06/08/12 2:41pm

Remember learning the vowels, A, E, I, O and U, with the teacher inevitably adding “ … and sometimes Y and W”? Well, I’ve come up with 16 impressive and useful words that use a Y as the vowel but none, zero, that use a W. As a matter of fact, there are a dozen other insignificant three-letter words that use the Y — fly, dry, gym, gyp, etc. — but they’re too ordinary, not nearly as impressive as, say, lynx, cyst and myrrh. I tried for a sentence using them all, and got as far as “The rhythms of the pygmy’s hymns floated into the crypt as the gypsy slyly …” and got no further. Maybe a decent start for some spooky vampire thriller, but I stalled out at “slyly,” leaving nymph and tryst and stymie waiting in the wyngs. A word that uses W as its vowel still eludes me. If anyone knows one, would you shyly email it? I will wryly acknowledge you.

English has long been acknowledged as a strange language, with rough, bough, dough and cough usually used as examples. (Why do they never mention hiccough?) What catches my eye, though, are words that change to an opposite meaning when one letter is added. Like laughter. During a slaughter there’s never much laughter. Or when will it stop raining and start draining? And why is there such futility with our utility? A simple letter switch describes my wife and me moving from united to untied when discussing candied broccoli.

Yogi Berra is renowned for contradictory sentences like “It’s so crowded nobody goes there any more” and, regarding Yankee Stadium’s left field sun problems, “It gets late early out there.” But our everyday language needs no help from Yogi. The omnipresent “Watch Your Head” demands an improbable feat of agility, as does the dark and frightening “Louise suddenly found herself lost.” Good trick. And picture this: “We soon realized the professor was speaking tongue in cheek when he said he was trying to keep a stiff upper lip. He was actually beside himself with excitement.”

I wonder why anyone would consider taking a nonstop flight (to the Twilight Zone?) or why something that falls between the cracks doesn’t land smack on the board. Or, just curious, who is it that’s standing in a one-night stand?

Are we having fun yet? What’s the longest word that contains only one vowel? Strengths. What word uses every vowel once and in order? Facetious. (We really should add facetiously, but not facetiouslw). And eleven plus two and twelve plus one not only both equal 13, but use the exact same letters to say so. Also, isn’t this the worst spell of wheather you’ve ever seen? And here’s an every-letter sentence that’s better than the famous “quick brown fox”: Pack my gift box with five dozen liquor jars.

A few oxymorons: old news, pretty ugly, same difference, loose tights, student teacher, mandatory option. Then a couple of familiar acronyms from forgotten sources: self contained underwater breathing apparatus, zone improvement plan codes and DAM, Mothers Against Dyslexia (not really), and I’m through. Thru. Throu. Done.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

05/06/12 9:00pm

We have an old copy of ‘Petersen’s Field Guide to the Birds.’ We’ve spotted most of the usual suspects, and also have seen some unusual ones. An American kestrel surprised us on Main Bayview in Southold one day — high up in the wires scanning the fields for lunch. An indigo bunting landed on our deck, a kingfisher perched on a dock pole and a snow goose and its two Canada sidekicks worked our lawn, the three waddling around looking like escapees from “The Biggest Loser.” The best sighting, though, came on a bright, bitter-cold morning: a full-blown male pheasant scrounging birdseed beneath our feeder, standing atop three feet of snow that had fallen that night. Birds are splendid affairs, sort of God’s tree ornaments, a quick burst of eye-catching nature.

There are many fine books about nature: ‘Walden Pond,’ Aldo Leopold’s ‘Sand County Almanac,’ Rachel Carson’s ‘The Sea Around Us,’ to name a vintage few. Such writers not only give us glimpses of nature’s wonders but do so in language so vivid that we practically see what they’re looking at. A new such author has attracted attention, Carl Safina. ‘The View from Lazy Point’ is written beautifully, but the neat thing is that he’s writing about a neighbor, Lazy Point being a small stub of land on the west shore of Napeague Harbor, facing either the bay or the ocean, depending on your viewpoint.

