The Moment I Got It

October 14, 2016

unknownWhen I heard the announcement yesterday that Bob Dylan had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, my first thought was, “What a strange choice.” My second thought, an instant later: “What took them so long?”

The “strangeness” comes because most of us don’t think of Dylan’s unmatched output as “literature.” Though much initial reaction is supportive, the backlash has quickly formed. Novelist Rabih Alameddine tweeted, “Bob Dylan winning a Nobel in Literature is like Mrs Fields being awarded 3 Michelin stars.” Jodi Picoult offered the hashtag #ButDoesThisMeanICanWinAGrammy? The meanest (and funniest) dig I’ve seen comes from Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh: “I’m a Dylan fan, but this is an ill conceived nostalgia award wrenched from the rancid prostates of senile, gibbering hippies.”

Unlike the timorous voters for Oscars and Grammys, the Swedish Academy was not afraid to take a bold step which arguably blows up the whole definition of literature, much as Dylan himself once did for popular music. It calmly explained in its citation that Dylan was being honored “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” But that presents two problems for non-senile, non-gibbering purists.

First, “song.” That Dylan is a masterful writer — at minimum, one who has repeatedly been able to connect with his audience in a deeply felt way for more than half a century — cannot credibly be contested. But aside from the very fine prose voice of his memoir CHRONICLES VOLUME ONE, most of Dylan’s work has been written not to be read, but to be performed aloud. (He’s the first musician ever to receive this honor.) Walt Whitman may “sing the body electric” and compose a ”Song of Myself,” so a poem can be a song. But can a song be a poem? If not, the anti-Bob faction may have a point — but the selection committee emphatically says yes, it can.

Second, context. There have been quite a few print collections of Dylan lyrics over the years, and I believe another one is expected this fall. When you flip through a representative sample, you’ll indeed find a trove of vaulting images and dazzling metaphorical beauty. But you’ll also have to read past a simple 12-bar blues lyric that might sound great — fulfilling its artistic purpose — but looks hopelessly banal on the page. In other words, this big-tent view of literature will require its own aesthetic to be properly studied and appreciated. We haven’t developed that yet, which is one reason some folks are freaking out today.

tumblr_inline_mw3xrqtc8x1rilmyoThere’s one more strike against Dylan. Even conceding that a song is really a poem performed out loud, what’s up with that crazy anti-musical voice? I faced this problem myself when I encountered Dylan for the first time. It was fall 1964, I’d just entered high school, and I saw a short notice in Time magazine about his new record, ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN. I knew he was the guy who’d written “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” both covered by Peter, Paul & Mary (the latter by Simon & Garfunkel too: they and Dylan shared a producer, Tom Wilson), but I had never heard his voice. I dropped the needle on Side One Track 1, “All I Really Want To Do,” and almost started laughing. This nasal, vibrato-less wail was on pitch all right, but it cut through the air and clashed with the litany of rhymes in the verses, and then the sumbitch yodeled on the chorus and blew simple open chords on a harmonica! To the piano for “Black Crow Blues,” of which I thought nothing special, then an interesting little riff, “Spanish Harlem Incident,” but I still wan’t really paying attention.

The next song was called “Chimes of Freedom.” It begins, “Far between sundown’s finish / And midnight’s broken toll…” I perked up: something was different. I leaned in to a relentless cascade of images. Where “All I Really Want To Do” had been playful, this was mature and sophisticated — the yodeling hayseed was nowhere to be found. Now it was a rousing call for basic human decency using linguistic connections I’d never heard before. I listened to the entire seven-minute song, picked up the needle and played it again. The second time through, I found myself fixated on one word: the chimes of freedom were “flashing.” Chimes don’t flash. They peal, clang, bong, jingle, whatever. They toll in the song itself. Then I said, whoa: the lyric doesn’t say they’re listening to the chimes, it says they’re gazing upon them during a thunderstorm. Any other songwriter would describe the experience as aural. Who would think to observe the chimes of freedom visually? I listened one last time before continuing with the rest of the album. Now I was seizing on the lyrics. My focus had moved past the voice into the heartbeat of the songs. I was breaking down the verses in real time if I could, and on subsequent plays if not. There was a richness, a substance, that I’d never heard in popular music. By the Lp’s end I had become a Bob Dylan fan. On the power of the poetry. On the strength of the literature. And I’m only frickin fourteen.

