning” and “negotiating identity,” and also in the chapter titled “A time-being thing.” The NGO offered them the space and the language to gain an exciting feeling that they were in transition personally, in a country that was undergoing rapid transition. As adults today, that feeling remains an emotional touchstone for them, and they look back nostalgically at that period of their youth.

EB: How has South Africa changed since you first went there? You’ve got an interesting vantage point I think.

MP: With the 1994 elections came political freedoms, and also exuberant anticipation that socio-economic changes would be widespread and quick, especially for the majority-black population living in poverty. But change after 1994 was both astonishingly rapid and excruciatingly slow. Today South Africa is a better place in many ways for black Africans, who make up approximately 80% of the population: universal citizenship; legally desegregated education; business and employment opportunities theoretically available to all; an expanded social-grants program for pensioners and parents of dependent children; increased government housing; greater access to water, electricity and sanitation; more paved streets and streetlights in urban townships; a free press; business and government leaders who reflect the country’s racial demographics.

Yet the country is still plagued by an enormous and persistent gap between a well-off minority (which includes a growing percentage of black Africans) and the vast majority who continue to struggle with poverty and unemployment. The historian Colin Bundy has put it well, saying that in South Africa “the past permeates the present,” inhibiting real structural transformation. The JEP participants’ material circumstances have improved slightly over twenty years, but none have achieved the sort of upward mobility they hoped for when they completed the program in 1998.

EB: The subtitle of your book is “Learning in Transition.” How has learning been in transition in urban South Africa?

MP: I tried to make learning a kind of understated central character in the book. For decades under the system known as Bantu Education, education for black people in South Africa had the express purpose of developing a large supply of manual labor to support the capital interests of the minority white population. To greatly oversimplify things, it was this view of learning that young people were protesting in 1976. When high school students took to the Soweto streets in 1976, they were demanding “education for liberation” rather than education that systematically reproduced the racialized inequities of apartheid. Another significant shift in the meaning and purpose of learning took place in the 1990s, when terms like learner-centered education, a culture of teaching and learning, and learnerships became part of the language of education policy. These concepts – and a new curriculum that included “life skills” – suggested that learning could be viewed as a process of personal development. But in actual practice, learning in the schools attended by most black Africans has remained a matter of acquiring skills and information. That is, a view of learning as the development of human capital in service of the economy.

EB: The JEP or Joint Enrichment Project you worked with helped to construct identity for the Sowetan youth involved. Can you tell us a little about that identity construction?

MP: Yes, that is another shift in the meaning of learning that I tried to highlight: learning as a process of identity-construction. JEP modeled this in its youth-development programs, which emphasized what they called “personal development.” When education’s primary purpose is the producing human capital, development of the whole person is easily neglected. Emerging out of the violence and oppression of the apartheid era, young black South Africans had social and emotional needs that a human-capital view of learning did not address, even if the new curriculum had some content called “life skills.”

Many of the participants came to the Joint Enrichment Project feeling, as I came to see it, “stuck in-between” in their lives. Most were too young to have actively participated in the resistance movement, but too old to have benefited from post-apartheid changes in the education system. Many hadn’t finished formal schooling, and they all were unemployed. They had the feeling that the country was changing around them, and they didn’t want to be left behind. In addition to new skills, the NGO offered them new ways of talking and interacting that led to a personal sense of being “in transition” in a transitioning country. That shift in self-identity was palpable and powerful by the time they completed the program.

EB: In a couple of places you mention discourse paradoxes or discourse shifts. What was the role of language in the politics of education you studied?

MP: Any story about South Africa is at some level a story about language and languages – and which voices are heard or unheard. South Africa officially recognized eleven languages in its new Constitution. Eleven! You can imagine the challenge this creates for public education. Remapping the national discursive terrain, especially in education policy, is not as simple as legislating language protections.

English and Zulu tended to be the lingua francas at JEP. But all the participants were fluent to some degree in multiple languages. Language-meshing was common, with Afrikaans, Sotho, Tswana, and Xhosa woven into conversations.

My view of language in the book draws on critical discourse analysis, a methodology that analyzes how language use both reflects and constructs social realities. Shifts in the Joint Enrichment Project’s focus, purpose, and identity are visible in its shifting discourse over the years—from its formation in 1986 to its closure in 2008. It was fascinating to trace this history, especially as the NGO played a key role in the anti-apartheid movement and subsequent development of youth policy in South Africa.

I think JEP’s biggest challenge as an NGO was to shift from an anti-apartheid agenda to promoting a partnership with the government – a complete pivot in identity! Over time, a discourse of resistance gave way to a discourse of skill-building, which shifted to a focus on personal development, and eventually to a discourse of self-promotion in a free-market economy. What was fascinating to me was how these shifts in the institutional discourse were reflected in the participants’ own talk and interactions.

EB: As you point out, it’s difficult to write about race and privilege. Were there certain disciplines or perspectives that were particularly helpful for you?

MP: As a white, foreign researcher in a predominantly black African context, I worried a lot about committing what philosopher Miranda Fricker has called “epistemic injustice.” I’m acutely aware of the risk of misrepresenting people’s experiences, or interpreting their experiences in ways that would seem unfamiliar to them. At a couple of points, I almost actually gave up the project for this reason. But ultimately, I’ve come to believe that there is value in sharing my particular viewpoint, informed as it is by my whiteness, my foreignness, my position of relative privilege. So I’ve found Fricker’s concept of the researcher as “virtuous hearer” to be extremely helpful. It’s helpful to remember that in all our interactions, our relative social identities shape what people tell us, and also how we interpret what they say.There are some particular disciplinary perspectives that I think have helped me put this concept into practice. Providing readers with sufficient context is critical to writing about race, privilege, and oppression. This is why I’m a fan of the extended case-study method popularized by sociologist Michael Burawoy, which allowed me to situate particular events in a broader socio-historical context. As an ethnographic researcher, immersive participant-observation over many years helped me find an empathic stance. So did learning some isiZulu from the JEP participants. And as I mentioned earlier, critical discourse analysis has been a helpful lens for understanding how racialized privilege and oppression are reproduced or challenged through everyday language use.

EB: On a different note, how has the experience of studying youth development in South Africa shaped your understanding of learning in the US, especially in this time of pandemic?

MP: I must say first that it’s been difficult to hear the news from South Africa – they’re currently experiencing a third wave of COVID, with infection rates at an all-time high. Less than 5% of the population is fully vaccinated. Lockdowns are continuing, including school closures. This has been especially hard on people with young children living in townships or rural areas with limited or no Internet access at home. Like here in the US, pre-existing racialized inequities have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Studying youth development through the lens of a South African NGO has strengthened my belief that learning is most powerful when it’s understood not as simply acquiring marketable skills and knowledge, but as a process of identity construction. The students in my classes are human beings first and foremost; how and what they learn is shaped by who they are, and affects who they’re becoming. As teachers, it’s important to remember that learning and identity are inextricably linked. And that the process of learning – our teaching techniques, our use of language, the way we help students connect with each other – affect who our students become as much as the content or skills they are acquiring.

EB: Thanks for talking with us and sharing your insights.

MP: Thank you for the thought-provoking questions!

Book (hardcover and e-book versions) available from Routledge here:

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An Interview with Nathan Harris, author of The Sweetness of Water

Writer Nathan Harris has a MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Oregon, where he won the Kidd Prize. He was a 2010 graduate of Ashland High School.

His debut novel, The Sweetness of Water, is the story of two brothers, formerly enslaved in Georgia, who form an alliance with a white farmer who believes he has lost his son in the Civil War. Oprah Winfrey selected it as an Oprah’s Book Club pick, calling The Sweetness of Water a “kind of a Juneteenth celebration.” Writer Richard Russo said: “Harris has, in a sense, unwritten Gone With the Wind, detonating its phony romanticism, its unearned sympathies, its wretched racism.” And The Sweetness of Water is one of the recommendations on Barack Obama’s 2021 Summer Reading List.

Ed Battistella: When I read about your book, I ran right over to Bloomsbury Books and bought a copy. I really loved the book. How did you get the idea to write about this period and these characters?

Nathan Harris: A few years ago, I happened upon the transcriptions of freed slaves speaking with historians, and I was struck by how little I knew about the days that immediately followed the Civil War. If all of you could just Imagine, having spent your entire life in bondage, your every movement controlled by others, and suddenly waking up to the earthshaking revelation that the government has given you a new identity, one of being free – while you’re still occupying the same traumatized body, living with the same tortured history of your past, that has defined your entire existence. And now you must navigate the next chapter of your life with no guidance, no signposts to tell you where you might go next, or what freedom even means in this precarious, and even dangerous, new circumstance. The thought fascinated me, and I realized that no novel that I had read had covered that specific moment in time. My imagination started working then, and the seeds for The Sweetness of Water were planted. I imagined two brothers, just freed, standing before the plantation that had been their home, their workplace, their everything… and suddenly being given the option to roam the world as they pleased. Where would they go? What would they do?

EB: One thing I found myself noticing was how you kept the tension going. I was on the edge of my seat again and again. Is this building the tension something you consciously worked on as you wrote the novel?

NH: I think keeping the reader’s interest is at the core of storytelling. It’s definitely something I strive for, but I also follow the story to its endpoint organically. I’m not going to orchestrate some huge twist just to keep the reader intrigued… but at the end of the day, if someone is willing to pick up my book, it’s my job to keep them entertained to some degree.

EB: How did the characters evolve as you wrote it? I loved the ensemble of characters you created and the way that each grew and stood out at different times. Did you have that in mind from the start or did some of the characters take over?

NH: Like the storyline, the necessity of each character became clear over time. George and the brothers were always there. But then I thought, why is George grieving? What brings him to the woods that night? And so Isabelle and Caleb become more clear to me, then. Each chapter that follows simply tags along to the consciousness of the person who best represents that moment in the story. It’s almost magical to find out where the story will go, following its twists and turns naturally, and finding the proper tools to burrow into the respective characters’ mind that I must in order to progress things.

EB: What was the historical research like for The Sweetness of Water? It must have been extensive.

NH: Extensive to me! Perhaps less so for a historian. Whenever I needed to educate myself on some matter, I certainly researched it, and that work can take up a whole writing session… learning just enough to finish a paragraph at times. But it’s part of the job.

EB: Who are some of the writers whose work inspired you?

NH: I could go on for days. Edward P. Jones, James McBride, Toni Morrison, Richard Russo, Marilynne Robinson, J. M. Coetzee, to name a few.

EB: Any thoughts on what the novel has to say about living in today’s world?

NH: We live in a country in flux. Somehow, still, we are going through a lot of the trials that these characters are going through in the novel. That’s a sobering thought, but we should also consider that our country survived that crisis. It can do so again. If only we empathize with one another. Try to overcome our differences. It’s possible.

EB: What are your plans for the future, writing-wise and career-wise?

NH: I imagine I’ll keep writing. I have little else to occupy my time. What I will write . . . now that’s the question.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I hope you get back to Ashland sometime.

NH: Ashland is home, and I’m always planning my next return. I only hope I can meet with some readers while I’m there.

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An Interview with Margalit Fox, author of The Confidence Men

photo credit: Ivan Farkas

Margalit Fox is the author of three previous books: Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals about the Mind (Simon & Schuster, 2007); The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code (Ecco/HarperCollins, 2013), which received the William Saroyan Prize for International Writing; and Conan Doyle  for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World’s Most Famous Detective Writer (Random House, 2018).

Ms. Fox enjoyed a 24-year-career at the New York Times, as an editor at the Sunday Book Review and a senior writer in the Obituary News department. She received the Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York in 2011 for feature writing, and in 2015 for beat reporting. She is one of four authors whose work is prominently featured in Steven Pinker’s 2014 best seller, The Sense of Style; in 2016, the Poynter Institute named her one of the six best writers in the Times’s history. With her Times colleagues, she stars in Obit, Vanessa Gould’s acclaimed documentary of 2017.

Her recently released nonfiction thriller, The Confidence Men: How Two Prisoners of War Engineered the Most Remarkable Escape in History, published by Random House, tells the true story of Elias Henry Jones and Cedric Waters Hill, two British POWs who orchestrated an elaborate con game, centering on a handmade Ouija board, that let them flee a Turkish prison camp during World War I. Publishers Weekly called The Confidence Men a “marvelous history” and the Washington Post said it was “enthralling.” (@margalitfox; #FoxConfidenceMen)

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed The Confidence Men, both for the story itself, with its wonderful writing, and for its insights about the history of cons and mentalism. How did you discover the story of Elias Henry Jones and Cedric Waters Hill?

Margalit Fox: Thank you, Ed! This book, my fourth, is especially dear to my heart because of the eye-popping nature of its true story—the tale of a prison break so bizarre it should never have worked. What delighted me every bit as much as the story itself was the way in which I encountered it: thumbing through a dusty, long-out-of-print book, looking for something else entirely.

About three years ago, when my previous book, Conan Doyle for the Defense, was in production, I began casting about for what to write next. I was vaguely thinking of doing something about the nature of identity as seen through the exploits of pathological impostors—people like Frank Abagnale, of Catch Me if You Can fame, or Ferdinand Demara, the subject of Robert Crichton’s 1959 biography, The Great Imposter, and the Hollywood adaptation, starring Tony Curtis, released the next year.

From my home library, I took down one of my favorite volumes: Grand Deception: The World’s Most Spectacular and Successful Hoaxes, Impostures, Ruses and Frauds, a 1955 anthology edited by Alexander Klein. I knew it contained at least one piece on imposture, but what caught my eye was an essay with the most tantalizing title I’ve ever seen on a work of nonfiction: “The Invisible Accomplice.” That essay, written by my protagonist, the Welsh artilleryman Elias Henry Jones, and originally published in the 1930s, recounted his escapade in brief. It led me back to The Road to En-dor, Jones’s book-length memoir of 1919.

I’ve always been a huge fan of POW-escape narratives, both on the screen and the printed page—hardy perennials like The Great Escape, The Wooden Horse and Stalag 17. But Jones’s caper—rife with cunning, danger and moments of high farce that rival anything in Catch-22—was like nothing I’d seen before: It entailed no tunnelling, no weapons and no violence, all the stuff of traditional prison-camp breakouts.

Instead, Jones and his confederate, the Australian flier Cedric Hill, set in motion an ingeniously planned, daringly executed con game, worked bit by bit on their Ottoman captors—an elaborate piece of participatory theater entailing fake séances, magical illusions, secret codes and a hunt for buried treasure, with clues that appeared to have been planted by ghosts. If all went according to plan, the camp’s iron-fisted commandant would gleefully escort Jones and Hill along their escape route, with the Ottoman government paying their travel expenses. If their ruse was discovered, it would mean a bullet in the back for each of them.

Forget pathological imposters—here was my story! And to my wild delight, some quick research confirmed that with the exception of Hill’s own memoir, The Spook and the Commandant, published posthumously in 1975, there had been no book on the caper in the intervening hundred years. So in telling Jones and Hill’s story, I had not only the pleasure of levering it out of the crevice in history into which it had slipped, but also the privilege of a century’s hindsight, with its attendant advances in psychology. Those advances—in particular a spate of fascinating studies of magic, deception, confidence schemes and the implanting of false beliefs—let me answer the question that had beckoned since I first encountered Jones’s work: How could his escape plan, preposterous in all respects, actually have succeeded?

So began my enraptured involvement with Jones and Hill’s caper, one of the only known instances of a con game being used for good instead of ill. (On reading my proposal for The Confidence Men, my longtime literary agent, an elegant, erudite woman in her 70s, burst out: “Is this for real? These guys are wild!” I was happy to tell her that yes it is, and yes they are.)

EB: The Confidence Men was set roughly in the same time period as your book Conan Doyle for the Defense. Have you got a particular interest in British history of the early twentieth century or just in great mysteries of the past?

MF: I hadn’t planned to return to that period, so I can honestly say that the synchronicity is pure coincidence. But on second thought, one of the things that makes the early 20th century so fascinating (and a fount of wonderful real-life stories) is that it was very much a liminal time in social and intellectual history. On the one hand, you had the continued, hurtling onslaught of modern science, a development that had been a hallmark of the Victorian Age. On the other, you had the persistence—or, more accurately, the renewal, brought about by the Great War—of mass interest in spiritualism.

What seems counterintuitive to us, looking back from our 21st-century prospect, is that some of the most influential figures in both movements were one and the same. The distinguished English physicist Sir Oliver Lodge, for instance, wrote a deeply influential book, Raymond (1916), about his efforts—successful, he believed—to contact the spirit of his son, who had been killed in Flanders. And Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, a trained physician and the creator of the single most rationalist character in world letters, was also an ardent spiritualist.

Though the spiritualist beliefs of men like these look risible today, it’s crucial to remember that the mass-communications technologies of the period—radio, the telephone, the phonograph—had advanced to the point where they were beyond the ken of most laymen: To the general public, they seemed to be quasi-magical devices that let voices travel through the ether as if by magic, and bygone men and women speak, via wax cylinders, as if from beyond the grave. So among men of science of the period, an authentic empirical question was this: Given technology’s power to do all these miraculous things, why shouldn’t communication across the ultimate divide—between the world of the living and the world of the dead—be possible, too? I now realize that Conan Doyle and his cohort are the connective tissue that links my previous book to this one.

In addition, what unites all my books, from Talking Hands (about a team of linguists decoding a sign language newly emerged in a Deaf Bedouin community) through The Riddle of Labyrinth (the story of the race to decipher the mysterious Bronze Age script known as Linear B) to Conan Doyle for the Defense (about Sir Arthur’s real-life investigation of a wrongful murder conviction) is that they’re all heuristic: They all center on the step-by-step process of advancing from an agnostic state to one of knowing. All involve intellectual treasure hunts of one sort or another—and in the case of The Confidence Men, an actual, cunningly designed treasure hunt, engineered to spring our heroes from an isolated prison camp high in the mountains of Anatolia.

map credit: Jonathan Corum

EB: What was the most difficult aspect of this project? I was amazed at the level of historical detail.

MF: How lovely, thanks! I don’t want to say that this book practically wrote itself, because (a) no book is easy, and (b) that would be the most hubristic tempting of the Fates I could imagine. However … one of the most remarkable things about this story is that it cleaved naturally into the classic three-act structure: the men’s imprisonment, their longing for escape, and their building of the Ouija board in Act I; the conception and playing of the con game in Act II (culminating at the end of the act in a disaster that capsizes their entire plan on the eve of their escape); and the dark turn the story takes in Act III, with our heroes attempting to salvage their plan by having themselves committed to a Turkish insane asylum, before the triumphant resolution.

I literally had to do no restructuring of the story whatsoever to create the basic armature of the book—something that almost never happens when one writes narrative nonfiction. I also spent about a year, as I do for all my books, reading background literature on a host of subjects, including the relevant work in psychology and social history; the history of the war’s Ottoman theater—far less well known to Americans than the Western Front—along with memoirs by other POWs in that theater. But even so, I found I was able to interleave the material from these works in and out of the very sturdy structure that Jones and Hill’s story had given me.

So in the end, perhaps because I’ve been researching and writing books for some 20 years now, I found that The Confidence Men leapt onto the page with a kind of unitary ease that I hadn’t experienced before. And now that the book is out, it’s become apparent that its three-act structure is readily discernible by others: I’ve been spending a very happy summer in conference calls with a string of Hollywood producers who want to option it—a fascinating kind of occupational anthropology for an old-school print gal like me.

EB: In some ways, this story of pseudoscience, cons, and spiritualism is a cautionary tale as well as a thrilling escape story. Is there a lesson here for people today?

MF: Indeed, Jones intended The Road to En-dor to be a cautionary tale about how remarkably easy it is to become a spiritualist charlatan, a species of war profiteer that flourished between 1914 and 1918 to wring dividends from gold-star families. (Jones took his title from “En-Dor,” Rudyard Kipling’s bitter poem of 1919. In it, Kipling, who had lost a son in World War I, decries such mountebanks: “The road to En-dor is easy to tread/For Mother or yearning Wife./There, it is sure, we shall meet our Dead/As they were even in life. …” Kipling’s title invokes the biblical Witch of Endor, from the First Book of Samuel, whom Saul asks to conjure Samuel’s spirit.)

Though I hadn’t set out to relate Jones’s story to our own time, it turned out to be remarkably relevant. As I’ve written in The Confidence Men and elsewhere, the process by which a master manipulator instills and sustains belief (a subtle psychological art known as “coercive persuasion”) impeccably explains the wide popular delusions that have suffused our post-2016 landscape—from the contention that top Democrats are running a sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor to the belief that Covid vaccinations scramble the recipient’s DNA. As Michael Dirda of The Washington Post wrote in his thoughtful review of The Confidence Men: “We are all vulnerable to psychological manipulation. More than ever, with no sure footing in our rabidly media-dominated world, the only sensible course left us is to tread very, very carefully.”

EB: As a writer, what do you keep foremost when you are drafting and revising? I think in some ways being a writer is like being a magician, where you have to attend to your task and to the audience.

MF: I’ve always loved best the two endpoints that bracket the actual writing of a book. The first comes after I’ve spent that initial year reading the literature. At the end of that time, I’ll have anywhere from five hundred to a thousand typed pages of notes. I then go through them, page by page, on a very large table (I usually hole up in the library at Columbia University, to which I have blessed access as an alumna of their journalism school), coding every paragraph thematically and marking the quotes and anecdotes I want to use. This process can take days—even weeks—but at the end of it, there is the great pleasure of getting to see what Henry James called the figure in the carpet. That gives me the first strong sense of what the structure and content of the book will be.

Fast-forward a year or so, to when the entire first draft has been written. The thing I love most of all in the entire process is the buffing and polishing one does at this stage—wielding finer and finer grits of sandpaper until the text shines like a mirror.

EB: You made your journalistic bones, so to speak, in obituaries, which is a fairly concise form of storytelling. Do you see some parallels between writing engaging obituaries and thrilling long form histories?

MF: Since I was trained in the Chomskyan tradition of linguistic innatism, I can say that I truly believe all writers come into the world hard-wired for either long-form or short-form work. I happen to be a long-form writer in my bones, and never in my wildest professional dreams did I imagine that I’d spend three decades on daily newspapers. But I can assure all would-be book writers that that life turns out to be sublime training for long-form writing … because a properly written newspaper article is simply a book in microcosm: A story of a thousand words, say, has only to be gridded up a hundred times until you find you’re holding a book in your hands.

The reason for this is fascinating, and it harks back to the early days of modern American journalism. The structure of the contemporary news story was established during the Civil War, thanks to the prevalence of one of those quasi-miraculous communications technologies: the telegraph. For the first time, war correspondents did their reporting in the field and then cabled their stories back to their editors in Boston or Baltimore or New York or wherever. But as with many new technologies, this one was buggy, and the lines often went down. As a result, reporters learned to triage their dispatches, sending the broadest-based, most essential information first, so that if the lines did go down, at least their editors would have basic information to put in the next day’s paper. If the lines came back up again later, the reporters would send finer and finer-grained information in succeeding dispatches—material that it would be nice for readers to have, but that wasn’t essential. And … voila! Thus emerged the classic “inverted-pyramid” structure of the modern news story—broad information at the top, progressively finer stuff at the bottom—which remains the standard today.

This structure has endured unchanged for a century and a half because it’s cognitively perfect: It is an information-processing model, pure and simple. Anyone who’s ever been a teacher knows this: You don’t start the semester (or an individual lesson) with the background detail. You start with the broad stuff, and work your way down over time. Nonfiction books turn out to rely on this model just as heavily: They’re identical in structure to news stories because to be accessible to the reader, they have to be—the only truly significant difference is one of bulk.

A last historical note: It’s absolutely fascinating to go back in the historical clips and see the inverted-pyramid form taking shape. If you look at the coverage of Lincoln’s assassination, for instance, you can see immediately that the form was still in transition in 1865: Some newspapers were already using the inverted pyramid, while others continued the former tradition of straight-ahead, leaden chronology. In those papers, you’ll get stories—shocking to read today—that start, in effect [my paraphrase]: “The president, Mrs. Lincoln and a party of distinguished friends sallied out last night to Ford’s Theater to see that entertaining play, Our American Cousin.” There follow several more paragraphs of blah-blah-blah-ing about the play, the theater party and the cast. Only then, in about Paragraph 4 or 5, does the reporter get around to “a shot rang out.” Talk about burying your lede—the cardinal sin of newswriting today!

EB: Along with your work at the Times, your background included training as a cellist and as a linguist. How do those experiences make themselves felt in your writing?

MF: I always tell young journalists that a life in music is the single best preparation for being I writer that I can conceive of: It gives you an acute sense of tone and color and cadence and pacing—all essential arrows in the writer’s quiver. The number of serious musicians one finds in big-city newsrooms is striking: At the Times, we have a delightful chamber-music group, in which I still play, called the Qwerty Ensemble. Our rehearsals have been in abeyance as a result of Covid, of course, but we’re all eager to resume playing together.

And needless to say, my linguistics training—I did bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the field at SUNY-Stony Brook—helps me as a writer every hour of every day. When I was studying linguistics (long before I had any thoughts of a writing career) I was especially drawn to the subfields of poetics and stylistics—the analysis of what’s happening metrically, syntactically, semantically, phonetically, et al., that makes literary language resonate in the particular ways it does. Even now, nearly 40 years after that education, the conscious awareness of those factors aids me immeasurably in writing, particularly in the 10,000-grit sanding process described above.

EB: Did you ever have aspirations to be a mentalist or con artist? Or do you now?

MF: Good Lord, no! (Unless you’re willing to bake me a cake with a file in it.)

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I hope you find many more untold stories.

MF: It’s been my pleasure, Ed. But I’m now fascinated by the wonderful paradox contained in your last sentence. Any story that I’m lucky enough to come across in the literature, as I did with The Confidence Men, is by definition a “told” story. If it were truly “untold,” then I’d have no way of finding it to lever it out of that historical crevice.

This actually brings us back to pathological imposters. One reason (besides stumbling upon Jones’s story) that I ultimately decided not to write about them is that we can only ever know about the ones who slip up: the men and women who get caught in the act and have books and articles written about them. The most brilliantly successful imposters remain, by definition, indetectable.

So through the twin paradoxes of the “told story” and the “known imposter” we’ve come full circle!

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An Interview with Nicole Walker, author of Processed Meat

NICOLE WALKER’s books include After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet and Sustainability: A Love Story and Quench Your Thirst with Salt. Her work has been published in Orion, Boston Review, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and The Normal School and has appeared in multiple editions of Best American Essays.

Walker grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and earned a BA from Reed College and both an MFA and a PhD from the University of Utah. Today she is a professor at Northern Arizona University in where she directs the MFA and a recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts

Her most recent book is Processed Meat: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster, available from Torrey House Press.

You can find Nicole Walker’s website here.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed the essays in Processed Meats. Can you tell us a little about the title of the collection?

Nicole Walker: The book went through many title drafts: Salmon of the Apocalypses and Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse were among the two, but the apocalypse theme seemed to hit a little too close to home once the pandemic started. A pandemic isn’t quite an apocalypse, but making light of apocalypse when so many people were suffering felt offkey. The phrase “processed meats” covers so many aspects of the book—the way that so much food is processed and served in the U.S., the way raising children in a culture with so much conflicting advice feels like we process our kids as much as help them grow, the way so much of that advice is afflicted upon women for how to eat and cook and live. But there’s also the philosophical angle to the book that suggests we process our traumas and disasters by working through them, by being patient. That work and patience is akin to cooking—the small measures we take to get through the day are the energies that help of process those harder times.

EB: Processed Meats is very much a pandemic book. How did the pandemic affect you as a writer?

NW: I know a lot of people had a hard time writing during the pandemic, but, just like cooking, writing helps me process hard things. I wrote a lot. This spring, while teaching, I assigned myself 1000 words a day for a novel I’m working on. There’s something about being trapped at home that is very helpful to getting work done. I think of Salinger and how he was such a recluse. Of course, as far as we know, he didn’t write much in his most reclusive years. A writer needs some balance between real life and brain or it’s all just brain food and that’s only good for zombies. As we’ve begun to poke our heads back into the world, I’ve noticed how thirsty I’ve been just to drink in the presence of other humans. Zoom offers a lot of benefits but observing human behavior in its natural environment is not one of them. Everyone is weird on zoom. They’re weird in real life too but in a less self-conscious way.

The book went through a substantial reworking. Although disaster was always a primary theme of the book, immediate disaster wasn’t the central theme. I am grateful I had the chance to recast the book to touch on something we all shared. Individual disasters matter but a collective disaster made an impact on all of us. I weirdly feel honored to have had a chance to talk about that impact.

EB: The subtitle is “Essays on Food, Flesh, and Navigating Disaster” What is the relation between food and disaster—and coping?

NW: You anticipated my earlier answer! I spend a lot of time thinking about valences of words. “Coping” is exactly what we do when we try to navigate disaster. You put one food in front of the other. You chop one more onion. You make meal after meal and clean kitchen after kitchen until at some point, coping isn’t just coping, it’s living. Coping and living are two sides of the same coin. Once you start dancing in the kitchen, you know which you’re doing.

