How I Search

Cradle Rolls, Rabbit Holes, Serendipity & Obliquity

I discovered my mother’s 1908 decorative Cradle Roll certificate, a document that had foundered, unexamined, while boxed in my last two garages. Squelching embarrassment, I reveled in the new information it provided: that my grandmother was my mother’s “guardian;” that she and my mother were living in Bakersfield, California; that my grandmother––never a church-goer in my lifetime––had associated herself and her about-to-be adopted daughter with a Methodist-Episcopal Church.

Thrilled to obtain this information. I brought the treasured certificate and my latest bio-memoir chapter (Untold, in progress) to my critique group. One member after supplying feedback, suggestions, and edits, per our group’s process, said, “What’s a Cradle Roll?” Another said as she has before, “I’d like to hear stories about how you research.”

First, let me say that my writing has never been so derailed and distracted as when I researched Cradle Rolls.

Do you want to know who created cradle rolls, and when? No problem. Two sisters, both Sunday School teachers, in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1877. What good is a Cradle Roll? Well, sometimes they’re used to establish births—which is exactly what I believe my father did in order to procure a passport for my mother.And…what about those Presbyterian scholars in New Zealand who write about cradle Rolls?

 Wait a minute, nobody wants such far-away facts, but I’m going to tell you anyway. In 1907, one Kiwi Presbyterian noted that women in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were involved in “some rather quaint activities,” i.e. Cradle Rolls, “a mystic but motherly-sounding venture.” The spokesman was certain that the purpose of Cradle Rolls was to get mothers to sign up their children and commit to bringing them up as abstainers.

 I love that kind of incidental trivia. With my family history/memoir writing project, I’ve found myself with fistfuls of well-researched irrelevancies that struck my fancy and possibly noone else’s.  But you know what, I don’t think I can change. Heavy revision is required and/or finding places for extraneous material––like in this blog: a justification for serendipitous searching.

 Let’s start with rabbit holes.  You know what a rabbit hole is: a cavity dug by a rabbit which she claims as her home. Today, the destination for human rabbits, thanks to the Internet, is not often home. Investigators hyperlink into distracting labyrinths from which escape is difficult, arriving at information often unconnected to original questions.

 As Alice discovered when she tunneled into her fantasyland of anthropomorphic characters, rabbit holes are a metaphor for entering the unknown, for broaching something stranger than imagined. Lewis Carroll’s book was published in 1865, long before a subculture called hippies appropriated psychedelics to amp up their view of the world.

Sagacity, now there’s a word to embrace! Wouldn’t we all like to be known as discerning, intelligent, and having an aptitude for investigation?

Is my related pursuit in this paragraph intelligent, an apt investigation? Maybe. Anyway, it’s a rabbit hole that fascinates me: Walpole met Horace Mann just once, but he maintained epistolary contact with him for 45 years and penned more than 4000 letters to a variety of other correspondents. Called “perhaps the most assiduous letter writer in English,” his correspondence has been published in thirty-eight volumes and also exists in a difficult-to-navigate digital compilation at a Yale University Library:

I’ve also found justification in another word: obliquity. I take Merrill-Webster’s definition into account––“deviation from moral rectitude or sound thinking”––as well as the Oxford English Dictionary’s “Divergence from right conduct orthought”––but I prefer the interpretive application given by systems engineers:“Obliquity is a theory that proposes the best way to achieve a goal when you are working with a complex system is to take an indirect approach instead of adirect one.” ( The best way. Yes, I think it is.

 I value cogent, relevant, well-constructed prose. My bio-memoir’s end goal is truth and understanding, big concepts that have guided the discovery of obscure information and the construction of chronology—i.e. my family history. I have a high tolerance for segues; in fact, I have a preference for them because they help me figure out the world that my ancestors lived in.

 Also: way back when I said my writing about cradle Rolls had never been so derailed and distracted…not true. Derailment and distraction are the curses of the curious and undisciplined, fellow-traveling qualities in every manuscript I produce.