Safina explores the woods and the ponds, hikes the beaches, sees, remembers and reports. He has strong opinions on what’s happening to our world. Here he is on chickadees in late January: “Their roaming flocks, formed for winter safety, will disband as the birds reassert property claims in the pines. They feel the world changing, and they change their tune. Can we do less? ‘A change in the weather is sufficient to recreate the world,’ ” said Marcel Proust.” Like the writers before him, Safina sees the sad lack of concern the world clings to as innovation, progress and money remain the goals. Mother Nature? Well, she’s nice, too.

There’s a famous book that tells of a time when nature betrayed us. In the 1930s the rain quit the Midwest and the wind and dust took over. Steinbeck told the story: The people had to leave, their livelihoods blown away, their homes worthless, their future hopeless. They went West and in doing so changed the face of the country. The West Coast, with its rich soil, bountiful ocean and huge forests, absorbed them, revised itself and flourished with them. The Midwest, of course, recovered. Nature hadn’t betrayed us; it shoved us into the future, and seems to be shoving again. I’m a positive guy, but what’s with all the tornados? What happened to the icebergs? Where did all the codfish go? Why are the bees and the bats dying? Seventy degrees in March?

If nature is speaking, we need to listen, put personal NIMBYs and attitudes aside and — dare I say it? — change. Let’s separate our trash, take back our empties and conserve our fuels, for openers. Let’s support new ideas and find other ways to respond to the wake-up call.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

02/04/12 12:00pm

And so it is in human life the goal
To seek, forever seek, the kindred soul
Jose Marti

St. Valentine’s Day is next week — the day that urges us to search for love, to find love, to celebrate it and work hard to maintain it. Songs, yet another form of short story, work as well as any medium in exploring these stages. They have the added benefit of forever rattling around in our heads as reminders.

“Looking for love in all the wrong places, looking for love in too many faces, searching around, looking for traces …” A catchy song, but the urgency to find someone is palpable. Didn’t we all date some handsome young boys and some smart young girls but the BINGO never happened and the search continued. From Barbara Cook in “The Music Man,” waiting, wondering, singing to the stars, “Goodnight, my someone, goodnight, my love” to the rather desperate “if that isn’t love it will have to do, until the real thing comes along,” the longing continues, the quest goes on.

Then “Love walked right in and drove the shadows away. Love walked right in and brought my sunniest day,” and Irving Berlin remembered, “For the longest while, I’d forget to smile, then I met you.” Rodgers and Hart rejoiced, “I took one look at you, that’s all I had to do, and then my heart stood still”; the Beatles are whooping, “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah”; and even Tony Bennett, who had previously left his heart in San Francisco, sings out, “Because of you there’s a song in my heart.” The shadows are gone, the smile is back, hearts stand still and sing. Yeah! Yeah!

And then — dark clouds. Streisand and Diamond hissing and moaning, “You don’t bring me flowers any more” and Willie Nelson explaining that yes, this and that happened “but you were always on my mind, you were always on my mind.” Nice try, Willie. And Billie Holiday warning, “Love is like a faucet, it turns off and on — just when you think it’s on, baby, it has turned off and gone.” And St. Valentine is frowning.

Then, sometimes, it is gone. And all the clever phrases — “a total eclipse of the heart,” “every heart for itself,” “in the wee small hours of the morning” — are exactly that: clever phrases, mere words trying to ease the pain. Fantine, in “Les Misérables,” knows the bleakness: “He spent a summer by my side, he filled my dreams with endless longing. He took my childhood in his stride, but he was gone when autumn came.” Gone. Finished. Emptiness. And St. Valentine is weeping.

We all need not let it get that far. We need to swallow our pride, suck it up, check our baggage, get real, talk it through, apologize, lose an attitude, get over it, forgive and generally bust our butts doing the things that love needs in order to flourish and survive.

“You may not be an angel, for angels are so few, but until the day that one comes along, I’ll string along with you.” Still expecting an angel? Be serious.

And hey, you: “You’re all I ever needed, baby, you’re the one.”

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

01/08/12 4:09pm

“War Horse” opened recently to rave reviews. A Spielberg movie, a Broadway play, from a book by Michael Morpurgo — eat your hearts out, all you authors out there. I started thinking about other books in which a central character was an animal. There are some good horse books, “Seabiscuit” being the best I’ve read. The courage of the animal and the determination of the trainer were inspirational. “Black Beauty” (1877!) was not only a publishing success but became a strong force in animal cruelty legislation.

