Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

March, 2012:

Living One-Handed

SX270 Bookend.jpg

Left arm is definitely getting better. I’ve actually devised a technique for two-handed typing that doesn’t hurt too badly: I cross my right leg over my left, and then prop my left wrist on my right knee. With my wrist supported I can actually type reasonably well on the left side, but of course I’m nowhere near my accustomed 100+ wpm speed.

It’s been an interesting experiment in not using my left hand. For the first couple of days life was tough. Getting dressed was an experience. Cutting a steak proved impossible the day I pulled the muscle, though I managed the next day with only some minor screaming when I moved my wrist the wrong way.

Much of what I’ve been doing has been sorting magazines on the lower level prior to re-shelving them. My Atlantics were in a disorderly heap before, as were Electronics Illustrated, Commonweal, and Wired. I ended up sitting tailor-style on our newly cushy floor and creating year-piles all around me. Then I shell-sorted each year-pile into month order, and finally hoisted each sorted year one-handed and placed the mags on the shelf. I’ve wanted to do that for years, but it always seemed a bad use of my time…until a bad supinator suddenly made it a good use of my time.

I discovered earlier today that a dead SX270 makes a dandy bookend; see above. Very good way to keep sorted year-stacks of mags vertical while I sort the rest of the pile on the floor. I have another one upstairs that isn’t dead, but may be of more value to me as a bookend than as a computer. Then again, I use my Sixer and my Twoer as bookends, even though they’re in tip-top condition. If I can ever find anybody who wants to QRP QSO on AM, I’ve got more than enough old power transformers to hold up my QSTs.

Have some hope that tomorrow will see a return to something like normal life, with occasional yelps. I’ll let you know.

No Supinator for You!

On Wednesday I hurt my left arm, and am still typing one-handed. Carol (who is a physical therapist) tells me that I may have pulled my left supinator. I didn’t even know I had a supinator, which to me sounds like a brand of crockpot. Whatever a supinator might in fact be, I know by now that it hurts like hell when mistreated.

Bottom line: I may not be doing much posting for the coming week. Lesson: I am 59, not 19. I cannot throw boxes full of books around with the aplomb I once exhibited. I would like to get my aplomb back, but like my hair, that train may have left the station.

I’ll be back when I can use my left hand again.