Energized, I went back and bought his three previous albums (how would his own “Blowin’ in the Wind” sound, I wondered? Like Woody Guthrie in the Dust Bowl). Retroactively, I learned that he had arisen out of the “traditional” Greenwich Village folk scene but was upending propriety by “writing” his own songs early on. I use quotes because his early “Farewell” (the one at the end of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS) is nothing more than “The Leaving of Liverpool” with altered lyrics, just as “The Patriot Game” becomes “With God On Our Side” in his hands. But melodic “homage” is part of the folk tradition too. Then Dylan became more topical and the darling of the civil rights and antiwar movements with powerful pieces like “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” By the time of ANOTHER SIDE, though, he was undergoing another step in his evolution and setting the topical folk scene aside, causing resentment that survives in some circles today. And that’s where I caught up with him.

About a year later, on Nov. 27, 1965, my sixteenth birthday, I was sitting in an audience at McCormick Place in Chicago for an early stop on Dylan’s first tour with electric instruments, brought on after a solo acoustic set and intermission. Musically, he was advancing faster than his audience and there were plenty of boos during the second set. (This show was very much like the one recorded at the Royal Albert Hall the following year and released as part of the “Bootleg” series.) I have rarely been so thrilled to be at a concert. Maybe Elvis. Maybe Sinatra. Maybe not.

Dylan’s material didn’t sound like old folk songs any more. He was inventing beautiful melodies as well. The verbal allusions were a mashup of current popular culture and the classics, intruding on and elevating each other as if inside a dream. Yet even this was only a career byway. Dylan has continued to reinvent himself, periodically shaking off all but the most ardent fans in the process. (He lost me briefly during his born-again Christian phase in the late 70s-early 80s.) In this respect his career more resembles a painter’s than a performing artist’s: a country period, a gospel period, an American songbook period. Not every one of his song lyrics belongs in the permanent pantheon. Neither does every single thing written by Faulkner or Hemingway. But a remarkable body of Bob Dylan’s work does indeed belong there. If 2016’s Nobel Prize in Literature forces us to reevaluate the very meaning of the term, then that was a well-given prize indeed.


10/30/16: Some of these same thoughts, more artfully realized, by David Hadju. (Listen to the commentary by Hadju, Sean Wilentz and Robert Christgau on the INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Criterion DVD.)

Terminological Inexactitude And Other Obfuscations

June 20, 2016

61b9BIkGz7L._SX369_BO1,204,203,200_If you find annoying the blatant B.S. rampant in politics, business and culture, here’s a chance to turn your grumbles into giggles. The latest collaboration by those scamps Henry Beard and Christopher Cerf is a compendium of doubletalk, deception and crude euphemism from all parts of society: SPINGLISH.

Our curators are a distinguished duo. Beard is the co-founder (with Doug Kenney and Harvard schoolmate Rob Hoffman) of National Lampoon and co-author (also with Kenney, while they were still in college) of the magnificent book-length parody BORED OF THE RINGS. In 1975, having fulfilled his contractual obligation, he cashed out of the Lampoon and became an instant rich man. The brand was as hot as it gets at the time and would soon scale new heights in the movie business, but Beard was sick of having to herd a ragtag group of high-strung cats like Tony Hendra and Michael O’Donoghue. He equated the Lampoon years with his hitch in the Army Reserve, which he hated. But now he could do anything he wanted, which included a lot of golf. He tried screenwriting and didn’t like it, then returned to his real forte, intelligent humor, which often put him on the Times bestseller list in the ensuing years. Cerf was also a pixieish provocateur on the Lampoon staff in its Seventies heyday. Besides writing, he has worked in music and television: I still envy one of my closest friends for getting to share quality Chris Cerf time on the public television series BETWEEN THE LIONS. But he will always be my hero for co-founding the “Institute of Expertology” with Victor Navasky and then issuing the ultimate collection of learned but mistaken prognostication, THE EXPERTS SPEAK, along with its shocking-and-aweing little cousin, MISSION ACCOMPLISHED! OR HOW WE WON THE WAR IN IRAQ.

51hbNavCQtL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_514VuaGXeuL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_At first glance, SPINGLISH’s wry explications of deliberately squishy phrases may suggest a 21st-century version of THE DEVIL’S DICTIONARY. The difference is, Ambrose Bierce was mocking; Beard and Cerf are reporting. Every entry is sourced and footnoted, mostly with second-hand citations in articles and papers, but there are plenty of notes that come complete with perpetrator and date. For example, we all know a “gentlemen’s club” is really a strip joint and “ethnic cleansing” is a blander term for genocide, but what corporation would use the creepily cheerful claim that eliminating one thousand jobs was “rewiring for growth”? Walgreens did, in a press release on January 8, 2009. The book is ecumenical and favors no particular culture-war combatant over another: outre usage seems to be universal. In 2008 Tesla’s Elon Musk described the “layoff” (itself an example of Spinglish) of ten percent of his workforce as a “modest reduction in near-term head count.” Emotionally neutral ways to downplay firings are some of the most common examples of soft-serve spin: other popular inspirations include lying, plagiarism, bankruptcy, and the use of lethal military force.

