Sunday morning coffee

I was at a social gathering a few weeks ago when I mentioned that linguist Steven Pinker has a new style guide coming out in September. My story of Pinker and his thoughts on grammar fell flat, though that was my fault. Broaching the ins and outs of split infinitives on a Saturday night was probably not the way to go.

In a nutshell, Pinker tries to split the difference between prescriptivists and descripivists. Grammarians and editors who fall into the prescriptivist camp believe that there are rigid rules to follow in writing and that deviation should be avoided at all costs. Yes, language evolves, they allow, but change should be slow and cautious. Descriptivists take a more relaxed approach and believe that language is more flexible and fluid. Language, they argue, is whatever people say it is. It is more complicated than that, but that is the gist of it. You can read more about it yourself; the London Guardian published an excerpt on Friday.

Ironically people generally–and lazily–call Pinker a descriptivist, which I think misses the point. His whole argument is that good communication is the goal and that style is an important part of the process. Otherwise why would he waste his time writing a book on usage? The point is to communicate effectively without being a prig.

I am looking forward to Pinker’s book, which will be released in September. Writing well and clearly is important. I wrote about this a few years back. Like Pinker, I too fall in the middle area between presriptivist and descriptivist. Standards matter. There is nothing more frustrating than reading something–an email, text message, newspaper article, whatever–in which the meaning is vague or unclear. It cannot be a total free-for-all. At the same time, we should not become totally captive to the rules, as if they exist just for themselves. The idea is to understand the rules of style and grammar well enough to be able to break them occasionally when necessary.

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The Panama Canal turns 100

I do not usually cross-post items I have written elsewhere, but a version of this appeared earlier today on the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace Facebook page. I could not let the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal go unnoticed here on The Strawfoot. I have been a bit surprised that there has not been more coverage of this over the past few days. I will have to check the C-SPAN listings to see if maybe there is anything over the weekend. Canals have played a an important and curiously under under underappreciated role in the world’s economic and political development. The Suez, the Erie, China’s Grand Canal. These are hugely significant feats that had, and have, important consequences. I suspect the reason for the lack of appreciation for canals is that visually they are not much to look at. Essentially a canal is a big ditch. The Brooklyn Bridge is something that poets and painters can get excited about. The Soo Locks are not.

index.phpStill that does lessen the importance of the Panama Canal. This is a monumental day in the life and legacy of Theodore Roosevelt. Indeed, it was an important day in the history of science, engineering, trade, commerce, and more. The canal took so much of Roosevelt’s and John Hay’s diplomatic energies. For years everyone had understood the growing importance of navies and shipping. A canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans had been a dream for decades. Before the canal it was necessary to sail around the lower tip of South America. The canal cut 8,000 miles off that journey. Another option was to traverse the isthmus by mule, carriage, or on foot. That was as dangerous, even fatal, as it sounds.

The French had tried and failed in the nineteenth century. Construction on the American attempt began in 1903 and took eleven years. Completion of the 77 kilometer (48 mile) passageway could not have come at a better time; the Great War had begun just weeks earlier. Keeping the oceans free and accessible was now easier. I believe the canal’s role in the First World War is ripe for Interpretive possibilities, and I intend to write about it over the Centennial. It was crucial during the Second World War as well. Today the canal is busier than ever and is being expanded.

To say that there were obstacles—political, logistical, and otherwise—would be an understatement. When I worked for the public library I had a Panamanian colleague whose ancestor had worked on the project. One of the biggest problems were the disease carrying mosquitoes that took the lives of the manual laborers. Roosevelt’s visit to the canal’s construction site was the first time a sitting president left the United State. Eight years later all of that had been overcome and Roosevelt’s dream had become a reality. It took all of his skills—and yes even a little political intrigue—to make the whole thing happen. He was not in Panama 100 years ago today, but one can only imagine what he must have been thinking that day.

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Cal breaks his silence

The Mount Rushmore groundbreaking was this week in 1927. Construction was completed in October 1941.

The Mount Rushmore groundbreaking was this week in 1927. Construction was completed in October 1941.

In 1927 Al Jolson appeared in The Jazz Singer, Louis Armstrong recorded “Potato Head Blues,” and Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig combined for 107 home runs. The Great War was over for almost a decade and life was seemingly returning to normal. That August President Calvin Coolidge traveled to South Dakota to speak at the groundbreaking of Mount Rushmore. As if channeling his inner Roosevelt, the staid Coolidge rode up the mountain on horseback. Curiously–perhaps in a nod to recent Franco-American relations?–a choir sang “The Marseillaise” in addition to “The Star Spangled Banner” and other patriotic tunes.

Rushmore literally put Theodore Roosevelt on the same level with Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson, and the monument was a big win for Roosevelt supporters. The RMA had lost a protracted battle for a Roosevelt memorial on the National Mall just a year earlier. The spot Hermann Hagedorn and others coveted eventually went to the Jefferson Memorial.