EB: Several of the pieces are about the body in sickness and wellness. Should we be thinking about food and health more? Differently?

NW: Just as with raising kids, there is so much advice on how to do it ‘right.’ Eggs are bad. Then good. Then bad again. I think they’re back to being good for you. But, because we are often far flung from our families and traditions, we have to rethink everything we do and everything we eat. It can be exhausting. But it can be good too. There’s something to be said for considering every choice and thinking through is this healthy for my body, for the planet, for my kids. Raising kids and feeding them are nearly synonymous, at least in the early years. They say that choosing what to eat is the only choice little kids get. I try to read as much as I can about nutrition and agricultural effects on the environment. Then, I like to give my kids as many options as possible within that research. More is better with both research and choice and I believe in people’s right to choose with enough research. So, I guess this is a very complicated answer to your question but Processed Meats provides some of the science behind our eating and agricultural habits. It doesn’t aim to be didactic. It says, now that you know the consequences of what you’re choosing to eat (and do and drive), choose well.

EB: You talk about some your past food experiences. What food lore do you want to pass on?

NW: Most of my food lore is about growing food more than cooking it. My mom always told me to plant peas in February. Usually, I forget. Who thinks about gardening in February? But I remembered this year and now, after snow, wind, deep freeze, the peas are going strong. My mom also said to pinch off early flowers from tomatoes so the energy can go into the plant. And then, when you have a lot of tomatoes, pinch off some of the flowers still so the energy can go into ripening the fruit you already have.

Also: use a lot of butter. My daughter cooks eggs in a pan without using any fats at all. I have to scrub that pan. Also, butter is delicious.

EB: For you, what is the best thing about food?

NW: The idea of abundance. I love going to the CSA (community supported agriculture), picking up my vegetables, laying them out on the table, cutting the tops off the beets, putting the greens in the fridge, roasting the roots. I love it when there are seven fresh carrots laid upon the table. I also love that, when I turn around, five of them are gone because my kids love fresh carrots. They like old carrots too but fresh carrots go quickly around here.

EB: What’s the worst thing?

NW: While there is sometimes an abundance of delicious vegetables, there’s often a scarcity of ideas of what to cook. I hate running out of ideas of what to make for dinner. As the end of the book articulates, chicken, chicken, chicken becomes the go-to and stand-by and the distinctly uninspired. We eat a lot of chicken and carrots. Sometimes, I run low on ideas for what to make because my kids don’t always love the same thing as the other. Sometimes, I’m just busy and what? There’s more chicken? Whoohoo. I hate the thought of going to the store too for one ingredient that a fancy new recipe has. But, after reading Tod Davies’ Jam Today and talking with her about Processed Meats, I remembered that shooting for culinary perfection is its own flaw. So, when I made asparagus soup but had not the sorrel the recipe called for, I used dandelion leaves, which I had in abundance reminding me that looking for what is abundant around you instead of searching out that which is scarce is the key to happiness.

EB: Can you tell us about some of the other projects you are working on?

NW: One of the things I mentioned above was some of the difficulties of families being far flung. I’m working on a book about how home shapes the kind of climate change future we see and how we cope with the effects of climate change and how loss of homes uproots us from that connection to land. Some of the essays have titles like “How to Be Happy When Your Favorite Tree Is Dying” and “Effluent: What Can We Do with All this Human Waste.” I try to be realistic about climate change and things like “going home.” That realism sometimes leads to hard reflection. It also sometimes leads to absurd realizations. I like the idea that even when confronted with hard things, we can cope with them with humor, as well as with delicious foods.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

NW: Thank you so much, Ed! I loved these questions and had fun answering them. I’m so grateful to you for reading and talking about Processed Meats!

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An Interview with Nicholas Buccola , author of The Fire is Upon Us

Nicholas Buccola is a writer specializing in American political thought. His book, The Fire Is upon Us: James Baldwin, William F. Buckley Jr., and the Debate over Race in America (Princeton University, 2019) was the winner of the 2020 Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction.

Buccola has MA and PhD degrees from the University of Southern California and his work has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The Oregonian, Dallas Morning News, Baltimore Sun, Dissent and Reason.

He is also the author of The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty (New York University Press, 2012) and the editor of The Essential Douglass: Writings and Speeches (Hackett, 2016) and Abraham Lincoln and Liberal Democracy (University Press of Kansas, 2016).

Ed Battistella: Congratulations on the Oregon Book Award and all the other accolades The Fire is Upon Us is receiving. I really enjoyed the book. What motivated you to dig into the lives of the lives of Baldwin and Buckley so deeply?

Nicholas Buccola: Thank you so much, Ed. I was really honored to see The Fire Is Upon Us (Fire) honored along so many great books (including yours). Many years ago, I watched the BBC recording of the 1965 Cambridge debate between Baldwin and Buckley and I became transfixed. It was such a dramatic and important moment. At the high tide of the civil rights movement and on an international stage, you have “the poet of the civil rights revolution” (as Malcolm X described Baldwin) and “the Saint Paul of the conservative movement” (as one of Buckley’s biographers described him) debating race and the American dream. The debate itself struck me as historically and politically compelling and as I dug into the archives, I soon realized that I had a much longer story to tell. Baldwin and Buckley were almost exact contemporaries – born in the same city, in fact – and the “backstory” of their life experiences and intellectual biographies proved to be the heart of the book. By weaving their stories together, I hope the book reveals things that might be missed otherwise.

EB: A striking moment for me was the debate that involves Baldwin and Malcolm X and the emphasis on identity as living free of myth and ideology. Would you say that is central to Baldwin’s message?

NB: Yes, I see that as one of Baldwin’s key insights. Time after time, Baldwin explained that what concerned him most were “grave questions of self” or “questions of identity” and how those questions were related to the human quest for freedom and fulfillment. Baldwin’s basic idea was that human beings construct their identities in ways that they think will make them feel safe. One of the primary ways we tend to do this, Baldwin argued, is by relying on the idea of status; by trying to figure out ways to feel superior to others. Ideologies of exclusion and inhuman ways we treat one another – large and small – have their roots in this desire for safety. As Baldwin often said, the roots of racism are within the racist, not within the object of his hatred. The same is true of homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, and so on. Baldwin did not think any of us would wake up one fine day and fully liberate ourselves from the myths and ideologies by which we live. But he did call on all of us to engage in the sort of ruthless introspection each day that might allow us to treat ourselves and each other with greater dignity than we might otherwise.

EB: Reading some of the arguments that Buckley and others made about stability, protest, Western culture, and limiting voting, it’s hard not to see their echoes today. Is Buckley really the key figure in American conservative movement?

NB: Many readers have been struck by the parallels between the ideas Buckley developed and popularized and the contemporary American Right. I try to be careful about overstating Buckley’s importance and making overly bold causal claims about the connections between his ideas and actions and the political world we see. With that caveat, I do argue in the book that Buckley played an outsized role in American political culture. He edited the country’s most important conservative magazine (National Review), he had a syndicated newspaper column published thrice weekly in over one hundred newspapers, he was on the road speaking forty weeks of the year, he was a constant presence on radio and television, he had the ear of many leading conservative politicians, and he played a key role as a kind of “gatekeeper” and organizer in the conservative movement. From this position of considerable influence, Buckley had a great deal of influence. In the book, I provide a deep dive into his racial politics and surrounding issues and many readers have found plenty of reason to credit (or blame) Buckley for some of what we see on the contemporary American Right.

EB: I enjoyed the way you brought out the parallels between Buckley and Baldwin and the use of the alternating narratives. Was it difficult to keep the two in balance?

NB: Yes and no. I feel incredibly fortunate in the sense that the material really told me how to tell the story. The fact that Baldwin and Buckley were almost exact contemporaries made the “parallel lives” approach look rather well. And I was also fortunate that both men were compelling characters who led lives that were not only interesting, but also lives at the center of their respective movements. They were both so prolific as public and private writers so I felt like I could glimpse into their minds almost every day as they were living through and shaping this history. On the question of “balance,” there were moments when that was challenging. If, for example, one character had an especially interesting year while the other did not, I had to come up with ways of altering my “weave” technique to tell the story in the most compelling way. Sometimes that meant I would stick with one character a bit longer before switching back to the other a bit later in the timeline. I never had a real formula in mind. I did not, for example, track how many pages I was writing about Baldwin and then try to give Buckley “equal time.” I let the material guide me. In the end, I feel good about where we ended up. It’s a weighty book and earlier drafts were even weightier. I am grateful to my editor, Rob Tempio, and peer reviewers for helping me find places to trim.

EB: I hope you’ve had an opportunity to teach some of the material from the book, and I wonder what the reaction of today’s student is to the issues of the 1960s?

NB: I have had the opportunity to teach some of this material. I was able to teach a seminar on Baldwin and Frederick Douglass and it was the most extraordinary teaching experience of my life. Although the class was about two figures I have studied for a long time, it was probably the course in which I did the least amount of talking. The students were so engaged with these wonderful writers, so I got to sit back and listened to their brilliance for a few hours a week. What a joy. Baldwin’s words strike the students as so prophetic and urgent. I am now teaching him in my Introduction to Political Theory class (“Great Political Thinkers”) because I think he belongs right there alongside Plato and the other major thinkers. I think today’s students are fascinated by the politics and culture of the 1960s. Especially in the last year or so, they sense that they are living in a world in which the political culture is undergoing some major shifts. They see there is much to learn from other moments in which the ground was shifting beneath the feet of the culture.

EB: If Baldwin and Buckley were magically transported to the present, what do you suppose they would say?

NB: Oh wow. There’s a thought! They were both remarkably consistent as thinkers so I do not imagine their political philosophies would have changed very much as a result of the things that have happened since each man died (Baldwin in 1987 and Buckley in 2008). While I think Baldwin had the same moral lodestar throughout his life – the idea that we ought to pursue the conditions under which each human being can be free and find fulfillment – I think time did radicalize his thinking on how this might be achieved. Baldwin was always suspicious of ideologies and oversimplification so I resist the idea that he would fit neatly into one of our political boxes. But I do think he would call on us to think through the radical implications of the moral idea that each human being has the right to live in a world in which their dignity is respected and protected. That world is not this world and we have a long way to go. On the other side of the story, it would have been fascinating to see how Buckley would have navigated the Trump era. On the one hand, he did not like Trump personally and I think he would have been critical of Trump’s disdain for norms, institutions, and the rule of law. On the other hand, I think it is clear that he would have liked a great deal about Trump’s politics. Buckley was no stranger to the politics of racial resentment that was so key to Trump’s rise and he was, in fact, one of its architects and promoters. And he probably would have also been tempted – as so many conservatives were – to put up with Trump because he appreciated some of the outcomes he delivered (e.g., tax cuts, conservative judges, etc.) If you figure out how to magically transport them back, please let me know. I have some questions. Drinks are on me.

EB: How did writing the book change you as a writer and scholar? What’s next for you?

NB: This book has been a transformative experience for me in so many ways. Everything I had written before this was really for an academic audience of fellow “experts” or “insiders.” When I started doing the research for the book, I knew I could write another book like that, but I also knew I shouldn’t write another book like that. It was tempting to stick with what I knew how to do, but the material was pushing me in this other direction. What I had in front of me was a compelling story that was historically important and politically urgent. My job was to tell this story. This meant abandoning most of the forms and techniques of my training as a political theorist. But once I got in the groove, I never looked back and I don’t know if I ever will. I am still doing political theory (or political philosophy), which is, at its core, about asking big questions about how we ought to live together. I am going to keep doing that, but my primary method will be to address those big questions by way of (hopefully) compelling narratives.

Nowadays, I am at work on another book that looks at the same era I examined in Fire but from a different angle. As I worked on this book, I was struck time and again by the use of “freedom” or “liberty” by both the civil rights revolutionaries and the conservative counterrevolutionaries. These groups were both operating under banners of freedom, but they were viewing each other with suspicion and often downright hostility. I am using the “weave” technique once again to figure out what we can learn about the meaning of freedom – a concept we are still arguing about – by thinking about these two movements together. Who knows, this may be the second book in a trilogy about this era. We’ll see. The good news is I’ve never loved writing more than I do now and I think these stories are urgent for our politics.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

NB: Thanks so much for the opportunity. These are great questions and I look forward to visiting Ashland to talk about the book!

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An Interview with Ellie Anderson of the Ashland Public Library

Ellie Anderson is Head of Adult Services at Ashland Branch of Jackson County Library Services, which she joined in 2020. She has a master’s degree in library science from Rutgers University and a BA in theatre from Oberlin College, and she has worked in libraries in Monterey and San Mateo County in California, and in Princeton, New Jersey.

Ed Battistella: Welcome, Ellie. I suspect I’m not alone in saying that the e-books and audiobooks were two of the things that got me through the COVID lockdown of the last year. Have you noticed a shift in borrowing habits towards those resources?

Ellie Anderson: Thank you, Ed! I’m so glad the library’s electronic offerings have been helpful to you. E-books and e-audiobooks have been popular for some time, but COVID lockdown certainly encouraged new people to take advantage of how easy it is to access books and other materials electronically. Our library patrons love physical books, too, and are happy to be able to browse in the library again, but e-books have expanded options for a lot of people.

EB: What is the Library2Go?

EA: Library2Go is one of the ways library card holders can access our collection of e-books and other electronic resources. It uses the Overdrive platform, which may be familiar to long-time library users, and offers over 35,000 titles to check out on a variety of devices. In addition to Library2Go, library patrons should also take a look at Hoopla, Kanopy and TumbleBooks.

EB: As I explored a bit, I found all sort sorts of things available in the Library2Go.  What’s available in addition to audiobooks and e-books?

EA: We recently added over 3,300 e-magazines in multiple languages to our Library2Go service, accessible through the Overdrive platform. Library card holders can also stream e-books, e-audio, movies, TV shows, and music with the Hoopla App. Kanopy is a source for indie films, classics, and world cinema, as well as The Great Courses and PBS content. All the services I’ve mentioned offer content for children as well as adults, but Tumble Book Library specializes in animated books and read-alongs for grades K-6.

EB: Can folks use the Library 2 Go Resources on any type of device?

EA: Pretty much. Most of these electronic resources can be used on Apple and Android devices, as well as on a laptop or desktop computer. Library2Go e-books and e-audiobooks are compatible with Kindle devices as well. If you are using a smartphone or tablet, you will need to download an app (the Libby App for Library2Go) and do a little bit of setup the first time you access our collection but it is pretty straightforward.

EB: I noticed a new interface. What prompted the switch?

EA: As the services libraries provide grow and change, it makes sense for the ways we interact with our communities to change too. Our new website is designed to highlight those programs and services while making it easy for visitors to find the information or library materials that brought them to our site.

EB: Are the materials available forever or do they eventually go away, just as books wear out?

EA: That depends on the publisher. Some titles are a one-time purchase for the library and others are purchased for a certain time frame or number of uses. Since electronic materials don’t show wear and tear the way a physical book or DVD would, publishers and libraries have had to come up with new ways of doing business together for these formats.

EB: If people need more information or help getting started, what should they do?

EA: Library’s website,, is the best starting point. You can access Library2Go and the other services we’ve talked about here and find self-help guides for your device here. If you still have questions, please feel free to call or stop by the library or contact our Digital Services specialists for a one-on-one appointment. Digital Services can be reached at or by phone at 541 734-3990.

EB: Any personal recommendations? What are you reading?

EA: I’ve just started reading The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes, which is a novel based on the real-life Packhorse Librarians who brought books and information to small communities in Rural Kentucky during the Depression. Next on my list is The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune, a fantasy story about an orphanage for magical children and the power of chosen family.

EB: Thanks for sharing all this with us.

EA: Anytime. Librarians love to spread the word about our services.

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An Interview with Colby Elliott of Last Word Audio

COLBY ELLIOTT is an award-winning audiobook narrator and the talent behind ​​LAST WORD AUDIO. Originally from central Nebraska, he has a Master’s degree from The University of Denver and taught theatre before becoming a narrator. He was a finalist for a 2017 Audie Award for his narration of Coffee at Luke’s: An Unauthorized Gilmore Girls Gabfest and won an Earphones Award for Bill Fitzhugh’s Fender Benders.

You can follow him at @colbyelliott

Ed Battistella: Tod Davies introduced me to your work on Snotty Saves the Day and I’ve become a fan. I’m looking forward to the whole History of Arcadia series. How did you get into the audiobook business?

Colby Elliott: I fell in love with audiobooks at a young age, listening to cassettes like Tales of Poe narrated by Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone on my Sony Walkman while walking to school in North Platte, Nebraska. Spooky stories made for a brisk walking pace.

As far as making audiobooks, I’d been a technical theatre teacher for a number of years and because I’d worked with microphones and digital audio workstations, I just kind of figured out that I could do it. So, I recorded an audiobook in my spare time, sent it to the authors and after they okay’d it, sent it directly to Audible. One became two, which then became nearly 40 now.

EB: I noticed that you do a variety of dialects and accents. In a book with lots of voices, how do you keep from getting lost?

CE: I always try to create a “Character Bible” for each project. Every character entry will have information like musical voice range (Tenor I through Bass II), placement within the mouth and throat, descriptors of different regions and accents or even occasionally actors whom I might keep front-of-mind while performing.

It can get confusing. It’s funny how there always seems to be “that one character” who makes a brief appearance in Chapter 2 and then mysteriously reappears in Chapter 42. At those times the Character Bible is vital!

EB: I notice a lot of popular culture in Last Word’s releases: Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls, Tim Hanley’s Wonder Woman Unbound, The Psychology of Joss Whedon, and more. Does Last Word Audio have a specialty?

CE: We definitely concentrate on projects that are interesting to the geek lit and nerd lit worlds. Comic books, role-playing games, and pop culture are definitely things that are fun and rewarding to produce.

But looking at Last Word’s longer scope, many books tend to happen in distinct artistic clusters. There was a definite Comic Book Period, a more general Pop Culture Period, and most recently a Table-top Roleplaying Period. And in between are authors and publishers that I love to read and want to support their message. Tod Davies of Exterminating Angel Press and television producer and writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach both spring to mind. They have wonderful messages within their art and it’s a joy to narrate.

EB: How do you choose products for Last Word Audio?

CE: Every book I’ve chosen for Last Word Audio does have a point to it. Sometimes it’s as straightforward as “Bill Fitzhugh writes wonderful characters that I relish playing,” but it can also be as complex as, “I want to tell the history of the tabletop roleplaying industry because playing those games made want to become a narrator.”

I can usually tell if a book is one I want to do. If, while I’m reading, I think, “Why doesn’t everyone know about THIS? They SHOULD!” I know I have an audiobook I want to produce.

I’m also keen to find authors in the places I live and support them, especially if it’s a genre I haven’t yet recorded. Scott Lininger’s Guesswork was my first YA title when I lived in Colorado, My Peculiar Family was my first horror book, and Matt Herring’s Monkey See, Sea Monkey was my first Middle Grades fiction, the latter two done when I lived in New England.

EB: What’s the toughest thing about recording and producing audiobooks? I tried out once and could barely make it through a paragraph without a flub.

CE: It requires an awful lot from the actor for sure. Being “in the moment” for hour-long recording sessions can be grueling…and exciting. When you’re in the middle of a scene and the characters are saying things that bring you to tears or laughter, it’s just amazing.

And as far as flubs go, they are part-and-parcel of the performance. If you aren’t making errors from time to time in the studio, you aren’t committing to the emotional truth of the characters. In the moment, a “the” can become an “a,” which happens a lot, but weirder mistakes can happen, too. A narrator might see one word and say another. Then it’s the actor’s responsibility to “punch back in” to the recording mix and correct the error while also trying to achieve the same tone and energy. It can be a challenge!

EB: What makes a great audiobook? The writing? The narration?

CE: A beautiful alchemy between the two is where the art happens. I’ve listened to very average prose elevated by a wonderful narrator and I’ve heard wonderful writing absolutely throttled by a bad performance. For me, a great audiobook is one where I make discoveries at every level of the project’s narration. I’m initially inspired by the pre-reading, the performance itself reveals the characters inner lives, and finally, in the editing I discover ways to mold the performance, giving each scene poignancy.

EB: You’ve got sample of audiobooks on your website. What should folks try first?

CE: I always recommend Bill Fitzhugh’s Fender Benders for its characters and story. It’s a cool whodunit with moments made memorable by musical elements.

For those who love fantasy I think Snotty Saves the Day is an absolutely perfect place to start in the way it melds folktales, legends, and myth. A fortunate consequence of producing things in “periods” is that once a listener finds a title they like, there are usually a few others ready to be put in their listening queue.

EB: When I lived in Nebraska, I fell in love with Darren McGavin’s reading of the Travis McGee books. Who are some of your favorite narrators?

CE: Some of the classic British narrators really resonate with me. Patrick Tull who narrated the Aubrey/ Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, Frederick Davidson/David Case (the same narrator and pseudonym) narrating the Harry Flashman series. More recently, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith reading the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovich are among my favorite listens and relistens. I love American narrators Susan Bennett, Barbara Rosenblatt and Tavia Gilbert on the female side, and Bronson Pinchot and the late, great Bill Dufris are always a joy for male voices.

Honestly, so many of my colleagues have narrative techniques that I love and want to emulate. I like Dion Graham’s silky smoothness and Julia Whelan’s deftness with romantic scenes, especially when reading her own work (not easy).

EB: I notice that LAST WORD AUDIO’s logo is a gorilla wearing earphones. Can you clue us in on that?

CE: When I first started Last Word Audio, I was concentrating on finding back-list titles, a bit like a literary archeologist, and I thought my audiobook recordings would be “The Last Word” on any book.

The gorilla in the headphones came about when I was talking to an artist-friend about logos, we wanted it to be formidable…but vaguely cuddly and cartoonish. Big and imposing but…relaxed.

It’s the 800-pound gorilla who is, in reality, a laidback dude who hangs out in the mists on the mountainside reading his books.

And I’m told if one squints a bit…it looks a little like me.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

CE: My pleasure and thank you for listening!

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An Interview with Tod Davies: Talking about Talking Books

TOD DAVIES is the author of The History of Arcadia series: Snotty Saves the DayLily the SilentThe Lizard Princess and now Report to Megalopolis: or The Post-modern Prometheus, which Kirkus Reviews called “A philosophical fable.”

Tod is also the author two cooking memoirs Jam Today: A Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got and Jam Today Too: The Revolution Will Not Be Catered.

Along with that, she’s the editorial director of Exterminating Angel Press and EAP: The Magazine. Tod lives with her husband, the filmmaker Alex Cox, and their two dogs in Colestin, Oregon.

Ed Battistella: You have recently released the audiobook version of Snotty Saves the Day produced by Last Word Audio and read by Colby Elliott. What motivated you to release Snotty as an audiobook?

Tod Davies: I’ve been wanting to get more into audiobooks in a big way, since I think they are one of the fastest growing platforms for books. But I especially wanted to do The History of Arcadia series that way—it’s particularly good content for an aural experience, since it’s a bunch of different voices chiming in on how the world can change, and why. The series was conceived as a unified theme told by many different types of literary voice, including the early spoken story of fairy tales, legends, and myths. I knew it would be fascinating to hear, as well as see it on the page.

EB: Do you think more people are listening to audio books, these days? I know I am.

TD: Oh, absolutely. Anecdotally, some of my closest friends are addicted to them. For many good reasons: long commute drives, need to relax while doing other chores, less strain on eyes that have spent all day on the computer, etc. That screen time is an increasing drag. And the fact that the younger generation likes to travel light means they don’t want to pack up books for the next move. Audiobooks fit in perfectly with that ‘don’t want to own a lot of stuff’ ethos.

EB: This is the second EAP book you’ve released as an audiobook. Are you planning to do the whole History of Arcadia series? How about the Jam Today books?

TD: To have the entire The History of Arcadia series as a Last Word Audio production is an author’s dream come true. I think Colby Elliott is a dream narrator (and these books should be read, or heard, as a long dream). But the next two in the series are narrated by women, and I’m not sure Colby wants to take that on. It would be great if Last Word found a great woman narrator for those two.

EB: What makes a good audiobook in your opinion?

TD: A really engaging narrator is the main thing. One of my dearest friends is an avid audiobookphile, and she says she’ll listen to content she wouldn’t usually go for if the narrator is one she loves. She likens it to restaurants: “If the food is great but the service is terrible, you won’t go back. But if the food is only good and the service is wonderful, you WILL go back.” Of course you need good content, since if the food is great and the service is wonderful, it’s a perfect score. I do think you need content that lends itself to person-to-ear narration. Incidentally, I love that we’re coming full circle, and returning to bard recitation of story!

EB: Snotty Save the Day and The Supergirls were read by Colby Elliott of Last Work Audio. How did you discover him?

TD: Actually, he discovered me, or at least, EAP books. He got in touch after reading Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls, and said he wanted to do it as an audiobook. I even think it was one of the first that Last Word Audio did, though of course now they have a huge list. Anyway, we arranged a phone call, and I could tell right away that Colby was my perfect kind of partner. Usually I can tell pretty quickly, which saves a lot of time and angst. And Colby was obviously multi-talented, no-nonsense, and very human, which last is probably the most important. This was particularly lucky, since I’d been dreaming about doing audiobooks, though at the time I had my hands completely full with publishing our list. That’s slowed down now, fourteen books later, and I’m looking to expand our publishing horizons in a different direction. Audiobooks are a big part of that vision.

EB: Have you ever thought of narrating your own books?

TD: I think The History of Arcadia series needs another set of voices than just mine. The more the merrier, as long as they are, literally, on the same page. And you know, I never could have figured out how to handle the footnotes in Snotty Saves the Day, and you’ll hear that Colby did an enchanting job with them. I was thrilled.

I’d love to see Arcadia as a streaming series, and I can tell you, I would not want to be the showrunner on that! It would need another perspective. Other perspectives are always a great thing.

That said, I think I may be the best person to narrate the Jam Today cookbook/memoir series, since in great part it’s about my wistful desire to actually be in the reader’s kitchen, holding my glass of wine, and chatting about what they’re doing for dinner. So an audio narration would get me that much closer. It wouldn’t be tough for the recipes, since all of them in the Jam Today series are so flexible. I could adlib. I’d like that. That’s why you embrace as many platforms as possible—every one is a different way of looking at the material.

EB: Any Exterminating Angel news you can share?

TD: I’m focusing more on writing these days. I do find that all those years of endless multitasking have left me with my multitasking capability worn plumb out. So writing is more than enough for me right now. I’m working on the fifth The History of Arcadia book, narrated by a member of the next generation of Arcadians. She cannot understand why the older generation is so obsessed with defeating Megalopolis when there is so much to enjoy about life. Kali, my heroine, just wants to get on with having fun, and to be left alone to enjoy her hybrid monster companion and friends from over the forbidden border to imperial Pavopolis. She learns what she needs to do in her generation to evolve to something completely new, a solution never thought of before.

I’m also writing My Life with Dogs, which is kind of a memoir about dogs in the same way that the Jam Today books are about food—really it’s just a way to get into talking about my own experience of life in this time and place. It does feature some wonderful dogs, though, I will say that.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

TD: My dear Literary Ashland, always a pleasure. Looking forward already to our next chat.

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An Interview with Stephanie Raffelock

Stephanie Raffelock is the author of Creatrix Rising, Unlocking the Power of Midlife Women, (She Writes Press – August, 2021). She also penned the award winning book, A Delightful Little Book on Aging.

A graduate of Naropa University’s program in Writing and Poetics, Stephanie was a contributor to The Rogue Valley Messenger in Oregon. She has blogged for Nexus Magazine, Omaha Lifestyles,, as well as

A former i-Heart Radio host, she is now a popular guest on podcasts, where she inspires women to embrace the strength and passion of their personal story. Her commitment to uplift women extends to teaching personal development classes for incarcerated women and non-profits, including Dress for Success, Austin.

A recent transplant to Austin, Texas Stephanie enjoys an active life with her husband, Dean and their Labrador retriever, Mickey Mantel Raffelock.

On May 20, 2021, she will host a panel feminist titled The Creative Surge of Midlife Women: Women’s History is a Her Story, sponsored by the Friends of Hannon Library

Ed Battistella: Tell us a bit about your forthcoming book Creatrix Rising.

Stephanie Raffelock: I was inspired by the women around me who were running for political office, starting businesses, creating art and living life vitally, all of them over the age of fifty. The culture’s perception of the midlife woman is a worn-out and sometimes toxic stereotype. So the book postulates a new and emerging archetype, the Creatrix.

The name Creatrix comes from the three Greek fates, the spinner, the weaver and the cutter. The weaver was called Creatrix. The name literally means: A woman who makes things. The older archetypes, especially that of the Crone, don’t fit. Nobody wants that title. Crone means disagreeable old woman. So Creatrix Rising, Unlocking the Power of Midlife Women, is about the shift that’s happening in midlife women that puts them in touch with their inner strength, power and wisdom.

EB: You tell your own story of growth in the book. What motivated you to write it at this point?

