Thursday, December 31, 2015

Deflated Future: The Best of 2015

For much of the world, 2015 was a tumultuous year full of ups, downs, excitement, heartbreak, sadness, ridiculousness and hope. Which is also an accurate appraisal of my own year.

This picture of a sunset — which I apparently took in September — illustrates my year quite well: A mix of blinding darkness and bright beauty.

As always (sometimes), I titled my year-end best-of with two words that encapsulate this year. And just like last year, I didn't want to get too depressing with it. So "GUN BEHEADING" was right out, as was "ISIS AWAKENS" and "ASHLEY YUUUUGE."

Hence, "DEFLATED FUTURE." This was the year Back to the Future II crossed over into full-on retro kitsch and a certain football team endured pressure over its balls. And other stuff happened too. I even wrote about some of it. Not as much as I wanted to, but still way more than the world needed.

I present here my favorite blogs of 2015, which cap the intermittently fruitful 11-year run of Not Right About Anything.


Seen in Washington, D.C.: A newer version of my iPhone in a museum exhibit. In related news, I got a new phone in 2015.
For me, any interaction with a cat is straddling a fine line between delight and terror. The usual script: My cat-owning friend will reassure me that their feline loves affection — and then I, like the walking science I am, inevitably prove otherwise with the slightest approach. Then the pet hyped more than any other as Captain Personality goes and stares at something for the next several hours.

Real rights empower human beings in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They don’t keep others from doing the same. (This is not the same as being criticized, opposed or offended. Sorry, religious right.)

But people who smoke in others’ spaces, don’t wash hands, refuse to practice traffic safety or (worst of all) don’t vaccinate, adversely affect everyone. They voluntarily introduce risk where it didn’t exist before, potentially affecting innocent people — which, by definition, hinders people’s basic rights.

Back when people used to ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said, “Jon Stewart.” The show’s format and sensibility are basically what I wanted, and still want, out of life. It combines everything I’m into — current events, media, satire, intellectual jawing and the refusal to be taken too seriously. It’s ridiculous when it wants to be and on point when professionalism is in order. And, perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t always tell you what you want to hear.

If your ideology is threatened by education, thoughtfulness, exposure to other opinions, compassion, empathy and inanimate objects, you're doing it very wrong.

“I still don’t know, though. That one car offers so much of what I want.”

“But it doesn’t offer everything you want.”

“This one offers nothing I want. In fact, it introduces so many more problems that could hurt me down the road, that really, it offers negative benefits.”

“Well, don’t you think maybe having so much of what you want is making you slack off as a driver?”

I-blog (4/2)
There are plenty of ways to omit a first-person perspective from reporting. One decent workaround is, "told reporters." But if there's absolutely no way around it, embrace it, I say. The implication is exactly the same as the euphemisms (such as "this reporter"), but it's more direct.

I don't understand why people feel like they need to believe in myths, astral planes, fanciful creatures, elaborate conspiracies, spiritual miracles, the supernatural, etc., to make life interesting. 

Real life — the things that you can see, feel, hear, smell and taste, and everything else that's demonstrably tangible — is unbelievable. The beauty is more beautiful, and the tragedy more tragic, than anything anyone could fabricate. 

Riot acts (4/27)
One of the most terrifying mindsets a person can have (both for themselves and for the innocents around them) is the feeling that they have nothing to lose. When they feel society has failed them, from economics to the police and everything in between, they see no alternative but to lash out. They see a way to get attention, completely unencumbered by any feeling of obligation or empathy to others. And why should they care? How well did that work out for them before? Anyone who loots and commits violence harbors that feeling to some degree, even if in other circumstances they’d see such destruction for the horror that it is.

Dylann Roof’s diseased belief was that the people he killed represented all that was wrong with America. But the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church took him in and warmed to him, because they were good people. After the shooting, more good people refused to feel the hate for him that he had expressed in violence. That takes more humanity, more courage, more guts, than someone like Roof could ever comprehend.