On reflection it’s somewhat sad how many of these euphemisms have fallen into common use and thus are widely understood in their unadulterated true form: collateral damage, downsizing, Rubenesque, sanitation engineer, friendly fire, overserved, mobile home, semi-private, surgical strike (surgeons try to prevent loss of life), executive assistant, well-endowed, strategic withdrawal, and many more. To help further our understanding of this obfuscatory tongue, the bulk of the “dictionary” is “Spinglish to English,” but the authors include a handy reverse “English to Spinglish” section so we can experience verbal transmogrification in yet another way.

The droll observations of our two auctorial satirists provide lots of fun. “Support our troops” really means “support our policy.” “Judicial activism” is “what judges you don’t agree with do.” A “freedom fighter” is “a terrorist who happens to be on the side you’re supporting.” “Hands-on mentoring” is “sexual relations with a junior employee.” “Fanaticism” is “what enemy troops display when they storm a well-armed position. When our troops storm a well-armed position, they display bravery.”

51IVFr0ZoeL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_SPINGLISH is quite the welcome relief after Beard and Cerf’s previous reference, ENCYCLOPEDIA PARANOIACA, devised by the “Cassandra Institute” as a guide to everything you should be “afraid of or worried about.” It’s fundamentally hilarious in that the book’s very existence makes fun of the fact that we Americans are afraid of our own shadows, but entry after impeccably sourced entry may actually cause you to fret about something new after having lived thus far in blissful ignorance. “This book just might save your life,” it claims. “(Apologies in advance if it doesn’t.)” SPINGLISH is at once lighter and more transgressive. There’s only one thing funnier than someone who thinks he’s clever clumsily trying to put one over on the rest of us, and that’s a tiresome pontificator taking a well-deserved pie in the face. To enjoy that bit of verbal slapstick, you need THE EXPERTS SPEAK.

Marketing For (And Perhaps By) Dummies, Part 2

September 21, 2013

MilleniumThe Millenium Hilton is in New York City, not far from Ground Zero. The Millenium Hilton. Millenium, did you hear? When I was an independent copywriter/producer long ago, I learned how to spell the word “millennium.” It was the name of my company, after all. It derives from “mille” and “annus.” There are two frickin Ns, homey.

This joint has been around — and bugging me — since 1992, but according to Wikipedia, “the hotel’s builder chose to intentionally misspell the name with one ‘n’ on the outdoor signage and official literature…in order to make the name more distinctive.” Nope, I call that backpedaling B.S., my friends. Much more plausible is abject dumminess — but by the time anyone realized the mistake, it was too late to change. If it’s really so “distinctive,” why does almost nobody notice?

Photo by Parker Johnson.

More dummy marketing.

Just For Openers

May 12, 2013

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

That’s one of the greatest opening lines in literary history, for my money. It has stuck with me for nearly thirty years. In fact, I just quoted it by heart (double-checking only to make sure I got the comma right: I did). As everybody else who has encountered it also doubtless remembers, William Gibson’s brilliant novel NEUROMANCER begins with this sentence. I haven’t read the book since it was first published in 1984, but I still remember this line perfectly, because it smacked me like an open hand.

We know instinctively that a musical melody can get under our skins. Even a tune we had had quite enough of remains inside us, in some primal part of our brains that can whisk us back to the moment when it was contemporary and conjure long-forgotten emotions, both fond and regretful, whether we like it or not. Those of you who are old enough: start thinking of the melody of Kenny Loggins’s “Danny’s Song” – you know the one, “Even though we ain’t got money / I’m so in love with you honey…” Got it? Okay, now try to STOP thinking of it. Both my mother and grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease late in their lives, and even at the point where they could only speak in gibberish syllables (except very rarely, when a perfectly formed sentence would come out, chilling me to the bone and forcing me to wonder if they’d been making sense to themselves all along. Alzheimer’s is one king-hell bitch, friends), they could still remember musical notes and put them together into a recognizable melody. This strongly suggests that we experience and file musical tones in some other sector from wherever we store and retrieve language. I would guess visual cues are handled differently as well. I don’t have the medical background to be sure, but that’s what I’ve observed, and it makes common sense to me.

But what is it about a string of letters that creates a profundity or emotional tug? I can only explain my own reactions, and I’m not suggesting that I have the last word as an academician might. In the case of NEUROMANCER, part of the key is that date: 1984. It was the beginning of the personal computer revolution, still largely confined to hobbyists. The Apple Macintosh, which billed itself as “the computer for the rest of us,” had only just appeared. But with that bold sentence, Bill Gibson announced that he was speaking to a new generation of science fiction readers – heck, a new generation of readers, period. The original thundercrack of 20th century science fiction – Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke and colleagues – had given way to a more socially conscious, taboo-smashing New Wave – Spinrad, Ellison, Disch, LeGuin, and so on – who were audacious enough to question the very existence of this or that genre. But that had happened twenty or so years before. Unlike the slow but miraculous race to the moon, when science-based writers could still kind of keep up, the pace of technological and societal change was increasing. It became folly to predict the future, because the future now arrived before your ink was even dry.