SR: Self-knowledge reveals all things. Somewhere along the way, I committed to living the examined life. The older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve been able to appreciate the psychological and spiritual insights not only within my self, but within others as they walk the path of what we call the human experience.

Telling my own story is my credential. I’m not a theologian, a psychologist of a sociologist, so my credibility comes from sharing my most authentic experience of life’s unfoldment. The motivation for writing the book is inspired by the observation of women around me. Women are more willing than ever before to stand in the light of their truth and speak it. And, has there ever been a time when we needed a woman’s voice in leadership more?

EB: How have you evolved as a writer over the years?

SR: Slowly. Oregon was a writer’s incubator for me. I retired from fulltime work when I moved to Ashland, and for the first time in my life, I had the hours to dedicate myself to my love for writing. I became active in Willamette Writers. I was part of a writing circle. I went to classes and workshops. I wrote articles for The Rogue Valley Messenger as well a column for a large blog called Sixty and Me. I wrote seven full manuscripts. I wish I could tell you that they were all good. But the truth is, they were mostly rambling narrative. But that is the process. Study and practice – there’s really no way to replace that. My years in Oregon formed my discipline and respect for the craft of writing. Over a period of several years, I started to find my voice and more confidence in my ability to hammer out work that communicates and articulates the heart of the story I’m writing.

EB: The Dalai Lama has predicted that women will save the world. What’s the role of creatrixes?

SR: I have long believed that women hold the emotion of the world; that the gift that we bring to the table is a counter balance to the old, paradigm of bottom line profit. The Creatrix recognizes the power of her creativity and feeling tone. She leads with that. The Women’s March of 2017 was filled with Creatrixes. The 2018 midterms, where more women over the age of 50 ran for local, state and national office is an example of the Creatrix, rising. I believe that the greatest role of the Creatrix archetype is to give a positive title to the creative surge that women over the age of fifty are experiencing and demonstrating in our society.

EB: Tell us about your earlier book on aging, A Delightful Little Book on Aging.

SR: A Delightful Little Book on Aging, was just that – a delightful book. It’s a series of essays and personal stories about embracing the years, rather than fearing or disdaining them. One summer, I’d had the experience of a manuscript being turned down by thirty-five publishers and then losing my literary agent. I felt that if I didn’t pull together something and keep going, I’d give up. So, I put together a compilation of essays and stories that were about my experience of loving my age, and loving life. It’s a small hard back, gift type of book.

EB: What sort of feedback have you gotten about A Delightful Little Book on Aging, which I noticed received several awards.

SR: I was amazed at the positive feedback that I got, and yes, a number of awards. That little book, gave me a big boost of confidence and I’ve enjoyed sharing the message, which seems to be much needed – that of life doesn’t stop at fifty. Life gets better, more creative and presents to all of us a question worthy of contemplation: “Why does nature keep us alive after midlife?” It’s such a great question. And the answer to that bring me full circle to the beginning of this discussion – Self-knowledge reveals all things.

EB: You published with the wonderful folks at She Writes Press? What was that experience like?

SR: She Writes Press is dynamic sisterhood of women authors. Brook Warner who co-founded the company has created an environment of support and encouragement. She teaches all of her writers about the publishing experience. She offers continuing education classes with some of the finest writers in the country teaching them. She Writes Press provides a much needed platform for women to tell their stories.

EB: Can you tell us about some future creative plans or ongoing projects?

SR: I’ve recently started a new manuscript about secular spirituality, questioning how we come to believe what we do, and what informs those beliefs. I’ve been building a speaker’s resume and look forward to adding the Hannon Library event to that endeavor. I’m preparing to teach a class at the non-profit, Dress for Success, Austin, an organization that uplifts women, helping them with everything from business attire, to resume writing, to personal development. I’ll be teaching a class called Rewriting the Ending to Your Story.

And on a final note, I have a new puppy named Mickey Mantel Raffelock who keeps me out on the trails, daily. I’d forgotten how much energy a puppy has. My joyful experience is tinged with humor, because I have a dog who manages to sneak into the bathroom and grab the end of the toilet paper and run through the house, leaving a long trail of toilet paper behind him. He’s a pretty funny guy.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

SR: Thanks, Ed. It’s a very special experience to be giving a presentation in Ashland, Oregon. I love the town and the university. Both will always have a special place in my heart. I only wish I was going to be there live and in person. . . one day soon, I hope. Thanks for the interview.

You can find Stephanie at:





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An Interview with Scott Kaiser, author of Albert’s Adventures in Willy World

C:\Users\battiste\Downloads\Scott Kaiser Headshot.jpg Scott Kaiser is a director, playwright, master teacher of acting, and author who spent 28 seasons as a member of the artistic staff at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, where he directed, adapted, coached, or performed in all 38 of Shakespeare’s plays.

Kaiser is the author of more than a dozen books on Shakespeare, including Have Shakespeare, Will Travel; The Tao of Shakespeare; Shakespeare’s Wordcraft; and Mastering Shakespeare. He has also penned several original plays, including Falstaff in Love, Love’s Labor’s Won, Now This, Splittin’ the Raft, and Shakespeare’s Other Women: A New Anthology of Monologues.

He has degrees from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London, the University of Washington, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

His latest book is Albert’s Adventures in Willy World, a fantastical satire of the commodification of William Shakespeare—which Kaiser refers to as “The Shakespeare Industry.”

You can visit Scott’s personal website here.

Ed Battistella: I enjoyed Albert’s Adventures in Willy World, which is a murder mystery but much, much more. I saw it as a good-natured ribbing of the Shakespeare industry, with a twist of acid. Is that what you had in mind?

Scott Kaiser: Sure, that sounds about right. Or perhaps, as Alice in Wonderland inspired the book, you might think of it a journey down the rabbit hole of the Shakespeare Industry.

EB: The setting is a fictional Shakespeare theme park, which casts Ashland in a whole new light. Do you see Ashland as a fantasy world?

SK: In my imagination, Willy World is actually closer to Walt Disney World, a place where every square inch of real estate is carefully curated to serve a purpose—that is, to make money for the Disney Corporation.

That fact is, if William Shakespeare were a corporation traded on the New York Stock Exchange, it would be just like Disney—a multinational mass media and entertainment conglomerate, operating in every country on the planet, worth untold billions.

Luckily, Shakespeare is in the public domain, so he belongs to everyone. Which means that everyone can make a buck off of him. And they do!

Having said that, Ashland, where I’ve lived for 30 years, was certainly on my mind when I created Willy World. You can see the Bard’s influence everywhere in our town, in faux Tudor facades, and cutesy Shakespearean names like As-U-Stor-It, Oberon’s Restaurant, The Windsor Inn, and streets like Birnam Wood Road, Romeo Drive, and Elizabeth Avenue. And why not? Shakespeare is the life-blood of this community, bringing in waves of tourists, who see plays, book rooms, eat meals, drink wine, buy trinkets, fill their tanks with gas, and eventually return to buy a second home.

EB: If it were up to you, how would Shakespeare be treated differently, not just here but globally?

SK: Like most satires, the aim of the book is not necessarily to advocate for particular changes, but to hold a mirror up to all the absurdity that Shakespeare inspires in our modern culture. Such as endless movie adaptations, “translations” of his work into plain English, people who want to ban him from the curriculum, Anti-Stratfordians who believe in a centuries-old conspiracy, First Folio freaks, original pronunciation geeks, thousands upon thousands of books and dissertations about the Bard’s life and work, bottomless merchandising of every conceivable Shakespeare-related product, and so on, ad nauseam.

EB: The characters you introduced along the way seemed to have hints here and there of real people: Barry Heckler, Louise Quibbler, Elsie Phoneme, and so on. How closely were you channeling folks?

SK: My lawyer is grateful to you for asking this question! Please note: the characters portrayed in this book are fictitious. No identification with actual persons living or deceased is intended or should be inferred.

Seriously though, the characters in the book aren’t based on anyone in particular—they’re composites of people that I’ve gotten to know during my decades of working in the professional theatre, people with quirks and eccentricities and highly specialized talents. So I’d like to think that I’ve created my characters with affection, not disdain. If the characters remind my readers of someone they know, well, that’s not something I have control over, is it?

EB: What’s been the reaction from your former colleagues at OSF?

SK: My former festival colleagues easily recognize, of course, the inspiration for certain passages in the book, and tell me they’ve gotten a good laugh out of them. But they said this during the pandemic, wearing masks, so, who knows if they really meant it!

Anyway, it’s important to note that the book isn’t really about OSF, or any institution in particular—it’s about people all over the country, all over the world really, who make their living from the corpus of Shakespeare. Which includes most of my dearest friends and colleagues. As well as me, myself, and I.

EB: Where can readers get your book?

SK: Funny you should ask! Believe it or not, the book can be found on a remarkable website called by using this link. And here’s my author page if you want to peruse the other 16 books I’ve written. And here’s a link if you’d rather look at a cute puppy.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Don’t let the Oxfordians get you!

SK: Zounds! You’re not one of them, are you?

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An Interview with Amber Reed, author of Nostalgia After Apartheid

Amber R. Reed is the author of Nostalgia after Apartheid: Disillusionment, Youth, and Democracy in South Africa, (Notre Dame Press, 2020), part of the Kellogg Institute Series on Democracy and Development.

She earned a BA in anthropology from Barnard College and MA and PhD University of California, Los Angeles and was a Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Among her specializations are the areas of South Africa, youth, democracy, race, nostalgia, apartheid, and visual media.

Dr. Reed is an associate professor of anthropology at Southern Oregon University.

Ed Battistella: In your book, you talk about the anthropology of nostalgia. What is the anthropology of nostalgia?

Amber Reed: The idea here is to apply the perspective of cultural anthropology to the understanding of nostalgia – something that I think most people instead think of as an internal, psychological experience. How can we understand nostalgia as a cultural and social practice? I write about nostalgia as a phenomenon different from other forms of remembering; it is about looking at the past with a desire or longing to return to it. But more than that, nostalgia recasts the past in ways that might not be truthful. In other words, we desire a return to something that may never have actually existed. This is a new but expanding area of anthropology; a few other people have written about this in the past few years as well.

EB: How did you get interested in South Africa and in Xhosa culture?

AR: When I started graduate school at UCLA in 2008, I knew I wanted to study the role of non-governmental organizations in promoting youth activism in South Africa. I had been to the country once before in 2005 as a volunteer doing wildlife rehabilitation, and was excited to return in a research capacity. I connected with a public health researcher at UCLA working on HIV/AIDS in South Africa, and she connected me with the Sonke Gender Justice Network. Sonke had been doing a bunch of programs in the rural Eastern Cape, and needed someone to do an assessment of one of them. I wanted to learn more about what they had done, so I traded my ethnographic skills for access and wrote a report on their Digital Stories project. That was my first introduction to the Kamva community, and they placed me with a family to live for a few weeks in 2009. That family became my second family, and when I returned to do doctoral research in 2012 I lived with them for the year.

EB: You talk about the way that nostalgia can be a form of resistance and how local cultural forms act as a prism for Western-based notions of democracy. Could you give an example?

AR: A clear example from my research is the nostalgia rural Xhosa teachers have for students during the apartheid era. They wax nostalgic for how the apartheid government was strict in schools and helped them manage their classrooms – students were well-behaved, the curricula allowed them to teach in ways they felt aligned with their cultural emphasis on rigid age hierarchies, corporal punishment was legal, etc. By comparison, democracy today in South Africa feels like an imposition; national human rights legislation has made corporal punishment illegal, the curricula demand active learning and student participation, lessons are supposed to include teaching about LGBTQ rights. These are all things many Xhosa people consider foreign and even immoral, and nostalgia becomes a way to recapture a sense of security from the past.

EB: You note that nostalgia tells us about the present. What are the implications to what seems to be a backlash among youth for the future?

AR: Yes, I see nostalgia as more about the present than the past: usually, it is a commentary on people’s dissatisfaction with now. In South Africa, this is largely about a sense of disappointment and hopelessness with how the state has enacted its democracy after the anti-apartheid movement and everything it promised. I think this has huge implications for youth and the future: for one thing, a lot of South African youth are parroting their elders’ nostalgia and talking about how life was better during apartheid – and they weren’t even alive then! Another implication might be political alignment: if people are waxing nostalgic for an authoritarian regime, is this going to change youths’ voting behavior in the future?

EB: I understand that the book came out of your 2014 doctoral dissertation. What are some of the difference between writing a dissertation and writing a book like Nostalgia After Apartheid?

AR: The biggest difference is that by the time the book comes out, you are usually really far removed from when you actually did the research! I did the bulk of this research in 2012, so it has been a long road and I’ve spent a lot of time pouring over the data again and again to get here. The dissertation is really about meeting the objectives of your doctoral committee; demonstrating your ability to synthesize ideas from your discipline, to discuss major schools of thought, to show that you did the fieldwork necessary for the degree. The book is really different – it is about introducing your readers to a new topic and drawing them into a world they might not have any familiarity with. For the book, I added a lot of stories and personal anecdotes that weren’t in the dissertation. I hadn’t thought of them as “data,” but in retrospect they were some of the more informative parts of my research experience.

EB: Are there lessons to be drawn about the US political scene from the anthropology of nostalgia?

Absolutely! Nostalgia is a political tool wielded in campaigns and by politicians constantly. “Make America Great Again” is all about nostalgia – a fantasy of a better past that relies on specific ideas of what America was and should be. It isn’t about facts, it is about painting a particular vision. I think the more we can recognize the role of nostalgia in politics, the more we can break down problematic assumptions and portraits of what America is or is not that might be harmful to particular communities or individuals.

EB: What other research projects are you working on?

AR: I have two major projects at the moment: one that is longer term and started pre-COVID, and the other that arose during the pandemic. The first is examining the movement of rural, Black families in the Eastern Cape to suburban areas that were white-only spaces under apartheid. I’m focusing on the port city of East London on the Indian Ocean coast to do this work, which is a really interesting smaller South African city that I think doesn’t get enough scholarly attention but sort of encapsulates a lot of the South African story in its history. This project is going to look at why people move to these spaces, and what they experience when they get there. I’m also looking at the role of visual media – television, Internet shows – in projecting a fantasy of multiracial suburban life that doesn’t necessarily match the reality of what people experience when they get there.

The COVID project is one I’m doing with a South African colleague who is a trained ethnographer and Xhosa person. She has conducted interviews and administered surveys with people in East London who were active in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s and are today dealing with the lockdown orders from the South African government (they had one of the world’s strictest lockdowns in the early days of the pandemic). We’re asking about how the lockdown laws – keeping people in their houses, forcing them to show ID to move around, police enforcement – might trigger their memories of state violence and surveillance during apartheid.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

AR: Anytime!

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Pacific Voices, 2014 -2019

Pacific Voices, 2014 -2019

Edwin Battistella, Kristin Denham, Anne Lobeck

Progress report [12/2020]


1. Introduction 2

1.1 Challenges 2

1.2. Goals 3

1.3. Oregon and Washington 3

2. Pronunciation 5

2.1 The cot-caught Merger 5

2.2 Front vowels 7

2.3 Aaron and Erin, and Mary, merry and marry 8

2.4 Horrible 9

2.5 The pin/pen merger 10

3. Once-stigmatized forms: coupon and often 11

4. Two other problematic words: syrup and route 17

5. Lexical changes in progress 18

5.1 on accident and by accident 18

5.2 dude 20

5.3 legit(ly) 21

5.4 Hella 22

5.5 Your guyses 23

5.6 Jojos 24

6. Comparison with the Harvard Dialect Survey 26

7. A Reading Passage 30

8. What we learned and what’s next 32

8.1 Struggles 32

8.2 Learning opportunities 32

8.3 Next steps 34

References 35

Key words: Oregon, Washington, Low vowel merger, California vowel shift, Pacific Northwest speech, slang and language change.

1. Introduction

1.1 Challenges

One of the challenges of teaching linguistics, and especially of teaching linguistics to non-majors is to heighten students’ awareness of dialect diversity, dialect research, and dialect stereotypes. As professors, we discuss language variation in classes and elicit pronunciations, vocabulary and usage from students, but we often find students to be uncomfortable with the complexity of usage and sometimes nervous that they are not speaking properly. Students in the Pacific Northwest are often surprised to learn that they have dialects and that the speech of the Pacific Northwest might vary widely according to features of region, age, gender, ethnicity, education and social class.

And it’s not just students. When we talk dialect diversity with members of the general public, they are sometimes skeptical that the region would have a discernable accent or dialect. A historian colleague who read an essay on Pacific Northwest dialect perceptions questioned whether bag-raising was a real phenomenon and asked how dialects compared to other regional styles, like clothing and architecture. An administrator from Texas, reviewing a grant proposal, opined that Oregonians didn’t have an accent, “not like Texas.”

Here we report on some survey and classroom techniques to bring linguistic research into the classroom and engage students in exploring their own speech variation. Taking Ashland, Oregon, and Bellingham, Washington, as end points along the I-5 corridor of the Pacific Northwest, we piloted a survey of about 887 (mostly) students during the academic years 2014-2019 (continuing into the 2019-2020 academic year), asking about perceptions of pronunciation with a long-term goal of collecting demographic information. After obtaining IRB approval, we used the Qualtrics survey software to develop an online survey asking students 35 questions, 22 of which had to do with language and 12 of which were demographic, and a final question about using their survey results.[1]

1.2. Goals

Initially, we had four goals. First, we wanted to give students an appreciation for the complexity of dialect data and the way in which representations of dialect (and data) are often abstractions. Thus, in class discussions, students often note that their own speech differs from textbook descriptions, and they cite various anecdotal examples and counterexamples from friends and relatives (“My boyfriend says EYE-ron and it drives me crazy,” said one student). By having students analyze actual data from their speech community, they can see where patterns exist and don’t, and they may become less judgmental about variation.

Second, we wanted to explore the various vowel shifts and the extent to which they might differently be showing up in the speech of northwest Washington (Bellingham is 21 miles from the Canadian border) and southwest Oregon (Ashland is 13 miles from the California border). We hoped that we might spark students’ interest in the topic of vowel shifts and phonetic variation more generally.

A third goal was to collect data on some potentially age- and social class-related items, such as the use of gender neutral dude, the double possessive your guys’s, hella, and legit, as well as the pronunciations of items like often and coupon.

Our fourth goal was to develop some questions, activities and exercises surrounding local dialects that would allow us to reinforce learning goals in linguistics as we discuss the survey results in classes.

Finally, in this initial phase of our work, we cast a wide net to experiment with the survey software and to determine both what was doable as researchers and what was important to teach in class. In the conclusion, we offer some suggestions for the future.

1.3. Oregon and Washington

The earliest languages spoken in the Northwest were those of immigrants from northeast Asia, traveling across the continental shelf into what is now Alaska and Canada, making their way along the Pacific coast and inland. As a result, the Northwest shows especially dense concentrations of pre-European languages. First contact by Europeans came by sea, when Spanish galleons landed along the coast of northern California in the mid-1500s. In 1778, on his third voyage to the Pacific, English Captain James Cook sailed to the central Oregon coast and in 1792, Captain Robert Gray of Rhode Island sailed into the mouth of the Columbia River, which Gray renamed after his ship, the Columbia Rediviva. The famous expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and the founding of Astoria in 1811 helped to further establish the American presence in the Pacific Northwest.

From 1818 to 1846, the Oregon Territory was jointly occupied by British and Americans. The Oregon Treaty of 1846 fixed the boundary between Great Britain and America at 49 degrees. Once the border was established, American settlement in the Oregon Territory took off. In The Willamette Valley: Migration and Settlement on the Oregon Frontier, William Bowen writes that those settling in that area tended to be “disproportionately from the ranks of unmarried men from the Northeast or abroad.” The census of 1850 recorded 11,873 Oregonians, 60% of whom were males and most of whom hailed from the states of Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio (Loy, et. al. 2001, 15).

According to Randall V. Mills, most settlers funneled through the Missouri and Iowa area while preparing to travel west on the Oregon Trail. The migration brought language to the new territory that incorporated the speech of many emigrants from New England or New York (Mills, 1950: 83). In Oregon, Mills proposed three broad founding dialect areas, a narrow strip along the Willamette River from Portland to Eugene, a more rural area extending from the Willamette River Valley to the Pacific Coast Range, and an area to the east of the Cascade Mountains and to the south of the Calapooya Mountains. As for Washington, Carroll Reed (1952) noted that while the Missouri element predominated in the areas of Washington adjacent to Oregon, spreading “all along the Columbia River, particularly in the areas east of Walla Walla,” other waves of settlers from Iowa, southern Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio predominated in the Pacific counties. According the Reed, “the speech of southern Illinois and Iowa may be considered typical for most of the state of Washington,” at least as far as the founder effect is considered.

Today both states are increasingly multilingual, though less so than much of the rest of the country. According to the data from the Language Map Data Center of the Modern Language Association, about 83 percent of the Oregon and Washington population speak English at home and about 17 percent speak a language other than English, with Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian, and Tagalog among the most robust.[2] Apart from the founder effects and linguistic diversity, both Oregon and Washington have significant urban-rural divides and show the influence of emerging industries and of emigrants from other states.

Our subjects were 887 (mostly) students at Southern Oregon University and Western Washington University.[3] Demographic data collected included age, gender, ethnicity, hometown, perceived social class, college major, and family household income. We also asked students’ self-perception of whether they were urban, rural or suburban and to rate themselves as speakers and writers of English.[4]

2. Pronunciation

2.1 The cot-caught Merger

The Pacific Northwest is geographically situated between two current linguistic shifts in vowel production: the so-called California Vowel Shift and the Canadian Vowel Shift. The California Vowel Shift, shown below with the shifts represented by arrows, involves a fronting of the vowels produced in the back of the mouth—the long vowels boot and coat and the shorter vowels in could and cut being pronounced more toward the front of the mouth (approaching butte, key-oat, cud and ket), with the short front vowels being lowered and backed (kid toward ked, get toward gat and cat toward cot). At the same time, the earlier distinct vowels in cot and caught are merging. Linguistic shifts happen slowly over long periods of time, and are sensitive to style shifts and the performance of identity, but overall what had been a vowel trapezoid historically is becoming more of the vowel triangle.[5]

C:\Users\Brandon Aleshire\Desktop\CALshiftWARD41.png

(diagram from Ward, 41, from Hinton, et al.)

Not shown in the diagram is a counter-raising among the front vowels in syllables ending in velar consonants (g, k, ng). There, the lower vowels in the front of the mouth shift upward, yielding beg for bag, laig for leg, thenk (or even think) for thank, and so on. See Freeman (2013, 2014).

The elements of the California vowel shift are proceeding at different rates and are more prominent in different speech styles and some (such as the lowering and backing of /æ/ and the fronting of /uw/ have made their way into media stereotypes of the Valley Girl/Surfer Dude speech. Students are often aware of the fronting of /uw/ in their own speech as an aspect of speech style but seem to be less attuned to their backing of /æ/.

The Canadian Vowel Shift is similar to the California Shift in several respects. First described in 1995 by Clarke, Elms and Youssef, the shift also involves the lowering of the front lax vowels /æ/ (the short-a of trap and cat), /ɛ/ (the short-e of dress), and /ɪ/ (the short-i of kit). It also involves the merger of the cot and caught vowels, though the merged Canadian vowel is more rounded, slightly lower and slightly further back than the merged cot/caught vowel among many speakers in the U.S.

According to Charles Boberg, the retraction of /æ/ is being led by speakers from Ontario, in in east-central, and by women. The shift is somewhat less advanced among speakers from the other regions of Canada and among men (Boberg, 2005). In the Atlas of North American English, (Labov et al., 2006), it is suggested that about a quarter of speakers in the Western U.S., exhibit the Canadian Shift. [6]

C:\Users\Brandon Aleshire\Desktop\CANshiftWARD42.png

(diagram from Ward, 42 from Clarke)

When we discuss the vowel shifts in introductory classes, students are fascinated but also sometimes unsure of their own pronunciation. Thus we begin by collecting data on some of the more easily identifiable of the vowels involved in the shift, the vowel sounds in the names Don and Dawn. The don/dawn pair is salient for students because the orthography indicates the word difference and thus highlights the phonological merger. And often, someone knows in a class knows both a Don and a Dawn and can attest to the possibility of confusion arising from the merger. Two of our survey questions looked at this pair and at hock and hawk:

Q2 – How do you usually pronounce the vowel sounds in the words DON and DAWN? The same or differently.

Q19 – Do you pronounce the words HOCK and HAWK the same or differently?

81% said they pronounce don/dawn the same and differently and 83% pronounce hock/hawk the same.

It is worth asking at this point whether students are accurately able to self-identify their pronunciations in response to prompts. More research is doubtless needed on this topic, but in section 8 we report on a sub-study comparing actual pronunciation to reported pronunciation for 23 speakers. Here we found an 89% accuracy in identifying their own pronunciation.

2.2 Front vowels

We also asked a set of questions about the pronunciation of the front vowels in the words Craig, leg, and egg, where the vowels may be tensed /e/ or a lax /ɛ/. The name

Craig is word of Celtic origin and related to the Scottish Gaelic creag “rock,” and thus also to the word “crag.” The pronunciation varies in the English-speaking world, and in the U.S. and Canada it is often pronounced with the lax /ɛ/. Historically the pronunciation of Craig falls outside of the California/Canadian shift and the alternate pronunciations appear to be in fairly evenly distributed among Pacific Northwest speakers.

Q5 – Do you usually pronounce the name CRAIG as crAYg or crEHg?

59% reported pronouncing the name as crAYg and 41% as crEHg.

In leg and egg we were looking for evidence of raising of the vowel lax /ɛ/, to a tensed /e/. This is part of the counter-raising aspect of the California vowel shift in particular.

Q7 Do you usually pronounce EGGS more like EHggs or AIggs?

Q20 Do you usually pronounce the word LEGS more like LEHggs or LAYggs?

The results were:

Non-raised /ɛ/ Raised /e/

64% EHggs 36% AIggs

62% lEHgs 38% lAYggs

Most speakers reported pronunciations with a lax /ɛ/ though just over a third were egg and leg raisers.

In classes (and conversations, especially those with individuals in the service professions) we also find evidence of raising of the /æ/ vowel in thank, which is in a closed syllable before velar /ŋ/ and /k/. Thank you is sometimes pronounced /thɛŋkju/ or even /thInkju/. We return to thank you in section 8.1 below.

2.3 Aaron and Erin, and Mary, merry and marry

We also examined the pronunciation of the pair of names Aaron and Erin, which makes a nice pedagogical contrast with Dawn and Don. In most of the U.S., the pronunciation of Aaron and Erin is the same, with a mid-lax /ɛ/ rather than a low /æ/. American English merged the two sounds before /r/ while they remain distinct in the U.K.[7]

Given this, we expect the American West to show the merger of these sounds quite robustly.

Q17 – Do you say the names ERIN and AARON the same or differently?

78% reported pronouncing the names the same.

The Aaron/Erin merger opens the door to classroom discussion of the three-way contrast before /r/ in the words Mary /e/, merry /ɛ/, and marry /æ/. In New England, New York City and Philadelphia and parts of the South, the three words are often distinct. In the Inland North and mid-Atlantic (excluding Philadelphia), there is often a two-way contrast of with Mary and merry pronounced as /mɛri/ and marry retaining the /æ/ (/mæri/). See Labov, et al. (2006), Dinkin (2005) and Gordon (2008), and Kretzschmar (2008) for more background and discussion. In much of the rest of the country, the three are merged as /mɛri/. For simplicity’s sake in the survey, we took for granted that Mary and merry would be homophones (pronounced as /ɛ /) for many speakers and focused on marry and merry.

Q 9 How do you usually pronounce the vowel sounds in the words MARRY and MERRY? The same or differently.

83% reported pronouncing them the same. 82 respondents reported pronouncing both marry/merry and Erin/Aaron differently, but 110 of those who pronounced marry/merry the same pronounced Erin/Aaron differently and 70 of those who pronounced marry/merry differently pronounced Erin/Aaron the same.

2.4 Horrible

The pronunciation of the word horrible (and similar words (such as orange, florist, and Florida) with /ɑr/ is common in the area including New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia and the Carolinas. Elsewhere the pronunciation tends to be the /ɔr/, with the exception that Oregonians typical have an /ar/ in the state’s name. We expected the pronunciation of horrible to have the pervasive /ɔr/ we represented as HOAR-ible.

Q6 – Do you usually pronounce HORRIBLE as HAR-ible or HOAR-ible.

97% reported HOAR-ible.

2.5 The pin/pen merger

The pin-pen merger is a merger of /ɪ/ and /ɛ/ before the nasal consonants [m], [n], and [ŋ], which predominates in the South, resulting in a near homophony in words like pen and pin, gem and gym, him and hem, kin and Ken, bin and Ben, and so on. Bailey and Maynor (1989, 13) report that the merger began “in the last part of the nineteenth century and worked its way to completion during the last half century.” The pin/pen merger is found in the Midland Regions (Labov, et al. 2006), has expanded west, and is widespread through Kansas City, Houston, Seattle, and Bakersfield, California (Strelluf 2014 and Koops 2008). Since parts of Oregon and Washington were settled by emigrants from the South, we were interested in testing the robustness of this merger in the Pacific Northwest. Impressionistically, it appears to be most prominent with speakers who have Southern roots or close relatives. [8]

Image result for pin pen merger

pin/pen merger areas in purple

We approached this obliquely by asking about the pronunciation of center, rather than pin/pen directly.