So to the extent that I ever tolerated the flag, it was because I associated it with the show and its toy counterparts, and all the good times that came with them. Like those who revere the flag for more dubious reasons, I was born into it. But I quickly grew out of it, and now think of the Confederate flag as a stain on an otherwise enduring franchise, just like its continued presence on flagpoles and vehicles is a stain on America. If we could get more people to follow suit on that belief, we’d all be better off.

Lots of snow photos here, herehere and here
It’s not fair, but you make the best of it. In fact, you do such a terrific job of it that pretty soon, your housemates are resentful. They wind up spending many sleepless nights pacing around their expansive living rooms and lengthy corridors and fully stocked kitchens and well-manicured yards grumbling, “Where’s MY cellar?!!”

In that sense, I’m not shocked that it happened in Lafayette so much as I’m saddened that it can happen anywhere. That’s the biggest tragedy of all.

They’re dead, why? We may never know for sure, but we do know that the guy who did it felt very insecure about his standing in the world — and that he had a history of mental-health issues. And, on that night, he had both a gun and (apparently) a feeling of nothing left to lose. The deadliest combination.

Black lives matter … too.

Mentioning the suspect’s name and story isn’t glorifying anyone. It’s reporting the truth, which is (ideally) the point of journalism. It has a purpose — aside from simply disseminating the facts (which will always be needed in a world where conjecture would otherwise swirl in a vacuum), it can possibly start a conversation as to why he did it and how to thwart such ills in the future.

This is one of those things where you think, WTF? Nude pictorials made Playboy!

That is correct. But in 2015, those pictorials are the most antiquated thing about the magazine, so it makes perfect sense to take them out.

Whose life is so privileged, and yet simultaneously bereft, that they are bothered by a secular corporation decorating its cups merely with Christmas colors instead of the flashy pagan symbols that make the holiday distinctly Christian? 

Paris thought (11/13)
The single biggest threat to humanity isn't a religion or an ideology — it's the notion that there's nothing left to lose.

People who are invested in our institutions don't set out to destroy them. People who have hope in their lives, and who have faith in their fellow humans, don't engage in suicide bombings. Hopelessness allows fanaticism to take root.

What I believe doesn’t matter anyway, because in the context of Christmas, Linus nails it, and that’s all that matters. Charlie Brown sees a holiday rife with excessive commercialization and with magnified pressure to get all the details just right, and in his frazzled state wonders how — and why — this is supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, because to him it just feels like yet another time to get belittled for trying and falling short. Linus cuts through the materialism and stress with a gentle reminder of how the holiday came to be in the first place. The idea of cutting through excess artifice to get back to basics is heartwarming in any context.

Regarding the removal of Confederate statues from public squares:

If you were once in a tumultuous marriage where fighting was constant and the children were forced to take sides, and where the rancor was largely fueled by your spouse's fierce insistence that you not have a life of your own ... and if you then entered into a much more stable second marriage ... then it's understandable if, 20 years later, you walk past pictures from your first wedding still mounted in your living room and think, "Maybe I should put these in the attic.”


What grates on me is when people insist on it. "I earned this title" or, "I command respect!" Another one of my personal rules is to ensure that if someone has a problem with me, that the problem is all theirs — in other words, that if someone disrespects me, it's because they're being a jerk, not because I did something wrong. That's not always the case, but it's my aim. When people insist on appropriate props via inappropriate pontificating, they cede that high ground.

I’ve always found it somewhat amazing that marriage/long-term companionship is such a common and expected achievement. Because when you think about it, finding a person who’s perfect for you in the long haul is really hard. And yet, it’s safe to assume past a certain age (not 25) that a given person is married or seriously involved.

The author employs the typical simplistic picture: You're either a desperate loser living in your mom's basement going to dive bars every night, or you're a hardworking family man (and the sooner you make the jump, the better, because 19 is a pivotal age).

Or, according to him, you are a hardworking single man who takes care of business, but that isn't enough and you should be married to make more money to raise a family that costs more money.

