Thursday, September 24, 2015

Simplified Spelling

(This is an excerpt from my current work-in-progress.)

Although Andrew Carnegie was responsible for the creation of United States Steel, the country’s largest trust, he and Theodore Roosevelt, the trustbusting president, maintained a cordial relationship. Their detente was partly due to their shared interest in one of the progressive era’s more quixotic movements, the campaign to simplify spelling. Carnegie was a committed pacifist who believed international relations would be vastly improved if the world spoke a single language. A monoglot globe, he believed, would ultimately lead to “universal peace.” Carnegie was convinced that English could be that language, but for its “contradictory and difficult” orthography. 

Of all the phonetic languages, English is by far the most difficult to spell. That’s because, when the spelling of many words was standardized with the introduction of the printing press in the fifteenth century, Middle English was transforming into Modern English. So, while the pronunciation of many words has changed over the ensuing centuries, the spelling hasn’t. Middle English speakers pronounced the k in knee and the l in talk. We don’t, but we still spell those words as if we did. Same goes for the gh in words in words like night and thought. In Middle English the gh was pronounced as a guttural kh. Over time, the sound was dropped from these words altogether, but the original spelling stuck. 

At the same time, something called the Great Vowel Shift was underway. This changed the way many vowels were pronounced. Sometimes the spelling was changed, sometimes it wasn’t. So so and sew rhyme, while hear and wear don’t. Even as pronunciations changed, often radically, English speakers clung tenaciously to what have become illogical, erratic, and archaic spellings.

Andrew Carnegie was determined to change that. In March 1906, he pledged $75,000 to fund the creation of the Simplified Spelling Board, a panel of thirty “prominent men of affairs as well as men of letters,” including Supreme Court Justice David Josiah Brewer, former Treasury Secretary Lyman Gage, publishing magnate Henry Holt, and author Mark Twain. “They do not intend to urge any violent alteration in the appearance of familiar words,” the New York Times averred after the board was announced. “They wish, in brief, to expedite that process of simplification which has been going on in English, in spite of the opposition of conservatives, ever since the invention of printing, notably in the omission of silent and useless letters.”

In June, the board released a list of the 300 words that were to be simplified first. Most were minor changes that were already coming into common usage, such as dropping the “u” from colour, honour, and labour, and the extraneous final two letters from catalogue and programme. The board also proposed eliminating the double consonants in skillful, waggon, and woollen. But some of the proposed changes were more radical. Words ending in -ed were changed to end in -t: asked became askt, and advanced became advanst. The “ough” letter combination was abandoned almost entirely. Although became altho, borough boro, doughnut donut, thorough thoro, through thru.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

A Long Walk

Still feeling good at this point!
I guess Greg felt guilty, which is why he’d come all the way from Colorado to “crew” me. After all it was he who’d gotten me into this mess in the first place.

Greg is Greg Salvesen, a 28-year-old graduate student in astronomy at the University of Colorado and an elite ultra marathoner. In June 2014, Greg won a 200-mile trail race in Vermont in 61 hours, 46 minutes.

Then he read my book. 

“Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America's Favorite Spectator Sport” is my non-bestseller about a long-distance walking craze in the 19th century. Huge crowds filled arenas like the first Madison Square Garden to watch men and women walk on dirt tracks in races that lasted as long as six days. The winner often covered more than 500 miles. 

Greg sent me an email telling me he’d enjoyed the book and enquiring, almost innocuously, whether I’d ever competed in a long-distance event.

I answered no.

Greg suggested I give one a try, just “for the ‘fun’ of it” and to “get a flavor of just how amazing these pedestrians were.” Specifically he suggested the 24-hour race at Three Days at the Fair, an ultra event held every May at the Sussex County Fairgrounds in northern New Jersey.

I proffered that, while I’d run cross country in high school three decades earlier, I’d never competed in anything more strenuous than a 5K since then. I was 49, not in the best shape in the world, extremely busy, and…

Greg was persistent. “Please don't take this the wrong way or as a challenge,” he emailed. “I just wish to suggest that, in this case, I think experiencing the difficulties that come with traveling a long distance on foot can far outweigh imagining what these pedestrians were going through.”

He was right. Besides, it only seemed fair that I subject myself to a taste of the rigors of old time pedestrians. 

I agreed to give it a try, though I pledged to walk “fair heel and toe,” just like the pedestrians of yore. No running for me! My goal would be 50 miles—about half the distance an elite nineteenth-century walker could cover in a day. 

To my surprise, Greg even offered to crew me. It was like Joe Torre offering to manage a Little League team. A very bad Little League team.

In the meantime, I had to get in shape. I began jogging for the first time in years. In March I ran a 5K. My time was a less-than-blistering 35 minutes, and afterwards I was spent.

It was with great trepidation that I drove up to Jersey from my home in Washington for the event in late May.

Three Days at the Fair is, well, a three-day affair that encompasses 72-, 48-, and 24-hour races. The 72 began on Thursday, the 48 on Friday, and the 24 on Saturday. So when I started my race at 9 a.m., there were competitors already on the mile-long course who’d been at it for two days. Some of them did not look well. It made me fear for my future.