Q18 – Do you usually pronounce the first vowel of CENTER as sen or sin?

Speakers overwhelmingly selected the non-raised vowel. 96% reported the pronunciation SEN-ter. Of the 4% of respondents whose responses suggest that they have the merger (34 individuals) 8 were from the South or had lived in the South several of the Oregon, Washington, and California speakers reported rural identification.

3. Once-stigmatized forms: coupon and often

There is of course more to speech variation than pronunciation of vowels, so we have also been collecting data on the pronunciation and use of lexical items that seem to be social variants. One of these is the pronunciation of coupon, which in American usage is pronounced with or without a glide following the initial /k/. The glide is a twentieth century development and was for a time stigmatized (and it remains a shibboleth for some speakers and in some pronunciation guides), though current dictionaries give it as standard. But while, dictionaries of American English give both pronunciations, older dictionaries and more prescriptive guides still treat the glide pronunciation as substandard (the Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, for example, calls it “Spurious” and Bryan Garner says that it “betrays an ignorance of French and of the finer points of English”). Nevertheless, in the U.S., pronunciations with a palatal glide (a /j/) before long /u/ are common after velar consonants (as in cute, cube, cue, Cupid, skew, factual, regulate, angular, and argue). [9]

In the case of coupon, we offered speakers the third option of reporting that they pronounced it both ways.[10] The speakers we surveyed reported a slight majority pronouncing the word as COOP-on but roughly a quarter consistently pronounce it with the glide (CYEW-pon).

Q8 Do you usually pronounce the word COUPON as COOP-on CYEW-pon? Or both ways.

58% reported the pronunciation COOP-on; 21% reported pronouncing the word as CYEWpon or CUEpon; 19% reported pronouncing coupon both ways.

In classes, the coupon item can lead to a discussion of the misleading role of etymology in judging pronunciation. Coupon can be traced back to the French word coup (meaning a blow, as in coup-contrecoup or coup de grâce and later an impressive act (as in a publishing coup). Coupon entered English in the 19th century, with a first OED citation from 1822. It was initially a financial term related to certificates attached to bonds. The meaning evolved to refer to prepaid ticket for travel and in the early twentieth century to the familiar sense part of an advertisement redeemable for a discount or free offer.

We also looked at what connections there are between self-perceptions of social class and of speaking/writing ability and pronunciation of coupon? There was relatively little difference across class.

Do you usually pronounce the word COUPON as:
COOP-on CYEW-pon I pronounce it both ways
How would you characterize your social class standing? Poverty Level 40% 42% 44%
Lower Middle Class/Working Class
Middle Class 13% 19% 19%
Upper Middle Class/Affluent 47% 38% 37%
Total 493 206 174

We also looked at the self-reports of speaking and writing, and again there is very little difference. Interestingly the CYEW-pon speakers did not consider themselves less good English speakers or writers, suggesting that it is not stigmatized for them.

Do you consider yourself _____ speaker/writer of English
a better than average an average a worse than average Total
COOP-on 292 211 9 501
CYEW-pon 117 82 6 205
both ways 102 62 1 165
Total 511 355 16 882

58% of COOP-on speakers considered themselves better than average as did 57% of CYEWpon speakers and 61% of those who pronounce coupon both ways. COOP-on is still the marginally dominant pronunciation but about 40% of respondents either pronounce the word CYEWpon or alternate. The results are consistent across social class and gender.

The situation for often, another former shibboleth, is somewhat more complex than that of coupon. The formerly stigmatized form AWFten is vastly preferred, though somewhat less so by females and urbanites. The preferences of the self-described middle class speakers are fairly close.

Historically, often comes from oft, and the /t/ was lost among educated speakers in the 17th century. But the /t/ was retained or reintroduced as a spelling pronunciation. Merriam Webster cites the pronunciation as \ˈȯ-fən, ÷ˈȯf-tən\, with the ÷ sign (the obelus mark) indicating “a pronunciation variant that occurs in educated speech but that is considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable.” [11]

Others commentators are less diplomatic about the /t/-less pronunciation, with Elster’s Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations calling it “less common in educated speech and far more often disapproved of by cultivated speakers—particularly teachers of English, drama, and speech.” Elster cites early twentieth century commentators who called it “vulgar” and “sham-refined,” or in Henry Fowler’s terms, practiced by “the academic speakers who affect a more precise enunciation than their neighbours … & the uneasy half-literates who like to prove that they can spell.” Garner refers to it as non-U usage (following the terminology of Alan Ross and Nancy Mitford for upper-class and non-upper-class usage and social practices in England).

Nevertheless, the speakers we surveyed pronounced the word without a /t/ by about three to one, though some noted in class discussion that they sometimes pronounce it either way.

25% reported pronouncing the word with a t (AWFTen)

75% reported pronouncing it without a t (AWFen)

When we cross-tabulated this split for social class we found little difference in the percentages according to class self-perception.

Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten Total
How would you characterize your social class standing? Poverty Level 14 26 40
Lower Middle Class/Working Class 79 236 315
Middle Class 39 121 160
Upper Middle Class/Affluent 96 270 366
Total 228 657 887
Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten Total
How would you characterize your social class standing? Poverty Level 35% 65%
Lower Middle Class/Working Class 25% 75%
Middle Class 24% 66%
Upper Middle Class/Affluent 26% 64%
26% 74%

Gender did not appear to be a factor either: the percentage of females with the AWFEN pronunciation is about the same as the percentage of males.

Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten Total
What is your gender? Male 69 178 247
Female 151 463 614
Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten
What is your gender? Male 28% 72%
Female 25% 75%

However, rural speakers appear to prefer AWFten, 82%, as compared to 65% of urban speakers and 76% of suburban speakers.

Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten Total
How would you characterize your background? Urban 50 91 141
Rural 26 115 141
Suburban 80 257 337
Total 156 463
Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten
How would you characterize your background? Urban 35% 65%
Rural 18% 82%
Suburban 24% 76%

Finally, we looked to see what the preferences of COOP-on and CYEW-pon speakers were with respect to often and vice versa (the preferences of AWFen and AWFten speakers for the pronunciation of coupon.)

Do you pronounce OFTEN as
AWFen AWFten Total
Do you usually pronounce the word COUPON as: COOP-on 150 363 513
CYEW-pon 41 166 207
I pronounce it both ways 37 128 165
Total 228 657 885

About 10% more COOP-on speakers preferred AWFen than AWFten and 10% more AWFen speakers preferred COOP-on suggesting a clustering of the former prestige forms for some speakers.

Say AWFen Say AWFTen
COOP-on speakers 30% 70%
CYEW-pon speakers 20% 80%
Both 24% 76%
Say COOP-on Say CYEW-pon Say both
AWFen speakers 65% 18% 16%
AWFTen speakers 55% 25% 19%

4. Two other problematic words: syrup and route

How do you say the words syrup and route? The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) gives the pronunciation of the former as “Usu. [‘sɪrəp, sɝəp], Sth SMidl [‘sʌrəp, ‘sɝp],” noting that there is additional regional variation and evidence from spelling pronunciations. The DARE coding indicates a usual pronunciation with a high lax vowel or a mid-lax rhotic [ɝ] with somewhat different pronunciations in the South and South Midlands. Merriam-Webster offers the pronunciations [ˈsər-əp, ˈsir-əp, ˈsə-rəp] as variants and the Harvard Dialect study points to the widespread use of the variants with the [ʌ] or [ə] in the first syllable.

The various transcription systems make for a sticky situation, but the key question is whether the word is pronounced with a higher front vowel (as in SEER) or a lower more back vowel (as in SIR):

Q3 – Do you usually pronounce the word SYRUP as SIRup or SEERup?

72% reported SIRup

In American English, the word route can be pronounced as either /ru:t/ (rOOt) or /raut/ (rAWt), making the word polyphonic like economics, either, garage, and Celtic. Pronunciation may be affected by cultural influences like the iconic Route 66 and by competition from the term router for the networking device that moves data packets between computer networks. According to DARE, the usual North Eastern and Central Atlantic pronunciation is /ru:t/ with some variation in specific uses like a rural free delivery mail route or a paper route (/raut/).

DARE respondents for /ru:t/

DARE explains that the /raut/ pronunciation (they give both [raUt and [ræUt]) is “scattered but chiefly IL, OH, wPA, WV, MD.” DARE cites an Oxford English Dictionary comment that “Down to c 1800 the usual spelling was rout,” and that the pronunciation appears in 19th century still “remained in military use, and by many speakers in the U.S. and Canada.” DARE also observes that in the west, route has an additional sense in which it means the length of time working in a logging camp. Our tentative hypothesis was that westerners would prefer the /raut/ pronunciation, but also be well aware of the /rut/ pronunciation from the media. We asked

Q4 Do you usually pronounce the word ROUTE as rUWt (like boot) or rOWt (like out) or do you say both?

However, in the first two years of the survey, we forced a choice between the two pronunciations.

60% ROWT when there was a two-way choice. When there was a three-way choice, 33% reported ROWT and 42% reported pronouncing route both ways.

Add a map of route in OR & WA

5. Lexical changes in progress

We also asked about several lexical and grammatical changes in progress including the spread of gender-neutral on accident, dude, your guyses, legitly, hella and jo-jos.

5.1 on accident and by accident

If you do something accidentally, is it on accident or by accident? According to Leslie Barratt (2005), younger speakers in different parts of the country are moving toward saying on accident while older speakers tend to use by accident, a form that is still prescribed by some traditionalists. Barrett and her students studied on accident in four communities differing in size and demographics: Terre Haute, Indiana; Farmington Hills, Michigan; Irvine, California; and McRae, Georgia. Barrett’s project surveyed actual usage (with a reading passage), reported usage, and reported acceptance of the two phrases. In Indiana, for example, the use of on accident was largely nonexistent for speakers older than 30, while both by accident and on accident were used by those younger than 30. Reported use was not identical with actual use, with about 29% of those who used on accident exclusively saying that they would use by accident, a confusion which suggests that “some speakers are not aware of the form that they in fact use.” Results were similar in Michigan, California, and Georgia, though California speakers (in Irvine and Laguna Beach) showed some divergence:

While on accident occurs more frequently than by accident among the 11 and 12 year olds surveyed (22 to 13 for I did it ___ accident), it is completely absent among those surveyed over age 34. Likewise, in reported use, Californians were slightly less likely to report that they used on (21 responses) than they were to use it (26 responses). Finally, people who reported that they used by were less likely to accept on than the reverse.

Barrett concluded that on accident was found nationally among younger respondents in all four states and suggested that the use of on accident in different parts of the US dates back to at least the late 1970s. [12] Students in our classes have sometimes proposed a distinction in the use of on and by, depending on whether the speaker is responsible or someone else is. We tested this with the following two questions, one in which contrasts a third person she with first person I:

Q11 – If your roommate does something wrong unintentionally would you say:

She did it ON ACCIDENT 65%

She did it BY ACCIDENT 11%

I could say either one 24%

Q21 – If you did something wrong unintentionally would you say:

I did it ON ACCIDENT 62%

I did it BY ACCIDENT 13%

I could say either one 24%

It seems that the proposed 1st person/3rd person split distribution is mythical rather than actual, at least in this group of respondents.[13] Overall, younger speakers overwhelming prefer on accident and the few younger by accident speakers often report being explicitly scolded on the distinction when they had used the innovative form.

5.2 dude

If you have seen the 1969 film Easy Rider, you may recall the jail scene where the Harley-riding protagonists Wyatt and Billy find themselves in the lockup with boozy lawyer George Hanson, played by a young Jack Nicholson. When George talks the guard into giving Billy a cigarette, Billy says,You must be some important dude. That treatment—”. Here George interrupts, “Dude? What does he mean, ‘dude’? Dude ranch?” and Wyatt explains “‘Dude’ means a nice guy, you know? ‘Dude’ means a regular person.”

The dialogue encapsulates the development of dude. The first DARE citation is an 1877 one from painter Frederic Remington who wrote fellow artist Scott Turner, with whom he was swapping sketches: “Don’t send me any more women or any more dudes.” He was referring to drawings of men and women in evening dress that Turner had been sending him. Remington said Turner should “Send me Indians, cowboys, villains, or toughs. These are what I want.”

Dude in Remington’s use means a man or boy pretentiously concerned with his clothes and grooming, as was the case for a city person new to the West, someone who might come to a dude ranch. The sense of being an out of place novice is also found in later uses in military, where dudes are new recruits. A 1936 DARE citation finds: “All right, you dudes. Fall out.”

Early on, dude could also just mean an ordinary male—a guy—and this usage picked up steam by the 1960s, according to both DARE and the OED. [14] And along the way, dude came to be used for either sex or even for inanimate objects. From 1968, we find “When the FAC pilot gets the green light to go in he fires one of these dudes to mark the target,” and a 1985 citation is “Mom asked me and I said ‘No way, dude’.”

There’s more to the story of dude, no doubt, including its popularization by The Big Lebowski, and its emergence as a term of address. But stripped to its essentials, dude seems to have evolved from a mildly pejorative term to an neutral one and from being semantically male to increasingly generic. Our survey asked

Q12 If you use the word dude, can it refer to males or females?

Yes, it can refer to both sexes.

No, it refers only to males.

88% reported that dude can refer to both sexes. Of the 103 speakers who reported that they would not use dude generically, 76 were in the 18-29 age range. One student suggested that guys would be his preferred usage for mixed-gender groups.

We will return to the question of guys as mixed gender in section 8, along with the competing form y’all.

5.3 legit(ly)

The word legit represents a change in the part of speech as well as a clipping of legitimate. In its use as an adjective short form, Merriam Webster dates its origin to 1907 and labels it “informal.” MW also includes the adverb form, labelled as “slang,” with a first citation from 1998.

Merriam Webster doesn’t, however, include legitly, the –ly adverb. Anne Curzan, writing in her Lingua Franca column in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2014, reports being contacted by an Michigan teacher who noted students saying things like:

“I legitly left my homework at home!”

“I legitly bombed that quiz.”

At the time, Curzan found disdain for the –ly form in both the Urban Dictionary and the popular press but concluded that “adding an –ly to legit to make a new adverb is, from a linguistic perspective, far from morphologically rebellious.”[15]

Legit, it is worth noting, was first recorded–as a noun–in an 1897 issue of the National Police Gazette: “Bob is envious of Corbett’s success as a ‘legit.’ It pained him to see Jim strutting through four acts of a real play.” The reference is to boxer Gentleman Jim Corbett, who became an actor after his boxing career ended. The clipping legit seems to have originated in the theatre, where it meant regular, normal or standard. The OED gives a 1908 citation to “Scene shifters, stage carpenters, actors, everything and everybody strictly ‘legit’. In the early citations, the quotes indicate the novelty of the form.

We noticed the adverb uses of legit and legitly around 2013 and were curious. At first we asked about legitly, but based on feedback from students and respondents, who indicated that they used the flat adverb legit rather than the –ly form, we revised our question in year 2 of the survey.

Q16 If you are trying to explain to your friend that you really like something, would you ever say “I legit love that book.”

Yes, I can use LEGIT that way: 27%

I’ve heard this but do not use it myself: 44%

No, I do not use LEGIT this way and haven’t heard it: 28%

Based on the low numbers, it seems, however, that legit is still not quite legit.

5.4 Hella

Hella, along with its middle-school counterpart hecka, is an adverbial intensifier that apparently emerged in the 1970s Bay Area. Linguist Ben Zimmer (1986) gives an early citation from an August 1986 interview in the magazine Thrasher in which Metallica band member James Hetfield used hella twice.[16] As youth slang, it is an index of coolness, and according to Bucholtz (2006) was “used among Bay Area youth of all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and both genders, much as teenagers in other parts of the United States use the intensifiers wicked and mad.” Bucholtz cited examples from a 1995-96 Bay City High School yearbook, suggesting widespread use from across racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and gender. [17] Among them:

I love ya’ll hella tite. (African American girl)

I wont to say I had a hella fun time Playing with every one from the football team. (African American boy)

this year was hella fun! (Latina girl)

my big sista, known you for hella years, you were alwaysthere for me. (European American girl)

haven’t seen ya for hella long (European American boy)

Bucholtz saw hella as “a very stable regional marker” in the Bay area and northern California at that time with “only isolated use outside of this region.” Writing in 2006, she noted that hella “currently enjoys a much wider circulation, thanks to its occasional use in popular music, television shows, and films aimed at a youth audience … but outside California it appears to be a marked, trendy term, in contrast to its enduring use as an unmarked feature of Northern California youth speech.”

We asked our subjects:

Q15 If you are trying to explain to your friend that something is very, very good, would you ever say “That’s hella good.”

Yes, I can use HELLA that way: 57%

I’ve heard this but do not use it myself: 40%

No, I’ve never heard HELLA used this way: 3%.

From these results it is clear that hella is pervasively known (by 97% of respondents) and has clearly gained traction in the Pacific Northwest youth culture, being used by more than half.

5.5 Your guyses

Since the loss of the second person singular thee, thou, and thy/thine, the standard Written English forms have been the formerly plural forms you and your. A similar process of plural- to-singular is underway with the third person they/them/their, which is widely used as an indefinite and today is increasingly used as a singular personal pronoun as well (see Baron 2020). To attenuate the ambiguity of you in the second person, various forms have emerged that distinguish singular you from plural, such as you/y’all, you/yinz, and you/you guys. [18] Yinz (from you ones and sometimes spelled yuns) is a regional form (DARE) while y’all has seemingly spread to a general friendly second person form. These plurals can be used in the possessive as well, giving yall’s, yinz’s, and you guys’s, and for many speakers your guys’s, with the possessive marking on both parts of the compound. Prescriptivists sometimes object to your guys. Here is Paul Brian’s view, from his Common Errors in English.

your guys’s: Many languages have separate singular and plural forms for the second person (ways of saying “you”), but standard English does not. “You” can be addressed to an individual or a whole room full of people.

In casual speech, Americans have evolved the slangy expression “you guys” to function as a second-person plural, formerly used of males only but now extended to both sexes, but this is not appropriate in formal contexts. Diners in fine restaurants are often irritated by clueless waiters who ask “Can I get you guys anything?”

The problem is much more serious when extended to the possessive: “You guys’s dessert will be ready in a minute.” Some people even create a double possessive by saying “your guys’s dessert. . . .” This is extremely clumsy. When dealing with people you don’t know intimately, it’s best to stick with “you” and “your” no matter how many people you’re addressing.

We approached your guys’s obliquely, by asking about the double possessive and giving speakers the opportunity to say that they don’t use you guys.

Q13 – If you do say “your guys’ party?” or “you guys’ party” do you pronounce it with one s or two?

I say YOU(R) GUYS PARTY: 17%


I might say it either way: 21%

I don’t use “you guys” or “your guys” this way: 6%

Only 6% of the respondents said they did not use possessive you guys, and the majority did report using two sibilants in the possessive. Of the 53 respondents who eschewed your guys, 39 were in the 18-29 year-old age-group and the remaining 14 were older. We have no survey data on whether speakers use you guys or your guys, though informal observation suggests that the latter predominates.

5.6 Jojos

According to local-lore and the popular press, jojos (with or without a hyphen) are a regional specialty and perhaps even an Oregon term for deep-fried, lightly breaded potato wedges. Anne Marie DiStefano, writing in The Portland Tribune in 2013, confessed to growing up in California and never having heard of jojos before moving to Oregon. She tracked the usage to the early 1960s, suggesting that “the term jojo potatoes was used widely across the country. But not universally. They also were called home fries, wedges, spuds or tater babies — and Shakey’s Pizza trademarked the term ‘mojo potatoes.’” Jojos arose from the popularity of the broaster, invented in the 1950s, which sped up the process of frying foods. According to DiStefano, the Flavor-Crisp company of Creighton, Nebraska, claims the word. She interviewed Ron Echtenkamp, retired president of a company that sold Flavor-Crisp pressure fryers, who explained that the dish arose when salespeople at a trade show used Idaho potato wedges from a nearby vendor to clean the oil in the fryer. Someone set the wedges out on the table and, according to Echtenkamp, one of the salesmen called them jojos. A similar story is told by Paul Nicewonger of Nicewonger Co., a restaurant-supply company in Vancouver, Washington. Nicewonger attributed the story of jojo being coined at a food trade show to his late father, whose company introduced the name into Pacific Northwest markets. In any case, the earliest ad found in seems to be in The Evening Review (of East Liverpool, Ohio) from July 14, 1962, for Kennedy’s Restaurant in Ohio. The ad refers to Kennedy’s “New Flavor-Crisp ½ fried chicken and New jo-jo potatoes.”

Curious about the term, we included the photo below, limiting our question to jojos, steak fries, O’Briens, and potato wedges, but other terms for such fare includes the trademarked “mojos,” “tater babies” or “tater boys.”

Q22 – What name do you use for this food?

Steak Fries


Potato Wedges


44% called them jojos and 43% potato wedges with another 8% opting for steak fries. Among Oregon speakers, the percentage of identifying the spuds as jojos rose to 52%.

6. Comparison with the Harvard Dialect Survey

The Harvard Dialect Survey, an online survey developed by Bert Vaux and Scott Golder consisted of 122 questions about phonetic, lexical, syntactic, and morphological differences in English in the United States. The questions were multiple-choice with a write-in option and used rhyming words to narrow the options for participants. The total number of participants was 30,788, with 385 from Oregon (1.24%) and 860 (2.78%) from Washington. Vaux and Golder’s state breakdown page gives results for 166 respondents from Oregon and 511 from Washington.[19]

Below we consider selected results from their study.


V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results
as in “coop” 56.91% 57.89% 58%
as in “cute” 40.06% 39.70% 21%
19% (both ways)

The number of COOPon speakers is consistent between our 58% and their 56.91% and 57.89% results. Some of Vaux and Golder’s 40% CYEWpon speakers likely alternate.


V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results
as in “say” 52.63% 59.63% 59% (crAYg)
close to “say” 22.99% 18.55%
as in “set” 12.47% 13.02% 41% (crEHg)
close to “set” 11.63% 8.18%

Our two-way distinction yielded about a 60%-40% split between [e] and [ɛ] as compared to the 75.62%-24.1% and 78.18%-21.2% splits in the Harvard Dialect study.


V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results
Mary & marry the same 83%
all 3 are the same 79.44% 78.39%
all 3 are different 2.22% 3.13%
Mary and merry are the same; marry is different 4.72% 5.48
merry and marry are the same; Mary is different .56% .63%
Mary and marry are the same; merry is different 13.06% 12.37%

For simplicity’s sake, we assumed (based on our observations) that Mary and merry were identical for most speakers and asked only about the pronunciation of marry. Vaux and Golder’s 78-79% for all three being pronounced the same is close to our 83%. However, they found 12-13% percent of speakers reporting a Mary/marry homophony distinct from merry, which suggests that the situation is more complicated that we had anticipated.


V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results

(3 way)

rhymes with “hoot” 17.56% 15.13% 25%
rhymes with “out” 25.78% 35.11% 33%
either way interchangeably 34.84% 32.01% 42%
like “hoot” for the noun and like “out” for the verb. 16.15% 11.78%
like “out” for the noun and like “hoot” for the verb. 4.82% 4.06%
other .85% 1.91%

Details of the percentages aside, our results and Vaux and Golder’s suggest that most speakers either alternate or prefer the ROWT pronunciation.

When we forced a two-way choice, our respondents reported using ROWT 60% of the time. We did not test for a correlation with part of speech.


V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results (2 way)
sear-up 23.01% 23.81% 28%
sih-rup 14.49% 11.46%
sir-up 61.36% 63.61% 72%

Our results are very close to those of Vaux and Golder, assuming that their “sih-rup” group corresponds to people who opted for our “sir-up” choice.


V & G (Or) V & G (Wa) Our results
Same 87.22% 83.67% 82% (don/daw, hock/hawk)
Different 12.78% 16.33% 18%

The [a]-[ɔ] merger comes in as robust in both surveys.

You guys

Vaux and Golder also asked what words people us to refer to “a group of two or more people” with about 57% responding that they used you guys.

V & G (Or) V & G (Wa)
you all 8.48% 8.59%
you guys 56.73% 56.65%
You 24.85% 27.47%
y’all 6.43% 4.21%

In our study, which asked If you do say “your guys’ party?” or “you guys’ party” do you pronounce it with one s or two? Only 6% of the respondents said they did not use possessive you guys. 94% responded in a way that implied use of you guys.

on accident/by accident

V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington) Our results
by accident 66.47% 67.63% 11-13%
on accident 11.66% 14.87% 62-65%
Both 18.66% 13.97% 24%

There is a puzzling split between our results and those of Vaux and Golder. We found nearly two-thirds preferring on-accident while their reported results indicated the opposite.

bag, leg and egg raising

V&G (Oregon) V&G (Washington)
[bæg] (like “sat”) 86.30% 75.47%
[bɛg] (like “said”) 0% .74%
[beg] (“like “say”) 11.08% 20.49%
Other 2.62% 3.29%

The greater percentage of raising in Washington respondents is intriguing. We did not test for raising of [æ] in bag, though we did consider the [ɛ]-raising in egg and leg.

Our results
EGggs 64%
AYggs 36%
lEHgs 62%
lAYggs 38%

Looking just at Oregon and Washington speakers, 39% of our Oregon respondents said ayggs and 42% responded that they said layggs; 37% of Washingtonians responded with ayggs and 39% with layggs.

Overall OR WA
EGggs 64% 61% 63%
AYggs 36% 39% 37%
lEHgs 62% 58% 61%
lAYggs 38% 42% 39%

7. A Reading Passage

Subjects completing a survey such as ours may have misperceptions about their own pronunciation or usage, the may be unsure or guessing, they may be unduly influenced by spelling, or even misled by clumsily worded questions or transcriptions. As a check, we developed a short reading passage intended to elicit some of the Pacific Northwest distinctions we surveys as well as some others than might not be amenable to a survey method or that might be interesting for class discussion purposes. These are indicated in bold in the passage below, though of course they were not bolded in the actual reading passage. We collected 23 usable samples from speakers, most from speakers from the Pacific Northwest.

Several items in the reading passage parallel ones in the survey: Dawn, marry, Aaron, horrible, coupons, egg, legs, syrup, route, hawk, and center. The items not in the survey such as dude, food, and new reflect the /u/ and /o/ fronting found in the California Vowel Shift. The items both, wash and Washington are possible terms in which we might find an intrusive [l] or [r]. The words that and dad relate to the backing of /æ/, while menu, tent and rented to the pin-pen merger.

The repeated Thank you, thank you, thank you was an attempt to collect data on the counter-raising of [æ] and to use the allegro repetition of the phrase to induce the raising of that vowel. A few words, such as Ian and Ann, aunt, mountains, salmon, almond, greasy, poem, Saturday, and roof are indicators of dialect features not typically associated with the Pacific Northwest. Culinary and Josie were added to contrast with coupon and greasy.

Here is the passage:

Last year my friend Dawn decided to marry this dude named Ian. Both of her brothers, Aaron and Harold, helped plan the wedding menu. That was a horrible mistake.

So, the guests arrived—from Oregon, California, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, Texas, and there was even one aunt from Florida. Her Mom and Dad had arranged for the wedding to take place in a tent they rented. It was a cool setting, in a park with a view of the mountains.

Anyway, back to the food. It turned out that Aaron and Harold had gotten all the wrong food for the reception. They had supermarket coupons and bought random stuff: little hot dogs, salmon with almond sauce, milky egg salad, greasy chicken legs, and melting ice-cream cake covered with chocolate syrup. It was a culinary nightmare. Luckily Dawn’s friends Ann, Mary and Josie retraced the route to the store, and bought some real wedding food. It was a miracle that everything worked out, and Dawn’s parents just kept saying “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

Then just as the ceremony was ending and Mary was reading a poem called “Saturday,” a red-tailed hawk swooped into the center of the tent and snagged some of the salmon. It almost got stuck under the roof but didn’t. Dawn and Ian got married and went on their honeymoon. As for Dawn’s brothers, their new job was to wash the dishes from the party.

As a check on the Qualtrix survey, we also asked the passage readers to respond to the short survey below, which was checked against their recorded pronunciations.

