They don't think, they don't imagine, most of them can't even spell. They just run things.

I’ve thought of something I can say to Jacqueline Winspear the next time I see her, only I probably won’t say it. But at least my mind won’t be a blank. What I’d like to say is, “Don’t you have any control over the spelling in your books?”

I recently finished reading An Incomplete Revenge and, while I thought it was pretty good, I was constantly distracted by the following fake word masquerading as real:

I know that ‘alright’ is a misspelling that has been around for a long time – over 100 years, I believe – and that it’s an easy mistake to make because of words like ‘already’ and ‘altogether’, which are real words. I have no problem with it, or I pretend not to have one, when I encounter it in private usage. But having it appear numerous times in a published book is just wrong.

The reason I probably won’t say anything to Ms Winspear, though, is that I think it’s kind of embarrassing for the focus of everyone’s attention to be corrected in public. Unless it’s a really egregious error, like spelling something wrong.

I wonder why we’re so nervous as adults to point out someone’s error. Maybe because we’re afraid someone will point out ours. Maybe because peace and harmony are more desirable than the truth. There’s a little saying that I hear now and then. I heard it just a couple of months ago in a lesson at church, in reference to marital disagreements: one should ask oneself, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?” I always want to respond, “Yeah, but being right makes me happy.”

Children and teenagers certainly aren’t reticent to point out adults’ errors. When I used to substitute teach, the students were always trying to catch me in a mistake. It turns out they were wrong and I was right, but that didn’t stop them. I think if a teacher is really wrong, though, you should say something about it.

Parent-teacher conferences for me are now a thing of the past, and they were pretty much always the same kind of thing. Usually, the teachers would spend most of the time telling me how wonderful and bright and quiet my children were. I was always kind of shocked at hearing that, but I wasn’t going to say anything to the contrary. Anyway, I’ve already mentioned one exception to these pleasant encounters, but there’s another that sticks out in my memory. Adrien’s third grade teacher, after telling me how wonderful and bright my daughter was, mentioned that there was a little problem with Adrien speaking out in class.

How unusual, I thought. “What does she say?”

“She corrects my spelling,” said the teacher.


“Yes, I had something written on the board, and she said one of the words was spelled wrong. That’s happened a couple of times.”

Was it spelled wrong?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the teacher, and paused. “She’s a very smart little girl.”

Perhaps I should mention here that Adrien skipped most of first grade and, because of that, spent the majority of her school career in classes with students a year older than she was.

The teacher continued: “But it’s distracting to have her correct me.”

“Well,” I said, trying to be tactful, “I don’t think I should tell her to ignore mistakes. If something’s wrong, it should be corrected.”

The teacher looked at me with something a little like despair. I was thinking, “You’re a teacher; you should know how to spell.” But I took pity on her.

"All right, I’ll tell Adrien that if she wants to correct you, she should do it in private and not in front of the class.”

The teacher thanked me.

I know that spelling is not necessarily essential to one’s salvation, but neither is party politics, sports franchises, talk shows, or the Indiana Jones movies (and just try making an error there and see what happens). Also, I expect a degree of latitude in one’s spelling in informal settings (personal letters, journals, texting, etc). I myself consistently misspell ‘weird’, I think because it doesn’t follow the ‘i before e’ rule. But when someone puts a message out for public consumption – in newspapers or advertising signs or books or whatever – some responsible person should take pains to ensure that the spelling and grammar are standardized.

So, Jacqueline Winspear needs to know that either a) someone is not proofing her work very carefully, or b) someone is actually laboring under the delusion that "alright" is a real word. The next time I go to one of Ms Winspear's book signings, I think I'll take Adrien with me.


Do you need a glass of water or...a time machine?

When Megan was in first grade, her class had a reading contest. There were all kinds of little doodads – stickers, pencils, and the like – for prizes at each level, like for 25 books, 50 books, etc. But the grand prize was a gold medal. You got the gold medal when you finished reading 120 books. Megan ended up reading more than 135 books. She was one of the top readers in the class, if not the top reader.

When Megan was in fifth grade, her teacher told me during parent-teacher conference that she was not paying attention in class and therefore not always completing her assignments. The reason?

