Tuesday, March 27, 2007

It is sweet and decorous to die for ones country

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

Wilfred Owen, 1918 (after Horace)

My grandfather was in France, slogging through muddy trenches, fumbling with his own gas mask, and ultimately being wounded by a German bullet and left for dead around the time Wilfred Owen wrote his decidedly anti-war poem. He was recuperating in England when Owen was killed by German machine gun fire one week before the armistice.

I didn’t know my grandfather well. He was the tall old man with the stiff leg (from the German bullet) that still, 60 years later, would expel puss from time to time, who spoke little but did everything. He didn’t talk much about the great war. Once, when my grandparents were visiting, my brother and I had our toy soldiers ranged across the family room floor. Pap-pap sat near by, watching. After a while, he reached down and moved our tank, which was behind the infantry, to the front. “You always follow your armor,” he told us. I’m sure he had learned more, seen more, experienced more, but that’s all the wisdom about war he chose to impart to his young grandsons.

I often wonder what Pap-pap thought about the necessity of war. Being a man of few words, he wasn’t one to make grand statements or protests. We have a letter to the editor he once wrote, scolding those who illegally parked in handicap spaces around his small town in northern California. He had the credentials to make such a complaint. Beyond that, he lived more than talked. I get the feeling he wanted to leave the horror of war behind.

He was told many times that he was a dead man. At the field hospital in France, the doctors triaged him to the back of the line. He had lost a lot of blood, and seemed a hopeless case. They were surprised to find him still alive later in the day. When he was shipped back to England, he weighed about 90 pounds. He was six feet tall. He wasn’t expected to make it back to America. At home during the depression, the doctors found spots on a chest X-ray: TB. He went away to the mountains near Donegal, Pennsylvania to breath clean air and to die. It turns out what they saw on his lungs were mustard gas scars. I would imagine such things bring existence into clearer perspective.

He didn’t join the Bonus Army’s march on Washington. Instead, he took care of his growing family in western Pennsylvania. He was laid off from Westinghouse during the depression, worked odd jobs and for various relief agenciessix years, was eventually picked up again at Westinghouse and worked there until he retired. Then, in 1960, he started a second life in California, where he and my grandma (and a number of my aunts and uncles) ran a restaurant / gas station / Greyhound Bus stop at Patway Village along U.S. 395. He built a house, drilled wells, laid in an irrigation system and a septic tank, built a garage from the timbers of an old barn. I have fond memories of visiting there, the smell of sage brush and pine trees and my grandmother’s petunias, the fresh strawberries and peas and apricots.

My grandfather didn’t die for his country. Instead, he lived for his country. And for his family. Perhaps it is sweet and decorous to die for one’s family, or perhaps even for ones country. I don’t wish to make light of the experiences of the men and women in the U.S. armed forces, both living and dead, and the sacrifices they have made, because I truly believe it is a noble thing to lay down ones life for another, or for a noble cause. But it seems to me that, as my grandfather did, it is far superior to live for ones country and family.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Latest DC Slogan VIII

Come for the Frisking, Stay for the Wanding

Latest DC Slogan VII

Experience the Confluence of Willful Ignorance and Power

Another Latest DC Slogan VI

Don’t Mess With Texas!

Latest DC Slogan V

Home of The Lockheed Martin-McDonalds-S.C. Johnson & Son-Coca-Cola-Pfizer-AOL Smithsonian Institution for the Advancement of Consumerism

Latest DC Slogan IV

What Happens in DC Stays in the Water Supply

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Come Bribe Someone

Latest DC Slogan II


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Now with More Guns

Friday, March 23, 2007

It was (but it wasn't) Chelsea Clinton

Question: how long does it take a person to find a digital picture of her signature posted by a total stranger?

Answer: 3 months. To the day.

See this comment.

I find this really cool! What took you so long?

Now how long will it take the rest of these people to find this post?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A Writer’s Washington

Eric Maisel’s 2005 book, A Writer’s Paris: a guided journey for the creative soul, addresses an all too common experience among struggling writers: finding the time and motivation to write. “At home,” Maisel says, “you can keep yourself busy with the rigors and routines of ordinary life and not quite notice that you aren’t writing. There is always another errand to run, another meal to prepare, another corner of the garden to weed. Time is abundant and easily squandered, and also fleeting and hard to grasp. There is always tomorrow, but never today.”