The role of technology, as it is with everything, is incidental. You will always have both embracers and people who think it marks the downfall of civilization. They say that about smartphones now. Some almost certainly thought the same about newspapers or wireless radio. Like the generation gap, that will always be with us.

As will character. There will be always be people with it and people without it. No generation has the lock on either group.

I understand as well as anyone the crippling effect of loneliness (which isn't necessarily a function of place or lack of support). It messes with your head in sometimes very subtle ways. You may feel the need to reach out to your fellow human, but you also trust strangers less. You may seek out those with whom you share interests, but not bond with them. You want a break from your personal routine, but you tolerate others' quirks less and less. Possibly worst of all, you do lash out more (whether alone or with others) than you might if you felt more like part of society. You get caught up more in your own thoughts and criticisms, which can be mentally destructive if there isn't anyone around to check them.  If your circumstances don't easily allow for you to attend events or meet anyone, that can lead to a lingering depression. It's not a stretch to see how all that could lead to a shorter lifespan.

Anyone who reads this blog, or talks to me on an intermittent basis, knows that I am not big on curmudgeonly generational condescension, aka "kids these days" talk. Older people only think younger generations suck because 1) older people romanticize the past and 2) they forget that their elders thought they, too, sucked. The generation gap is as old as humanity itself, because it's human nature to lack perspective.

• You should have it all figured out by now. If you don’t, you are a pathetic, clean-shaven little boy who deserves to die alone in an efficiency apartment only to be found six days later when you don’t show up for your job fetching coffee for real men (which is two days longer than they’re used to you being gone because you are a lazy fool who constantly calls in sick).

Fifteen years ago, hipsters were much less common. Does that mean people weren’t seeking outsidership in 2000? Of course not. It just took a different form then, maybe in nu-metal/rap-rock (or whatever other lamestream trend was hot at the time; I didn’t pay attention). It’s mainly an aesthetic difference. But someone who was truly their own person then is probably the same person now.

Online dating is monumentally stupid.

I'm sure most of you could have told me that. The Internet did. So did my mom. They doled out the hard truth about such a pursuit that I could have have figured out too, had I given it three seconds of thought. But instead, I spent that three seconds thinking, “Gee willikers, my wit and personality are absolutely going to shine through online dating just like they do face-to-face!”


I learned very quickly that successful online dating requires everything that I hate about everything.


Beast Moan (1/29)
Journalists aren’t sociopathic scoop sharks and Lynch isn’t some poor, bombarded sap. He’s a superstar football player about to play in his second consecutive Super Bowl. He plays in a league that trains all of its personnel in relating to the media as public figures. The big game has events where these players have to be available to talk for five minutes. They can choose to spout the usual platitudes, or they can be refreshingly different. Or, they can not say the usual platitudes but still be uninteresting, like Lynch. His standoffishness is remarkable only in how petulant it is.


• You won the science fair every year in school because your projects had strobing LED displays, push-button audio components and six-foot-tall mockups of Nikola Tesla, because your parents were very rich and also they did the projects for you.

• You only learned of football’s existence in 2013.

But as far as playing real golf goes, you need a huge plot of land and pricey clubs, to say nothing of golf carts, other equipment and exorbitant green fees. That's not casual stuff for many adults, let alone children.

“Hi, Tom Brady’s wrist. How are you feeling today?”

“A bit tingly.”

“Why is that?”

“The NFL slapped me moderately yesterday.”

But no matter how one feels about God, it's a stretch and at least a little arrogant to insist that an almighty being is picking NFL favorites every week. To subscribe to that suggests at best that God is a fickle fan. At worst, it would mean that the games are divinely stacked. Either way, one thing's for sure: There's no correlation between how devout a player is and how successful they are. Cases in point: Tim Tebow struggles just to stay on a preseason roster while Arian Foster is not constantly engulfed in flames.

Brain: "You see, you can only stay fresh and relevant for so long, even if you want to stay in the game until you're 45. The body can only go so far."

Heart: "Yeah? Well, you're only as young as you feel!"

