A few years ago, I attended an interfaith religious service—Christian, Jewish, Muslim—not long after some hoodlums had smeared feces on a nearby mosque. I went because the announcement said there would be cookies, not so much because my going would show solidarity or make a statement. I learned my lesson about “statements” in 1974 when I threw myself into the women’s movement, which threw me out ten minutes later, after I “stated” that I liked my job but I’d rather be a stay-at-home mom. My next “statement” was to resign from activism altogether and change my party affiliation from Democrat to Independent. The world yawned, and I began showing solidarity with Groucho Marx and adopting his 1951 “statement” about not wanting to “belong to any club that would have [him]… as a member.” But—back to the Interfaith Service—I don’t mind, statementwise, being perceived as someone who would rather participate in interfaith worship than throw shit at mosques.
The service featured shofars making startling noises, which is evidently the point of shofars. I’d already been startled to the point of heart failure by an explosion of tympani sounds during the choir’s pre-service rehearsal of “Let All Things Now Living,” set to the sweet melody many of us, especially church-camp alumni, know as “The Ash Grove.” So ungentle and unexpected was the tympani’s entrance that for a beat or two I thought something had actually exploded. It hadn’t, and my pulse returned to almost normal, but it occurred to me that the interfaith gathering might be a bit more vulnerable to mischief than, say, a worship service at my own church, First Central Congregational (UCC), which hasn’t blown up even once since it was built in the early 1900s. Maybe it’s the calming effect of old oak, stained glass, traditional choral music, and soft lighting. But the interfaith event, having been widely publicized, might well have attracted the type of lunatic who as a child tormented the family cat. So went my thinking, at least, until the welcome distraction of shofar-blowing.
Note the phrase type of lunatic. I use it for convenience, knowing full well that you don’t have to be crazy to be dangerous. Not for lack of trying, I’ve discovered that it’s easier to refer to people in clumps than to become personally acquainted with everybody in the world. Sadly, due to the limitations of language and friendship, I default to clump-speak.
Before her baby talk became intelligible to adults, my grand-niece Desi had an astonishing vocabulary of Desi-invented words. She was extraordinarily fluent in nonsense, as I thought of it, but maybe she was creating the sort of lexicon we might all have to use if we couldn’t categorize things, including people. As a general practice, this approach would lead to communication chaos. No one could order pizza or get directions to the loo.
There was a time during the civil-rights movement when many well-meaning people took great pains to not allude to race. We thought it was impolite to notice skin color. Being “color-blind” was the politically correct sort of vision before, to my immense relief, Black became Beautiful. I remember a farcical conversation during the color-blind era with a classmate called Judy. We’d taken a difficult English-lit test and had just received our grades. The dialogue went something like this:
Me: I studied like crazy and got a B-minus. What about you?
Judy: I got a C. Only one person [out of forty-seven in the class] got an A.
Me: Wow! Who was that?
Judy: You know, Jeff. Sits in the third row. Tall. Dark hair.
Me, totally at sea: I have no idea who… uh, whom you’re talking about.
Judy, frustrated: You know, Jeff! He had on Levi’s and a red sweatshirt yesterday. He, um, wears John Lennon glasses.
Me: Oh, you mean Jeff, the only African-American in the class?
Judy, looking nervously around to see if my gaffe had been overheard: Yeah, that guy.
Clumping might be a linguistic necessity, but it leads to false assumptions and the resultant misinformation. Think “rock star,” and it’s a short mental hop to illicit drugs and indiscriminate sex, assumptions that are patently unfair to drug-shunning legends such as Bruce Springsteen, Frank Zappa, and Gene Simmons and his Kiss.
Failing the litmus test
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi said recently that the Democrats shouldn’t make abortion a litmus test for membership. I struggle with the idea of any litmus test for party affiliation when there are only two of them—parties, I mean. It’s difficult to imagine that there are only two kinds of people in this country: (a) those who believe in free-market capitalism, protectionism, tariffs, free enterprise, fiscal conservatism, a strong national defense, deregulation, restrictions on labor unions, and traditional values based largely on Judeo-Christian ethics; and (b) those who don’t. Once I asked my dad, a lifelong Republican, how many times he had voted for a Democrat. He looked thoughtful, puffed on his pipe, and finally said, “None.” But he had to think about it.
Terry Gross, host and executive producer of NPR’s Fresh Air, recently interviewed a onetime feminist who now considers herself “post-binary.” My voter-registration card says “Independent” because there’s no litmus test for being, by definition, nonpartisan. Someone who is uncomfortable with ambivalence might develop one, in which case I’d have to declare myself a post-independent Independent.
