Monthly Archives: December 2020


We say we don’t like things that are wrong, but in fact we do. We like them in the same way as cats like mice, the same way as hawks like sparrows and the same way as sparrows like snails. In attacking and ablating them we satisfy our hunger. We like errors so much we go out of our way to discern more and more of them by latching onto, and even creating, rules. 

You know it’s true. Hair-splitting distinctions in usage (“You don’t mean persuade, you mean convince!”), grammatical superstitions (“Aigh! That split infinitive is like aluminum foil touching a filling!”), punctuation fetishes (“I could never love a man who uses en-dashes with spaces rather than em-dashes without”)… if we did not adore the bloodlust they inspire and the aggressive acts of correction that follow, we would simply let them slide. We tell ourselves that the adrenal rush we feel at the sight of a perceived error is indignation at a transgression of good and proper order, but putting things back in place requires no sanguinary paroxysm; what we are feeling is what a cat feels at the first sight of a rodent’s tail.

And, as with many a common human feeling that we all know but usually don’t talk about, German has a word for it. German has a reputation for this because German uses single words where English uses whole phrases, and German does this by just sticking whole phrases together and calling them words. It has become a sport among some English speakers to try to confect German words for such excessively human psychological moments. In the case of this word, that is what I did… and then I Googled it, and I found that it truly exists and is used often enough and fully naturally to mean exactly what I hoped it meant. 

Because of course. If any culture is going to have a word for Korrekturlust, we just assume it will be German.

Yes, that’s the word. Korrekturlust. The stress is on the “tur,” not on the “rek,” and if you want to be as close to the German as you can, the u’s should be said as in “tour” (in tur) and “book” (in lust). But I want this word to get borrowed into English, as korrekturlust (because once it’s an English noun it’s not capitalized by default as German nouns are; we write of wanderlust and weltschmerz, where in German those w’s would inspire an immediate desire to make them W’s). So say it as is comfortable for you, because that’s how words make themselves at home.

Korrektur (stress on the “tur”!) means ‘correction’, and I think you can see readily enough that it comes from the same root (Latin correctio). Lust has a broader meaning in German than in English; it means ‘desire’ or ‘joy’ or ‘pleasure’ or ‘satisfaction’. So Korrekturlust means ‘desire to correct’ (and that can imply a very compelling desire) but it can also mean ‘enjoyment of correcting’. And the context of its usage in German clearly shows it as meaning what pedants do – as we see in this little anecdote in which one of the regulars in a pub peeves about seeing an English word on the menu, and the waiter gives a smart reply (which I don’t want to try to translate, as it’s in a regional variety of German and also has a local cultural reference). The author comments,

Damit hatte der Kumpel alle grammatikalischen, orthografischen und sonstigen Spatzen gefangen, die Korrekturlust eines Pedanten besänftigt, den überzeugt und Frieden übers Stammtischleben gebracht.

Which means “With this, Buddy had caught all the grammatical, orthographic and other sparrows, calmed the pedant’s Korrekturlust, convinced him and brought peace to the regulars’ table.”

Now, enjoyment of correcting would seem to be a good thing for an editor or a writer, no? And indeed I can tell you that copyediting and proofreading is like gardening: the weeding can be oh so satisfying. But some gardeners get a bit out of hand and start pulling up perfectly good flowers or doing other things that cause more harm than good. And if language were gardens, there would be random people who aren’t even gardeners stepping onto the lawns of strangers to rip out their rose beds for being the wrong colour. 