Brain: "To a degree. But at some point you have to accept that you're past your prime."

Ref: "All right, break it up! This blog fight is supposed to be about the Saints.”



I drew on the wall
And Mom was mad about it
I did it again

This is the end ... for now

Today is not only the last day of 2015, it's also the final day of Not Right About Anything.

But that doesn't mean I'm going anywhere.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

In the eye of the job-holder

Something immediately jumps out to me about the “best” and “worst” jobs of 2015.

The “best” jobs pay well and cater to the current needs of the marketplace.

The “worst” jobs are almost universally things we need to keep society from eating itself.

Lists like these have are useful as a source of comparative information of incomes, and perhaps some wider, long-term trends. But they’re not career guides. The only way they could be is if you’re chasing trends, which is a shortsighted way to go through life.

I know it’s popular these days to criticize people for not obtaining an acceptably viable degree (or for getting one at all), but every degree is worth something, because you can’t go through two, four or more years of education and training without developing thought, discipline and structure within yourself. The same is true with on-the-job experience, regardless of educational pedigree. Those skills are useful everywhere. Chasing today’s hot ticket with hopes for tomorrow is a good way to hurt yourself, because nothing is guaranteed. So do what you want to do, regardless of whether some list insists it’s “good” or “bad.”

So what was the worst job of 2015? Newspaper reporter.

Journalism, in all its forms, is a calling. Teaching is another. These are jobs people do not for pay or prestige, but because they believe in the mission. The same can’t be said for many of the “best” jobs. That’s not to say the “best” jobs are inherently bad or that journalists and teachers couldn’t stand to be paid more, but it’s an important point. We will always need people to tell us what’s going on, and to teach the next generation. People would do both even if either ceased to be a career. We should never discourage those drawn to these pursuits (assuming they’re suitable, of course). Anyway, who knows when those will be hot again? Never say never.

Business cycles are part of life. But intellectual curiosity and critical thinking will always have value.

Monday, December 28, 2015

I had an everyday thought today

Today, while trudging uphill in the snow so I could have a story to tell my grandkids, I found a $5 bill in the powder. No one was nearby, so as far as anyone was concerned it was mine free and clear.

"Huh, what a stroke of luck," the part of my brain that says what other people say said. "God has blessed me."

"Maybe," the part of my brain that is me said. "But if we're thinking that way, then that means God felt like making someone else poorer today, and that sucks."

I left the bill there.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas Eve snow photos

A pedestrian-crossing sign is obscured as heavy snow falls over Sharlands Avenue in northwest Reno on Thursday morning.
A snowplow clears the pavement on Sharlands Avenue in northwest Reno on Thursday morning.
A thicket of snow covers a tree on Sharlands Avenue in northwest Reno on Thursday morning.
Reno woke up to a white Christmas Eve on Thursday morning, with snow blanketing everything in sight in northwest Reno.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Movie Review: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is awesome and you should see it.

I say this as a casual, non-geek Star Wars fan. I don't obsess over the universe. Though I've seen four of the seven films in the theater, this is the first one I saw during its original run. (And in fact, I've still never seen Attack of the Clones.) What childhood obsession I had was limited mostly to toys, Return of the Jedi Dixie cups and that night my grandmother got me stoked for a showing of the original film on CBS. And once when I was five, I wore a Darth Vader mask to visit my great-aunt in the nursing home.

Because of course I did.
Otherwise, I've enjoyed Star Wars movies as I do most things: as hours of highly entertaining, escapist fantasy. And none of them — not even Phantom Menace — have disappointed. (So clearly, I don't have the same hang-ups as hardcore fans — not that I'm saying I don't generally agree with their assessments.) 

It's also worth nothing that, as much as I enjoy Star Wars and the Marvel universe films in particular, I think it's a sad commentary on the state of Hollywood that seemingly 95 percent of films being made between now and the 2020 presidential election are episodes of well-worn sci-fi franchises. Geekdom isn't just mainstream these days; it's practically the Empire.