Since I read Martin Buber’s classic 1923 book I and Thou, I have tried, and have occasionally succeeded, to not clump people but to treat each individual as, above all else, a sacred soul—regardless of political affiliation, gender, color, age, IQ, occupation, or capacity to irritate the hell out of me.
“When two people relate to each other authentically and humanly,” Buber affirms, “God is the electricity that surges between them.”
Clearly, dualism is a dead end. The universe is a vast and wonderful array of shade and nuance. There are more microbes—which are neither plant nor animal—than all other living things put together. Some scientists even consider viruses to be “nonliving organisms.”
“People desire to separate their world into polarities,” writes the late Joy Page—“dark and light, ugly and beautiful, good and evil, right and wrong, inside and outside. Polarities serve us in our learning and growth, but as souls we are all.”
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THE SHORT STORY: When it comes to customer service, forget Twitter. Microsoft, on the other hand, gets five stars—though I’m not sure how brightly MS might have shone had I not saved the relevant emails and online-chat transcripts.
The Microsoft epic began November 16 when I tried to prepay for software rental. The chat guy, Marcus, told me I could do that. Sure, he said. Buy a digital gift card, he said, and immediately redeem it. The money would go into my Microsoft account, which would be tapped when the monthly rental fee—seven dollars and forty-eight cents—came due. Marcus sounded like he knew his stuff, so I bought a $15 gift card, followed the instructions to stash the fifteen bucks in my Microsoft account, and congratulated myself for being uncharacteristically smart about a financial matter. Bad karma. Yesterday my bank statement showed a December 2 Microsoft charge for $14.96, twice the rental fee.
Scurrying to Microsoft’s help site, I searched for “billing error” and came up empty… except for the “call us” option, a rarity in the digital world. It was like finding a ruby in the cat-litter box. With astonishing ease I scheduled a phone call, hardly believing my luck. Microsoft was going to call me! I could have placed the call, but the site obligingly informed me that the “wait time” was forty-seven minutes. I asked for a callback in an hour. Sure enough, sixty minutes later my phone rang… tinkled, actually, but you don’t need to know that.
Who’s playing games?
Microsoft Agent Corinne and I had a delightful conversation. Yes, the December 2 charge was twice the monthly fee, but somehow Microsoft had neglected to bill me in November, so that was all right. Unfortunately, Marcus had been wrong about the account-debit deal, so I had fifteen unspendable dollars sitting in my Microsoft account.
It turns out that Microsoft gift cards can be redeemed only in the Microsoft store. Not being a gamer, I was pretty sure I’d find nothing there of interest in the fifteen-dollar price range, but my son Jack’s birthday was just a few days away.
“Well,” suggested Corinne, “just apply the money in your account to a gift certificate for your son. Log in, hop over to the store, select a gift card, and at checkout choose ‘Microsoft account’ as the payment source.”
Wonderful! Fantastic! I’ll just do that little thing! And I did, except that when I got to checkout and clicked “pay,” at the speed of a whizzing electron Microsoft charged my bank account and thanked me for my purchase. Hmmm…. Seems there was a proviso I’d overlooked: You can’t buy a gift card with a gift card. Corinne, like Marcus, had misspoken. I had just bought another inoperable gift card.
“Okay,” said I to myself. “Since this gift-card-transfer thing isn’t working, here’s what I’ll do: I’ll put this new card in my Microsoft account and Jack will have thirty dollars to spend. He can visit the Microsoft store, make his selection, tell me what he wants, and I’ll buy it with my Microsoft balance.”
To be honest, I probably would have given Jack an Annagrammatica birthday card and a nice homemade carrot cake if there hadn’t been inaccessible funds floating around in cyberspace—not that I don’t possess infinitely more than thirty dollars’ worth of love for my son, I just don’t have thirty expendable dollars, especially at Christmastime.
Following, once again, the instructions, I applied the gift card to my Microsoft account and got an immediate Microsoft pat on the back: “Good for you! You now have $15 in your account! Yay, you!”
If you’ve been keeping up, you’ll be wondering, as I was, what happened to the original fifteen dollars. Fifteen plus fifteen equals thirty, right? …unless you’re Bill Gates and you no longer recognize two-digit numerals.
Person to person
A good night’s sleep would be essential before taking on Microsoft again. I’d planned to wait till after lunch today, but at 10:30 this morning I opened an email from Microsoft Billing. They were sorry as sorry could be that I had canceled my monthly software rental and hoped that Microsoft could assist me in the future. I think I said Aaaahkk and hopped around like Yosemite Sam. I might have torn my hair. Whatever I did, it must have resettled my karma.
