July 3:  Dog Day

Today is the first day of what is known as the Dog Days of Summer. The association of summer with “man’s best friend” comes to our language via ancient astronomy. During the period from July 3 through August 11, the Dog Star, Sirius, rises in conjunction with the Sun. Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky and is part of the constellation Canis Major, Latin for the Greater Dog.

Some ancient Romans believed that the sultry heat of the Dog Days was explained by the combined heat of Sirius and the sun; however, even in the days before the telescope, this belief was more prominent among the superstitious than serious students of the stars (1).

English is replete with idioms (expressions that don’t make sense when taken literally) related to dogs. And it is interesting to note that despite the dog’s reputation for being “man’s best friend,” most of the expressions use dog in the negative sense. For example, they are used as scapegoats for missing homework: “My dog ate my homework.” They are associated with sickness: “Sick as a dog.” And they are even used to characterize life in general as harsh and cut throat: “It’s a dog eat dog world.”

Today’s Challenge: Dog Daze
What idioms, compound words, titles, quotations come to mind that contain the word “dog”?  First, brainstorm a list of at least ten words and phrases that contain the word dog, such as the following:

-Dog tired
-Hot dog
-Every dog has his day
-You Ain’t Nothin But a Hound Dog
-Dogtown and the Z-Boys
-“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.” –Groucho Marx

Second, use your list of ideas as a springboard for a topic that you can write about — any form or genre is okay, as long as your writing is interesting: speech, argument, memoir, poetry, fiction, dramatic monologue, open letter, personal essay, description, anecdote

Third, begin writing.  Use the brainstorm idea that sparked your topic as your title. Make sure that the word “dog” is in your title. Write at least 200 words. (Common Core Writing 1, 2, or 3)

Quotation of the Day: To his dog, every man is Napoleon; hence the constant popularity of dogs. –Aldous Huxley

1 – http://www.space.com/8946-dog-days-summer-celestial-origin.html

2- Claiborne, Robert. Loose Cannons and Red Herrings: A Book of Lost Metaphors. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.

June 27:  Short Story Day

One of the most iconic and most anthologized short stories ever written is set on this day.  The story is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

The date is established in the story’s opening line:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.

ShirleyJack.jpgWhile the story’s opening sentence paints a calm, serene picture, the events of the story soon turn dark and even horrifying as the reader discovers why the residents of an unidentified small American village have gathered.  In an annual rite, the villagers draw lots to determine which one of them will be stoned to death.

Soon after the story was published in the June 26, 1948 edition of the New Yorker, a deluge of letters arrived expressing the shock and bewilderment of its readers.  In fact, “The Lottery” sparked more letters to the New Yorker than any work of fiction it ever published.  Some of the readers were critical — including some who canceled their subscriptions — but most were simply confused by the story, wanting an explanation of its meaning (1).

On July 22, 1948, nearly one month after the story’s publication, Jackson wrote to the San Francisco Chronicle, giving a brief explanation of the story’s meaning:

Explaining just what I had hoped the story to say is very difficult. I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story’s readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives (2).

The day and month of the story’s setting are noteworthy.  June 27th has significance dating back to the Roman calendar as the first day of summer.  It was known as Initium Aestatis or the Feast of Aestas, the Roman Goddess of summer (3).  

But perhaps more noteworthy in determining the meaning of “The Lottery” is the year of its publication:  1948. In her take on the meaning of the story, Ruth Franklin, biographer of Shirley Jackson, explains why it makes sense that a story like this would emerge three years after one of history’s darkest and most brutal wars — World War II:

[“The Lottery”] anticipates the way we would come to understand the twentieth century’s unique lessons about the capacity of ordinary citizens to do evil—from the Nazi camp bureaucracy, to the Communist societies that depended on the betrayal of neighbor by neighbor and the experiments by the psychologists Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo demonstrating how little is required to induce strangers to turn against each other. In 1948, with the fresh horrors of the Second World War barely receding into memory and the Red Scare just beginning, it is no wonder that the story’s first readers reacted so vehemently to this ugly glimpse of their own faces in the mirror, even if they did not realize exactly what they were looking at (4).

Today’s Challenge:  Short Story Almanac

If you were to write a short story that takes place on a specific day and month, what would it be and why?  Write the opening paragraph of a short story that takes place on a specific day and month.  (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  I frankly confess to being completely baffled by Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Lottery.’ Will you please send us a brief explanation before my husband and I scratch right through our scalps trying to fathom it?  –Miriam Friend in a letter to the editor of The New Yorker.