Washington is full of would-be writers and closet novelists who I’m sure can relate. Anyone who has ever tried to squeeze a writing avocation into the slivers of time between a day (or night) job, family, friends, dry cleaning, groceries, and sleep will understand the fleeting nature of abundant time.

Maisel’s antidote is to go to Paris for an extended sabbatical and write. This may seem like a radical solution to what could be summed up as a simple self-discipline problem. But he is quite serious about it, because Paris is, as he says, “home to the entire intellectual history of the West” and “is the place you go when you mean to put your creative life first…Paris is the place to write.”

Maisel also advocates writing in the public spaces of Paris, for three or four hours a day, because, he writes, for “even for the most productive, published authors, three or four hours of writing is often the maximum.” Write in the cafés a la Hemingway, or in the Louvre, or relaxing in the allees of the Tuileries. Between writing stints, he instructs us to stroll around Paris, taking in the sights and sounds of the city of light, allowing us time to contemplate the larger questions of existence, and maybe find the perfect baguette, too. This is the advice I’m now taking, only I’m doing it right here in Washington.

Washington, believe it or not, compares quite favorably to Paris. While there’s no city on earth quite like Paris, Washington holds its own, a world capital full of energy and creativity. Washington boasts a large population of people from every part of the world, who bring with them their cuisines and world views, infusing Washington with a vitality found in few other places. People from all corners of America flock to Washington as well, whether to further their careers or to attend one of the fine universities within the city. And we can’t overlook local Washingtonians, whose families and traditions and neighborhoods inspired the likes of Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, and Edward P. Jones, to name just a few. The diverse denizens of Washington make it a cosmopolitan place, not so much a melting pot as a stew pot, rich in culture and thick with ideas.
There are world class museums scattered throughout the city, and embassies that host art shows and concerts. The largest library in the world, the Library of Congress, is a Metro ride away. Wonderful food abounds, from traditional French to soul food to Ethiopian to little places where the cab drivers congregate for lunch. (If cabbies eat there, it’s good food.) Washington has a vibrant theater life, behind only New York and Chicago, and also boasts a world class symphony, opera, and ballet company. Finally, Washington is a wonderfully walkable city, famous for its triangle parks and green squares, its fountained circles and city gardens, its monuments and architecture. Washington, I would argue, has everything to feed a writer’s soul, and his stomach.

Like many other writers I’ve met in Washington, I’ve got a problem of time and motivation. I keep my lap top on a table in my apartment next to a stack of unpaid bills and mail. Next to the table is a chair piled with laundry that needs to be folded, and next to that a stack of unread books has toppled over on the floor. Because writing, by its very nature, is hard, I’ve found it easier to occupy myself with not writing each day after work. I’m not motivated to write in my apartment. But strolling through the mad swirl of happy dogs in Lincoln Park, my spirits rise. Gazing at the city laid out before me from the big window in the Hirshorn Museum or watching the sparrows soar and dive under the great canopy inside the National Building Museum, or simply having a chili dog at Ben’s, and I am positively inspired.
So I’ve taken to writing in different places around the city. One sunny Friday morning in January found me at Murky Coffee near Eastern Market, writing among the cops and law students and hill staffers who filed in and out, buying their morning doses of caffeine. On such days, I’ll eat lunch at the Southwest fish market, buying a sandwich from Captain White’s and eating it with a view of the Washington Channel and the circling gulls. I might find myself under I.M. Pei’s little pyramids at the National Gallery, the tiny, lopsided cousins to the Louvre’s. At a table facing the rushing cascade behind the glass wall that fascinates children who can’t help but try and touch the water, I sip coffee and write. And I’ll stroll the streets of DC, the Hill in all it’s Victorian glory, colonial Georgetown, the European flavor of Upper Dupont, the eclectic energy of Adams Morgan. I’ve tried coffee all over the city, Love Café, Tryst, Open City, Murky, and I’ve got more to try.

