Cosplay at Phoenix Comicon 2017

I’m not great at remembering to take pictures of the cosplayers at conventions. But I did remember to catch a few while in Phoenix.

The first one was the one that really reminded me to get out the camera. I’d sat down in the food court to eat the bit of lunch I’d gotten. This one guy stopped to ask me if I happened to have any tape with me, but I had to say I didn’t. Then I realized why. One of the ladies he was with was having a bit of a problem that part of her costume was a bit loose. Even so, it was still pretty good.

Don't blink! Weeping Angels on the loose.

Don’t blink! Weeping Angels are around!

One fellow was maneuvering the crowds with quite a reach.

Spider-Man's Doc Ock appeared.

Spider-Man’s Doc Ock made an appearance.

Then there was the following team, who really worked well together.

Toy Soldiers at Phoenix Comicon.

Toy Soldiers at Phoenix Comicon.

When in motion, this trio had their platforms tucked under an arm while trotting in time together, all going ‘Hut, hut, hut, hut.” They were quite prompt when asked for pictures, both by me after the presentation we’d attended, but also out in the corridors when asked by others. (And they “stuck to their guns” as it were with their cosplay, in spite of the ban on props after the Thursday incident.) Great fun.

I’m going to try to do better to catch pictures of cosplayers at conventions.

In the meantime, I also observed the following cosplayers —

Black Canary
The Kool Aid Pitcher Guy
The Hamburger Helper Hand
A gender-bending Slave Leia
Merida from Brave
A hobbit
Mary Poppins (2 of them – this was on Saturday, when Dick Van Dyke was appearing)
Super Mario
Various Jokers & Harley Quinns.
A gender-bent couple of Joker and Harley Quinn.
A couple of Agent Peggy Carters
Ghostbusters – both a female one and a Spengler
Doctor Strange
“Kid” Flash (a 4 year old)
A Yandru
Aquaman & Mera (and a second Aquaman who was going shirtless)

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Adventures at Phoenix Comicon 2017

Lemon the cat at the window

Lemon the cat at the window

The last weekend of May this year, I made a trip over to Phoenix, thanks to the generosity of a couple of friends there. They had offered to put me up for the duration of the Phoenix Comicon, and paid for my 4-day pass as well. It was good to get away from my usual routine and concerns. I hadn’t made that long a drive since my time in Oregon, and of course, I was driving into the Valley of the Sun, so it was much, much warmer than the Oregon trip.

Meeting With Friends

One of my hostesses was my friend Becca Hokans. She and I had become friends online on the Television Without Pity message boards, in the CSI forum. When Becca and her husband Tom got married in Las Vegas, a number of our little group from the forum made the trip to Vegas. It had been a while since I’d seen Becca and Tom (and their son Chris). I’d last visited them in 2010, near the end of my epic road trip that summer.

While with them, I got to know one of their cats, Lemon. She’s rather sociable, or at least she checks out all visitors into her territory. Their second cat, Shadow, is nowhere near as sociable – he remained out of sight during most of my visit.

It was good to talk about writing and other general topics with Becca. Not so much catching up, as we also maintain contact on Facebook, as just conversing.

Thursday at Phoenix Comicon

I had made the L.A. to Phoenix drive on Wednesday, so I was ready for the first day of the convention. However, I dawdled over conversation with Becca before driving to the Park-and-Ride location. It meant that by the time I had taken the light-rail train to the Convention Center, I was a bit late for the early programming. Which was unfortunate, as it meant that by the time I got through registration (picking up my badge), I’d missed the Spotlight panel on my friend James A. Owen.

I was able to catch up with James a bit later, however, as he did a presentation on doing a Kickstarter drive. I’ve heard others on the process of running a Kickstarter campaign, but it was good to hear him talk about where he felt he had mis-stepped. in particular, he mentioned how he’d found Heidi Berthiaume’s Kickstarter Companion very useful in organizing a crowdfunding drive. And afterward, we were able to have a few minutes of chit-chat. It had been quite some time since I’d last seen him in person.

