Category Archives: Language

Alphabetically Speaking: Notes on Notes


“I’M LOOKING FOR AN UNUSED NOTEBOOK so I can make a grocery list,” Laura said, ruffling through a drawer in the little desk in the living room. “But all I’m finding is these old ones that are filled with stuff you wrote.”

With that, she presented me with a stack of notebooks to add to the pile already sitting on a corner of my own desk. These ones, it appeared, were pretty old – at least a dozen years, very possibly more. They were filled with cryptic comments, names and dates and places and the occasional phone number, quotations from a variety of people, jots and tittles and partial pieces of stories written or unwritten: scrawls of importance in their moment, and barely comprehensible now. Note-taking, in general, is not for the future.

Curious, I thumbed through a couple of the notebooks, finding a few things still vaguely familiar and a lot that seemed to be free-floating bits of debris ambling through the void.

And then I stumbled on the following scrawl, of which I have no memory, and yet which is unquestionably my own, written in my own hand. Was it a fleeting thought that ended where it ended? A draft for an unfinished story, or a part of a story that was published somewhere, although I have no memory of it? Curious: a little piece of entropy, or so it seems, in search of a place to call its own.

Here it is:


“If the nature of the universe is to defy cohesion and the nature of the human mind is to discover pattern even where none exists, the invention of the alphabet is a very good, and a very human, thing: It allows us to imagine beyond the abyss.

“Like lists of 10 and the binary zeroes and ones inside your computer and Mr. Dewey’s celebrated decimal system, the alphabet – 26 letters in English, although the number varies in other tongues – is like a girdle around entropy, organizing and holding together things that might not want to have anything to do with one another at all. The letters build words, of course, which build phrases and sentences and paragraphs and eventually manuscripts. But in addition, each letter is a sort of organizing sentinel on its own, a gatherer of unlike items and ideas into a commonality of sound. The ‘S’ words, so sibilant. The ‘V’ words, so very vivacious (or violent). The ‘W’s, so wavery. Sometimes stuff – esoterica, oddments, bits of information floating in the void – are fascinating just because. How do we make sense of them? We compartmentalize them. We invent a pattern.

“But enough of that. Order in the court. Alphabetical order, if you please; so sensible and ridiculous at the same time. I mean, does that just define human civilization, or what? A to Z, from dictionaries to encyclopedias to Anything for Dummies, the alphabetically organized volumes march on.”


I ripped out the quizzical page, and rustled through the rest of the notebook. Then I began to rip out all of the used pages, and took them to the recycling bin, and returned with a vastly slimmed-down book. “I’ve taken out all of the old pages,” I told Laura. “You can have the rest.”

Two blank pages, as it turned out.

Enough for two trips to the grocery store, or one very extensive trip. A list, or two, all neatly categorized, practical, and reassuringly human.

Patriotic gore: Dr. Johnson on the political brouhaha in the Colonies

Here at Art Scatter we’ve been keeping a keen eye on this year’s political races and the concurrent pommeling and puffing-up of patriotism that’s been accompanying them. In ordinary times we don’t pay a whole lot of attention to the sloganeering of the love-it-or-leave-it crowd. People wave their flags and spout their platitudes, and life pretty much goes on, unimpeded. But it seems such a hot topic as November 8 approaches that we decided to consult an expert on the subject, Dr. Samuel Johnson, the noted English poet, essayist, and lexicographer. Dr. Johnson is a devout Tory but possesses a sharp wit and a keen mind, and will rail against foolishness and chicanery wherever he believes he has found it. Even in the midst of a vicious election season, he is no blind slave to party loyalty.

Joshua Reynolds, 1772, Portraot of Samuel Johnson, commissioned for Henry Thrale's Streatham Park gallery; Tate Gallery, London / Wikimedia Commons
Joshua Reynolds, 1772, Portrait of Samuel Johnson, commissioned for Henry Thrale’s Streatham Park gallery; Tate Gallery, London / Wikimedia Commons

The good doctor, as it turns out, has been busy checking proofs for his essay “The Patriot,” in which he expounds upon this very topic, and so could not meet with us in the flesh. But he agreed to answer questions through his publicist, Mr. James Boswell. The arrangement seemed congenial, and so we submitted our queries. In due course the good Mr. Boswell returned Dr. Johnson’s replies, a few from the very pages of the essay he’s been preparing. Here is the result of our long-distance discourse.