Odd Lots

  • Movers are coming imminently to reassemble my lower level, so I will be mostly out of touch for the rest of today.
  • If you’ve never had an account with Verizon in the past, don’t get one now. Verizon sold a huge number (over a million!) of expired debt accounts to a debt collection agency called AFNI, which has been attempting to collect on some of them, even when the debt has long since passed over the horizon of the statute of limitations. Some of these debts were long since paid off, some were mistakes, and some may possibly be complete inventions. Verizon’s action was legal; AFNI’s may not be. Still, Verizon started it, and I’m encouraging people not to do business with them.
  • Here’s an aurora prediction site I’d not seen before. We’re a little too far south to get much from the current outbursts, but having seen some of the 2005 auroras here (if barely) I’m certainly watching that red line. (Thanks to Jamie Hanrahan for the link.)
  • From the Words-I-Didn’t-Know-Until-Yesterday Department: A tuya is a volcanic landform created by a smallish volcanic eruption that occurs under a kilometer-class ice sheet, as from our most recent ice age.
  • Roy Tellason wrote to tell me about his tube data sheet page, which has more scanned data sheets (all PDFs; typically under 1 MB) in one place than I’ve ever seen, with no ads nor any fussing (registration, etc.) required to access them.
  • Rich Rostrom sent a wonderful link to a collection of photos and drawings of the Hindenburg, including its passenger areas, which included (egad) a smoking room! Originally (it was later expanded a little) the airship could carry only 50 passengers, tops. Those must have been expensive tickets…
  • I was starting to get this message almost fifteen years ago: Heart disease is about inflammation. It’s not about meat or fat. Inflammation comes from smoking, chemicals of various sorts, infections, and (most commonly) sugars and vegetable oils. No inflammation, no heart disease. (Thanks to Mike Bentley for the link.)
  • I’m shopping for vacuum tube intercoms, and found that someone on eBay has listed the Talk-A-Phone set that my parents bought (they were made in Chicago then) and used as a baby monitor after my sister was born. I’d really prefer one of the mid-60s tube-based carrier-current models. All the majors had them. (Carol wants a better way to reach me when I’m in my office than yelling down the stairs…)
  • The beautiful 1920s Des Plaines Theater has reopened after some major restoration, and is now slotting upscale live acts rather than movies. It’s literally around the corner from our Chicago-area condo, and I’m itching to find an event as an excuse to go in and look around.
  • If you’re afraid of spiders, don’t go to Australia for awhile. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Dinosaur fossils don’t get a whole lot better than this.
  • While doing my semiregular scan for pirated copies of my books, I happened across something fascinating on alt.binaries.e-book.technical: a scan of the original service manual for the Nazi V-1 flying bomb. I don’t know how to create an NZB that points directly to the file, but the item was posted on 10/25/2011. Search for “Gerate-handbuch FZG-76”. A dieselpunk pulse-jet is what it was, and now you can see what was inside it. (Being able to read German is a plus, but the photos are very good.)
  • A wonderful photo collection of vintage ice-cream trucks. We saw the Good Humor trucks regularly on our street in the 50s and early 60s. The driver rang bells by pulling on a string. He did not play obscure hymns or creepy recorded voices saying “Helllo!”
  • How’s your scene? (I had to look it up to see what a “scene” was in this context.) My “scene” is not listed, but you can see what the chap thinks of steampunk. And if you want a timeline, it’s here. (Alas, it starts in…2000. Do you feel mondo-creaky old looking at this? I do.)

Beware the Zombie Debt Apocalypse

One of the things that may be going on with all the NCTUE letters people in Colorado have been receiving in recent days (see my last two entries) is a debt collection agency fishing for “zombie debt.”

There’s a great deal about this online. It turns on a peculiarity in the law regarding debt and the statute of limitations: If a debt collector can persuade a debtor with an expired debt to pay even a penny of that debt (lying through their teeth that doing so will remove the negative event on their credit report) the statute of limitations can be reset, and the debtor may then be liable for the full amount of the expired debt.

The debt is basically brought back to life to haunt the debtor.

This is the sort of thing that may technically be legal but strikes most people as a species of fraud. Doesn’t matter: Whatever you do, never pay anything to a debt collector to settle an expired debt–or that debt’s teeth will soon be gnawing at your wallet. Brains, feh. All it wants is your money.

We don’t know yet what’s going on involving NCTUE letters in Colorado. But a zombie debt scam is possibly underway. It might working something like this:

  1. A shady debt collection agency buys (or simply invents) a bunch of old (or fictitious) debts.
  2. The agency files these debts with NCTUE.
  3. NCTUE dutifully sends out notices that they’ve received negative information for your account. (These are the letters that people have been getting.)
  4. At this point, the collection agency may begin calling or sending letters to the people named on its expired (or fictitious) debts. They may also simply wait for concerned consumers to contact them. (Don’t! Especially by phone.) They may offer to settle a debt and remove the negative credit entry for a small sum.
  5. A few people may consent to do this. As soon as the collection agency receives the settlement payment, they begin dunning the hapless submitter for the full amount of the expired (or fictitious) debt. That’s the payoff. Note that the collection agency probably bought the debt, and owns it. Whatever money they can get out of those named in the debt goes to them and belongs to them. The original owners of the debt are no longer involved and have no stake in the debt payments.
  6. In the case of truly fictitious debts, the supposed debtor isn’t on the hook for anything–but any money sent to the collection agency is probably gone forever.

