Last Light

One more blog about twilight: sunshine on the trees.

At the end of the day, as I sit on my deck spellbound by the beauty of the fading sun, I observe one more phenomenon I haven’t described previously: the gradual disappearance of sunshine from the tops of trees surrounding the pond that extends perhaps a hundred feet to the north of my house.

As the sun sinks lower in the west and disappears from view, its light moves up the trees. First the upper half glow in light. Then only about a quarter. The trees seem to be looking west at the dying sun as if savoring the last radiance. Finally, only the very tops of the trees at the eastern side of the pond are lit. They look to be stretching upward to their limit to hang onto the last glimmer.

Then even the highest point of the easternmost trees is deprived of sunshine. I raise my eyes to passing airplanes, flying east to west, so far up that their underside glows with sunlight from below. A few minutes later, even the passing planes are no longer lit by sun, and for the first time I see the lights on their bodies and wings.

Unfortunately, starting Sunday, I will be deprived of this beauty by rainy weather, forecast to last for three days, before sunshine returns. I console myself by remembering that rain is the reason the trees surrounding me and my pond are so full of leaves that will soon be turning all shades of red, orange, yellow, and brown as autumn replaces summer. Meanwhile, I’ll just have to stay inside, away from the splendor that gives me such joy.

Review of The Yank (2)

Crawley’s story intrigued me because he reminded me so much of myself and my years in Vietnam between 1962 and April 1975 when I escaped the fall of Saigon under fire. During those years I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the U.S. I had two three-year accompanied tours there with my wife and four children and so many shorter trips, called TDY (temporary duty), that I lost count. I was a civilian the whole time, but I operated under cover as an enlisted man in whatever unit, army or Marine Corps, I was supporting. Because I spoke Vietnamese, Chinese, and French—the three languages of Vietnam—my job for most of that time was supporting units in combat on the battlefield with information about the enemy drawn from signals intelligence, the intercept and exploitation of enemy radio communications.

So many of the scrapes Crawley got caught in were like the ones that almost cost me my life. More times than I can count, I caught myself grinning at his descriptions of close calls and how he extricated himself from dangers surrounding him, situations that sounded so familiar to me. He, like me, operated as an independent—he by necessity, me by choice. My impoverished childhood had trained me to avoid depending on others; more times than I like to count, that saved my life.

The editors at the two outfits I do reviews for learned long ago of my expertise in dealing with books on Vietnam and other wars. It is they, not I, who are responsible for my reviews of so many books about combat and the battlefield.

Review of The Yank

As I reported several days ago, my review of John Crawley’s The Yank (Melville House, 2022) is now on the internet. You can read it at

As I noted in the review, because my background is Irish, I am more interested than most in “The Troubles,” the thirty-year-long disquiet in Ireland between the largely Catholic republicans, who wanted the six counties of Northern Ireland, a British possession, to become part of the independent Republic of Ireland; and the largely Protestant loyalists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom. The Troubles ended with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that restored self-government to Northern Ireland on the basis of “power sharing” with the U.K. The pact stipulated that Northern Ireland would remain in the U.K. until a majority of people in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland wished otherwise. During The Troubles, more than 3,500 people were killed.

I was more than a little fascinated by the book’s author, John Crawley. He was born in the U.S., but his parents were Irish immigrants who took him back top Ireland at age 14. He returned to the U.S. at 18, joined the U.S. Marine Corps, took every kind of training he could get, then left the corps to return to Ireland to join the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in its fight against the occupying British.

More next time.

Words, Words, Words (Again) (5)

Back to it: one of my favorite subjects: English words.

Today I’ll start with benign. According to Oxford Languages, the word means gentle and kindly, not harmful. Merriam-Webster says that it comes from Latin “benignus,” which was formed from “bene,” meaning “well,” and “gignere,” “to beget.” “Gignere” is also the root of such English words as genius and germ.