From James’ presentation, I went on to one entitled “Fantasy Mapmaking.” Priscilla Spencer has made maps for a number of authors, like Jim Butcher and Kevin Hearne. She had gotten into the “business” of creating maps for fantasy authors by accident. But she had applied her lifelong love of maps to the activity. She described how she tries to match the style of map she creates to the nature of the stories they are for. I found the presentation very interesting, as I have a similar affection for maps. She gave me plenty to think about in relation to maps for fiction.

After that I went to a panel titled “Kick-ass Women of Mythology,” moderated by Scott Price, with Andy Adams, Joan Conrad, and Wendy Parks. I was curious about where the discussion would range. In the event, the talk mostly circled around figures from Greek, Roman, and Norse mythologies – with an occasional dash of Celtic thrown in. It was very lively give-and-take between the panelists and the audience.

I made a brief venture down to the Exhibit Hall, even though by this time my knees and feet were a bit tired of all the walking I’d been doing. I got as far as saying hello to my friend Travis Hanson at his booth.

But I was really tired, so I decided to head back – to the car and to Becca’s. That was when I learned that there had been an “incident” earlier in the day. A lone person had made an attempt to get into the convention with some real weapons, with the intent to attack police and an actor who was attending the convention. He’d been carrying three handguns, a shotgun, and a knife. The incident had consequences for the rest of the convention.

Friday at Phoenix Comicon

I tried to get rolling earlier on Friday than I had on Thursday, but I didn’t succeed. And when I got to the Convention Center, I discovered the consequences of the Thursday incident. One of the first things those running the convention did was put out a ban on all props for the cosplayers. They also tightened the security at the entrance to the convention, checking all bags. There was a lot of confusion and long lines, as this was a quickly-put-together solution to the security needs.

Friday morning lines at Phoenix Comicon

The long lines at the entrance of the Phoenix Comicon on Friday May 26, 2017

For me, with my stiff knees, hobbling along and finding incredibly long lines, none of which were clearly defined, it presented a great problem. I’ve been using a cane when doing a lot of walking lately, but the prospect of waiting and standing for what looked to be at least an hour was incredibly daunting. However, people were very kind to me and let me move ahead through the lines until I could find someone in authority. My shoulder bag was checked and I was let in. By this time it was 11:30.

Since I’d not really had much of a breakfast, I took the time to get something to eat. And then I went to a panel titled “Option My Book.”

"Option My Book" panel

The “Option My Book” panel at the Phoenix Comicon 2017

The panelists were Pierce Brown, Wesley Chu, V.E. Schwab, Terry Brooks, Weston Ochse, Michael McLean. They told the interested audience about their experiences with options on their own works. They also explained what “option” actually means in Hollywood: that the author will get some money out of it, but that the film or television project might never go in front of cameras. I expect that some of the details were a revelation to some aspiring writers in the audience. All in all, informative with dashes of humor.

From there I went on to a panel “Mythology and Gods in Fiction” with Brian McClellan, Bradley P. Beaulieu, V.E. Schwab, Katie Salidas, and Brent Weeks. The authors discussed their own uses of established mythologies and also the creation of their own mythologies. They then invited questions from audience. I was interested in what the aspiring writers in the audience had to ask, because after all, mythic motifs in writing is my thing. One in particular caught my attention: the questioner asked about gender swapping for things like divinities of the sun and moon (the sun is usually male, the moon female). This is actually something I address in The Scribbler’s Guide to the Land of Myth. The panelists sort of mumbled their way to saying “Try it!”

Thee wasn’t much else in programming for Friday that I wanted to attend, so I decided to visit the Exhibit Hall again. My first stop was at the booth for Offworld Designs. I’ve encountered them at other conventions and actually have some dragon t-shirts I got from them … ahem, at least a dozen years ago. I do need some new t-shirts, so I bought one (the limit of my spending money).  Since I’ve recently done some academic editing, this design appealed to me.

Dragon t-shirt from Offowrld Designs.