So when I say The Force Awakens was the first movie since Back to the Future II where the sequel teaser made me want to stay in the theater to immediately watch what hasn't even been finished yet, you know I'm talking about a quality film.

I won't get into the particulars, though I will say that a major plot development was spoiled for me on a random, unrelated Facebook thread by some Sith lord who took time to make a meme of it with a still from the movie. I was hoping that sociopath was wrong, but he wasn't. (Though many other "spoilers" and other speculation I heard turned out to be dead wrong.) Still, you probably could have read the entire plot outline to me Wikipedia-style beforehand and that would have barely diminished the experience of seeing it on screen.

Taking the franchise out of George Lucas' hands was exactly the spark it needed. For all the callbacks The Force Awakens offered, it's also a standalone story that stands out. With some finessing, it could have been repurposed as another film. That is a compliment. Anytime a beloved franchise offers forth new protagonists, it runs the risk of us not caring about them. Here, you care about all of them. I'm aching to know what lies ahead for Rey, Finn and Poe. Going in, I wasn't sure I would.

The Force Awakens has all the right elements of the Star Wars universe and none of the wrong ones, and offers all-new canon that, refreshingly, doesn't smack of, "We need to keep this going, so here."

Go see it. Even if you already have.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

On the limitations of statues

Regarding the removal of Confederate statues from public squares:

If you were once in a tumultuous marriage where fighting was constant and the children were forced to take sides, and where the rancor was largely fueled by your spouse's fierce insistence that you not have a life of your own ... and if you then entered into a much more stable second marriage ... then it's understandable if, 20 years later, you walk past pictures from your first wedding still mounted in your living room and think, "Maybe I should put these in the attic."

If a visitor were to complain about hiding your history, you could say, "That is part of my past and always will be. But no one needs those pictures to recall it, and in fact it's a relief not having to see that face every day. Visitors will handle it just fine; I like to think it's all the fun we have that brings people here, not those pictures. They're in the attic if you really want to take a look. But for this household, it's time to move on.

"Long past time, really."

Monday, December 14, 2015

Today in fake news

Niche dating site features guys without beards

LOS ANGELES — LoveShorn, a new niche dating website that celebrated its launch on Monday, caters to those interested in men without beards.

A LoveShorn ad is seen in Washington, D.C.
“Niche dating is huge these days. Whether it’s religion, hobbies, body types, various fetishes, etc., there’s a dating site for nearly every persuasion,” LoveShorn CEO Devon Pursley said at the site’s launch event. “But we noticed that one key American demographic was drastically underserved — clean-shaven men. In an age where dudes with beards dominate the dating scene both online and off, bare-faced fellows have an especially tough time finding meaningful connections.”

LoveShorn allows both women and men to seek out the bare-faced man of their dreams through an algorithm that takes interests, professions, age, height, body type, preferred blades and other common characteristics into account, Pursley said.

In order to attract users to the site, LoveShorn has embarked on a national campaign at public-transit stops, razor aisles and fear-the-beard comment threads across America.

Since the site’s soft launch in October, LoveShorn has amassed nearly 40,000 clean-cut clients.

“That exceeded our expectations,” Pursley said. “We didn’t know there were 40,000 beardless men left in America.”

One LoveShorn member, who goes by the username Rayzor, expressed enthusiasm for the site at the launch.

“Since I joined LoveShorn, I’ve been on three dates,” Rayzor said. “They’ve all been first dates, because the novelty of no beard fades by dessert, but still, it’s something.”

Another user, GalifianaKiss, sports stubble but uses the site anyway.

“I get lots of interest,” he said. “Dating sites reduce you to a handful of check-boxes, but people tend to be open-minded one-on-one. It’s all about shattering barriers.” According to site statistics, GalifianaKiss is the most-contacted account on LoveShorn.

Pursley said the site welcomes users like GalifianaKiss.

“We’re here to provide a level playing field for lightly bearded men as well as the smooth-faced,” Pursley said. “Sideburns, mustaches, five-o'clock shadows, even goatees have a home here too. Really, we’re just here to help anyone who doesn’t have a scraggly, hipster beard. Those are beards among beards.”