My plan seems to be working. I’ve been writing, and, more importantly, I look forward to doing it. I’ve found that I can’t wait until I have more time to write, because I will never have more time than I have right now. And I can’t wait until I’m in the perfect place to write, either. DC may not be Paris, but it’s where I live right now.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Mathematics and the Modern Man

I was given a receipt this morning at the coffee shop that had pink edges to it. Anyone who has ever worked a cash register knows that that could mean only one thing: you will be audited. Or, the paper is about to run out. I wasn’t very good at running a cash register.

Which reminded me of my high school math classes. A quite complicated mathematics word problem could be devised from the simple fact that the last few feet of a roll of cash register tape is marked with pink ink. It would go something like this:

“If a cash register tape roll is 180 feet long, and the last 10 feet are marked with pink ink, and each person who makes a purchase receives an average of 4 inches of tape as a receipt, and you make a purchase of a donut and a cup of coffee at the same time each day, and 356 receipts are given out each day from that register, how often will you receive a receipt marked with pink ink?”

When presented by a problem like this, I would always start with moral outrage. Why? Why am I subjected to such torture?

This is quickly replaced by logical outrage: when on earth would I ever be required to make such a calculation? But I was young, yet to enter the professional world, and I assumed that this was quite a common work assignment for most American workers. That, and figuring out where two trains would meet when leaving form opposite termini. (Aside: did you know that the main train station in Rome, Termini, is named so not because it is a railroad terminus, as I always thought, but because it is next to the Baths of Diocletian (Terme di Diocleziano). But that’s never on a math test, so never mind.)

Strangely enough, my assumption was correct. Not a day goes by that I’m not asked to make this or another similar calculation: how often will I pull a red ball out of bag full of white balls? (“What bag?” “The bag near the water cooler.” “I’ve never even seen that bag!” “This is going on your performance appraisal.”) How many contract employees will it take to do your job, assuming they are each 1.2 times as efficient as I am? (Answer: .002 contract employees.) Who died and made you king? (I can do this particular calculation in my head, but I choose not to share it.)

So, it’s a good thing I studied hard in high school, becoming proficient in many forms of mathematics. I attribute 90 percent of my professional success to my mastery of the concept of probability. That, and lying.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Anxiety at the Doctor’s Office

I’ve watched a lot of hospital programs on television. Which isn’t a good thing. Now, I have quite a hard time at the doctor’s office: I’m either over-confident, second guessing the doctor with such statements as “don’t you think we need to order a complete CBC and CT scan, doc? That seems pretty routine these days;” or, left alone in the examination room waiting for the doctor to show up, I let my imagination get the better of me. I’ve seen too many routine procedures end up with someone sitting on top of someone else pounding on their chest with blood spattering a set of protective eyewear. It’s no wonder I’m nervious.

For instance, just today I was at my dermatologist. I’ve just undressed to my underthings, and I’m waiting for the doctor. Sitting in a cold vinyl chair, my feet on the cold linoleum floor, I grow a bit anxious. What if they forgot about me, and the doctor never comes? What if I fall asleep and no one finds me until tomorrow? Is there a certain amount of time after which I should I start yelling for help?

Worse, what if they’ve put me in the wrong room? What if I’m in the room where they do things like “epidermal scrapping” or “laser age removal?” That machine over there, the one with the long retractable arm that looks like a soldering iron, what’s that for? Is the doctor going to use that on me? Not if I can help it!

On the counter, there seems to be an overabundance of latex gloves for a dermatologist’s office, as well as huge piles of gauze and bandages. Dear god, maybe this is where they do the “skin replacement”! I bet that would involve quite a lot of blood and chest-pounding. They may even need to hose down the room afterward. I scan the floor for a drain, and I’m only slightly reassured when I don’t find one.

There’s a door on the other wall I didn’t notice before. Where does that lead? What if it leads to the accounting firm in the next suite, and this isn’t an examination room at all, but the accountant’s break room? I keep a close eye on my watch: is it coffee break time yet? It would be peculiar to be sitting here in my undershorts as accountants pour their coffee and talk of “amortization.” I suppose I’d just ignore them. What else could I do? Perhaps they will assume I was a client come to pay a bill.