This has been done many times before. Note that the scenario is still hypothetical in this case. I’m in the process of checking to see who filed an entry under my name with NCTUE. I’m also waiting for some contact by a debt collection agency. I always screen phone calls, but I’ll be doing so a lot more consistently now. What I do later on depends completely on what I learn in the next few days. Stay tuned.

It May Not Be NCTUE

I think we’re starting to get a sense for the scam here, as mentioned in my entry for yesterday, 3/10/2012. The scam involves NCTUE, but may have have been initiated by one of several collection agencies, including the AFNI collection agency of Bloomington, Illinois. (AFNI is by no means the only one.) It works like this: a debt collection agency “re-ages” an expired debt (that is, a debt that is older than the statute of limitations) and attempts to collect it. They send notification of the debt to credit reporting services like Equifax, and then attempt to collect the debt, using the bad credit mark as a sort of threat. Enough people apparently send such agencies money to keep the business model alive.

That sounds illegal to me, but it can get worse: Some collection agencies have been known to invent debt from whole cloth and then attempt to collect it, which, of course, is a species of fraud and should be prosecuted.

I’m not sure what happened in our case, since Carol and I have never let any bill go unpaid. Nor am I sure (yet) that this is what happened. We’re still looking into it, and as you might expect, not much is going to be resolved on a weekend.

There is evidently some connection with Verizon Wireless, which Carol and I contracted with for the very first time ever last fall, when we bought new smartphones. Needless to say, we haven’t missed any payments. AFNI apparently bought some ancient debt from companies that Verizon later purchased back in the 1990s, and has been trying to collect on it. (More here.) The number of accounts purchased by AFNI is immense.

I’m seeing a lot of reports of letters received in Colorado over the past couple of days, so whatever agency is doing this may be mounting an effort on a state-by-state basis, and this week it was just our turn.

What this may mean (again, we don’t know yet) is that some collection agency may have submitted a mass of fraudulent debt notices to credit reporting services (like Equifax’s NCTUE) which is now dutifully notifying people that a negative entry has been added to their credit reports. If that turns out to be the case, NCTUE is not scamming at all, but just doing what they’re supposed to do, and may be required to do by law. We may object to how they do it, but it may not be NCTUE engaging in malfeasance, but the collection agencies.

Be sure to read up on how to deal with collection agencies generally, and send no money to any of them unless you’re absolutely sure that you owe it. Fight them like a cornered animal. Here’s one report from a person who did it successfully.

Good luck.

A Letter from NCTUE

Carol and I got a letter this afternoon from the National Consumer Telecom and Utilities Exchange (NCTUE), a subsidiary of Equifax based in Atlanta. As best I can tell (I’ve never heard of it before today) the NCTUE is a way for phone companies and utility companies to exchange data on deadbeat customers, so that when a guy who owes three grand to the phone company moves to another state, the phone company there can examine his application with a more critical eye and possibly deny the account. In that it’s a lot like a conventional credit reporting firm, albeit a vertical-market one.

The letter was very plain, not on any sort of letterhead, and relatively crude by my standards. (I could have set up a mail merge like that using a spreadsheet twenty years ago.) It did not come with a glossy explanatory flyer, as I would expect. The key message in the letter is this: According to Colorado law, a consumer reporting agency (like NCTUE) is required to send a free report to consumers who receive either:

  • Eight credit inquiries (no indication of a timeframe) from a telecom or utility firm; or
  • A single report that adds negative information to someone’s NCTUE file.

To receive a “free disclosure copy” of our report, it suggests that we either call the number 1-866-349-5185 or fill out the bottom third of the letter sheet and send it to:

Exchange Service Center – NCTUE
PO Box 105161
Atlanta GA 30348

The phone number is a robot that immediately asks for your social security number, and provides no option to speak to a human being. The sheet requires your social security number and date of birth, along with a signature. Needless to say, they’re not getting it. Carol and I have an autopay system for all telecom/utility payments, and we keep the autopay account well-stoked. Our use is fairly predictable, and nothing has changed in a long time. The account has plenty of money in it, and no bills have failed to be paid on time. (We checked.)

