Friday, April 4, 2014

Ahead of the Times

Just the other day (March 30, 2014) Jesse Sheidlower writing an op-ed in the New York Times urged that old gray lady to shed her Victorian corset, bob her hair, roll her stockings, and join the Jazz Age (or at least the early twenty-first century equivalent). “The Case for Profanity in Print“ claimed the headline.

The impetus for the op-ed was the reporting (or should we say “non-reporting”?)—not only by the Times, but also by the Washington Post, Time magazine, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the Associated Press, and the Los Angeles Times—of the actual remarks (characterized by Sheidlower as “some impolitic comments”) by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland during a telephone call with the ambassador to Ukraine. Ms. Nuland used a word that those bastions of prudishness could only handle at prissy tongs-length by substituting asterisks or dashes for letters or euphemizing the offending language, such as calling it “a blunt expletive” (LA Times). The New York Times really topped them all by merely saying the Secretary “profanely dismissed European efforts in Ukraine as weak and inadequate.”

The DRNORMALVISION blog dealt with the issue of the faint-hearted media way back in September 2012 ( Little fish that we are, we did not expect the supposed paper of record to notice our insightful prose and to mend its lace-curtain ways. However, having a writer on its own pages urge the paper “to print exactly what we mean” gave us hope that change was here. Who were we kidding?

The article itself is a textbook example of the Times’ approach to the profane. “Even in this essay, I am unable to be clear about many of my examples” of words “necessary to the understanding of a story,” Sheidlower claims. So the article resorts to the “euphemisms or coy acrobatics that make stories read as if they were time capsules written decades ago, forcing us all into wink-wink-nudge-nudge territory”: “F-word,” “N-word,” “barnyard epithet.”

When the media do not tell us the truth, says Sheidlower, we learn “that something important happened, but that it can’t actually be reported.”

Which would seem to contradict the posturing of any news organ pretending to be a paper of record.


Sunday, March 23, 2014

Red Stuff

He had no teeth and cadged his meals, eating free ketchup by the spoonful in diners.

Joshua Prager (on Joe Gould)
Vanity Fair
Although other bottled condiments may have contributed worthy expressions to the language (such as “hold the mayo” and “cut the mustard,”) it is ketchup that has staked a place as a cultural, political, and economic signifier that the other condiments can’t match. One cannot imagine a down-at-heels (alleged) poet like Joe Gould attempting to subsist on mayonnaise or mustard helpings scrounged from eateries. Nor would one even imagine cold-hearted Reaganites positing replacing a helping of vegetables in school lunch meals with a splash of mayo or mustard. But “Let Them Eat Ketchup!”—a fitting title for a book by Sheila Collins, subtitled “The Politics of Poverty and Inequality.” The new Agriculture Department regulations for school lunch programs may have been hastily withdrawn, but as Time magazine (Oct. 12, 1981) reported, they nevertheless “remain[ed] in many minds a symbol of what critics see as the Reagan team's callous indifference to the poor.”
Citizens of Argentina would love today to have readily-available servings of ketchup. Unfortunately, as a signifier of that South American country’s economic distress, the red stuff has been in short supply. Last month, McDonald’s apologized for the shortage: “The ketchup shortage at our local branches is momentary and we hope to solve it as soon as possible. We’re bringing in other sauces to replace it while we try to fix the problem.” But the problem is bigger than one chain’s duress. While observing that it’s “unclear what exactly is causing the supply problems,” blogger Roberto A. Ferdman at pointed to “a tumbling Argentine peso, the country’s shrinking supply of valuable US dollars, and rising inflation” as making it increasingly difficult to import foreign goods, such as the packets of ketchup McDonald’s imports from neighboring Chile.
The thing I am most grateful for in dealing with the red stuff is the fact that over the last generation (see image below) the spelling (and, especially, pronunciation) “ketchup” has outstripped the usage of ugliest word in the English language, “catsup,” which made it seem that the condiment was only fit for a feline’s repast.
One person who looked on ketchup as no more worthy than a meow meal was Paolo Di Canio, who for a brief time (March 31, 2013 to September 22, 2013) was manager of Sunderland in English football’s top division. Di Canio would not let his cats—the Black Cats being the nickname of Sunderland—have ketchup (and, it must be admitted, mayonnaise) at the training ground dining table, a ban that epitomized the avowed Fascist manager’s dictatorial regime. Despite a famous victory against Sunderland’s arch-rivals, Newcastle United, Di Canio quickly fell out of favor with players and supporters, and, after starting the 2013-2014 with just one tie in the first five games, he was shown the door. No announcement was made about restoration of ketchup to the table, but one imagines that the players have since been able to squeeze or shake out the red stuff to their heart’s delight.
Di Canio claimed that ketchup and mayo “can cause chemical problems to the liver, to the stomach.” Di Canio cited no supporting evidence for his assertion. In fact, it is possible that ketchup, instead of having a deleterious effect of the body, may indeed be a boon. An article entitled “Stopping Stroke Before It Starts – With Ketchup” by Kevin Charles Redmon in Pacific Standard (October 22, 2012) reported on a study in which Finnish researchers followed a thousand middle-aged men for more than a decade to see if the amount of antioxidants in their diet had any bearing on the likelihood of stroke. The study found that “serum levels of antioxidants had little effect on a patient’s stroke risk—with the exception of lycopene, a red carotenoid found in fruits like tomatoes. Men who consumed lots of lycopene . . . faced a 55 to 60 percent lower risk of stroke than men who consumed little of the antioxidant.” Redmon pointed out that because of the small sample and the numerous variables that need to be corrected for, “it’s impossible to separate correlation and causality. Did lycopene actually ward off strokes with its antioxidant properties, or was it merely a byproduct of a veggie-rich diet and healthy lifestyle?”

