Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Surgical notes: If I’m talking, I’m still alive



     This is Part 2 of my Spine Surgery Summer Series. If you missed Monday’s column, you should start there.

     The nurse’s urgency over the telephone startled me.
     “Do you think it’s OK to wait until Tuesday?” I said.
    “If your condition deteriorates before then, call me,” she said. That was not the answer I expected.
     My hands had been numb for months, so my doctor ordered up an MRI. It showed severe stenosis: narrowing of the spinal vertebrae, compressing the spinal cord, damaging it. The first surgeon I saw suggested operating right away. Now, I was seeking the famed second opinion.
     My wife insisted on going with me. She wanted another adult in the room besides the doctor.
     Dr. Alpesh Patel was a revelation. I assumed he’d merely endorse the first doc’s suggestion. He didn’t. Instead, Dr. Patel gazed at the MRI and called the go-in-the-front-and-pluck-out-the-bone-spur strategy “dangerous.” Doing that, he explained, also might yank out a chunk of spinal cord. The hole would then leak spinal fluid and couldn’t be repaired, leading to meningitis and — I’m not sure if he said this or I just added it, mentally — death.
     Dr. Patel took a long time explaining what was going on — if Dr. Bone Joint took 10 minutes, he took 40. As if I were an actual human suddenly facing a complicated and terrifying situation, and not just the latest sack of defective meat delivered to his doorstep by the health care conveyor belt. He contemplated the MRI, musing, “Hmm, I’m not sure WHAT is the best thing to do here.” He ordered a CT scan to get a better look.
     Doctors love to radiate certainty. But suddenly the first diagnosis felt like a clerk at Macy’s giving me the once-over and announcing that I’m a 38 Regular. Being initially uncertain — Go through the back? The front? Both? — struck me as a sign that Dr. Patel was actually evaluating the situation instead of just pulling a procedure off the rack and hoping it fit me. My wife watched saucer-eyed — she later insisted it was worth my having surgery just to see Dr. Patel in action.



To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

"Now Neil, no more than TWO columns about this."

Not to mention a view, too. 

     The Sun-Times used to have a library—a large one—and librarians, who acquired books and wrangled microfilm, filled clip files and aided reporters searching for information.
      Over the years, as the paper condensed and economized, the library shrank, the librarians were dismissed or died. One awful day the whole thing was eliminated, root and branch, and, as the rare person who actually used the resources there, as opposed to merely dipping my fingers into the internet to flick out a few drops of fact, I took it upon myself to load up rolling cart after rolling cart of books and convey them to my office, along with as many bookshelves as would fit, including a pair of tall, heavy, library-quality wooden shelves. They were seven feet tall. 
     The building maintenance man—who also seems to be gone, now that I think of it—must have helped me, and the shelves must have been unsteady, because under one he tucked a  shim—a thin, splintery slice of wood—to keep it stable. The shim projected an inch from the bottom of the shelf.
      I don't know why this bothered me. Maybe I was upset about the library. Maybe I'm just anal-retentive and annoyed by small things. But I figured I would push the shim forward, so it would be out of sight under the shelf. A simple process. Just gently rock the shelf back, and push the shim in. But I wasn't quick enough to nudge the shelf back then dip down to jam in the shim before the shelf forward again. So I tried again. Rock the shelf back, dip, push the shim.The second time it went in, but only a little, and was still jutting out. So I pushed the shelf back, a bit harder, dipped down to push the shim, tried again, pushed the shelf backward, harder, but this time whole shelf rocked forward and kept going.
     I had time to think, "Oh shit" as the big wooden library shelf pitched atop of me, raining books as it went. A crash was involved, or boom, or noise loud enough to send half the newsroom running to see. 
     So here's the scene. My small office. One fallen bookshelf lying atop dozens of jumbled books and someone beneath it all, a man whose command of the physical world has never been what it ought to be. The assembled crowd took it in in what must have been silent awe, a silence broken by a colleague saying, "Now Neil, no more than TWO columns about this."  General laughter, at least in my recollection. Then hands lifting the shelf off and I crawled out, amazingly unhurt.
     We got the bookshelf back upright. I made sure the shim was tucked out of sight, and began to slowly return the books to their places, chewing on that comment. "Now Neil, no more than TWO columns about this."
     Yes, I have a tendency to write about personal matters. A process that both elevates me, in my own estimation, and ostracizes me, in the views of other reporters. A real journalist, in the eyes of many, goes to meetings. He paws through piles of official documents, discovering financial improprieties that result in actual news, stories of wrong-doing or corruption. The public, the theory goes, has an endless appetite for this. I'm not so sure. I certainly don't.  That has never interested me, not in the way the small occurrences of people's lives, including my own, do. I'd rather write about manhole covers than bring down an alderman.
      But I do think about what he said, at times like this week, when I embarked on writing about my spine surgery. I hadn't planned on it. I had planned on being off work until the end of August. But lying around the house got dull. I was plugging away at the blog, so obviously could write stuff. I wanted to jump back in, early, and needed a topic. I thought about weighing in on the mayor's crack about a Fraternal Order of Police official, pointing out that the FOP are, if not actual clowns—they aren't funny, at least not in the ha-ha funny way that actual circus clowns are— then certainly an organization which couldn't do more to undermine the public image of the Chicago Police Department if that were their intended purpose. I could collect a Greatest Hits of tone-deaf, counterproductive FOP pronouncements on the frequent jaw-dropping misdeeds of police officers, while mentioning that I had only admiration for Lori Lightfoot's sneering non-apology, her crack that she was sorry she had said it aloud. I'm not. I'm glad. I wish she put it on a billboard.  
     But that seemed a small observation to build an entire column around and carried the risk of being dated—the kerfuffle had been going on for a few days already. Besides, I had already had my neck cut open. Did I want to return by immediately shoving my arm into the CPD's cage and letting them chew on that too? 
     So I wrote what I thought was something interesting on the surgery, a piece which turned out to be 2,500 words long. That would be a massive article in the paper, so I decided to whittle 400 words away and run it over three days, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. That way, I wouldn't have to talk to my bosses or ask anybody for extra space. 
    But jeez, it was also THREE columns. I used to say that if I came upon Jesus Christ preaching the Sermon on the Mount in Grant Park, I would only write two columns. Because people get bored. Nothing is worth three columns.. And here I went and did it.
    Why? I found the topic interesting. I wanted to convey the tale. But then I'm biased. I like medical stories. And it's about me, and something I just went through. The first installment ran Monday, and the public seemed to like it. I got dozens of replies--50, easily—which is a decent number. Turns out, lots of people have had that surgery, or were contemplating it, and one role of a newspaper is to reflect readers' experience back at them. 
     So why tell the bookshelf story? Well, first, it's Tuesday, 5 a.m., and I realized I had better get something up here—I spent yesterday finishing the second and third installments of the surgery series, and went downtown to research a column I'm running next week. I didn't bother to write anything for here. The personal nature of the surgery story made me think of that colleague's quip. As did, I suppose, returning to the office for the first time in a few weeks. 
     There is a coda to the bookshelf story, one that I'm not entirely proud of, but that I'll share anything because, heck, I guess  I just can't help myself. A friend who works at a big publishing house in New York called me. The guy who had needled me while I was still under the toppled shelf had sent her a book proposal of his own. Did I, she wondered, know him? 
    "Yeah," I said. "A little. He's a jerk." 
    She asked what he did at the paper.
    "I have no idea," I said. "Some kind of consultant I guess." 
    Oh, she said. From his letter, I got the impression that he was somebody important, a key editor, the axis on which the entire operation revolves.
    "No," I said. "Not as far as I can tell."
     I urged her to avoid him, and she rejected his proposal. Which felt good, at the moment. Revenge is a dish best served cold. Though now it just seems petty. Which is okay too. What's the Nicholas Cage line from "Moonstruck"?— "I ain't no freakin' monument to justice."  My office at the new place is so small there's no room for tall bookshelves, so I'm safe. 