  1. How do you usually pronounce the vowel sounds in the words DON and DAWN?

the same differently

  1. Do you usually pronounce the word SYRUP as


  1. Do you usually pronounce the word ROUTE as

rUWt (like boot) rOWt (like out)

  1. Do you usually pronounce HORRIBLE as

HAR-ible HOAR-ible

  1. Do you usually pronounce EGGS more like EHggs or AIggs

EHggs (with the EH vowel in get) AIggs (with the AY vowel in say)

  1. Do you usually pronounce the word COUPON as:

COOP-on CUE-pon I pronounce it both ways

  1. How do you usually pronounce the vowel sounds in the words MARRY and MERRY?

the same differently

  1. Do you pronounce THANK YOU as more like

thAHnk you (like the vowel in drank) thEHnk you (like the vowel in pen)

  1. Do you pronounce OFTEN as

AWFen AWFten

  1. Do you say the names ERIN and AARON

the same differently

  1. Do you pronounce the words HOCK and HAWK

the same differently

  1. Do you usually pronounce the word LEGS more like LEHggs or LAYggs?

LEHggs (with the vowel in less) LAYggs (with the vowel in lay)

Comparing actual pronunciation to reported pronunciation for 23 speakers, we found that an 89% accuracy in identifying one’s own pronunciation.[20]

8. What we learned and what’s next

8.1 Struggles

There were some rough spots. In the initial survey, we collected demographic data in a relatively open-ended fashion, asking about hometowns and parents’ hometowns, with respondents giving both leaving both gaps and giving answers like “military brat” or “moved around a lot.” We did collect zip codes, which facilitates the eventual mapping task, but we first collected age as numbers, which required us to regroup the data later to get age ranges.

Asking about social class and their perceptions of their own speech also proved to be interesting in that most self-identified as middle class and self-identified as “a better than average speaker/writer of English” (not surprising since many were English or linguistics majors). The later iterations of the survey (2015 forward) supplemented the self-identification of social class with a question about income levels, though many subjects preferred not to answer that. Later iterations of the survey also contained fewer questions, age ranges, a full list of US states and regional universities, and a question about whether hometowns were urban, rural and suburban.

We struggled with the best folk orthography for questions. From 2015 onward survey we added some homophones to the answers in the hopes that questions would be easier to follow. We initially collected data on the pronunciation of thank, but stopped because it seemed that respondents were unduly influenced toward thAHnk by orthography; only 98 responded identified thEHnk as corresponding to their pronunciation suggesting that thank might be better studied in a reading passage.

Going forward, we might drop some of the questions related to issues that seem well-resolved among young Pacific Northwesterners and add some new items, such as bag and beg, and bit and bet. The reading passage too could be simplified (respondents especially struggled with the phrase “salmon with almond sauce” and other tongue twisters that arose from our trying to do too much).

8.2 Learning opportunities

The most rewarding aspect of the research has been the way in which the work of studying data on regional speech—and their own speech—has engaged students in language study and critical thinking about language. By involving students in a local survey and discussing the issues connected to language variation and change that they can observe, we are able to engage them at several levels—as consumers of surveys and media, as thinkers about language and linguistic diversity, as speakers of a particular region, and as co-investigators in research.

The in-class discussions that arise from the survey debriefs are especially rich. Since many of the students are planning careers in fields in which they will be working with language, the survey experience gives them a first-hand look at the variability of speech and at language change in progress. Students think about their own usage, about where they came from about what has influenced their speech, and about the codes and styles that they switch into and out of. They also think about language they encounter in their lives and become curious about language and less prescriptive in their outlooks.

Various activities and discussions that can be tied to the survey questions. Here are a few we have attempted (but certainly not honed to perfection).

  1. Discussing the loss of the old singular second person (thee, thou, thy) forms and the re-emergence of the plural (you guys) in relation to the extension of the third person they, them, their, a topic which is on the minds of students. Discussion of pronouns can reinforce the idea that such forms have shifted for social reasons in the past.
  2. Introducing and critiquing the principle of “one form—one meaning” as it relates to by accident and on accident, and other terms. One reader of an early draft of this report commented that it seemed like a dumb thing for language change to create “confusing” homophones like Dawn and Don and Erin and Aaron. We have the opportunity to illustrate that the logic of language change does not always match our preconceptions of what makes sense communicatively.
  3. Identifying and documenting other instances of preposition variation, which tends to be less remarked upon than other types of variation (such as waiting “in line” or “on line” or getting something “on the internet” or “off the internet”).
  4. Taking jo-jos as the point of departure, exploring further variation among other culinary terms (including server slang, as described by Adams (2009). Students might design and administer their own food term surveys or research local eateries.
  5. Extending the analysis of selected terms using dictionaries and databases, such as the OED, The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) or the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA).
  6. Researching the history of parallels between guys and dudes, the history of guy (Metcalf 2019) and some of the contemporary criticism of the term’s use (Carey 2016, Pinkster 2018).
  7. Studying intensification and the emergence of hella and others forms (see for example Ito and Tagliamonte 2003).
  8. Introducing acoustic analysis of select vowels via Praat (Van Lieshout, 2003, Wassink 2016, Freeman 2013, 2014, Becker, et al. 2016).
  9. Research on local communities and on identity and affiliation, perhaps involving map tasks (Hartley 1999, Evans 2011, 2013), local history (Denham 2019), or dialect Story Maps (Szukalski and Carroll, 2019).

8.3 Next steps

What is next? We are considering relaunching the survey in the fall of 2020, perhaps inviting a wider swath of participants from Oregon, Washington, and Northern California. Along with this, we may wish to add a simplified reading passage and a (short) wordlist that can be used for acoustic analysis, and which can be recorded on a phone. Eventually, we might identify key communities in the Pacific Northwest for a comprehensive survey to be done in conjunction with presentations on dialect and linguistic diversity to include audio and video samples. An ideal next step would be an app that provided some feedback and a systematic expansion of the survey to other Oregon, Washington, and Northern California universities. We also will want to promote the work and the connection to teaching, diversity, and local history in order to generate interest in the survey from potential participants and partners.


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[last rev. 7/22/2020]

  1. The earliest versions of the survey had 46 questions, 35 of which had to do which language and 10 of which were demographic.
  2. The MLA Language Map Data Center provides information about over three hundred languages spoken in the United States, using data from the American Community Survey and the 2000 US Census. See
  3. Since the survey was available by link, some students invited roommates and others to participate and we know of at least one faculty member who took the survey along with a class.
  4. Additionally, we asked about parents’ hometown but the results were too unsystematic to be helpful other than anecdotally.
  5. See also Conn (2000), Esling and Warkentyle (1993), Foster and Hoffman (1966), Denham (2019), Becker (2019b), Wassink (2019), Fridland, et al. (2016, 2017), Kennedy and Grama, James. (2012) and Luthin (1987)..
  6. According to Ward, “both Canadian and California English share the low back vowel merger, a lowering of front lax vowels, a retraction of /æ/, a centralization of / ʌ/, and some degree of fronting in the tense back vowels /ow, uw/ and the back lax vowel /u/” (Ward, 42). The California Shift parallels the Canadian Shift, with the apparent distinction that the Californian /ɒ/ is more centralized and less rounded than Canadian /ɒ/. Those studying the Canadian shift are also still trying to resolve the details of the shift of the vowels in kid and dress, particularly focusing on regional variation within Canada, on whether the shifts are lowerings or retraction, and whether both the /i/ and /ɛ/ are involved. Boberg (2008) also notes that /æ/-raising before /g/ is a regional indicator for the Prairies. See also Becker (2019a).
  7. The exceptions are New England and parts of New York City and New Jersey. See the discussion on the Linguist List ( There is considerable variation in the U.K. pronunciation of Aaron and Erin.
  8. See Bigham (2005), Koops, Gentry, and Pantos (2008), Thomas (1958), and Brown (1991) for more discussion.
  9. Palatalization before /u:/ tends to occur in some relatively well-defined phonetic situations, such as when the /u:/ occurs at the beginning of a work as in university or usual. Palatalization is especially robust after labial consonants in American English. These include the stops /m/, /p/, and /b/ (as in mute, amuse, pew, pure, puerile, repute, beauty, bureau, vocabulary, constabulary) and also the fricatives /f/ and /v/ (as in fuse, fuel, fuel, futile, view, revue, uvula). Palatalization is not automatic after these sounds, however, and spelling is often a clue: pew and pooh, beauty and booty, feud and food, mute and moot. Not long ago one of us heard someone pronounce the name [Stanley] Kubrick as CUE-brick and the name Pulitzer often has a glide (though Joseph Pulitzer insisted it did not). Aside from such pronunciation, it turns out that the palatalized versions of many common words are often the older forms, still used among many speakers of British and Canadian English: due, tune, dune, news, lewd, and so on. Twentieth-century American speech tended to drop these palatal glides.
    Do you usually pronounce the word COUPON as:
    COOP-on CYEW-pon I pronounce it both ways Total
    How would you characterize your social class standing? Poverty Level 18 11 11 40
    Lower Middle Class/Working Class 174 76 65 315
    Middle Class 68 40 34 142
    Upper Middle Class/Affluent 233 79 64 376
    Total 493 206 174

  10. Some of the speakers who report pronouncing coupon both ways also report having different meanings for the pronunciations: physical ones that you would cut out would be CYEWpons but other kinds, such as internet coupons, are COOPons.
  11. See Merriam Webster adds that “We are definitely not advocating that anyone should use those pronunciations [ … ] or that they should abandon the others that are regarded as more acceptable.”
  12. Barrett notes that one poster to the Linguist List (Patricia Kuhlman) even recalled its being used in the 1950s in a rural area outside Chicago, Illinois. Barrett adds that the rise of on accident remains unclear and that analogy with on purpose is at best a partial account. Other suggestions include reanalysis of “an accident” as “on accident.”
  13. One speaker suggested that on accident is used when a person is involved and by accident is used when animacy is not involved, which is worth exploring.
  14. There’s also a later development in which dude means “a foolish or obnoxious fellow,” and the DARE gives a 1970 citation of “There were a lot of good kids in that school. Also, a lot of dudes, but a lot of good kids, too.” So perhaps dude expanded that pretentious newbie sense for some speakers.
  15. Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman, in a 2010 post on their Grammarphobia blog, note that both legit and legitly are used as adverbs, but say, rather too prescriptively in our view, that “we find them clunky, and wouldn’t recommend either one.”
  16. See Thrasher, August 1986, p. 71, Asked if the drug scene scared him, Hetfield replied “Yeah, hella,” saying later that “If people are into it that’s cool, they wouldn’t mind about the subject we’re talking about. I was at that party and it freaked me out and I’m hella paranoid.”
  17. Bucholtz explains that the data were written by graduating seniors as part of paid personal messages to friends, family, and others printed at the back of the yearbook. See also Bucholtz, et al. (2009).
  18. On the plural second person forms, see Richardson (1984), Maynor. (1996) Spencer (1975), Ching (2001). For singular “y’all” can be singular, see Tillery and Bailey (1998) and Butters (2001).
  19. The Harvard dialect study was the basis for Joshua Katz’s Heat Maps which took population density into account for data visualization; see Katz (2013) and media coverage in The Atlantic, the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere. The New York Times dialect quiz (based on the Harvard Dialect study) was one of that newspaper’s most successful interactive links.
  20. We included the item often in the survey but not on tape as a further check of our online survey; here 30% responded with AWFEN and 70% with AWFTEN, close to our online results of 25%/75% AWFEN/AWFTEN.
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Susannah Perillat remembers Vaughn Davis Bornet

“I tried to do the best with what I had.” Favorite Words- Erudite. Anyway.

Dr. Vaughn Davis Bornet (VDB or Dr. B.) was born October 10th, 1917, and passed away peacefully, October 5th, 2020, five days before his 103rd birthday. This is a tribute to a man who gained creditability in his academic domain as a historian and a scholar. Bornet published many works in the field of presidents, social welfare and in health with the American Heart Association. Dr. Bornet continually pursued his passions outside academia, including music, photography, outdoor life, and volunteering, for the health of himself, his family, and his community large and small.

I was hired to assist him nearly five years ago, and the more I endeavor to share the bird’s-eye view I was privileged to have, the more a few highlights stand out. As we started working more closely together on his manuscripts, he would test me by asking me to argue my point. Gradually, I began to have more confidence. I started winning him over to my suggestions or objections, so much that he started saying, “You just go ahead and do it!”

He rarely complained about himself, he stuck to his rhythms, and he didn’t take himself too seriously, except when he did. I would often rub my arm against his and say, “Please rub off on me – just a little.” He harnessed a stick-to-it-iveness that was enviable. People were always asking him what the secret to his long life was.

Writing predominated his thoughts. Sometimes I’d arrive early in the morning, trying to get to editing work before he’d arise. I often told him one had to be an octopus to accomplish all that he had ready to work with at a moment’s notice. He had me constantly use his well-worn dictionary and make it a habit to look up information in his encyclopedias. Encyclopedia Britannica had hired him to write the section about American presidents. Dr. B., as he let me call him, immersed himself in his writing, research, reading new books on his subject and corresponding with those willing to accompany his present journey of writing.

He had grown up academically at Stanford University, working with think tanks and brilliant minds. He had a slew of professionals at his fingertips: secretaries, researchers—though he did most of his research himself—proof-readers, editors and very importantly—publishers. He found his stride teaching at Southern Oregon College, as it was called back in the sixties. Vacation time was a mix of play and work. Together with his wife, Beth, he would tool around the country in their RV, along the way writing, gathering information, and getting ever closer to their destinations, our presidential libraries. He had secured approval to study the contents for one of his books.

Being a child of the Great Depression, he welcomed an opportunity to save on finances and have a good time doing so. Vaughn would often reminisce how his wife provided one of the most important tools for his writing: reading those manuscripts out loud together. TV was non-existent those days in an RV. I would gladly step in to read for him and build upon a new tradition of editing and proof-reading. Still, nothing would interfere with his eight-decade long habit of listening to the opera on Saturday mornings. The outdoor life nourished his inner life and creativity. Along with listening to music, he also played the cornet since childhood and he could remember the words to almost any tune, especially spirituals. I used to call him a living juke box!

He spent hours writing every day. He didn’t put much thought into eating after Beth passed. Four eggs, half a grapefruit, which we ordered a box at a time online, and a cup of coffee with two packets of fake sugar for breakfast. He defended his no-sugar idea until the end, except for the dark chocolate Hersey bars we also ordered online. This morning routine would be followed by the exercise bike, which he insisted be placed on most difficult gauge and he wouldn’t stop until he completed one hundred and forty repetitions. He never smoked. He sang. A lot. And laughed.

Writing poetry was a lifelong passion and hobby; his reading preferences were non-fiction. He didn’t see the sense of fiction as life, for him, was so full of history and amazing stories filled with comedy and tragedy. He had his share of tragedy. He felt it kept him humble.

With that said, his favorite companions were dogs because of their unconditional love. He actually did write a children’s book loved by all who read it. It is about one of his favorite dogs, Blaze. Here, I learned how to diplomatically argue the edits and the rearrangements of the illustrations. I found out how helpful the folks at the copyright office were on the phone. He encouraged me to never hesitate to ask for help.

He had a bittersweet relationship with his computer and printer. You would become his hero if you could get him out of whatever his present jam might be: his computer glitches, his printer not working, or learning how to update his website, His website is a compilation of thousands of pages of his writings, mostly published. Another one of his legacies.

Dr. B. kept in touch with his peers until they died off, then he kept in communication with the younger generation, eighty years or younger, a new audience for his oratories. Within his writing, he would refer to his previous works and awards.

He regularly published at History News Network and sent material out to those who mattered to him for their points of view, corrections, and praise. Founder of History News Network (HNN), Rick Shenkman, wrote, Vaughn Davis Bornet, RIP at 102. During Mr. Shenkman’s thirteen years working with Dr. Bornet, he noted that VDB published over sixty articles on the HNN website. His first article in 2007 was written about race relations, a subject Vaughn often fought for by writing, thus exercising his civic duty. His last article, published in May 2020, was about the havoc being wreaked upon world affairs by the current president. He optimistically titled that article, “‘This Too, Shall Pass’. History and Life, Say So!” (Schenkman).

He would often call or email Elisabeth Zinser, past president of SOU (2001-6) and president at Ashland Rotary (2017-18), to talk about his works in progress, requesting her valued feedback. She appreciated that he always respected her edits. Elisabeth would visit from time to time and bring something for his sweet tooth and share a cherished glass of port. At his memorial, she also shared with us that His best speech was for his 100th birthday celebration while I was President at Rotary. He had us in stitches.” He always wrote and prepared for his innumerable speeches but delivered them off the cuff. She said Vaughn was a dear colleague, scholar, academic, and Rotarian: they became friends (Zinser). He portrayed the Rotary motto, Service Above Self. His writing was his civic duty. Volunteering was essential!

Perhaps most important to both he and his wife, Beth, was their sense of civic duty. He was constantly looking for ways to be of service. Ron Bolstad, a meaningful friend and colleague at SOU, Ashland Rotary, and a musician, says he never knew what Vaughn had up his sleeve when he would call. Once, from Vaughn’s hospital bed at Linda Vista, he saw a man in the rain at the bus stop and insisted that Ron get right on it and have a shelter constructed for that bus stop. After many months of effort, the lack of funds stopped his good idea (Bolstad).

Many times, when I would tell people who I was working with, they would exclaim, “Oh did you know his wife Beth?” Ellie Holty, another caretaker, and assistant, said in my recent interview with her that she loved his “enormous dedication to Beth and how it remained untouched by time.” He expressed that same dedication and love for his family.

He had had professionals to tend to his previous erudite work, including secretaries and university publishers like University of Kansas, who published his work on President Johnson. Thanks to them, he could pride himself in footnotes, indexes, table of contents, and perhaps even a glossary, but he was an incessant editor as well as endlessly working on probable titles. When he thought something was finished it had to be printed at least five times. Needless to say, he had a constant stream of ink supplied by Amazon and reams of paper and new printers. I took on the task of making sure all that paper got recycled. He earned his indulgences.

He stuck with two fonts, New Times Roman and Bookman Old Style—probably the latter because it filled pages faster—after the age of 100 insisted on size 14 font. His typewriter habits were hard to break. Back in the day italics didn’t exist. Rewriting his typewritten manuscripts onto Word, we had to replace all the underlines for the new and improved—italics. Yet whenever he would type on his computer he would continue to underline as well as constantly inserting his thoughts in parentheses. One could not, would not, and absolutely should not leave one word at the end of a paragraph, nor empty space at the end of a page, nor begin a sentence with a preposition—no arguing with him. In the dark of the night, he would fill up those empty spaces.

Ellie Holty worked for Dr. Bornet for four and a half years. She was more than happy to be interviewed for this paper about Vaughn Bornet on Sunday, 29 November 2020. I had prepared several questions and honed them down to one most pertinent to me as a human being. I chose the guiding question to be centered around how this “Cantankerous Centenarian” (from the title of a John Darling article in 2017 for Vaughn’s 100th birthday), influenced our lives today and earned the long-time admiration of those near and far, myself included. He could challenge her unconscious limitations or fears. He would encourage her to do better. Not only because he was used to high standards but because he believed in her and needed to get this book published. Today, she has co-authored the book Humane Leadership with a headstrong man and has found that she is able to stand up for herself thanks to the training and internship with Vaughn. Ellie learned an enormous amount about putting together complicated timelines and dealing with intimate letters, proof-reading, and editing, all the way through to working with the publisher. Today she knows she will stand up to the task at hand. (Holty).

Like Ellie, those of us at his memorial, and the many who shared a part of Dr. B., it takes a village of stories to feel the breadth of his long life and big personality. Personally, my time with Dr. B. is felt every day as I come across challenges, push myself to act even though I feel afraid, and continue learning and writing. I told him when it came time for me to graduate that I would dedicate it to him. What rubbed off on me was his spirit, something that can never be destroyed. When you have the spirit of doing your part yet staying connected to people, no matter what your profession or place in life, you have community. When you also create or participate with community, together you have love, that love is creative, and it inspires you how to improvise, adapt, and adjust to whatever circumstances present themselves. Dr. Vaughn Davis Bornet’s life embodies an ever-expanding community for myself and I dedicate this effort of tribute to him.

Works Cited

Bolstad, Ron. Vaughn Davis Bornet Memorial. Ashland: Ellen Gribbon Bornet, 10 October 2020. Zoom.

Holty, Ellie. Small Business Owner Susannah Perillat. 5 November 2020. Phone interview.

Schenkman, Stone Age Brain aka Rick Schenkman. “History News Network.” 15 October 2020. History News Network (HNN). Ed. Rick Schenkman. Online blog. 5 December 2020.

Zinser, Elisabeth. “Former President at SOU and Ashland Rotary.” Memorial for Vaughn Davis Bornet. Ashland: Ellen Gribbon Bornet, 10 October 2020. Zoom.

Susannah Perillat is a senior in the Creative Writing program at Southern Oregon University. She worked with Dr. Vaughn Davis Bornet for four and a half years. He was one of her biggest cheerleaders to keep up the good work.

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Daniel Alrick remembers Stephen Weiner

Daniel Alrick is a graduate of the Professional Writing English program at Southern Oregon University and Chair of the Oregon Council on Developmental Disabilities.

EB: Tell our readers a little bit about Stephen Weiner and his work.

         Stephen Weiner

DA: Stephen Weiner was the publisher of the local newsletter The Suspicious Humanist, a newsletter of literature and political writing. He was a Stanford graduate and journalist who wrote extensively on mental health in personal essays that were published in Classics of Community Psychiatry and The Oxford Handbook of Psychiatric Ethics. Throughout his life, Steve was active in left-wing politics , counterculture, and Jewish identity. He also wrote about the experience of living with schizophrenia and being an “adult in need of the welfare state” to quote one of his articles, and social programs for the disabled.

And Steve was a community librarian, who kept a library of hundreds of books in his small apartment, often keeping multiple copies that he would loan out to others.

EB: What was The Suspicious Humanist and how did it come about?

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        Milton Weiner

DA: The “suspicious humanist” was his father, Milton Weiner, who was the original publisher, editor, and author of the newsletter in 1970 out of San Francisco and Sausalito, California. Steve inherited the newsletter and title from him.

Milton was a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, which he had fought in as an American volunteer on the Republican side.  He believed in fighting fascism in Spain because he had experienced anti-Semitism from the Ku Klux Klan while growing up in New Jersey during the 1920s. But while in Spain he discovered the war against Franco nationalism was sidetracked by the warring factions of the Communist party. When he returned to America, he enlisted in the Army and fought in WW II as a soldier in the Dixie Division.

Milt was wounded in both wars and was later an advocate for disabled veterans. After Milt’s service in WW II he was a soil scientist before he was blacklist and labeled a “premature anti-fascist” for his time in Spain and his membership in the communist party.

All these political disillusionments and betrayals led him to conceptualize the notion of being a “suspicious humanist,” a sort of ancient mariner of the old left who was skeptical of the new radicalism emerging from California in the 1960s–a political movement his son Steve would become a part of in his youth. In Milt’s view, he had fought in the battle of peace and fascism for real, while the New Left was just talking about revolution in a pretentious way. He believed that he had dealt with matters of existential importance and survival, so his children did not have to. Milt’s world-weary philosophy of humanism summed up was “Just like you, I was born without pockets and a fair share of my urge to help my fellow man.”

Steve embraced those values, but he was torn as a child of the sixties between his idealism toward leftist politics and his own challenge with understanding mental illness. Steve also experienced his own personal sense of betrayals in radical politics. On top of that how does he measure up to the looming presence of his massive father figure in Milt, a bona fide war hero. Being a suspicious humanist, as both father and son would come to believe, is marching to your own drum in politics and humor, a sort of ronin for having both survived and fought in the arena of life.

EB: How did you get involved in the publication of Stephen Weiner’s book When Nothing is Real: Notes of a Humanist?

DA: Steve had worked on his memoir for many years as a handwritten manuscript on notebook paper, which was then edited by local author Richard Seidman. I got involved with Steve primarily from our friendship and interest in politics and books. Through our conversations I gradually became interested in the story of his father, Milt. And through compiling research into Milt’s biography I became more involved in the stewardship of Steve’s papers from The Suspicious Humanist. As Steve became ill with stage four kidney cancer it became a race against time to complete his own memoir and secure the surviving records of Milt. What became apparent to me was that Steve was living out a lot of his own life in the shadow of Milt, whether or not his father loved him, and how he had measured up to the old man in terms of his political journey. It was in a way a release of two ghosts upon the end of that life cycle.

EB: How would you characterize his work: political theory, psychology, philosophy, advocacy, memoir?

DA: The book contains all of those elements. But it is primarily a philosophical memoir. What Steve undertook was a life of letters, reading and writing, to understand both his personal, mental condition and his times as a Baby Boomer and Jewish man in left-wing politics. Readers will find much to relate to in terms of Steve’s chronicle of the political upheaval in California of the 1960s, but also frank admission of loneliness and weariness at the hand he had been dealt. In comparing the lives of Milt and Steve, I was struck by how much more existential Milt is about matters of his security and survival, while Steve is drawn much more intimately into the anguish of family trauma, his parents’ divorce, the death of his sister, spiritual fulfillment, and his thoughts on sexuality, health, and mortality. Milt had a less enlightened view on mental and emotional illness. Steve was more the humanist, while Milt was the suspicious ronin.

EB: What’s the significance of the book’s title?

DA: We talked about the title in the days leading up to his death. “Nothing is Real” referring primarily to Steve’s struggles with paranoid schizophrenia, in reference to the Beatles song “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Which goes to show how Steve was very much a product of the 1960s. Steve believed in enlightenment values and secular humanism but rejected postmodern ideas.”. He resisted and resented the notion that life was an illusion or that objective reality was an ephemeral space, but he also wanted peace of mind in the basic common decency of kindness and thoughtfulness. He had joked to me that he wanted the quote “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different” to be his epitaph, but decided on a quote from Henry Miller instead.

EB: What was the process of putting the book together like?

DA: It was a struggle of the sundown in Steve’s life. He was very ill with diabetes and COPD and then was dying quickly of stage 4 cancer. His memory remained sharp, even in his weariest moments, up until the final weeks in which those synapses started to fail. Richard Seidman did the work with Steve editing the manuscript and designing it for final publication in approximately the last two months of Steve’s life, while I was doing much of the final interviews with Steve and trying to trigger any bits of useful info. I was also collating all of Steve’s surviving papers, along with old records from Milt he had forgotten about. I wrote a draft of the afterword for the book while visiting Steve in the hospital and was watching a video tape of Milt when I received a phone call that Steve had died later that day.

EB: What’s been the reaction so far?

DA: Steve’s friends and family were very supportive, and the people who knew him in Ashland fondly remember his political advocacy and involvement in the Jewish community. Like Milt, Steve was strongly opposed to what he felt was anti-Semitic language on the political left. And what has become clear is how much resonance there was among people who knew Steve from his diligence to remain active and generous with his community in his knowledge and insights. Everyone who knew Steve remembered him as one of the brightest individuals they knew, as well as one of the most honest.

EB: Any plans for further publications?

DA: I have worked on and hope to finally publish a comprehensive biography of Milt. In recent years, concepts like “antifa” and the use of WW II metaphors to describe our political moment have reminded me of Steve and Milt’s struggle with political conflict both in their personal fight, while also a struggle to rise above ideology. Steve and I began our discussions about Milt during Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination during the 2016 Presidential election. What Steve heard in Sanders was both a callback to the kind of Old Left rhetoric that Milt intoned, while identifying Sanders as exactly the kind of guy Milt was frequently skeptical of in the 1960s. The constant war between ideas and the yearning to carve out one’s place in the pantheon of “the good fight” remains a potent issue.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

DA: Thank you.

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An Interview with Cara Black, author of Three Hours in Paris.

Cara BlackCara Black is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of 19 books in the Aimée Leduc series, which is set in Paris.

From the California’s Bay Area, she travelled widely in Europe and Asia, studying Buddhism in Dharamsala in Northern India and studying Chinese history at Sophia University in Tokyo.

Her love of all things French was kindled by the French-speaking nuns at her Catholic high school, where Cara first encountered French literature She has been to Paris many, many times entrenching herself in it secret history.

Her 20th book is the standalone thriller Three Hours in Paris, published in April 2020 by Soho Press, which the Washington Post put on its Best Thrillers and Mystery Books of 2020 list.

You can visit Cara Black’s website here:

Ed Battistella: This is your first standalone novel. How did it feel to venture away from your Aimée Leduc Investigation series?

Cara Black: Quite scary at first. I’ve written Aimée Leduc for a long time and at first felt I was being ‘unfaithful’ but once I got writing it was a wonderful challenge. A great chance to write something new about a story that I became passionate about.

Three Hours in ParisEB: Where did the idea for the novel come from? What are the three hours in the title?

CB: The idea came from a historical footnote. Doing research I came across a footnote that detailed Hitler’s brief, one and only visit to Paris. It struck me as strange that he never returned or had a big victory parade on the Champs Elysées. It was only for three hours. Hence the title

EB: Were there really female snipers in World War II?

CB: Yes, the Russians had a whole unit of female snipers. The story of Ludmilla, who got 309 kills, inspired my idea for an American, like Kate, to also be a sniper.

EB: I enjoyed the way that the two main characters, the assassin Kate Rees and the policeman Gunter were both doing their part, as they saw, it and staying true to themselves. What’s the larger message?

CB: War is complex and so is the truth. I wanted to show a German man, a family man who is good at his job like Kate who is good at hers, doing his best. Gunter didn’t like his boss, the Fuhrer, and it was important he not be a cliché Nazi.