Then I stopped by to talk with Travis again. Travis is really one of the good people of the world. He had done the artwork for this year’s convention. After chatting with him, I went on to see Ethan Nicolle. I’d edited a manuscript for him last year, and asked how it was progressing. He said based on some feedback from a group of beta readers (that is, kids who are part of the target audience), he was doing some rewriting on it. When it finally hits print, it’s definitely going to be a fun read. I think went on to James Owen’s spot — but he wasn’t there. I’d forgotten that he’d posted earlier that he had to head back up to Taylor for his daughter Sophie’s graduation from high school. Good thing I’d already seen him.

Saturday at Phoenix Comicon

I packed up and said goodbye to Becca, Tom and Chris as I would be staying with Priti Sankhla for Saturday night. That put me a bit behind on my schedule for the day. I got to the Park-and-Ride lot, and the day was already rather hot. As I was approaching the light-rail platform, I observed someone’s discarded vinyl on the gravel by the entrance to the lot. It was definitely hot.

A melted album in Phoenix.

A melted Paul Anka album by a Phoenix Park-and-Ride lot.

The first panel I attended on Saturday, was one titled “All Things Steampunk.” The panel consisted of Kevin J. Anderson, Quincy J. Allen, Elizabeth Bear, Beth Cato, Jim Butcher, and Alan Smale.

Steampunk panle at Phoemix Comicon.

The “All Things Steampunk” panel at Phoenix Comicon.

Since I haven’t really been into Steampunk as a literary genre (more because I just haven’t been reading as much fiction in recent years), I was very interested in the discussion. In the end, the general consensus seemed to be that steam itself wasn’t quite as crucial as the sense of wheels and gears and a Victorian-like atmosphere. Also, that steampunk science fiction was more “science fiction as it used to be” – like that written by Jules Vern or H.G. Wells, how they would have seen the future. All in all, it gave me food for thought.

The second panel I attended on Saturday was one titled “Copyright and Fan Art/Fiction.” Over recent years, I’ve learned a fair amount about copyright, thanks to Colleen Doran and my own entertainment attorney, Paul S. Levine. The speaker, Ruth Carter, spoke about how her interest in law had grown out of her interest in fan fiction and art. The key issue for fans, she observed, was that authors as holders of copyright, do have the right to approve or not fan fiction, because copyright covers the creation of “derivative works” spun from their works.

It had been quite a while since I’d done more than two days at a convention, so by the late afternoon, I was ready to wrap it up. I got back to my car and then drove across town to Priti’s.

This was actually our first in-person meeting. We’d become friends online through Becca. So we had a pleasant time learning more about each other. I appreciated her hospitality.

Sunday, there wasn’t any programming that really called for my attention, so I decided to forego a return to the convention. On Priti’s suggestion, I decided to make the drive back to L.A. on Sunday, as there were going to be so many people out on the road on Monday, heading home from their holidays. So I did set off on the long, hot drive. But I got back home about 8 p.m., after having made a few rest stops along the way. All it all, I really enjoyed the trip.

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The Sugar Documentary

During the early part of 2016, I worked on a script for a company documentary in India. A client hired me to create a script for Dwarikesh Sugar in Uttar Pradesh in northern India.

The project interested me beyond “just a job” because when my great-aunt had served as a missionary in India in the first half of the twentieth century, most of her assignments were in Uttar Pradesh. Her service gave me a general interest in India. Learning of the benefits that Dwarikesh Sugar had brought to the region of U.P. intrigued me, and made the project a special one for me.

Dwarikesh Sugar Company

My script was more a guideline for the shape of the final documentary. My co-writer, Dipendra Sharma, had to adapt it to the Hindi language as well as fit the interviews and general footage the film crew shot to the script I had pulled together for them.

Workers in sugar cane field.It was also interesting to learn that the company works to be green and sustainable. By-products of the sugar processing are further directed toward power generation, to the point that the company’s mills sell power back to the state’s energy grid, rather than draw from it.