We would do well to heed this item in a list of “five traps for teachers” reproduced in an article on how to help refugees:

Korrekturlust: Wir müssen nicht jeden Fehler korrigieren und dadurch zeigen, wie klug wir sind. Es geht nicht um Korrektheit…

That means “Korrekturlust: We don’t have to correct every mistake and thereby show how smart we are. It’s not about correctness…”

And if it’s a trap for teachers, it’s certainly a worse trap for anyone else. Upbraiding someone in casual communication for a small error when they didn’t ask you to is minimally helpful and maximally rude. It’s aggressive behaviour that, regardless of the excuse one invents for it, is designed to assert social dominance. And, as such, it is behaviour that is badly in need of correction. If you are so fully possessed by korrekturlust, may I recommend going and getting some correction porn – perhaps cheaply published books by long-dead authors, so you can’t be tempted to convey your corrections to anyone – and satisfying your desire in the private quiet of your own abode.

ibidem, tessera

This word belongs to a small set of words that are virtually never spelled out in full, and many of those who know the abbreviation don’t even know the full form (videlicet is another; you probably know it as viz., if you know it at all). And, in its abbreviated form, ibid., it is (also like viz.) a tessera word.

What do I mean by tessera word? Say you get a coin in your change, and you don’t recognize it. You think it’s from some country you can’t identify, or perhaps it’s a token from some fancy arcade, and you don’t know what it’s worth, so you give it away, or you throw it away, or you put it somewhere, but you don’t use it, because you don’t know how or where to use it. But you see ones like it every so often, and people seem to use them, and everyone who uses them acts like everyone knows what they’re for. No one ever tells you. Eventually you get to know someone who invites you to join them somewhere – it could be a place that’s new to you, or it could be somewhere you’ve been before but they go to a different entrance than the one you’re used to – and they pull out one of those coins and put it in a slot and go in. Aha! At last you know. Well, a tessera word is like that.

A tessera is a token, or a password, or a token used as a password. Its name comes directly from Greek τέσσερα ‘four’, because originally tesseras were quadrilateral (i.e., rectangular, perhaps square; tessera is also used to refer to other square things, such as mosaic tiles). They were used for such things as the equivalent of a theatre ticket in the theatre. A tessera of hospitality was a ceramic piece broken in two, one kept by host, one by guest, to allow recognition (I’m fantasizing a circumstance where the parties are masked, but I suppose it could just be a matter of the host having a staff member let you in). And a tessera word is one that is known by an in-group, and knowledge of it allows you to function as part of that in-group.

That’s not to say that tessera words are pointedly kept as in-group knowledge. Often it’s just a matter of everyone who knows them assuming that those who need to know them will know them – which also means, though they might avoid reflecting on it, that the words are useful exclusionary devices.

Scholarly writing has an assortment of expectations and practices, and among the more exacting and exclusionary are the referencing standards. There are multiple standards you can follow, and while variations are possible within each standard, it is expected that you will know certain things. If I am reading a scholarly work and see “(Norris, Between 19)” I am supposed to know that it is using MLA style and that I should look into the list of works cited to find a work by an author whose last name is Norris and having a title featuring the word Between, and I will find the quoted material on page 19. And if I am reading a scholarly work (a different one, to be sure) and I see a footnote or endnote and I look at it and see “Ibid., 19” or just “Ibid.” I am supposed to know…

…do you know what you’re supposed to know? I didn’t when I first met it and for some years after. In fact, I assumed it was some oft-cited work, like the Iliad or the Aeneid or whatnot. Something encyclopedic, I guess, since it was lending support to all sorts of things. It sure would be nice to have a work like that that one could cite (and no, I don’t mean Wikipedia, try to avoid citing Wikipedia; it’s very useful but it’s not authoritative or a primary source – follow its citations in turn to find something you can use). And I’d happily put “scitur” for “it is known,” or “omnibus notum” for “everybody knows,” or “scilicet” for “obviously,” but the problem with those is that they are not known – almost nobody knows them – and they are not obvious. Whereas “ibid.” is at least broadly known among scholars.

It – ibidem – means ‘in the same place’. It’s Latin, of course. It means “just look up at the previous note and see what work was cited there, and that’s the one we mean here too.” In other words, “we expect you to know this already.” The point of it is to save space, so you don’t have to put even an abbreviated reference there.