1- http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-lottery-letters

2-http://northbennington.org/jackson.html

3-http://www.thaliatook.com/OGOD/aestas.html

4-http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/the-lottery-letters

June 23:  Pangram Day

Today is the anniversary of the patent for the first QWERTY typewriter.

Around 1860, Christopher Latham Sholes, a journalist for the Milwaukee News, began his quest to create a machine that could write words both legibly and quickly on paper. Sholes’ design was not the first attempt at creating a writing machine, but it was the fastest and most efficient model available when he filed for his patent in 1868.

Sholes’ great innovation was the QWERTY system (named for the arrangement of the first six letters on the first row of letters on the keyboard). As explained in Great Inventions, Sholes’ design, coupled with the QWERTY letter arrangement, made his typewriter faster than a pen:

The secret of its speed lay in the keyboard design, which paradoxically slowed the typist down. Sholes arranged the letters in the now familiar qwerty sequence: this forces typists to move their fingers further than was really necessary to type common letter sequences but it gave the keys time to fall back into place after typing (1).

The name type-writer was coined by Sholes, who sold his machine to E. Remington & Sons in 1873. In 1874, the Remington typewriter hit the market at a price of $125. One of the first buyers was Mark Twain who completed the manuscript for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on his new machine, becoming the first writer ever to present a publisher with a typed manuscript (2).

Even today, in an era where metal keys have been replaced by electronic word processing, the QWERTY system remains the standard keyboard layout.

Wordplay enthusiasts have an entire category of words related to typewriter order. For example, the word typewriter can be written using just the letters on the top row of the keyboard.

Chris Cole’s book Wordplay: A Curious Dictionary of Language Oddities lists the following additional examples:

-Other common words that can be written using just the top row: repertoire, proprietor, perpetuity.

-Longest common word that can be typed using only letters from the middle row: alfalfa.

-Longest common words using letters in typewriter order: weigh, quips, quash, quaff, quill.

-Longest common words using letters in reverse typewriter order: soiree, sirree.

-Longest common words using just the left hand on the typewriter: aftereffects, stewardesses, reverberated, desegregated.

-Longest common words using just the right hand on the typewriter: polyphony, homophony.

-Longest common word using alternating hands: dismantlement.

-Longest common word using one finger: deeded.

-Longest word from adjacent keys: assessed, reseeded (3).

A less esoteric type of typewriter wordplay is called the pangram. Common to students who are learning the keyboard, a pangram is a single sentence that contains all 26 letters of the alphabet at least once, such as: The quick brown fox, jumps over the lazy dogs. A common competition among hardcore word-buffs is to create pangrams with the fewest possible letters. It is possible to create a 26-letter pangram, but it is hard to do without resorting to obscure words and strained syntax; for example, try to decipher this 26-letter pangram: Cwm, fjord-bank glyphs quiz vext.

Here are some other examples of pangrams that use more common words:

How quickly daft jumping zebras vex.

The five boxing wizards jump quickly.

Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs (3).

Today’s Challenge: Pangrams With a Purpose

How would you revise the title of your favorite book or movie using every letter of the alphabet? Imagine that a new Equal Usage Amendment for letters has been passed which states that every book and movie must be renamed so that every letter of the alphabet appears in its title.  Try writing a panagramic title for your favorite book or movie.

The following are some examples:

The Sometimes Quixotic, Other Times Joyless Prince Who Lost his Zest For Life, Yearned For His Adulterous Mother, and Killed His Boisterous, Vile, and Godless Uncle. (Hamlet, The Tragedy of the Prince of Denmark)

An Extremely Vocal Wolf’s Huffing and Puffing Quickly Jumbles Zany Pigs’ Houses (The Three Little Pigs)

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day: If the monkey could type one keystroke every nanosecond, the expected waiting time until the monkey types out ‘Hamlet’ is so long that the estimated age of the universe is insignificant by comparison … this is not a practical method for writing plays.  -Gian-Carlo Rota

1 – Dyson, James and Robert Uhlig. Great Inventions. New York: Barnes & Nobles Books, 2001.

2 – Baron, Naomi S. Alphabet to Email: How Written English Evolved and Where It’s Heading. London: Routledge, 2000.

3 – Cole, Chris. Wordplay: A Curious Dictionary of Language Oddities. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 1999.