At 10:33, I girded my loins and prepared to schedule another Microsoft phone call, but apparently there was zero “wait time” just then. So I punched in the number and got—not a recording thanking me for calling Microsoft and to serve me better would I please enter my account number and someone will be right with me after they’ve dealt with the seventy-three callers ahead of me—no, I got Charles, a real, live human being who wanted nothing more in the entire universe than to address my situation and make things right.
It took Charles forty-seven minutes to reinstate my software rental, but I got two free months out of that deal. As for the missing gift-card money, Charles, with what I like to think was genuine regret, had to transfer me to Accounts & Billing, but he thoughtfully gave me a transaction number so that in case my call got dropped or disconnected I wouldn’t have to start over with someone else.
No dropping or disconnecting occurred, and in under a minute I was speaking with Suzette and relating my odyssey… and this is where my meticulous record-keeping saved the brussels sprouts. By quoting the relevant bits of my chat with Marcus and the Microsoft emails confirming my purchases, I handed Suzette all the info she needed to determine that on November 16 I had purchased a digital gift card and on December 2 I had purchased a store gift card. Who knew?
Suzette was still tapping away, either searching through data or dropping M & M’s on the floor—to no avail, as it happened, because she still couldn’t actually find the missing $15 from the first purchase. Well, this is where Microsoft shines more brightly than Sirius the Dog Star. Do you know what Suzette did? She gave me fifteen dollars. Yep, she was telling me in so many words, You paid it and we can’t find it, so here’s a replacement.
Suzette stayed on the line, the way emergency dispatchers do when you call nine-one-one because you’ve severed a limb, until we were both certain that my Microsoft account contained thirty dollars redeemable for Microsoft-store purchases. She sent me a confirmation email and read out another transaction number in case, God forbid, I needed it. After only two hours and seventeen minutes, our work was done and I hung up the phone. So to speak.
For the record, of the three people I actually talked with, Suzette was the one least likely to be physically located on another continent, and the quality of that call, in terms of scritchiness, was the worst of the three. If I’d had to guess, based on background noise, I might have thought she was working in a laundromat. So there you are.
And what about Twitter?
The folks at Twitter have better things to do than talking to me about their screw-up with my account. If you’re going to have a problem with Twitter, it had better slide neatly into one of six or seven common categories, such as “can’t log in” or “forgot my username.” Otherwise, Twitter customer service consists of a very short loop. If your question isn’t answered on the page you’re routed to, they send you back to the list of ordinary problems that aren’t yours. If, out of desperation, you choose “my hashtags aren’t working”—just so they’ll give you space amounting to one hundred and forty characters to explain that hashtags aren’t really your problem, it’s that your account has gotten tangled up with someone else’s and when you post to Twitter your tweets show up on the other person’s Twitter feed—then Twitter emails you instructions for the proper use of hashtags.
In more than an hour spent scouring the Web for advice from people with a similar dilemma—and they are legion—I learned that it is virtually impossible to talk to or even chat online with an actual Twitter representative. There is, however, a small industry developing around Twitter’s arrogant unhelpfulness: Starting at $20, some enterprising individual, presumably with inside information, will try to get Twitter’s attention. It strikes me as being a little like asking one of the lesser-known saints to intercede for you because God’s busy elsewhere. Twitter, are you listening?
Product strategies? Off with their heads!
Craigslist handed me a beautiful gift today—a help-wanted ad that’s sillier than one I could make up. Like most ads written in corporate-speak, it expresses a preference for applicants who “exhibit strong written & verbal communication skills” that are so plainly absent in the ad itself. (Note: Written & verbal “exhibits” redundancy. By verbal, the writer probably means spoken. It’s common to see the phrase “verbal agreement,” as if any agreement expressed in words—written or spoken—were not verbal. But I pick nits, when there’s so much more to bewail in this misguided verbal-communication endeavor.)
Hyphens do matter, as “exhibited” in phrases such as “cross portfolio strategies” and “cross functional stakeholders.” If there’s anything worse than a functional stakeholder, it’s an irritable functional stakeholder, I always say, when I’m talking about stakeholders of any stripe—something I go out of my way to avoid. But maybe that’s because I lack the ability to evolve strategic & tactical elements based on research, data, & industry trends. Perhaps one can learn to evolve such elements only in highly matrixed organizations. Most of my experience has evolved in organizations with lowlier matrixes. I suspect I’ve even executed collateral among stakeholders in matrix-deficient organizations. Let’s have that be our little secret, if you don’t mind. I might need to pull the matrix card in a job interview someday.