But it’s a nuisance. It’s a nuisance not just because it has to be learned like any tessera word, and not just because you have to look up at the previous note (and sometimes there’s a stack of ibid.s several notes long, and if they’re footnotes you may have to flip back pages, and if it’s online you may have extra clicking to do), but because any change to the footnote order in revisions ruins it. It’s like if you’re having a conversation with someone who’s behind you in the line for the bar at a reception, and you don’t notice that they’ve moved on and you’re now talking to someone else, and maybe handing a drink to them too. Generally this means that if a book’s going to use ibid., the author should not use it at any point in the writing or revising process, and the copyeditor will go through once the footnotes are definitely not going to be revised further and put it in everywhere it’s needed.

Or, you know, just not put it in. The abbreviated forms of citations are not so horribly long, and they’re clearer too. The style manual that has most upheld the ibid. tradition, The Chicago Manual of Style, says the following in its most recent (17th) edition (chapter 14, section 34):

In a departure from previous editions, Chicago discourages the use of ibid. in favor of shortened citations as described elsewhere in this section; to avoid repetition, the title of a work just cited may be omitted. Shortened citations generally take up less than a line, meaning that ibid. saves no space, and in electronic formats that link to one note at a time, ibid. risks confusing the reader.

(Now let’s have a chat, can we, Chicago, about place of publication in citations…)

Of course, if we discard ibid., we’re left with a tessera word we can’t use anymore. Which is actually a good thing, since accessibility improves scholarship. But it does mean that people who are looking at older works that use it will have to find out what it means. Fortunately, they can always look it up.


On November 18, 2020, a monolith was discovered in a canyon in northern Utah. Since then, similar monoliths have been observed in quite a lot of places, most of them unreported, but the latest one to make the news was on a hill in San Francisco, appearing on Christmas Day, 2020. The monoliths have been made of various materials; the first one was made of metal, as have many of the others, while the San Francisco Christmas one was made of gingerbread with frosting and gumdrops, supported by plywood… yes? I see a question in the back?

No, I’m not an idiot. …Yes? The hand over there?

Yes, that’s right, they were made of various materials, and most were not made of stone, probably because that would be very heavy and expensive. …Yes?

I am absolutely certain I am not brain-dead. Are there any adults with questions? …Yes?

Yes, I know what the dictionary definition of monolith is, and I know the etymology too. It’s from Greek roots; the mono means ‘one’ (as in monorail) and the lith means ‘stone’ (as in lithograph). The word monolith was confected in the early-mid 1800s as both an adjective and a noun to describe or name something made of a single stone. Now, technically, any pocket-sized soapstone carving you can buy at a souvenir shop meets that definition, but the implication is that a monolith is a pillar or a monument or some other massive thing made of a single piece of stone. And within a – please, I’m trying to talk here, and shouting “Hah!” is not a contribution – within a half a century, monolith was being used also for things that resemble great big single-stone pieces but are not in fact made of stone.

Etymology is not destiny. Meanings are not carved in stone. The expansion and shifting of meaning is nothing new. It often happens when some new thing reminds people of a well-established existing thing. It may have a resemblance based on attributed that do not include the original defining attribute but are salient aspects of the particular thing referred to. It can travel quite a bit sometimes – consider that ladies’ dressing tables used to have a little piece of lace on them, and the tables were then named for the lace, and then the room in which ladies came to do their washing and makeup was named after the table, and then the most striking appliance in that room took on the name, and that is how we call a flushing waste disposal a toilet, a word that comes from a little piece of lace, toilette.

So you know, when people are calling these things monoliths, what they’re thinking of, right? The great cultural reference is the monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick, written by Arthur C. Clarke. Those met the definition, at least apparently, of a single solid block of stone:

Except that they somehow seem to give off signals. So there may be more within than meets the eye.