Everybody’s talking about it, from presidential candidates to professional quarterbacks. And everybody seems to have a different idea about it. What exactly IS patriotism, anyway?

A patriot is he whose publick conduct is regulated by one single motive, the love of his country; who, as an agent in parliament, has, for himself, neither hope nor fear, neither kindness nor resentment, but refers every thing to the common interest. Continue reading Patriotic gore: Dr. Johnson on the political brouhaha in the Colonies

A poem to catch a writing breeze

Sharp-shinned hawks, chromolithograph, 1908, Louis Agassiz Fuertes, United States Department of Agriculture Yearbook/Wikimedia CommonsBy Laura Grimes

I’ve been blog quiet much too long. I can’t explain these things, but just accept them. My writer brain has languished. I’ve seen glimpses of it, fragments, but capturing a cohesive sense has been a struggle.

For me, poetry often serves as a toddling way back to recovery, a voice for the broken. Not broken as in destroyed, or sad, though sometimes that can be the case, too, but in this instance, I consider it more a voice for the misshapen. It’s a bunch of puzzle pieces that need realigning. Again, I don’t question these things, I’m just grateful.

I thought I lost my poetry touch a few years ago. I never realized it was leaving, it just wasn’t there anymore and it took me a while to notice it was gone, but by then it was too late. So I’m surprised now by its sudden return, unannounced and unbidden, like a shadowed figure seeking shelter from a storm who shows up wet on my doorstep smelling of the natural order of things. Irresistible, really. But why?

Continue reading A poem to catch a writing breeze

Riddley’s last trek: Russell Hoban, 86

By Bob Hicks

Someone called Singlet, responding online to the obituary in The Guardian for the novelist and children’s writer Russell Hoban, had this to say: “A few comments that Hoban’s other novels don’t come close to Riddley Walker make me think of what Joseph Heller reportedly said when asked, ‘Why have you never written anything else like Catch-22?’ — ‘Well, nobody else has either.'”

Russell Hoban in November 2010. Photo: Richard Cooper, Wikimedia CommonsExactly.

Hoban, the American-born writer who died in his adopted England on Tuesday at age 86, was far from a one-hit wonder. But Riddley Walker, his 1980 novel set in the crude countryside of Kent a couple of millennia after a nuclear apocalypse, is undoubtedly his Catch-22, the novel of astonishing accomplishment and originality that stands as the peak of a fertile and often brilliantly surprising career.

Young Riddley lives in an age of rubble: partly Mad Max free-for-all, partly pre-Roman Celtic drudgery, partly tightly controlled medieval theocracy. What quickens the book, and distinguishes it from the standard run of post-apocalyptic lit, is its language, a wildly inventive yet carefully considered deconstruction and reassembly of contemporary English as it might have devolved and reinvented itself in the centuries after a global disaster. The writing is constantly involving and often hilarious, and once you get the hang of it (reading a couple of pages out loud helps immensely) it makes extraordinary sense. A lot of other writers have made hay by taking liberties with the language and its tangled roots: James Joyce poetically and esoterically; J.R.R. Tolkein allusively and academically. Hoban did it with a literary everyman’s gusto and sly wit.

Continue reading Riddley’s last trek: Russell Hoban, 86

Gollywump, Dad, happy frogbottom

"The Waiter" by Giuseppe Arcimboldo/Wikimedia Commons

By Laura Grimes (with help from the Large Smelly Boys)

Shhhh! Be vewy vewy qwiet! Sneak attack in progress.

It’s a big day in the Scatter household, when patriarch Mr. Scatter is feted (not fetid). So the Large Smelly Boys and I are hijacking the blog for a surprise post. The fun part is seeing how long it takes Mr. Scatter to find it. Don’t tell, OK?

It’s quite possible the rest of the blog world knows Mr. Scatter as a stately critic, a keen observer who elegantly writes deep thoughts about serious topics. Imagine him two-finger tapping away in a tweed jacket, a strong black coffee at his elbow, a softly snoring cat at his toes, and a mellifluous Haydn concerto mingling between sunbeams. That’s all pretty much right, though the jacket comes out only occasionally.

The blog world only knows Mr. Scatter’s high English finger-tapping language, though. His family hears a whole other side of him. Betcha didn’t know he has a hidden talent. He’s fluent in Bobspeak.

Just at dinnertime Mr. Scatter actually hollered — no kidding — “Time to eat! Mongo gila! Take your clothes off!”

