Priming the pump

You ain’t a writer if you don’t write

Much to my embarrassment, the last time I wrote a real blog post for this blog–not a shameless advertisement for one of my books–was January 23 of this year. (My other blog is not much better. Last post: August 16, 2019. And that one was preceded by an eight-month hiatus.)

Mea culpa.

Once I completed The Endless Cycle (a four-book series for middle-grade readers (all installments now available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle versions (I couldn’t resist (sorry)))) I decided to take some time off to regroup, relax, recover, rethink… and do some jigsaw puzzles.

Time’s up. I have to put something out here to prime the pump for my next large-scale project, one as yet to be decided. So here goes: A brain dump of random strange thoughts that have been piling up.

Lessons I’ve learned from my grandchildren, Part I: Any truly good book has stickers at the end.

I don’t think, therefore… am I?

I love Maine. It’s a beautiful state. My favorite spots are Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, or as we say in Boston: Bah Hahbah and Arcadier National Pahk. (Contrary to popular opinion, we don’t discard our “r”s, we recycle them.) I have one problem with the state, however. They need to put a moratorium on the use of the pathetic pun “Mainely” in their advertising and business names. Driving around the state, you’ll encounter “Mainely Lobster”, “Mainely Antiques”, “Mainely Burgers”, “Mainely Brews”, and Mainey more. Enough already.

Speaking of Maine, on my last trip there, I saw this bumper sticker:

I thought it was a souvenir, but then I noticed it was on Donald Trump’s car. Makes perfect sense.

It’s a shame that the common expression is, “sweat like a pig.” Two fun alliterative alternatives exist: “sweat like a swine” and “perspire like a pig.” Just sayin’.

Here’s some word weirdness that makes me say hmmm…

  • Overlook and oversee are opposites. As are “look over” and overlook. Yet an overlook (noun) is something you should look over rather than overlook.
  • Loosen and unloosen mean the same thing.
  • Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.
  • Valuable and invaluable aren’t quite synonyms but they aren’t the opposites one would expect, given the spelling. Invaluable, in fact, means more valuable. Go figure.
  • A one-way mirror is the same thing as a two-way mirror. Good thing streets aren’t like that.

The English language was obviously created by committee.

Devaluation

wordcloud1Lately everyone has been worried about the devaluation of the Chinese yuan against the US dollar. It must be important because it’s mentioned in every business report and the front page of the Wall Street Journal. For some reason, it also significantly devalued my IRA.

I don’t understand this. I’ve never spent a yuan. I’ve never held one in my hands. I couldn’t even tell you what one looks like. Yet it cost me all sorts of money because of its devaluation, whatever that is.

To be perfectly blunt, I don’t pay a lot of attention to money. While there are people whose lives revolve around the topic, I find it less interesting than Lithuanian zoning regulations. That’s bad, I know, in our mammon-obsessed culture where money somehow signifies credibility, even for the least credible presidential candidate.

Words are the currency I put the most stock in. The devaluation of words and, on a larger scale, the language is what keeps me up nights when others toss and turn over the latest price of pork bellies on the futures exchange. I’m here to tell you that the news is not good. Words appear to be at their lowest value in ages. The evidence is seen all around us as the meanings of words and phrases change faster than the Standard & Poor’s index.

I blame Facebook for a lot of this. “Friend” is a crucial word in my vocabulary and life. It once indicated a relationship of some intimacy. An old proverb says,

A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

Another translation puts it this way:

There are friends who pretend to be friends, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

These aptly sum up a real friend versus a “Facebook friend”. How can you be a friend with someone whose only connection to you is a photo and a few carefully laundered and embellished personal facts? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the number of Facebook friends a person has is usually inversely proportional to the number of that one’s true friends.

sallymemeFacebook has also turned us into a nation of Sally Fields. Everywhere I turn, people, organizations, and companies are begging me, yea, bribing me, to like them. “Like us and we’ll give you free stuff,” or, “Like me and you’ll be entered in a sweepstakes.” If we step back and acknowledge this for what it’s saying about our culture, it’s pretty pathetic. In truth, it all makes Ms. Field look downright dignified. At the very least, she was ahead of her time.

The most culpable culprit in this ongoing linguicide is corporate America. Look at the gifts they’ve bestowed on us:

  • going forward – “In the future”, “soon”, and “later” weren’t good enough. Everything happens “going forward.”
  • at the end of the day – Other than giving us a good song in Les Mis, this mal mot has added nothing to our lives.

And my personal favorite:

  • Reach out

No one calls, writes, texts, asks, visits, patronizes, drops by, contacts, or tells anymore. We all reach out. We could wipe out the national debt if we put a tax on the use of this banal phrase. It’s bad enough when businesses do it. It has invaded the realm of personal discourse. “Thanks for reaching out to me, Mom. I’ll finish my homework when I’m good and ready.”

Notice one thing about all those biz-speak words. They all increase ambiguity. Thus, an executive may truthfully say, “Bonuses will be distributed going forward,” but might not intend it to happen in your lifetime.

When we say we’re starving, we aren’t. What we say we need, we don’t. Most disasters aren’t. That which we call awesome rarely inspires awe; it barely gets our notice. Great usually isn’t. Important things aren’t. Very-special, can’t-miss episodes of television programs are nothing or less.

