From The Editor
Bill Girdner
Story Date:   
Tomb Fires

     Seven weeks of mourning. It was time to return to the rhythm of life.
     I had gone to Ishigaki, an island at the southern tip of the Japanese archipelago, for the first and then again for the final ceremony in the seven weeks following the death of my girlfriend Sanae's father.
     The last of the ceremonies was now over, final prayers had been offered, and we had all had a final meal along with a full plate for the father. It was time to take down the center of all the activity, a display of flowers, pictures, lights and decorations, predominantly in white, green and bronze, before which members of the community bowed, lit incense, offered their contribution, and made a prayer.
     Finally the men in the extended family could do something other than sit cross-legged and bow and wait. We carried the low table holding up the huge display towards the front of the main room, where all the wall panels had been removed.
     We loaded the display and everything from the 49 days of mourning into bags and into a farming truck, all the artificial decorations, lists of contributions, holders for flowers, anything that would burn.
     I rode with Tadahiro, Sanae's brother, as he drove the truck for about a mile and then onto a narrow, rough dirt track in the middle of sugarcane fields. It was the road to the family tomb, a dark gray concrete enclosure set next to few other tombs and surrounded by long, green cane.
     It was just men that went along, with water and matches and beers. We put the remnants of the weeks of mourning into two piles in front of the tomb, and burned it all. Heavy black smoke drifted up the hill. I was about to put into the fire a set of papers with careful hand-writing, listing all the contributions from the members of the village. I hesitated, wondering if the list should be kept.
     "Kore mo," that too, repeated Tadahiro who was stirring one of the flaming piles with a cane pole.
      A huge old bottle of sake had been removed from the tomb and left outside, when the tomb was opened seven weeks ago to place his father's ashes inside. The bottle had been inside the tomb for 25 years, placed there when his grandfather died.
     Tadahiro poured some of the sake on the flames to boost them in their cleansing task. A terrible waste, in my opinion, of the spirit of the spirits.
     We took down the 20-foot poles and folded the long, white, hanging banners that had flapped in front of the tomb for seven weeks. Eventually, there was nothing left of the burning piles but two small mounds on the ground.
     One of the men poured water onto the ashes that hissed slightly.
     An ice-box was then brought out of the mini-truck and the men broke out tall cans of beer and tall cans of tea. We stood and drank, with some relaxed conversation and laughter.
     As we rode slowly away on the bumpy dirt track, I looked back at the tombs. A pair of huge black crows had descended onto one of them, one that had just been opened, with fresh banners hanging. They were looking for any offerings left behind.
     Seven weeks ago, I had come to the same place, when Tadahiro placed the urn and a fresh bottle of sake inside the tomb.
     In the morning of that day, we had gone to the mortuary, a simple, concrete-floored hall on a rise among cane fields. I helped carry the casket into the hall.
     Once the guests were assembled on wooden benches, men on one side of the hall, women on the other, the tall, scarecrow of a monk, made taller by wooden sandals that sat on inch-high wooden rims, swept through the bright sunlight of the doorway, brown robes flapping.
     He strode up to the altar in the center of the spare, shaded hall with four big oven doors at the other end.
     The monk chanted in a deep, slightly raspy voice from way back in the throat, ending with a long resonant hum that faded lower and then to nothing, like the sound of a motorbike receding into the distance. Two workmen in rubber boots then opened one of the heavy metal doors and an automated track pulled the casket through the doors, as the hiss of gas flames deepened into a dull roar.
     We came back three hours later.
     What was left was spread on a pallet on the rail where the casket had earlier been placed. The fading heat of the oven could still be felt. After another long chant from the monk, the guests lined up on either side of the altar. We all took pairs of chopsticks, walked forward to the pallet, and used them to place the whitened remnants of the old man's bones into an urn. A worker helped tamp them down.
     Tadahiro drove with the urn to the family tomb. The heavy concrete slab sealing the front of the tomb was pried open and lifted aside, and the urn placed inside. All the guests then had a meal, talking, drinking from tall cans of beer or green tea, alongside a full plate of food placed at the entrance to the tomb.