Ironically, Mount Rushmore has skewed our perceptions of the 26th president. When many people think “Theodore Roosevelt” they think of the West. Being depicted on a granite slab in the Black Hills will do that. Still it is important to keep in mind that, while Roosevelt spent chunks of time hunting and ranching out West, he was a city slicker first and foremost. Indeed he was the only president born in Manhattan, and it was to New York City and Long Island that he returned over and over across the course of his life.

(image/National Park Service)


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Filed under Memory, Monuments and Statuary, New York City, Theodore Roosevelt Jr (President)

Sunday Morning Coffee

the living history encampment of the First Minnesota on Governors Island, Saturday 9 August 2014

the living history encampment of the First Minnesota on Governors Island, Saturday 9 August 2014

It is 6:30 and I am sitting here in the dark having a cup of coffee before heading out the door. Civil War Weekend at Governors Island is in full swing. Yesterday was a wonderful day with beautiful August weather and good crowds. Today should be the same. If you live in New York City and are looking for something to do I can’t think of anything better. Yours truly will be doing tours at 11:30 and 1:30 on the history of Civil War officers who once served on the island. It is a deep and fascinating story. We start at the top of Soissons Landing right where one gets off the Manhattan ferry.


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Remembering Nixon’s resignation

Two years ago, on June 17, 2012 to be precise, I posted this small vignette about the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. Now today is the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. August 9, 1974 was a momentous day in my family’s history. We moved from Connecticut to Florida that day. I was all of seven years old and even though I did not understand the specifics I understood that major changes for my parents, brother, sister, and me were underway. It was probably for the best that I didn’t all that was happening; my parents marital troubles were the reason for the relocation and they divorced the following year. In my mind the Nixon resignation and the relocation are forever linked.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. I have seen surprisingly little about this in the news. I suppose a reason is that it was never the break-in, but the cover-up, that was considered the big crime. It could be, too, that the Watergate scandal has reached that intermediary stage where it is no longer a current event and not quite yet history. Demographically, Washington has changed a great deal in the past several decades as well. Gentrification has brought many younger people–young twenty- and thirty-somethings–who are too busy building their careers to think about it. We know the least about the decade just before and the decade after we are born.

The area around the Watergate Building Complex is off the beaten path and visited by very few tourists taking in the sights. We ourselves go to DC fairly frequently and I must say we have never gone out of our way to see it. Cultural Tourism DC is planning to install signage in the neighborhood. I wonder if the 50th anniversary of this event will be a bigger deal. We’ll know just a short decade from now.

(image/Watergate Building Complex, Allen Lew)

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Filed under Heritage tourism, Washington, D.C.

Defense Day, 1925


Here is a photograph that is fascinating on about five different levels. It is from the Fall 1925 issue of the Roosevelt House Bulletin, the public voice of the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association. The photo was taken on July 4, 1925 in the auditorium of what we now call the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace. This would have been sixty full years after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and, as you can see, the men are all octogenarians. A few may even be in their 90s. The General Sherman Circle, Ladies of the G.A.R. organized the event in cooperation with the WRMA. The turnout was about three hundred, though I am not certain how many were CIvil War veterans. The image is not that great because it is not the original but a photo taken on my camera.

Many of the Roosevelts were involved in veterans groups. Theodore was active in the Naval and Military Order of the Spanish American War. Son Ted was actually a founder of the American Legion. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s Ted Roosevelt also came to Governors Island regularly for reunions of the First Infantry Division.

This event on the 4th of July was in support of something called Defense Day, which one of the Civil War vet attendees equated to the old Muster Day. Defense Day seems to have been something akin to the Preparedness movement in the United States after the start of the Great War but prior to American engagement in the conflict. One of Defense Day’s biggest critics was President Calvin Coolidge. Apparently it was an initiative that never got too far off the ground, which is not surprising being that most people in America and Europe were exhausted after what had transpired less than a decade before.

It is incredible to visit the Birthplace and realize you are walking in the same steps where these people once walked.

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Filed under Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace (NPS), WW1

Thinking about the war’s legacies

Europe as it was after being redrawn in 1919

Europe as it was after being redrawn in 1919

Yesterday a friend sent me something from the Wall Street Journal. It is one of those list type things in which the Journal chronicles 100 legacies of World War One. A few of the items cannot be truly credited/blamed on the First World War. Doctors were fitting wounded soldiers of the American Civil War for prosthetic devices decades prior to 1914. It is true, however, that the science of prosthesis took a great leap forward in the 1910s and 1920s. Give the whole thing a look. Among other things the list encourages us  to think beyond the minutiae of the battles–important though they are– and ask ourselves why the events of 1914-1919 are important to us today in the 21st century. I cannot think of a better lesson as the Centennial gets underway.

(image/National Archives, United Kingdom)

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Filed under Historiography, Memory, WW1