To calm myself, I decide to try to amuse myself. Over there, on that stainless steel tray, there are some hypodermic needles. What if I just took the cap off of one and plunged it into this little glass bottle here, like I see them doing on television. There, I’ve filled it, now I'll squirt a little out of the tip (so cool!) and plunge it into my arm. There now, that hurts like hell. The accountant problem doesn’t seem so vexing by comparison.

I wonder what’s in this little bottle? Novocain, judging from the numbness spreading over my bicep. Or some sort of neurotoxin perhaps. But why would they leave neurotoxin about? Perhaps it’s Botox. Now, that clamp sitting there, I bet I can clamp my bicep and not feel anything. Nope, I was wrong. And I can’t get it off. Better inject some more neurotoxin: there, that’s mildly better.

I don’t want the doctor (or horde of accountants) to find me with a clamp stuck to my arm, so I better take some of this gauze and wrap it around it. I can claim I have some terrible injury. A doctor wouldn’t be interested in that. The accountants might be, but I owe them no explanation beyond what I’m doing in their break room. If they ask. Oh look! A scalpel! Better not mess around with that! But this gauze, let me wrap it around my arm, here. You know what would be funny? If I wrapped myself up like a mummy! I can just see the look on the doctor’s face when comes in! What a hoot! He’d be terrified! (Not sure about the accountants.) Imagine the sensational headlines: “Mummy Haunts Doctor’s Office (Accountant’s Break Room).”

And I go on like this, impossibly. I’m sure, when the doctor does arrive, he will think nothing of it. I bet lots of his patients suffer from such anxiety and uncontrollable compulsions. He probably finds them all the time in any number of strange and humorous situations: wearing surgical masks or latex gloves on their feet, using hypodermics as darts, hiding behind the soldering iron. And I’m sure the accounts’ clients are much worse.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Did You Get a Free Book from the Crazy People?

On Saturday, Solas Nua gave away thousands of Irish books around Washington. My wife and I braved the morning cold at the corner of 16th and U Streets and personally gave away hundreds of books.

If you’ve never tried to give anything away for free, I highly recommend it. Quite amusing. Especially in this city. Last year, we gave books away on Capitol Hill, and people there seemed more at ease in getting something for nothing. (Must have something to do with Congress, but I can’t quite put my finger on what.) I’m not sure why U Street is different, but the people who are out on Saturday mornings, going to the gym, picking up their dry cleaning, getting their morning lattes, are much more skeptical.

My spiel was: “Irish books for free! For St. Patrick’s Day! Contemporary Irish authors! Totally free!” I’d say 75% of people walked past with either a skeptical look on their faces, or no look at all, completely ignoring my existence. Some of them actually laughed out loud, as if to say “I won’t get taken by that old scam again!” I think some of them thought we were somehow supporting the IRA. Another 20% would politely say “no thank you,” leaving the last 5% to do all the free-book-getting.

My wife said maybe I was too loud, or too insistent, and that perhaps I was scaring them away. I must admit, I was provoked by the people who scoffed as they walked past. I would keep talking to them as they crossed the street: “we’re all over the city today! More titles at Love Café! They’re totally free! Better than green beer! etc.” Surprisingly, this didn’t change their minds.

I was beginning to think that my wife was right, that I was scaring them away. Then, another man passed unheeding. He was walking a large, shaggy dog, and as he cross the street I commented “isn’t that an Irish Wolf Hound? Maybe he wants a book! Did you ever think of that?” He turned around and came back, causing me some consternation. But he only wanted a book of poetry.

It all reminded me of a college sociology project where we were instructed to go to a public place and give away a dollar. We all thought the teacher was nuts. He promised to repay us for every dollar we gave away. With nothing to lose, my friend and I staked out the entrance to a grocery store. We were not allowed to reveal that we were with a sociology class. We could only say that we were giving away a dollar because we wanted to. Talk about skeptical! No one took it. We increased the denomination to 5 dollars. Surely someone would take a free 5 dollar bill! But people were even more skeptical. We tried a twenty, and were verbally assaulted: “What are you trying to pull? What kind of scam is this? I should call the police! You should be in jail!” If we had had a 100 dollar bill, we’d probably have been shot.