Continue reading Gollywump, Dad, happy frogbottom

Mishmash: a knee fit for an Irish jig event

By Bob Hicks

Must everything we see and do be an “event”?

Irish horndancing and jig shoes. Photo: Skubik at en.wikipediaMr. Scatter noticed this pernicious form of marketing and advertising breathlessness beginning as a trickle a couple of years ago, and it’s become an all-taps-open flood. The most ubiquitous torrent is the “major motion picture event” — which means “movie that cost a lot to make and needs to make a whole lot more to recoup its costs,” or just plain “new movie” — but it’s spread to many other areas as well. A rainstorm is a “weather event.” A sale on socks at the mall is a “merchandising event.” A rational political speech is an “imaginary event.” Just kidding on that last one.

The subject rose yet again this morning when Mr. Scatter spotted an ad in the New York Times for Michael Flatley’s new movie Lord of the Dance 3D and promptly erupted into a minor hissy fit event. Now, Mr. S can take Michael Flatley or leave him, though he’d rather do the latter. (All these lords a-leaping remind him of a good friend’s dismissal of the background characters in operas and story ballets as “happy peasants.”) And Mr. S hasn’t jumped on the 3D wagon: he can’t figure out how to get those glasses over his regular glasses and still see what’s going on on the screen. No, the problem was the line right below the movie’s title in the ad: “THE MAJOR MOTION PICTURE EVENT.”

Why? Mr. Scatter asked himself in an exasperation event. Why not just “THE NEW MOVIE”? Or — gasp — nothing at all? Mr. Scatter dreams of a day when this hyperventilating linguistic gaseousness will simply implode and disappear.

It could. As the Michael Flatley homepage so eloquently proclaims: “Nothing is impossible … follow your dreams.”


Bend it like Beckham. Gray's Anatony.On the other hand, the Lord of the Dance 3D ad reminded Mr. Scatter that today is St. Patrick’s Day, and then he recalled where he was and what he was doing exactly three years ago: lying on a hospital operating table, his left leg splayed open like a flounder getting filleted, while a highly gifted surgeon inserted what is essentially an entirely new and artificial knee. Loyal readers might recall this post from March 17, 2009, Celebrating a year of the Artificial Me, which recounted the trials and eventual joys of surgery and recovery. Mr. Scatter still can’t dance a decent jig, and he still can’t play the piano. But then, he couldn’t before the surgery, either. And these days, unless an anniversary rolls around, he rarely gives his pain-free knee a second thought.

Saints be praised.



  • Irish horndancing and jig shoes. Photo: Skubik at en.wikipedia
  • Bend it like Beckham. Gray’s Anatony.

Words to live by: revisiting MLK Jr.

By Bob Hicks

1964, Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.  Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographerTwo years ago, in this post, we passed along a few quotations from Martin Luther King Jr., whose spirit and birthday we celebrate today. In light of a frayed public discourse that verges on the ridiculous and the obscene, it seems an appropriate time to highlight King’s committed nonviolent approach to doing the right thing. Take a listen:

“Have we not come to such an impasse in the modern world that we must love our enemies – or else? The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or else we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”

“Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.”

“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

“One of the greatest casualties of the war in Vietnam is the Great Society, shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam.”

“Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.”

“Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.”

“War is a poor chisel to carve out tomorrow.”

“All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem.”


PHOTO: 1964, Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection. Dick DeMarsico, World Telegram staff photographer. Wikimedia Commons.

The language that brings us together


By Laura Grimes

Wordstock is all about community. It’s about taking the very private act of reading and celebrating it with a giant public festival that attracts thousands of people. It’s a shared experience of language. It’s stories that connect people.

Over two packed weekend days at the Oregon Convention Center, it was a treat to hear one writer after another and glean their personal experiences. But the stories that stand out for me the most were in the first two hours.

I arrived on Saturday right at 10 a.m. when it opened. I hadn’t planned to be an eager beaver, but The Large Large Smelly Boy had to be somewhere and Mr. Scatter dropped me off.

The readings and panels hadn’t started yet so I cruised the aisles. I nearly passed by the booth for Title Wave, the store that sells books that have been withdrawn from the Multnomah County Library system, but a cover caught my eye. I had been helping the Large Large Smelly Boy look for it at home just two nights before. I walked over to the shelf.

A clutch of five volunteers were bunched in the middle and one whispered excitedly, “We have a customer!”

Continue reading The language that brings us together