“She’s always reading. More than once I’ve caught her reading a book hidden in her lap,” he said, making it sound like he’d found drugs on her or something. “She reads when she should be listening to the lesson.”

I wanted to say to him, “Maybe if you were a more interesting teacher, she’d feel inclined to listen.”

Then he went on for a while about a low math test score she had or something, but I didn't hear him because I was reading a book hidden in my lap.

Okay, not really, but I wish.

And thus we see the change in the educational establishment’s attitude toward reading in just a few short years. I think it would be nice if the world appreciated and encouraged reading like Megan’s first grade teacher did. Yes, reading is its own reward, and I think people who read regularly understand this. What I mean is, I think it would be nice if the world gave you stuff for reading like Megan’s first grade teacher did. In other words, I wouldn’t mind a gold medal, not if it were made of real gold. But I think that, if there were such a reading program sponsored by the world, and since this program would be for people who’ve already finished school, the rewards should be more practical, geared toward a real-world application. With this view in mind, here’s how I envision the program:

The Rules

1. You have to actually finish the book

2. Books you read during elementary and high school don’t count unless I say so

3. The following reading material also doesn’t count:

  • Self-help/beauty/diet books by celebrities
  • Harlequin/Silhouette/whatever books, those stupid paranormal romances about seductive werewolves or whatever, and anything by Nora Roberts
  • Picture books, unless you’re reading them to a child, and then you have to read 42 of them to count for one book
  • Magazines
  • Books on tape
  • The Celestine Prophecy

The Prizes

Naturally, the more books you read, the better the prizes. Also, since the US dollar isn’t doing so well right now, and since this would be a world-sponsored contest, payment in Euros should probably be an option. Anyway, here are the prizes:

1. For reading 100 books, you receive a chocolate mint and a certificate that says you’ve done no more than is expected of you.

2. For reading 500 books, you receive everything from the 100-book level plus a mint signed first edition of any book published since 2000, a pair of Thurber Dog bookends, a $50 gift certificate to the bookstore of your choice, and a $25 gift certificate to your favorite dessert shop.

3. For reading 1000 books, you receive everything from the 500-book level plus a mint signed first edition of any book published since 1900, a cool Floto briefcase/bookbag, a $250 gift certificate to a restaurant of your choice, and a crisp clean $100 bill.

4. For reading 5000 books, you receive everything from the 1000-book level plus a mint signed first edition of any book ever published, a $500 gift certificate to the department store of your choice, and a crisp clean $1000 bill.

5. For reading 10,000 books, you receive everything from the 5000-book level plus a mint so you can buy whatever first editions or desserts or dinners at a restaurant or whatever you want.

6. For reading 50,000 books, you receive everything from the 10,000-book level plus a time machine, so you can go back in time and buy all the mint first edition books you want, and get them signed in person.

Notice: Use of the time machine for changing the course of history is strictly forbidden, except if you want to make sure your daughter gets a different 5th grade teacher.


Did anyone ever tell you you're ugly and you dress funny?

I picked up a book at the Bottom Shelf the other day: A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1873), by Isabella L Bird.

Some time ago, I had read her account of her travels in Hawaii (short title: Six Months in the Sandwich Islands), and I thought this journey might prove interesting as well. I stopped momentarily at the part where, while traveling through Utah by train, she mentioned seeing some actual Mormons. She wrote:

“The next morning, when the steward unceremoniously turned us out of our berths soon after sunrise, we were running down upon the Great Salt Lake, bounded by the white Wahsatch ranges. Along its shores, by means of irrigation, Mormon industry has compelled the ground to yield fine crops of hay and barley; and we passed several cabins, from which, even at that early hour, Mormons, each with two or three wives, were going forth to their days work. The women were ugly, and their shapeless blue dresses hideous.”

