Category Archives: writing clarity

Sidebar: Crisis? What Crisis?

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. -Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at Yalta, 1945

Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin at Yalta, 1945

crisis: c.1425, from Gk. krisis “turning point in a disease” (used as such by Hippocrates and Galen), lit. “judgment,” from krinein “to separate, decide, judge,” from PIE base *krei- “to sieve, discriminate, distinguish” (cf. Gk. krinesthai “to explain;” O.E. hriddel “sieve;” L. cribrum “sieve,” crimen “judgment, crime,” cernere (pp. cretus) “to sift, separate;” O.Ir. criathar, O.Welsh cruitr “sieve;” M.Ir. crich “border, boundary”). Transferred non-medical sense is 1627.

A Time to Decide

When my older son, Jack, was 3, he barrelled through an enormous plate-glass window – more of a wall, actually – and emerged unscratched, though we were in Arizona and it was 104 degrees and he was barefoot and wearing shorts and a T-shirt. About two years later, on a balmy Sunday afternoon in April, he had a bit of a tantrum and launched a fist through a window in our dining room and cut his wrist. There was quite a lot of blood, so I called Dr. Cherven at home – you could do that, in Hutchinson, Kansas, in those days – and Dr. Cherven instructed us to meet him at the hospital.

The Reno County Courthouse, Hutchinson, Kansas

The Reno County Courthouse, Hutchinson, Kansas

Both Jack (the window-shattering culprit) and I were terrified, though the hospital was only a five-minute drive from our house. A nurse in the emergency room confirmed that the cut was crisis-worthy, and moments later Dr. Cherven strode in, wearing jeans and a tattered plaid shirt – he had been replacing storm windows with screens in his Victorian house. He scrubbed his hands, picked up Jack’s wrist, wiped away the blood, and uncovered a superficial cut hardly worthy of a Band-Aid. Crisis diffused. More accurately, crisis unmasked. The child had skin like new rubber.

Parents of active and fearless children learn to be cautious in their use of words such as crisis and emergency. These are volatile terms. When you apply them to situations, particularly those involving loved ones, they are stress-inducing, to say the least. Blood rushes to the heart, which starts pumping like a jogger in subzero temperatures.

What you need to do then is, you need to breathe evenly and focus on your toes. Seriously. This reminds your body that it has components other than the heart. Merely paying attention to your toes causes blood to flow there, your heart stops pounding in your ears, and you can make a rational decision.

The origin of the word crisis suggests “time to make a decision,” not “time to panic.” With apologies to anyone who is without genuine necessities due to the current financial climate – food, shelter, medical care, and so forth – an unstable economy is not cause for panic.

Lord Peter, by John Campbell, 1926

Lord Peter, by John Campbell, 1926

I am reminded of Dorothy L. Sayers‘s mystery novel The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, in which one of the club’s members observes, “I say, you fellows, … here’s another unpleasantness. Penberthy’s shot himself in the library. People ought to have more consideration for the members.” Lord Peter Wimsey, of course, uncovers the murderer (Penberthy did not shoot himself) in his trademark quirky style, unruffled and scrupulously attired throughout.

Might I suggest that we emulate the British and adopt the practice of understatement? I wish that American journalists would do so… but then, it requires less ink (in newspapers and magazines) and less air time to say “financial crisis” than it would to say “financial unpleasantness.”


Sidebar: Profanity Revisited


"Just the Facts, Ma'am"

Sergeant Joe Friday (Jack Webb): "Just the Facts, Ma'am"

On June 10, I wrote in this blog about justifiable uses of the F-word, occasioned by a late-night intrusion of my apartment and a half-hearted attempt to intrude on my personal self. All’s well that ends well (Shakespeare), and I was only superficially scarred physically and not at all damaged emotionally. I’m pretty sure. Although it shook me up a bit when somebody rang my doorbell, repeatedly, at about 5:30 this morning and refused to identify him- or herself.

In any case, police detectives have questioned and requestioned me, and at this moment I am looking at a “Victim Profile Sheet” that I’m supposed to fill out. Whoever put together this “Victim Profile Sheet” has, you might say, precarious command of the English language:

♦ JUST BEFORE THE INCIDENT — What were you doing? ie. walking, running, came home from work, etc.

There are several questions about my residence— “Is residence and entryway visible from the street?” “Is residence on alley?” “Multi-level?”

Here’s the one that has me scratching my head:

♦ Is residence indoors?

Is that a gentle way of asking whether I am homeless? Or do they want to know if I live on the roof?

I’m tempted to editorialize on my “Victim Profile Sheet,” but the likely response would be: “Just the facts, Ma’am.”


Metaphors Can Cause Headaches

Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

Joseph R. Biden, Jr.

I read this morning that Barack Obama had named Senator Joseph Biden as his running mate, and that Senator Obama had done so either before or after (I don’t remember which) “unleashing a fusillade of vitriol” about his opponent, John McCain.

