R.I.P. Gary Gygax

Please forgive this minor interruption, but a shadow passed over my heart today. I read on CNN that Gary Gygax, co-creator of the Dungeons and Dragons game, died today at his home in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

For those who are D&D detractors, it may not be news at all. But for me, this is very sad news, because I’ve been a gamer since about 1978, and D&D was an essential part of my formative years. I grew up in a world where I was constantly worried about nuclear destruction due to the Cold War, and for me, D&D not only offered an escape from grim reality, but it also encouraged my creativity in ways that school did not. Playing D&D taught me group dynamics, and I think that’s part of the reason I fit in successfully in whatever job I work. D&D taught me how to work cooperatively with others to solve problems, and it gave me more than a little humor over the years.

Although I am not currently active in a D&D game per se, I am still gaming, using the same skills, dice, and imagination that Gygax’s product first awakened in me.

R.I.P., Mr. Gygax. May your ride to Valhalla be pleasant.

Y? Or Y Not?

The writing assignment for Melanie Tem‘s next writing group session is to write a story using only one vowel. I wrote a short-short using E about a prostitute named Sweet Jem, but I used the letter Y. When I read the story aloud to my wife, she stopped me at the word “endlessly,” claiming the Y in that word was a vowel.

I was ready for her, I thought. “I checked it out on Wikipedia,” I said. “It says there that it’s considered a consonant, but used more commonly as a vowel.” Since we were dealing with the spoken word, I could get away with that without a hyperlink. But this is the Internet, and rather than hold forth without substantiation, here’s the full quote and link:

The letter Y was originally established as a vowel. In the standard English language, the letter Y is traditionally regarded as a consonant, but as a survey of almost any English text, including this one, will show, Y more commonly functions as a vowel. In many cases, it is known as a semivowel (a type of consonant). — (Wikipedia, “Y” entry.)

I finished reading my short-short to her, and we let it stand.

Tonight, at Stories for All Seasons, we ran into Melanie. I told her that I might have cheated because I used “Y” for my assignment. She seemed to agree with Lannette that “Y” was ineligible, but also acknowledged that it was a consonant at times. “In school, they taught us that the vowels were A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y,” she said. Her husband, Steve Rasnic Tem, happened to be passing by and said, “They also taught us that the Indians were treated fairly.” (I may be paraphrasing; I don’t remember the exact words, because I was laughing too hard.)

If you know me, you know that I can’t just let this sit. I thought I had dodged the need to figure it out by checking Wikipedia, but as Melanie pointed out, anyone can edit Wikipedia. (That’s true, but anyone else can call “bullshit” and correct it, too. In recent studies, Wikipedia’s accuracy has been found comparable to the Encyclopedia Britannica, at least as far as scientific topics go. However, in an interesting parallel to Wikipedia’s own model of peer review, those studies are also in dispute, not surprisingly, by the Encyclopedia Britannica.) At any rate, Melanie’s comment did prompt me to do more research.

According to AskOxford.com, Y is both a consonant and a vowel, but:

The letter is probably more often used as a vowel, but in this role is often interchangeable with the letter I. However, the consonant sound is not consistently represented in English spelling by any other letter, and perhaps for this reason Y tends traditionally to be counted among the consonants.

That paragon of online dependability, Dictionary.com, says this:

The consonant sound Y is not consistently represented in English spelling by any other letter, which is probably why we tend to think of it mainly as a consonant.

Okay, so we have justification for calling Y a consonant. However, as all of the above sources point out in their articles, it is also used as a vowel. The real question is how Y is used in the word “endlessly.” In looking back through my assignment, I used Y several times, in all of the following words: every, eye, eyes, westerly, they, prey, endlessly, and yet.

Let’s group the words into similar uses:

every, westerly, endlessly — I’m inclined to say that Y is used as a vowel in this case, because it has the /eː/ (long E) vowel sound as in me, rather than the /y/ consonant sound as in you. I’ll need to change those words.

eye, eyes — In this case, I’m inclined to judge Y as a consonant because it is between two vowels and the unique /y/ sound certainly influences the pronunciation of the E vowels, even if it is not fully formed in these words. It also causes a slight obstruction in breath, which is the hallmark of a consonant. It also acts like a diphthong (combination of two vowel sounds), but my gut says it’s being used as a consonant.

they, prey — Again, Y affects the pronunciation of the vowels, and causes a slight closing of the mouth and obstruction of breath. Like in eye above, it also has properties of a diphthong, but I think the use is more consonant-like in nature.

yet — This case is more cut and dried. Y clearly makes the unique /y/ sound in this word, so it’s definitely acting as a consonant.