Monday, July 29, 2019

Summer! Time for baseball, beaches, and complicated spinal surgery




     How’s your summer going? Pretty good? Glad to hear it. Mine has been ... interesting: the past six weeks or so have been spent getting ready for, enduring, then recovering from spinal surgery. Not something that typically goes into the newspaper. But I found the process ....interesting, to say the least, and hope you do, too. I’ll relate the story this week in three parts. If I’m wrong, well, there’s always next week.
     

      It couldn’t be a normal ailment — no cancer, no heart disease, no failing kidneys. Oh no, no, not for me. Odd duck that I am, it had to have something obscure: stenosis, which sounds like zeneosis, the imaginary disease I cooked up to entertain my boys when they were small and we’d visit their zayde at Skokie Valley Hospital. I had fun imagining ever-more terrifying Hot Zone symptoms, and threatened to to march them up to the Zeneotic Ward to see for themselves if they didn’t behave.
      Stenosis is real, however, a narrowing of the spinal vertebra. I learned I had it in 2015, getting a CT scan after I slipped on ice while walking the dog. The doc suggested I “keep an eye on it,” and, like any sane man, that meant I ignored it completely.
     But six months ago my hands started to go numb. Not that numb; I still could type. So no big whoop, we’re all numb nowadays, more or less. I employed the same ignore-it-and-hope-it-goes-away strategy that worked so well when the interior light on the Honda Odyssey started flashing during hard right turns. Eventually, the problem fixed itself. Truly, a miracle.   
You can't really see it on this screen grab of the MRI
but it shows the collapsing discs pushing against
the spinal cord, and that pesky bone spur, spearing
itself where it doesn't belong.
     But this didn’t go away. It got worse. My feet started getting numb too, then my calves. Unlike Republicans with climate change, I connected the dots and saw where this was heading. Plus my wife told me to go to the doctor, and I’ve learned to listen to her.
     My physician ordered an MRI. (Practical tip: Pay an extra $10 and they’ll give you a DVD of the image you can tote to future consultations.) Later, his office called to say the stenosis was severe and compounded by a bone spur. He suggested I see a surgeon at Illinois Bone and Joint Institute.

To continue reading, click here.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Old Books from my Library #7: The Natural History of Nonsense

     Stupidity wasn't born into the world on June 16, 2015, you know, heralded by Donald Trump's descent on that escalator at his garish Fifth Avenue high rise. 
     It has a long, deep, rich history and, as someone who interacts constantly with the often credulous and boggled public, my job has, by necessity, acquainted me thoroughly with the deep roots and widely spreading branches of the Tree of Idiocy. The choice being to continually bemoan the fact or instead study it, appreciate it, almost savor it. I choose the second route.
     About 20 years ago, I wrote a book on the subject, "The Alphabet of Modern Annoyances." Needless to say, I was not the first person to do this, and in conducting my research I assembled a small library of books on human misapprehension of reality.   
     I first thought, for today's final installment on old books, to discuss Paul Tabori's The Natural Science of Stupidity, published in 1959, and The Art of Folly, following in 1961. Tabori was a scholar who spoke several languages, and the books are rich exploration of the idiocies of ages past. It was through The Natural Science of Stupidity's chapter on the law that I discovered one of my favorite books, E.P. Evans' 1906 The Criminal Persecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. 
      But something about Tabori, a certain denseness combined with his scholarship, struck me as a wrong note to end this week's series. Then I noticed a book with a lighter touch,  shelved right next to Tabori (I try to shelve my books thematically, to aid in retrieval). That is the last and most recently-published old book I'll address this week, Bergen Evans' 1946 The Natural History of Nonsense.
      Evans, a fellow Ohioan, was no slouch either: he attended Harvard and went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. A professor of English, he explains the origins of the book this way. In 1934, he picked up a hitchhiker. "He was friendly and above all talkative, and I was at first amused then awestruck at the immensity of his ignorance. It was not that he was wrong about so much as that he was so colorfully wrong, so militantly wrong!"
      That rings a bell, huh? Perhaps he had encountered some time traveller from our present era, when aggressive stupidity, united by the internet, has taken on a power and authority of its own and, needless to say, elected our first ignoramus president. 
     Evans is a sharp writer—he taught English at Northwestern for 40 years—and the problem with addressing his book is the temptation to just quote the whole thing. It begins with the good news, acknowledging our culture's slow crawl toward sense:
    Until about a hundred years ago rational men live like spies in an enemy country. They never walked abroad unless disguised in irony or allegory. To have revealed their true selves would have been fatal. Today this status is more that of guerillas. They snipe from cover, ambush stragglers, harass retreating rear guards, cut communications and now and then execute swift forays against detached units of the enemy. But they dare not yet risk an open engagement with the main force; they would be massacred.
     In that sense,  we live in a better time. It is at least a struggle, sometimes an evenly-matched one, the forces of reason and the forces of delusion occasionally meeting on equal ground, Godzilla and Rodan, grappling for control of our culture. 
      For being 73 years old, the book is astoundingly current, particularly when it comes to the resilience of folly.
     "The sudden emergency of presumably extinct ideas reminds us, in a similar manner, how near to darkness we really are," Evans writes.
      Or, to put the above into current vernacular: Look, Nazis are back.
      Evans marches through myths about animals, the tendency to anthropomorphize them and project all sorts of human qualities, like "chivalry," upon them. For instance, the once-popular idea that oysters take cues from a dynamic leader.
     Moving on to human follies, we encounter some current in the immediate post-World War II era, now entirely forgotten: women war workers worrying that welding would make them sterile, or they might become pregnant by handling the material that went into fire extinguishers. Earlier, women were told they could conceive after bathing in a tub that a man had used. We also explore the long history of women claiming to give birth to animals; litters of rabbits, for instance.
     The book builds toward that most pernicious form of ignorance, then and now: bigotry, demolishing untruths about black people (Evans shocked his contemporaries by taking Ralph Bunche to lunch at the Northwestern Club). It makes for squeamish reading, as Evans outlines beliefs so vile we can hardly bear to articulate them nowadays. Then it's on to Jews, and the general tendency to embrace what flatters your biases and reject what doesn't. Turns out this did not begin with Trump either.
     "Many tests have been devised to determine whether race and intelligence can be correlated," Evans writes. "And those who believe that they can and that the  white race is intellectually superior to all other races have seized with triumph upon those results that support heir belief, while rejecting with indignation those that do not." 
     Evans shares a quote from John Stuart Mill the particularly resonates: "Of all the vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences."
     Good thing we've put that nonsense behind us.
     He concludes by pointing out that while a minor error can be amusing, "no error is harmless," particularly when related to groups of people and affairs of state.
     "Obscurantism and tyranny go together as naturally as skepticism and democracy," he writes. "Belief is the antithesis to thinking. A refusal to come to an unjustified conclusion is an element of an honest man's religion."
    Evans died in Highland Park in 1978. You can read his very interesting New York Times obituary here. He was once a presence on television as well.
      Since I began with the opening lines of the book, let me conclude with its final sentiments. There is no need for me to underscore their current aptness. Take the average person:
      In being asked to believe without evidence, he is being asked to abdicate his integrity. Freedom of speech and freedom of action are meaningless without freedom to think. And there is no freedom of thought without doubt. The civilized man has a moral obligation to be skeptical, to demand the credentials of all statements that claim to be facts. An honorable man will not be bullied by a hypothesis. For in the last analysis all tyranny rests on fraud, on getting someone to accept false assumptions, and any man who for one moment abandons or suspends the questioning spirit has for that moment betrayed humanity.
    Sorry, I have to highlight that one line: "All tyranny rests on fraud." Ain't that the truth?