Bill Gibson was 35 when he wrote NEUROMANCER; he was born in the same year George Orwell published NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. He was on the leading edge of the first generation that grew up with television as a casual aspect of daily life. So when he described a sickly gray color that resembled a ”dead channel,” everybody his age and younger understood instantly, and they knew they were being addressed by a peer. These people had never gathered around a radio drama when they were kids, like elder writers had. They couldn’t really remember pulp magazines or movie serials, at least not in their heydays. But they were old enough to recall what it was like before tv channels blared around the clock, the days when your local station actually signed off the air at midnight or so…and became a dead channel until the following morning. In this instant, Gibson had announced the arrival of an emerging digital point of view. This attitude, combined with often breathless views of an over-teched future dystopia, came to be called “cyberpunk,” and lots of people, including me, got their very first taste in NEUROMANCER. Simply rotate the “C” ninety degrees to form a “U,” and you’ve changed everything. Maybe creativity is that simple. (Spoiler Alert: it is, but only for those who can manage to make that unnatural turn, which eliminates nearly all the rest of us.) One caveat: Bill himself may well have been inspired by the Doors’ “My Eyes Have Seen You,” which contains the line “gazing on the city under television skies,” but I always felt Jim Morrison was just casting out images. That one, from both Bill and Jim, is a dandy.

I wasn’t alone in my adoration. NEUROMANCER won every award the field was able to bestow, and William Gibson became something grander than a science fiction writer, the same thing that had happened to Kurt Vonnegut a generation earlier. Anybody who really likes spaceships and lasers can remember the frisson produced by the first shot of STAR WARS, the 1977 original, as the massive Imperial ship chases the smaller one, death-rays blazing. You thought, oh, wow, I think I’m gonna enjoy this. Well, that’s also what I thought upon reading that now-famous sentence – and in both cases, the creators delivered on the promise of their superlative curtain-raisers.

Call me Ishmael.

This opening sentence resonates because of the tremendous sense of foreshadowed drama it portends. Perhaps the NEUROMANCER opening will do the same, once we give it the requisite, say, fifty more years, as the world it describes falls inexorably into ancient history.

Every snot-nosed kid who dutifully tried Herman Melville’s titanic work MOBY-DICK back in grade school discovered that to get this far, you first have to wade through an abysmal, seemingly unending section of definition, etymology, etc. We get it, sir: whales are badasses. But, as with the satirical Onion item about the Titanic being struck by the world’s largest metaphor, so we understand from the first words that this is more than a story about a fishing expedition.

In the John Huston film, written by Ray Bradbury – who definitely loved him some metaphor – the Richard Basehart voiceover includes a pregnant pause. The actor says, “Call me…Ishmael,” as if he were trying to come up with some pseudonym on the spot. That pause isn’t written in Melville, but this subtext definitely is: call me whatever you want. I don’t care. I’m going to tell you something that’s almost beyond belief, but it happened, pal, I saw it with my own eyes, and I only am escaped alone to tell thee. That last bit is from the book of Job – which Melville’s readership had studied much closer in 1851 than we do today – so, to coin a phrase, we know dude be serious. Biblical scholars tell us the name “Ishmael” connotes an outcast, a wanderer. As we say in the enlightened new millennium, whatev.

By the way, kids, don’t give up on this great tale just because of all the lousy pre-show variety acts. Skip the front parts and go directly to “Chapter 1: LOOMINGS.” Trust me. Don’t wait for your teacher to “interpret”: this looming business is spelled out for you on page one, but I am not responsible for any blowback if you happen to point this out in class. (Yes, that is indeed experience speaking.)

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

Did you recognize that sentence? Bet you did. It opens George Orwell’s NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR. It’s so sly that it ruins our internal balance without even seeming to. After all, the military, and any European transportation hub, operate on a 24-hour clock, for understandable precision: “The cap’n said drop the nuke at 12: did he mean noon or midnight?” There does actually exist a concept known as thirteen o’clock. No, wait: the military and Eurail know 1:00 pm as “1300 hours.” So why are the clocks striking thirteen? Is it because we’re under martial law? (Spoiler Alert: in a way, yes.) Is it because all civilians have been forced to observe these same rules of precision for the good of the body politic? (You‘re getting warmer, unlike the bright April day – it really should be warm by now!)