Pursley said he hopes LoveShorn will open new doors for the clean-shaven fetish community.

“We want these men to know that there’s true love for them out there, no matter how vehemently current trends would suggest otherwise,” Pursley said. “As long as they’re at least 5-foot-10.”

False equivalence found on Facebook

WHEELING, W.Va. — A post on the popular social-networking site Facebook went viral on Monday after its irrelevant comparison resonated with thousands of users.

The status, written by Shirley Hopper of Wheeling, took umbrage at what she perceived as the decline of American youth.

“The Greatest Generation bravely fought in WWII, but all kids these days do is watch the Kardashians,” Hopper posted as a status at 2:14 p.m. Monday.

As of 9 p.m. Monday evening, the post had earned 24,637 likes and 12,494 shares, and had generated 985 comments, most of which were also false equivalencies.

“AMEN,” 84-year-old Betsy Charlton of Wilmington, N.C., replied. “They’re too busy looking down at their smartphones to support the troops.”

“All I hear is about Caitlyn Jenner being courageous,” wrote Bryce Bartkowski of Duluth, Minn., on the comment thread. “But nothing about Jimmy Carter beating brain cancer. Now THAT’S courageous!”

“Jimmy Carter fighting brain cancer courageous?” shot back Danielle King of Chattanooga, Tenn. “What about the courage it takes to say MERRY CHRISTMAS?”

“You know who should win the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award? Bernie Sanders,” said Carter Davis of Trenton, N.J. “He’s the real deal.”

“People watch too much football,” Jason Baxter replied to Davis. “They should be using that time to conceive the next great startup.”

“I know what you mean, Shirley,” said another response from Sherman Flanigan of Reading, Pa. “I work with a youngster at the phone bank who’s always on her phone. She claims to be open-minded, but she bristles at all my blonde jokes. Does that sound tolerant to you?”

Not all reactions were self-unaware false equivalencies.

“Come on, Shirley, why are being such a curmudgeon?” replied friend Mary Pearson, also of Wheeling. “You’re 27!”

The post was the most egregious example of apples and oranges on Facebook since a Sunday status equated terrorists with all Muslims.

Concealed carrier coy about it

CONROE, Texas — A local man admitted on Monday, under condition of anonymity, that he carries a concealed firearm everywhere he goes.

The 37-year-old man, who was sitting in a crowded chain restaurant, asked not to be identified because he wanted to keep his strapped status a secret to those around him.

“I don’t want want anyone to harbor irrational fears or preconceived notions about me,” the man said. “The point of carrying a concealed weapon is that no one ever knows. I don’t want to create a hostile environment. Arms are serious business.”

The man said he began carrying six weeks ago in the wake of recent mass shootings.

“There’s been more mass shootings this year than days in the year,” he said. “That really has me concerned about my and my family’s safety even in the safest public places. So, regrettably, I felt the need to start carrying a handgun. I did everything else I could first — installed a home alarm system, took valuables out of my car, taught my kids to be aware of their surroundings, took self-defense classes, instilled the value of not living in constant fear — and then, and only then, did I resort to this sad last step.”

The man said that he felt confident strapping only after taking a professional-grade, six-month course in gun safety and marksmanship.

“That was way more training than the Texas CCW permit requires, but I wanted to play it safe,” he said. “Guns aren’t toys, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Especially since I’d never in my life fired one before.”

When asked what model of handgun he carries, the man replied that he wasn’t sure.

“Oh, I don’t know; I just picked out something that was relatively cheap and reliable,” he said. “I don’t know, Gluger?” He declined to unzip his jacket to check, concerned that “other people might catch a glimpse of it and freak out.

“A lot of gun guys think people feel safer when civilians pack, but most don’t, I think, myself included,” he said. “How do you know they’re a good guy? How do you know I’m a good guy? I’m ashamed to feel the need for this in the first place, so I don’t want to open myself up to such scrutiny.