Interestingly, the NCTUE Web site is not accessible right now. When I try to go to, I get a “Bandwidth Limit Exceeded” message. What this suggests is that NCTUE is engaging in some shady marketing. If they recently dumped several million of these letters in the mail, their web site may well not be able to handle the traffic. I doubt that we got the letter because of some mistake in our own payment management. I’m guessing that gazillions of people got the same letter, and they all arrived today, and everybody is trying to go up there at once and see WTF is going on.

Either that, or they’ve pissed off enough people to earn a DDOS attack…but somehow I doubt it.

It’s unclear what NCTUE is trying to sell, and I’ll keep investigating. I’m guessing Equifax (their parent company) is trying to hawk some kind of credit protection plan, but since I won’t hand them my SS number, it’s hard to tell. In the meantime, I’d be interested in hearing if you’ve received this letter and what, if anything, you’ve done in response.

UPDATE 3/11/2012: One thing I forgot to ask people to mention in their comments: Are you in Colorado? I’m trying to determine if this effort on NCTUE’s part (whatever it turns out to be) depends on some quirk in Colorado law, or if it’s national in scope.

Also, read my next entry, for 3/11/2012!

Odd Lots

  • I was wrong about Diesel engines being easy to make, as I suggested in my entry for March 5, 2012. Fuel injection, as it turns out, is a bitch. You’re trying to divide oil into a multitude of very small droplets of (reasonably) consistent size. Gasoline carburetion, by comparison, is a snap. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht, an automotive engineer, for the reminder.)
  • I suspect it’s easier to produce wood gas (AKA “producer gas”) at a small scale than gasoline. In a future where large-scale oil refiners are no more, a Dieselpunk society could power internal combustion engines with wood gas. This has been done a lot around the world, especially during WWII when oil supply channels were disrupted.
  • This has little or nothing to do with the Holy Roman Empire, but if you’re a map freak, boy–budget a day for it. Wow.
  • This looks like a good book, especially if you’re finding it hard to keep track of genre mutation within SFF. Will order and report after reading. (Thanks to Trudy Seabrook for pointing it out.)
  • We found one of these in a drawer in my late grandfather’s workbench after my grandmother died in 1965 and we had to sell their house. I never knew what it was until it made the A-head story on the front page of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal , in an article about…olympic sheep shearing. My grandfather lived a quiet life in a modest house on a tiny lot on Chicago’s north side. There wasn’t a sheep for miles. (I hope he didn’t use it to cut my father’s hair.)
  • I’ve noted some confusion about this: “Retina display” is not an Apple trademark, but a technical term: a display with such high resolution that the eye can’t make out individual pixels at typical reading distance. Here’s a good explanation of the whole retina display concept. The new iPad certainly qualifies, but it wasn’t the first. Asus’ Tranformer Prime was there some time ago. Retina-quality displays are made by several vendors, and will eventually appear in other high-end tablets.
  • The Lytro camera has been mentioned in a lot of places, but here’s the first in-depth description I’ve seen. A camera that allows you to fiddle with the focus after the shot is taken is FM, if you know what I mean. I ditch about a third of my digital photos (mostly taken in bad light) for focus problems. It’s an awkward form factor, but if it’s the first of it’s kind, I’ll assume the next one will fit the hand a little better.
  • The mad scientist in me cried out when I saw this. I need a castle. I need a kite. I need a monster.

Invading the Most Favored Ebook Nation

Reports are pouring in this morning that the Department of Justice is preparing antitrust action against the Big Five publishers (Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Penguin, Macmillan, and Harper Collins) and Apple for conspiring to raise ebooks prices. (It’s a little ironic that I read it in today’s print Wall Street Journal, which I generally read before turning this damned thing on.)