Fourteen words, a comma and a period. That’s all it took to thrust us into a disturbing new paradigm, to shift reality. Orwell’s immortal story works not only because of its invention or prescience, but also because he was able to knock us off kilter within seconds. Now consider a longer lead-in.

It was a perfect 72 degrees the December morning the Marshalls’ home computer arrived, and the sky was set to a soaring azure, but it was flickering, which was the whole problem.

Recognize that? No? I’m not surprised. It’s the opening sentence – and paragraph – from the 2006 short story “Installation Day.” It appeared in an anthology called GOLDEN AGE SF, for which contemporary authors were invited to pretend they were working in science fiction’s “Golden Age” – that is, the 30s through the 50s – with no knowledge of what actually came later. Sort of retro-futurism. I’ve postponed it for a couple minutes, but I guess the time has come to reveal that the author is none other than me. (Judging only from this opening sentence, sharp eyes might suss that I’d long since consumed the Gibson and the Orwell.)

I did hobble myself by setting this sentence against three of the greatest openings ever, but I do have a kind of explanation. Still, you can see what happens when a child attempts to do a grown person’s job. (Not just me, either: most writers would probably try to get the setting out of the way: “At 1 pm on April 4th…”) My opening is by far the longest, clunkiest, most info-packed but nevertheless least interesting of the four you see. How one could/would “set” the sky and why it was “flickering” get explained in the story, as you assume they will, and a 72-degree December morning isn’t uncommon to those who live in the Sunbelt. But look at all I failed to do in twice, thrice, the words, compared to the greatest. In fairness, I must add that I deliberately wrote this story to read like an old pulp magazine piece, and bombastic opening sentences like mine were almost obligatory. I’m not beating myself up for your amusement; I’m actually quite pleased with how the story turned out anent the commission. (I think I might also be speaking for my editor, Eric T. Reynolds, who first improved my story and then bought it, as do many editors of short fiction, in that order.)

But these magical moments don’t happen by accident. Or maybe they do. The sliver of our minds that great literature manages to touch can fire in a split-second. But as William Gibson showed me, that blinding spark can last a lifetime.

Them’s Frightin’ Words!

May 15, 2011

You have to hand this to the right wing: they know how to reduce complex issues down to a sound bite or two. It takes gifted people like Frank Luntz, the pollster and best propagandist they have these days, to turn, say, “anti-abortion” into “pro-life,” “estate tax” into “death tax,” “oil drilling” into “energy exploration.” I’m starting to catch another meme, and I hope you’ll pay attention to see if it spreads. The word is “Mediscare,” and if it didn’t come from Luntz (whose 2007 book was subtitled, “It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear”), I’ll bet he wishes it had.

This word is emerging because during the recent congressional recess, several firebrands went back home to meet a “town-hall” crowd of pitchfork-wielding Frankenstein-movie villagers. Turns out that lots of seniors don‘t like Rep. Paul Ryan’s Ayn-Randish plan to eviscerate Medicare for their descendants. In other words, they fear objectivism; what’s gonna happen when my kid needs care and can’t afford it? You got yours; screw your kid! is diminishing as a vote-winning response. In New York’s 26th congressional district, around red-meat Buffalo, Jane Corwin was supposed to win a May 24 special election (called because of the resignation of her fellow Republican, Chris Lee, the family-values paragon who fired out that shirtless photo on Craigslist) in a walk, but now it’s a dead heat between her and Democrat Kathy Hochul. Some feel the gap was zapped by Ms. Corwin’s steadfast support for Rep. Ryan’s scheme, and Ms. Hochul’s fiery opposition. It would be such an embarrassment to lose this seat – and such an ominous sign for 2012 – that Pubs have sent out big-shot worthies including Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Speaker John Boehner, who said in the district on May 9 that Democrats were trying to “steal this election.” (That’s Republican for “win a seat that we thought was in our back pocket.”) So they came up with this word, “Mediscare.”

The implication is that Democrats are using scare tactics to make seniors uneasy about Pub intentions for Medicare. (Seniors are actually treated most kindly, at least at the beginning, by Rep. Ryan; it’s the rest of the country, except maybe for insurance companies, that should be uneasy.) Hmmm…isn’t that exactly what Pubs did two years ago to inflame teabaggers and other gullibles against the Affordable Health Care Act? Remember “death panels” – another great sound bite? For a generation, they’ve tainted any attempt to rein in the insurance/pharmaceutical machine by tagging it as “[person you don’t like]care.” First it was Hillarycare. In Massachusetts, Romneycare. Baggers, I’ll make you the same deal that Bill Maher offers: I’ll stop calling you “teabaggers” when you stop calling it “Obamacare.”