Below you’ll find (a) the ad, (b) my email response, and (c) an excerpt from the Harvard Business Review Guide to Better Business Writing, whose author joyously deplores the sort of verbiage you’re about to read… if you have the stomach for it.
A. The ad
Organization seeks Marketing Specialist who supports the execution of product strategies and cross portfolio strategies and works with moderate guidance across businesses to create and execute supporting communications.
- Assists in the design, development, editing & execution of marketing messaging & collateral including advertisements, direct mail & technical information for targeted audiences in conjunction with internal marketing team and external agencies, including LMR processes and requirements.
- Understands the sales budgeting process and participates in the prioritization of tactics.
- Exhibit strong written & verbal communication skills along with excellent interpersonal skills.
- Demonstrated strategic thinking, initiative, and creativity.
- Show agility with a proven ability to evolve strategic & tactical elements based on research, data & industry trends.
- Demonstrated problem solving and analytical skills.
- Demonstrated ability to work with cross functional stakeholders. OR. Demonstrated ability to work in a highly matrixed organization.
- Proven track record of achieving goals. OR. Proven track record of meeting financial and other quantitative goals.
- Demonstrated success working in a team environment.
B. My response
C. HBR excerpt
A podium is something you stand on
THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE NEVER STOPS EVOLVING. Since I’ve learned to accept change as an inevitable and even beautiful quality of our language, I’ve become more flexible, less rigid, and more adventurous about choosing and arranging words on a page. Right. When pigs fly and hell freezes over. I hate change. If it were up to me, the Dodgers would still be in Brooklyn.
Change is sometimes necessary, even beneficial. I get that. Pantyhose had to go. Lard in the cupboard, lead in the gasoline… I don’t miss them. But the English language is, for the most part, nontoxic and fat-free, so let’s not mess with it more than we have to.
There must be a better way to write respectfully than this:
Someone’s at the door. I wonder what they want.
Someone’s at the door. I wonder what he or she wants.
The latter is “correct,” but neither is going to win a prize for dialogue. No one talks like that, just as no one answers the question “Who’s there?” by saying—correctly—“It is I.” We can be forgiven for colloquial speech that breaks the rules… until it descends into grunts and snarls. I’ve been embarrased by my own mumbles lately during the half-block stroll to the grocery store. I usually pass other pedestrians, and one of us says something on the order of
“How ya’ doin’?”
Understanding that this isn’t a request for an organ-by-organ medical status report, I used to answer…
I’m doing well, thanks. How are you?
…but lately what comes out of my mouth sounds more like this:
Doin’ gud. H’boucherself?
Speaking is work…
…a highly complex motor task that involves approximately 100 orofacial, laryngeal, pharyngeal, and respiratory muscles… [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speech_science]
and we sometimes take short cuts. Over time, our sloppy speech becomes formalized in the language. What’s a contraction, after all, except sanctioned laziness? It’s easier to say “didn’t” than “did not,” and even easier to say “di’n’t,” dropping that second pesky plosive altogether.
This is nothing new. The word lord, for example, comes from the Old English hlāfweard with a meaning similar to “breadwinner.” I learned this from Kevin Stroud on his excellent History of English Podcast (mandatory listening for anyone who’s interested in English-language and British history). Kevin explains how our language evolves to reflect the way we actually speak. A word’s journey from its earliest appearance—quite possibly among the ancient Indo-European people long before there was an alphabet—to its current spelling, pronunciation, and usage, can be a fascinating tale. When you know the word’s story, you don’t like to see it misused.
Consider, for example, the beleaguered podium. If ever a word deserved mercy, surely podium is that word. It’s expected to do not only its own job—that is, to be the word associated with a low platform of the type shown in Fig. B (above right)—but also the job of another word, which was assigned hundreds of years ago to objects such as that shown in Fig. A (above left); and that word is lectern.
- A podium is a platform upon which a speaker stands.
- A lectern is the tall desk or stand, usually with a slanted top, that holds the speaker’s books, notes, sermons, and so forth.
- You stand on a podium and behind a lectern.
As a rule, using the wrong word interferes with communication, but that’s not the case here. If I ask, say, the Scratchnsniff triplets to come on stage by summoning them “to the podium,” and there is no podium—only a lectern like the one shown in Fig. A— the siblings will cope. They won’t get lost or wander around looking for the podium that wasn’t where it was supposed to be. Why? Like 58.17 percent of the English-speaking population, they think that podium and lectern are synonymous.