It’s sort of like the music Kubrick chose for the scene: the Kyrie from the Requiem by György Ligeti. It may seem like a monolith of sound, shifting and waving but wordless, atonal, without rhythm. It is none of these things. Here, look at the score as it is performed:

It’s astoundingly complex (and I would not want to have to sing in the choir that performs it!). And in the same way, even an undivided single stone is complex (ask a geologist), and so too are the many other things that are described offhand as monoliths (including various corporations, political organizations, social and cultural groups – though the word is as often brought in to be denied: members of the group in question “are not a monolith”). And words are not monoliths, and language certainly isn’t a monolith.

But a flat-faced towering structure of metal, or gingerbread, or whatever else? Look, you can decide you want to call it a monometal or a monomelopita (for the gingerbread) or whatever else, but you really can’t be surprised if people in general see the resemblance to the 2001 monoliths and borrow the term rather than digging through Greek roots. You may feel, accurately, that the word monolith has gone the way of toilet… but it hasn’t gone in the toilet, and you needn’t bother trying to toss it there. It wouldn’t fit anyway.


As the notes get shorter, their names get longer.

This is not absolutely true all the way, but look: breve, semibreve, minim, crotchet, quaver, semiquaver, demisemiquaver, hemidemisemiquaver.

Oh, are those words unfamiliar? Depending on where you’re from, they may be. I had the advantage of learning in my childhood both systems of naming of musical notes, and the disjunction between them – not to mention their internal systemic weirdness – was one of my early clues that the established adult world was, shall we say, inconsistent.

Look. A normal bar of music in 4/4 time (a.k.a. “common” time, marked with a C that was in fact originally a half a circle) has four notes, right? One two three four, one two three four, and so on. Sometimes you join those notes together to make a double-length note. Sometimes you have just one four-beat-long note for a bar. On the other hand, sometimes you split those one-beat notes in half or even quarter.

So what would make sense for us to call those?

If you’re first learning music in Canada or the US, the odds are not bad that you will think that whole note ought to refer to one of those four black notes with stems that populate a bar. But no! It names a note the length of a whole bar. The notes that are a beat each are quarter notes. The ones with tails that are half of those are eighth notes.

OK, fine. Whatever. But then, if you learn as I did, you also learn that they have these fancy-ass names, apparently from the same people who gave us pounds, shillings, pence, halfpennies, farthings, and all that stuff. And a whole note is called a…


Wait, what? So a breve is two whole notes? Yeah! And if you’re a word-oriented person like I was (and am), you will think, “Wait, breve looks like it means ‘brief’, as in ‘short,’” which in fact it does. That’s right, two whole notes was a short note.

And this is where, long before being introduced to physics, I started to understand that time is relative.

Back when music first started being written in bars (and drawing rooms and studios, but bars are where the liquid inspiration is), those long notes really were normal notes. And then it came to be that just one of those short (breve) notes signified a whole bar, and you started adding stems to note marks and filling them in and adding flags to the stems to indicate shorter and shorter notes. Yes, during the baroque and classical eras, the composers started adding quicker and quicker notes, partly because there was a good way of indicating them to the musicians, but also, the conception of a bar was changing. The hierarchy of rhythm was getting more involved.

So half a semibreve, what North Americans call a half note, got the name minim, because it was minimal. And then half of that was a crotchet, probably because it looks (or looked) like a hook (think of that next time you crochet something). And then the note that represented a half of an actual four-in-a-bar beat, what the fraction-naming people call an eighth note, was a quaver, because, well, it was a little twitch or trembling in the music. Quavering. Same word.

By the way, does quaver look Latin to you? It looks Latin to me. It is not Latin. It comes from Old English cwafian‘quake, tremble’, and is related to German quabbeln ‘quiver’.

But if you think a quaver is quivering, well… If you can add one flag, you can add two, and make a sixteenth note, or three, and make a thirty-second note, or four, and make a sixty-fourth note. But, ah, now, what do those note-namers call them? Fillip, twitch, flick? Nope. They start, finally, tossing on words indicating division: semiquaver, using the Latin for ‘half’; demisemiquaver, adding the French for ‘half’; and then, with the corresponding Greek prefix, hemidemisemiquaver. A sixty-fourth note. If each syllable of hemidemisemiquaver were a hemidemisemiquaver, the whole word would equal a quaver. A bar of 4/4 time could accommodate the word eight times. (How quickly can you say hemidemisemiquaver eight times?)