I’ve seen the word “Mediscare” at least twice recently on the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal, the staging area for most Pub-speak trial balloons. (That’s where Sarah Palin found the cool-sounding-to-her phrase “blood libel.” Maybe she regrets using the term by now, but I really doubt it.) In order to make it work, they’ll have to repeat it hundreds of times on Drudge and Fox News; I don’t see those media regularly, so for all I know they’re doing it already. The “lamestream media” (zing!) don’t matter in the slightest. Otherwise the Pubs won’t own it; it hasn’t been that long ago that they themselves were wailing about those death panels and pulling the plug on granny. Nope, it has to be turned around and directed at Democrats. Then, next summer, Pubs can head out to “town halls” and say, “Those stats and facts the other guy’s throwing out? Heck, that’s just Mediscare!”

The Republicans have read their Orwell. (Luntz offers this, um, Orwellian interpretation of the author’s essay “Politics and the English Language”: “To be ‘Orwellian’ is to speak with absolute clarity, to be succinct, to explain what the event is, to talk about what triggers something happening… and to do so without any pejorative whatsoever.”) “No Child Left Behind.” “The Clear Skies Act,” which weakened the “Clean Air Act.” The USA PATRIOT Act, a laboriously tortured acronym (“Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001” is its Sunday-go-to-meetin’ name). And their masterpiece, H.R. 2 in the current Congress, “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act.” A bit much, Mr. Speaker? Naw, we aren’t renaming the bill because of some little dustup in Tucson! Let’s face it: Machete don’t text, and Pubs don’t do nuance.

5/25/11: The Democrat, Kathy Hochul, won the seat in New York’s 26th, 47 percent to 43 percent, with a Tea Party candidate taking 9 percent. The turnout was large for a special election, and exit polling showed the race turned almost entirely on Medicare. Total spending was more than $6 million, with Republicans spending the most. The 26th is one of only four districts in New York which voted for John McCain in 2008; the seat has been in Republican hands for four decades (Jack Kemp once held it). You can’t derive a national trend out of a special election in a single congressional district, but this result is going to have Frank Luntz, and his Democratic counterparts, thinking hard about next year.

This One’s For, Like, My Niece

August 15, 2010

I just got back from our annual Dupree/Luper family reunion, instituted last year in loving memory of our sainted mom. (Linda and I have terrific families on both sides.) I used to go to Bloomington, Indiana, to visit Mom about three times a year, but those trips ceased when she passed away in late 2008. This year, the whole darn clambake was in B-town, so all of a sudden it had been quite a while since I’d seen my Indiana niece, now 20, whom I’ve known, of course, since she was a zygote. Nowadays, she’s loving, vibrant, attractive, cheerful, charming, playful, in-your-face improvisatory, able to dig irony and throw it right back at you. She’s about as wonderful a niece as is my other brother’s delightful daughter, the Texan (soon to become a New Yorker!). Great young lady.

I have only one problem with this otherwise impeccable kid:

Along with all her close friends, she peppers her speech with the word “like.”

The niece who says “like” all the time.

I want this word back. (I want “gay” back too, but it’s being put to pretty good use, so Uncle Tom cries “uncle” on that one.)

You’ve heard it too. This is not the beatnik affectation of, say, a Maynard G. Krebs, in Bob Denver’s first hilarious characterization. Not “Like, man, what’re we gonna do tonight?” This is a reflexive interjection that means something akin to “I’m filling up a space here that doesn’t really exist,” and “but you know what I’m talking about because you’ve been there too, right?,” and “I don’t want to get too specific because this is just a casual conversation.”

“We went to, like, the beach, and I brought all my like sunscreen and stuff, but I forgot my flipflops. I was all, how did I do that? So he like went out of his way to drive me back home. It took like half an hour.”

The one who doesn’t.

While I’m visiting, I enjoy acting like a dip and raising my hand as if I were in school. She calls on me and I try to get some clarification: did he actually go out of his way, or was it just something similar that he did? By now, when my hand goes up the first time, she knows she’s busted. And for the two or three days until I finally, mercifully, go back home, she actually tries to censor that expression, and in fact does a pretty good job of it. But you have to concentrate to strike “like.” It’s like – and I do mean similar to — a hiccup. It just comes out. It’s part of the patois. Hang around younger people long enough and you may find yourself tossing the “likes” around too. I’ve heard thirty-somethings do it. Book editors!

I know, I know, it’s a losing battle, and I may be the last one waging it. Who really cares, after all? If that’s the worst thing you can come up with, you’re dealing with a pretty amazing person. But if for a couple days a year, I can get one young lady to, like, slow down a little when in my presence, why then, my work is done. Hey, why’s that hand up in the air?