For the first 20 miles or so, however, I felt fresh as a daisy. Greg was stationed in a lawn chair near the quarter-mile mark, and each time I passed him he offered me bananas, or peanut butter sandwiches, or salt pills. Mostly, though, his support was moral: his encouragement was constant. 

For a while I felt like a pitcher with a no-hitter in the sixth inning. I felt like I could walk forever. 

Then I jinxed it by telling Greg that.  

Around Mile 25, my body began to rebel. My gluteus were sore. My calves were sunburned. It started to rain. I suggested to Greg that it might be worthwhile for me to go back to my hotel room, take a nice hot shower, change into nice dry clothes, and resume the race bright eyed and bushy tailed.

“No,” he said, “I think it’s better to stay on the course.” His tone implied that I had no choice in the matter. I stayed.

My shoes were squishy. Blisters began to form on the bottom of my feet. My stride, once spry, grew lumbering. In the 30s, my mind began to wander. I’d suddenly find myself a half-mile along with no memory of getting there.

By now it was evening. To keep my spirits up, Greg would occasionally walk with me for a lap. There was a rodeo at the fairgrounds that night. Greg asked me if I’d ever been to one. I told him I hadn’t. In my stupor I’d walked right into his trap: “So,” he said, “this is your first rodeo.”

A plane dipped low overhead and dropped two skydivers into the fairgrounds. The grandstands erupted in cheers. Things were starting to feel a little surreal. 

Around 11 o’clock that night, when I finished Mile 40, Greg finally went to sleep in the back of his van, leaving me to reach my goal alone. I wished I could go to sleep, too. The rain returned. The time it took me to complete each mile grew longer and longer: 22 minutes, 25 minutes, 28 minutes… 

Around three a.m. I completed my 50th mile. I added a 51st, a tribute to Greg, Then I slumped into Greg’s lawn chair. I intended to continue walking after a short break, but instead fell sound asleep. 

When I awoke a few hours later I could barely move. I struggled to climb the small hill up to Greg’s van. I tapped on the window but he didn’t rouse. I didn’t have the heart to wake him up, so I went back to my hotel.

A week later, Greg won an 888-km (551-mile) race in Vermont, finishing in just under nine days.

I, meanwhile, was back home, content to resume my sedentary life, but grateful for having experienced just a small taste of the pedestrian life.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Mombasa Club

(This is an excerpt from my current work-in-progress.)

A dinner was held in TR’s honor that night at the Mombasa Club, a gentlemanly bastion of British colonialism. Established in 1896, just thirteen months after the British established the protectorate in East Africa, the club was, according to the Africa scholar P.J.L. Frankl, “a home from home for the European-Christians at the top end of the social scale, to the exclusion of all others.” The bylaws explicitly banned “natives, except servants of the club, or servants of the members.” W. Robert Foran, a reporter based in East Africa, recalled that a minimum annual income of £250 was required for entry into the club. The building itself, Foran wrote, “was neither an imposing nor luxurious Club-house.” Its walls were lined with hunting trophies, mounted animal heads mutely testifying to the vigor with which the British would tame this savage land.

After dinner, the protectorate’s acting governor, Frederick Jackson, read a telegram to Roosevelt from King Edward VII: “I bid you a hearty welcome to British East Africa, and I trust that you will have a pleasant time and meet with every success.” As he rose to respond, a military band heralded Roosevelt with a musical flourish. Roosevelt began his remarks by praising the British for “their energy and genius in civilizing the uncivilized places of the earth.” Then he warned his audience that the British could not expect to achieve in a short time in East Africa what had taken several hundred years to accomplish in America. It was a tad presumptuous for the former president of the United States to lecture the British on the inherent difficulties of colonialism: At the time, the United Kingdom controlled a quarter of the earth’s landmass.

 However flabbergasted, the audience was undoubtedly heartened by what TR said next. Citing his own experience with the Philippines, he “emphasized the necessity of leaving local questions to be solved by the authorities on the spot.” Home rule was dear to the hearts of the British residents of East Africa. TR would be visiting England after the safari. The audience surely hoped he would deliver this same message to London.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Only Four Days to Go...

Inspired by the old-time long-distance walkers I wrote about in Pedestrianism, I will be walking in a 24-hour race in New Jersey beginning at nine a.m. this Saturday, May 16th. The race is part of the New Jersey Trail series of races and will take place at the Sussex County Fairgrounds. My goal is to complete 50 miles. The race is also an opportunity for me to raise money for Just Detention, a charity dedicated to ending prison rape. Please consider donating. Click here for more information.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Start spreading the news...

I will be speaking at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library tomorrow (Thursday, April 23) at 6:30 PM. Click here for details. Then I'm off to Springfield, Illinois for appearances at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum on Saturday (April 25) at noon and 2 PM.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

1909 Cartoon: Teddy Roosevelt Arrives in Africa