The problem is in part the agency model, which allows publishers to set a price for books, and give retailers like Apple and Amazon a cut. Publishers are afraid of ebooks eating their hardcover lines, of course, but were absolutely terrified that Amazon’s loss-leader pricing of bestsellers at $9.99 would train customers to think that ebooks were worth $10 and no more. Publishers have experimented with windowed release, which holds back the ebook edition until the hardcover has a chance to generate its bigger bucks, but as best I know that’s not widely done. Agency pricing, however, has stuck.

Here’s an agency example, of a hardcover I read recently: Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature has a cover price of $40. (Publishing seems to be responding to the recent shortage of ‘9’ digits by rolling prices up a penny, at least on hardcovers.) All of the ebook stores that I’ve checked are selling the ebook version for $19.99. In an agency arrangement, publishers set both prices. The sales agent (that is, the retailer) gets 30% of the set price. In this case, that would be $6. The publisher gets the rest, here $14.

Why 30%? It’s arbitrary, and simply the number that Apple gave publishers when it changed its bookstore from the wholesale model to the agency model. Apple’s retail contract had a twist, which is really what’s getting them into trouble today: The “most-favored-nation” (MFN) clause, which specifies that publishers may not give other retailers better terms than they gave Apple. Much byzantine legal reasoning online, but here’s a short summary.

TGIANAL, but this still puzzles me a little, and I think we’ll learn more in coming days. MFN clauses have been litigated and are not themselves illegal. The sense is that, if anything, they tend to drive prices down. The current legal action from Justice seems to turn on whether the Big Five colluded on agency pricing (with Apple’s help) to force Amazon to accept the same terms that Apple got. The idea is that the parties named in the suit intended their actions to raise prices, a use of MFN that is in fact illegal. If that sounds like a hard thing to prove (rather than just allege) well, duhh.

As I’ve said earlier, I favor agency pricing, because it allows small, very small, and microscopic publishers to undercut the Big Five in a major way and maybe eke out a marginal living. You can bet that you won’t see 99c ebooks from Macmillan. Much of my puzzlement arises in wondering to what extent ebook publishing will be affected by things like the Robinson-Patman Act, which was created to prevent predatory pricing, though is not widely enforced these days. When the retailer’s role in selling ebooks is basically database management (or when the retailer becomes the publisher or even the author) predatory pricing is not an issue–but odder things have happened in the legal world before.

As always with complex legal issues involving enormous players with cavernous pockets, almost anything could happen. I think the case will either be settled before going to court, or else will be decided narrowly. Publishers may be stripped of their ability to demand that retailers accept the agency model, or any given given agency percentage. I think Amazon would love to retain agency pricing, and just negotiate a lower number.

As I’ve said many times: We’re still in the Cambian era of ebooks (the Pre-Cambrian Era ended with the arrival of the Kindle) and there’s still a whole mess of evolving to do.

Falling Back to Dieselpunk

My writing time has taken some hits in the last few weeks, but the weather has hugely improved. It got up to 72 here today, so with joyous enthusiasm I took a long walk. As usual, something occurred to me, this time when a badly adjusted dump truck went past and bathed me in fumes. Ahh! Dieselpunk!

The insight followed soon after: If the world went to hell for some reason and I had to build a vehicle, it wouldn’t be steam. It would be Diesel. With some study and care, you could render farm animals or even roadkill and make Diesel fuel. Diesel engine technology requires machining and some skill, but not exotic materials nor computer models. (The same is true of gasoline engines, but gasoline is harder to make than Diesel.) You can do it in a garage. Clean rooms not required.

I had some experience in thinking about recovering technology after a societal crash while creating the Drumlins world. The glitch there is that all the inadvertent colonists’ knowledge was in computers, but they didn’t have the critical mass of technology to make more computers, nor even fix the ones that broke. (Quick! We need ten pounds of indium! Jimmy, Sam! Go dig around and see what you can find!) So when the computers died, their technology died too, and they were back to a medieval style of life that might have stayed medieval except for the Thingmakers that shared the planet with them. Advanced technologies build on simpler technologies, which in turn depend on simpler technologies still. It made me wonder if there were a sort of minimum technology level, one that, with common sense, an oral tradition, and few old books, might be constructed more or less from scratch.