I stand by podium for a different reason—its etymology. Podium is related to the Greek word pous “foot.” Octopus has the same root. Did you know that the plural of octopus is octopodes (if you are Greek)? Pous evolved from the Proto-Indo-European root ped– “foot” c. 2000-4000 BCE.
Thus, podium has something like five or six thousand years of history to its credit, as summarized below:
The Life & Times of Podium
- Starts out as ped- with the Indo-Europeans, c. 2000-4000 BCE.
- Evolves as pous among the Greeks, arty souls who refined it as podion, meaning “foot of a vase.”
- Borrowed into Latin, where the Romans fiddled with it and came up with podium “raised platform.”
- Word and meaning arrived intact in English, late 17th or early 18th century—not the typical way for Latin words to enter the language. Most of our Latin vocabulary came through the French language after the Norman French invaded England in 1066. The army—led by the Duke of Normandy (soon to be King William I of England)—mopped the floor with weary English foot soldiers at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. In the aftermath, Normans and their families arrived in great waves, bringing their culture, their customs, and their language. Obviously, podium wasn’t part of the initial onslaught.
What, precisely, do a podium and a foot have in common? I guess I had assumed, without giving it much thought, that the podium got its name because people stand on it. You know, with their feet. No; that’s not it at all—though it can be a useful memory trick. The “foot” in this equation isn’t a human foot but an architectural or artistic one, as illustrated in the photo labeled “foot of a vase” below. As the Romans apparently saw it, a podium was analogous to the foot of a vase (Greek podion).
Got an extra podium? Maybe you should take out an ad: Podiums for sale. You could use podia instead, but trust me, people will smirk when your back is turned. Me, I’m a Nebraska girl. I don’t say celli or concerti or podia or gymnasia, I don’t eat raw fish, and I buy my jewelry on eBay.
Where do you stand?
Unlike podium, the word lectern—which originally meant a reading desk in a medieval church—came into Middle English “through channels,” you might say, if you don’t mind perpetrating a vicious pun that relies on a clumsy reference to the English Channel , which separates France and England. In any case, lectern came through Old French letrun, from medieval Latin lectrum, from legere “to read.”
Now, if you can remember that we read at a lectern and stand on a podium, my work here is done.
Is lectern lost forever?
I was a fan of Allison Janney in the role of C. J. Cregg on NBC television’s The West Wing. She was spectacular, and I’m sure she didn’t mean to stomp on my heart every time she spoke of the “podium” in the White House press-briefing room, night after night, week after week, for seven agonizing years. As White House press secretary, C. J. spent a great deal of time at, behind, beside, or otherwise in the aura of the miscalled “podium.”
During 155 episodes in seven seasons, certainly hundreds of people, if not thousands, had to have noticed the solecism: There’s a lectern on your television screen for all the world to see, and a star of the show is calling it a podium. No doubt many viewers contacted the show. But the lectern remained a “podium” throughout the program’s run, and that means one of two things:
(a) Nobody in the real White House ever referred to the thing as a lectern, or
(b) lectern is yesterday’s soggy Rice Krispies. It’s been written out of The West Wing and drop-kicked out of our lives. If it were a lame horse it would be taken out and shot, and We the Righteous are going to have to suck it up… unless…
Hey! You guys wouldn’t want to join me in putting our collective foot down and making a stand for standing on (not at or behind) a podium, would you? Because if you would, send me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a list of public officials and prominent educators to contact, starting with the Secretary-General of the United Nations. The man conducts his entire life behind a lectern.
Okay, maybe it’s not a global hot button, but the podium | lectern controversy isn’t just about little me with a bug in my brassiere. The experts and scholars are unanimous in their assent: A lectern isn’t a podium and it’s not okay to call it one. Here’s a heartening comment from a Toastmaster, followed by another from an authority on public speaking:
A podium is a platform upon which a speaker stands while speaking. If that sounds like a stage, you are correct. It is like a stage. A podium can have a lectern on it, [as]… can a stage. You could have a lectern on a podium on a stage. A speaker stands on a podium. —Message Masters Toastmasters
Many people confuse the words lectern, podium, rostrum, and dais. A lectern is the slant-topped high desk that you as the speaker stand behind and use when reading your presentation notes. It can be placed in the middle of the stage or off to one side. To remember lectern, think lecture.