Redmon summed up as follows: ”For now, it’s safe to say that gobs of ketchup can’t hurt you any—but it’s not safe to say much more than that.”

Still, a good enough go-ahead to attack that Big Mac with the red stuff.

Unless you’re in Argentina.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Selfish Little Brat

You may think that you're looking here at a little baby. But what you are really seeing is a selfish little brat. 

This little girl is one of the two “distressed babies” cited by AOL chief executive officer Tim Armstrong as the reason why he was paring retirement benefits of the company's employees. "I made the decision, to basically change the 401(k) plan,” Armstrong told the workers, because the company paid out a lot of money for those two "distressed babies." And because the medical payments were  "things that add up into our benefits cost," the two selfish kids were basically stealing from the workers' retirement fund.

Armstrong's action became a media sensation, with reaction on the internet and on cable news shows. The best introduction to the story is here: In this article, Deanna Fei owns up to being the mother of the child pictured above and relates the story of the child's premature birth and the way that the hospital staff worked to save the 1 pound, 9 ounce newborn, whose skin was "reddish-purple, bloody and bruised all over"--“gelatinous,” according to one doctor. Among other problems, "she suffered a brain hemorrhage, . . . her right lung collapsed, [and] she stopped breathing altogether one morning." The parents were told that 
she had roughly a one-third chance of dying before we could bring her home. That she might not survive one month or one week or one day. She also had at least a one-third chance of being severely disabled, unable to ever lead an independent life.
The saving of the child's life translated into "a 3-inch thick folder of hospital bills that range from a few dollars and cents to the high six figures (before insurance adjustments)." Those bills are what moved Armstrong (who, incidentally, "took home $12 million in pay in 2012") to stigmatize the child as half the cause for making retirees eat cat food in their old age.

These days, says her mother, "at the age of 1, my daughter is nothing short of a miracle, which is to say, she appears much like any healthy baby." 

During her time in the hospital, though, "she fought for every minute of her young life."

What was selfish about the little brat was a desire to live.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Take the "A" Train

“Bad money chases out good.”
Gresham’s Law

I believe that a version of Gresham’s Law operates in areas other than finance. Take music: the joyous, exhilarating song by Leonard Bernstein (music) and Betty Comden and Adolph Green (lyrics) composed originally for the Broadway show On The Town  (1944) and later incorporated in the Hollywood version (1949) entitled “New York, New York” has been eclipsed in popular culture by the inferior composition of the same name written by John Kander and Fred Ebb for Liza Minelli to croak in the movie called New York, New York (1977). (It subsequently became even more famous because of Frank Sinatra’s doing—completing a triad of fake seriousness with his versions of “That’s Life” and “My Way.”) The song is a veritable Hummer, that massive, threatening beast of a vehicle, as bloated as its iconic owner—Arnold Schwarzenegger.