Naturally that reminded me of Mark Twain’s little riff on the appearance of Mormon women:

“With the gushing self-sufficiency of youth I was feverish to plunge in headlong and achieve a great reform here [regarding the practice of polygamy]—until I saw the Mormon women. Then I was touched. My heart was wiser than my head. It warmed toward these poor, ungainly, and pathetically ‘homely’ creatures, and as I turned to hide the generous moisture in my eyes, I said, ‘No—the man that marries one of them has done an act of Christian charity which entitles him to the kindly applause of mankind, not their harsh censure—and the man that marries sixty of them has done a deed of openhanded generosity so sublime that the nations should stand uncovered in his presence and worship in silence.’” (Roughing It, 1872)

I decided to check if any other 19th-century travelers had felt compelled to comment on Mormon women. Robert Louis Stevenson didn’t say anything about them in Across the Plains. I had no other readily available resources of my own, so I turned to the Internet. After a bit of searching, I found a reference to someone named Katherine Bates, a British (or so I gather) traveler who, during her journeys, spent a short time slumming in the Utah Territory and included an account of it later in a book called A Year in the Great Republic (1887). She said:

“As a rule, the men and women are hard-featured, careworn and anxious-looking. . . . I never saw so many ‘homely’ (we should call them ugly) looking women in all my life. Polygamy must indeed be looked upon as a sacred duty to induce the men to take more than one wife from amongst them.”

It sounds to me like she had read Mark Twain and was trying to be witty, too, but failed.

Anyway, I started thinking what a great idea it would be to write a book about 19th-century travelers’ reactions to Mormons, and call it “The Women Were Ugly”. Isn’t that a great title? I think it is.

Alas, the more I researched it, the more references I found to a number of journal articles and dissertations written about just that subject. So never mind.

I’ve decided instead to investigate the curious reference Isabella Bird makes to the women’s “hideous blue dresses”.

“Hideous” is defined as “horrible, frightful to the senses, repulsive, very ugly, shocking, revolting to the moral sense, distressing, appalling, grisly, grim, repellent, detestable, odious, monstrous, dreadful, ghastly”. So my first question is, are those the words you’d use to describe clothing? Wait, before you answer, I mean clothing from the 1870s. Pioneer clothing is ugly, maybe. Grim, maybe. But revolting, grisly, monstrous, ghastly?

My second question is, why would all those ugly women be wearing hideous blue dresses? Was there a Hideous Blue Dress Shoppe where they all went to purchase clothing? Did they all go to the local dry goods store and ask for six or eight yards off the hideous blue cloth bolt? Not very likely. Something just doesn’t ring true here.

I took another look at Bird’s statement and began to wonder: could
she possibly have gotten her words mixed up and really meant to say that the women were hideous and their shapeless blue dresses ugly? That would make more sense. Someone with a grisly or monstrous face wearing a grim or ugly dress is a lot easier to find an explanation for. And here’s how I do it:

She said she passed “several” cabins. Several can be two, maybe three, right? But not “many”. And there were two or three ugly women in hideous blue dresses coming out of each cabin. That means four to nine ugly women in hideous blue dresses were visible from Bird’s train window, or, as I believe it should be, four to nine hideous women in ugly blue dresses.

Now here’s the explanation: she didn’t see women in dresses . . . she saw men in smocks!

Men in smocks gathering wild eggs...

Men in smocks gathering the harvest...

Men in smocks gathering wool...

Because men, unless they try really hard and have a special talent for it, make hideous women. So, what could four to nine men all dressed the same and leaving their cabins early have been up to? Isabella Bird says farm work, but I disagree. I'm thinking they could've been going out to practice a Morris dance, or play baseball, or animate mice, or destroy the one ring; or if there were four, they could've been going out to build a railroad, or start a rock group; or, if there were on the average, say, seven of them, they could've been going out to save a town from a ruthless gang of robbers. Either that or Isabella Bird really did see what she said she saw, and she just happened to look out the window right when she was passing through Uglyville.

By the way, from what little I could read of those articles and dissertations, just as many other 19th-century travelers said Mormon people were quite handsome. But my favorite description—one that even Isabella Bird might think was exaggerated—is this (I found it here) by an army doctor who was in the territory during the Utah War. He said all the Mormons looked alike, with the following features: “albuminous and gelatinous types of constitution,” “yellow, sunken, cadaverous visage,” “greenish-colored eyes,” “thick, protuberant lips,” a “low forehead” and “light, yellowish hair.”