 

June 20:  Hot and Cold Running Idioms Day

Today is the anniversary of an important date in the history of communications. On this day in 1963 in Geneva, Switzerland, the United States and the Soviet Union signed what was called the “Hot Line Agreement,” which established a direct communication link between the two superpowers.

After the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962, it became abundantly clear that without prompt, direct communication between the heads of state in the East and the West, tragic miscommunication leading to nuclear war might result. During the 1962 exercise in brinkmanship, President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev were forced to use intermediaries in their communications.

The Hot Line Agreement was the first bilateral agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and the first step in recognizing that cooler heads should prevail when it comes to the Cold War maneuvering of the nuclear powers (1).

It was the Soviet Union that first proposed the hot line in 1954. The word hot line first appeared in print in 1955, and the word brinkmanship, meaning the art of advancing to the very brink of war but not engaging in it, first appeared in 1956 (2).

Probably the most famous demonstration of the red phone comes to us via Hollywood rather than the history books. In the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, President Merkin Muffley, played by Peter Sellers, struggles to tell Soviet Premier Kissoff that an insane American general has ordered a nuclear bombing mission on Russia:

President Merkin Muffley: . . . Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb… The Bomb, Dmitri… The hydrogen bomb!… Well now, what happened is… ah… one of our base commanders, he had a sort of… well, he went a little funny in the head… you know… just a little… funny. And, ah… he went and did a silly thing… Well, I’ll tell you what he did. He ordered his planes… to attack your country… Ah… Well, let me finish, Dmitri… Let me finish, Dmitri… Well listen, how do you think I feel about it?… Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dmitri?… Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say hello?… Of course I like to speak to you!… Of course I like to say hello!… Not now, but anytime, Dmitri. I’m just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened… It’s a friendly call. Of course it’s a friendly call… Listen, if it wasn’t friendly… you probably wouldn’t have even got it . . . .

Today’s Challenge: Hot ‘N’ Cold

Below are descriptions of expressions that contain either the word hot or cold. Given the number of words in each expression along with a description, see if you can name the phrase:

  1. Four words: Newly printed; sensational and exciting.
  2. Two words: Immediate, complete withdrawal from something, especially an addictive substance.
  3. Two words: Trouble or difficulty.
  4. Two words: Retreat from an undertaking; lose one’s nerve.
  5. Two words: Deliberate disregard, slight, or snub.
  6. Four words: Extremely angry.
  7. Four words: In a position of extreme stress, as when subjected to harsh criticism.
  8. Five words: To cause one to shiver from fright or horror.

What are more examples of common expression or idioms in English that feature the words “hot” or “cold”?  Use one of these expressions as a launching pad for an original composition.  Use the idiom as your title, and write at least 250 words. (Common Core Writing 2/3 Expository/Narrative)

Quote of the Day: Hot heads and cold hearts never solved anything. -Billy Graham

Answers: 1. Hot off the presses 2. Cold turkey 3. Hot water 4. Cold feet 5. Cold shoulder 6. Hot under the collar 7. In the hot seat 8. Make one’s blood run cold.

1 – United States Department of State. Memorandum of Understanding Between The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Regarding the Establishment of a Direct Communication Link

http://www.state.gov/t/isn/4785.htm

2- Ayto, John. Twentieth Century Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

3 – Ammer, Christine. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997.

June 10:  Historic Anecdote Day

On this day in 323 BC, an ancient king and an ancient philosopher died.

The king was Alexander the Great, the Macedonian general who conquered most of the ancient world.  As a youth, Alexander was tutored by the philosopher Aristotle, and his favorite author was Homer. Legend says that he slept with a copy of the Iliad and a dagger under his pillow.  After earning his first military victory at the age 18, Alexander fought for the next 15 years with an undefeated record in battle.  When Alexander realized there were no more worlds to conquer, he wept.

The ancient philosopher was Diogenes the Cynic.  Diogenes believed in living a life free of conventions and constraints.  He eschewed possessions and famously made his home in a large discarded clay jar.  He once owned a wooden cup, but discarded one day when he witnessed a young boy using his cupped bare hands to drink water.  Diogenes was known to walk through the marketplace in the middle of the day carrying a lighted lamp. When asked why he carried the lamp and inspected the faces of those he met, Diogenes answered, “I am trying to find a man.”