From the very first insidiously insistent drumming into our heads of Dum Dum De Dum Dum, Min/Sin’s “New York, New York” attempts to divert us from the fact that the song has nothing to do with the city of its title. Not one specific street, monument, or activity is cited. The song refers to “a city that never sleeps,” but that’s more applicable to Las Vegas. Indeed, Las Vegas would seem to be the appropriate destination for the steroidic self-important “I” of the song--dress him/her up in some combination of leather, lycra, and spangles.

(“For what it’s worth, the feeling here has long been that this number is less about the city than about a self-involved out-of-towner who wants to be ‘king of the hill, top of the heap’ yada yada yada”—Clyde Haberman, New York Times, May 22, 2012).

It is appropriate that the song is associated with Minelli and Sinatra; it combines the cockiness of Frank (“I’ll make a brand new start of it/In old New York”) with Liza-with-a-Z’s neediness and helplessness (“It's up to you, New York..New York”).

Me. Me, Me—but you gotta do it for me!
By contrast, the original “New York, New York” celebrates the title city—that “helluva town”--and cites specific places and activities: “The Bronx is up, but the Battery’s down/The people ride in a hole in the groun’.”

And other songwriters also get specific: Billy Joel gives us the New York Times and the Daily News, Riverside and Chinatown in “A New York State of Mind.” In “I Happen to Like New York” Cole Porter revels in, among other things, “the Easter Show at the Music Hall . .  . pastrami on rye at the Carnegie Deli . . . Madison Square for a Friday night fight . . . a walk along Broadway to guest at the lights . . . Carnegie Hall.”
But probably the ultimate New York song is “Manhattan,” composed by two New Yorkers, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. This song is not about bloated egotism; it’s a love song about “We” not “I”-- “We'll have Manhattan,/The Bronx and Staten/Island too.” The couple will visit the zoo and Coney Island and “Greenwich,/ Where modern men itch/To be free.” Like the sailors of On The Town, they take the subway, which “charms us so/When balmy breezes blow/To and fro.” Yes, even the negatives are part of the delight of the city. The true New York song has fun with the city and the stereotypes about it; the language, for example—“The city's clamor can never spoil/The dreams of a boy and goil.”

As Cole Porter wrote: “I like the sight and the sound and even the stink of it.”

True New York songs, like the lovers of Rodgers and Hart, "turn Manhattan/into an isle of joy!"

It’s bad enough for Bernstein, Comden, and Green that their helluva song about a helluva town has had its rightful place as a signature New York anthem usurped by an interloper of no artistic value, but to add insult to injury, if you Google “New York, New York lyrics Bernstein, Comden, Green” (or variations thereof), you are liable to end up at a website that attributes the “spreading the news” nonsense to them! Or you might find this:

“’A brand new start of it in old New York’ was lyricists Betty Comden and Adolph Green's promise in the 1944 musical On The Town.”
Ronald Holden, Oct. 10, 2012,, Seattle WA.
But, then, the writer was 3,000 miles away in the Pacific Northwest. Let’s hope he suffers from “little town blues.”