In any case, it is satisfying to be able to point to this finished project.

Dwarikesh Sugar Cororate Video

from Narative Pictures

Directed by Satyaprakash Upadhyay
Director of Photography: Shanawaz Ali
Editor: Ujjawad Chandra
Music Director: Ankit Shah
Writer: Dipendra Sharma, Sarah Lucy Beach
Executive Producer Sapana Sharma

The video is available on YouTube.

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Presenting Dr. Barbara Harrington

Dr. Barbara Harrington

Dr. Barbara Harrington, with friends

On Tuesday evening, I drove out to Azusa Pacific University for a reception to celebrate a new-made Ph.D. My friend Barbara Nicolosi Harrington had been working on her dissertation in creative writing for the last couple of years. She’s been a professor it APU for some time in the Honors Department. The pursuit of the doctorate was to comply with the University’s expectation that professors have Ph.D.s.

I was a bit invested in Barbara’s progress, as I had given her dissertation a proofing edit when she’d finished writing it.

 

 

I don’t want to steal her thunder by explaining her thesis, other to note that it involved a writing theory Barbara had about the works of Flannery O’Connor. She had done considerable research on O’Connor, and had incorporated her insights into O’Connor’s work into her thesis about effective storytelling in screenplays.

Because there is a connection between O’Connor and peacocks, the celebration cake was decorated with a peacock feather.

The reception was a pleasant gathering. Barbara gave a brief talk about her pursuit of the doctorate and what her thesis was. I was pleased to be there to help her celebrate this important professional milestone for her.

Congratulations, Dr. Harrington!

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Taking Notice of Spring

I haven’t been very good about taking pictures of the world around me, at least not the last couple of years. When I was in Oregon, of course, the scenery was more remarkable to me. Back here in Los Angeles, even though there are spots of beauty around me, I’m usually in the car driving when I see things. It’s hard to snatch a sunset shot when you’re on the freeway at 65 mph.

But last week on Palm Sunday, I decided to catch some of the beauty around me.

In the church parking lot, there’s a planter with a rose bush. The dark red roses were past their prime, and yet they still showed why the rose is the beauty diva of a garden.

Nearby there were additional bushes, also past the most gorgeous point of their blooming, and yet their colors still caught the eye.

In Los Angeles, there are several types of trees that throw on a flowery garment during spring.

Back at the house where I’ve been staying, there are also a few flowers.

Along the wall of the house, beside the walkway, there are some very happily thriving pansies.

They are quite sturdy and durable (meaning that even a week later, they still look pretty good). So they are a pleasure to encounter when going out or coming in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the other side of the walkway, there’s a white rose. But I think it doesn’t get as much sunlight as the rosebushes at church get. Even so, the bobbing bloom was a pretty thing to meet.

I want to make more of a point in actually recording the beauty I see. Because it is worth it to see and acknowledge what is in the world around us.

 

 

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Rewriting Shakespeare

In 2011 I wrote some verses in response to a review of Orson Scott Card’s book Hamlet’s Father. Card’s revisionist presentation of the Prince of Denmark isn’t quite the traditional sort of Bowdlerization that takes out “offensive” material. In many ways, Card’s retelling increases the offenses, as his King Hamlet is a pedophile.

Derek Jacobi as Hamlet

Of course, given that Shakespeare himself borrowed from other sources and recreated stories from previous works, it’s rather inconsistent of people to become offended at people reworking Shakespeare. I’ll admit to being interested in such reworkings myself, and am quite fond of Akira Kurosawa’s Shakespeare adaptations. I’ve seen Throne of Blood, his version of Macbeth. The Burnham Wood sequence in Kurosawa’s version is a truly awesome moving forest. Also his Ran, a masterly adaptation of King Lear. I haven’t seen his adaptation of Hamlet yet. It is set in modern Japan, with Toshiro Mifune in the Hamlet role.

The thing is, most adaptations and retellings of Shakespeare tend to stay in tune with what the Bard created. His sensibilities about human nature are generally insightful and reliable, which is why we keep returning to them. But from all the descriptions of Card’s handling of the Hamlet material, it would seem that he just doesn’t “get it.”