Writers and speakers of the English language—especially journalists—slip into metaphor-ese automatically, disregarding the literal meanings of the metaphors and throwing various symbols together any which way. That’s forgivable, usually. A language is built mostly on metaphors whose original definitions stopped mattering long ago.

Unleashing a fusillade of vitriol, however, is just plain nonsense. Fusillade and vitriol are startling words that call attention to themselves, and since the writer was bold and foolish enough to combine them in this way, I feel justified in picking that combination apart.

What we have here is three words, actually, used metaphorically with feckless indifference to the metaphor’s integrity:

  • unleashing, which means “letting go of”; but to be “unleashed,” a thing must first have been “leashed,” or restrained. It’s common, and appropriate, to speak of “unleashing one’s anger,” which has presumably been pent up. Unleashing a fusillade doesn’t make much sense, really, because it’s hard to picture a fusillade as having its own impetuous energy.
  • fusillade, which is a rapid discharge of gunfire. It isn’t the bullets themselves, or the guns, or the people firing them.
  • vitriol—sulfuric acid, a highly corrosive chemical, often used as a metaphor for “abusive language” or “invective.”

We native speakers of English know what the writer means, which is that Barack Obama harshly criticized John McCain. But someone who is just beginning to understand the English language might easily be flummoxed. She sees unleashing, and pictures a dog straining at and perhaps breaking his tether. She sees fusillade and thinks, perhaps, of the action of a firing squad. Then she reads vitriol, which she knows to be a particularly nastily corrosive liquid that she has read about in detective or crime stories, where it is thrown in the face of an enemy, usually for vengeance or retribution.

Add it up and you have, what, impatiently frisky rapid-fire emissions from squirt guns? I don’t know. I can’t think about it any more. It gives me a headache.



I can live with sloppy grammar—sometimes. Regionalisms and colloquialisms don’t bother me—much. I ain’t got no time to worry over them things.

Here’s what bugs me: imprecise usage, when the words being misused have such distinct meanings. I am particularly annoyed by the following:

  • disinterested, when the speaker or writer means uninterested
  • alternate, when the speaker or writer means alternative

Disinterested means, roughly, “unbiased.” A judge, for example, is supposed to be a disinterested party in a trial, but you wouldn’t want your judge to be uninterested, would you? Well, you might, depending on the circumstances. Don’t tell me, I’m better off not knowing….

Alternate, as a noun, means “every second one of a series” or, very roughly, “substitute”; as a verb, it means “swing back and forth between two states or conditions.” Alternative, as a noun or an adjective, refers to one of two or more options.

  • I take tuba lessons on alternate Tuesdays.
  • Francesco and I alternate as Richard III in Richard III.
  • There are rest rooms on alternate floors [that is, on every other floor].
  • We could drive to Walla Walla, or, as an alternative, we could roller skate.

I get pretty irked, for me, when I read (as I just did, in Nora Roberts’s Ceremony in Death), “Alban—no known alternate name—born 3-22-2020….” Roberts also consistently, tediously, and infuriatingly uses disinterested when she means uninterested. (Ceremony in Death is published under Roberts’s alternative pen name, J. D. Robb. Alternate might be marginally appropriate here because, as far as I know, she has only two pen names and she goes back and forth with them, in a manner of speaking. If she had several pen names to choose among, “J. D. Robb” would be one of the alternatives.)

Strictly speaking, a thing can have only one alternate. Thus if I work at the popcorn counter every three days, taking turns with Betty Sue and Napoleon, we do not (strictly speaking, as I said), alternate. But that usage wouldn’t make me rip out my eyeballs, as I do frequently when reading Nora Roberts, though she does write a fine tale… where was I? Oh. That usage (re Betty Sue, Napoleon, and me) isn’t as troublesome because there’s no good alternative verb. “Take turns” doesn’t quite work; it sounds too playful.

Okay, that’s it. Thank you for allowing me to purge here in print. The only alternative is to rip out my eyeballs, and I’ve exhausted my supply.

Tapping Your Troubles Away

EFT: The Possibilities Are Acronymical

An acronym is a pronounceable abbreviation consisting of initials. Thus, NASA and UNICEF are acronyms, while NAACP and ASPCA are simply abbreviations.

The “rule” regarding the use of punctuation with (a) acronyms and (b) abbreviations consisting of initials is as follows: If the abbreviation is not an acronym but is pronounceable (as in U.S.A.), each initial should be followed by a period. Most writers disregard this rule. You might read that John Doakes received his BA at Harvard, his MBA at MIT, and his Ph.D. at Stanford. (Quite a guy, that John.)

Per the “rule,” only MBA is correctly rendered in the preceding sentence. If you were to read the sentence when you were extremely fatigued or otherwise addled, your brain might “hear” it as, “John Doakes received his bah at Harvard, his MBA at mitt,…” and so forth. But it’s more likely that your brain would make the necessary adjustments, allowing you to read BA as “B.A.” and MIT as “M.I.T.” With or without punctuation, you would probably not read Ph.D. as “fd.”