Coyote Speaks
Robert Kahn
Story Date:   
Pardon Me if I'm Blarophant

     Like most people who are not wholly vile, I have standards - some in common with humanity, some peculiarly my own. And I hew to those standards (hew to meaning abide by, not to chop up with an ax).
     At what point does sticking to one's standards become mere pigheadedness?
     I wondered this week - on company time - upon stumbling across the word "blarophant" while editing a story.
     The word does not exist. So should I allow it in a story?
     The Salt Lake Tribune used it in its Aug. 30, 1877 obituary of Brigham Young. The Trib did not care for the fellow. A rather mild sentence from the obit states: "He was blarophant, and pretended to be in daily intercourse with the Almighty, and yet he was groveling in his ideas, and the system of religion he formulated was well nigh Satanic."
     Good heavens. The rest of the obituary was no kinder. You can read it by Googling blarophant. The Tribune editor was the only person who ever used it, and he did it just once.
     I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary and in Webster's Second Edition. Nothing.
     The suffix -phant comes from Greek phainein, meaning to manifest or show, but the prefix blaro- means nothing in Latin or Greek, nor does blar- or bla-. So the word is meaningless, though the Trib editor surely meant something bad.
     With dictionaries strewn across the floor, I realized that no one but me would care what it meant, or whether it means anything at all. I left it in the story even though it's not a word because, what the heck, I'd looked it up ...
     There are words, however, that I will not allow, even though everyone else is using them. One of these words is "reference" used as a verb.
     Reference is not a verb. It is a noun or an adjective. The verb form is "refer."
     Webster agrees with me on this. The Oxford English Dictionary ... actually, the O.E.D. allows it. So the O.E.D. is wrong.
     I know, I know. I'm not going to fight the people at Oxford. So I'm wrong, but I still won't allow it.
     Here we come to the point, if I have a point. Am I being pigheaded, barring a word that's used correctly, merely because I think it's ugly?
     Maybe I am, but vide supra. Also, op cit. and viz.
     Languages change, and even etymologists and editors have to admit it. Dr. Johnson, for instance, admitted "fun" to his dictionary only grudgingly, but did not approve it, because he considered it a "low" word.
     He was scandalized by the word "leg" if it referred to a woman, and though he had to admit it to his dictionary - please, not in that way. He preferred "limbs," and that dictum remained in force until the end of the Victorian Age.
     Clearly, if Dr. Johnson were alive today, it would be ridiculous to hew to those standards. And I doubt that he would.
     (Actually, he wouldn't have to, because if Dr. Johnson got a look at a modern magazine, I believe he would die instanter. ("'Webster's Second Edition' ... 'Adj: immediately',".))
     I suppose I have to admit that in this case, and no doubt in others, what I call my high standards merely make me pigheaded. (Stubborn, unmoved, adamant, tenacious.)
     Ah, well, it's a question for an etymologist. Which Dr. Johnson defined as "a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge."

From The Courts
Milt Policzer
Story Date:   
Bad Schools or Bad Students?

     Here's an interesting chicken/egg issue for you to ponder: Do good schools produce successful graduates or do good students create successful schools?
     How well would, say, Harvard grads do if the school admitted only kids with C averages and 400 SAT scores?
     That was the sort of thing I was wondering after spotting a completely nonsurprising "investigative" story in the Los Angeles Times that revealed that graduates of unaccredited law schools in California have very low bar passage rates.
     (By the way, is nonsurprising a word? My computer doesn't think so. This is not surprising.)
     I know the article was investigative because the story was labeled "Times Investigation." Apparently, they've run out of things to investigate that we don't already know.
     But the issue is interesting. Are strip-mall law schools ripping off students or are dumb students giving one-room law schools a bad name?
     Maybe that's the wrong question. Maybe we should be asking: When is the appropriate time to crush someone's dreams?
     After all, the law school people know most of these dumb students are going nowhere, but shouldn't they be allowed to give dreamers a chance? If nine out of 10, according to the investigation, are dropping out, that means 1 out of 10 is making it through.
     According to the Times, a former mayor of Los Angeles was in that 10 percent. Of course, he didn't pass the bar exam, but you can't expect too much from politicians. Still, some of these guys become lawyers.
     Do you close down casinos because the odds are against you?
     Of course not. You let them rake in as much money as they can, build giant hotels and give away free drinks.
     Imagine how popular law schools would be if they offered fine dining and nearly naked dancers.
     Almost everyone would lose, but they wouldn't care. What happens in law school stays in law school.
     And there would be no question about law schools deceiving their students with false hopes.
     Problem solved.
     Except for the small minority with law study addiction issues. Those people need our help and understanding.
     Practice Makes ... What?
     Maybe law school and bar exams are overrated and unnecessary.
     The Providence Journal reported Sunday on a guy who failed the Rhode Island bar exam eight times, but still managed to practice law there for 18 years.
     Unfortunately, there's no explanation for the repeat bar-taking. He seemed to be doing just fine without bothering to pass the test.
     For some reason, though, the unlicensed lawyer wasn't being allowed to take the exam a ninth time - which I think is a darn shame. If someone is trying to break a world record and make history, we shouldn't stand in his way.
     The last paragraph of the Journal article is my favorite: "The Lovett brothers are sons of the flamboyant late King of Workers' Comp, Raul Lovett. The self-described 'Mickey Mouse lawyer,' Raul was known for the trademark neon cartoon favorite on display at his longtime offices on Thomas Street."
     Imagine how confident you'd feel with the Mickey Mouse lawyer representing you - whether he passed the bar or not.
     Those of you considering imitating this business development trick might want to try some alternative cartoon figure displays.
     She-Hulk and Daredevil are good choices. They're lawyers in the comic books and they represent strong women and the very-capable disabled.
     But I'd go with Judge Dredd - an avatar who kicks butt in court (or doesn't need a court at all).
     You'll inspire confidence.