Thursday, May 28, 2009

Parvum Opus 327 ~ Welcome to the Rorschach Arms

Ghost Writers in the Sky

There’s no shame in using a ghostwriter. Many celebrities do. They may not be very good writers, which doesn’t necessarily correlate with intelligence. The craft of writing takes time to learn to do well, and it even takes a lot of time to do it poorly. Thus there’s no reason to beat up Sarah Palin for having a ghost writer for her upcoming book.

Years ago I read two books by Tom Brown, Jr., a tracker in New Jersey, of all places. They were written in the first person, as I recall, though “as told to” two different writers, one of which was much better than the other. Now I don’t remember which was which; fortunately his story was stronger than the writing. Brown has produced more books since then.

Jack Cashill wrote Hoodwinked: How Intellectual Hucksters Have Hijacked American Culture (which I haven’t read yet), and also Who Wrote Dreams and Why It Matters” (which I did read) about Obama’s autobiographies. His literary detective work led him to believe that Obama did not write his books. Cashill’s evidence is the number of statistically unusual words, phrases, and images in Obama’s books that appear in the work of another writer, that writer being Bill Ayers. I find Cashill’s arguments pretty convincing though there’s no solid proof and Ayers, of course, denies it. It would be interesting to read Ayers’ work along with Obama’s books. However, even when I was intensely interested in learning more about him during the campaign, I started one of Obama’s books, but couldn’t finish. Sometimes it’s hard to focus on the self-preoccupation of young men.

While there’s nothing wrong with using a ghost writer, there is something wrong with not acknowledging it. Obama was not yet a huge celebrity when these books came out. He was, however, hugely ambitious, and maybe he (and someone else) thought his skills weren’t up to the job. Why not? And why publish the books at all, whether or not he wrote them himself?

Martin Luther King said “I have a dream.” Obama has said “I have a gift” and he meant an oral rhetorical gift, which is not the same as writing talent. He has the gift of making people think he believes what they believe.

Welcome to the Rorschach Arms

While I’m into the Obama hagiography, let us turn to Michelle Obama’s arms. No discussion of lovely arms is complete without attention to hers (to paraphrase S. J. Perelman). Sally Quinn waxed rapturous about them in the Washington Post. Michelle Obama’s bare arms are now “a transformational cultural symbol”. She’s young, tall, and slim and her arms don’t flap, so she looks good in sleeveless dresses, which makes her a great Earth mother and also threatening to certain men (probably only Republicans).

By the way, did you ever wonder why apartment buildings are called “Arms”? The best explanation I found is that it’s derivative of English pub names like The Something Arms with a noble family’s coat of arms on the sign.


Joseph Pearce, author of Quest for Shakespeare, in his TV program on the same material, quoted a source from 1591: “…the priest does use to come very much to John Fortescue’s house…” We have retained the verb “use” in this sense only in the past tense: “he used to come.” This sounds exactly like “use to” so it’s easy to see here why the present tense requires the auxiliary verb “does”, though I wonder if anyone ever said or wrote “he uses to come”. I don’t know why we lost the present tense. Now we have to say something like “he comes often” or “he usually comes” or “he’s in the habit of coming”.

From a web site of Shakespeare sonnets in Latin, here’s one of the more familiar sonnets:


Fortunae fugiens iras oculosque virorum
Sicubi desertum me miserumque fleo;
Sive deûm irrito frustra clamoribus aures,
Meque tuens fatis imprecor omne malum;
Vellem ubi me natum spe cum meliore fuisse.
Huius amicitiis, illius ore, parem,
Artemve alterius vel idonea tempora natum,
Quoque meum magis est hoc minus omne placet;
Tum, per eas idem curas me paene perosus,
Forte tui memini, laetaque cuncta reor;
Ac feror in cantus ut inerte a caespite surgens
Mane novo ad caeli cantat alauda fores.
Ditat enim sic ipse tui me sensus amoris
Vt mihi tum regum despiciantur opes.

When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Language Bits

[|] Writer’s Digest uses this example in discussing the use of “who” and “whom”:

You asked whom to the dance?

This is correct, but unidiomatic. I’d say “You asked who to the dance?” It doesn’t mean the same thing as “Who (or whom) did you ask to the dance?” It’s more of an incredulous reaction to information received. This is the kind of question and situation that calls for the colloquial. Formal speech or writing demands correctness.

[|] Dennis Miller got a caller on his radio show (May 20) who introduced himself by saying he’d had a stroke a couple of years before and his speech might still be a little rough. Miller pointed out an interesting fact, that when the man recovered his speech, he also recovered his Boston accent. You might think that if you have to relearn speech, you’d start with no accent. This would be hard to test. Presumably the man was surrounded by people with the Boston accent.

[|] I read the charming children’s book When Molly Was Six (Eliza Orne White, 1894) as a girl, rather more recently than 1894. In one chapter, Molly has been given a pencil and pink paper to keep her occupied during the long church service, which she used to copy out passages from the Bible. More than a century after Molly was published, I saw a little girl with what looked like a small DVD player in church. She wasn’t trained to be able to sit quietly for half an hour and look around at her environment. After a while she lay down on her stomach and stared at the screen and tapped her little feet on the back of the seat. She was quiet until the foot tapping started, but instead of electronic entertainment should have had paper and pencil and practiced her writing. So I say.

[|] Bob O. turned me on to a web site of good things, which reminds me of Grit magazine, to which my parents subscribed. Grit is aimed at rural audiences, and it’s all good news. The cheaper women’s supermarket magazines (not the gossip mags) tend to be very bright and colorful and upbeat too. We need to feed ourselves more simple goodness. Years ago, I had a friend who’d spent a year in prison for possession of marijuana, and he said it’s very important to be careful what you read when you’re locked up, to keep your head straight.

Don’t Shut Up

“Tell Cheney to shut the hell up” is the name of a group on Facebook to which a couple of my Facebook friends subscribe. I haven’t followed what Cheney has been saying, but I gather he’s been criticizing the current regime. “Tell Cheney to shut the hell up” isn’t merely rhetorical hyperbole. Some people would shut him up if they could, and presumably anyone who agrees with him or disagrees with them. It keeps coming up: shut him/them up, take away his/their mic, etc. Discussion of issues is not what’s going on here. The fundamental American value of free speech is losing a lot of ground, and that ground is to your left; watch your step.

Moving across the political and moral ground over the years as I have, I’ve found over and over again that a lot of people will not discuss differences of opinion or changes of opinion, or nuances, if you will. They tune out, make personal attacks, walk away, in person and in writing. The same thing has happened to Fred, in his correspondence with friends and family. The ones who wouldn’t continue a conversation with Fred on serious issues — ones they brought up in the first place —have been (1) the pastor of a certain fundamentalist church, and (2) what I will call Marxist fundamentalists. Actually, I think it’s because none of them can keep up with Fred’s erudition, but in my own less erudite experience, with my Marxist friends it’s definitely a one-sided conversation.

Personal disclosure: When I used to be of a strongly secular persuasion, I could not tolerate certain kinds of religious e-mails from friends. In fact it made me angry. I couldn’t bear to read anything from anyone who was against abortion, for instance. Granted, I tended to get big chunks of unannotated scripture or over-simplified, bumper-sticker kinds of messages, again without careful discussion but with lots of assumptions that didn’t take my assumptions into account, but I recognize the tendency to shut out what you don’t want to think through thoroughly. As my positions change or get more complex than the knee-jerk liberal-to-left-to-radical ideas of my college years, I’m much more willing to talk them over because I really do see both sides, having been on both sides, or three or four sides, of many issues.

So to all of you who’ve continued to read PO over the years, even while disagreeing with me, and especially you who will jump into the fray in a civil manner, you get my intellectual integrity award.



I’m publishing for the Kindle digital reader with Amazon and now also on for download to computer and for printing. Most of these titles are available in both locations. Search for Rhonda Keith on Kindle store and

* A Walk Around Stonehaven is a travel article on my trip to Scotland. Short article with photos. ( only.)

* The Wish Book is fantasy-suspense-romance featuring the old Sears Roebuck catalogues. Novella.

* Carl Kriegbaum Sleeps with the Corn is about a young gambler who finds himself upright in a cornfield in Kansas with his feet encased in a tub of concrete; how would you get out of a spot like that? Short story.

* Still Ridge is about a young woman who moves from Boston to Appalachia and finds there are two kinds of moonshine, the good kind and the kind that can kill you. Short story.

* Whither Spooning? asks whether synchronized spooning can be admitted to the 2010 Winter Olympics. Humorous sports article.

* Blood, Sweat, Tears, and Cats: One woman's tale of menopause, in which I learn that the body is predictive; I perceive that I am like my cat; and I find love. Autobiographical essay.

* Parvum Opus Volume I. The first year (December 2002 through 2003). You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll get PO’ed. Collection of columns.

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Graphic covers of my books

Dulce, Utile, et Decorum (Sweet, Useful, and Proper: title of new collection of Parvum Opus, Volume I)

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If you're so smart why aren't you me?

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Trivium pursuit ~ rhetoric, grammar, and logic, or reading, writing, and reckoning: Parvum Opus discusses language, education, journalism, culture, and more. Parvum Opus by Rhonda Keith is a publication of KeithOps / Opus Publishing Services. Editorial input provided by Fred Stephens. Rhonda Keith is a long-time writer, editor, and English teacher. Back issues from December 2002 may be found at; 2009 issues are at Feel free to e-mail me with comments or queries. The PO mailing list is private, never given or sold to anyone else. If you don't want to receive Parvum Opus, please e-mail, and I'll take you off the mailing list. Copyright Rhonda Keith 2009. Parvum Opus or part of it may be reproduced only with permission, but you may forward the entire newsletter as long as the copyright remains.

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