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Old Books from my Library #6: The Secrets of the Great City

    Is this book thing getting old? Maybe.  Then again, today is Day Six, and were this "Kama Sutra  Week," I suspect that by Day Six reader interest in unusual sex positions might be flagging. So what hope can old books have?
      But it's Saturday, so I'll leave you with the title page of what is the oldest book in my library, Edward Winslow Martin's* 1868 The Secrets of the Great City: A Work Descriptive of the Virtues and the Vices, The Mysteries, Miseries and Crime of New York City.
     It is a textbook example of 19th century lasciviousness disguised as virtue (a dynamic, now that I think of it, that has continued with ease into the 21st century). Few self-respecting Victorians would sit down to savor the goings-on within brothels and clip-joints without first sprinkling a few shakes of moral censure over their repast. We aren't ogling "the darker sides of city life," oh no no no, we are investigating them and learning what to avoid. Reading what Martin dubs "a simple narration of actual facts ... designed to warn the thousands who visit the city against the dangers and pitfalls into which their curiosity or vice may lead them." These are the places you shouldn't go, the stuff you shouldn't do. 
     "It hoped that those who read the book will heed its warnings."
     So yes, we get public parks and schools, the newspapers and investment houses of this teeming city of over one million souls. But that's mere smokescreen; then we're off to the business at hand, in chapters with titles such as "Poor Girls" and "The Street Boys" (not sure why males get the definite article that females are denied. More important perhaps). "The Social Evil" "Assignation Houses" "Street Walkers" "Dance Houses" "Thieves" "Divorce Lawyers" "Swindlers in General"—you get the idea. 
     I should probably give a sense of the writing style. A typical foray into Gotham by "a beautiful maiden, born in a village on the Sound," pure as the driven snow, "reared in innocence and virtue until she reaches her seventeenth year" and makes the fatal mistake of visiting New York City for the first time:
      She is dazzled with its theatres, its balls, its Central Park, the Broadway confuses and intoxicates her, but opera has divine charms for her musical ear and she is escorted night after night by a man with a pleasing face and a ready tongue. .. She is persuaded to take a glass of champagne. She is finally persuaded to drink an entire bottle of champagne. That night the world is torn from under her feet. She has tasted the apple of death.
     Pregnancy and ruin quickly follow. She struggles as a seamstress or a dry-goods clerk, but is only postponing her inevitable plunge into the river (almost needless to say, with a cry of "Mother") from whence she will be dragged out, days later, "a mere greenish mass of festering corruption."
     The male version of this transit, which I will spare you, is amply illustrated on the title page, above, which was the real reason I bought the book—I think I paid $1 for it in a threadbare shop. I gave a framed color photocopy as a parting gift to a friend who was heading to New York to work for a newspaper, and posted it on my older son's Facebook page when he headed off to NYU. So far he seems to be heeding its warning and avoiding the company of The Fancy. 

   
* The author of such lurid fare—this book was "not for sale in the book store" and could only be purchased by subscription—would not use his actual name. Edward Winslow Martin was a pseudonym for James D. McCabe, a Virginian, born in 1842 and educated at the Virginia Military Institute. He served the Confederacy during the Civil War, and wrote some 30 books, including guidebooks, plays, a collection of religious martyrs, plus biographies, including one of Robert E. Lee, whom he corresponded with.



         

Friday, July 26, 2019

Old Books from My Library #5: Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases



     
     abandoned hope
     abated pride
     abbreviated visit
     abhorred thraldom

      I can't remember what possessed me to purchase Grenville Kleiser's FIFTEEN THOUSAND USEFUL PHRASES, saddled with the enormous subtitle: A PRACTICAL HANDBOOK OF PERTINENT EXPRESSIONS, STRIKING SIMILES, LITERARY, COMMERCIAL, CONVERSATIONAL, AND ORATORICAL TERMS, FOR THE EMBELLISHMENT OF SPEECH AND LITERATURE, AND THE IMPROVEMENT OF THE VOCABULARY OF THOSE PERSONS WHO READ, WRITE, AND SPEAK ENGLISH.
      I do know that I've had the book over 40 years, for a reason I will get to, eventually.  
     My hunch is that, as a young man, I was taken by the pure striving quality of the thing. Here were Useful Phrases, Significant Phrases, Felicitous Phrases, Impressive Phrases, according to the table of contents, which Kleiser calls a "Plan of Classification." Some had become hackneyed cliches, some were just strange. 

fly to platitudes
foredoomed to failure
given to extravagance
ground to atoms
harassed to death
hostile to progress 

    Some were useful. "Fly to platitudes"—I kinda like that. Though I didn't buy it so I could apply myself to its program of study, where Kleiser, writing in 1917, urges his student to read pages of the phrases aloud, then underline those that resonate—in pencil, naturally—and eventually copy out phrases out in their own handwriting. The fact the book cost $2.45, according to the figure penciled inside the front cover, might have entered into it. 
     "This exercise is a great aid in developing a facile English style," he writes.