Friday, December 6, 2013

My Heart Belongs to Daddy

No person connected with me by blood or marriage will be appointed to office." 
Rutherford B. Hayes, 19th U.S. President
Nepotism in many ways is like its furtive sibling, onanism: a practice that people are irresistibly compelled to indulge in, and one that gives them great satisfaction, but one in which no one can take public pride.”
John Homans*
Draw round my bed: is Anselm keeping back? Nephews--sons mine . . .”
Robert Browning, “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed's Church, Rome”
One wonders if on their deathbeds Pope Alexander VI, who “elevated not fewer than ten of his relatives to the College of Cardinals, and endowed others with a host of fiefdoms in the Papal States,” or Pope Sixtus IV, who “elevated six of his relatives to the Sacred College,”** were surrounded by those who gained from the largesse of their relative.
One wonders, also, if Adam Bellow was at the foot of the bed of his Nobel Prize winning father, Saul, when the latter shuffled off this mortal coil. As he himself admitted in New York magazine, “The son of a famous writer, I attended an exclusive private school along with the children of other distinguished people: writers and actors, musicians, politicians, art dealers, and editors of the New York Times.” He has also admitted to being a great lover of nepotism; in fact he wrote a whole book to praise it. 
Of course, he found it necessary to try to separate the nepotism of Renaissance popes from that of democratic American life. Bellow doesn't see us as “returning to a society based on hereditary status, complete with a corporate aristocracy and a political House of Lords.” What he sees is something like “the family that works together, stays together.” He says, “Occupational traditions within families are very much a part of our national fabric,” going on to point out that children go into family businesses and some actors' children become actors and some home run hitters' offspring also swing major league bats.
As John Homans pointed out in his review of Bellow's book In Praise of Nepotism, the author uses a definition of nepotism so capacious that whatever sordid taint the word had is so diluted as to be barely detectable.” Surely, the issue with nepotism isn't talent following talent from generation to generation, or learned skill following learned skill from generation to generation, but of the privileged using their advantages to maintain their power from generation to generation. 
It is interesting that Bellow cites Jim Hightower's attack on George Bush the elder: "He is a man who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple." But he sloughs off this observation that holds true in so many cases to justify Bush junior's electoral success as somehow down to personality and achievement. Nevertheless, Bellow does attempt to defend nepotism (however he defines it)--an attempt which is perhaps an apologia pro sua vita, understandable as he himself seems to be too honest to sing in the shower, “I did it my way.”
I once had a desk plaque that read: “All I Ask is an Honest Advantage.” I would clasp to my bosom the man who would defend any advantage I had and proclaim:
I will go to the barricades to protect your right to dine on caviar and champagne, while I gobble my bowl of gruel.”
But somehow I doubt I shall ever meet that fellow. The defenders of privilege always seem to be those people who already have them and not those people whose cupboards are bare.
I will clasp to my bosom, though, Paul Bernal, who recognizes his privileged status and what that should entail: 
With great privilege should come great humility. Those of us who are privileged . . . should be able to find that humility. To know that we really don’t know what it’s like to live without our privilege. We can try to imagine – but we’ll never really succeed. And we should know that we’ll never really succeed – and be far, far more willing to listen properly to those who do know it. Most of all, though, we should know when not to talk as though we had all the answers. We should know when to shut up.”***

Thursday, November 14, 2013

That's All, Folks!

Anthony Tommasini, a music critic of the New York Times and opera buff, has written a recent article in which he chooses to “speculate on what happens after the final curtain falls” on several favorite operas, such as Rigoletto.
In the last moments of the opera as traditionally staged, [Tommasini explains] Rigoletto, a hunchbacked jester, hears the lecherous Duke of Mantua singing in the distance. Rigoletto realizes that the body in the sack he is dragging to the river cannot be the Duke, whose assassination he ordered to avenge his daughter’s honor. To his horror, it is his daughter, Gilda, who, in the throes of passion and shame, has sacrificed herself for the Duke.
But what happens after the opera ends? Will Rigoletto try again to have the Duke killed? Or kill himself?
 Will the Duke continue his life of entitlement and debauchery, seducing any woman who intrigues him?
Well, what happens after the opera ends is that everybody takes off his make-up and goes home.

“A work of art contains its own logic”--Eric Bentley 
"All art is a matter of choice”--Harold Gotthelf
To expect the characters of an opera or play or novel to continue to have life and to continue to act after the artistic work has concluded is pure nonsense. Fictional characters are just that--fictions--who exist strictly within the bounds set by their creators. Lady Chatterley can’t traipse away after Lawrence’s final period and go off to teach Esperanto. She is locked up within the pages of the novel that bears her name. It’s a fun parlor game to play “What Happens Next?” with literary characters:

Horatio tours Denmark explaining to the citizens the (delayed) actions of Hamlet. 
The Montagues and the Capulets dispute the siting of the memorial statues of Romeo and Juliet, and so they never get built. 
Stephen Dedalus, having received rejection letters from 43 publishers, gains employment in a shoe store. 
Vladimir and Estragon receive a text message from Godot: “Meet at Burger King.” 
And so on and so forth.
Yes, it's a fun game; unfortunately too many people take it seriously.