Accordingly, the placement or nonplacement of periods in such abbreviations doesn’t matter much, usually. When your eyes see USA, your brain is unlikely to “hear” “OOsa.”

I’ve been reading quite a bit lately, however, about an alternative-healing method called EFT,* which stands for “Emotional Freedom Techniques,” and, I’m not sure whether to pronounce EFT in initials (E-F-T) or as “eft” (a sort of newt, as anyone who does a lot of crossword puzzles can attest).

EFT or E.F.T. sounds too good to be true and probably is, but I have tried to keep an open mind about such things since that management-training class I took in the early 1990s at which I described a woman’s ex-husband’s combover and his house and his two Irish setters without her having told me anything about them.

In any case, inasmuch as proponents of EFT or E.F.T. tout it as a quick and comparatively easy way to banish chronic fatigue and procrastination, I created an EFT or E.F.T. page on my website, consisting of several YouTube videos and some text from the official EFT or E.F.T. manual, by Gary Craig, who originated EFT or E.F.T. You are welcome to visit the page at your leisure.

The EFT or E.F.T. healing method consists mostly of tapping the “meridian points,” as defined in acupuncture, or the chakras, or both, possibly, or maybe some of them are the same, but in any event you won’t want to try EFT or E.F.T. in public unless, perhaps, you are riding a bus and you would rather not have anyone sitting next to you.

If you have tried EFT or E.F.T., or if you plan to, please let me know how well it works for you. Thanks!

* Not to be confused with “electronic funds transfer,” whose abbreviation, EFT, is always pronounced “E-F-T.”

Paradigm for Passion

Warning: This Is Not an Historic Blog Post

If you love words, or if you just like to feel smug and superior because you use them properly, mosey on over to the Lake Superior State University List of Banished Words website.

“The tongue-in-cheek Banishment List began as a publicity ploy for little-known LSSU” in 1976, according to the site’s History of Word Banishment. You can view the list year by year, along with the rationale for banishment, or you can see the entire list, words only. A link next to each word takes you to the relevant annual list.

An advantage of looking at the entire list is that it’s easy to see the repeaters, including viable alternative, very unique, world-class, and proactive. A few words and phrases appeared three times—live audience and ongoing among them.

I was glad to see robust and revisit (1996) on the list but disappointed that passion was absent.

What’s wrong with robust?

List contributor Rob Robinson “pulled nine references to ‘robust processes,’ ‘robust materials,’ and ‘robust packaging,’ from the first 13 pages of the Ford Automotive Operations MS-9000 requirements.”

Traditionally, robust has referred to physical characteristics: energy, durability, and health. I don’t have a problem with more intangible forms of robustness, used sparingly. I can live with the occasional “robust advertising campaign,” which is what my boss required of me when I was marketing director of a short-lived* dot-com. But the dear man absolutely reveled in robustness. If someone said something moderately intelligent in a staff meeting, he seized upon the statement as a “robust idea.”

Robust quickly gained buzzword status, meaning that verbally challenged business types used it at every opportunity to indicate that they were hip to corporate trends… or something. Revisit suffered the same fate, brought into frequent service as a synonym for “revise.” Passionate probably took the worst beating. Once upon a time we were passionate about our sweethearts; then we became passionate about, say, the arts. Most recently our employers have required us to be passionate about our jobs as file clerks.

Here are a few of my favorite entries from LSSU’s list, along with the submitters’ comments:


Author’s note: The most cogent definition I could find was “pattern or model; a collection of assumptions, concepts, practices, and values that constitutes a way of viewing reality, especially for an intellectual community that shares them; an abstract basic structure, of some tenure, in which knowledge is related within a given realm.”

This has become the educational buzzword of 1993. I would like to see “paradigm lost.” Nancy Dean, Stephenson, Michigan

As in “I want to empower a new paradigm of health care,” [a euphemism for] “I want to shut down the hospital and let the people get their own aspirin.” Bob Cudmore, The Record, Troy, New York

Youse or Yous

Author’s note: Regionalisms don’t trouble me; I treasure them, in fact.

As in, “Would youse like coffee?” …Only in the North American vocabulary. Tori Cook, MCTV News, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario

An Historic

As in “an historic moment.” Commonly used by news people (print and broadcast). It’s wrong! If this abuse is allowed to continue, the next sound you hear from me will be an hiss! Jim Wiljanen, Dewitt, Michigan

To Gift; Gifting

What happened to “giving”? Gifting is seen in catalogs everywhere. I wonder if the originator is someone who was not in this country born.  J. Gregory Winn, St. Paul, Minnesota


* In short-lived, “lived” rhymes with “hived.”