“I’ll tell you what I’m not,” he said. “Some wannabe vigilante hero. That, as much as any other reason, is why I hope I never, ever have to take this thing out. I didn’t think I could live with myself if I had to draw, let alone fire, this thing. Especially if I hit the wrong person in all the confusion.

“What a world this has come to.”

Saturday, December 12, 2015


Snow sits on an empty swing at Canyon Creek Park in northwest Reno on Friday morning.
Snow blankets a barbecue grill at Canyon Creek Park in northwest Reno on Friday morning.
Snow sags off a playground slide at Canyon Creek Park in northwest Reno as temperatures warm up on Friday morning.
Snow blankets exercise equipment at Canyon Creek Park in northwest Reno on Friday morning.
Snow covers a plant at Canyon Creek Park in northwest Reno on Friday morning.
Snow covers a tree on Sharlands Avenue in northwest Reno on Friday morning.
Snow stripes a tree trunk along Sharlands Avenue in northwest Reno on Friday morning. 
Snow melts off of a tree in northwest Reno Friday morning as temperatures rise.
Snow drapes trees in northwest Reno on Friday morning.
Nearly two inches of snow is evident alongside a cleared walkway on Sharlands Avenue in northwest Reno on Friday morning.

Monday, December 07, 2015

The (old) song I discovered in 2015

This has been largely the story of my pop-culture life, especially with regards to music. Up until late 1992 (when I was 12), I listened to whatever was on pop radio. But a Michael Jackson HBO concert in October of that year made me super-into the King of Pop, and I begged for a Thriller CD for Christmas. When the album was new in 1983, my mom would play her cassette through every night while cooking dinner, with me ever-transfixed at the rolling tape counter. I had forgotten most of the songs in the intervening years, but one note was often enough to make them all flood back. This marked my first official foray into '80s retro (and was possibly the first one on record in America). But it is a few months later, in early 1993, that I chanced upon "Down Under" by Men at Work on the radio. I knew immediately upon hearing "You better run/You better take cover" that this was the elusive song with the flute I loved when I was 3 years old. After that, I became obsessed with tracking down every song I sort-of remembered as a young child (a particular challenge pre-Internet), spending most of 1993 on the task.

This is perhaps why I never heard "'93 'til Infinity" by Souls of Mischief that year.

Sure, I'd heard of it, and was familiar with plenty of hip-hop songs that year, but for whatever reason this one never crossed my ears. I'm almost certain of that because I doubt I'd ever forget a hook that awesome. When I randomly clicked it on YouTube early in 2015, my immediate reaction was, "This is the perfect hook for my ears. Scientifically."

I remember 1993 photographically in a mosaic of music both old and new, and "'93 'til Infinity" is not at all a part of it. Instead, the song reminds me, more than any other, of this year, which is part of the infinity that said souls were referring to.

It's how I chill in 2015 until ...

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Word down, not up

Yesterday, on Facebook, I shared this opinion piece from Slate urging teachers not to ban the word “said” in writing exercises. I agreed, because one of the first things I learned as a reporter is that “said” is a valuable word — precisely because it’s boring. It’s mechanical, a mental pause. Even in the most flowery prose, you always need those mental pauses. Good writing has a rhythm to it that’s unconscious, but is glaring when it’s absent. And it’s most conspicuously absent when writers plant flowers in the mechanics.

Today, I came upon what was possibly the catalyst for that article, the Wall Street Journal’s ‘Use More Expressive Words!’ Teachers Bark, Beseech, Implore. In it, teachers talk about having banned the use of certain utilitarian words (such as “said”) in assignments. To hammer home the point, the article’s author uses synonyms for “said” in every attribution. Whether or not he intends to, he illustrates just how annoying that is.

I know a few things about writing — and one of those things is that the thesaurus is entirely too accessible in America. The crutch with a cover, as I’ve been calling it since I started that sentence, has far more influence than it should. I’m convinced that every thesaurus features made-up synonyms, just to out the people who rely on them. At least, that’s the impression that I get whenever I’m reading something and come upon a big word that has no business in a place like this.