Speculation: Steampunk might be a consequence of ignorance (i.e., we don’t know enough yet) whereas Dieselpunk might be a consequence of a sort of poverty of connectedness (i.e., our societal matrix is neither large enough nor rich enough to build what we might find in old books or otherwise imagine, even if we knew how.)

It occurred to me that there was an interesting plateau of sorts between about 1920 and 1940. Most of the stuff that existed in 1940 existed in a slightly cruder form in 1920. During those two decades, we got better at doing the stuff we did before, but we didn’t invent a great deal of truly new stuff. WWII changed everything, of course, and nuclear energy and transistors and many exotic materials showed up by 1950.

The era 1920-1950 was the Golden Age of Back Room Science and Technology. You could do lots of interesting things with an engine lathe, a microscope, a slide rule, a gas stove, a source of electricity, and raw materials you could buy at the local drugstore, hardware store, and feed store. The science was straightforward, the technology simple. Most important of all, it was still possible to be a generalist. A hundred books (Ok, maybe two hundred) could teach you most of what we knew in the hard sciences. You could usefully master physics, chemistry, and math in less than a lifetime. Specialization has always existed, of course, but I think it became mandatory after 1950. After that, you could no longer hear street traffic near a university for Asimov’s Sound of Panting.

If the population of Earth were reduced by three quarters (especially by something limited to human beings, like a very nasty flu virus) high-tech civilization might no longer have the critical mass of human skill it would take to maintain itself. The computers would work for awhile, but after they died, all the support infrastructure (chip foundries etc.) would die with them, and what would be left after a few decades would be less Mad Max than Dieselpunk.

All that’s debatable, of course, and I could be completely wrong. I bring it up only as an insight obtained by getting out in the sunlight for the first time this cold season and making the blood pump a little. I’m taking notes on a fictional setting involving a new Ice Age, and now I’m sure it’ll be a Dieselpunk culture, with no computers but a great deal of steel, vacuum tubes, carbon black soot, and internal combustion. Neanderthals, too: Brute muscle mattered before WWII in a way it may never matter again. And airships–hey, they were huge in the ’30s! (Why let the steampunkers have all the fun?)

Now for the time and energy to finish what I’m working on now so I can get on to The Gathering Ice.

Dancing with Diction

Today is the birthday of Dr. Seuss, without whom I would care nothing for poetry. One of the great bonding behaviors I shared with my baby sister was running around the house reciting snatches (sneeches?) of kid-book poetry at the tops of our lungs. “This one has a little star! This one has a little car! Say, what a lot of fish there are!” The king of that castle is and will always be Theodor Geisel 1904-1991. Circa 1960 our parents had signed us up for what amounted to the Dr. Seuss book club, and every month we got one of his books or another book that was clearly written in his style. There were some outliers not written in verse, like Look Out for Pirates! but who remembers those anymore? (Go, Dog, Go! may be one exception.)

On the other hand, I only have to recall the title of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and my poetry-reciter is off at a trot. Gretchen’s even better at it than I. Don’t get us started if you’re one of those lit’ry types who feels that any poetry with rhyme and meter is worthy only of folding into the center of a Hallmark card.

Modern universities crank such out by the pallet load. Years ‘n years ago, at one damned cocktail party conversation or another (I think associated with the Book Expo America trade show) I made an energetic case that good poetry can have both rhyme and meter. A well-credentialed tribalist immediately jumped on me, steam jetting from every orifice. “So,” he jetted, “all poetry should be doggerel?”