And one more rabbit hole: Wanna know more about those New Zealand scholars–– theologians, historians, clergy and students who meet four times a year and start their meetings with “drinks and nibbles.” They’re called Presbyterian Research (–– a collaboration between Knox College and the Presbyterian Church of Aoftearoa (the Maori name for New Zealand). Or, check out their (non-scholarly) 2010 piece on and reproduction of Cradle Rolls on their website:

Rabbit holes can lead the researcher Down Under. I’m happy about that.


A Blog on Blogs

Several months ago, I was having lunch with two friends I hadn’t seen in a while. Both were retired librarians with new avocations: one is a potter, the other writes local history. The local historian, after learning that I had a blog, said, “Well, what do you write about?”

Unsorted past subjects flittered through my mind––the briefcase I  stole from an Uber driver;  Zyxt, the curious word, I found in the OED; a  remembrance of author Brian Doyle.  Before I could puncture the silence with something pithy my friend, eyebrows raised, offered,  “Life?”

“Well, yeah,” I muttered. Undeterred by vagueness, she asked for the blog’s address.

Last week, following the examination of the first draft of Eyes Wide Open, a  member of my critique group, said, “What’s the objective of your blog? What’s it about?

I said what one should not admit. “I’m not sure.”

I should think deeply about that. Or at least write an elevator speech to stave off palpable silences. Life. Hmm.

The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging says

“It’s perfectly fine to write about your life and experiences…and there’s no need to apologize for it…but if you want to take your blog to the next level, though, it helps to have some sort of theme to the majority of your posts.”

Level One is for me. I’m a dabbler.  I go for whatever turns my head, catches my fancy, and then I stylize my sentences to avoid clichés that have to do with fancifulness and head-turning. I often land on words. Take, for example, the word “blog.”

I don’t like the word blog, but Peter Merholz, its creator, enjoyed the word’s crudeness, its dissonance, and its rough onomatopoeic proximity to vomiting. (Yes, he really made that connection.)  Why didn’t Mr. Merholz, way back in 1999, keep his mitts off a noun that has such unpleasant sound siblings: bog, fog, agog, hog, clog? He couldn’t; the base word that he shortened was “Weblog.” Merholtz attributes its success to the creation of a new platform for publishing blogs:

“Blog” would have likely died a forgotten death had it not been for one thing: In August of 1999, Pyra Labs released Blogger, and with that, the use of “blog” grew with the tools success.”

Merholtz’s truncation of weblog took off and he has achieved the ultimate fame: he and his word are enshrined in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But, I ask you, can a serious writer use the term blogger as easily as a guy with a chainsaw who’s a logger?

Apparently, lots of readers would rather read a blog––and writers would rather write them, than, say, chop a log––because there are over 2,000 Huffington Post bloggers who initiate constant conversations 24 hours a day.

I’ve accomplished neither the deep thinking nor the elevator speech, but I did come to the same conclusion as the individual inadequately designated as “Marty” on the Brainy Quotes website,  who said,  “I think the word ‘blog’ is an ugly word.”

If you’ve made the slog through this blog, thank you.

P.S. Anybody know a logger I could interview? After all, the precursor to blogs (columns–before they went digital) were printed on paper derived from wood.






Dingle: From a Writer’s POV

Dingle: From a Writer’s POV

A friend of mine who read “Irish Literature: In the Air” commented, “I thought Dingle was just a peninsula.”

It is a peninsula–-a peninsula on the westernmost tip of Ireland––and it includes Dingle Town. Anyone who travels to Ireland shouldn’t miss Dingle and the 30-mile-trip which loops around the peninsula on narrow roads through summertime crowds of people and fleets of tour buses. Rick Steve’s “Dingle Loop Trip” in Ireland 2017 covers it all…the Stone Age ring fort, thatched roof cottages, beehive huts, remains of a walled monastery, and the 100,000 sheep, motorists and cyclists have to watch out for.

My wife, Amory, and I visited for the first time in 2004. Like many tourists, we were drawn to its funky restaurants, lively pub music, hospitable innkeepers, waterfront scenery, bookstore, and the library.

Not everyone includes bookstores and libraries on their travel itineraries, but we do. During that initial visit, I noticed a Librarian Wanted sign in the Dingle Library. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I mused, to work in a small town library where we could submerge ourselves in the community? Then I noticed an enthusiasm-dashing minimum requirement: Gaelic language skill. There were children’s books in Irish all around the room.