Next:  notwithstanding. It simply means in spite of. It’s from Middle English “notwithstonding,” from “not” and “withstonding,” present participle of withstonden to withstand, which, in turn, means stand up against or resist.

That brings us to muckraker, meaning one who searches out and exposes misconduct or publicizes scandal about famous people. It comes from the verb, “muckrake,” which means to rake excrement. “Muck,” by itself, most often means farmyard manure.

Now: hotspur, a rash, hotheaded, impetuous man. The word is a combination of “hot,” meaning overly warm, and “spur,” a device with a small spike or a spiked wheel that is worn on a rider’s heel and used for urging a horse forward. Hotspur has quite a history. It was the nickname of Sir Henry Percy (1364–1403), known as Harry Hotspur, eldest son of the 1st Earl of Northumberland. It also refers to Sir Henry Percy as depicted in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1.

That brings us to Yankee. The word refers to someone living in the northeast U.S., a northerner in the U.S., or simply an American. The word’s origin is unknown. One theory is that is derived from the Dutch “Janke,” a diminutive of Jan meaning “John.” Or perhaps it originated when a British general named James Wolfe used it first in 1758 when he was commanding some New England soldiers. Or maybe the word comes from the Cherokee word “eankke,” which means coward. It remains a mystery.

Whew. Enough linguistic oddity for one day. More next time.

English Spelling Rules (2)

The end result of how English came to be formed is that we’re stuck with the most widely spoken language on earth whose spelling is hopelessly inconsistent and monumentally difficult. As a result, we as a people have more problems with misspellings than any other. That’s why we have spelling as a subject in grammar school and spelling errors show up constantly, even in the daily newspaper. And that’s the major reason that the study of English is so difficult for foreigners: they must learn the spelling of every single word. Only Chinese is more difficult to learn to write.

Should we support a move to simplify English and systematize its spelling? Not for me. I’ve already gone through the anguish of learning to spell. I’ll stick to what I’ve got.

English Spelling Rules

Because I am a writer by vocation and a linguist by trade (seven languages other than English), my attention much of the time is on the English language, its structure, and how it works. As I reported here not long ago, English is a West Germanic language that originated from the Anglo-Frisian (western German) dialects and was brought to Britain by Germanic invaders (8th and 9th centuries AD). A second invasion led by the Norman William the Conqueror in the 11th century introduced French influence. Then other stimulus from Europe brought Latin and Greek words into our language. As time went on and the U.S. became a country, we borrowed from every language in the world.

The result is that our way of spelling words in our language is as varied as the language’s roots. Spelling of ordinary everyday words, derived from Anglo-Frisian, is supposed to follow rules based on the sound assigned to the 26 letters of our western alphabet, the alphabet used in all romantic and Germanic languages but pronounced differently in each. Compare, for example, how the phoneme con is pronounced in English, French, and Italian.

But even the basic rules are not consistent in English. Compare how we pronounce though, tough, through, thorough, and thought. Then we have words that begin with silent letters such as gnu, gnat, knee, knife, mnemonic, pneumonia, write, and psalm. Other words that contain internal silent letters are doubt, debt, aisle, and muscle. One of the most common among silent letter sets of words is those with the “ght” ending, such as night, fight, light, sought, and bought.

And words not pronounced like they’re spelled are routine in English. Witness: asthma, colonel, lasagna, Arkansas, sword, phlegm, potpourri, hors d’oeuvres, island, knight, rendezvous, Wednesday, salmon, corps, champagne, Tucson, subtle, lingerie, and rapport. Common among these words are those borrowed from French where we have maintained some semblance of the original pronunciation.  

More next time.

Biden Gaining

I believe we are seeing a turnaround in President Joe Biden’s popularity. Because of recent legislative victories, 83 percent of Democrats now approve of the job Biden is doing. That’s an 11-point increase since last month. As expected, 92 percent of Republicans disapprove as do 55 percent of independents.