     Swift as a swallow heading south
     Swift as lightening
     Swift as the panther in triumph
     Swifter than the twinkling of an eye.

     Maybe because I was learning to write myself, gazing at papers spattered with comments in red pen. The book seemed to have the aura of all those who had gone before me, earnest young men in their high celluloid collars and green eyeshades. There is one instruction of Kleiser's that I did take to heart and practice, not at his behest, I believe, but coincidentally—I do sometimes tuck away phrases encountered in my reading that might be useful in a column someday. Or as Kleiser urges:
     "As an enthusiastic student of good English, you should carefully note striking and significant phrases or literary expressions which you find in your general reading. These should be set down in a note-book reserved for this exclusive purpose."
     That's habit is what led to my last book (last in the sense of "most recent" and, I'm beginning to suspect, "final") "Out of the Wreck I Rise: A Literary Companion to Recovery," written with Sara Bader. Alcoholics Anonymous wasn't exactly floating my boat, particularly the writings, which had a tang of 1930s Boy Scout Handbook. But in my own reading, I would encounter sentiments that I found powerful, and would either mark them with a Post-It or jot them down. So Kleiser was obviously onto something. He wrote books on writing, speaking, self-improvement.
     The book, I've just discovered, had a certain notoriety in the Internet age, being at times the most downloaded volume on Project Gutenberg, an early online publisher of out-of-copyright volumes.  Why? According to writer Phil Edwards:
It’s the perfect resource for modern spammers using a technique called word salad. Spammers found his book and started downloading it in droves.Word salad spammers use random phrases to get past spam security filters, because your spam filter sees these legitimate phrases as indicators of a real message (though, in the case of spam, they never are). Kleiser’s book is the perfect resource for spammers: vetted phrases that are already sorted into a separated list.
     There's an irony for you. This use of Kleiser's phrases by spambots to defeat filters was the exact opposite to the personal touch that Kleiser offered—and I think this is my favorite part of the book—hidden deep on the list of his books opposite the title page.  The first 13 are similar titles—"HOW TO BUILD MENTAL POWER" and "HOW TO SPEAK IN PUBLIC" and "HOW TO ARGUE AND WIN" and such. 
     But that 14th, well, let me share it in its entirety:
     "GRENVILLE KLEISER'S PERSONAL LESSONS IN PUBLIC SPEAKING and the Development of Self-Confidence, Mental Power, and Personality. Twenty-five lessons with special handbooks, side-talks, personal letters, etc. Write for terms."
     "Personal letters, etc." The great man, himself, former instructor of public speaking at Yale Divinity School (for just two years, apparently) would help you, directly, writing letters to you, Mr. Striving Individual, to aid in your quest to attain self-confidence and a personality, for a fee to be determined privately.
      I don't know why I loved that, but I did. It was so small ball, and augured our current moment, when most writers from Stephen King on down are shaking hands and trading slaps with readers, one-on-one, on Twitter and half a dozen other platforms. 
     
     tainted with fraud
     teeming with life
     tense with expectancy
     thrill with excitement 

     So how do I know that I've had the book at least 40 years? That's easy. Freshman year at college, I briefly drew a comic strip for the Daily Northwestern. I turned it in, had it accepted, and all that was left was to come up with a name for the strip, a task that overwhelmed my 18-year-old self. I dithered, and suddenly the first strip, and its title, were due. In a panic, I consulted my Kleiser, which I imagine I did not bring from home, but must have purchased, probably at the newly-opened Bookman's Alley. There, in the left hand column of page 54 between "taciturn magnanimity" and "tameless energy" is the phrase "tactical niceties." Something about that resonated with me, and I named the strip, which didn't last more than a dozen installments, "Tactical Niceties."

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Old Books from my Library #4: Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms.

     We do not live in a time of nuance. 
     That might be the understatement of the year. 
     Gross insults pinball around Twitter. A hundred million blowhards firing their blunderbusses of bullshit in every direction as fast as they can load 'em up. Aiming is an esoteric nicety. Not to forget the ringmaster of our circus of naked spite, our president, who hourly issues statements that are monosyllabic and crude, fractured and false.
      Then again, 1942 was not a time of nuance either, but of terror bombings and mass murder. We forget that, bad as this is, there are many Hells below this one, and 1942 was a deep and hot one. Yet G. & C. Merrian Co. of Springfield, Massachusetts nevertheless felt confident bringing out Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms. There words are defined, not singularly, but in context with each other, allowing for gradations of shading and significance to be discussed. Of course I love it.
     What, for instance, is the difference between baggage and luggage? Never thought to ask, right? Turns out to be regional, at least once upon a time.
     "Baggage is the usual term in the United States in the United States and in Canada, and luggage in Great Britain," the book explains. "However, baggage is occasionally used in Great Britain in its older sense of army equipment that is being moved (in a baggage, or supply, train) and luggage is coming into common use in the United States as a collective term for trunks, valises, suitcase, and the like."        The third term, impediments "is used humorously in all English-speaking countries for baggage or luggage regarded as an encumbrance," and since that is an dusty anachronism, as far as I can tell—at least I've never heard that usage—it is a reminder that the book is 77 years old, and thus limited in its trustworthiness, as its failure to include the current popular usage of baggage as referring to one's emotional and social past is an indication. I'd almost suggest that's the first definition, the answer to "I've got some baggage with me," being "Well, maybe you should see a therapist." 
    Despite this liability, just because a reference is dated does not mean it isn't useful, as any fan of Samuel Johnson's 1755 dictionary knows. The baggage definition goes on to include "Minx, hussy, wench," which would be useful in, say, critiquing the libretto of "My Fair Lady," where Henry Higgins sings, somewhat mysteriously to modern ears: "Should I take her in? Or throw the baggage out?" 
      Considering the way we media sorts have twisted ourselves into pretzels trying to find the ideal word to describe the president's addiction to saying things that are not true, I of course gravitated toward lie, falsehood, untruth, fib, story to see what illumination might be found there.
     "Lie is usually felt to be a term of extreme opprobrium because it implies a flat and unquestioned contradiction of the truth, and an intent to deceive or mislead." That last part, intent, is key; the speaker's knowledge that what he is saying is false is essential for the lie, or as Webster's notes with an illustrative quote from Johnson: "He lies, and he knows he lies."       
     This raises a quandary. As frequently as I refer to Trump as a liar—it's one of the trio of essential qualities I use as a shorthand, "liar, bully and fraud" a synecdoche to represent his far flung galaxy of sins, I do sometimes sincerely wonder if I am being unfair. Does Trump actually know what he is saying is untrue? Or, indeed, does he know anything at all, or just randomly utter statements depending on the situation with no concern about their veracity or memory of contrary stands he has taken, sometimes minutes before? If he actually believes the veracity of whatever words happen to be tumbling out of his flapping lips or, more likely, spinning off his fluttering fingers, can he really be said to be lying at all? Is a lunatic who claims to be Napoleon lying? I'm not sure.
     Falsehood is a much milder term, "not only less censorious than lie, but it is also wider in its range of application. The term may or may not imply sinfulness or criminality, for it applies not only to lies of any degree, but to fictions, such as literary fictions, polite fictions, some legal fictions, and the like."
     Hmmm....the book showing its age again. I'm not sure "falsehood" would ever be applied to literary fiction anymore. It's just not the vernacular. But still, there is value here. For instance: "Fib is colloquial, often childishly colloquial, term for an untruth or for a trivial falsehood." 
    We might have struck on something. Except for the trivial part—Trump's lies are often vastly significant—the elementary of immaturity in "fib" might be just he thing for our current president.  Plus "fib" is very short: a good headline word. "Trump fibs rib libs" seems like a headline worth having in your back pocket for future use.  
     The problem with a book like this is knowing where to stop. The definition immediately above lie also applies to our current political scene: lickspittle, defined as "parasite, sycophant, toady, hanger-on, leech, sponge, favorite."     
     But were I to start trying to suss out whether Rudy Giuliani is more of a sycophant or a toady, or whether Alan Dershowitz is better described as a hanger-on or a leech, we'd be here all day. And the point of these is to do less work than my actual newspaper job, not more. I think it's about time to get back into the paper. This relaxation is hard work.
     