8/1/11: At this year’s family reunion, my niece had almost completely cleaned up her act: I even complimented her on it! Turns out she’d been practicing during the 11-hour drive to North Carolina, but still, that’s proactive and deserves a cheer.

The spectacles complete the new “like”-less look at the 2011 reunion.

A Few Word’s About Language

January 6, 2010

teachWhen exactly did everybody decide that “begging the question” meant something completely different from what it actually does mean? Because believe me, everybody has decided: I’ve heard it in conversation, read it in newspapers and magazines, even recoiled from it in one of Seth Meyers’s “Weekend Update” monologues on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE. I mean, his team is supposed to be full of Ivy Leaguers, right? But SNL’s head writer still misused the term.

“Begging the question” (petitio principii to reason nerds) is the logical fallacy of pronouncing something proven only because you say it is: “That guy’s mad right now.” “How do you know?” “Because he’s really angry.” It can sound OK if you don’t get more than an instant to think about it, so it works for Fox News blowhards all the time, but to the “reality-based community,” no proof has actually been proffered. My parents paid good dough to send me to college, where I learned the above facts in my Logic 101 class, and that was in humble Mississippi, hoss. What “begging the question” does not mean is, “causing the question to arise,” like this: “Dick Cheney is all over President Obama as weak on national security. Which begs the question, since when is criticizing a wartime president no longer unpatriotic?” Nothing in the term “begs” us to ask the question. That’s not what it means at all. (In real life, I beg to differ with former Vice and current Azkaban Dementor Cheney, but that’s for another topic.)

Now, the funny thing about all this is that, as a few more years pass and more and more people continue this “mistake,” it will eventually become accepted usage, and I’ll just have to lump it as thoroughly as anybody who still bemoans the loss of “thee” and “thou.” Our language changes, as all continually adopted ones do; it sinks to the lowest common denominator as surely as water finds its own level. It’s becoming harder for the zeitgeist to distinguish the error when someone says, “I could care less,” even though they mean the exact opposite, because everybody agrees on the mistaken meaning. “Like” is a generational delineator, meant to communicate intimacy – I don’t really know any more about what I’m describing than you do, that’s why we’re BFFs – but I’ll bet not even one kid realizes that fifty years ago it was a beatnik term meant to communicate societal derision. In the 90s, “cool” re-emerged from that same coffeehouse usage, whether meant ironically or not (my guess is the latter), but it’s been replaced by “awesome,” which is easier to say than what’s really meant: “awe-inspiring.” Or maybe that’s not what the Olive Garden waiter means as you produce a valid credit card.

“Irregardless.” It sticks around, doesn’t it? It sounds better than “regardless”; there’s a certain erudition implied (maybe it’s a cousin to “irrational”), even if many can recognize the attempt as faux. But fewer and fewer of us can, every single day. And why shouldn’t that word exist? What are you gonna do with a language in which “flammable” and “inflammable” mean the same thing?

But what’s really starting to take over, the one that frosts me the very most, is the unnecessary – and sense-muddling – plural apostrophe. It’s an instance in which lazy orthography has actually made our already murky language even murkier, but don’t worry, I’m not going to rant any more, just point it out. Because the first battles are already lost, dudes and dudettes: I have some facts coming up that will sear your hair and melt your faces.

The apostrophe I accuse, the hated punctuation that I would hire a hundred hitmen to eradicate, is this:

1950’s hit singles.

Does that mean hit singles of the entire decade of the Fifties? Or what it has looked like to me ever since I learned about the possessive form in the third grade: those only of the year 1950? Well, these days your guess is as good as mine, because creeping into current usage is that indeterminate apostrophe. Just from looking at that phrase, without diving into the context and trying to pry out the precise meaning, you simply can’t tell. Once upon a time you could: the whole decade’s hits would have been rendered, and instantly comprehended, as

1950s hit singles.

But now you can’t. And it’s not just numbers,either:

ICBM’s Removed From Disneyland.

How many Cold War missiles were there in the theme park before we got them out? I say only one, because that’s what the frickin headline says: the apostrophe stands for the letter “i”! But – ladies, please avert your eyes – the unfocused apostrophe has even been found, incredibly, in the New York Times! They’ve written about CD’s, DVD’s, G.I.’s, A.T.M.’s – the only way I could take it was by doing a good stint of yoga every morning before I unfolded the blasted thing. (Nintendo Sold More Wii’s Today!) I actually complained to the Times’s wonderful city columnist, Clyde Haberman, when he made the mistake one day of writing about punctuation errors in commercial signage. In a very gracious email exchange, I learned that this apostrophe was indeed enshrined in the Times’s stylebook. The example cited was (I’m not making this up) “MIND YOUR P’S AND Q’S” in an ALL-CAPS HEADLINE. Setting aside how seldom such a usage would be needed – all-caps Times heads only appear on the lead stories above the fold on the front page, and letting this tail wag the dog made the entire rest of the paper look like its fly was unzipped – what’s wrong with “MIND YOUR Ps AND Qs”? Later, Mr. Haberman told me the old copy chief who supported this policy had retired, that the offending apostrophes – which the columnist himself admitted he’d always frowned upon, though he did pose a conundrum: how do you print the plural of “ho”? – were now being reconsidered. The Times’s hated rival, the Wall Street Journal, gets along fine without any of them, and I understand every word in Rupert Murdoch’s entire godforsaken paper, even the primitive cave etchings of Karl Rove.