Word devaluation doesn’t necessarily hit our wallets, though it could over time. More immediately, it throws our communication – and consequently our relationships – into disarray. We don’t know what we mean anymore. Misunderstanding is on the rise as precision is lost.

Don’t take my word for it. You’ll hear it for yourself going forward.

Old words, bad words

Before I started this blog to concentrate on my writing, I was already writing another blog. It’s called “Limping in the Light” and it’s still limping along out there. Today it focuses on its primary role: dealing with chronic illness while trying to live a life of faith, plus whatever rant comes to mind that week. Until I started this newer blog, however, everything, including the kinds of literary and film stuff you find here, was dumped into that one catch-all.

One such post has come home to haunt me recently. This post on the power of words, especially negative words, would fit nicely into “Scribbling in the Sand”. If I’d read it myself a few weeks ago, I might not have later blurted out what I thought was a clever wisecrack, but was actually a cruel invective cleverly disguised in joke’s clothing.

For a while after I uttered it, I wondered if maybe it was more hurtful than I intended and how the recipient might have taken it. The incident soon faded from my fading memory.

I thought no more about it until a subsequent role reversal. This time someone else made a simple joke at my expense, the kind of quip we often hear and too often make. We babble our little bon mot, not realizing it’s received as a mal mot, containing a slim stiletto of truth that cuts to the heart.

It certainly did in my case. For the next week I was undone. Unbeknownst to the speaker, he’d hit on a simmering volcano in my life and it erupted with a vengeance.

The upside of my injury was that it reminded me of my previous verbal blunder. In trying to make amends, I learned that my idiotic witticism stepped on a personal land mine. Now there’s some serious relational repairs to be undertaken.

wordbombs2That’s a lot of collateral damage for a couple of silly statements meant to entertain or, more likely, meant to flaunt our extraordinary wit. We’d like it if those who deal in weapons of mass destruction would show some discretion in their use. (They don’t, but that’s another sad tale.)

As dealers in words, we writers should be careful how we wield our particular brand of explosive.

What do you mean?

ambiguousWords are the tools of the writer as much as a hammer is for a carpenter, a brush is for a painter, or a combover is for a CEO. As such, I should be able to make myself understood. And I want others to express themselves clearly, unambiguously. It doesn’t always happen. We either shy away from saying something directly or we slip into vague expressions that can cause serious misunderstandings.

The most prominent example in my life, and the one that makes me most crazy, is the question that begins, “Do you want to…” then continues with an obvious command, such as, “wash the dishes?” How can I honestly answer yes? There’s no way I want to wash the dishes (or run to the store or pick up after myself or do anything for that matter). The person posing that pseudo-question is trying to tell me to do something without telling me to do it. It’s politely passive-aggressive.

Another useful one for the subtle-controller crowd: You’re on the phone with someone and the conversation has worn out its welcome; you’re ready to move on. The direct, “I don’t want to talk to you any longer”, is probably not going to win you any style points, etiquette-wise. The one I hear all the time is, “I’m gonna let you go.” Huh? What happened? Did I express a desire to be “let go”? The truth is, you wanted to go but didn’t want to hurt my feelings. That would work… if I was stupid.

What that statement really meant was, “Let me go.” If it was an appropriate way to express that sentiment, I figure Moses would have used it on Pharoah a few thousand years ago.

moses

I’m going to let you go!

Moses: Well, Pharoah, it’s been real, slaving under you for the last 400 years, with you making our lives bitter with harsh labor and all. But now I’m gonna let you go.

Pharoah: You’re gonna…? How did…? I thought…?

Moses: See you at the Red Sea. Bye now.

It could have been that simple. No plagues required.

(As an aside, the easiest way to end a protracted phone call is to hang up while you are speaking. Hanging up on the other party would be rude. No one expects you to hang up on yourself. This is purely hypothetical. I would never do this, of course.)

The problem with those approaches is all the room for misunderstanding.

Mother: Billy, do you want to take out the trash now?

Billy: Not really. Instead I think I’ll just blockade myself in my room and play video games until puberty’s over. But thanks for the offer, Mom!

Mother: I sincerely appreciate your honesty, Billy.

The above approaches should be avoided because ambiguity is an enemy to peace in relationships. That’s why it’s so important to be clear. A friend told me about an argument she had with her husband when he asked her where to find a certain item in the kitchen:

cabinetHusband: Honey, where’s a certain item in the kitchen?

Wife: In the cabinet next to the dishes.

(Rummage, rummage)

Husband (simmering with anger): It’s not there.

Wife: Yes, it is. Are you sure you looked in the cabinet next to the dishes?

Husband (smouldering with anger): Yes! I’m sure I looked in the cabinet next to the dishes!

Wife: Then you should have found it.

Husband (boiling over with anger): I’m looking there right now and it’s not there!

This went on for ten minutes or so before they realized what she said was not what he heard. She was referring to the dish cabinet, next to said dishes. He heard the cabinet next to the cabinet where the dishes were. I suppose verbal punctuation would have helped: “In the cabinet comma next to the dishes,” but that makes for pretty clumsy communication.

That’s my communication lesson for today: You can’t be too specific when you speak. (Figure out what that means.)