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Old Books from my Library #3: Prejudices: Third Series



     It seems almost too easy to write about H.L. Mencken. Not to mention unnecessary. I mean, well, duh, who doesn't already know? 
     Lots of people, no doubt. And besides, awareness is not the issue. Even the most ardent fan, aka me, can benefit from the occasional prod, a reminder to dive back into the oeuvre. The fact is, that Henry Louis Mencken is one of those rarest of writers whose work defies time or place, someone worthy of constant study, whose life and work merits continual  contemplation. I'd say if I had to list my favorite authors, I'd rank them as 1. Samuel Johnson; 2. Dante Alighieri; 3. H.L. Mencken, and those three alone could easily occupy me between retirement and the grave.
     The Mencken books I use most often are not his most popular: "The American Language" plus its two supplements are valuable and unique reference works, true acts of scholarship, providing a deep dive into our nation's language and, by necessity, history and rituals. They are joined by Mencken's "A New Dictionary of Quotations" which I find useful when I am trying to find thoughts on subjects beyond the commonplace bruited about in Bartlett's and online. 
     I could have revisited his marvelous trio memoirs, "Happy Days," "Heathen Days" and "Newspaper Days," the latter consisting of the best illustrative story that a budding journalist could receive. (Applying to the city editor of the Baltimore Morning Herald the day after his father's funeral, Mencken, 18 and with no newspaper experience whatsoever, is told to go away, but looks so crestfallen that the editor has pity on him and tells him he may return the next day to see if anything is needed. He does, every day, for the next two weeks, with no result, until the 14th day, when he is told "Go out to Govanstown, and see if anything is happening there. We are supposed to have a Govanstown correspondent, but he hasn't been heard from for six days." And so his career began. 
     But for our purposes today I decided to flip open "Prejudices: Third Series." A handsome book, published in March of 1923, making it nearly a century old.  Which would make it dated, for most other writers, who have trouble offering up something relevant the moment it's published, never mind a thought that rings true 96 years later.   
    I did so, I should add, without any preconception of what is in it. I wasn't looking for a particular passage, just began on the first chapter, "On Being an American," confident that my efforts would not be in vain. Mencken's genius is such that his direct, sharp, pointed prose is certain to offer up gems in the first shovelful.  
    He did not disappoint; I never made it past the first chapter. I didn't have to.
    Are you puzzled by the Paul Ryans and Lindsey Grahams of our country? Once moral men who abandoned every one of their supposed values in order to service the liar, bully and fraud currently occupying the Oval Office? Not to forget all the Chris Christies and the other bootlickers and lackeys who traded whatever reputation they might have once had for a brief bask in the orange glow? How could that happen? Mencken explains that on page 18:
     Here is a country in which all political thought and activity are concentrated upon the scramble for jobs—in which the normal politician, whether he be President or a village road supervisor, is willing to renounce any principle, however precious to him, and to adopt any lunacy, however offensive to him, in order to keep his place at the trough.
    In that first chapter, "On Being an American," Mencken makes observations which even today's band of TV fireballers are too narrow to imagine and too timid to articulate even if the could. Yes, we are a nation of immigrants, Mencken agrees. But who were those immigrants who established our country?
     Third-rate men, of course, exist in all countries, but it is only here that they are in full control of the state, and with it of all the national standards. The land was peopled, not by the hardy adventurers of legend, but simply by incompetents who could not get on at home, and the lavishness of nature that they found here, the vast ease with which they would get livings, confirmed and augmented their native incompetence....
     Mencken was not perfect, but a man of his era, and therefore prone to the same faults—his own prejudices, a leaning toward the eugenic claptrap popular at the time. And he certainly suffered from pro-German myopia that kept him on the sidelines when Mr. Hitler arrived. But even a man given to contempt took the spin that Donald Trump puts on immigration now—that Mexico is not sending her "best people"—and gave it a novel twist that seems a far more accurate shade of reality: that none of our forebears of any nationality or race were the best people:
     The truth is that that majority of non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants since the Revolution, like the majority of Anglo-Saxon immigrants before the Revolution, have been, not the superior men of their native lands, but the botched and unfit: Irishmen starving to death in Ireland, Germans unable to weather the Sturm und Drang* of the post-Napoleonic reorganization, Italians weed-grown on exhausted soil, Scandinavians run to all bone and no brain, Jews too incompetent to swindle even the barbarous peasants of Russia, Poland and Romania...the average newcomer is, and always has been simply a poor fish.
     PC? No. An intriguing and possibly spot-on observation? I suspect so. That's something of the attitude embraced by Australians—"We're ALL dregs!"—and it's a shame that Americans, so desperate to scrape together some shred of self-respect by elevating themselves above any random stranger, can't do the same. 
      I could go on quoting Mencken all day, claiming that we need him now more than ever. Then again, we always do. One more example, from the same essay the previous quotes are taken from.  He is arguing that the traditional attitudes of the European peasant "are, with a few modifications, the habits of mind of the American people." Enjoy:
     The peasant has a great practical cunning, but he is unable to see any further than the next farm. He likes money and knows how to amass property, but his cultural development is but little above that of the domestic animals. He is intensely and cocksurely moral, but his morality and his self-interest are crudely identical. He is emotional and easy to scare, but his imagination cannot grasp an abstraction. He is a violent nationalist and patriot, but he admires rogues in office and always beat the tax-collector if he can. He has immovable opinions about all the great affairs of state, but nine-tenths of them are sheer imbecilities. He is violently jealous of what he conceives to be his rights, but brutally disregardful of the other fellow's. He is religious, but his religion is wholly devoid of beauty and dignity....He exists in all countries, but here alone he rules—here alone his anthropoid fears and rages are accepted gravely as logical ideas and dissent from them is punished a a sort of public offense.    
     I don't want to minimize the danger or crisis of the Trump administration, and certain aspects are, I believe, developments new and unwelcome in the wide sweep of American history: a president openly courting our enemies while glibly alienating our friends, a president consciously whipping up hatreds in a bald, brainless, shameful attempt to bolster his own popularity among his duped followers, a president suffering from a blend of staggering ignorance bolstered by bottomless self-regard. That is all true, an enormous magnification of whatever corollaries can be found in past presidents, and an augury of worse to come. But still, in many respects, the Trump tragedy is not so much a new disaster as a reversion to past patterns of operation, as Mencken so vividly reminds us. We've had this Carnival of Cretinism before. There might be some small comfort in that: as bad as this is, we have endured it in the past and survived. Maybe we can do so again.  