Although these two men died in separate parts of the world — Alexander in Babylon and Diogenes in Corinth — the two men are connected in cultural memory through one of history’s best-known anecdotes.

The story goes that the young Alexander once made a visit to Diogenes’ hometown of Corinth.  Everyone flocked to catch a glimpse of the great leader, to hear him speak, and to gain his favor — everyone that is but Diogenes.  Since Diogenes did not come to see him, Alexander determined to make a personal visit to see the philosopher. Accompanied by a throng of admirers, Alexander approached Diogenes’ home, the large barrel-shaped jar.  Diogenes did not greet the young conqueror; in fact, he didn’t even stand. Instead, he simply sat up on one elbow. After a short period of awkward silence, Alexander asked: “Diogenes, is there anything I can do for you?”

“Yes,” Diogenes replied, “Stand to one side.  You’re blocking the sunlight.”

The crowd was hushed and amazed at Diogenes’ insolence, but Alexander was unphased.  He simply turned away and said quietly, “If I were not Alexander, I should be Diogenes.”

More than one ancient biographer wrote that Alexander and Diogenes died on the same day, June 10, 323 BC.  The exact cause of the two men’s deaths is not exactly clear. Although it might be expected that the warrior Alexander died in battle, no such report exists.  Instead accounts of his death conflict. Some say he died of poisoning, others of malaria or typhoid fever. Only 32 years of age at his death, Alexander’s body was submerged in a vat of honey to stave off decay.

As for the death of Diogenes, there are also conflicting accounts.  One account claims he simply held his breath, another claims he became ill after eating raw octopus, and still another claim he died of infection from a dog bite.

This last possibility is especially ironic, considering that Diogenes’ creed of Cynicism means “doggishness.”  In his History of Cynicism, the scholar R. Dudley explains why the Cynics embraced a dog’s life:

There are four reasons why the Cynics are so named. First because of the indifference of their way of life, for they make a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs and at crossroads. The second reason is that the dog is a shameless animal, and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it. The third reason is that the dog is a good guard, and they guard the tenets of their philosophy. The fourth reason is that the dog is a discriminating animal which can distinguish between its friends and enemies. So do they recognize as friends those who are suited to philosophy, and receive them kindly, while those unfitted they drive away, like dogs, by barking at them. (2)

Today’s Challenge:  From History to Story

Who are some great historic figures you would like to know more about?  What are some specific stories that include one or more of these individuals?  Brainstorm a list of historic figures who are of interest to you.  Do a bit of research to discover an anecdote about one of them. Before you begin writing, however, note the difference between the words “historical” and “historic.”  “Historical” refers to anything or anyone from the past; “historic,” in contrast, refers to something or someone important from the past. Therefore, when you do your research on a “historic anecdote” focus on important or famous people from the past.  Tell the story of a single specific incident using your own words. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam—and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer barrel?  -Hamlet in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the Tragedy of the Prince of Denmark

1-Highet, Gilbert.  “Diogenes And Alexander”

2-Dudley, R. A History of Cynicism.  Cambridge University Press, 1937.

 

June 5:  Bedtime Story Day

Today is the birthday of Rick Riordan, the bestselling author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.  An award-winning author of mysteries for adults, Riordan’s great success as a children’s author began at the bedside of his son.  When his son requested a bedtime story from Greek Mythology, Riordan, a former middle school teacher, was more than willing to share some stories about gods and heroes.  Riordan’s major breakthrough happened when he ran out of material. His son asked him to make up some new stories with the same characters.

The Lightning Thief cover.jpgIn addition to the familiar characters from Greek mythology, there is one conspicuously new character:  Percy Jackson, a 12-year old demigod with dyslexia and ADHD.

A 2007 study entitled “Reading Across the Nation” found that under half of parents surveyed in the U.S. read every day to their children.  The study tracked results by state. The highest scoring state was Vermont, where 67% of respondents claimed to read to children daily; the lowest scoring state was Mississippi with 38%.

