Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Feel. And think.

Holiday tears

If you want to read a little Christmas tear jerker, check out Rick Reilly's column "There are some games where cheering for the other side feels better than winning" on ESPN.com.

Even if you're not a high school football fan, this story will leave you a little choked up.

It's not great writing, to be honest. Reilly begins his headline with the word "There," a real no-no.

But even if you're as nitpicky as I, you'll quickly stop noticing the flaws because of the compelling story. It IS a compelling story, and Reilly tells it well. That's more important than mechanics.

Critical reading

A Metropolis reader took me to task for an editorial on global warming. He writes: "(L)et me see if I've got your thinking straight: the world is only about 4,000 years old, the planet earth is flat, and global warming really isn't. Oh yes, and we're not in hell and it ain't hot."

The editorial in question was itself taking an AP writer to task for editorializing in a scientific article. I pointed out that the consensus Al Gore and Barack Obama insist exists among scientists — that global warming is caused by human activity — is eroding and a growing number of scientists are publicly questioning the flawed models. But you wouldn't know that from reporting in the major media, where journalists have taken up the cause.

The Metropolis reader sent a series of articles on the subject from The Southern Illinoisan as a means of enlightening me. In the articles a couple of SIU profs insist the debate is over, even while a couple of their colleagues, in the same series, question the popular view. The debate is not even settled at SIU, much less in the scientific community worldwide.

But this blog is about writing, not science or politics. I bring this up because the reader employs a technique debaters use when they've already lost the argument: erecting a straw man. The straw man was accusing me of believing that "global warming really isn't." I didn't assert that global temperatures haven't risen. I merely questioned the anthropogenic causes of climate change — or more precisely, pointed out the shrinking scientific consensus on the matter.

The articles the reader sent confirmed that point. But he missed it. I suspect most readers of the package missed it.

Interestingly, the headline over the series was "America's energy savvy backsliding?" — a classic example of editorializing (injecting opinion into a news article). The first story in the news package, headlined "Activists strive to re-educate public about climate change," begins: "When a passion exists for a cause, those who fight for it don't view any hurdles encountered along the way as being too much of a challenge." Passion? Cause? Fight? Weren't these articles supposed to be about science?

I guess we shouldn't be surprised that readers like the guy in Metropolis have lost the ability to think critically when so many reporters have lost the ability to write objectively.

At one time universities and news agencies were filled with iconoclasts who took pride in questioning conventional wisdom. Those days are gone in both arenas, which are now mired in group-think. Indoctrination has replaced rigorous debate. That's not healthy for a free society.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Punch the keys

They Should No Better
A local school district posted a message on their Web site informing students that, because of inclement weather, "THERE WILL BE KNOW SEMSETTER TESTS ON FRIDAY DECEMBER 18!!!"


Ah, it's easy to pick on schools. I guess the fact that they're, you no, the ones who are teaching English makes us expect them to no better.
I confess I was more bugged by the all caps and the triple exclamation points than the spelling errors.

Feed the need

A reader e-mailed me the following:
"I am enjoying reading your thoughts. I particularly enjoyed your post of Oct 24, titled 'Inspiration.' I am one of those poor gonifs who has long wished I could write, in a readable, interesting way, but, barring a few papers and dissertations while I was in college, my wishes have lain, decomposing.
"I am a bit long (73) in the tooth to hope to write for public consumption but have been jotting down a few things, as I recall the somewhat tattered landscape of what has been my life, in case any of our three children should someday be interested in what the Old Man (literally) had been up to in his youth and beyond. In this exercise I have discovered I have absolutely no talent as a writer, barring the odd silliness in e-mails to the editor (Remember?) It would be nice if I could take a course in creative writing but that's not likely to happen. So I'll content myself in reading the output of professionals, such as yourself. Keep up the good writing and ignore the comments from asses such as I."

The reader is wrong about his talent. And he needs to start writing. I sent him this reply:
"I'm still miffed that my own dad never got around to writing his story, or
all the stories that made up his story. He was a talented wordsmith, as are you.
I would have treasured it, and I have no doubt your kids will treasure it.
"The only advantage to writing for publication is the paycheck that makes it
possible to write every day. If you are retired, nothing stands in your way.
"I find the secret to finding your voice is to write, write and write some more.
Write, don't think. Just get the words on the paper (or the screen). Worry
about the editing later."

The fictional author William Forrester, portrayed by Sean Connery in the film "Finding Forrester," said to the young prodigy Jamal Wallace: "No thinking — that comes later. You must write the first draft with your heart. You rewrite with your head. The first key to writing ... is to write, not to think."
Putting it more succinctly, Forrester said: "Punch the keys, for god's sake!"