* Sturm und Drang = storm and strife

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Old Books from my Library #2: Secret Chambers & Hiding Places



     We are not only the champions of our books, pressing particular titles on friends who might benefit from them, but we are also their protectors. A book is hardy, but also a vulnerable confection of paper and cloth binding, ink and photos and marble endpapers. A book should be shelved securely but not too tightly, guarded from bright sunlight, insects and careless tots.
     I consider myself as fierce a guardian of books as can be. But the human vessel is flawed, and once I lapsed. When we moved to this old farmhouse in Northbrook, one book, separated from the others, ended up in a box of magazine story notes stored in our basement. Our wet basement. Our wet basement that sometimes floods.
    The waters had subsided and drained away. I was drawing soggy sheafs of papers out of a sagging cardboard box when I came upon "Secret Chambers and Hiding-Places: The Historic, Romantic & Legendary Stories & Traditions About Hiding-Holes, Secret Chambers, Etc." by Allan Fea.
     I had bought it for an article on secret rooms and hidden passageways I had written for Games magazine—that's why it was with the notes. I can't convey the grief that cracked across my heart when I lifted the spongey, dripping, swollen thing.  My fault.
    Ironically, that story was the first time that I had used an electronic search, a set of  a dozen newspaper story titles on CD-Rom discs at Northwestern library, finding news articles about pot-growing rooms hidden in Cook County Forest Preserve buildings. I remember being so enamored with the possibilities that I called the company that sold the discs. It might be a trick of memory, but I recall the set being $3,000, but they might have been $3,000 apiece. I remember ordering my next computer, a Dell, without a CD-rom port thinking, "What's the point?" It was early 1992. 
     The Secret Chambers book was ruined, the cover warped and twisting back. The thing to do was throw it out. But the book was also published in 1901 on fine, ragstock paper and, frankly, I hadn't the heart. It was my book, I was responsible for it, and I had to save it, or at least try. I fanned the book open, then inserted typing paper between the pages and clamped it shut, under pressure and started searching, eventually coming up with Grimm Book Bindery of Madison, Wisconsin, a company in operation since 1854.
     It was, I recall, a lot of money to repair—$100 is the figure that sticks in memory—but I took it as penance, punishment to expiate the sin of being careless with a book. I mailed the volume away, and was thrilled with the result, it's deep blue cover embossed in letters of gold.
     I've never consulted the book since then, but doing so now, it is as I remember it, with chapter headings such as "Chapter XI: Mysterious Rooms, Deadly Pits, Etc." and "Chapter XIII: "Concealed Doors, Subterranean Passages, Etc."
     Who wouldn't want to read those?
     In all honesty, reading the book can be fairly heavy lifting—one story after another of the details of sliding panels in old English manor houses now long gone. Not a lot of narrative arc, as we wordies like to call it. 
     The book's main focus is British history, particular its bloody religious persecution, and the necessity of "priest's holes" where closet Catholics could stow their clerics and sacramental objects when the soldiers came busting in, sometimes staying for days at a time, ripping down paneling and searching for what had to be particularly well-concealed refuge (sustaining the terrified and starving priest during these long searches was a challenge, sometimes surmounted by tiny holes, where a hollow reed could be inserted and broth or marmalade blown through). Hiding places used by architects of the Gunpowder Plot are examined at length.
     The famous flight of Charles II after Cromwell's victory in 1651 is, regrettably, given short shrift, with Fea referring readers to his book on the subject, "The Flight of the King." More is made of his brother James II's peregrinations, involving secret staircases and dead-of-night escapes. And some attention to the travels of various Jacobites.
    Because these hiding places were, needless to say, hidden, they sometimes acted as time capsules, and it was not unknown for them to be found, containing clothing of a century past, strewn across an unmade bed in a precipitous flight long ago.  An example:
    A weird story clings to the ruins of Minister Lovel Manor House, Oxfordshire, the ancient seat of the Lords Lovel. After the battle of Soke, Francis, the last Viscount, who had sided with the cause of Simmel against King Henry VII, fled back to his house in disguise, but from the night of his return was never seen or heard of again, and for nearly two centuries his disappearance remained a mystery. in the meantime the manor house had been dismantled and the remains tenanted by a farmer; but a strange discovery was made in the year 1708. A concealed vault was found, and in it, seated before a table, with a prayer-book lying open upon it, was the entire skeleton of a man. In the secret chamber were certain barrels and jars which had contained food sufficient to last perhaps some weeks; but the mansion having been seized by the King, soon after the unfortunate Lord Lovel is supposed to have concealed himself, the probability is that, unable to regain his liberty, the neglect or treachery of a servant or tenant brought about his tragic end.
    You can read the book free on-line, by the way. Or buy a reprint for $15 or so on Amazon. The Grimm Book Bindery remains in Madison, and I phoned Charles Grimm, fifth generation book binder, to check in with him.
     "We get quite a few damaged books every week,' he said. "A fair amount of them Bibles." Though more and more they are repairing old and worn children's books.
     "Boomers are moving on in life and want to leave stuff for their grandchildren," Grimm said.
      While hurt books are common, soaked ones are not. 
     "Water-logged, not too often, thank God," he said.  Grimm suggested that if a book does become soaked, the best thing to do is what I did: put sheets of paper between the pages and press it while the paper absorbs the water.
    ""One the pages start sticking together, the real horror begins," he said.
     This is Grimm's busy seasons right now—they have to bring on extra staff. Can you guess why? I couldn't. No, not because of heavy rain. Rather, because of text books being reconditioned for school in the fall.
      "Text books are shot and rebinding text books is not nearly as expensive as investing in a new copy."
       Which raises an interesting question: why, with newspaper and magazines struggling to survive, do text books continue to be both very costly and prevalent? Because not every child in America has an iPad yet? That must be it. A topic for another day.
   