She Writes a Hell of a Book

Diana, Philippa, or Nora? Take Your Pick

It was my brother, John—a manly man, who thinks The Gulag Archipelago is light summer reading—who turned me on to Diana Gabaldon. Somewhere in our fifties, John and I discovered that our preferences in music and literature intersected more than we might have thought. His taste runs toward Ray Charles, mine toward Ry Cooder. But we both like bluegrass, mysteries, and historical fiction.

It’s my hunch that Diana Gabaldon caught the reading public’s fancy with the steamy sex in her first novel, Outlander, and then, in succeeding books, pumped up the history and toned down the sex. A little. Claire and Jamie are getting on in years, after all, though Claire’s still vain about her “unruly curls,” even if she pretends not to be, and Jamie’s still built like a redwood, and of course we still have Roger and Brianna’s heat to fan ourselves against, and….

I’m sorry. Are you lost?


A little over ten years ago, John sent me Diana Gabaldon’s first four novels, insisting that I read them in the proper order. I didn’t read novels then. I was writing for the business world, and all my reading dealt with marketplace trends. For recreation, I dipped into books about English-language history, grammar, style, and usage. Outlander remained unread, though John kept nagging. It’s our Scots heritage, he said, that had pulled him in, and his fascination with the idea of time travel.

I always took two weeks off at Christmastime, and everything went to all to hell the Christmas of, I think, ’99, and I desperately needed a diversion, so I picked up Outlander and barely drew a breath until I finished Drums of Autumn, the fourth book in the series, about ten days later. I packed the four paperbacks off to my daughter, and she opened Outlander and then forgot to feed and clothe her children for a couple of months.

I pined for the fifth book, and then the sixth. Most of the English-speaking world is impatient for the promised seventh.

It got so that I could sniff out Gabaldon aficionados, people I casually did business with, knew only by phone or e-mail. I marveled that Diana Gabaldon, who, I believe, has a Ph.D. in marine biology, could write with such fluid, picturesque, assured precision about the eighteenth-century Scottish highlands. I thought that she had spoiled me for other authors… that I would never be able to read anyone else’s novels… that I’d have to go back to reading about corporate culture and profit-sharing.


About four years ago, my daughter, Marian, presented me with a wicked new indulgence—the historical fiction of Philippa Gregory. The book was The Other Boleyn Girl. I devoured it. Philippa Gregory doesn’t do steamy sex in her books, really (with the exception noted a few paragraphs down), although the most erotic passage I’ve ever read in any book is Gregory’s depiction of Mary Boleyn and the commoner William Stafford snuggling, fully clothed, on a deserted beach in France.

Gregory has written five novels about the Tudors. I started reading The Queen’s Fool late one Monday night and called in sick on Tuesday. (A sixth book, The Other Queen, about Mary, Queen of Scots’, imprisonment in England, is due out this fall.)

Whereas Gregory writes about people who actually existed, Gabaldon’s main characters are invented, so the question of historical accuracy is less urgent in Gabaldon’s work. It doesn’t trouble me, particularly, in Gregory’s books. I can read the facts in the encyclopedia, but I can’t become immersed in the inconveniences, the injustices, the excesses, and the intrigues of sixteenth-century British royalty—a microcosm that Gregory presents with such exquisite timing and drama. There is, literally, never a dull moment in Gregory’s prose.

(I tried to read Gregory’s first novel, Wideacre, published in 1987. The “heroine’s” amorality was so repellent, complete with steamy sex involving her own brother, that I couldn’t finish the book. Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber [1944] presents a much more sympathetic but equally selfish heroine, and Winsor is more astute about the plight of independent-minded women in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.)


Dare I link Nora Roberts’s name with Gabaldon’s and Gregory’s? Nora Roberts, who has had 124 novels on the New York Times bestseller list? Whose books in print exceed 280 million copies? Who produces a new book more often than I dust?

After my most recent Roberts-fest, the “MacGregors” series, I asked myself, once again, “How does she do it?” How, that is, does she write the same story, over and over and over again, putting her characters into different bodies and different scenic locales (usually by the turbulent sea, Atlantic or Pacific), giving them different names and occupations, but telling essentially the same tale?

She does it beautifully, though I confess I cringe every time she uses disinterested when she means uninterested. Still, I am seldom distracted by careless writing mistakes or poor editing. Her research must be fascinating, and exacting. The men and women who populate her books are very believable cops, boat-builders, U.S. senators, cartoonists, witches, racecar-drivers, innkeepers, sculptors, carpenters, fashion models, certified public accountants, four-star chefs, and horse breeders. None of them, it must be said, is fat or ugly, and if a character in one of her books is short of cash, it’s only temporary.

Boy meets girl, boy is rudely antisocial, girl is fiercely independent, the barriers come down, the clothes come off, someone puts a fly in the ointment, it gets fished out, I’m mixing metaphors, pay no mind, and boy and girl get married, have at least three children, and live happily ever after. If we’re fortunate, as in the case of the MacGregors, we get to read about several generations of lusty young men and women repeating the errors of their elders, toughing it out, proving they can make it on their own, discovering they don’t have to, and, finally, making new grandbabies for The MacGregor—Daniel, the patriarch, who built the castle by the sea—though he claims it’s his beloved Anna, the surgeon, who fusses.