A podium is a raised platform on which a speaker stands during a presentation. To remember podium think podiatrist – which is a foot doctor. You will want to use a podium, especially if you are short or there are more than three rows of chairs, to ensure everyone in the back of the room can see you. Standing on a platform will also dramatically increase your vocal projection. A rostrum or dais is a larger platform or stage on which a head table might be placed during a formal dinner.
More voices for the good and the true
The Daily Chronicle, “Never again confuse lectern for a podium”
Mannerofspeaking.org, “Podium vs. Lectern”
Dailywritingtips.com, “Podium vs. Lectern”
…and here’s the megasite for all things presentation-related:
Does it really matter?
No and yes. If it were only a matter of clarity, using podium instead of lectern might actually be the better choice. If you ask for a podium, you’ll probably get a lectern. If you ask for a lectern, you’ll probably get a blank stare.
From the Daily Chronicle story cited above…
Just before a speaking engagement at a hotel several years ago, Mose asked a hotel staff member for a lectern, describing its intended use: to hold notes for the presentation. “You mean a podium?” the young man asked. “No, a lectern,” Mose insisted, though he should have known better. The man came back a few minutes later with a lectern, which he continued to refer to as a “podium.”
I won’t give up, but I’m not optimistic. When the White House falls, can the entire free world be far behind? Maybe I’ll reach out to the Lectern people, see if they’re interested in a combination fundraiser | podium/lectern-awareness event: Pennies for Podiums… in the U. K., maybe Pounds for Podiums and, um, Lbs. for Lecterns? Meanwhile, if you’re looking for me, I shouldn’t be hard to spot; I’ll be (sigh) the Last Man Standing.
July 23, 2016
I THINK I’LL WONDERFUL
If you use the free phone service Google Voice and your callers leave voice mail, Google transcribes the messages. Evidently Google believes that the transcripts are less than perfect (see next paragraph), but I wouldn’t change a thing. You’ll agree with me, I’m sure, after you read the three examples below.
Google would like your help in making voicemail transcriptions better. With your permission, our automated systems will remove your account information from your voicemail messages and analyze them to improve our language models.
Have a happy anyway
TRANSCRIPT 1. Hi darling little girl we did. I just noticed, your maths it and Ralph. We need to visit. That’s All I can tell you And now, whenever marry Mike, phone When you are, only death. 4. And sometimes I can’t here 2. What it so Boy. We may have to make an appointment. Just, is that anyway. I’m glad you’re safe. This is and home you redo the worried me, this time anyway. I love you much and You know your always in my prayer file There, anyway Happy weekend and You know, Jeff, try me again And I’ll try you have that. Love you much. Hi Mary.
TRANSCRIPT 2. Issue resolved. Thank you for the birthday wishes. I’ve got to see why this issue. I remember you might work for there you have a yesterday and the potential client of ours so curious to see if you are, but I don’t heard it right. I mean, but I can’t find it. Because of that you if you call me back so So if you have any chance. Later.
TRANSCRIPT 3. Hi Sweetheart, Happy Easter, gosh i get you in passage and you’re supposed to inflate Enya. I left gosh. I’ll get you another book don’t journal. You know we had a separate but. I just or slightly ec all and in in the park. I would anyway. We’re gonna go tonight and you You know, have 5 I think I’ll wonderful. Sermon, and all. All the things that we need to do about the Resurrection, anyway. I don’t know what you’re doing tomorrow. But. I hope. It’s. If you have a happy anyway….
Listen to the Music
I’ve sort of been collecting — that is, I note mentally and forget to write down — instances of One Little Word having a colossal impact. Perhaps, by way of illustration, you’ll recall the ruckus that ensued when Washington, D.C., official David Howard used the word niggardly in a meeting:
WASHINGTON CNN (February 4, 1999) A white aide to Washington Mayor Anthony Williams who resigned [under duress] after using the word niggardly in a conversation will be returning to city government, ending a flap over what critics derided as political correctness run amok.
On Thursday, saying he acted too hastily in accepting David Howard’s resignation, Williams offered Howard his job back as director of the Office of the Public Advocate. Howard agreed to come back to city government, but he has asked the mayor to find him a different job.
In fairness to those who objected to the word, its use was probably ill-advised. Niggardly is hardly ubiquitous (another word not universally understood) in text or conversation. Anyone with common sense might have predicted the brouhaha.
English—It’s a trip
My tale is very different (its impact hingeing on a single letter, in fact), having to do with the fluidity of English-language vocabulary, which readily accepts ethnic and street slang (‘ho’, yo’ mama, homie [homeboy], the ‘hood, blunts [for marijuana], reefer) and technojargon (encryption, teleconference, CPU, whiteboarding, to name just a few).