  

Monday, July 22, 2019

Old Books from My Library #1: "Amusements for Invalids"

"In which I assumed all responsibility for what was to take place." 

     I need a new series here while I'm on the mend, and given the necessity of spending most of the day on the sofa with heat packs bunched under my neck, I've had to come up with something easy to write and, I hope, pleasant to read. 
     Toward that end, I've struck on a week I'm calling "Old Books from My Library." Titles that I've cherished for decades, which you've almost certainly never heard about. This seemed the most apt way to begin.

      Hospital stays used to be epic adventures of weeks and months. Now they can be very quick affairs. The first surgeon I consulted about my neck said the work could be done out-patient, and only as the full scope, danger and delicacy of the situation emerged did the surgery become more complicated and I ended up spending nearly four days at  Northwestern Memorial.
      Back in the days when long stays were the rule, there was a species of books intended to be given to convalescents. I used to have a nice little collection of these books, mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, filled with jokes, some quite racist, and puzzles and Boy Scout quality projects to be completed abed.  
        One is "Speaking of Operations," a 1926 effort by now-forgotten humorist Irvin S. Cobb. It's still quite readable and— file this under the "Change, How Nothing Does"—there's a bit, complete with illustration, involving the ritualistic pre-surgery indemnification. A doctor quizzes the patient, making "a few inquiries of a pointed and personal nature" and then "immediately after that he made me sign a paper in which I assumed all responsibility for what was to take place the next morning."
       Another is a large volume called, naughtily, "Fun in Bed,' a 1932 carnival of distractions edited by Frank Scully, replete with short stories and jokes. Now that hospital stays are measured in hours, I got a kick out of a section in the book titled "My Diary." It begins "My First Day" and ends, optimistically, "My Eighteenth Day."
     The book was a great success, leading to "More Fun in Bed" and even "Fun in Bed for Children," which begins with a note "For Mother and Father": "This book is intended to answer the small patient's questions: 'What can I do now?')
      My copy of Scully has flown, along with a few others. I took giving my collection away to convalescent friends—they seem to strike the proper tone of uniqueness and thumbing your nose at illness. I gave "Fun in Bed" to Roger Ebert when was recovering from his surgeries at the Chicago Rehab Institute. He adored books, already had about everything in the world he wanted already, and I told myself that he'd enjoy the arcaneness of the thing, its instruction on how to make birdhouses and sealing wax novelties. Maybe he even did; he impulsively grabbed a copy of Sherlock Holmes he had been reading and inscribed it to my boys. He was that kind of guy, more generous on his worst day than most people are on their best.
      One book that I could never bring myself to give to anyone, for obvious reasons, is "Amusement of Invalids" by Mary Woodman, subtitled, "Countless Ways of Turning Dullness into Happiness," published by the Frederick A. Stokes Company. It begins in a pleasingly direct manner that has more than a whiff of self-promotion. The Preface, in its entirety, reads:
     An illness is an irksome business, but it need not be made a time of thorough misery by indulging in absolute inactivity. There are a thousand and one ways of banishing monotony and deriving pleasure from misfortune, as is plainly shown in these pages.  If, among your friends, there is one who has the misfortune to be an invalid, send him or her a copy of this book. It will be the means of providing many rays of sunshine.
    Today we have Netflix for that. But this book, published in 1929, gives the rudiments of working leather and cutting silhouettes, doing beadwork and learning to sketch. The complexities of stamp collecting are explained, along with more dubious arts such as palmistry and understanding a person's character through the study of handwriting—quite the fad in the 1920s. The bedridden are encouraged not only to learn to play the banjo, but to attempt to construct one himself abed.
      There is a chapter on how to listen to the radio: "When you have fixed up your set and have recovered from the first shock of delight, study the subject of wireless more deeply."Chapter 21 is about making fancy boxes. 
     A commercial imperative runs through the book. Woodman not only expects you to pass the time productively, but to profit from your activities. Those bead necklaces and candies you're making? Sell them! ""They can be turned into a source of revenue, and naturally, there are not many ways in which an invalid can make easy money." 
    "Here is a chance for all invalids to improve their mental value in the commercial world," she writes. The apex of this, for me, is chapter IV, "Fretwork," where the indefatigable Woodman instructs her invalid to set up a stepladder next to his sickbed, clamp a work surface to it, and set to making fretwork—decorative lattices of wood—using drills, saws and files.
     Chapter XXII is entitled "How to Write Poetry," and as writing decent poetry is a tremendous, almost impossible, challenge, even among established poets,  it caught my particular attention. The chapter contains a phrase certain to shatter the heart of the stoutest blogger today—"Payment for acceptable verse rules high..." I think maybe she meant "runs," or perhaps that's a British usage.
     Flowers, love, absence or death are dismissed as potential poetic topics, being hackneyed themes "done thousands of times" and of little interest to modern editors. 
     The trickiness of rhyme is addressed—"thought" rhymes with "dough" but not with "cough," despite appearances. Alliteration is a poet's friend, "Artful Aids to Beauty" and Mighty Mimic of Mankind" are offered with approval as examples to "be studied carefully."  Poetic license seems to consist of the occasional contraction, "over" into "o'er."
      The book was first published in Great British—the chapter after poetry, on using your recovery to become a professional short story writer, has the large checks sent by grateful editors in pounds instead of dollars. I tried longer than I should have to find any kind of biographical information on Mary Woodman, and bumped into several reviews, from publications such as The Trained Nurse and Hospital Review. She was taken seriously. The March 10, 1930 Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer decrees, "Anyone who has to look after a not too seriously ill invalid will find some useful suggestions in Amusements for Invalids."
    Otherwise, a brick wall. The British Library has a "chat service" where, mirabile dictu, you are instantly connected to an actual researcher. He provided me with a list of Woodman's books held by the British Library, from "Efficient Housekeeping" to "100 Varieties of Sandwiches: How to Prepare Them" to "How to Make Artificial Flowers."
     But did not, however, answer my question about Woodman's life (now that I think of it, maybe I was interacting with some form of artificial intelligence). He (or should it be it?) did refer me, as a certified hard case, to what they call a Reference Enquiry Team. I appealed to them for whatever biographical scrap they could uncover. They have promised to respond within five business days. They've got two left. 
     Until then, time to move on to the current world. 
     Lest we smile to much at Woodman's quaint suggestions, a regular reader this morning offered me the following unsolicited advice. 
     "Learn a magic trick," Steve Temkin urged in a text. "There's no shortage of available online instruction and you don't need anything more than a deck of cards or some coins..." He offered some suggestions for books or videos.
    No need. I have my Woodman at hand. 
    Admittedly, I approached "Chapter IX--Tricks With Cards" with a shiver of dread--I am notoriously bad at magic tricks. Were there anyone who read or remembered my second book, "Complete and Utter Failure," they would know it begins with my humiliating attempt to perform a simple trick as a small child. Let's just say it was not my forte.
     Despite this handicap, I tried to learn a few magic tricks before my first son was born, out of the perhaps charming, perhaps unhinged notion that of course magic tricks were necessary skills a new dad should have at his disposal to captivate and delight his offspring. I failed utterly. 
    This was no different. I gingerly navigated downstairs and secured a pack of cards, and sawed through passages like "Take any odd number of cards which is a multiple of three (e.g. nine, fifteen, twenty-one, twenty-seven). Deal them face upwards in three heaps, asking a spectator to note one card and to tell you in which heap it is. Pick up the heaps, with the indicated heap between the other two, and repeat the process twice. When you spectator points to a heap for the third time, you may know that his chosen card is the middle one of the heap..."
      To no avail. 
     Still, I hope by now the attraction of old books is clear. I could select half a dozen novels published this week and none would offer an image as poignant as Woodman's 1930s invalid, propped on pillows on an iron bed. The windows, open to admit a breeze, relay the sirens and horns and hubbub from the busy street below, while our patient, tongue in the corner of his mouth with concentration, goes at fretwork with a wood file. Nor of myself for that matter, sitting unusually straight in my office chair, thickly ruffling through a pack of cards, failing utterly to clutch at the magic that has eluded me all my life.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Rabbit vs. squirrel