The principals are virtually always caucasian (often of Irish or Scottish descent, though there are French and Comanche strains running through the extended MacGregor clan) and robustly heterosexual, but their close friends might or might not be black, or gay, or both. Roberts writes very comfortably, never coyly, about interracial and gay couples, neither making an issue of “diversity” nor backing away from it.

Her gift, I think, is the ability to pick you up and plop you down in some irresistible setting—an island along the New England or Georgia coastline, a clifftop near Monterey, occasionally a sunset town in Montana—and then surround you with charming people—utterly innocent, thoroughly jaded, and everything in between… and you get to live there for a while, in the beautiful, kaleidoscopic whirlwind she’s painted, and watch people grope their way toward each other… and it’s just lots of fun. Every damn time.

And I learn from them all—these made-up people with genuine humanity—the creations of Gregory, Gabaldon, and Roberts. They inspire me, even if it’s only to have a tidy, well-organized workspace like Cybil Campbell in Roberts’s The Perfect Neighbor. They never let me forget—as engrossing and colorful as their lives and times are, there, on the pages, their affairs so tidy one minute, so messy the next—to live my own life first and peek in on theirs only after my chores are done. Well, except for that “sick day” I spent reading The Queen’s Fool… but I’ve learned my lesson, and it will never happen again… at least not until September….


California Central Coast photo by Paul Lee

A marvelously engrossing read is Audrey Niffenegger’The Time Traveler’s Wife. Couldn’t be less like Gabaldon’s approach to time travel. Marian gave me The Time Traveler’s Wife for Christmas a few years ago and asked to borrow it after I was done. When I relinquished it, I begged her to finish it quick because I wanted to reread it. A day or two later she called me. “Are you sure you want it back?” she wanted to know. “How can you DO that to yourself again?”

Remember Little Sioux

All photos in this post show my grandson Pete and fellow Scouts and leaders (including Pete’s dad, Paul).

Surviving the Storm

Who would have dreamed, back in the fresh-faced fifties, when moms wore aprons at home and put on hats and gloves to go shopping… when boys named after their dads were called “Skip” or “Bud”… when families went for a drive in the country to escape the city heat on Sunday afternoons, maybe dining on cold chicken and potato salad at a shaded roadside picnic table… who would have guessed, back then, that the compact little self-explanatory phrase “Boy Scout” would someday take on a pejorative tinge? Overheard: “He’s such a Boy Scout!”  Yep, he’s a lost cause, all right. (The feminine equivalent is, “She’s such a Pollyanna!”)

I remember my brother, John, eagerly packing for the National Jamboree at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. He would have been about 12 at the time. My mom had been a den mother, Dad was the assistant scoutmaster, and they encouraged but never pressured John in his Scouting endeavors. It was not my parents’ way to coerce, so when, in the imprudence that is puberty, John and his friends tossed out their Boys’ Life magazines and started hiding Playboy under their beds—where their nosy little sisters would inevitably find them and go running to Mom—my parents were philosophical, just as they were when my sister quit Girl Scouts and I abandoned the Camp Fire Girls.

It wasn’t until much later—just recently, in fact—that I learned that some of the hippest guys I knew in high school were closet Eagle Scouts. It was the cynical sixties, and anything wholesome was suspect. Being a Boy Scout was the youthful equivalent of belonging to the John Birch Society, I guess.

In the intervening decades, Scouting has survived a storm of hostile scrutiny—some of it perhaps justified, most of it just plain ignorant. Scouting has been labeled sexist, racist, homophobic, fascist, or simply irrelevant. I wonder if Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder has provoked second thoughts about the charge, at least, of irrelevance.

My oldest grandson, Pete, became an Eagle Scout at age 16 last year in a moving ceremony attended by fellow Scouts and adult leaders, as well as family and friends, of course. A few years earlier, on a crisp fall day, I had driven him about forty miles to a weekend campout at one of the other kids’ uncle’s farm, a picturesque spot in the Loess Hills that line the Missouri River on the east. When we arrived, there was no one in sight. Then we heard shouts: “Pete! Up here!” Eight or ten boys were exploring a wooded ridge some fifty feet above where we were standing. After a quick “Thanks, Grandma,” Pete was off like a shot, aiming for the steep path that led to the pinnacle.

They’d be pitching their own tents that evening, building their own fire, cooking their own food, nestling into their sleeping bags when the temperature dropped into the twenties. Where, except in Scouting, do kids experience that stuff? What, I wondered, would he be doing that sunny Saturday if he weren’t soaking up the clean country air (lightly laced, it must be said, with the aroma of livestock leavings)? I did my share of camping, girl-style, when I was a kid, but I also watched a lot of Circus Boy reruns and old Shirley Temple movies on Saturdays.