Good dog books abound, not necessarily about good dogs. “Cujo” was one of the scariest books ever, with poor Donna trapped in her Pinto with 4-year-old Tad, while the rabid Cujo slathered saliva all over her windshield. Multiple dead bodies, including Tad. Thanks a lot, Stephen.

“The Incredible Journey” had two nifty dogs, Bodger, the old, half-blind bull terrier, and Luath, the young, tireless Lab, traveling 300 miles across the Canadian wilderness to rejoin their family. Alongside them was Tao, the Siamese cat who kept them all in food, killing small animals and birds.

After horses, dogs and cats the search got exotic. Rosy, the elephant in “Water for Elephants,” played a huge role in how the story played out. I wondered how they would film such a complex plot and thought they did a credible job. The book was better than the movie, often the case, but without Rosy there was no story.

Remember “Watership Down”? A bunch of rabbits living in the woods are seeking a new home and unknowingly settle in a rabbit farm, where they’re treated wonderfully but are just being fattened up for the meat market. Their wise leader manages their escape, but there are enough dumb bunnies to keep the story interesting. There’s a final battle with a band of nasty rabbits, sort of a bad hare day, but ingenuity prevails as they free a nasty dog and lead him, ravenous, into the bad guys’ camp.

And talk about community, what about the mixed grill in “Animal Farm,” the super-society where all pigs are supposedly equal but some pigs turn out to be more equal than others. Old McDonald without the music, it’s on every 100 Best List.

OK. We’re down to the sleek otter in “A Ring of Bright Water” and the hawks in “Red Tails in Love,” with sophisticated New Yorkers watching hawks copulating 20 stories up like avian OB/GYNs. A most enjoyable book.

Let’s not forget fish stories, although I doubt Melville would appreciate seeing “Moby-Dick” so categorized. We’re left with the terrifying “Jaws,” and if I were to dream of Cujo one night and Jaws the next I would check into a psychiatric ward. The music made this movie better than the book, but still … (Do you have an aquarium? If a goldfish is pregnant, how do you know when her water breaks?)

We’re down to the most unusual literary creature: Don Marquis’ “Archy,” the philosophizing cockroach who nightly leapt upon the keys of a typewriter and, unable to manage the cap/punctuation shifts, produced poetry, e.g.:

if you get gloomy just
take an hour off and sit
and think how
much better this world
is than hell
of course it wont cheer
you up much if
you expect to go there

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

12/04/11 11:48am

I was recently in the Southold library Book Cottage and coughed up a dollar for a copy of “The Haunted Bridge” by Carolyn Keene. I presented it to my wife, who grinned. It’s No. 15 of the Nancy Drew mystery stories, a series that grew in number to 50. Fully 20 of these titles begin with either “The Clue of … ” or “The Mystery of …”, the most provocative being “The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes.” The dogged Nancy solved all 50; my equally determined wife has read them all.

Aside from Nancy, my knowledge of female detectives was slight — Kinsey Millhone, Kay Scarpetta, Miss Marple, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and a few others being the extent of it. Curious, I surrendered to Google and found — are you ready for this? — a list so long that I stopped counting at 100 and had only arrived at the letter D. There must be 1,000 high-heeled gumshoes — not movie or TV characters, but book ladies — chasing bad guys, shooting serial killers and generally kicking butt. I started skimming the list.

In 1891 Arthur Conan Doyle created Irene Adler, an opera singer who solved crimes (and appeared in five Sherlock Holmes movies). Mary Roberts Reinhart, in 1914, brought Hilda Adams to life, in 1922 Agatha Christie dreamed up Tuppence Beresford and in 1937 Rex Stout introduced Theolinda “Dol” Bonner in a Nero Wolfe story. And I liked rediscovering that Dashiell Hammett wrote “The Thin Man,” featuring Nora Charles and what’s-his-name. Book first, then the movie.