Drug-subculture terms were conspicuous in the lyrics of rock music in the late 1960s and early 1970s, “acid rock” and “heavy metal” in particular. Sometimes the references were subtle, as in the Beatles’ (1967) “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” There was nothing subtle about “Cocaine,” written and recorded by JJ Cale in 1976 and memorably covered a few years later by Eric Clapton, who claims “Cocaine” is “an anti-drug-song. The fans only listen to the refrain: ‘She don’t lie, she don’t lie, she don’t lie, cocaine.’ But it says, ‘If you wanna get down, down on the ground, cocaine.’” (Stern magazine, 1998.)
I had long been in the habit of tuning out lyrics. For one thing, they were often indifferently articulated. I’m one of the many who thought that CCR was singing, “There’s a bathroom on the right” in the group’s 1969 hit “Bad Moon Rising” (actual lyrics: “There’s a bad moon on the rise”). Do check out kissthisguy.com, the utterly hilarious “archive of misheard lyrics.”
A more compelling reason for not listening to lyrics was that they were so often just stupid, especially compared to the music and the musician.
My favorite male musicians tended to be lyric-impaired. You have to go back to Ira Gershwin to find any substance in masculine lyrics, or perhaps I am simply out of touch. I read In Watermelon Sugar all the way through, and the only thing I remember is that everything was an odd color, so it might be that I lack the refined sensibilities to perceive subtlety and nuance in songs such as…
• “Layla” (Eric Clapton): “Layla. Layla. Layla. Layla. [indecipherable] Layla. Layla….”
• “Peggy Sue” (Buddy Holly): “Peggy Sue. Peggy Sue. Pret-ty, pret-ty, pret-ty, pret-ty Peggy Sue. Oh, Pe-eg-gy; my Peggy Sue-ooh-ooh, ooh, ooh-ooh-ooh ooh, ooh. Oh, I need you, girl, and I want you, Peggy Sue….”
I’ll be honest: “La Bamba” is my all-time favorite song — the Ritchie Valens version, not the Los Lobos version or the Yum!Yum!ORANGE version. The lyrics have never been a factor, because they are in Spanish and thus, by definition, exotic.
Judging by the lyrics to “Donna,” Ritchie Valens’s other monster hit — released before his short career was cut shorter as a result of dying in the plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly — Valens was no Ira Gershwin: “Oh, Donna. Oh, Donna. Oh, Donna. Oh, Donna. I had a girl. Donna was her name….”
But Ritchie Valens can take neither the credit nor the blame for the “La Bamba” lyrics, it turns out, because “La Bamba” is a three-hundred-year-old Mexican folk song. I wanted to know what a Bamba was, but apparently there’s no equivalent in English. The closest Spanish word to Bamba is bambú (“bamboo”), which, if you substituted it for Bamba, would make the song, if anything, less silly. Basically, Valens is singing about a dance, the Bamba, which either is a funny dance or is not to be attempted unless you, yourself, are a humorous, practical-joker type, plus you have to have speed and height, which [antecedent unclear] “I’ll be [be what? Speedy? High?] for you. I’m not a sailor. I’m not a sailor. I’m captain. I’m captain. Damn your eyes, I’m captain.”
If you are expecting a rebuttal here — “No, I’m captain” — you will be disappointed. The other shoe, in “La Bamba,” never drops. Wikipedia claims that the song’s message has to do with a groom’s promise to be faithful to his bride, fidelity being (according to Wikipedia) a virtue practiced by captains but not sailors, which shows how much Wikipedia knows about the privileges of rank.
Drawing the line
In the fall of 1971, I started working as a bookkeeper at an MOR radio station. MOR (middle of the road) describes the station’s “format,” which was soft rock: the mainstream music of Bread (“Baby, I’m-A Want You”), Cat Stevens (“PeaceTrain”), Elton John (“Rocket Man”), Harry Nilsson (“Without You”), the Spinners (“One of a Kind [Love Affair]”), Dobie Gray (the truly lovely “Drift Away”), and so forth. Drug-free and hamless to children and puppies.
In those days I could and did listen to the radio while I worked, so I knew every song on the station’s playlist by heart. Sometimes I sang along, making up lyrics when the real ones were just a mumble. I didn’t mind being clueless about who “Daniel” was in the Elton John hit… “You’re a star in the face of the sky…,” and “It looks like Daniel; must be the stars in my eyes.” I guessed that Daniel was probably in Heaven, but it turns out he was going only as far as Spain. Fine with me.