That seems kinda silly in a way, doesn’t it? Absurdly fast? I mean, are we talking musicians on meth here, or a shivery little Dachshund running down a flight of stairs? And yet.

And yet there are even shorter notes. And you might think that only sadistic modern composers would use them, but no. Here’s a piece of music by Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart (that’s what it says on his baptismal certificate), performed by Ronald Brautigam, that uses not only the aforementioned sesquipedalian microrhythms but even one-hundred-twenty-eighth notes and two-hundred-fifty-sixth notes, which are called semihemidemisemiquavers and demisemihemidemisemiquavers, respectively (if not respectfully), and the overall bar time is so long that you can actually hear the individual notes quite distinctly rather than having them all slurry together:

So many notes (too many notes?) and yet you can’t dance to it at all.

But oh, such words. Long words. Excellent words! Take note of them.


And the sun stands.

For half a year it has sloped down the cellar steps until it is peeking over the edge of the old garden wall. The days decay and it steps down and looks ahead of it and steps down and looks back at you and steps down and

then it stands.

And starts coming back up. Step by small step, breathing the cold from the root cellar, until it reaches the top, by the lawn, and stands. And turns again.

And it just keeps doing this. It stands at the top for one long day; it stands at the bottom for one long night.

If it is down it wants to be up; if up, down. The sun is a cat.

And so we spend the year, the solar ring’s upward and downward transit bookended by solstices when all pauses for a moment and the sun turns the other way. And between the solstices, in the interstices, we consist, insist, resist, desist, persist.

It may seem strange that cultures around the world and across time have celebrated the turning of the times, the shortest and longest days and the days of even split, but we all know, as the autumn slouches in its old stuffed chair, that even though there are months of cold ahead, we will be receiving it with the growing light of winter, its shining breath and slow turn to warmth like someone you have no hope for at first and then at last fall in love with. And then it is spring.

Solstice comes from Latin, from solstitium, from sol as in ‘sun’ and an inflected form of sisto ‘I stand’. You are not wrong in discerning the same stice in interstices, and you are not wrong in perceiving in sisto the root of consist, insist, resist, desist, persist. And exist, from Latin meaning ‘stand out’.

Stand out, or stand in, and watch the sun stand. And then turn and start up the stairs again. The long night is here, and warmth is needed. But days will start growing again. The cat will climb step by step and glance at you as it goes.

Here is a lovely song about the winter solstice, if you would like.


“Glad tidings we bring… to you and your thing!…”

Somehow halfway through that line everyone else had suddenly begun to sing much more quietly and my voice was rather… salient. There may have been a glance or two in my direction. Oh, come on, people, it’s a carol sing! Make merry! Play around a bit! Glad tidings, you know?

Tidings is one of the classic Christmas words, right up there with hark. It does get used in other places – there’s a wine magazine that used to be called Wine Tidings (it’s now Quench) – but most of its great cultural associations have to do with Christmas, a prime vector being the King James Version rendition of Luke 2:10: “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” From that it spread to carols such as “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (quoted above) and “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (“O, tidings of comfort and joy”), and on to assorted cultural references.

What, exactly, are (is? are? both conjugations are used in literature) tidings? In short, they are (it is) news. But not just any news! Oh, no, no. This is a word with poetical and Biblical associations, which means that the news is classic, timeless, historic, epic, important, portentous… A friend who says “I am sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings” is drawing on that tone, probably for self-consciously pompous effect; it would seem too self-important to use for a death or other actual grave event, but it would be quite suitable for a fallen soufflé or a dearth of chocolate or the discovery that the liquor store is quite out of the preferred brand of Cognac for mixing with the expensive eggnog. (Martell, by the way.)