I had better start revising. Based upon this analysis, I only have a few words to change, but it’s surprisingly difficult to find replacement words with only E vowels without changing the meaning of the sentences, and in a short-short, word choice is everything.

I’ll post the story in this blog after class on Wednesday.

Captain America is dead! Long live Captain America!

Even if you live under a rock, you’ve probably heard that Captain America was assassinated this week. I haven’t collected comics since the mid 80s, but I have always had a soft spot for Captain America. My favorite Marvel comics heroes were always the ones who had some limitations, and had to rely on their ingenuity: Daredevil, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, and Captain America were at the top of my list.

Of course, when I read the news, I had to stop by my neighborhood comic book shop, Free Time Comics. Of course, all issues of Volume 5, Issue #25 of Captain America were sold out, and had been since early in the day. The proprietor told me he started receiving calls from Cap fans before the store opened, and that he learned about the story from CNN. In other words, Marvel Comics blindsided the comics retailers.

It’s one thing to create buzz for your product, like DC Comics did with the death of Superman in 1993. And, from all accounts, the story is well written and drawn, so it’s probably worth the press and will give a good boost to comic collecting. However, leaving the retailers completely out of the loop was not the right thing to do, in my opinion. Sure, for those of us interested in reading the story, rather than collecting the near mint first edition, Marvel will probably release a second printing or alternate cover issue, and the stores will benefit from that. But they missed out on the initial rush of sales, and if there’s one thing that local comic book stores need, it’s sales. The proprietor at Free Time Comics indicated that he could have sold about ten times as many issues as he had on hand if Marvel had been willing to work with the retailers, like DC did during the Death of Superman issue.

What do you guys think?

Enduring Inspiration

A few days ago, I found myself in a Walgreen’s store, passing through the magazine aisle. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a copy of MAD Magazine. I resisted the urge to solve the back cover Fold-In (a sure sign that I have gained some willpower at some point over the last 20 years) and flipped through the pages backwards. I stopped suddenly when I saw a feature about Multiple Personality Disorder, not because the topic gripped me, but because I recognized the artist immediately: John Caldwell.

During the mid to late 80s, “Caldwell” was my favorite single panel newspaper cartoon. It was carried by King Features Syndicate, and featured cartoons that often dealt with literary, music, or technology themes. The strip only ran for a few years, but I found it to dovetail so well with what was important in my life that I eagerly sought it out every day in the Rocky Mountain News. Occasionally, I would find a panel that made me laugh so hard I would cut it out and hang it on the shelf above my desk.

I kept some of those panels over the years, and they moved with me from house to house, state to state, office to office, marriage to marriage, always reminding me of my goals. Below are two of those panels, reproduced here with the gracious permission of the artist.

Things You Don't Say to a Poet #25
Jerry Lee Lewis School of Computer Programming

Anyone who has followed my website over the last ten years can see why these panels appealed to me. The “read your meter” cartoon tied together my love of puns with my desire to be a poet, and the “Jerry Lee Lewis” panel linked my music and computer interests. Integration has always been a theme in my life, and the “Caldwell” strip consistently brought together my interests in ways I didn’t expect.

I remember another panel in which a man is sitting in his pajamas, buried in a continuous roll of paper. The caption said something about the subject’s friend faxing back the copy of War and Peace that he had borrowed a few years earlier. Again, that panel tied together literature and technology. (It might not make sense to younger people these days, but those of us who were around for the commercial explosion of the fax machine remember that faxes originally printed out on continuous rolls, much like teletypes. See the prior post for more about teletypes.)

As the years went by, I dropped out of college, went through some hard times, climbed back up out of the pit, and now I’m finally realizing some of those college dreams. I’m a published writer and poet, I’m a computer professional for a major three-letter acronym, and I’ve played music in dozens of venues. Though I was slow to achieve some of those things, I never lost sight of them, even when times were hard, and I have John Caldwell’s tattered single-panel cartoons to thank for that.

Thanks, John. I’m glad to see that you are still writing, drawing, and making people laugh.

Update 3/2/2007 — I’ve been corresponding with John recently, and he pointed out that some of his cartoons were used in a pre-MTV video called “I Quit” by the band Blotto. That video is here on YouTube if you are interested in checking it out.