Card has said that he can’t identify with a waffling character. And many have interpreted that as being the heart of Hamlet’s problems. But I think there’s a larger issue at hand, a metaphysical one.

Hamlet’s dilemma rests upon the conflicts between worldly demands of justice and the spiritual strictures of a Christian faith. Now, Shakespeare’s play is not explicitly preaching a Christian outlook, but it is deeply woven into the fabric of the play. Hamlet finds the world “stale, flat, and unprofitable” to the degree that he wants out of it, having no joy in what he sees around himself after his father’s death. But God has “fixed his canon against self-slaughter.” Suicide would separate the Prince from the presence of God — and this is a serious consideration for Hamlet.

Our modern world has come quite some distance from behaving as if we genuinely believed that the supernatural dimension, the spiritual dimension of the presence of God, was immediately effective (never mind believing that it is real – which it would seem that many do not hold to be true). To me, it seems that for those who do still regard the spiritual dimension and God’s presence as important, the focus is mostly “I am precious to God.” Yes, we give attention to the concept of bringing others into fellowship with the Lord. But do we really consider the connection the way Hamlet does?

When he finds Claudius praying alone, he almost uses the moment to take his revenge. But Hamlet stops himself, because Claudius is praying, and at that moment might indeed be repentant and so within the Grace of God. The Prince’s object is to bring about Claudius’ fall at a moment when the King is in an unrepentant, sinful mode, which would guarantee the departure of Claudius’ soul to Hell, rather than the presence of God.

But none of these considerations seem to have touched Orson Scott Card in his rewrite of the story. He structures it around the idea that the dead King Hamlet was a pedophile who had molested the young men of his court when they were children. Where Card drew this idea from, I have no idea. While it is easy to believe that the sycophants Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are probably a gay couple, and to believe that Horatio may have a fixation of some sort (requited or not) on Hamlet, I have no idea why he thinks Laertes would also be gay (especially since Laertes is looking forward to risqué adventures with loose ladies in Paris when he gets there).

To me, the tenor of Card’s version of the story exemplifies Ophelia’s description of the prince himself: like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh. It’s not somewhere I want to be.

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Challenging Yourself as a Writer

One of the things I’ve discovered as I’ve gone along, training and pushing myself as a writer, is that the best work is done when I have to push myself. If a project intimidates me a little bit, I have to dig deeper to deliver something good. And this is a valuable quality in rising to challenges. If the work comes too easily, you may not be doing your best with it.

Writing should scare you a little

I’ve done this in a big way several times over the course of my life. The first time it really struck me was as an undergraduate, my senior year. I had a heavy course load, and on a Friday was facing the need to deliver a paper for a Shakespeare course come Monday. The problem was that although I’d prepared a general outline for the paper and knew the points I wanted to make, I could not get my brain to focus on actually writing the prose. At the time, I had taken to spending Friday evenings on campus (I commuted from home each day, car pooling), ostensibly to do extra work. Unfortunately, it was frequently the case that by Friday evening I was brain-fried. So it was this particular weekend. I really wanted to get the paper written, but just could not get it to gel.

It just so happened that two words I wanted to use in the introduction rhymed. The words hung there in my brain, chiming together. So I gave in, and composed a couplet to convey the idea I wanted with them. In iambic pentameter. And it turned out to be a pretty good couplet. So then I wondered, “Can I take this further?” I tried another couple of sentences for the introduction in iambic pentameter couplets … and they worked.

Then the scary idea hit me — why not try to write the whole paper (excepting quotes from the play in question) in rhyming couplets? This was a completely insane idea for a college paper. But it seemed the only way I could get my brain to tackle the problem of the paper. So away I went. And I did it. (And when finished, the fact that it was rhymed couplets seemed to beg for something other than plain old typed fonts – so I used my best calligraphy and wrote the thing out on sturdy paper in ink.)