Friday, December 5, 2008

Christmas letters

I'm one of those weirdos who actually enjoys reading family Christmas letters. I don't mind the boasting, and I'm not above embarrassing my kids by doing a little boasting myself about their achievements. And if it makes the recipients roll their eyes or poke fun, I really don't care.

Christmas letters serve to keep us up-to-date with family and friends in other places. I might not remember which of your kids plays basketball and which the French horn, I can't recall whether your family vacation was to Yellowstone or Glacier, don't quiz me on whether it was your mother or hers who moved into an assisted living center, but I still like to read the letters. I'm disappointed if I don't receive a letter from someone who usually composes one.

A Christmas letter is a place marker, a snapshot in time. Today's letters often include actual snapshots, printed on the copy paper letter on a home printer.

We don't write letters to loved ones anymore. When Professor Marxhausen told us in college this would happen, I didn't believe him. But then, I didn't anticipate e-mail and the ease with which we can communicate without the bother of paper and envelopes and stamps. Marxhausen recommended preserving the practice by raising it to an art form, and his own letters (and envelopes) were suitable for framing.

Christmas letters are a suitable way to preserve the art of letter writing, even if slightly impersonal since the same letters are sent out to everyone on the list. Just a little handwritten note personalizes it.

I hope you'll send me yours, even if we barely know each other. I promise I'll read every word.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Reader Bill Osborne writes:
"I've been meaning to send you a thank you note for the excellent piece captioned 'Clout' that appeared in your blog November 12. ...
"While watching the news on WPSD TV this morning, I saw the mother of the slain Little Rock TV anchor being interviewed. She generously referred to the man arrested for that murder as a 'gentleman.' This is certainly not the first time I heard someone, who is so obviously NOT a gentleman, called a gentleman. Please consider writing a piece about the word gentleman.
"You might also consider taking issue with the term 'sleeping with someone' as an appropriate way of saying 'having sex with someone' when anyone knows said couple was certainly NOT 'sleeping.'
"Finally, I think it is way past time for someone who is a respected wordsmith taking issue with TV anchors and others constantly saying, 'You know what?' One particular TV anchor woman must say, 'You know what?' at least four or five times every time she does a newscast. However, this is certainly not a local issue. All kinds of intelligent people nationally have added that meaningless phrase to their vocabulary.
"Here are three ideas for your consideration:
"1) Eliminate calling a man who does not deserve it, a 'gentleman.'
"2) Eliminate calling 'having sex with someone,' 'sleeping with them.'
"3) Eliminate the phrase 'You know what?' from everyone's vocabulary.
"You are one of those folks who definitely have CLOUT and can influence people to change, just as Mike Royko did."

Good points, Bill.
A few thoughts: The term "gentleman" has evolved over the centuries, never more rapidly than in the past generation. The title once meant a warrior trained in arms. Later it defined a man, usually of noble birth, who adhered to a code of conduct. Later it meant a man who used good manners and showed respect for others, regardless of his social position. The term "ladies" evolved similarly.

Today "gentleman" can refer simply to any man and may reflect the speaker's courtesy rather than the subject's character.

I knew a Baptist minister who inserted the word "gentleman" in a racist figure of speech in a way that was humorous, but wrong on so many levels. He referred to suspicious circumstances by saying, "Sounds like there's a colored gentleman in the woodpile." Well, whatever color he was colored, he was no gentleman if he was hiding out in the woodpile. He was obviously sleeping where he shouldn't have been sleeping, and I don't mean sleeping sleeping.

"Sleeping with" as a euphemism for "having sex with" has honest origins: the Bible. It is used frequently, as in Deut. 22:22: "If a man is found sleeping with another's wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die."
If their sleep were literal sleep, that penalty would be a bit severe.

"You know what?" is annoying but not nearly as much as "Guess what?" One of my students used to precede everything he said with it. "Guess what? I have to go to the bathroom!" (That one I might have actually guessed, given the way he was hopping about.)

My son and I count the words or phrases TV news people repeat. A Jonesboro, Ark., meteorologist used to end five or six sentences with "as well" in every forecast ("It will be rainy this weekend as well"). Another weather guy managed to work in "meantime" three or four times (he meant "Meanwhile" ; "meantime" should be preceded with "In the," but "Meanwhile" can stand alone). Another news team is afflicted with "Now." One started using it to begin sentences, and it spread like contagion to the rest of the news crew ("Now, the suspect was apprehended but police are still investigating ...").