Last week, on June 12, a tornado killed four Boy Scouts at Little Sioux Scout Ranch, also in Iowa’s Loess Hills but a couple of hours north of the farm where Pete had camped a few years back. By all accounts, the eighty-nine Scouts who survived, and their leaders, reacted heroically.

Associated Press writer Timberly Ross reported that the Scouts helped “administer first aid and search for victims buried in their flattened campsite….” Thirteen-year-old Ethan Hession “said the Scouts’ first-aid training immediately compelled them to act.”

“We knew that we need to place tourniquets on wounds that were bleeding too much. We knew we needed to apply pressure and gauze. We had first-aid kits, we had everything,” he said.

Ethan said one staff member took off his shirt and put it on someone who was bleeding to apply pressure and gauze. Other scouts started digging people out of the rubble, he said.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m ever in the path of a tornado, I’d like to be surrounded by people whose motto is “Be Prepared.”

And if I’m ever in the presence of someone who demeans the principles and practices of Scouting, I hope I have the presence of mind to reply, “Remember Little Sioux.”


Is Barack Obama ‘Black’?

From a February 20 story on

[A Reuters/Zogby poll]… showed [Barack] Obama, who would be the first black president, with a 14-point edge over [Hillary] Clinton, 52 percent to 38 percent, after being in a statistical tie with the New York senator last month. [emphasis mine]

I got out my 1956 World Book Encyclopedia and looked up “presidents of the United States,” found a portrait or a photo for each president, and observed that none of them, sure enough, appeared to be black. I can name, and give a fairly good physical description of, all the presidents since 1956, and I am quite certain that none of them was (or is) black.

Who knew?

Blackness defined

By “black,” I mean “African American.” Ulysses S. Grant, of course, had a fine, robust black beard, but we are speaking of ethnicity here.

It appears, based on my limited research, that the official U.S. definition of an African American is “a person having origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.” Wikipedia’s “African American” entry begins, “African Americans or Black Americans are citizens or residents of the United States who have origins in any of the black racial groups of Africa.”

Wikipedia points out that the “vast majority” of African Americans now have “varying degrees of admixture” with people of Native American and European ancestry. Various courts in various states at various times have adopted other criteria: In Virginia, you were black if you had “one-sixteenth black ancestry,” elsewhere if you possessed “a single drop of ‘black blood.’”

Why it matters

In one sense, it seems anachronistic to call attention to a person’s ethnicity (even if that person is running for president), especially in the courtroom, since it is illegal to discriminate against anyone on the basis of his or her race, color, creed, sexual orientation, and so forth.

In the real world, ethnic background still matters, for several reasons:

(1) Freed black slaves—largely uneducated, ill prepared to compete for lucrative jobs, essentially powerless—were objects of pity, scorn, or hatred. All the civil rights legislation in the world cannot erase that legacy, which is with us still in many forms—poverty, educational inequity, and antagonism are just a few.

(2) Many African Americans, especially those whose ancestors were slaves, share a unique and fascinating culture, idiom, and solidarity—which is not to say that they have uniform ideals and beliefs. “Blackness” is more than skin-deep.

(3) In June 1998, three white men chained a 39-year-old black man, James Byrd, Jr., by his ankles to the back of their truck and went for a joy ride. Racism, subtle or overt, is not dead. James Byrd is.

Is Barack Obama ‘black’?

Last week, a caller to one of the conservative radio talk shows—the caller was an African American—contended that Barack Obama (who would be the first black president) wasn’t, technically, black. The caller’s rationale was that Obama’s ancestors were not slaves. His father, in fact, was a native of Kenya who had earned a Ph.D. at Harvard, and his mother was a Kansas-born white woman. Thus, though Barack Obama’s skin is dark(ish), he doesn’t share the legacy or the culture of most African Americans—or, strictly speaking, the ethnicity, since most slaves were West Africans and Kenya is in East Africa.

It would be accurate to refer to Obama as a mulatto—the offspring of a white person and a black person or, more generally, a person of mixed black-and-white ancestry. The origin of the word mulatto is Spanish; it means “small mule”—a mule being the offspring of a horse and a donkey—making the appellation anything but complimentary.

“Mulatto,” according to Wikipedia, was “an official census category until 1930.” In parts of the Old South, mulattos had different, and often more favorable, legal status than blacks—which illustrates my point (and I do have one, in case you were wondering): Race is not a black-and-white issue, and the single label black hardly suffices to describe such a rich assortment of people.

I and Thou

I recommend to you the book I and Thou, by Martin Buber (1878-1965), a Jewish philosopher who urged human beings to always “meet one another in their authentic existence, without any qualification or objectification of one another” (Wikipedia).  

“The ones who count,” Buber writes, “are those persons who—though they may be of little renown—respond to and are responsible for the continuation of the living spirit.”