EB: What was the research like for this novel? There was a lot of spycraft, firearms, and military history.

CB: Research is the best part of writing. I started with the idea for this book about ten years ago, so research along the way was in fits and starts. Four years ago when I got the contract then I concentrated of going through 20 years of notes I took in Paris to do with the war, began purposefully visiting french Archives and war collections. I interviewed several female Résistants, now sadly who’ve gone, but felt very lucky to have spoken with them. Also in London, I went to the Churchill war rooms underground and the Imperial war museum. Stanford University has the Hoover Institute where I found WW2 spycraft gadgets – treasure trove.

EB: Can we expect more stories about Kate Rees in the future? The ending is open?

CB: I’m certainly thinking there’s a whole rest of the war for her to possibly work in.

EB: Perhaps an older Kate Rees might someday be a client of Aimée Leduc?

CB: Who knows?

EB: It was nice to see a protagonist who was a cowgirl from Oregon. Is ranching good training for being a spy?

CB: Definitely. Ranching fosters resilience, self-reliance and thinking on your feet. Three qualities a good spy needs.

EB: This is your 20th book. What’s next?

CB: I’m just working on the edits for the next Aimée Leduc novel – title TBA – set after 9/11 in Paris. This will come out in November 2021.

EB: Thanks for taking with us.

CB: Thank you.

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Grad School: An Interview with Dante Fumagalli

Dante Fumagalli is a 2017 summa cum laude graduate of Southern Oregon University, with a double major in English and Art History. A member of the founding class of SOU’s Honors College, he was the 2017 student commencement speaker. 

Ed Battistella: What is your graduate school experience like so far, both in New York and now in Eugene?

Dante Fumagalli: I’ve had very different experiences in New York and in Eugene! I only made it through one semester in New York attending the Art History master’s program at Hunter College. It was a very academic program and I enjoyed all of my classes a lot, but I came to the realization that I rushed into graduate school without giving more thought to my long-term goals. I wasn’t sure what I planned to do with my Master’s so I came to the difficult decision to put off graduate school after that first semester.

Ultimately, I’m very glad I did that! I spent the next two years living and working in New York and realized that what I appreciated most about my work in museum education was the connections I would make with students with disabilities. This prompted me to check out the Master’s program in Special Education at the University of Oregon, where I’m now in my second year. I love the mixture of application and theory that a program like this provides – it’s really fulfilling to be able to use concepts we discuss in my graduate courses practically in my practicum site!

EB: What’s are your long-term plans?

DF: I went into this program with the idea that I would work specifically on reading interventions with students with reading disabilities. I think that this would be a great way to combine the skills I acquired during undergrad studying English with my current studies in special education. However, this term my practicum site is with a functional skills classroom at a local high school and I’ve been really loving it. I’m teaching a unit on functional reading skills which has me considering whether a life skills or functional skills setting might be a better fit for me. I want to make sure I keep my options open because I know that I will be graduating with this degree and entering into a field with great need so there is room for flexibility in where I go from here.

EB: What has been the most interesting part of your studies so far?

DF: My favorite thing about my program has been applying course content into my practice with my students. I’m currently taking a course called Design of Instruction and I feel like each week I’ve learned about a new principle of design that I can use to improve the instruction I am providing my students. It feels really gratifying to be able to apply the things I’m learning and see results with my students.

EB: What courses have you taking?

DF: During my first year, I took: Foundations of Disabilities, Behavior Management, Assessment in SPED, SPED Law, Diversity in SPED, Supporting Students with Low-Incidence Disabilities, SPED Math and a year long sequence on literacy. This year, I have taken Advanced Behavior Management, Design of Instruction, Practicum, and Professional Practices. Over the next two terms I will be taking a two-course sequence on transition programming which I’m very excited for!

EB: What’s been the best thing you’ve read as a grad student?

DF: We recently read some very interesting articles by Lisa Delpit regarding intersections between equity, access, and inclusion with traditional skill-based teaching methods and the liberal ethos of fluency-based instruction. She argues that many students of color already exhibit fluency but within different dialectical contexts than their white peers and that this liberal mindset does not address the skill gaps between these students properly, leaving students of color at a deficit. I would highly recommend that educators read Delpit’s writing!

EB: What has been the hardest part of grad school?

DF: The hardest part has definitely been time management and finding time for self-care. Especially now that school is all done remotely, I find myself sitting at my desk for hours upon hours each day and have a hard time pulling myself away to take mental health breaks.

EB: What’s next for you?

DF: I would love to find a job within the 4J school district here in Eugene at the end of this year when I graduate. I’ve grown to really like this city and I would like to continue to foster the community relations that I’ve been able to establish through my practicum here so far.

EB: What do you know now that you wished you knew earlier?

DF: You don’t need to rush into graduate school! It’s okay to take the time to figure out exactly what you want before applying.

EB: Thanks for talking with us!

DF: Thank you!

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Grad School: An Interview with Kendall Meador

Born in Lewiston, Idaho, Kendall Meador moved up and down the west coast before completing her BA in English at Southern Oregon University. She is currently pursuing a PhD in American literature at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, TX. In her free time, she enjoys writing poetry and cooking.

Ed Battistella: What is your graduate experience like so far?

Kendall Meador: It’s difficult to describe very succinctly, but I’ll try. It’s been at once thrilling, disheartening, emboldening, devastating, inspiring, and excruciating.

EB: What’s been your intellectual focus and how has grad school changed that?

KM: I initially went in wanting to do Chicanx lit, especially focusing on what I think of as “messy” bodies — feminine bodies, wounded or disabled ones, queer ones, fat ones, etc. I am still very interested in working with representations of those bodies, but not specifically in Chicanx lit. The questions that drive my interests have shifted and are now really questions of citizenship. That is, whose body do we think of when we think of a citizen? And I’m interested in how our conceptions of citizenship impact reproductive rights and choices about sex and sexuality.

EB: What courses are you taking and what sorts of things were you reading?

KM: This term I am taking an archival research course and a Chicanx literature course. For the former, we’ve read a lot of interesting texts like Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages (much better than her recent op-ed), and Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale. I enjoy reading the fruits of these long research projects that reconstruct the lives of historical women. In the latter class we are reading texts from Caballero by Jovita González and Eve Raleigh, to Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera, to Salvador Plascencia’s People of Paper. We’re really tracking the development of Chicanx identity and culture over the term, and it has been a lot of fun.

EB: What has been the most fun so far?

KM: I just love talking about books in seminars. I love it when something a colleague says transforms my understanding of a passage, or when I have a moment of realization in class and get to share this thing that I’ve just seen that’s really exciting to me.

EB: What has been the weirdest?

KM: This year, it’s been working remotely. When I do go to campus occasionally it’s practically deserted, and that feels very peculiar and a little eerie.

EB: What’s next for you?

KM: Wrapping up my first term as an instructor, writing a couple of long papers, and celebrating a year with my partner, who is also in my program.

EB: Any advice for students considering going on for more school?

KM: First off, apply for a GRE waiver! That waiver will qualify you for graduate program application fee waivers and those bad boys add up. A less cheery piece of advice is that if you’re interested in going to grad school because you want to work in academia, you need to recognize early on that the job market is dismal. COVID may make it much worse for the foreseeable future. So, if you do go to graduate school, go to a program that will not require you to take on any additional debt, and do it to enjoy every available opportunity to develop and indulge your interests. Make the program a worthy end in and of itself, because that’s what you can control. Last, I would also advise new grad students to make friendships with their cohort mates and other peers as soon as possible. You have no idea how crucial those relationships can be, especially when imposter syndrome and multiple deadlines conspire to crush you. Just knowing other people are feeling or have felt as you do can make all the difference. Good luck!

EB: Thanks for talking with us!

KM: Thanks for the opportunity.

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Grad School: An Interview with Alexis Noel Brooks

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Alexis Noel Brooks is a fiercely feminist learner, dog mom, graduate student, coffee addict, “novel in progress”ian, wannabe chef, t-crosser, i-dotter, and lover of all things writerly. After graduating from Southern Oregon University in 2018 with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies, Alexis went on to pursue a Master of Arts in English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Ed Battistella: What has your graduate school experience been like so far?

Alexis Noel Brooks: Grad school has been exhilarating, stressful, exhausting, challenging (in the best possible sense of the word), and deeply rewarding. Honestly, I am just trying to soak it all up, to learn everything I possibly can from anyone who is kind enough to teach me. I feel really lucky to have ended up at UNLV. When I left SOU, I was terrified that I’d show up to grad school only to discover I had inadvertently chosen a program where my professors and colleagues didn’t really care like the people I studied with through undergrad. What I found instead, though, was a community of scholars who are excited about what they do and excited to learn along with me. Grad school is endless labor, but a welcoming, warm environment makes it exponentially more pleasant to do good work and be human in.

EB: What is your focus as a scholar?

AB: Maybe I am reading into this question too much, but my scholarly focus and my focus as a scholar are actually two different things to me. That said, they definitely inform one another. Let me explain. My scholarly focus—as in, my research area—is in Black women’s literature and Black feminist theory. My research has been centered around the ways that Black women writers negotiate and reimagine spaces of literary fictionality. My focus as a scholar, on the other hand, is this: how can I amplify the perspectives, voices, and feelings of Black women as they continue to work toward equality in a culture that actively works against their freedom, joy, and very existence? The difference between these two definitions, to me, is that the first is the product of my research and the second is the undercurrent, the driving force, behind my research.

EB: What sorts of things are you reading and writing?

AB: I am currently reading so much amazing stuff, and a lot of it all at once (because that is grad school for you). I am almost done reading Morgan Jerkins’ beautiful new release, Wandering in Strange Lands. It is fantastic. Most of my reading is thesis research these days. I love it. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I have the flexibility to choose what I read. In academia, reading loses some of its magic. When your reading choices are dictated by packed syllabi––even if they’re packed with great material––it simply does not leave much room for literary exploration. Now, I can read that random monograph or sci-fi novel I’ve been dying to read, all in the name of possibly using it in my thesis. As for my writing, most of it is academic writing right now. I spend most of my time working on my master’s thesis, which explores how Hannah Crafts reimagines fictionality in The Bondwoman’s Narrative and situates Crafts within a long tradition of Black women writers who use creativity as a tool for subverting the master narrative. I do set aside small batches of time for creative writing, which is one way I practice self-care.

EB: What has been the most interesting of graduate work so far?

AB: I work for the UNLV Honors College as a writing consultant, which essentially means I tutor students one-on-one, teach writing workshops, and guest lecture in Honors classes. One of the most interesting things about my job is the variety of students I get to work with. In a given day, I read first-year students’ papers on anything from mythical cosmogonies, to exposés on “home,” to education reform. I love getting to read and discuss their personal takes on life. They have so many interesting things to say and ways of expressing their unique styles.

EB: How has your graduate study experience changed you?

AB: I am a first-generation college student, which I think is part of why I felt relatively lost and self-doubting entering into graduate school. In my head, it was the most formidable of intellectual spheres. I didn’t know what to expect or whether my ideas would “measure up.” My graduate study experience has made me a far more confident person, not because I haven’t made mistakes but because I’ve been supported along the way. I think it was my first semester, when I sat silently afraid that I’d be asked to read “Goethe” out loud and a fellow student admitted to not knowing the pronunciation either, that I realized we are all in this learning journey together. “Imposter syndrome is real” is something I’ve heard regularly from grad students and professors alike. We all live it. I’ve learned to be okay with this and to put myself out there anyways.

EB: Is there anything you know now that you wished you knew earlier?

AB: That it is okay to not know and to admit to not knowing. I re-learn this constantly.

EB: Can you share any long-range plans?

AB: What are “plans” even, in the middle of a pandemic. It is so hard to know. What I know for sure: I will graduate with my MA in English in May 2021. What I hope for: a career that allows me to put my unique skillset and interests to positive use, and eventual international travel again.

EB: Do you have any advice for undergraduate students considering going on for more school?

AB: Do what makes you happy. This cannot be said enough. Practical tips: If you don’t get accepted into any grad schools the first time around (which I didn’t), try again (which I did, successfully). By the way, if you still want to go to grad school after this, that’s a pretty clear indicator that it is where you need to be. Don’t just research schools’ and professors’ credentials; it is equally important to research the environment. Talk to professors you think you might want to work with and to current graduate students. Ask what they think of their department. Ask whether they feel supported. Ask whether they feel they’re given the tools to thrive. Trust me, it makes all the difference.

EB: Thanks for talking with us!

AB: Absolutely! Thank you!

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Grad School: An Interview with Sabrina Sherman

Sabrina Sherman is a 2016 cum laude graduate of Southern Oregon University with a BA in English. A native of Grants Pass, she is completing a PhD in English at the University of Oregon, where she teaches college composition.

Ed Battistella: What has your graduate school experience been like so far?

Sabrina Sherman: It has been challenging, but most of my challenges are outside of coursework and academics. It’s important to recognize the toll it takes on a person’s finances to be in school for so long; alongside the financial sacrifice is the sheer amount of time spent enduring academic gatekeeping. On that note, I should point out that most of my graduate school experience has consisted of heaps of imposter syndrome in which I constantly question if I deserve to be in a program that has awarded me a six year tuition waver, a stable income, and many other career opportunities. So, obviously, someone thinks I deserve to be here.

EB: What’s been your focus as a scholar?

SS: I am an African Americanist with a focus in theories of passing, mixed race identities, and black feminisms. I am particularly interested in early 20th century US ideas about colorism and its role in mixed race or white passing women. The texts I look at mostly deal with black women who pass for white or are mixed race. The time period I focus on is 20th century, mostly, or the Harlem Renaissance to present. So, I am looking at the narrative echoes of Nella Larsen’s novella Passing.

EB: What sorts of things are you reading and writing about?

SS: Well, I started my grad school career reading lots of post-structuralist theory such as Foucault and Derrida. Now that I’m getting more specialized, I’ve moved into reading Black Feminist theorists and writers such as Morrison, Walker, Spillers, Davis, and Christian, to name a few. I’m in my final year of coursework and my third year of a six-year PhD program. I am currently (in fall 2020) taking a class/seminar on nonfiction comics (which is totally out of my wheelhouse) and I am working on revising a term paper into an article for a publication course. I am also teaching a first-year writing composition course, and I do the readings I assign for my students. I write stuff for my classes, both as a student and instructor. So, lots of writing, always!

EB: What has been the most interesting aspect so far?

SS: Interesting for me is such a loaded term, but then again I learned to question the word “interesting” in a seminar. Go figure. So, I find it interesting (and frustrating) how what I consume on a cultural level—so, Netflix shows, memes, Instagram posts, YouTube videos, etc.—gets circulated into my academic life as relevant material. Everything you do seems to matter, but that also means that it can be hard to compartmentalize personal and academic/work lives. I tend to establish boundaries in good faith and spend a good amount of time trying to enforce “fun” time that is purely inconsequential to my graduate work.

EB: Has graduate school changed you?

SS: Yes, beyond what I can see or notice right now. It has changed everything for me. I can’t emphasize enough how much “grad school” sort of attempts to consume your entire identity such that you often refer to yourself as “just a grad student.” But, actually, grad school just emphasizes the ways in which you can ask better, more specific, and consequential questions. Maybe I’m oversimplifying that idea, but I’m sticking with it. Also, I’m convinced that grad school makes you second guess everything.

EB: Not to be nosy, but what’s are your long-range plans?

SS: I’m assuming you’re referring to my career goals. If so, to answer your question, I will attempt to apply for and attain a tenure track position somewhere. I plan to finish my PhD in the allotted time of six years from entering my program at UO. So, hopefully, by 2023, I’ll be able to call myself a PhD holder. At that point, I will try to get a job to whatever extent that is possible in whatever way that is the most mentally and financially viable. In other words, I don’t want to take a job (mostly, I’m thinking adjunct professorships) that requires me to teach 5-6 sections of 30 students per section and in which I am barely scraping by. Being a professor isn’t that important to me; however, mental, physical, emotional, and financial stability, are.

EB: Do you have any advice for undergraduate students considering going on for more schooling?

SS: My biggest piece of advice is to take a gap year between undergrad and grad school. Especially if you’re considering applying for a PhD program like I did, take a long, hard look at why you want to go to grad school and what you think it’ll offer you. I have never regretted my decision to wait to apply to graduate schools after a gap year. Especially if you’re a Writing or English major, it might be intimidating to take a break from writing, and you might worry that you’ll lose those skills. I’m convinced that life experience guides a more focused statement of purpose and that is precisely what application committees love to see. They want to know why you want to be in their graduate program, which for me took a year or so to figure out.

EB: Thanks for talking with us!

SS: No problem. I am proud to represent Southern Oregon University, and I am grateful for my experiences there. Seriously. I don’t know how I could’ve done grad school well without SOU English instructors’ teaching me the foundational strategies that I still use today! So thank YOU!

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An Interview with Melanie Stormm

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Melanie Stormm is a poet and writer of short-fiction. Her novella, Last Poet of Wyrld’s End is available through Candlemark & Gleam. Her short story “A Mohawk Place for Souls” was a finalist for the Hamlin Garland Award for Short Fiction in 2018 and published by Beloit Fiction Journal. She is also a singer and spoken word performer and is the editor for a special issue of Star*Line, the magazine of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association. She lives in New Hampshire, where she works in marketing.

Ed Battistella: Welcome Melanie. Can you tell our readers a little bit about your background?

Melanie Stormm:  Thanks, Ed! Glad to be here. I’m a multiracial writer of both speculative poetry and fiction. I’m also the marketing coordinator for the SFPA and the current guest-editor for a historic issue of Star*Line magazine centered on Black speculative poetry.

EB: When did you first begin writing?

MS: I grew up in a household that didn’t have a television and only limited access to radio. We told each other stories so I began writing when I was six. By the time I was about ten, I was writing in earnest: poetry, genre fiction, essays on weird things I had no business writing essays about.

EB:  Where does your poetry come from?

MS: That’s a very interesting question as I also write fiction. I think I reach for poetry when I need to explore the multidimensionality of something without having an agenda. I think my poetry has always come from a place that needs to be as faithful as possible to what I see, to not offer judgement, and to explore the way language can cast shadows. Also, sometimes I write poetry because a line pops into my head, makes me snicker, and so I write it down with some perverse glee. I love language.

EB: Who are your poetic influences? Or your literary influences generally?

MS: I studied as a teen with Shari Jean Brown and she’s the one who really drew me more deeply into poetry. She made sure to put Sherman Alexie and Joy Harjo into my hands which was incredibly insightful because I got to read poetry with accents and hues drawn from my own life. Both are poets that pull zero punches and I think that shapes some of what I do. As for content and approach, my favorite poets are John Ashbery and William Trowbridge. Both have their own sense of humor, absurdity, speculation, and mastery of language. Trowbridge’s mastery of narrative is the bar I try to jump up and touch (but let’s face it, I need a step stool and a bunch of phone books on top of that.)

EB: I notice that you have a fascination with Tom Petty. Can you elaborate on that?

MS:  His music speaks to people and reads like good poetry. Be specific, let the language do the work, leave room for the reader. But it’s a little more than that.

Years ago, when I was stressed and life was taking more out of me than I could refill, I found myself throwing myself and my kids in the car, picking a direction that offered long roads and few people. I would drive for hours through rolling countryside, dilapidated farmhouses and ones that had been painted bright red, past remote nuclear power plants, people’s hideaway cottages on flooded coasts, under wide open sky. Tom Petty’s music sounds like those drives, feels like them, too. I think that’s the easiest way to explain it. It sounds like America and like the 50s and 60s rock and roll that I used to sometimes listen to when my parents gave me a chance. It sounds like longing, grit, and sunshine on sugarcane. Even now, he is a giant, and an underdog, and it’s a very American juxtaposition, it’s the nature of American magic.

EB: You are also a vocalist yourself. Is there a difference for you between performing as a singer and performing as a poet?

MS: I don’t mind performing as a singer. I hate performing as a poet and tend to avoid the spotlight. I think it has to do with the way I prefer to consume poetry: it has more dimension for me on the page and hearing it from the author is sort of supplemental. It’s very hard to give a sound to line breaks and form that sounds natural and not like “poet voice.”

EB: Tell us about Star*Line and the issue of Star*Line you are editing.

MS: Star*Line magazine is actually one of the oldest speculative poetry publications out there, if not the oldest. It’s the flagship publication of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Poetry Association which is a global, member-supported organization. It’s been in print now for 42 years. This issue of Star*Line is completely dedicated to giving voice to Black speculative poets as we are drastically underrepresented in the field. The decision from the SFPA executive committee to go in this direction is a historic one. It’s the first themed issue they’ve done with Star*Line. I’m super excited about the issue as it comes out in just a couple short weeks. I think readers will be blown away by the diversity of subgenre, style, and subject matter, not to mention the skill present. I can’t wait because Star*Line has diverse readers and both they and SFPA members have really wanted to see and hear from Black poets.

EB: As a poetry editor of an issue on Black speculative poetry, what do you look for in work?

MS: I look for things I haven’t read before, voices and approaches to the genre that will offer something different but important and expand the genre. I’m looking for skill and for a sense of wholeness to the poem. Bringing Black pantheons, cultural heroes, and culture to the page is also desirable.

EB: What do you do when you are not editing poetry?

MS: I’m a marketer, a mum, and I write fiction in a bunch of different forms. I sometimes write and create fiction where it’s not supposed to be, but that’s fun.

EB: There are also a lot of trees in your poetry, it seems to me. Is that a recurring theme for you?

MS: I think Environment is always a character for me. I have a slew of speculative poems that are about cities. Woods are important to me and I spent a lot of time in them growing up. I always felt a friendship toward trees, lol. I have a worldview, I think, that sees them as their own ambivalent consciousness or entity and so there’s always that thread in my work. I’m naturally drawn to juxtaposition and, now that you point it out, it seems fitting that I reach for both cities and trees.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

MS: It’s an honor. Thanks again, Ed.

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Summer Reading 2020

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What Fresh Hell is This? by Marion Meade

I’ve been wanted to tackle this for a while – and Parker has been a fascination since I learned about the Algonquin Round Table. Meade brings DP alive in all her glory and got me interested enough in the period of publishing history to restart Thomas Kunkel’s Genius in Disguise: Harold Ross of the New Yorker.

The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova

A readable exploration of why we fall for things – and why con artists do what they do and get away with it—the mark, the put up, the play, the rope, the tale, and more.

The Girl Who Lived Twice: A Lisbeth Salander novel, continuing Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series Kindle Edition

The Girl Who Lived Twice, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, and The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

Propulsive page turners with workmanlike plots that don’t disappoint. But Lagercrantz is turning Lisbeth Salander into Jack Reacher. Or maybe she always was.

The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye: A Lisbeth Salander novel, continuing Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Series (Millennium Series Book 5) Kindle Edition

The Girl in the Spider's Web: A Lisbeth Salander novel, continuing Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series Kindle Edition,204,203,200_.jpg

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

One of the things I love about Colson Whitehead is his range—everything from woo woo to and history–this was a real stretch. Engagingly weird and metaphorical—a plague generates a zombie apocalypse we follow a protagonist—a sweeper clearing the city of zombies– who consider himself overwhelmingly average.

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The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

A true history horror story of racism and brutality in the not-so-old south. The main character finds redemption and truth but with a twist.

Paperback The Best I Saw in Chess : Games, Stories and Instruction from an Alabama Prodigy Who Became U. S. Champion Book

The Best I Saw in Chess by Stuart Rachels

A multifaceted memoir by the youngest American every to become a chess master. Part instruction manual and part memoir in the narrative tradition of Korchnoi and Tal, but better written.

The Flanders Panel

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Pérez-Revert

Art restoration meets chess analysis. Tedious characters and disappointing in lots of ways but the chess problem was interesting if you like retrograde analysis.

How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide

How to Have Impossible Conversations by Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay

A philosopher and a mathematician offer useful conversational techniques necessary for opening minds and navigating controversies. Useful material but the style if kind of self-helpy.

Understanding Beliefs

Understanding Beliefs by Nils Nilsson

I reviewed Roger Kreuz’s excellent book Irony and Sarcasm for Choice, which prompted me to reread Nils Nilsson’s Understanding Beliefs, which is a terrific and readable book on epistemology, the scientific method and problems of thinking by a computer scientist. I feel like working through the entire MIT Press Essential Knowledge Series.

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

2044. A dystopian future with a nostalgia for the 1980s and combined with a fantasy quest. Better than the film version, which was also good, so it’s worth reading.

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle by Phillip K. Dick

More dystopia, this time in an alternate reality 1962 in which the allies had lost world War II; lots of interesting features, but the story seems to flag at the end. It would be interest to teach this book though.,204,203,200_.jpg

Making Sense of “Bad English” by Elizabeth Peterson

Clear and excellent textbook on language ideology and world Englishes and probably not too expensive to assign in a class.

Mutual Misunderstanding: Scepticism and the Theorizing of Language and Interpretation (Post-Contemporary Interventions)

Mutual Misunderstandings by Talbot Taylor

A deep dive into common sense and technical understanding of understanding. It turned me into more a of communication skeptic. Academic and historical, covering Locke, Saussure and more

The Wrong Case by James Crumley

1970s Montana noir. Crumley is a great writer but the story has an old school tough guy and doesn’t age well. Stick with James Lee Burke.


A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carré

Le Carré’s thought provoking espionage thriller—packed with possible terrorists, bankers, lawyers, and agents–of works especially well as an audiobook, which has the right pace for all the intricacies. Now to watch the movie.

The Night Fire

The Night Fire Jonathan by Michael Connelly and The Wedding Guest by Jonathan Kellerman 

Two great police procedurals and listening to them was like begin with old friends. I prefer Harry Bosch to Alex Delaware as a character but the solve in The Wedding Guest was neater.

The Wedding Guest: An Alex Delaware Novel

1984: New Classic Edition

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

I’ll be talking about this in class so it seemed like time to reread it; great performance by Simon Prebble and the audio brings out some new aspects of the book, including some flaws.

. Three Hours in Paris

Three Hours in Paris by Cara Black

This is the wonderful Cara Black’s 20th novel—and first stand alone?—featuring a female sharpshooter from Oregon who becomes an assassin in World War II. Her mission stalls and she must escape from France. Fast paced, intricate and sharply written

What Rose Forgot: A Novel

What Rose Forgot by Nevada Barr

An intergenerational thriller in which a women breaks out of a corrupt memory care facility and enlists her granddaughter in helping her on the run. Started out a little slow but ended up a fun romp.

Educated: A Memoir

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

A colleague recommended this and I’m glad I read it. A harrowing tale of the effects of trauma, family dysfunction, gaslighting and conspiracy ideology—and the power of education. It gave me a new appreciation for some of the aspects of students’ lives.

Still working on Jonathan Lethem’s Men and Comics and Stephen Greenleaf’s Strawberry Sunday.

What was on your list?

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An Interview with Tea Krulos, author of American Madness

Tea Krulos is a freelance journalist and author from Milwaukee, WI. He writes about art and entertainment, lifestyle, and food/drink for publications like Milwaukee Magazine, Shepherd Express, and Milwaukee Record. Other publications he’s contributed to include Fortean Times, The Guardian, Boston Phoenix, Scandinavian Traveler, Doctor Who Magazine, and Pop Mythology. You can find his a weekly column, “Tea’s Weird Week,” on

Tea Krulos - Wikipedia
Megan Berendt Photography

His books include Heroes in the Night: Inside the Real Life Superhero Movement ( 2013, Chicago Review Press), Monster Hunters: On the Trail With Ghost Hunters, Bigfooters, Ufologists, and Other Paranormal Investigators (2015, Chicago Review Press), and Apocalypse Any Day Now: Deep Underground with America’s Doomsday Preppers (2019, Chicago Review Press).

His most recent book is American Madness: The Story of the Phantom Patriot and How Conspiracy Theories Hijacked American Consciousness (2020, Feral House).

Ed Battistella: American Madness is a bio of sorts of Richard McCaslin. Who was he?

Tea Krulos: Back in 2010, I was working on my first book, Heroes in the Night, which is about a subculture of people who adopt their own “Real-Life Superhero” persona. Richard had seen that I was working on the book and contacted me, saying he was one of these Real-Life Superheroes and called himself the “Phantom Patriot” and that he had been arrested in 2002 when he started a fire in a secret retreat in northern California called the Bohemian Grove. It quickly became clear that he was a hardcore conspiracy theorist. I was interested in his life story and how he got there and began a long process of interviewing and researching.

EB: What’s your goal in the book?

TK: I think the first thing that really appealed to me was that Richard’s story hadn’t been told and I was in a unique position to be the one to tell it. As time went on, though, I found there was a bigger picture to this story. I found that Richard wasn’t alone in his views and that some of his beliefs and inspirations were becoming more prevalent. When I first started working on this book, people like Richard were really fringe and isolated. Now you have big social movements like QAnon that follow these ideas.

EB: I wanted to ask about your earlier book Heroes in the Night. Is there a connection between what you call the real life superhero movement and conspiracy theories.