The American public historically gives presidents low approval ratings. According to the Roper Center at Cornell University, Harry S. Truman polled at 22 percent in 1952. In 1974, Richard Nixon had a 23 percent rating. Jimmy Carter polled at 28 percent five years later, and in January 2021, Trump had a 29 percent approval rating. George H.W. Bush polled the same as Trump in 1992. So Biden’s current rating of 33 percent is quite respectable.

Biden’s rising approval rating reinforces my belief that, polls notwithstanding, the Democrats will retain control of the White House and the Congress in coming elections. The principal reason for my expectation is not that the Democrats have performed particularly well but that the Republicans have disgraced themselves notoriously thanks to the leadership of Donald Trump. The American public, while still concerned about monetary issues such as inflation, is expressing greater alarm at the threat to democracy itself, a very real danger inherent in current Republican campaigns led by pro-Trump candidates. Americans are showing that they understand that unruly freedom is preferable to orderly autocracy.

The outcome of the November 2022 election will show how accurate my predictions are. To the degree that my understanding of the American outlook is correct, Trump’s fascists will be defeated, and the sloppy Democrats will win.

More Classified at Mar-a-Lago?

Given Donald Trump’s prodigious lack of respect for the laws regarding the handling of classified information, how do we know that the raid on Mar-a-Lago recovered all the secret and top-secret documents that Trump stole from the White House? During the brief time that the FBI was on the premises, they could not possibly have carried out a thorough search—the mansion has 126 rooms and fills 62,500-square-foot. Nor does the government have any way of knowing what material Trump may have absconded with when he left the White House. And if Trump has in his possession classified material, what is to stop him from sharing it with other nations as he has done in the past?

Trump has a history of passing national security information to other nations. Wikileaks reports, for example, that Trump discussed classified information during an Oval Office meeting on May 10, 2017 with the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, providing sufficient details that could be used by the Russians to deduce the source of the information and the manner in which it was collected, according to current and former government officials. White House staff initially denied the report, but the following day Trump defended the disclosure, stating that he has the absolute right to share intelligence with Russia.

The Justice Department says classified documents were “likely concealed and removed” from a storage room at Mar-a-Lago in an effort to obstruct the federal investigation into the discovery of the government records. Secret material could have been concealed anywhere.

We have, in short, a serious security problem. I wouldn’t be surprised of learn of more raids on Trump’s properties, not only at Mar-a-Lago but elsewhere.

Equal justice under the law is an issue here. Had I, during my thirty-five-year career as a government employee handling classified material absconded with even a single classified document, I would have forthwith been arrested, convicted, and imprisoned. Why is Donald Trump above the law?

Twilight Calm

My recent post about watching planes from my deck reminded me of a phenomenon that is both a mystery and a treasure to me: the calm at twilight. Twilight is defined as the soft glowing light from the sky when the sun is below the horizon. It is caused by the refraction and scattering of the sun’s rays from the atmosphere. Because I spend so much time on my deck looking north from my house over the hundred-foot diameter pond surrounded by trees, I am often there at the end of the day during evening twilight, that brief period after sunset when the earth is still visible in the light from the dying sun. I have observed repeatedly that in the moments after the sun has disappeared below the horizon, all motion stops. Breezes still. Birds go silent. Tree limbs cease all motion. It is a time of peace unrivalled by any other except the morning twilight just before sunrise.

Evening twilight is brief. Then comes night, a peaceful but lively time, filled with the noises and movements of night creatures—animals, insects, and reptiles that can become quite noisy, especially frogs, katydids, and crickets. Temperature permitting, I leave open at night my bedroom windows and let the chorus of night creatures serenade me to sleep.

And when I waken in the morning, nearly always before dawn, I witness again the calm of twilight as sky lights up before the sun rises.

So I claim twilight, both morning and night, as my time—a brief moment of unparalleled peace. May I enjoy it as long as I live.