The paper was sound enough in its argument. The professor was a bit floored (and amused) by the presentation of it however. She admitted that there wasn’t much she could say to it, since it was something of a tour de force. She did question a few rather forced phrases I’d used for poetic purposes, but that was more a critique of the poetry than the discussion.

It’s not a solution to writer’s block that I’d recommend to everyone. But the point of this little story is that by making the out-of-the-box decision to write the paper in verse, I both challenged and scared myself into writing a better paper than I might have done otherwise. When you let your writing projects and ambitions scare or alarm you a bit, so long as you don’t run away from them, you may end up producing remarkable and excellent work. Try it!

Photo by Sandra Calderbank – scalderphotography.com
Used by permission

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The Mysteries of Pi

I’d actually meant to write this post in order to upload it on March 14. But I got distracted yesterday, and so missed that boat. But I figured I would go ahead and post it anyway. After all, it’s not like it is anything serious — just a bunch of musing.

I had been idly musing about a number of things: the Holy Trinity and the nature if infinity. And into those thoughts dropped the matter of pi, and its apparently never ending supply of decimal values.

It started as I was thinking about the Holy Trinity and how to explain this nature of God to people outside of Christianity. How to convey the concept of a unity of identity, while also talking about a trinity of persons and yet not meaning a polytheistic gathering?

For me, one of the best descriptions of the Trinity, in terms of helping the reader understand the concept, is in Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Mind of the Maker. Although I don’t quite agree with the terminology she chose to use, the structure she explains works quite well. Father, Son, Holy Spirit — Concept, Manifestation, Communication Energy: the three elements work as a single unity.

That led me to consider how the number three has importance in so many belief systems. Some even consider three to be a perfect number.

So, I thought, if three is so significant, why did God create the world so that the value of π isn’t exactly 3? What is with the infinitely long extra fraction value to it? Why is pi rendered 3.14159265359 and on and on into infinity, with no repeating patterns?

As a bit of whimsy, I wondered if it wasn’t God’s sense of humor using it as a description of the relationship of humanity to the divinity. The Trinity is sufficient in itself. But on the other side of the decimal point of pi, there is this infinite string of numbers. The string will never be enough to equal the Three, or change it in any way. The string is something added to the universe, but no matter how long the string is, it will never cross over the decimal point to change the Three. We are God’s creation, but we will never be His equal. We will always be on the other side of the decimal point — included, but not really part of the unity of the Three.

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Libraries: Treasure Boxes – Part One

Jackson Libraries

The Jackson, Michigan Carnegie Library

When I was growing up in Jackson, the city’s Library was housed in a handsome blockish building downtown on Michigan Avenue. I’m not sure what age I was when I was first taken there and introduced to the wonders of libraries. But there was a certain pleasure walking up the steps into the library and then making my way to the Children’s Department.

Jackson Michigan District Library Carnegie Building

The Carnegie Building of the Jackson Michigan District Library

The building is one of the Carnegie libraries built in the early 20th century, funded by a grant from Andrew Carnegie. The Scottish businessman funded 1,689 libraries in the United States between the years 1883 and 1929. The Jackson library received a donation of $70,000 in 1901. When it opened in 1906, the building had been given features that graced most of the Carnegie libraries: entryway stairs that were to symbolize the visitor’s rising through learning, and a lamppost at the front to symbolize enlightenment. The other notable thing about the libraries built by Carnegie donations is that most all of them are architecturally unique.

Of course, the child that I was had no awareness of these historical facts. All I knew was that the library was a beautiful building that had wonderful books in it.

Jackson, MI Carnegie Library front desk

Main reference desk in the Jackson Carnegie Library

On entering the building, straight ahead, you’d find the main reference desk. Enticingly behind the broad counter were library stacks – the adult section that seemed a forbidden kingdom to the child-visitor. On either side of the lobby on the ground floor were the main reading rooms. But the goal for the young me was the Children’s department, which when I was young was upstairs on the west side of the building.