All of which may befall us sooner or later; time and tide happen to us all. And yes, that tide is tied to this tidings. The ancient root from which they both spring is a Germanic stem referring to happenings, befallings, incidents and accidents; the sense of hints and allegations – the news of the incidents and accidents – comes from that. As the tide happens to come in and go out, and the tides of the time turn, and as other things betide us all, we get the tidings, just as the new things that occur are reported as the news. And yes, you can also have a singular tiding, but usually we get the plural (though, as I have said, sometimes it’s treated as a singular, as news is); it seems that just one tiding is not often enough to tide us over.

So when an advent for the ages is reported, of course it’s tidings. But of great joy, people! Even if we’re in an Estonian Lutheran church basement! We were singing our carols just downstairs from where Aina and I had gotten married a mere few years earlier, and I was going to do my thing, even if that’s news to some of you.


O tidings of comfortable joy!


Oh, yeah. O tidings of comfort and joy! 

Um… O come, all ye faithful, joyfully triumphant… what now? 

Right… joyful and triumphant…

OK, then. Sing we joyous, all together, heedless of the windy weather! 

…Oh, yeah: heedless of the wind and weather! 

Well, ’tis the season (sorry) for hendiadys. There’s “holy infant, so tender and mild,” there’s “light and life to all He brings,” there’s “He rules the world with truth and grace,” there’s “what fun it is to ride and sing,” there’s “above thy deep and dreamless sleep,” there’s “long lay the world in sin and error pining” – though on the other hand that song has “the stars are brightly shining” rather than “the stars are bright and shining.”

Was there an odd gift stuffed in the lexical stocking up there? Ah, yes: hendiadys. Not everyone uses this word every day. You may have inferred its meaning from the examples, but I should say that it’s not just any coordinating pair; it’s “the substitution of a conjunction for a subordination,” as Wikipedia says, or, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, “A figure of speech in which two words are connected by a conjunction in order to express a single complex idea, e.g. nice and warm for nicely warm.”

Now, you could object to some of my examples: Could it really be “truthful grace” and mean the same thing? Or “lighted life”? How would one rephrase “sin and error”? But at the very least one could argue that they may be hendiadys. On the other hand, “a turkey and some mistletoe” could not be – everybody knows that.

And why does this word look so weird, and how is it supposed to be said? To answer the second first, the stress is on the di and the word as a whole sounds like a hoarse whisper by a movie gangster of “can die of this.” To answer the first second, it’s the Byzantine Greek phrase ἓν διὰ δυοῖν (hen dia duoin) – which means, word for word, ‘one through two’ – ironically jammed into a single word and Latinized.

Well, this time of the year, this kind of thing is my jam, even unironically. It may seem like an unduly fancy word, but you can hop off your high horse and join me behind it… What fun it is to, riding, sing a sleighing song tonight!

So it goes

This is my third sentence tasting. Shall I write a book of them?

Kurt Vonnegut survived the cataclysmic firebombing of Dresden, at least one suicide attempt, and seventy years of smoking, and then fell down in his house and died from brain injuries. So it goes. He wrote fourteen novels, almost all of which I read when I was younger, and some large number of short stories, most of which I have not read. In his fiction he suggested numerous epitaphs for his various characters and for himself, perhaps the most famous of which was for Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five: “EVERYTHING WAS BEAUTIFUL, AND NOTHING HURT.” It was a lovely lie. Other people have that epitaph, thanks to him. They are also dead. So it goes. Many people think Vonnegut’s grave has that epitaph. But no one (except, I suppose, his family) knows where he is buried, so it’s probably not true.