TK: Real-life Superheroes (or RLSH) are a really eclectic group of people that share the desire to invent superhero personas and do good in the world. Most of them aren’t into conspiracy theory, but a couple of them are willing to entertain the ideas. Richard had a tough time breaking into the RLSH community, at first most of them didn’t want to be associated with him because of his beliefs. Eventually he did make a few RLSH friends and joined them on some meet-ups. But he really was, as he himself described it, “the black sheep of the RLSH.”

EB: Is there a particular type of person who is attracted to conspiracy theories?

TK: I think a lot of people have conspiracies they believe in, they’re just usually much more small scale– a conspiracy against you at your workplace, for example. I think people that get in deeper are really looking for meaning and order in this crazy world. There’s some appeal in thinking that a satanic network of Illuminati or “Deep State” is causing everything bad to happen. The Internet has really caused the widespread of some of these ideas. I quote a study in my book that found that almost 100% of flat earthers got sucked into the idea via YouTube. In Richard’s case, and other stories I examined I found that conspiracy believers had gone through a rough time in their life and conspiracy kind of filled the void they were feeling, almost like taking solace in a religious faith.

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EB: You also talk about super conspiracies theories, where various conspiracies connect together, like Q-Anon.

TK: Yes, I think this is something that’s evolved. You used to find more theorists that had a conspiracy they focused on– “Assassinologists” are mostly interested in the JFK assassination. But most conspiracists now are super-conspiracists which means they’re likely to believe most conspiracy ideas they’re exposed to and believe that all of them are connected together, all perpetrated by this evil Deep State league.

EB: Is it possible to engage with someone who believes in conspiracies? What’s the best strategy?

TK: Sadly, it’s difficult to engage with someone after they make the conspiracy plunge. Almost anything you present to them– legit journalism or even photos or video will be dismissed as “fake news” or a “hoax.” It’s frustrating because how can you argue a point with someone like that? I think the best strategy is to not mock the person or get angry, but to listen and present why you think that they are wrong and point out the credibility issues with their sources. Hope for the best, but don’t expect them to budge in their thinking.

EB: Is the US more prone to conspiracy thinking that other countries or is this a world-wide phenomenon?

TK: It is world-wide. I just read a report about how QAnon has started to get a foothold in the UK, Germany, and other European countries. Other countries have long used conspiracy as a form of propaganda. That being said, conspiracy is very American. It’s gotten to be prevalent here, especially in this Trump era. From Bohemian Grove to Area 51 to Dealey Plaza, it’s part of our landscape.

EB: How do politicians respond to conspiracy theories? What should they be doing?

TK: Well, some conspiracy theorists are getting elected to office! Trump himself knows very well the power of using these theories as a weapon, whether it’s Birtherism, alleged voter fraud, or blaming his orange skin tone on energy efficient lightbulbs. The Trump effect has led to a number of QAnon inspired candidates to run– Marjorie Greene, a QAnon believer, is poised to win a seat in Congress this year and others look like they have a chance of winning, too.

That’s why I think it’s important to look at your local elections. It’s exhausting to keep up with all the misinformation, but I think media and politicians should be calling out Trump and other politicians spreading conspiracy every time. There is a war on reality about politics and the pandemic, and that should concern us all.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

TK: Great talking with you, thank you!

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An Interview with Stuart Rachels, author of The Best I Saw in Chess

Born in 1969, Stuart Rachels grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and began playing chess when he was 8. At 11 he became a chess master and was the US Junior Champion in 1988 and the US co-champion in 1989. At the age of 23, he retired from competitive chess.

A former Marshall Scholar, he has a PhD in Philosophy from Syracuse University and teaches at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. This year he published The Best I Saw in Chess (New in Chess, 2020).


Ed Battistella: When you were not quite 12,  you became the youngest chess master in US history. How did you learn to play and how did you get so good so fast?

Stuart Rachels: My brother David taught me the rules. I have no idea how I got good. It was just something my brain took to. It was also my most enjoyable period as a player. Getting good is more fun than being good.

EB: Reading The Best I Saw in Chess, it occurred to me that good chess books are equal parts narrative and analysis. Did you think about this balance as you were writing the book? Or think about the memoir genre more generally?

SR: Yes and yes. Here are some tips I gave myself. (i) In telling stories, just say what happened. Don’t give commentary. Commentary is boring, and anyway your readers will prefer their own interpretations, so don’t waste their time giving them yours. (ii) In writing your life story, don’t start with your birth and end with you sitting there writing your life story. Skip around in time. (iii) Autobiographical writing is about taming one’s ego. Write a lot of drafts; take a lot of time to gain perspective. (iv) Chessplayers don’t want to hear your life story. They want to see cool moves. Make it less about you. Every story you tell, you must earn with cool chess moves. (v) Don’t make yourself look good; let yourself look human. Aside from Bobby Fischer, Mikhail Tal was the best blitz player in the world during the 1960’s. Yet when Tal recounts a blitz tournament in his autobiography, the only position he gives is one in which he made a silly blunder. Does this make you think less of Tal? Not at all; just the opposite. (vi) Your main obligation is to your reader, not to yourself. Don’t suppress uncomfortable truths. They’re uncomfortable for you, not for your reader. And though you hate it, include games that you lost. Guess what? Some of the coolest moves you’ve ever seen were ones that kicked your butt.

EB: What was the toughest part of writing The Best I Saw in Chess?

SR: Finding the right title. Stuart Rachels’ Chess Career is too conceited. Also, the book is primarily about chess, not about me; it is a book of instruction, where the lessons come from my games. So the title should not cry out “autobiography.” Yet it shouldn’t ignore that element; How to Think about Chess Positions isn’t right, either. And the title should contain the word ‘chess.’ Also, it should say something about me, because, who am I?—I haven’t played chess in 25 years. (I covered that desideratum with a self-promoting subtitle.) It took me months to find a title I was happy with.

EB: This is one of the few chess books I’ve seen that has footnotes, which I think is great. What does your chess library look like?

SR: Disorganized. I’ve acquired so many chess books in the last few years that they’ve outgrown their bookshelf, and now that I’m writing another book (about fortresses), my books tend to wind up in stacks, relating to some theme. Footnotes are important. I use them for references and for jokes.

EB: Who are some of the best chess writers out there? Do they have anything in common?

SR: I was trying to combine the virtues of John Nunn and Mikhail Tal. Nunn explains chess ideas perfectly (accurately, succinctly, insightfully), but he displays no personality—no humor and nothing too personal. Meanwhile, Tal has never edited a sentence in his life (he dictated his books, and it shows), but his wit, affable nature and lack of pretension are manifested on every page.

EB: You mention that you don’t always calculate a lot of variations, but also that you sometimes run into time trouble. Can you say anything about your thought process during a game?

SR: My trainer once told me that I would get into time trouble even if I began the game with five hours on my clock. There’s always lots to think about, but my time mismanagement probably derived from my neuroses—a useful neurosis. I was always motivated by the fear that I was about to make a bad move. This anxiety helped me focus, but it also slowed me down. … As for my thought process, I’ll just mention the only thing which (I think) was unusual. Often, there would be the move I wanted to play (the move I was most comfortable with) and then this different move, which I didn’t want to play, but it might be best. At those moments, I would silently give myself a speech, arguing that the move I wanted to play was best—and then I’d see whether I found the speech convincing.

EB: You’ve played several former world champions—Kasparov, Anand, and Spassky. Who was the toughest?

SR: Kasparov is the greatest player ever, in my opinion. However, I can’t say who was toughest for me, because I played these players at different strengths, under different conditions. When I played Anand, we were both 14; when I played Spassky, I was 16 and was too nervous and starstruck to think clearly; and then I played Kasparov in two clock simuls. I will say that my most awesome experience was playing blitz with Anand. He thinks several times faster than most GMs. “Touched by God” is an apt phrase.

EB: You have a day job, as a professor of philosophy. Do you still find time to play chess?

SR: I play a little on the internet, but not much. It isn’t about time. I prefer in-person play, and the nearest grandmaster is 150 miles away—my friend Ben Finegold, who runs a great club in Atlanta.

EB: Thanks for talking. Good luck with The Best I Saw in Chess.

SR: Thank you!

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An Interview with Neil Nakadate, author of Looking After Minidoka

Neil Nakadate is a graduate of Stanford and earned his M.A. and Ph.D. at Indiana University.  He is University Professor Emeritus from Iowa State University, where he received the Iowa State Foundation Award for Career Achievement in Teaching. He is a past president of the Board of Directors of Humanities Iowa.  His writing has appeared in various publications, including Aethlon, Cottonwood, ISLE, and Annals of Internal Medicine; he has co-authored two books on rhetoric and writing and has written a critical study of novelist Jane Smiley (2010).  His most recent book is Looking After Minidoka:  An American Memoir (Indiana University Press, 2013), which links his Portland family and Japanese American experience from immigration through the 20th century. 

Ed Battistella: Tell us a little about yourself and your career.

Neil Nakadate: I went to high school in Portland, then to Stanford. After that it was Indiana University for my M.A. and Ph.D. I taught American literature, courses on fiction, and various nonfiction writing courses, first at Texas and then at Iowa State.

EB: Your father was a doctor. I’m curious how you chose to become an English professor.

NN: My father wanted me to follow him into medicine, but in high school my affinity was for English and history—an inclination that was reinforced by some excellent teachers. In college I was pre-med until the second quarter of my sophomore year, when I gave up lab reports for writing papers on poetry and fiction. I eventually concluded that my family’s economic stability, established by two preceding generations, enabled me to make that choice.

EB: What prompted you to write Looking After Minidoka?

NN: I had been trying for years to write about my family, with a focus on the World War II years. But it became clear to me that my family embodied many of the key aspects of the larger Japanese American story—and that explaining “internment” would require discussing what preceded it and what came after. Meanwhile, I had become impatient with superficial historical accounts of the incarceration that reduced the experience to dates and statistics. I knew that the stories of individuals could provide texture and depth for the collective story. So I interviewed family members, engaged in research, read new material as it became available, and wrote and otherwise contributed in support of Redress. I organized my files. I wrote a few of the poems that would appear in the book. But I was preoccupied with teaching and writing about American literature—including multicultural American literature(s)—and rhetoric and writing. So my progress on Looking After Minidoka was fitful; more than half of it was written in the two years after I retired.

EB: What was the process of research like for a memoir spanning three generations?

NN: It was challenging but rewarding. For example, the family record included anecdotes, letters, memorabilia, interviews, ephemera, and photographs. The public record included census data and immigration records, maps, city directories, military history, and so on. I had to figure out how to sort through, organize, and present what was most valuable in all this without getting distracted and sidetracked. This was a challenge because I would periodically encounter a subtopic or detail that required me to modify my initial understanding.

EB: You were born in the Midwest and your family returned to Oregon after World War II. What are your recollections of growing up in Portland? Was the racism different than in the Midwest?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Mindoka_smallpostcard.-cover-copy.jpgNN: When I was a boy growing up in Northwest Indiana, it was ethnically diverse and the fathers typically worked in the refineries, steel mill, or shipyard. My father had gone there because that’s where he was offered an internship upon completing medical school in Portland. The diversity of East Chicago was largely Central and Eastern European in origin. Ours was one of the few Asian families, but (according to my parents) we were accepted as part of the general mix. My memory of elementary school in Hammond is of a brief race-related incident but no ongoing problems. This was in the decade after World War II. On the post-war West Coast the “unwelcome mat” had been put out for Japanese Americans returning from the camps, and that made returning to Oregon a challenge for many, even by 1956. My parents were able to buy a house in Southwest Portland, but only after having some offers wither under the objections of potential neighbors and vacillation on the part of realtors.

EB: In your book, you include a lot of your own poetry. What’s the role of poetry in a memoir like this one?

NN: The poems convey my personal connection to and feelings about elements of the larger story, and they help explain what inspired me to juxtapose my family’s story and the larger Japanese American story. Early on I knew I wanted to include the poetry, but I was also aware that publishers were resistant to mixed-genre books. Interestingly enough, by the time I finished writing, that resistance had diminished.

EB: What did you learn about yourself while writing the book?

NN: Who I am in relation to other Japanese Americans who are strangers, yet related.

EB: Today, as in the 1960’s, we are seeing a surge of civil rights protests and anti-racism. Do you see current controversies and struggles as coming out of 1960s activism or was something else at work. Or both? Are there lessons for today’s struggles against racism?

NN: What’s happening today seems in part a legacy of 1960’s protests and activism against war in Southeast Asia, for civil rights, in support of women’s rights. And both then and now what we see and say is amplified by mass media. During the 1968 Democratic Convention one salient chant heard on TV was, “The whole world is watching!” Today we have social media as part of the mix. At the core of Japanese American experience, 1960’s civil rights unrest and activism, and current issues and protests (regarding immigration, displacement and dispossession, citizenship, voting rights. . .) are some basic, ongoing questions: “Who gets to be an American?” and “Does everyone here have an opportunity to pursue the American Dream?” and “Who gets to decide, and on what grounds?”

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

NN: Thanks for asking.

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The Em Dash, a guest post by Rachel Harris

Rachel Harris is studying English and Shakespeare Studies at Southern Oregon University. She proofreads all her text messages and inserts the correct dash even when the person she’s texting won’t  care. 

The Em Dash: A Survey

Despite its proliferation in modern texts, the em dash is not present in the majority of early writing curricula. It is one of the most versatile punctuation marks in the English language, with many different functions and the ability to act as an alternative to a number of other marks, but, though most can likely recognize it on sight, few English readers would be able to identify it by name. Its absence in education is likely due, in part, to its rocky past, as well as to the unflattering whims of public opinion, which now seem to be shifting. As the em dash returns to favor, it is worth exploring the history and merits of this valuable punctuation mark.

The Chicago Manual of Style describes the em dash as “the most commonly used and most versatile of the dashes” (333). It is most often used to “set off an amplifying or explanatory element,” and, in this way, can take the place of a comma, a semicolon, a colon, a pair of commas, or a pair of parentheses (333–334). Though the em dash can be mechanically interchangeable with these other marks, it carries a different tone. For example, it tends to be read as less formal, particularly compared to the colon and semicolon (Norris 145–146); when it comes to paired punctuation used to set off an interruption, em dashes emphasize the contained information, while parentheses deemphasize it, and commas, read as neutral, do not act on it at all (Einsohn 89). Because the em dash is effective in so many contexts, it is prone to overuse; it should be employed carefully and sparingly. Einsohn states that, especially when taking the place of a semicolon in joining independent clauses, it “is best reserved for special effects” such as “prepar[ing] readers for a punchline or a U-turn” (81).

The em dash has other purposes, as well, including some that only it can fulfill. It is commonly used to indicate an interruption or other sudden break, particularly in dialogue; in this role, it can be placed at either the end or the beginning of a thought, to indicate that the thought is being either cut off or picked up partway through (Norris 135). It is used to lend a sort of breathless urgency to writing (136) and to represent stream-of-consciousness thinking (Truss 158); it is effective in setting certain tones, and has, thus, been a popular punctuation choice for poets, including Emily Dickinson (Norris 137–138). In playwriting, the em dash is also employed to “secure suspense” and emphasize a word or phrase at the end of a sentence (Smiley and Bert 206–207). More technical uses include the replacement of bullet points in lists and the replacement of quotation marks in dialogue, particularly dialogue translated from a language that prefers guillemets over quotation marks (The Chicago 335).

In order to fully understand the em dash, one must first understand the em. The Chicago Manual of Style defines the em as a “unit of type measurement equal to the point size of the type in question” (895), meaning that, in a twelve-point font, the em—and, therefore, the em dash—will be twelve points wide. It is largely accepted that the em is so titled because it is the width of a capital letter M (“Glossary of Typographic”); while this may have been true at one time, it is not reliably true now, as the M in most modern typefaces is narrower than the em. In fact, the length of the em cannot be measured by any text seen in print or on screen: It is the height of the type, which comprises the character and a small space used as a buffer between lines of text—the leading. In the days of metal type, each piece of type would include a narrow piece of lead at the bottom of the letter or mark; the height—and, therefore, the em—includes this leading and the negative space created by it (Phinney).

The etymology of the em dash, though not relevant to its proper usage, is interesting. It is named for the em, of course, because it is the length of one em; the word dash, though, is more intriguing: Dashes, as a group, were likely given this title because of the action used to create them. “Dash” comes from the Middle English verb dasshen—to knock, to hurl, to break (Truss 159)—and means “to strike violently”; dashes were used in handwritten text even before the age of metal type, and were produced with a sharp dash of a pen on paper. Though usage of the dashes as punctuation marks has evolved over time, this definition has been in evidence since the middle of the sixteenth century (Houston 150).

Variations on the em dash exist in certain contexts. In the past, the em dash was often paired with other punctuation marks, forming such creations as the comma-dash or “commash”; though these “dashtards” were, at one time, employed by writers as venerated as Shakespeare, they have been considered nonstandard for over half a century (151–153). In British writing, the em dash is itself nonstandard; in its place, a spaced en dash is used (145). There are also 2-em and 3-em dashes, which have their own purposes and are, respectively, two and three ems long. The 2-em dash is used to omit words or parts of words, such as names or expletives, or to represent missing or illegible information in quoted text (The Chicago 335–336). It was regularly employed to censor names of politicians in mid–eighteenth century England, in order to circumvent a ban on parliamentary reporting (Houston 158–160), but has since fallen out of style; at that time, it was also so commonly used to censor expletives that the word “dash” itself became a mild epithet (158). The 3-em dash, meanwhile, is used in scholarly bibliographies, to indicate that the author or editor of an entry is the same as that of the previous entry (The Chicago 336).

Since the days of metal type, the em dash has had a rocky history. Though it was common enough during and prior to that era, it saw a decline when Christopher Latham Sholes patented the first typewriter in the 1860s. Due to spatial limitations and the lack of a shift mechanism, Sholes’s QWERTY keyboard had to prioritize certain characters over others; there was only room for one dash, and Sholes chose a version of the hyphen (Houston 160–161). The hyphen, then, had to act for all dashes—it entirely took the place of the en dash, and in order to create the em dash, typists would have to type two hyphens in a row. Modern word processors now have helpful shortcuts for typing the em dash, and will even autocorrect a double hyphen into an em dash, but the remnants of this reliance on hyphens can be seen in comic books, where it is still lettering practice to use the double hyphen instead of the em dash (Klein).

The em dash has also experienced shifts in attitude; as with all aspects of the English language, it has both its proponents and its detractors, but there have been clear trends in its popularity. Its informality and versatility were, at one time, viewed as drawbacks; as Norris explains, “[t]he sheer range of its use suggests that it’s a lazy, all-purpose substitute for more disciplined forms of punctuation” (136). Truss similarly describes how it was “seen as the enemy of grammar” because it is so prevalent in email and texting communication, which are often characterized by “overtly disorganized thought” (157). Norris also notes that women often use em dashes (136), which is, in itself, an explanation for the contempt it has faced, since things used and enjoyed by women tend to be derided in modern society.

The em dash is, however, seeing a return to popularity, and an increase in respect. As Gopen describes, beginning in the 1960s—when using the em dash would have gotten him “sent straightaway to the headmaster’s office to be reprimanded for [his] act of moral turpitude”—first fiction writers, and then journalists, began employing the em dash (13). As the em dash became useful to writers, it “slowly assumed a rightful place in writing,” and eventually even grammar books began to accept it (13). It is no longer disparaged—except, perhaps, by the stuffiest of grammar snobs—and this is a victory for writers, as it presents them with “better ways to send interpretive signals to their readers” (13), as has been demonstrated by the earlier comparison of different tones expressed by various punctuation marks.

The em dash is, once again, a staple of English punctuation. It is found in many genres of modern writing, and whole sections of grammar and editing texts are devoted to it. It is a valuable mark to study: Its wide variety of uses and ability to shape a text’s tone endow it with great potential when used effectively, and an exploration of its fascinating history provides insight into a range of topics, including typographic origins and political censorship. Like other punctuation marks, the em dash has endured the changeability of popular opinion, but it is currently on the rise, and perhaps, someday, this wonderfully versatile character will be considered acceptable and useful enough to be taught in middle and high school English classes.

Works Cited

The Chicago Manual of Style. 16th ed., Chicago, U of Chicago P, 2010.

Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications. 3rd ed., Berkeley, U of California P, 2011.

“Glossary of Typographic Terms.” Adobe, Accessed 5 June 2020.

Gopen, George D. “A Once Rogue Punctuation Mark Gains Respectability: What You Can Now Accomplish with an Em Dash.” Litigation; Chicago, vol. 46, no. 1, Fall 2019, pp. 13–14.

Houston, Keith. Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, & Other Typographical Marks. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2013.

Klein, Todd. “Punctuating Comics: Dots and Dashes.” Todd’s Blog, 23 Sept. 2008, Accessed 5 June 2020.

Norris, Mary. Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. New York, W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.

Phinney, Thomas. “Point Size and the Em Square: Not What People Think.” Phinney on Fonts, 18 Mar. 2011, Accessed 5 June 2020.

Smiley, Sam, and Norman A. Bert. Playwriting: The Structure of Action. Rev. and expanded ed., New Haven, Yale UP, 2005.

Truss, Lynne. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. New York, Gotham Books, 2004.

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Who’s got the best COVID Mask?

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From the Notebooks of Raymond Chandler

Drawn from journals kept through his career, The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler contains some of Chandler’s descriptions and ideas that would later appear in his classics novels. Included are observations on slang and more. Enjoy.

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An Interview with Alissa Lukara, author of Secrets of the Trees

Alissa Lukara

Alissa Lukara is the author of the novel Secrets of the Trees, set in Latvia.  Her memoir, Riding Grace: A Triumph of the Soul (Silver Light Publications), was called by the Midwest Book Review “a transcendental story about the immeasurable powers of redemption and compassion.”

Alissa Lukara has been a professional writer and writing coach for more than thirty years and founded Transformational Writers. She teaches workshops and speaks on writing as a transformational journey. She is also co-author of NightDancin’ (Ballantine Books).

She grew up near Cleveland, Ohio, and has lived in Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York City.  She now makes her home in Ashland.

Ed Battistella: Your book Secrets of the Trees struck me as an engaging hero’s quest combined with recent history. How did the book come about?

Alissa Lukara: After completing a memoir, I knew I wanted next to write a novel. One day I was hiking in Lithia Park when a young boy ran up to me, asked me if my name was Nikkie and if I was lost in the woods. Nikkie had carved her name into a tree, he said, and he was looking for her with his father and sister. They had made a game of it, the boy’s father explained. I went along with the fantasy and that encounter sparked the idea for the novel with a main character named Nikkie, who had been lost in a forest as a child once and now had also lost her way in her life. The first scenes I wrote were set in a forest in Oregon.

But a year into the writing of the book, scenes set in Latvia emerged. As long as I had written, I had known I would one day write a novel that included Latvia’s recent history and my own family’s history. Their life in Latvia, their uprooting during WWII and their own hero’s quest to escape the Soviet takeover had shaped my life and perspectives on the world growing up. It was then I knew Secrets of the Trees would be that book about Latvia. And while the novel is set in 2003, my family’s life and quest were fictionalized as part of the backstory.

EB: Tell us about the protagonist Nikkie, who is a dancer with visions. How did you conceive of her?

AL: The day after my encounter with the boy in the park, I did a free write asking Nikkie to tell me about herself and a spontaneous piece emerged about her that started with her whirling and dancing. It ended up with her pretending to be lost in the forest with her brother.

Then when I was a couple years into writing the novel, her visions in Latvia started to appear in scenes of the book. At that moment, I knew the main action of this novel about Nikkie’s hero’s quest would take place in Latvia and include pieces of my family’s history. I made her ancestry Latvian, like mine. I knew her transformational journey to re-inspire herself as a dancer and solve the mystery of her vision would now also involve an exploration of her Latvian roots and a deepening of her recognition of the divine in all creation, most notably nature and trees, a concept central to Latvian spirituality, and to the Latvian goddesses Māra and Laima, who guide her.

EB: And Nikkie has a twin, Tom. Why a twin?

AL: After the boy asked me if I was Nikkie, I continued my hikes in the same park to think about the novel. I carried a notebook and pen to jot down ideas. Several days in a row, I saw twins of various ages. It happened so often, I commented to a friend that there must be a twin convention in town. Then, I realized that Nikkie had a brother who was a fraternal twin.

Some years into the writing, I also discovered that twins had run in my maternal family. One great grandmother had been a fraternal twin whose brother drowned when he was a teenager. She had also given birth to fraternal twins, who had died as toddlers from a flu.

EB: What is your connection to Latvia, Latvians spirituality, and Latvian history?

AL: I am a first generation American with several generations of Latvian ancestry. My parents and grandparents and other members of my maternal family escaped Latvia in 1944 during WWII when the Soviets took it over. They walked across Latvia, were refugees and lived in a Displaced Persons camp in Würzburg, Bavaria, Germany for five years before emigrating to the U.S. Some remaining family members were arrested and sent to Siberia, where most died. I still have relatives in Latvia who lived through the Soviet Occupation and remain there now that it is free. This family history has struck a deep chord throughout my life. Growing up, I was active in the Latvian culture and community in Cleveland, Ohio, learning to speak, read and write Latvian, speaking it at home, attending Latvian events and camps. Since the Soviet Union was trying to destroy the culture in Latvia itself, many Latvian parents, mine included, taught their children that it was up to the Latvian diaspora to carry forth the culture so it would not die. I participated in Latvian Song and Dance festivals in the U.S., Canada and Latvia, and as a young adult was part of the Latvian community in New York City. A few years ago, I became a dual citizen.

My mother was active in the Chicago Latvian community for decades, studied Latvian politics and arts, was part of a Latvian literary group, talked to me often – always in Latvian – about Latvian current events and culture. I was fortunate to travel to Latvia with her three times before she died last year and gain her insights there. Through her connections, I met not only my family there but her friends including many well-known Latvians in the arts and culture. In researching Secrets of the Trees, I realized that much of what was important to me in fact had its roots in my Latvian heritage: my love of the arts and nature, spirituality that sees the divine in nature, poetry, dance, music, a longing for freedom, my resilience.

EB: What should readers understand about Latvia?

AL: Latvia is a country most people know little about. Yet its culture is rich. It’s been said that every Latvian is a poet, and a Latvian without a song is a Latvian without a soul. I love that and can so relate.

Too often, our world seems to value only the accomplishments of the superpowers while ignoring or discounting what smaller countries have to teach us. The novel offers a look at what Latvians have to share globally through the filter of what has most touched me about it. They value and support the arts. For instance, they have managed to create and preserve their cultural identity and identification as a singing nation despite living through centuries of oppression and serfdom.

During Glasnost and Atmoda, Latvians’ conscious decision to stage a nonviolent Singing Revolution led to the dissolution of fifty years of Soviet Oppression. They continue to hold a Latvian song and dance festival every five years, as they have since 1873, that is on the UNESCO Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity list. It involves mass choir and dance events of forty thousand plus participants (fifteen thousand singers, fifteen thousand dancers) from a country with a population of two million. Numerous Latvian classical music and opera stars grace the top opera houses and symphony halls in the world and the country’s choirs repeatedly win gold medals in world competitions. Latvians, even those who live in the city, also maintain a deep soul connection to and respect for nature, the land and its forests.

EB: Can you tell our readers a bit more about the title—Secrets of the Trees?

AL: From the first pages I wrote, scenes were set in forests, and the trees became like characters themselves. And when the visions in Latvian forests appeared to Nikkie, their role stood out even more. The forests draw Nikkie, are central to solving the mystery behind the recurring visions, hence the title, which came to me spontaneously a few years ago.

Also interwoven in the novel and inspiring the title are the ways Latvia’s forests play a key role in its collective history and culture, in Latvian’s day to day lives and specifically in the lives of my novel’s characters. Forests still cover 42 percent of Latvia. Trees are key images in many of Latvia’s folk songs and folklore. Over the centuries that Latvia was oppressed by one nation after another, Latvians in peril escaped and hid in the country’s dense forests. During WWII, resistance fighters, known as the Forest Brothers, lived and operated out of the woods. But over the years Latvians have also gone to the forest to find solace. My grandmother, like many Latvians, learned to give her pain to the trees and ask them to heal her. When Latvians were not free to speak out in real life, they could speak out to the trees and rocks and plants of the woods. Several Latvian deities are associated with trees. There are even lists of sacred trees to visit in Latvia.

EB: What are you working on currently? Will there be a sequel?

AL: I’ve been getting the word out about Secrets of the Trees and taking a much-needed break. But I am planning to start a new writing project soon. I might write a screenplay of the novel. I have always envisioned it as a film and have had several other people tell me they see it that way as well. Also, the first draft of Secrets of the Trees included several chapters of Nikkie in Egypt that I cut out but am now considering turning into a sequel. At present, though, I’m being called simply to do some free writing to explore what wants to be expressed in what is a whole new chapter of my life. I am excited to see what comes from that.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

AL: You’re welcome, Ed. I’m grateful for the opportunity.