I was shocked, not too long ago, to hear a friend refer to a particular black person as “a n—-r.” (I can’t write the actual word. My parents would rise from the grave to wash my mouth out with soap. In their home, profanity might be ignored but the N-word was never said more than once; the mouth-washing was that ferocious.)

When I chastised my friend, the N-word-user, he said, “Mary, there are blacks and there are n—-rs.” I disagree with the word choice, and with the logic behind it, but I got the point. Our vocabulary is insufficient. In any case, the “particular black person” at issue was a scoundrel, and would have been a scoundrel regardless of his origin.

I would not like to see all references to diversity disappear. I do not long for a color-blind society (except in the courts), any more than I would enjoy the banishment of celebrations of Irish, Hawaiian, or Jamaican heritage. Diversity is fascinating, as are the remnants of almost-forgotten dialects throughout the country.

Still, in all human interaction, including the current lead-up to November’s presidential election, I hope and pray that each person will be assessed “not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.”


Check out the definitive business-writing workbook Write Better Right Now, by Mary Campbell.


The Language of Technology: The Big Con

Good Old MPUI and Other Merry Pranks

It is no accident that modern information-technology history all but began the day I was born (October 23, 1947). My birth, in fact, coincides with the formation of the Association for Computing Machinery. Which is why I’m sure the Bittorrent Client and Pareto front are part of the Big Con.

Early history: Mistakes are made

As a child, I live, breathe, and eat technology:

1948: The transistor is invented. I discover radio. A Philco. I pull knobs off and gum them.

1949: MIT’s Claude Shannon builds first chess-playing machine. I discover chess pieces — entire drawerful. My experiments yield the following data: The knights are gristly and bitter while the pawns can be swallowed whole. I learn that experimentation sometimes produces intense pain.

1950: Maurice V. Wilkes uses symbolic assembly language on EDSAC. Experimentally, I use language on my dad that replicates model my brother uses with his friends. I hypothesize that my dad, like my brother and his friends, will pee his pants with amusement, but results surpass anything I might have hoped for: My dad washes my brother’s mouth out with soap. I learn that experimentation sometimes produces intense gratification.

1952: Univac predicts Eisenhower landslide soon after polls close. Big whoop. My dad predicted Eisenhower landslide previous February.

1953: Remington-Rand develops high-speed printer for use with Univac. I become highly efficient self-contained printer for use with spelling tests, independent of hoity-toity Remington-Rand, though I do collaborate with Jane Frovick, who sits beside me in back row, on spelling test containing unhypothesized word comb. Based on Univac-type logical algorithm (home = H-O-M-E, tome = T-O-M-E, and so forth), we experimentally print C-O-M-E at high speed on our spelling papers. We learn that logic is inimical to spelling.

1954: I memorize spelling of antidisestablishmentarianism. Univac is still scratching its head over comb.

1955-1956: This period marked by squabbles among large entities such as Burroughs, Sperry-Rand, IBM, and the U.S.A. I am likewise at odds with my brother, a large entity relative to me, over Stan Musial rookie card. In ill-advised midsquabble replication of 1950 language experiment, outcome is again not as predicted: My dad washes my mouth out with soap.

Adolescence to young adulthood: Reactionary period

1959: Computers and ordinary people (which is to say, people who rarely need to calculate guided-missile trajectories) begin to “interface” routinely. Early encounters are not promising. Ordinary people are receptive to computers much as Plains Indians were receptive to Iron Horse. The next few years are notable for…

·   Dawn of Era of Verbing, with nouns such as interface appropriated for simultaneous use as verbs.

·   Mutual suspicion erupting into overt hostility as ordinary people receive electric bills for $17,009.83 and college students enrolling in “History of the Napoleonic Era” end up in “Marine Biology Practicum” doing shrimp census in Gulf of California.

·   Gangs raiding corporate offices, seizing punch cards to Staple, Cut, Fold, Spindle, and Tear.

·   Regression to older, less threatening technologies (carbon-paper consumption surges).

1962: At public library, I discover 25-cent photocopier that produces a negative; for another quarter you can photocopy the negative and get a positive. Machine is slow compared to later models. In same amount of time, I could manually copy page twice, in calligraphy.  

1963: Through volunteer work, I learn to use Addressograph, Mimeograph, and Ditto machines. I discover with glee that Ditto “masters” are available not only in purple, the official public-school Ditto color, but in red, green, and turquoise. Why were we not told?

1965: Technology and I begin a dizzying convergence. Summer job requires mastery of IBM electric typewriter, Verifax “wet copier,” and Thermo-fax copy machine requiring use of special pink tissue sheets and heavy white paper with faint blue flowers on one side. Late in summer we acquire Xerox machine that prints “Xerox” in tiny letters across the top and bottom of every page.