The results of the “Reading Across the Nation” study are distressing.  The nightly bedtime story ritual is more than just a time for preparing children to sleep; it’s an essential part of preparing them for a lifetime of literacy.  The study’s authors state the following:

Reading aloud is the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading. Early language skills, the foundation for later reading ability, are based primarily on language exposure and human interaction – parents and other adults talking to young children. The more words parents use when speaking to an eight-month-old infant, the greater the size of the child’s vocabulary at age three (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Tell Me a Story

Which mythological characters do you think have the most dramatic stories?  Brainstorm some memorable characters from mythology.  Research their background and stories. Then, using your own words, tell a single story about your featured character aimed at a young audience.  Remember to include the essential story elements, such as dialogue, setting, conflict, climax, and resolution. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quote of the Day:  A nation that does not read much does not know much. And a nation that does not know much is more likely to make poor choices in the home, the marketplace, the jury box, and the voting booth. And those decisions ultimately affect the entire nation…the literate and illiterate. -Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook

1 -Biography – Rick Riordan.  https://www.scholastic.com/teachers/authors/rick-riordan/

2 –http://www.reachoutandread.org/FileRepository/RORChartbook.pdf

 

May 30:  Memorial and Memoir Day

Today is the anniversary of the celebration of the first Memorial Day in 1868.  

After the Civil War ended in 1865, many communities in the North and the South began holding tributes to fallen soldiers.  These commemorations, which were originally called Decoration Day, were held in the spring when flowers were readily available for the decoration of graves.

Graves at Arlington on Memorial Day.JPGOn May 5, 1868, American General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War veterans group, issued General Order Number 11, which said:

The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet church-yard in the land.

Decoration Day gradually evolved to be called Memorial Day. And after World War I, it became a day to honor not just fallen Civil War soldiers, but all war dead. Not until 1971 did Memorial Day become an official federal holiday.  In that year, the Uniform Monday Holiday Act established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May, which created a three-day weekend for federal workers (1).

While Memorial Day is a day to remember those who gave their lives in past wars, it can also be a day to remember the power we all have to revisit the past through the genre of memoir.  In memoir, we are given the ability to time travel and vicariously take part in the intimate experiences and thoughts of writers who have documented the significant moments of their lives.

There is no greater example of this than in Marcel Proust’s The Remembrance of Things Past, a seven-volume memoir published over a period of fourteen years (1913-1927). Proust’s flood of memories is launched in a single remarkable moment, as he is sitting drinking a cup of herbal tea with a madeleine:  

And as soon as I had recognised the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me (although I did not yet know and must long postpone the discovery of why this memory made me so happy) immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents (the isolated segment which until that moment had been all that I could see); and with the house the town, from morning to night and in all weathers, the square where I used to be sent before lunch, the streets along which I used to run errands, the country roads we took when it was fine.

Through his sense of taste, Proust’s memory is magically unlocked, and he is involuntarily transported in an instant to a vivid remembrance of his past.

Proust’s work is just one example of many brilliant memoirs that allow us to see, smell, taste, feel, and hear what others have experienced in their past.

Here are a few examples:

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin

Boy by Roald Dahl

Confessions by Augustine

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Diary by Samuel Pepys

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell

My Left Foot by Christy Brown

Stop Time by Frank Conroy

The Story of My Life  by Hellen Keller

Reading Lolita in Tehran:  A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi

This Boy’s Life: A Memoir by Tobias Wolff

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Today’s Challenge:  Past Is Prologue

What are some of the most significant moments from your past that are vivid enough that you could describe them in detail?  Brainstorm some specific moments from your life that you remember vividly.  Select one moment and write about it, describing it as vividly as possible with sensory imagery.  Also, reflect on why the incident remains meaningful to you today and why it lingers in your memory. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  Own only what you can always carry with you: know languages, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag. –Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

1-http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/memorial-day-history

May 19:  Literacy Narrative Day

Black nationalist leader Malcolm X was born on this day in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska. Born Malcolm Little, he considered Little his slave name, so he replaced it with an X to represent the lost name of his African tribal ancestors.

Malcolm X in March 1964When he was 21 years old, Malcolm was convicted of burglary and received a ten-year sentence.  In prison, Malcolm transformed his life through voracious reading and study. He stopped using drugs and became a member of the Nation of Islam.  After his early-release from prison in 1952, Malcolm became a spokesman for the Nation of Islam. Like Martin Luther King’s quest for civil rights, Malcolm advocated for racial equality.  However, unlike King’s tactics of nonviolent resistance, Malcolm promoted a more militant approach, saying “There’s no such thing as a nonviolent revolution.” Shortly before he died, Malcolm left the Nation of Islam.  While preparing to give a speech in New York, he was assassinated on February 21, 1965.