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An Interview with Bethroot Gwynn, Honoring Women’s History Month

Bethroot Gwynn graduated from Duke University and Union Theological Seminary. She lives on women’s land in the forests of Southern Oregon, where she has been writing, growing food, making theater and ritual since 1976. She has taught, directed, and performed Personal Theater for Women, crafting experience into physical symbol and personal myth. Her first theater production was Feathers in My Mind, an autobiographical play. She created several one-woman performance pieces, including Theaterwoman, Immaculate Decision, and A Mind Play — celebrating lesbian-feminism and Goddess spirituality at conferences, festivals and other venues. She directed some of her students in two performance pieces —Pieces of Truth, and Childtracks and Amazon Wings, and created an ensemble piece called Women: The Longest Revolution — A Performance Documentary.

 Her poetry and essays have been published in WomanSpirit, Manzanita Quarterly, MoonSeed, Sinister Wisdom, The Poetry of Sex, and other publications. Bethroot is a longtime editor of We’Moon: Gaia Rhythms for Womyn, and her writing is featured regularly in the We’Moon datebook. She published a chapbook in 1990 — Under the Heartstone: Poems from a Lesbian Love Spell. In 2018, We’Moon published a collection of her work — PreacherWoman for the Goddess: Poems, Invocations, Plays and Other Holy Writ.

Bethroot Gwynn
Bethroot Gwynn
photo by Hawk Madrone 2017

We'Moon 2020 front cover art "Lioness" by Saha Taj 2014


We’Moon 2020 front cover art “Lioness” ©Saba Taj 2014

For those readers who may be unfamiliar, what is We’Moon?

We’Moon is a unique datebook, graced with art and writing submitted from women all over the world. It reflects a spirituality that honors Earth/Moon/Sun/Stars — and Woman. Gaia, the primal mother earth Goddess in Greco-Roman mythology, interacts with her celestial neighbors every day, and We’Moon keeps track of those actual rhythms. It is a daily/weekly calendar and appointment book packed with astrological, lunar and Sun-seasonal information. It’s also a book of devotions: sacred space where women share written and artistic inspirations from their life-experiences, their love and concern for the world, their delight at saying Goddess! out loud as a name for divine energy. “We’Moon” = we of the moon, we whose bodies cycle in Moon rhythm.

We like to say that “If Mother Earth needed a datebook, She would choose We’Moon.” There is really nothing quite like it. I’m thinking of it as a spiritual Rorschach: there is something for you to be gifted by, depending on what you are looking for. Thousands of folks rely on We’Moon for its detailed astrological and lunar data. Every day’s calendar space includes lunar phases and detailed astrological entries (the movement of the Sun through the signs of the Zodiac, planetary travels through those signs: aspects, transits, ingresses, etc.). This information is important for people who take sky activities into account as they make plans and write in their appointments and seek to understand unseen multiplicities in their lives. Insightful articles by women in the Introduction and Appendix serve as a primer for deeper explorations of astrology, eclipses, Tarot, herbs, and the solar cycle of seasons.

Others are more drawn to We’Moon’s poetic and artistic qualities. For some it’s like a spirit-filled coffee table book; opening to any week may reveal an oracle of color and verse that offers guidance and wisdom. I’ll say more about We’Moon magic shortly.

The We’Moon calendar honors eight Holy Days: the two solstices and two equinoxes marked by how the Sun and Earth play with each other and create seasons — and the four in-between, cross-quarter days from the Celtic calendar: Imbolc (Candlemas), Beltane (May Day), Lammas, Samhain (Hallowmas). Each holyday receives a double page spread of art and writing, and each year a gifted writer accents our travel through this Wheel of the Year.

Every year the datebook has a theme, a touchstone to inspire our contributors and our organizing of the material we receive. For the past 21 years, our annual theme has been drawn from a card in Tarot’s Major Arcana. We’Moon 2020 spins off from the Judgment card, #20, and proclaims Wake Up Call as the thematic clarion. And within the datebook there are always 13 Moons or chapters, from one New Moon to the next, with art and writing threaded through the daily/weekly pages, following a sub-theme of that year’s wider focus.

In order to give readers a bit of a sample of what one would find in the We’Moon datebook, would you share a few favorite pieces?

Enough talking about the book already!

Let’s look at a couple of actual pages from We’Moon 2020.

Here is a poem by Lorraine Schein, companioned by an art piece from Sudie Raskusin. It is on page 77 and is part of Moon IV Awakened Woman.

From Moon VI Earth Answers, we are sharing here a poem from Cindy Ruda, and art by Rachel Houseman. You can see that this page has no daily calendar space. It is part of the Moon Page VI spread, accompanying the title page for that Moon chapter.

I chose these selections as examples of the now provocative, now reverent material that We’Moon publishes. There are clearly political stirrings among We’Moon writers and artists. We hear impassioned alarm about the state of the world, offerings of hope about building global community. Sometimes there is quirky relief, wit to shake us up. And we also get to bow in gratitude for the prayers and paens that remind us of benevolence at the heart of reality.

How do these contributions of art and writing come about? How are they gathered and chosen?

This part of the story is quite remarkable. There are other astrological moon calendars, a few dedicated to women. What makes W’e’Moon so unusual, I believe, is this wave of art and writing submissions every year — more than 3000, from 400-500 women around the world. From that treasure trove, approximately 150 pieces of art, and 150 writings, wind up in the datebook. The wave comes in response to the Call for Contributions that we send out in the spring, spinning an invitation based on our chosen theme and a bevy of questions to spark creative impulses: what imaginative uplift, visions of truth might women create from their pens and paintbrushes, keyboards and cameras?

“We” who gather this rich material together are a staff of 7 women, most based in Southern Oregon, a mix of full- and part-time employees with years of longevity among us. We’Moon staff are sometimes a little bonkers about what year we are in. Calendar-makers have to be far ahead of the game. Right now in mid-March we are selling/using We’Moon 2020; We’Moon 2021 was sent to the printer last week, and we’ve just completed and released the Call for We’Moon 2022.

Those thousands of submissions will come in over the summer. And here is Part 2 of We’Moon’s unlike-any-other-datebook story: a democratic layer of women’s community participation in the process of selecting art and writing. In September, women are invited to join us to review the material, at about a dozen Selection Circles held in different parts of the region. Each piece of art/writing has an easy rating code on the back, and women come together in these small “study halls” to register their druthers about the material — about 200 participants in all. The final circle, held in Ashland, also includes feedback about possible covers, and Moon theme subjects. We’Moon staff spend months in fall and winter reviewing the materials, firming up Moon theme clusters, choosing and placing art and writing on calendar pages of the next We’Moon, changing our minds 300 times. We consult the circle druthers for advice as we go along. We also go searching for additional pieces if crucial topics need more focus than we find in the mix of submissions.

And women’s community participation comes full circle in the fall when we hold an Unveiling in Ashland of the new We’Moon. This is a public-invited event where local area contributors of art & writing in the brand-new datebook share their work. The Unveilings are vibrant with creativity, resonant with appreciation and celebration.

What are the origins of We’Moon? How did it begin?

The story of how We’Moon came about is a fascinating tale. You can read about it in detail in an exquisite book: In the Spirit of We’Moon. It’s a 30 Year Anthology of Art and Writing from We’Moon 1981-2011. The anthology is narrated by Musawa, co-founder of the datebook and owner of We’Moon Company. She was there from the beginning!


In the Spirit of We’Moon front cover art
“Beauty” ©Jeannine Chappell 2006

We’Moon began as part of the late 20th century feminist revolution, the lesbian back-to-the-land movement, the emergence of eco-feminism, and the rebirth of Goddess spirituality. The datebook’s actual birth began on women’s land in Denmark, where 50-60 lesbians were living close to the earth, creating community, and exploring spiritual connections with each other and with natural earth-sky cycles. Astrology became a common language among these women from different countries, speaking different native languages. I’ve heard it said that, for instance, the Libras might cook dinner together, or the Pisces women do a harvest day. Their natal astrological charts hung in the living room and deepened their fun and wonder with each other and the cosmos.

Suddenly, the land was commandeered by a corporation, and this nurturing experimental community had to disband and separate. Musawa and Nada, her then-partner, in diaspora, took on creating a novel way for these women to stay connected: We’Moon! “Faced with loss of our home base, we turned to the Moon, Sun and stars to keep us in touch with ourselves, each other and the Earth’s cycles” (Musawa, In the Spirit of We’Moon, p. 24).

The first We’Moon was wee: a pocket-sized astrological moon calendar for 1981-82, hand-written in five languages. Copies traveled around Europe in backpacks and travel bags, creating a new kind of community, one in which women could turn the page and know that other women, wherever located, were greeting the same sun, dancing under the same full moon, in the same cyclic rhythm. The Libras and Pisces and other signs could continue to be in cosmic communion. And women could sense their dreams and struggles connected even at a distance.

Musawa brought We’Moon back to the US in the late 1980s when she returned to the women’s land she had founded in Oregon, and after some bumps on the publishing road, production of the annual We’Moon datebook grew in the 1990s to become a cottage industry for the residents of We’Moon Land. Over time, the datebook flourished as a channel for women’s creativity, an everyday anchor for connection with earth rhythms, and a touchstone for Goddess celebration. New technologies made it possible to expand circulation and develop new products: greeting cards and a wall calendar; the In the Spirit of We’Moon Anthology; The Last Wild Witch, a children’s book authored by Starhawk & illustrated by Lindy Kehoe; and in more recent years, my own book of poems, PreacherWoman for the Goddess; a Spanish language edition of the datebook; and — coming out in fall 2020, A We’Moon Tarot!

Production shifted to Southern Oregon in 2007, and We’Moon made itself at home again in the hands of countrywomen, several of us living on lands in the area, working at We’Moon’s hub.

What challenges has We’Moon faced in its 40 years of publication? What challenges does it face currently?

Challenges? For sure! Small independent publishers don’t have an easy time of it, and the ups and downs of business cycles always involve taking risks.

A dramatic setback occurred in 2001 when the Main House at We’Moon Land burned down, taking with it the We’Moon offices with reams of records and documents, art and archives, production capacity. A magical story emerged from the ashes. Four of us had just completed choosing the art and writing for the 2002 datebook. The notebook where we had recorded our choices was destroyed, as was every piece of writing submitted for the 2002 datebook. How could we make a new We’Moon? We sat together for hours and days, and we entered into the sacred realm of collective Memory. A scrap of phrase would come to someone, a fleeting image would partner it in someone else’s mind, and Voila! we would restore the visual, the verbal, page by page. We wound up recalling art and writing for all but about 3 out of 153 pages; charred release forms helped us re-find our contributors. That We’Moon of 2002, Priestessing the Planet, remains one of my favorites.

Not every challenge has an inner magical story. But We’Moon continues to defy the odds. Think of it: here is a hard copy daily planner made of paper — how quaint! — in an age when digital information and interaction are the yardsticks by which millions of people measure, record, plan their every day. We’Moon swims upstream in the roiling river of electronic media. And our natural home among other feminist publishers and booksellers has shrunk drastically. 13 feminist bookstores remain in the US and Canada. In the 1980s, there were as many as 350; by 1992, less than 100. The same sharp decline has affected feminist presses and publishers. The big fish have eaten the small fry; Amazon and the big box stores have snapped up the alternative books market. Even the big publishing houses have had to scramble to stay viable in an age when print media has become archaic in many quarters. And feminism has become backlashed into disfavor, as though misogyny and abuse of women had been vanquished, as though women’s empowerment had been fully achieved.

We’Moon has continued to offer itself as a Challenge: to a mainstream clogged with sexist, racist detritus from an imperial and patriarchal system of control by white, Western, male power. Yes, an astrological lunar calendar can do this! And women have continued to discover and adore this publication. Hard copy or not, We’Moon has 50,000 customers buying products, 80,000 followers on facebook. We know that there are thousands of women hungry for an electronic version of the datebook. We’ll get there, when the budget can support such an enormous expense. But meantime, what a hoot that we are thriving! For that matter, thousands know that there is nothing like running your hands over the smooth full color pages of exquisitely designed artistry that Says Something!

That print vs. digital edge nudges a generational challenge. We’Moon came of age among women like myself now in our elder years. It will survive only if younger generations of women reach out and claim it. That is happening to some extent. Our staff group has some mixed generations, and that makes for vigorous instruction for us all. We see women of different ages at Selection Circles, and at the annual Unveiling. But there are a great many grey-haired crones at these gatherings. We’Moon has outreach work to do among the mothers and maidens. We know that some younger women are submitting their art. Edgy images are arriving, a modern flair that takes risk. Reflection of risky times, an edgy world.

The challenge for We’Moon about racial and cultural diversity is acute and rich with opportunity. We’Moon was born into a multicultural and international cradle and had especially strong and enduring connections with women in the UK and Germany (a German language datebook was published for many years until 2016). Although there are Women of Color who have been We’Moon devotees and contributors all along, We’Moon’s cultural bases have for the most part been Euro-centric. That we use the Celtic Holy Day calendar reflects our kinship with Dianic Wicca and European pagan traditions.

We’Moon culture has always been eagerly open to participation from Women of Color, but the demographics and the geographies of unconscious racism have surely been a part of We’Moon’s history. We are actively committed to interrupt these patterns, working with some Women of Color to reach out in their communities and among indigenous women, seeking contributions of art and writing, and participants in Selection Circles. We particularly seek art that represents people of color created by women artists of color. The pages of We’Moon 2020 and 2021 reflect this work: a new harvest of multicultural offerings, and a more comprehensive weave of the We’Moon web.

The international story shifted enormously in 2018 with the publication of a Spanish edition of We’Moon, involving a far-flung multi-national team of translators. We hope that new marketing alliances can support this more global outreach. And: of the 150 contributors in We’Moon 2020, 35 are from countries outside the US. Yes, most are English-speaking. But the web does reach wider and wider. My favorite proofing task is to take a careful spin through the biographic notes in the We’Moon Appendix. It is fascinating to read about the varieties of women world-wide who are practicing their creativity, healing arts, Goddess devotions, earth-tending.

We’Moon has clearly meant a great deal to a great many women. What need does We’Moon fill? How does We’Moon impact women’s lives?

How would we know how to answer this question? The anecdotes give us some information, the stories that filter in through love notes, phone order conversations, appreciative emails. I was near the shipping office a few weeks ago and heard about this plea: “Please rush my order. I can’t live without you!”

I know a woman who gathers all her many years of We’Moons around her every Holy Day and makes it part of her ritual to call in We’Moon wisdom and inspiration from the Equinoxes and Solstices of the past.

Often women call or write looking for a particular piece of art or poem that touched them years ago. They remember and hold onto those deeply meaningful inspirations long after the year has closed. One woman spoke of saving an old We’Moon for years; there was a specific poem that moved her, and she wound up reading it aloud as she spread her mother’s ashes. And then there is the classic remark from a reader who called We’Moon “Church in a purse.” That one says it all.

Stepping back, I see that We’Moon gives women a chance to speak and listen to one another. There is a community of discourse, a town hall of spiritual conversation as women reflect, write, paint, unload, share at deeply personal levels. In a time of social dislocation, vitriol on the digital airwaves, planetary degradation, unabated violence — and now pestilence! — it is comforting to turn the page and be bathed by another woman’s wisdom in these unnerving times. Maybe she helps me sleep; maybe she inspires me to plan a march of resistance. We don’t know precisely how women respond to each other’s work. We know there is a world wide web that pulses among women as we share the common ground of Earth rhythm and the blanket of sky.

For decades you have been involved in artistic and creative endeavours in the Oregon women’s community. How did you come to be involved with We’Moon and how have you contributed to We’Moon over the years?

I don’t remember when I first encountered We’Moon, but it was definitely on my Goddess-loving path. I was on land in Southern Oregon in the late ’80s, creating ceremony and feminist theater, when Musawa was introducing We’Moon to women’s land communities and inviting participation in the annual datebook project. I attended and hosted some Selection Circles (we called them Weaving Circles in those days, a more imaginative title but baffling to literalists).

My more formal, staff relationship with We’Moon began in the winter of 1996-97. Women at We’Moon Land were beginning work on the 1998 datebook. The Tarot card offering theme guidance was The Crone; Wise We’Moon Ways was to be the theme of We’Moon 1998. Those in the staff group looked around at each other and decided they needed a woman older than they were to be working on the datebook and its invocation of Crone magic. They asked me to be the honorary Crone that year — I was only 55! — and to be a Special Editor for that issue. That was 24 years ago, and I am still called Special Editor for We’Moon.

Some of my tasks remain the same: I work with the submitted art and writing after “the cream has risen to the top” in the Selection Circles process. We call this my “broody hen” stage: I go through the material, sometimes diving into the “reject” boxes to see what jewels may be hiding there. Often they do sparkle. I let art and writing find each other and can frequently suggest pairings of words and images. Some other staff women are beginning to take on some of the broody hen work. I am Really a Crone now, and we want to be realistic about generational succession for We’Moon’s long term future.

A big part of my work is refining the 13 Moon themes and clustering the art and writing thematically. When our “Creatrix” group meetings begin, I’m bringing rough draft possibilities for how this voluminous amount of material can be organized. We meet in the fall making tentative art and writing placements, and then refine our choices weeks later during another stretch of meetings.

Meantime, feature articles from astrologers, the Holy Day writer and others who write for the Introduction to the datebook are coming in. My inner grammarian is joyfully released into this job. I get to be precise about semi-colons and commas, except for the exceptions.

A particular gift has evolved in my work with We’Moon which I both offer and am blessed by. Each year, I create the Invocation for next year’s We’Moon: a poem/prayer that summons Goddess energies specific to the datebook’s guiding theme. I get to prowl around online discovering arcane Goddesses from many parts of the world, Goddesses rarely known of outside the culture in which they are or were honored. And then, it turns out, I know how to pray out loud. My priestess vocation speaks up. My sister editors help burnish the language; we word-wrestle with sacred expression. The Summons resounds — printed in the Call for Contributions and in the Datebook, read aloud at Selection Circles and the Unveiling. Those Goddesses show up! They serve as Muses for the work that fills We’Moon. They travel the world and touch women with power, love, magic, compassion, imperatives, hope.

Would you describe your journey toward earth-based/goddess spirituality? Where does your spiritual vision come from and what does it mean to you?

I don’t think I can speak to these questions any more clearly than I did in the Introduction to the PreacherWoman for the Goddess book. So here are some excerpts from that writing: PreacherWoman for the Goddess front cover art
“Dancing with Lightning” ©Deshria 2006

“I come from a long line of back-country Protestant ministers, and something in the inheritance must have stuck because I wound up in theological seminary in the mid-1960s — drawn to passionate conversations about the great Life/Death questions and the socio-political revolutions at hand. But when my revolution came — the Lesbian-Feminist one — I was done with patriarchal religions. I was on fire with female-centered spirituality and joined other women to create women’s lands as Sanctuary for empowerment and imagination; to make art, culture and community devoted to a spirited embrace of earth-life and celebrating the Female as Holy. The domination of divine metaphor by male deity was Over!

There is no simple switch here from patriarchal God to a matriarchal version of Chief Deity … In theological terms, we veer toward immanence: divine spirit infuses all existence — the far reaches of cosmos, the inner quantum depths, the immaterial mysteries of consciousness, time, energy. And when we reach for imagery to reflect the Inexpressible, it is high time we look into the mirror. There you are. There I am. All the varieties of us. Woman. Holy.”

And from my apologia for the Spirit that inhabits my work as a creator/performer of Personal Theater: “The Spirit of Theater/The Theater of Spirit”

“Theater is a way of Opening. Ritual is a way of Opening …


We Beat the Drums.

We Call In the Gods and Goddesses. Make a Joyful Noise in the House of the Lord …

In Theater, as in expressive worship,

We imagine. And most important: we embody what we imagine …

We pretend that we can even speak about the Ineffable. — God? …

We can really only point to The Divine.

All we have is metaphor. And that is Perfect for Theater! …

My calling is to redress the balance of the last 5000-50,000 years, when divine metaphor has been occupied by male deity. It is long past time for Her to take focus. I am Her Priestess.

Theaterwoman, serving the Goddess MetaPhora.

I have enactments for you–In Her Honor.”

I would love to hear your thoughts on these questions taken directly from the We’Moon website. “Where and how are womyn transforming the dominant world order, and reclaiming Herstory? What is happening as more womyn move into power? What is the priority work on your To-Do list as an empowered woman?”

We are at the cusp of extraordinary change in the world as more and more women take power in their lives, in their communities, on the world stage. Sexual abuse and violence are called out as never before. Powerful male predators are brought down. Women fly airplanes, repair space stations, push research at the edges of scientific inquiry, govern (some) countries.

Because misogyny still survives, the glass is both half empty and half full. There are women murdered in the Amazon precisely because they have taken leadership in the environmental movement to protect the forest. (A special feature in We’Moon 2017 honored a number of these women.) Feminists in Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries have been killed because they insisted on women’s rights. Femicide — of all archaic brutalities! — is on the rise in Mexico! Thank goodness that the women of Mexico en masse are refusing to tolerate it. Pictures of their marches are on my mental screen as soon as we enter the empowerment discussion. Half empty, Half full. Women marching on International Women’s Day in other countries were attacked — generally by Islamists — for celebrating female power. How can this be? The entrenchment of hatred for women should they defy servitude as sexual and reproductive objects continues to be rigid and virulent, even in the 21st century.

And yet . . . Women Are taking power in public life all over the world. Many parliaments and city councils look different now, with female decision makers actively visible, even and most especially in some third-tier countries. Hospitals, clinics, labs, courtrooms, graduate faculties are staffed by women who did the training and secured their expertise. I’m amazed to see group photographs of US Congresspeople: look at all those women! There were so many articulate women at the microphone during the presidential impeachment hearings.

Ahem . . . . There’s that pesky glass. 75% of the US Congress is still male. 76% is white. We have come so far, and we have so far to go.

Yes, the campaigns to empower women as voters and officeholders, professionals, athletes, scientists are vigorous and successful. And No: girls are still refused education in die hard Islamist regions. Sexual slavery and trafficking of women have not diminished one whit. I believe it is imperative to keep naming the inequities and abuses that women face, to shout them, cry them out.

Feminism in America took a back seat not only because of male backlash, not only because uppity women are maligned, and many women are afraid to be uppity. Feminism faded also because of a classist narcissism: many women who progressed into some semblance of personal power and responsibility forgot their impoverished and mistreated sisters. Careerism and focus on Me inoculated a couple of generations of young women against commitment to collective wellbeing. The early Women’s Liberation Movement insisted: There are No Personal Solutions. Women’s liberation is about collective empowerment. So long as there are women anywhere in the world who are denied liberty, we cannot rest.

We’Moon is part of the Yes — celebrating women’s empowerment — and part of the No — calling out female oppression. How wonderful to affirm women’s rise to power and responsibility for shaping the world we live in! How fiercely we must insist that All of Gaia’s daughters must be free!
We’Moon 2020 back cover art by “Crescendo” © Cheryl Braganza 2010

Finally, what do you foresee in We’Moon’s future? Any final parting thoughts?

And now, in these very days of March 2020, the global human community shivers with fear. A new biocide targets our species. Pandemic. The Cassandras have long been saying that this day would come. Some dreadful planetary spasm would end life as we know it; we would join the polar bears and snow leopards and tigers and honeybees whom we press toward extinction in a mighty struggle to survive.

What can a lunar astrological calendar do? What can We’Moon offer in such drastic times?

I open the spiral datebook for today, March 17, and this Spring Equinox week. An elegant poem excerpt reads:

” I come up for air

whipping my hair

in an arch of splintered light

and I am humming

raw and incandescent”

(by Meredith Heller)

No matter what, the Sun will arch her light to give us Equal Day, Equal Night on Thursday, Equinox. “The return of spring, time of holy equality,” writes Oak Chezar, our Holy Day writer for 2020. “Walking in the woods, see that trees aren’t isolated individuals. Each one is Forest, Forest, Forest. I walk in the world, and I’m not even me: I am World. Gaze through the mirror. World. World. World.”

We may not be able to gather in person this Equinox. But we are gathered, held in mysterious Balance. And like the women who founded We’Moon, we turn “to the Moon, Sun and stars to keep us in touch with each other and the Earth’s cycles.”

Blessed Be.

We’Moon website

Mary Gently is an aspiring historian based in the Rogue Valley. She recently graduated from Southern Oregon University with a Bachelor’s degree in History and a minor in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies. She graduated Summa Cum Laude with Departmental Honors and is the recipient of the Arthur S. Taylor Award for Outstanding Student in History 2018-2019. She will begin a Ph.D. program in History at Rutgers University in the fall of 2020. Mary enjoys traveling, watching classic movies, and drinking beer.   

This blog post was made possible in part by a grant from the Oregon Heritage Commission to Southern Oregon University, to document the Rogue Valley Women’s Movement, 1970-1990.

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A Linguist’s Guide to Internet Fluency–A guest post by Levi Coren

I don’t enjoy most social media, but I will admit to spending time on Tumblr, a social media platform with a penchant for encouraging tight-knit communities based around books, television shows, hobbies, and other special interests. My time on Tumblr has allowed me to become fluent in a new form of language, a type of English that exists only in digital spaces. Without access to facial gestures or vocal tonal shifts, written language has needed to evolve for a setting as informal as ordinary speech. Internet users have created a grammar out of misspellings, carefully placed punctuation, capitalization, and emoji. It is not limited to Tumblr; my time on other social media platforms, communicating with people through online messaging systems, and interacting with friends through texting all use the language of the internet. In spite of its prevalence, I rarely see people older than myself recognizing the ability of language to communicate casually through texts, emails, or posts on social media. The internet represents a new frontier in language, a wild west of communication that needs a dedicated linguist to categorize, analyze, and understand.

Gretchen McCulloch is one such linguist. Her book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, takes the internet’s ways of communicating as its subject. McCulloch, a self-described “internet linguist,” is a millennial fluent in internet-speak. She also has the resources, education, and grit to attempt to capture the internet into a single compact volume. Having encountered attempts to analyze internet communication in the past, I was hesitant, but McCulloch won me over in about eleven pages. During the first chapter, McCulloch discusses social, as opposed to formal, acronyms, including omg (oh my god), btw (by the way), and lol (laughing out loud). When I use these acronyms, I never capitalize them. Capitalization in internet communication is already a tricky thing, with some people I know going out of their way to write all in lowercase, but traditional acronyms like NASA, DNA, and AIDS are displayed in all caps. Some publications consider it proper to capitalize all acronyms in this style, regardless of how they are actually used. To me, this is an immediate giveaway that the writers, editors, and publishers behind articles about newfangled acronyms never use the acronyms in their daily lives and have no actual understanding about their use. When McCulloch writes that she “made the stylistic decision to write social, internet acronyms in all-lowercase,” I know that this was the book for me. Because Internet is not a discussion of internet language from the perspective of an outsider, but rather from someone who is not only fluent in internet-speak but also passionate about it.

I am an outsider to the field of linguistics, but McCulloch made me feel welcome. Part of this is the subject matter, which I know well, but much of it comes from her informal tone and willingness to explain specialized concepts. She discusses every idea in just enough detail for me to understand without drying up the subject matter. She also contextualizes the terminology that she uses, framing it in such a way that I felt connected to her ideas. For example, McCulloch divides internet users into five categories. She starts with the Old Internet People, who got involved with the internet in the earliest years, when a person needed programming skills to do anything online. She continues on to the Full Internet People, the group that she includes herself in, who got involved with the internet as a way to engage with new communities. In the same wave as the Full Internet People are the Semi Internet People like my parents, who treat internet culture as an extension of their real-world personal or work lives. Finally, the last wave of internet people includes the Pre Internet People like my grandparents, who have as little interaction with the internet as physically possible, and the Post Internet People such as myself. Initially, I resisted her classification, but she explained that Post Internet People are internet users who “don’t remember the first time they used a computer or did something online” much in the same way that previous generations don’t remember the first time they watched television or used a phone. I found that her classification made sense and helped me to understand how people interact with the internet. I feel comfortable communicating on the internet, but McCulloch reminded me that there is still a lot I can learn.

Because Internet covers a wide range of topics, from internet people and tone of voice to emoji and memes, because the internet is a complex place with a specialized and challenging language. Without that language, navigating the internet is difficult. Because Internet is both a key to that language and a celebration of it. It takes a little-understood topic that I see almost no love for in the world at large and elevates it to something worth studying. It acknowledges and embraces the internet as the future of language. Above all, it is a testament to the idea that in order to understand something, one must first appreciate it.

Levi Coren is a Post Internet Person. He spends objectively too much time mired in a small variety of toxic social media cesspools. In spite of his passion for the growing legitimacy of internet culture, he is completely out of touch with the internet lingo of people only a few years younger than him.

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An Interview with Morgan Pielli

Connecticut-born Morgan Pielli has a BFA from BARD COLLEGE and an MFA from THE CENTER FOR CARTOON STUDIES. He works as a Graphic Designer with KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP and his comics have appeared in The New York Times Online. He is also a voice-over actor and storyteller who has performed on RISK! LIVE, WHAT ARE YOU AFRAID OF?, and TALES FROM THE COSMOS. He co-hosts the monthly show storytelling and live therapy show RELATIONSHiT.

You can find more of his work at