Kurt Vonnegut’s most vaunted novel is Slaughterhouse-Five, which features an awkward man named Billy Pilgrim, who, like Kurt Vonnegut, survives the firebombing of Dresden in 1945, and, unlike Kurt Vonnegut, as far as I know, is later abducted by space aliens from Tralfamadore and spends some time in a zoo on their planet and learns that time is not a one-way trip. The book ends like this: “One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’” The bird says this because, as Vonnegut says early in the book, “Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. ¶ And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘Poo-tee-weet?’” The bird says that because it is in Dresden just after Nazi Germany has surrendered, but also because it is a bird and that is what it says.

In Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut says the book “begins like this: ¶ Listen: ¶ Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” This is not true. I can say that it is not true because Kurt Vonnegut says that before the book says that, which means that the book says the book says that before the book says that, although in saying that it says that it also says that, which is like coming unstuck in time. But I can also say that because there is a whole chapter before the book says that, and almost a whole chapter before the book says that it says that. And that first chapter begins “All this happened, more or less.” It’s an introduction, not part of the story as such, but it’s there, and it’s chapter number one. And Kurt Vonnegut himself appears in cameos later in the novel, so it’s in-world.

There’s one other thing that the book says, which means Kurt Vonnegut says in the book, over and over again, and that one thing is the sentence I am looking at today, the sentence that is the title of this article: “So it goes.”

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bubble wrap

In 1960, a company formed that would change the way we pack things.

In 1957, Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes tried to create a three-dimensional plastic wallpaper. At some point they realized that it was better for other purposes, and in 1960 Fielding co-founded Sealed Air. And in the intervening six decades, millions of porcelain figurines have survived thanks to them, millions of people with excess nervous tension have found an outlet through popping plastic bubbles, and millions of other people who happened to be sitting near those millions of people have found a cause of nervous tension.

In general, December is a bumper month of bubble wrap, although in 2020 every month is a bumper month of bubble wrap. It’s true that many companies now have more sophisticated means of packing, but if you’re shopping on eBay or Etsy, bubble wrap is still the thing you look forward to seeing (because if it’s not bubble wrap, it’s either newspaper plus broken porcelain or it’s foam popcorn and Hell). I have bought numerous old camera lenses on eBay (numerous, I say), and nearly all of them have come wrapped in a volume of bubble wrap equal to or greater than the volume of the lens. There is a certain pleasure in cutting through the tape with a utility knife and peeling away the bubble wrap to reveal the beauty within. At times, however, there’s a bit more cutting and peeling than I really feel is necessary.

Some people do use too much bubble wrap. And it’s not free like air, you know! One time when my family were moving we had some people helping us move, and we noticed how a whole (not cheap) roll of bubble wrap we had bought had gotten used very quickly. When we unpacked, we realized why: someone had used the entire roll to wrap one lamp and put it in a big green plastic garbage bin that we were also moving (don’t ask).

Bubble, by the way, is an old Germanic word that you can also see in languages such as Dutch (bubbel) and Swedish (bubbla). Wrap may also be an old Germanic word, though its origins are little less clear; it may be related, way back, to warp and to Latin vertere, source of divert and pervert.

But, speaking of words… there is literal bubble wrap, and there is verbal bubble wrap. And notwithstanding that verbal bubble wrap is fun to say, what it names is less fun to read, especially when several layers obscure one source of illumination.

We all use it sometimes, verbal bubble wrap. It’s that excess verbiage that we use to cushion the impact of something we would otherwise think too sharp or too fragile or too exposed. It’s so much reused wallpaper. Like this:

There are, of course, as we all know, times in a person’s life when they feel unduly vulnerable, when something just happens to strike them a certain way, a combination of the moment and the mood and their place in life and the various stresses they encounter. We all have surely had a moment of this sort at one time or another, or at least something approximating it. I at one time when I was in university found myself, on a foggy evening when I had been out for a walk by myself and was feeling in some way moody or vulnerable, looking up at a single red-lit window in a church belfry and being moved towards tears, and perhaps I shed a few before moving on. I don’t mean to say that this was truly significant, but somehow it felt that way to me.