In his autobiography, Malcolm recounts the events that led to his education behind bars.  With time on his hands, he attempted to read but due to his limited vocabulary, he could comprehend few of the words on the page.  To remedy this he decided to study a dictionary. Beginning with the letter A, he read and copied by hand page after page and soon discovered that he was learning more than just vocabulary:  “With every succeeding page, I also learned of people and places and events from history. Actually the dictionary is like a miniature encyclopedia.”

As his knowledge base and vocabulary grew, Malcolm turned to other books beside the dictionary, reading in every free moment during the day, and well into the night by a small corridor light outside his jail cell.

Talking about his prison studies, Malcolm says:  

I never have been so truly free in my life. . . . the ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive . . . . My homemade education gave me, with every additional book that I read, a little bit more sensitivity to the deafness, dumbness, and blindness that was afflicting the black race in America.

Today’s Challenge:  Your Love Letter to Literacy

What are some memorable experiences that would be in your autobiography regarding your acquisition of literacy?  What do you remember about learning to read, about learning to write, and about being influenced by books?  Imagine you are writing your autobiography and that it must include a literacy narrative, that is a story of your experiences with learning to read and write.  Write about a specific incident from your life that is related to books, reading, or writing.  Also consider the people who have influenced your experiences with literacy. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-The Autobiography of Malcolm X 1965

 

May 11:  Tall Tale Day

On this day in 1720, Baron Karl Friedrich Münchhausen was born.  The German nobleman fought for the Russian Empire in two Turkish Wars.  When he retired to his German estate in 1760, he gained a reputation as a raconteur, weaving outrageous tall tales based on his experiences as a soldier, traveler, and sportsman.

Munchausen might have been forgotten by history if not for German writer Rudolf Erich Raspe who listened to the baron’s tales and adapted them in a book Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia.

In Raspe’s book, the outlandish tales are narrated in first person by Munchausen.  In one story, for example, the baron recounts a near-death experience he had while bathing one day in the Mediterranean.  Startled by a giant fish swimming towards him, Munchausen curled his body into a ball and sailed into the fish’s mouth and into its stomach. Before he could figure out how to extricate himself from the fish’s belly, he felt the fish rising from the waters. A fisherman had caught the fish and was about to cut it up when he heard the baron yelling.  Freed by the fisherman, the baron ends his story by saying that ever since that day, whenever he smells fish, he becomes sick.

Throughout the years the stories that Raspe put in print have been adapted, expanded, and rewritten in numerous languages.  In 1988, Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame made a film adaptation called The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

In addition to being a name synonymous with tall tales, Munchausen’s name has also become well-known in the psychiatric and medical communities for a condition known as Munchausen Syndrome.

More than just telling entertaining tales, victims of Munchausen Syndrome deliberately deceive their doctors, describing false symptoms of illness and in some cases even inducing real symptoms by injecting themselves with foreign substances.

Today’s Challenge:  Munchausen Your Autobiography

What are some incidents from your life that you might exaggerate in the tradition of the tall tale?  Brainstorm a list of key incidents that you would include in your autobiography.  Select one important incident and write it as a short autobiographical anecdote based on what really happened.  Next, take that story and “munchausen” it by adding some hyperbole, drama, and outrageous embellishments. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Quotation of the Day:  The raconteur knows too well that, if he investigates the truth of the matter, he is only too likely to lose his good story. Herbert Butterfield

1-Goldberg, Philip.  The Babinski Reflex. Los Angeles:  Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., 1990.

 

May 7:  Dramatic Monologue Day

Today is the birthday of poet Robert Browning. Born in Camberwell, England in 1812, Browning was exposed to books at a young age. His father owned a collection of some 6,000 rare volumes, and Browning learned to share his father’s passion for literature, reading books in Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French, Italian, and Spanish.

Robert Browning by Herbert Rose Barraud c1888.jpgBrowning wrote both poetry and drama, and his most influential innovation, the dramatic monologue, combined both.

The dramatic monologue is characterized as a poem with a single speaker with an implied listener or audience. The speaker is not the poet; instead, the poet takes on the persona (Latin for “mask’) of an imaginary character and brings that character alive solely through the words spoken.  A specific dramatic situation is important in the poem, as well as a tone that captures both the voice and the character of the speaker.