Not that the teachers’ intent is bad. Like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society, I favor writers punching up their words, playing with structure and knowing when to break the rules. I revel in such things. Banality sucks.

But all of that is part of the creative process; being forced to do it only leads to forced writing. The best I can say about such exercises is that they get students thinking and can help them down the road. But at worst, they favor attempts to impress with vocabulary over being coherent, and for many adults, that itch never goes away.

I hate when people use big words to sound intelligent. If they’re trying to look smarter, it’s blatant. If they are that smart and are using those words for their own sake, that’s pompous. But even both of those are preferable to those who think even the articles, conjunctions and attributions of a sentence must be fancy. It's like running a Rolls-Royce on champagne — theoretically, it might be possible, but you're just showing off to an unimpressed crowd.

In my experience, the only way someone can become a better writer is to practice. And read. Someone who is truly interested in the craft is going to naturally explore words and turns of phrase, and exercise creative rule-breaking (such as, say, using an occasional big word for effect). You can perhaps introduce these as writing exercises, but they won’t make anyone better if they aren’t already determined to be better. No one ever got to be a solid writer by thumping the thesaurus.

Some say I’m a decent writer. That’s for others to judge. But I’ve never been more confident in my abilities than I am right now. You could argue that, by going through all the dumb exercises and word substitutions and flower-planting, I evolved into this. But really, I think it comes more from sheer persistence in the grind; never being afraid to try things both bold and average; and (perhaps most importantly) seeing in others’ works exactly what I don’t want to see.

When it comes to writing style, my personal favorite is coherence.

I think that’s all there is to be said for now.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

When intense nonsense makes sense

I went through this phase, peaking around age 16. When we were studying Ayn Rand in English class (shudder!!), one of our assignments was to come up with as many answers as we could to the question, "What is conformity?"

I came up with maybe 20 answers. The best one was, "Conformity is the other 999,999 in a million." My teacher liked that one so much she wrote it large on a poster (along with some other faves) and hung it up on the wall. The very next one I wrote after that was, "Conformity is the refusal of reason."  

Wait, what?

At that point, I had a year of obsessive Dave Matthews Band fanhood under my belt, and I'd been on a songwriting jag. I'd been writing songs regularly for more than three years, but the past year's worth had been influenced heavily by Dave Matthews' often-abstract lyrics. That's how I went from writing songs titled "End of Time," "Another Way Out," "She's Mine Tonight" and "Throwing the Kill Switch" to such unforgettable earworms as "Glorifying Disillusionment," "Precision-Crafted Abstraction," "Start What You Finish" and "Atlantis and Babes."

And because this was 1996, I was forever surrounded by peers who were equally or even more pretentious. Pretense was cool in those days. The pretense of angst over the hills of the universe like fading stars or whatever.

So yeah, "Conformity is the refusal of reason" is exactly something I would have written in that environment. I recall reading it out loud in class and at least a few people thinking, "Hmmm, yes, 'tis."

The Washington Post article linked above cites a study saying that people who aren't especially self-reflective and/or are prone to paranormal thinking are more likely to mistake nonsense for profundity. But I think it's more than that — I think anyone can get sucked into it in the right environment. Sixteen-year-old me delved into this phase in large part due to the people around me. My gifted English classes were packed with students I saw as philosophical superiors, because they seemed to be operating on a higher plane, and I tried my best to keep up. The last thing I wanted to do was admit I didn't understand something they said. (In retrospect, I realize they probably all thought the same thing, hence all the mutual nonsensical bullshit we all fawned over like the emperor's new clothes.) Combine that with the fact that we're conditioned not to assume any given statement is sheer nonsense, and it's no wonder most people will interpret most proverbs in good faith. 

It's fun to bash pretense in all its forms, but in a way I'm impressed with people who find genuine wisdom in non-sequiturs. 

But don't even try doing that with "Conformity is the refusal of reason." After all, the teenage bon mot never adheres to the soulful brevity of the night wizard.