Jackson, MI Carnegie Library lobby and stairs

Lobby and staircase of the Jackson Carnegie Library

The stairs always held an enchantment over me. This old picture shows plants in it, but in “my day” I don’t think they were there. Instead, I remember sunlight pouring in on the white marble of the stairs and banister. Going up that staircase felt like being in some special palace.

It was in the Children’s department of the Jackson Library where my early fascination with world myths expanded. I had read (children’s versions) of Greek & Roman myths, and Norse myths. But it was a book in this library about Hawaiian/Polynesian myths that introduced me to the goddess Pele. The volcano goddess intrigued me then, and still is one of my favorites. It was also in this wide, high-ceilinged chamber where I found the Mushroom Planet books and began many science fiction adventures.

By the time I reached the junior high grades (what are now called “middle school”), I had become more familiar with other areas of the city library. I remember checking out books on handwriting analysis from the “adult” section. There was also the ground floor west reading room, where periodicals were kept. I recall one social studies project where the students were encouraged to include images. This was back in the dark ages, before everyone had a copier/printer in their home. The library’s photocopying machine (an early public model) would provide you with a negative image for twenty-five cents. As I remember, some students just went with the negative image for their reports. I, however, coughed up another twenty-five cents to get the positive image (by photocopying the negative image). Life was hard, working with “bearskins and stone knives.”

The Hunt Junior High School Library

There was another library that affected me in an important way when I was growing up in Jackson. That was the library at Hunt Junior High.

Main entrance to Hunt Elementary School

Entrance to the Hunt school building

Although the building has now been converted to an elementary school, it was built as a junior high school. A very modern design of individual buildings on the hillside, joined by enclosed walkways. The library was situated to the right of the entry lobby. It actually had a pretty good selection of books for a school library.

Interior of the Hunt Elementary library in Jackson

Current staff in the Hunt school library

This photo of the current staff of the school’s library shows the room looking much as I remember it. It was significant to me for a specific treasure I found on those shelves along the wall to the left. The fiction books were arranged there, alphabetically by author. I remember one day strolling along the shelves, idly looking for something interesting to read. My attention was caught by the title of one rather large book. Something Wicked This Way Comes. I was already familiar with some of Shakespeare and knew that the line came from Macbeth. I checked it out, and fell in love with the lyrical prose of one Ray Bradbury. I think it was my first encounter with Bradbury’s work. His prose would have a profound effect on my own writing, though I would not be aware of that for many, many years.

Libraries have the ability to enrich our lives. And these two libraries in Jackson were just the beginning for me.

(My thanks to librarians Elizabeth Breed and Debby Sears for their help in finding interior images of the Carnegie Building of the Jackson District Library.)

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The Treasury of Words

Roget's Thesaurus cover
A few weeks ago on Facebook, someone commented in passing that they really needed to find a good thesaurus. The commenter was a friend of a friend, and so I don’t recall who it was. The pertinent fact was that she was a writer and was dissatisfied with the thesaurus she’d been using.

I read her comment and thought “I’ll bet that what she’s been using up to now has been a newer styled ‘dictionary’ type thesaurus, where it’s just a word list of synonyms.” But I also understood the challenge that she, as a writer, felt in the face of opening up that imposing hoard of words, Roget’s ORIGINAL Thesaurus.

The Dictionary Style

I seem to recall being taught somewhere around 8th or 9th grade about how to navigate the Roget’s original presentation. But at the time, it seemed awkward and confusing to me. I didn’t need the sophistication of it (although I didn’t realize then that’s what it was). I just needed a list of synonyms.  I suspect a great number of people felt the same way. Roget’s original version got set aside, perhaps as being “old fashioned,” and hence useless.

Indeed, when I searched online in preparing this blog post for “how to use a thesaurus” what I found was the following:

1: Choose a word as a starting point.
2: Like a dictionary, find the word in the alphabetic arrangement.
3: Once you find the word, look at the words that are listed alongside the main word.
4: Choose another word that will work to replace your starting word.