Perhaps the greatest of all dramatic monologues was one written by Browning in 1842 called “My Last Duchess.”  In the poem, set during the Italian Renaissance, Browning speaks in the persona of an arrogant, cold, and controlling duke who is in the process of negotiating the dowry for his next marriage.  Taking a break from the negotiations, he gives a tour to one of his future father-in-law’s envoys. The major focus of the duke’s remarks is on a portrait of his deceased wife, his “last duchess,” which he shows the envoy.  The major criticism he had with this duchess, as he explains to the envoy, is that she had “A heart . . . too soon made glad,/Too easily impressed.” Because she did not make her husband the sole focus of her universe and because she allowed herself to be moved by other persons and other things than her husband, he “gave commands” –a suggestion that he had her killed to open the door of opportunity for a new, less disagreeable wife.

My Last Duchess by Robert Browning

That’s my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf’s hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will ‘t please you sit and look at her? I said
‘Frà Pandolf’ by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, ‘t was not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek: perhaps
Frà Pandolf chanced to say, ‘Her mantle laps
Over my lady’s wrist too much,’ or ‘Paint
Must never hope to reproduce the faint
Half-flush that dies along her throat:’ such stuff
Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough
For calling up that spot of joy. She had
A heart—how shall I say?—too soon made glad,
Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er
She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.
Sir, ‘t was all one! My favour at her breast,
The dropping of the daylight in the West,
The bough of cherries some officious fool
Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule
She rode with round the terrace—all and each
Would draw from her alike the approving speech,  
Or blush, at least. She thanked men,—good! but thanked
Somehow—I know not how—as if she ranked
My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name
With anybody’s gift. Who’d stoop to blame
This sort of trifling? Even had you skill
In speech—(which I have not)—to make your will
Quite clear to such an one, and say, ‘Just this
Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss,
Or there exceed the mark’—and if she let
Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set
Her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse,
—E’en then would be some stooping; and I choose
Never to stoop. Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,
Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without
Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;
Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands
As if alive. Will ‘t please you rise? We’ll meet
The company below then. I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;
Though his fair daughter’s self, as I avowed
At starting, is my object. Nay, we’ll go
Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,
Taming a sea-horse, thought a rarity,
Which Claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!

Today’s Challenge:  Grab Your Mask and Your Poetic License

What are some examples of dramatic situations a person might be in that would produce a dramatic monologue?  Try your hand at writing your own dramatic monologue. You can try to write it in verse if you want, but more importantly, try to capture the authentic voice of your narrator. In a dramatic monologue you can take on the voice of ANYONE, or anything, you desire. In other words, you take on a persona and use your poetic license to channel the voice of whomever you wish.

Before you begin writing, you’ll need four things:

  1. A specific character/narrator  
  2. A dramatic situation
  3. An attitude the speaker has toward the situation (tone)
  4. A listener or audience of the monologue

Before you commit to a single idea, do some brainstorming on possible combinations of the four elements. You can go for comedy or tragedy — a really good dramatic monologue might have elements of both.

Here are some examples:

  1. An angry teacher, complaining to her husband about her students’ lack of enthusiasm.
  2. A teenager pleading with his parents to allow him to get a tattoo.
  3. A desperate elderly salesman trying to persuade his boss not to fire him.
  4. An enthusiastic teenager trying to persuade her grandmother to get an iPod.
  5. A shocked postal worker calling the police to report a UFO sighting.
  6. A concerned father advising his son on how to approach the challenges of life.

(Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

Below is an example based on #6, with apologies to Rudyard Kipling:

HOW YOUR RACE IS RUN

If you can keep your head about you when everybody’s losing theirs

Step up to the starting line, and stare down your fears

Be ready for the gun as you start the race

Get out at a good strong pace

Don’t let the pack box you in.

Run your own race to win.

Whether you win or lose the race my son,

It matters more how your race is run

Will you run your race to win?

And when you fall down will pick yourself back up again?

You’ve  gotta make your own breaks in this human race

Three fingers pointing back in your face

Fill each minute with sixty seconds run.

You can’t stop the sun, but you can make him run.

Triumph and disaster are two imposters just the same,

Don’t spend your time looking for someone to blame.

Because the rain comes down and the way gets hard,

And it seems like you haven’t gotten very far

Push beyond the pain

Through the mud and the rain

Whether you win or lose the race my son

It matters more how your race is run

Try to see the world in your neighbor’s shoes

And whether you win or you lose

You’re not the only one who has a race to run

Do all you can to lend a helping hand

Pray to God each day

That He’ll light your way

Whether you win or lose the race my son

It matters more how your race is run

Quotation of the Day: Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp – or what’s a heaven for? -Robert Browning