I’m bothered whenever inanimate objects come to own media banks. I worry that some day they might go all Terminator on me.

I wail because precise meaning is being surrendered in favor of sloppy mistakes which we’ve just decided to let go, and that road leads us to IDIOCRACY, which over time is becoming less funny and more scary. I’m not trying to be the old grammarian coot who’s always chasing the imprecise whippersnappers off his lawn. It really doesn’t matter to the pageant of history whether you say “irregardless” or misuse “begs the question,” because your intended meaning is still coming through loud and clear; in cubicle-speak, “at the end of the day” we’re “on the same page.” Not so with this goddam apostrophe: you’re making it impossible for anybody to figure out exactly how to pluralize, or indicate a possessive, ever again. And you just sat there and let it happen, you copy-editing wimps! Where’s the pedantry when we frickin need it?

Now, if my wife Linda reads this piece, I’ll have driven her nuts about twenty times, by including a second “s” after a possessive. The Times’s stylebook. Seth Meyers’s flub on SNL. GEORGE LUCAS’S BLOCKBUSTING, a new book I really hope you’ll buy, and there it even is, right there on the frickin cover! I say it doesn’t bother me because I’m indicating pronunciation: “Jesus’s sermons” would be pronounced JEE-ZUS-IZ SERMONS, not JEE-ZUS SERMONS. Linda says, yeah, but it’s still not needed! And she’s absolutely correct. In print, the final “s” is utterly unnecessary, a fifth wheel, a male teat, unhelpful in even the slightest way. But come on: airbody does it. Including, God help me, me!



Since I name-checked the New York Times’s Clyde Haberman, I thought it would be courteous to let him see the piece. With his permission, here is Mr. Haberman’s response:

Many thanks for sending me this. I deeply appreciate the generous shout-out –- along with your grammatical points, of course. Indeed the offending apostrophe in 1950s, DVDs and the rest is now gone from Times usage.

But the part of me that shares your fastidiousness about grammar could not help noticing this sentence in your piece:

Our language changes, like all continually adopted ones do; it sinks to the lowest common denominator as surely as water finds its own level.

Unless you were being deliberately ironic, a strong possibility suggested by the words that follow the semicolon, that “like” should be “as.”

I’m sure there must still be some instances that call for use of the apostrophe to indicate the plural form. I stand by my example of “ho’s.”  I think “hos” would stop the reader short. The purpose of punctuation is to enhance comprehension. But as best as I can tell the apostrophe as a pluralizing agent is, for all intents and purposes, gone in NY Times usage.

And my response:

Hilarious! Nope, I confess it, that piece of “deliberate irony” was non-deliberate. But the best thing about a blog is that I can go in, Orwell-style, fix the bad word, and pretend it never happened!

Oops…did I just say that out loud?

9/23/11: The opening of the big new movie MONEYBALL (it’s great, even for non-baseball fans) is driving copyeditors crazy, because the major-league team featured is the Oakland A’s. Yes, they wear that silly apostrophe on their uniforms. (It stands for “Athletics,” which is how they billed themselves way back when they were in Kansas City.) So even the Wall Street Journal, which consistently gets this issue right — the Times continues to slip back into incomprehension — was challenged by Joe Morgenstern’s movie review this morning, which includes these phrases: “Billy finds salvation from the A’s relative poverty…” and “…whenever the A’s general manager is in camera range…” Rather than adding an even sillier apostrophe at the end and coming up with “A’s’,” the Journal printed these sentences exactly as I have just shown. The apostrophe shifts around in your mind and becomes possessive, or something like that. Of course it’s imprecise. Too bad: nobody cares.

10/6/13: The Times continues to blow it, big time:


12/30/13: It’s something I hoped I’d never see: Clyde Haberman’s final piece for the New York Times, at least as a contractual employee, after 37 years with the paper. Maybe there’ll be some one-shots in the future; my fingers are crossed. For a taste of his beautiful work, read my favorite of his many “NYC” columns. Ave atque vale, Sir Clyde.

%d bloggers like this: