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Archive for July, 2019

My Symposium in the Pines ended ten days ago; my last guests departed the next day. Since then, I’ve ordered school clothes and school supplies for my son, who starts school on August 1st. My InSight 3 Decks arrived,  were processed, and shipped. I still have shipping stuff all over the living room, both coming and going. The wine glasses from the Symposium’s freaking magical Wednesday night dinner were still sitting on my dining room table two Sundays later, waiting for me to make sense of the kitchen and run them through the dishwasher.

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Worth it.

In January of this year, I realized that the Australia trip I had imagined for this summer was not going to materialize, so I decided to focus my energies on bringing people to Prescott. I moved here with my son two years ago, and have marveled at the natural beauty, the Native American presence, the rip-roarin’ Old West history, the charming Courthouse Square downtown, the diverse architectural treasures, and the present-day arts-and-antiques culture. I wanted to share all of this, so I paid a huge deposit on a boutique hotel undergoing renovations and crossed my fingers.

Worth it.

By the end of April, I had deposits from enough people to fill the hotel’s 12 rooms. A couple people backed out, and a couple more came to take their place. I could not have designed a better group, though I suspect that pretty much any mix of my serious clients would’ve had its own special character. Some people who came have only been studying with me for a little over a year; for others, it’s been closer to two decades. No one took everything home from the week, but everyone took something. Lots of things, in fact. The content was organic: sketched out at the beginning of the week, but open for questions and tangents and rabbit holes. IMG_20190727_102429

I am somewhat embarrassed to write that several attendees brought me gifts.  I mean, in addition to paying to be there and traveling in from afar, they brought me gourmet chocolates, fancy paper drinking straws with little die-cut cacti on them, a book about swearing in many languages, a handmade mussel-shaped dish, and a hand-crocheted market bag that I christened this weekend. One lovey brought me homemade spanakopita in her suitcase, frozen for the trip. I did nothing to deserve any of it.

But I did organize a hell of a week.

In addition to our studies, we toured the Sharlot Hall Museum and learned about Arizona’s earliest days. We visited local pre-Columbian petroglyphs and went kayaking at Watson Lake — our three brave paddle-boarders were no match for strong winds and had to be rescued, but no one was hurt, unless you count my stupid sunburn. There was an early morning hike to Thumb Butte. We had this beautiful catered group dinner on Wednesday night at the stunning Foxbriar Inn, and on Thursday we got to tour the stunning 1907 Masonic Temple downtown, its original ceremony room now a photography studio, with the original pentalpha lighting and carved wooden lintels intact. Those who stayed Friday night had an impromptu Friday night wine-and-pizza gathering at the beautiful home of one of the local teachers who had joined us.

Of course, none of this was the point.

We studied our hearts out. We clarified PIE patterns and Germanic grammar, Latin twin bases and combining forms, and Greek formative elements. We investigated lexical doublets and French cousins and we even had a Zoom visit from Doug Harper, who walked us through the suppletive tendencies of the verb to be. We examined the three suffixing patterns in English, and we teased apart differences between conventions and principles. We discussed zero allophones and etymological markers, default graphemes and competing constraints. Over the course of the week, we circled back several times to the replaceable <e>, because how could we not? So-called ‘silent’ letters in general make English spelling work optimally, but the <e> in particular is the linchpin to the whole system. I bet you a dollar that’s in every single person’s notes.

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When my great-grandmother, Idonia, was pregnant with or a new mother to my paternal grandfather, Charlie, in 1900, her husband, Harry, skipped town or went to prison or something, after committing some kind of financial fraud. We don’t know much about Harry or exactly where he came from: Idonia was from West Virginia, but gave birth to Charlie in New York. No one knows where Harry went after he left. Somewhere in there was the Ohio State Penitentiary and a fire. The details are sketchy for me, though some of my cousins may know more.

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Idonia divorced Harry and raised Charlie on her own as a single mother, working as a stenographer and a postmistress. She smoked a pipe. In the 1910 census records, she is listed under her maiden name of Lytle, living alone in a rented home in West Virginia. Under the column for “children,” there is a big, fat zero. This must’ve been during the time that Charlie spent in a Catholic boys’ home, as family legend has it, the same one Babe Ruth spent time in for his youthful waywardness. Like I said, the details are sketchy, and the people who might’ve known more about them personally are gone now.

Charlie grew up with a last name (Cook) different from his mother’s (Lytle), something that undoubtedly marked them both in the Ohio and West Virginia neighborhoods where they lived. When Charlie reached adulthood — which couldn’t have been easy in the early 1900s with a single mama, no matter how resourceful — he added an <e> to the last name he had inherited from his father, Harry Cook, as a way to disavow him and become his own man.

That final <e>, you could say, is the linchpin in the family story.

Charlie Cooke-with-an-<e> worked most of his adult life for the Columbus Dispatch newspaper as a typesetter; the 1940 Census shows his profession as “Composition” for the “Newspaper.”

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He was a father to four, one of whom, my dad, started his career as a Linotype machinist for the Dispatch, later became a typesetter, and eventually, ran the photocomposition department for Peterson Publishing Company in Los Angeles. My dad and my grandpa are a big part of why I proudly use a union printer for my LEX materials. I never knew  Charlie, as he died two years before I was born. All told, he was grandfather to 24, known as Pop Cooke, and posthumously, a great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather now, to too many to count. We are all “Cooke cousins,” even those bear a different name.

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One of the things we studied at the Symposium was base elements that have two forms — one with a replaceable <e> and one without — like the free base <sore> and the putative <sor> that we find in <sorry>, or the <tom> in <atom> that’s a <tome> in its free form and derivatives, like <ana + tome + ic + al> and <en + tome + o + loge + y>. We investigated what becomes of the <e> in words like truly, truth, only, once, judgment and fledglingunanimous, and philharmonic, words in which that <e> is not being replaced by a vowel suffix. We made sense of these patterns by studying not only individual words, but each word’s permanent context in its own family and within the system as a whole.

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Words, like people, make more sense when we know more about the families they come from.

We looked at words like borne and come and please, words whose <e> completes them, marks them as lexical forms, and differentiates them from otherwise homographic structures. We discussed the final <e> in candle and bible and double, and the highly mutable <e> in words like meter~metre and center~centre, switched around by a young Noah Webster in a newborn American nation.

Noah Webster and Charlie Cooke were both men of letters, you could say.

At the end of the final afternoon of the Symposium, one of the attendees, Marie, brought me another one of these undeserved gifts, this one a shiny white draw-string bag with several small, square metal plates in it. They spelled out my name. At first I thought they were typesetting molds called — brace yourself — matrices that shape and hold the punches in letterpress printing. “Oh Marie, I love these!” I effused. “My dad was a printer. So was my grandpa.” Now, after looking around a little, I think that they are actually brass etching guides, used for a different kind of ‘printing.’

Either way, they’re perfect: to write, glyph, a graph, to scribe, to print — all of these are etymologically a cutting, a carving, a punch, an engraving, an etching. Character derives from a very ancient word for a pointed tool. Character is, after all, that which is imprinted on our soul.

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On Friday evening, over wine and pizza, I shared this photo with those who had not seen the letter plates earlier that day. People asked Marie where she had found them.

“In an antique shop around the corner,” she said. “I was going to give them this morning, but I saw Cooke written and thought, Oh, hell, there’s an <e> on the end of her name! So I had to go back at lunch for an <e>.”

It was then that I remembered that Marie had been uncharacteristically late coming back from lunch that day. We got started, and when she arrived after a few minutes, she was breathless and sweaty, her sweet Scottish freckle face flushed. It was clear that she had rushed to get back.

“The clerk and I had to dig through the whole bin,” she explained that evening. There weren’t many <e> plates in the bin, and it took them a while to find one. That was why Marie was late. An <e> is a pretty popular letter, you see. Kind of the linchpin for the whole system.

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I hesitate to write about these gifts at all. My purpose is not to boast, but to marvel, and this includes marveling that my people know me so well. They know that I love books and cacti and Arizona, swearing and all kinds of pink things, local history and farmers markets and France, chocolate and coffee and baguettes.

And words.

I am so grateful for and even embarrassed by the love in these gifts.

But the best gift, the biggest return on my investment, is watching what these people take home from here. They take home what we studied: things that they had wondered about and now understand for the first time; things that they understand better and more deeply than before; and things that they never even imagined. Things I never even imagined.

We discussed several times over the week how so many of our students — specifically, the students of the people in the Symposium room — find us as a last resort. They’ve been through phonics. They’ve had years of OG or one of its offshoots. Their parents have begged and pleaded and fought for Wilson or Barton or Lindamood Bell only to find after years of it that their kids are still half-literate at best, unable to spell English and hopelessly unconvinced that it’s even possible.

You know what I mean. These are the kids that are called treatment resisters, the mamas who never get eye contact from school personnel because they’re so difficult, the papas whose hair’s gone gray over bills for tutors and lawyers and conferences and advocates, all promoting more phonics.  When teachers can show these kids and families how things work in English — why two has a <w> and why one has an <e> — then not only does the language make more sense, but the families can also understand themselves as systematic, scientific thinkers instead of as defective learners.  When I see a light bulb go on for a teacher in my room, and then I watch her shine that light on language for her families, there is no better gift.
  
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I got an email from Marie a few days ago, exactly a week after that wine and pizza.

Dear Gina,

I know you are super busy, but I wanted to take a moment to thank you again for all the insights and information you shared at the Symposium.

I taught all week, and was able to bring back to the students lots of the new learning from the Symposium.

I talked about the concept of curiosity with a student who started with me for the first time this week after two years of intense phonics instruction. She was not very happy with bring brought to ANOTHER tutor and told me that what I was doing was NOT science.

On day one we explored why there is an < > on the end of the word horse as she loves horses. This led to a discussion on the difference between suffix < -es > and < -s > and investigating the word plural and its connection to plus.

On day two we looked at the spelling of < have > and then last night she went home and wrote up a list of over twenty words that ended in < e > and asked me today to help her understand why they ended in < e >.

The word < be > happened to be on the list, so we jumped into a discussion on function and content words. As she sat happily sorting out content and function words and drawing little pictures for the content words, she stopped and said, “this is science, Marie, it is word science.” To which I said, “that’s pretty much what Linguistics is.”

Her mom was very moved by her daughter’s progress and said to me, “she seems to be really getting this,” to which I said, “because this is the truth of hour our language works and the truth sticks.”

Thanks for sharing the truth about language. I had so much fun this week bringing the learning from the Symposium to the students and parents.

Thank you for arranging the Symposium. I will be forever grateful.

Meeeeeeeee too.

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