Now the thing about this is that it only really satisfies if you want to keep your original sentence structure, even if that sentence structure doesn’t quite get you to the exact point you want. You can substitute “mansion, bungalow, chalet, residence,  or lodging” for “house” in sales copy, depending on the size of the building (for a mansion is going to be larger than a bungalow). But otherwise, you don’t need to change the structure of your sentence.

But if you are a writer — or even more intensely, if you are a poet — simply replacing one word with a synonym isn’t going to satisfy you. And I really suspect that the complaint I mentioned at the start sprang from that dissatisfaction. A writer who is serious about the craft wants to wield the language with more certain effect. And unfortunately, word lists of synonyms don’t help that desire.

Peter Mark Roget used list-making as a way of dealing with depression. It was from his lists that he built his thesaurus, arranged by topics. It was originally published in 1852. It is the topical arrangement that gives his thesaurus its strength.

I confess that I didn’t have much use for the thesaurus throughout most of my education. I happily had a fairly large vocabulary to start with, so I wasn’t really too much at a loss for the right word most of the time. But the other thing that kept me from using the thesaurus was that I didn’t really understand how to properly use it. Even though I was vaguely introduced to it around 9th grade, apparently that introduction was not particularly effective.

However, when I was in graduate school, one semester I began writing a long narrative poem. It was a creative recreation, a release from the pressures of the heavy course load I had that semester. I had chosen to write in iambic pentameter blank verse. The demands of the prosody made me stretch my verbal constructions. Issues of sound, of rhythm, all combined with the need for precise meaning, meant that I needed to find exactly the right words for the lines. I would check the thesaurus for my options in synonyms and then check the dictionary to make sure the meaning of the selected word was indeed exactly what I meant. Both my thesaurus and dictionary saw more use in the few weeks of composition of that poem than they ever had before.

And along the way, I learned how to use the classic form of Roget’s Thesaurus.

Using the Original Roget’s Thesaurus

The first step in using the classic thesaurus, is checking the index listing in the back of the volume. It resembles the “dictionary style” thesaurus, with an alphabetical listing of words accompanied by a selection of synonyms. Sometimes, just checking this far will give you the word option you need for whatever you are writing.


However, if you need to go further then you have to learn the significance of the section numbers that are given with the alphabetical options.

In the example shown here, you can see the variety of options for the word “intelligence.” That word, the word you are starting with, is printed in boldface. Then follow the variations of significance. I’ve highlighted the various options. You can see that “information” and “news” have different numbers, even though they are similar topically.

That similarity and closeness in meaning also shows in how close their section numbers are to each other (551 and 552), highlighted in red.  The same thing holds true for meanings about smartness and brain power (918 and 919), marked with yellow. The uses that reflect espionage show in the green highlighting. The section numbers will lead you the user to an even wider selection of word options.

When you go to the section number of the option that seems closest to what you want, in the front part of the thesaurus, you will find a wide range of options, presented according to the various parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. This is where the strength of this format of the thesaurus lies. Instead of just finding a substitute word for the sentence structure of your originally composed sentence, you may find that the meaning you want to convey might be better served with a different part of speech.

In the sample shown, you can see the options for “innocence.” As you look through the options for “innocence” as a noun, you can see the gradations of options, from very specific synonyms to casual expressions. The subsections in the entry are further topical divisions.

Sometimes, in the search for the right word with the right meaning, you may find that being too specific does not solve the problem you are wrestling with. That leads to the next option in the arrangement of the original thesaurus. When you pull back and see the sections that are grouped together in a larger sense you may find what you are looking for. In the case of “innocence,” when you pull back you can see additional sections titled “good person,” followed by “bad person.”

This is the wonder of the English language. There is so much coloration to it. It is a language built by borrowing from other languages and making those words carry specific meanings, in addition to the words that grew organically in English from its Anglo-Saxon roots. The arrangement of the original Roget’s Thesaurus opens up the flexibility of the English language for the writer – once you learn how to explore its presentation. It truly is a treasury of words, worthy of its place in your reference books.

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