And then my very favorite song, the one that made me feel Up when I was Down or relaxed when I was tense, disappeared from the playlist. The artists, Brewer and Shipley, were fairly obscure, though the song I adored was on their third album, Tarkio. I couldn’t imagine why such a sweet, innocuous, folk-y song would be found objectionable. After all, Lawrence Welk considered it “a modern spiritual,” and it was performed on his weekly white-bread TV program by Gail Farrell and Dick Dale, who were apparently laboring under the same misapprehension I was.
I asked one of the deejays about the song’s disappearance. “What happened,” I said with complete ingenuousness, “to ‘One Toe Over the Line’?”
Then I waited patiently while he picked himself up off the floor and controlled a tedious series of fits of the giggles. Whatever it was, it was gonna be good.
“Okay,” I said, still at sea. “What’s a toke?”
“Oh, honey, you are an innocent, aren’t you?”
I wasn’t, but I let it pass.
“It’s a hit,” giggle, choke, “off a joint—a marijuana cigarette.”
“I know what a ‘joint’ is,” I said irritably. But my annoyance was directed at Brewer and Shipley, for taking me in. No wonder they were “showing off [their]… smile” there at “the railway station.” They were stoned.
The divorced mom of a sweet 4-year-old girl, I was terrified of drugs. I would mellow some in the months to come. It soon became apparent that if I were to cross every occasional toker off my friend list, I’d be down to Mom and Dad and one or two insufferable Republicans I knew from high school, when they were regular people. Not every Republican is insufferable, but these guys were stiffs in suits, believe me.
So I reconciled with Brewer and Shipley, who had surely missed me, and “One Toke Over the Line” remains a favorite, even though Spiro Agnew called it “subversive.” Below are links to the videos, performed by the original artists and also by Gail and Dick, who I’m sure have long since recognized the enormity of their mistake. You’ll also find the B & S version on the Feelgood Music page of my website. Don’t look for “Cocaine.” I’m saving it for my Bad-Trip, Downer, FeelShitty Music page, for those who find this happiness thing to be so been-there-done-that….
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The Risk-Free Trial? Guilty
Last summer I bit on a “risk-free trial” for an açaí-berry formula and a colon-cleanse detox product, both in capsule form. I was aware of the risks of a “risk-free trial.” The strategy is similar to that used by publishers such as Bottom Line Books and Rodale Books, which let you “examine a book free for thirty days,” during which you could doubtless read the book and send it back, keeping the bonus gift, usually a small but useful guide to Growing Healing Herbs in a Sunny Window, or perhaps Homemade Garden-Pest Repellents.
In any event, I was quick to read the fine print on my “risk-free trial” of açaí-berry formula and colon-cleanse detox product. I needed to return the bottles containing the “unused product” to an address in Florida within ten days of my receiving them, which the company estimated at three days after shipping. Otherwise, my credit card would be charged $89.95 per month until cancellation.
Usually, it’s a miracle if my mail gets opened within ten days of receipt, but the phrase risk-free trial sets off warning bells. So… an unprecedented TWO days after receiving the product, I extracted my ten-day supply from each bottle and sent the remainder via USPS Priority Mail to the Florida address. Even so, my credit card was charged $89.95.
Astonishingly, the charge was removed without my having to make so much as a phone call. I’ve heard from other victims, however, that such charges can be very sticky.
You are actually at risk the minute you divulge your credit-card information, which is required for the “minimal shipping charge” of $1.95 or whatever. If you must take the risk-free-trial risk, consider using a temporary (prepaid) credit card and keep the balance very low or cancel it altogether. Or not. Consult your legal professional.
By the way (and DO consult your healthcare professional before trying this regimen), I lost 12 pounds in two months on the colon-cleanse detox capsules.
Next: Truth in Advertising, Your Just Deserts — “Get the Smooth, Flawless, Young-Looking Skin You Deserve”
Below: I thought there was missing text, but it’s just Silly Syntax
From an Arizona Department of Health Services Report…
Neurological Effects [of exposure to hydrogen sulfide in sewer gas]:
Ataxia, choreoathetosis, dystonia, inability to stand in one 20-month-old child
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I read this afternoon — in a novel, by a usually careful or at least painstakingly edited author (Nora Roberts, writing as J.D. Robb) — about how the heroine’s strategy wasn’t succeeding so she decided to try a different tact.
I can’t even imagine what that would look like. Pretending she is British, perhaps? Or emulating Charlie Chan?