Whoo-boy! Note the well-worn tribal tactic: I suggested that something the tribalist hated should be allowed. The tribalist immediately misrepresented me as saying that everything except what he hated should be forbidden. I called him on it. I basically humiliated him in front of several of his peers. How did I humiliate him? I dared him to begin reciting blank verse from some author who would be taught in college literature courses. He couldn’t do it. I turned the knife by immediately beginning to recite “The Hollow Men.” I stopped after eight or ten lines. I then asked him which poet had written the following:

mighty guest of merely me
–traveler from eternity;
in a single wish, receive
all I am and dream and have.

He shook his head. “You did.” Heh. Don’t I wish. It was e. e. cummings. I offered to recite the rest of the poem. The dork said “No thanks,” and slunk away.

Now, I may be a better memorizer than he was. But I had a secret advantage: Structured poetry is easier to remember. And a secret vulnerability: I had recited all of Eliot that I could recall, and I remember Eliot today largely because I used to make fun of him so much. (I wasn’t singling Eliot out–Dr. Seuss himself did not escape.) Give me Macavity any day, even if the sophisticates dismiss it as children’s poetry. (It’s a cat poem. Dare ‘ya to call it doggerel!) I can recite a great deal of that. It contains irony, subtlety, and much merriment.You can dance to it. I give it a 10.

Note that I don’t “hate” blank verse and freeform poetry, nor do I dismiss it simply because it lacks rhyme and meter. I studied it. I studied Walt Whitman, Robert Lowell, Wallace Stevens, Theodore Roethke, and all those guys of that era and that school of poetry, which has basically won the day. I still recall why my profs thought they were significant. The problem is that the poems themselves I have utterly forgotten. Lowell has a great line somewhere about ’59 Chevies rolling past like fish in a tank, in finned servility. But that’s all of him that I can remember, having read an entire book full of his stuff and discussed it at length in a 300-level class. I’m sure it was carefully crafted. I’ll grant that it was important. But in no way on this or any other world could it ever be fun.

For that you have to go back to poets like Vachel Lindsay, who opened “The Santa Fe Trail” in an eminently memorable way:

This is the order of the music of the morning-:
First from the far east comes but a crooning.
The crooning turns to a sunrise singing:
Hark to the calm-horn, balm-horn, psalm-horn.
Hark to the faint-horn, quaint-horn, saint-horn…

Damn, not only can I see that, I can feel it! It makes me want to run around the house with my baby sister (now 55) yelling “Ho for Kansas land that restores us! When houses choke us and great books bore us!” Eventually we collapse on the couch, breathless from laughing so hard and glowing from feeling so good. Kid stuff? Sure! At least for kids who haven’t yet sold their kidness for a pot of message.

Poetry is about laughter, especially laughter that comes of wishing we could be in Kansas so that we could get away from all those Great Books that are so ponderously self-important they they undergo lexical collapse and vanish into their own navels while everybody stands around scratching their heads trying to understand what the hell they were attempting to convey.

And about dancing, yes. Poetry is dancing with diction, doing the polka with participles, spinning an allemand with adverbs. It’s cutting loose from grim reality for awhile and letting language just take us. “He thought he saw an elephant / That practiced on a fife: / He looked again and found it was / A letter from his wife.” What does it mean? You’d be surprised. I’ll tell you in a minute, but…the music isn’t over yet.

If I’d had to jump straight into Lowell and Roethke I would have tossed it all overboard. But Dr. Seuss had gotten to me first. He taught me that you could dance to words, and from that dance it was a short step to Chaucer and Pope and Longfellow and Tennyson and Lindsay and Robert Frost and e. e. cummings. Having danced to the edges of rhyme and meter (cummings is a great transition) I could go the rest of the way, and watch the fins go by with Robert Lowell.

Did poetry classes leave a sour taste in your mouth? Grab a Dr. Seuss book, and find your sister if you have one. Run around the house spitting iambs and trochees until you collapse laughing on the couch. That’s how you reboot your poetry sense. Then, if you want, you can take it all the rest of the way to Walt Whitman and beyond.

But I personally wouldn’t blame you if you stopped right there.