September: I arrive at Stanford University for my freshman year. I gain instant popularity due to ownership of 1930s-era Royal typewriter that has big, fat pica type, filling page with fewer words than weenie elite type of most other typewriters in dorm.

1968: I work for temp agency, accepting every assignment regardless of skill requirement. Confronted with massive cord switchboard like mutant octopus, I plead temporary amnesia and ask for “a few reminders.” I catch on quickly and adopt officious nasal patois: “One moment, puh-leez; connecting you with your party.”

Technology and I grow up, get down to business

1970s find me in vanguard of emerging technology, from dictation equipment that shrinks each generation to sleek 64-line PBX systems and Mag Card electric-range-size word processors.

1977: I am in Arizona and new territory, literally and metaphorically. I edit University of Arizona catalog, programmed in SNOBOL, using HTML-like SOS (Son of Sam) text editor. We take turns arriving at office before dawn to avoid “login queue” since all CRTs on campus are “timesharing” on single DEC 10 computer occupying largish red-brick building three blocks north. Every five minutes or so we have to punch a few keys to let CRT know we’re there. Otherwise it will “throw you off.” Sometimes it throws you off anyway, with maniacal chuckle.

We order printout, wait three days, walk to DEC-10 site, pick up printout, walk back. Done periodically to make sure all coding accurate. If we have inserted code <it> as instruction to italicize text, but we omit <eit> at end of specified text, italics go on and on until halted at state border for illegal vegetable transportation inspection.

Our spellchecker is called Mary Lindley, who astutely points out peculiarities in text, such as Special Education course title entered as “Reading and Study Skills for the Dead,” which ordinary spellchecker, not yet invented, would in any case ignore, at sacrifice of much office merriment.

When time to print catalog, we haul tractor-tire-size magnetic tape to printer.

1983: I am in HutchinsonKansas, working at dial-up news service designed for farmers. We have TRS-80 Model II computers with up to four floppy disk drives and zero hard drives. If someone runs vacuum cleaner near server, it (server, not vacuum cleaner) reboots, causing total loss of data. Our modem is telephone-receiver cradle transmitting thirty characters per second.

I am computer genius. I converse smoothly about binary code, bits, bytes, and “baud” (modem speed). Computers produce mainly letters and numbers. It is cake to understand how each bit in eight-bit code represents tiny switch that is either ON or OFF and how sequence of ON and OFF switches determines letters or numbers.

We have full-time staff person, pretty Vicki, to instruct owners of TRS-80, Texas Instruments, Sinclair, Commodore, IBM, Atari, Apple II-e, and other computers how to access our database. It is precise configuration; tiny mistake links user’s computer to Interpol, causes international incident.

1992: Am back at University of Arizona. DEC 10 has been converted to student housing, CRTs are in museum with Commodores, Daisy-Wheel printers. New software is suspiciously colorful. What’s with the sinister floating windows? I balk at using mouse.

Recover aplomb, become adept at learning software, even if not easily comprehended in terms of ON and OFF switches. By end of decade emerge as Internet pioneer with own Web site. Breeze through graphic-design, spreadsheet, database classes. Experience bliss of broadband.

1995: Create “Small Business Builder” feature on fledgling Web site. Is first of many one-hundred-percent-remote assignments made possible by marvel of telecommunication.   

May 2000: Leave secure University of Arizona position with desirable benefits to accept big bucks, cushy job, impressive title with dot-com in posh foothills location. My ship has come in.

September 2000: Ship sails away. Am stranded on Gilligan-type island minus Gilligan, Captain, Professor, Jim Backus, Lovey. Some days am Ginger, other days am Mary Ann. Occasionally am Bishop Desmond Tutu, Pointer Sisters. It is as Teddy Roosevelt on San Juan Hill that I see passing ship, fire musket to signal, provoking Navy SEAL mission resulting in rescue.

I age gracefully, I.T. develops dementia

2007. I am Neanderthal woman. My computer is dinosaur. I no longer have vocabulary to describe problem to computer-fixer guy. I feel like caller on “Car Talk” making sick-transmission noises.

Attempt to download Mplayer for Windows. Do I need Binary Codec Package? What does “supported natively” mean? Is it racist/chauvinist thing, like “American-owned”?

“Great news,” subhead blares. My heart does a little dance. “Mplayer package contains SMPlayer front-end.” Sigh. “Of course, good old MPUI is still included.” Whew!

I click “download.” Do I want “Secure Download (US)” or “Secure Download (RO)”? What is “RO”? Rome? Republic of Ontario?

Am advised that “To download from torrent links” I “must download and install a bittorrent client.”

Scales fall from my eyes, clog keyboard. No matter. Is all Big Con. If I bite on “bittorrent client” scam, will get error message: “Access denied. Could not find active alienated download buffer. Repair by finding Pareto front of simple problem using Genetic Algorithms with fitness sharing. Or you could just stick peanuts up your nose. P.S. Your computer has 2,937 registry errors. Hahahahahahaha.”