     Do-overs are rare in photography. If the Hindenburg explodes while you're still loading film into your Speed-Graphic, well, tough. It's not like you can show up at Lakehurst the next day and hope for a second chance.
      So a couple weeks ago, when I missed out on taking documentary evidence of the rabbit vs. squirrel struggle over seeds scattered beneath the bird feeder outside my kitchen window—amazement rendered me inert—I never dreamt a second chance would occur. 
     But occur it did, Saturday, with my younger son announcing that they were back at it, and I sprinted to the window in time to photograph some of the action. Had I been thinking I'd have switched to video, to capture the distinctive hopping behavior of the bunny. But I'm satisfied that I got something. 
     There may be scientific literature on combat between rabbits and squirrels, but I'll be damned if I can find it. I did run across a charming 2008 children's tale, "Rabbit & Squirrel: A Tale of War & Peas" by Kara LaReau, illustrated by Scott Magoon, where the two, both gardeners, come to blows over a dispute involving missing vegetables: 
     "You've ruined my garden, and my house!" cried Rabbit, giving Squirrel a push. "You are my sworn enemy!"
     "Well, you've ruined my garden, so you deserved it," said Squirrel, giving Rabbit a push. "You are my sworn enemy."
From "Rabbit & Squirrel" illustration courtesy of Scott Magoon
     The only other rabbit/squirrel conflict I could find is alluded to in Watership Down, Richard Adams' improbable best-selling 1972 leporine epic. The despotic General Woundwart "fought rats, magpies, gray squirrels and, once, a crow" before finally flinging himself at a dog, with the expected result. 
    Otherwise, rabbits and squirrel are mostly on their own, with rabbits by far better represented in popular culture: rabbit ear TV antennas, the Playboy Bunny, a popular vibrator. The once-common euphemism for pregnancy, "The rabbit died," referred to the Friedman test, where a woman's blood was injected into a rabbit, with certain changes in the rabbits' ovaries revealing if she were pregnant. Though rabbit didn't die, it was killed, to check its ovaries to see if the structural changes were present that would be caused by hormones in a pregnant woman's blood. So, pregnant or not, the rabbit ended up dead. A common occurrence—rabbits are one of the most hunted mammals in North America, and some species are considered endangered. 
      Literature clearly favors rabbits—Flopsy, Peter Rabbit, Pat the Bunny, to name a few. Watership Down isn't even the only rabbit-o-centric best-selling novel—John Updike did a series of five Rabbit books (thought that was just the nickname of his main character, Harry Angstrom, given in childhood for "a nervous flutter under his brief nose.") 
     Rabbits also have a significant presence in TV and movies—with Captain Kangaroo's Bun E. Rabbit on the small screen,  to cinema's Harvey, Roger Rabbit, and the killer rabbit in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."  
     Not to forget the top bunny of them all, star of both TV and the movies, Bugs (whose character, some readers might not realize, was a loose take-off on Groucho Marx).  
Laqan kachina
     Squirrels are are far more marginal. No culture has a Christmas Squirrel. Although, the Hopi Pueblo do have a squirrel kachina spirit, Laqan, who, almost needless to say, is known for its "noisy and aggressive behavior" and would "frequently spread gossip, instigate trouble between other animals, or annoy others with their rudeness and bossiness."
     Sounds about right.

     Though to be fair, Native-Americans also honored squirrels as caretakers of the forest, and viewed them as messengers. And despite squirrels twitchy, aggressive, rat-like demeanor,  rabbits seem to carry more disease, including rabbit fever, and in general are greater pests, particularly in Australia.
     I've already gone on record with my hatred of squirrels, and am not surprised that the odious animals are relegated largely to second-tier cartoons: Scrat, the voracious squirrel who I suppose could be considered the star in "Ice Age," Rocky, the Flying Squirrel, from the early 1960s Cold War parody cartoon "Rocky and Bullwinkle," certainly has the intellectual advantage over his dim-witted companion. Not to forget Hammy, voiced by Steve Carrel, in "Over the Hedge," a modest 2006 effect. 
Rupert
      Sick of this yet? I know I am. It's like Vietnam; I've gone in full of good intentions and now can't find my way out. 
     Patience, we're almost there. But I can't let the subject drop ("Please, do, Neil," you're no doubt thinking. "There's always tomorrow.") without mentioning "The Great Rupert," a truly strange bit of black and white B-movie treacle starring Jimmy Durante. The film that hinges on a talented squirrel who befriends a family of down-and-out vaudevillians. Watch this clip of Rupert doing a Scottish jig. Really, take a look. And we think we live in strange times now.
    Ready to cry "uncle"? But wait. Aren't you curious to know how "The Great Rupert" was received at the time? Movie-goers might have been less sophisticated in 1950, but they weren't dolts, right? 
     Or maybe they were.
     "The Great Rupert," now at the Palace, may not be the year's most humorous film..." begins Bosley Crowther's review in the April 14, 1950 New York Times. "...nor is it the last word in slickness, so far as script and production are concerned. But within its acknowledged limitations of the modest, low-budget comedy, it is a wholly ingratiating item."
     Not having viewed the entire movie, nor willing to do so, I'm in no position to argue. The worst thing Crowther calls the "The Great Rupert" is "a little stiff and vaguely amateurish." Which, now that I think of it, is exactly how I'm feeling at the moment. Maybe I—and you—will have better luck tomorrow.