When we encounter literal bubble wrap, we may want to pop the bubbles, and when we encounter verbal bubble wrap, we may similarly want to let the air out of this or that little bit of it. We might take “There are, of course, as we all know … stresses they encounter” from the above and turn it into “There are times for all of us when we feel vulnerable.” But the thing about popping bubble wrap is that when you’ve finished popping it, you still have all that plastic in the way, and it’s even less likeable. Instead of popping it, just peel it away and set it aside, and you will get what’s within:

Once, on a foggy evening when I was a university student out walking alone, I looked up at a single glowing red window in a belfry and burst into tears.

Literal bubble wrap is useful, because you don’t want to the mail to deliver broken things that don’t work. But verbal bubble wrap is seldom of any value, because what makes stories work is brokenness.


photo by John Flanders

On December 9, 2000, I wed Aina Arro. We said to each other “I plight thee my troth” and assorted other things, did the necessary paperwork, and officially began our life together. I sure am happy we did that.

Wedding is the gerund of the verb wed, as in “With this ring I thee wed.” It’s been in English as long as there has been an English for it to be in, and it has relatives all throughout the Indo-European language. It traces to an Indo-European root meaning ‘pledge’. It became Latin vas, ‘surety’ (or ‘bail’). It became the modern Irish noun feidhm, ‘function, use’ (pronounced like “fame,” which has its uses). It went into Balto-Slavic languages meaning ‘lead’ and became the modern Latvian verbs vest, ‘lead’, and vadīt, ‘drive’; Aina’s mother is Latvian, so she would know both of these (and on the one hand, Aina leads me well, but on the other, although she is a very driven person, she has not driven a car even once in more than 20 years). It made it into French as gager, ‘guarantee’ or ‘wager’, and that is also the source of English engage. It also came down to English as wage and wager – and into Dutch as wedden and German as wetten, both meaning ‘bet’. And I am happy to say that getting engaged to Aina was a worthwhile wager, and it has paid good wages.

Wedding, by pure coincidence, is also the name of a district of Berlin. It’s not related. I don’t think we visited it when we were in Berlin.

A wedding is a lovely occasion, both solemn and joyful, expensive and gainful, sober and utterly intoxicated. Quite a few years ago, when Aina and I had been married a mere three or four years, someone I knew asked about readings for weddings. Various ones were suggested, some good, others impossibly idealistic and fraught. I decided to write one. I still like it. Here it is.

A reading for a wedding

Romance is fun but exhausting. Like drunkenness, you eventually tire of it. Every so often you feel like a bit more again, and a little is fine, but you need to be careful that you don’t end up with your head spinning and your stomach lurching, wishing you had been wiser.

It is common but foolish to equate romance with love. Romance is something you can’t ignore when it’s around. Love is like the air: you’re not conscious of it most of the time, except when it’s disturbed, but you would notice its absence in one breath. And holding it back is as bad as having it withheld.

When two people are united, they do not become one, contrary to romantic myth. Two hearts do not beat as one; you will always be surprised and comforted to hear a different heartbeat so close to your ear. Two minds do not meet as one; you will always have disagreements – how could you broaden your own mind without another to force it open? Two souls do not join as one; you will on occasion look over and be surprised that you are actually living with this person, this wonderful, beautiful, frustrating person. Two voices do not sing in perfect harmony, especially not without a lot of rehearsal; the singers try to make music even of the discord, and to learn from the off notes.

If you want someone to join you in the fire, very well; be careful not to get burned. If you want someone to join you on the highest peak, make sure to bring ropes and oxygen. If you want someone to swim with you in the deepest ocean, mind you don’t get the bends. If you want someone to dance with you in ecstasy for eternity, bring water bottles and liniment. Me, I want someone to join me in bed, in the kitchen, for strolls, for dinner, at family events. I want someone who is worth not climbing mountains, swimming oceans, braving fire, or dancing in ecstasy if that’s not what that person feels like doing at the moment, however much I might want to.

I don’t want just a best friend. I don’t want just a lover. I want to be husband and wife.

photo by Warren Harbeck