It was then that I learned that Dingle (An Daingean) is part of the “Gaeltacht,” a region on the Western seaboard where the government provides funds to ensure the survival of the Irish language and culture. English is the language of commerce, but if you listen, you’ll overhear conversations in Irish too.

When my MFA program through the University of Southern Maine offered a residency in Dingle, applying for it was a foregone conclusion. So, in summer 2015, I was privileged to be with Stonecoast faculty and students, while Amory traveled around with Jolene Hansen, a friend from Bellingham who’s photographed and written extensively about Ireland.

For almost twenty years Poet/Residency Director Ted Deppe has afforded eight to ten students opportunities to interact with contemporary Irish writers––during lectures, at meal times, and at readings at the Dingle Bookstore.

Considering Dingle’s tiny population of 1500, The Dingle Bookshop‘s success is an anomaly. The summertime swell of tourists helps, not to mention the friendly feel of the place and the person running it. I emailed the owner ahead of time, asking if she could procure Three Strange Angels, a novel published in the UK, written by American author and friend Laura Kalpakian.

When we got there, the book was waiting and Camilla Dinkel––yes, Dinkel of Dingle!–– handed it over. I asked her how she and here husband acquired a bookstore. “My husband came over [from the UK] to build a house for an Englishman. We decided to stay. We brought the bookstore and business has increased every year.” Unlike me, helpless at the prospect of learning Irish, she and her husband Michael found a way to live in Dingle Town.


Kevin Barry, an Irish author in his late 40s, was at the Residency. In order to write his first novel, he left journalism, bought a beat-up van, stationed it in a field near Cork, and “pounded out,” he says, “a terrible novel” set in Montana. It was never published. However, his two short story collections and two published novels have won a multiplicity of awards. Beatlebone, the most recent, is about John Lennon who bought an island near Sligo.

“Yes,” affirmed Barry, “that John Lennon.” Kevin Barry and his wife live in Sligo in an old Royal Irish Constabulary barracks. He spent four years writing and researching Beatlebone. Click here to read a review.

I agree with the reviewer’s conclusion: “…while I enjoyed Beatlebone, somehow the sum was slightly less than its many fine and savoursome parts.” I like Barry’s insights about the writing process more than I did his actual fiction.

“When you say you’re going to write something, you’re making a pact with yourself. Writing is a mysterious business. The only thing it’s close to is dreaming. It’s close to the subconscious. When you awake in the morning, you’re still in the puddle of dreams. We’re all perfect storytellers when we are dreaming, and soon after we wake up. The front part, the critical part of the brain, shuts down. So, first thing, I sit up, scratch down words using crazy nerve ending places, and spew onto the page.”

The next morning, after hearing Barry, I dashed from bed, typed maniacally on my keyboard and produced arresting pieces of writing––flash fiction, bits of lyric poetry, astute observations. I substantiated something else Barry said: “What seems like God-given genius in the morning, seems like crap at 5 o’clock.”


Harry Clifton, who held the Irish equivalent of U.S. poet laureate, entered into his writing career under the mantle of classic poetry. He described his generation as:

  “…super-saturated with the emotionalism of the early Yeats. We had to fight our way out of that in order to find ourselves. Dublin really didn’t have a poetry [of its own] until the sixties when Patrick Kavanagh, kicking around in the pubs of Dublin, wrote his ‘disillusioned city’ poems. Yeats was all about emotion.”

I had never heard Yeats described in anything but adulatory terms, particularly by my respected poetry professor, Dr. Ron Leatherbarrow, who believes that Yeats was “the greatest poet of the twentieth century.” I was stunned by Clifton’s assessment of “The Song of Wandering Angus” as “enormously appealing, but it also anchored a person in a kind of Ireland that didn’t really exist anymore.”

My admiration of Yeats is unchanged, but I understand Clifton’s view that for him, the older poetry of Ireland did not account “for the city rhythms of urban Dublin.”

There are few city rhythms in Dingle; there are none on the six Blasket Islands, a three-mile boat ride from Dunquin on the Dingle Peninsula. Yet the Blaskets produced writers Ireland claims as important members of its literary heritage.

Next blog: The Great Blasket Island (An Blascaod Mor).