The writers (playwrights, librettists, novelists, etc.) have made up their own minds where to begin their story and where to end it. The play (opera) ends here! Curtain! Tommasini's wanting to look behind the curtain reminds me of the mild panic some fans of the Sopranos exhibited when David Chase pulled off the TV equivalent of a quick curtain—the final blackout screen. They insisted that something must being going on behind the screen. If only they could see the scraps that ended up on the cutting room floor—then they'd know.

"I remember asking [Harold] Pinter about my character. Where does he come from? Where is he going to? What can you tell me about him that will give me more understanding? And Harold just said, ‘Mind your own fucking business. Concentrate on what’s there.’”
Alan Ayckbourn 
(There are several versions of this anecdote with minor word changes.)
If the writer doesn't want the audience to know what went on before the story, then it's not part of the story. And just as Pinter exploded about the beginning of his play, we must imagine that the writer would be just as furious at tampering with his ending. If the writer doesn't want a mystery to be solved, an enigma deciphered, a paradox un-paradoxed, then so be it; the writer can live with uncertainty. If that is his view of things, the audience, instead of denying him his vision, should honor it.

At the end of the movie Kind Hearts and Coronets Louis (Dennis Price) has to choose between wife (Valerie Hobson) and mistress (Joan Greenwood). Who will he opt for (with accompanying consequences)? Curtain! The dilemma is the point—not the resolving of it. To promote a guessing contest about whether he lived happily (or unhappily) with Edith or Sibella—or even lived--is to selfishly usurp the artist's prerogative. It is a form of solipsism.

A writer chooses where to begin, and where to end.

End of story—literally.

Or as Tommasini would know from Pagliacci:
"La commedia รจ finita!”  

Friday, November 8, 2013

Marching Along Together

You know the old joke about the mother exclaiming to her neighbor about her son's feat during the school band's performance in the town’s parade? “My Herbie was the only member of the trombone section who was in step!”
The other day I received in the mail the opportunity to purchase for $2.98 (instead of $5.95) a book entitled 100 Words Almost Everyone Mispronounces. I declined to purchase said book--not because I was feeling parsimonious that afternoon but because it was a “Herbie” book. I did not even have to think twice about whether I wished to be in step with the authors or with the “Almost Everyone” so sneeringly put down in the title. The book’s assertion that what “Almost Everyone” who speaks a language does can be declared wrong is so patently absurd that only people like the mother of a Herbie or an Edward S. Gould (or modern Gould-digger) cannot see through it.
[In 1867 Gould wrote: 
"Another blunder, of which the instances are innumerable, is the misplacing of the word only. Indeed, this is so common, so absolutely universal, one may almost say that “only” cannot be found in its proper place in any book within the whole range of English literature …."]
Another who might not recognize the “absolutely universal” is the stick figure in the famous advertisements for the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin newspaper, whose catchphrase was: “In Philadelphia nearly everybody reads The Bulletin."

I have purposely, until now, declined to identify the authors of the $2.98 bargain book. They are the “American Heritage Editors,” who are, I imagine, the same people responsible for the dictionary of the same name. You will, of course, give that tome a wide berth; if you are looking for the best American dictionary, you will want to get one published by Merriam-Webster. (Note: anyone can use the name “Webster” in a dictionary title, so you want to watch for that “Merriam” bit.) The best $19 or so that you can spend on the English language would be for Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, which does not prescribe usages out of the blue, but offers historical-based discussions and examples of what writers have actually done (for example, contra Gould's screed against the “misplaced” only, the DEU offers evidence otherwise from the works of authors ranging from Dryden to T. S. Eliot and beyond).
My guess is that Herbie was not only out of step, but also out of tune.