As I streamed along it was entertaining to see how many writers gave unusual “regular jobs” to their crime chasers. I was wowed by Jessie Arnold, a champion dog-sled racer in Alaska, and Smokey Branton, an ex-stripper. There were nine different nuns (armed with three-foot oak pointers?). There was Lily Bard, a cleaning woman and karate expert from Shakespeare, Ark., and Natalie Brand, a bed-and-breakfast owner in Maine. I fell for Stella Crown immediately, a dairy farmer and biker — udder chaos meets road rage. Leading the pack, albeit near the alphabet’s end, stands Bubbles Yablonsky, beautician.

Another — dare I say — gimmick is the giving of arresting first names to these ladies. Bubbles? Sure. Tuppence? Why not. And Cat, and China, and Temperance and Seychelles, a tugboat captain. Are any of these many detectives gathering clues (or dust) in the Book Cottage? You’ll have to open your own investigation and do your own legwork. Kingsley Amis once said he wanted only to read books that begin, “A shot rang out.” He didn’t stipulate the gender of the trench-coated person who ambled in and cleaned up the mess.

Here’s a test for you. You have a two-volume encyclopedia in your bookcase. Each volume is 2 3/8 inches thick, the binding boards are all one-eighth of an inch. A bookworm starts eating its way through, starting on the first page of Volume 1 and chomping through to the last page of Volume 2. How far would you say he traveled? Send me your answers and we’ll post the results.

And once again, whatever name your December holiday goes by, I wish you a happy/blessed/feliz/nzuri/humbug one.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.

10/07/11 12:46pm

September’s book club selection was ‘A Beautiful Mind’ by Sylvia Nasar, the biography of John Nash, the Nobel Prize-winning mathematical genius. I felt as though school had started and this was required reading, clearly not something I’d ever have chosen myself. I read it, though, and it is wonderfully written, totally absorbing and totally different from the movie. It’s still not clear to me what Diophantine equations or algebraic manifolds are, but the book is written in such a way that while these things are mentioned, there’s no need to know what they are — knowing that they’re really complicated is enough. Nash was well ahead of his time, pulling breakthrough theorems and complex solutions right out of his head and finally, of course, journeying down the road to madness and back.

I set out to find other writings that involved mathematics, focusing on nonfiction, and along the way discovered this limerick:
’Tis a favorite project of mine
A new value of Pi to assign
I would fix it at 3
For it’s simpler, you see
Than 3.14159.

I also found a play, ‘The Adding Machine’ by Elmer Rice, written in 1929. A strange affair: Mr. Zero works in an undefined office writing down small sums (1.29, 3.73, 8.67 and so on), then adding them up. He’s been doing this for 25 years. His wife, Mrs. Zero, is also in the play, as are their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Two, Three, Four, Five, Six and Seven. Well, Zero’s boss comes to his desk, announces that he has purchased an adding machine, has hired a young girl to operate it, and Mr. Zero is 86’d. Zero kills the boss, etc., etc., but I found the premise chillingly relevant to today, as jobs performed by people inexorably disappear and the men and women of our world are left to find different work. I didn’t have access to the entire play, which was fine with me; it was very depressing.

Numbers run from fascinating to frightening, depending on each person’s ease with them. Nuns and brothers pounded the times tables into my head and those rhythms occasionally pop back up in odd formats and float around like some old song. As in “Eight eights are 64, multiply by seven, when you’re done, carry one, and take away 11,” etc. Pretty spooky.

When David Auburn’s play ‘Proof’ opened on Broadway in 2000, it was highly acclaimed and ultimately won a Pulitzer Prize. Catherine, a brilliant young woman, “speaks” to her dead father, a former college mathematics professor. He had severe mental issues; she wonders if she does. Along the way a notebook containing a new math proof is discovered in a desk drawer. Everyone assumes the father wrote it but Catherine says no, she did, and the play develops around her fragility and the family tensions that result from her claim. A fine play, it was also a successful movie, with Gwy­neth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins and Hope Davis.

I close with MIT’s fight song, loudly rendered at sporting events:
Secant, tangent, cosine, sine
3 point 1 4 1 5 9
Achieve, team, achieve!

How cool is that?

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press. He can be reached at Caseathome@aol.com.