Saturday evening we retired to our place and had baked potatoes and beer with friends before everyone went out to the bars. It seems almost ridiculous to have potatoes and beer for St. Patrick’s Day, but it was a hit! I think we’ve founded a new tradition.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Different Kind of St. Patrick’s Day

For the second year in a row, Solas Nua, the only organization in the United States dedicated to contemporary Irish arts, will be giving away thousands of books by contemporary Irish writers for Irish Book Day. Solas Nua volunteers will be all over the city at places like the E Street Cinema, Eamonn’s in Old Town Alexandria, and the Warehouse Theater at Mt. Vernon Square, along with many other venues. They’ll be giving away books all day long on Saturday, March 17.

Instead of simply getting drunk on green beer (or perhaps along with doing that), celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and all things Irish by participating in the thousands of years of Irish scholarship and literature: pick up a book or two or three! St. Patrick helped instill a tradition of literacy and scholarship in Ireland that continues to this day. Enjoy a great read this St. Patrick’s Day!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Federal Court Orders Reopening of Bladensburg Dueling Grounds

Coming on the heels of last week’s decision overturning DC’s gun control law, the same federal court voted 2 – 1 to reopen the Bladensburg Dueling Grounds, an area Northeast of the city where politicians and affronted citizenry defended their honor during the early days of the republic.

In its order, the court cited a number of reasons for the reopening of the dueling grounds. “Given the new political tension both in Congress and between the White House and Capitol Hill, coupled with the fact that many congressmen and senators, especially from places like Texas and Alabama, are now expected to carry fire arms in the city, this court finds it advantageous to give these men an equitable way of resolving differences.”

The court is also expected to legalize the open carrying of guns on the streets of DC, and recommending the implementation of a system of “show-downs.” “Sections of Good Hope Road SE or even 16th Street NW could be cordoned off at high noon each day to facilitate the settling of scores in a more civilized and controlled manner,” the court said in a draft report obtained by aportablesnack. “The city could charge admission to spectators and the DCFD could hose down the blood and gore from the street afterward.”

Many DC citizens feel legalizing “show-downs” is long overdue. For instance, one of the plaintiffs in the case that led the Federal court to overturn DC’s gun control law is quoted as saying “yeeeeee-HAW! Now I can kill that guy next door who never takes his trash can in!” DC police also support show-downs. “Hopefully, the criminal element will kill themselves off more efficiently than they do now,” a police official said.

For now, though, DC citizens and police will have to be satisfied with legally taking their revenge killings to Bladensburg. “We’ll be exporting homicides to Prince George’s County,” the police official said, “which, no matter how you look at it, is a good thing.”

Monday, March 12, 2007

Lifting of Gun Ban Expected to Boost DC Economy

The city has moved one step closer to economic stability.

Thanks to a broad Federal economic revitalization plan announced last week, DC criminals will soon be able to purchase handguns that were stolen from houses right here in the city. “Too long have burglary rings and fences in Virginia and Maryland been siphoning money from DC’s economy,” a Federal official, who wished not to be identified, said. “With this plan, DC can keep that money right here.” Instead of having to import stolen handguns from Maryland or Virginia, DC criminals will enjoy a bounty of stolen guns harvested right here in the city.

The economic boon will benefit various loosely organized racketeering, money laundering, and theft rings headquartered in DC. There will be plenty of handguns in peoples houses available for them to steal. In a statement released recently, The Department of Commerce states that “these guns will then be sold on the street to drug king-pins and enforcers, teenage gang-banger wannabes, drug addicts looking to knock over liquor stores and members of the creative class, and to the mumbling insane.”

While guns of all kinds are easily available to all these underworld elements, the new handgun plan will make it slightly more convenient to obtain them while pumping perhaps millions of dollars into the “informal” economy.

“After a time, perhaps as short as a few months,” the Commerce statement goes on to say, “we foresee DC becoming a major exporter of stolen handguns as well, further boosting the economy.”

Residual economic benefits include a rise in the demand for security systems, security bars, replacement window glass, gigantic snarling guard dogs, and more legally-purchased handguns, as residents try to combat the expected spike in burglaries, armed robberies, drug killings, and reprisal slayings.

“This will do for the DC economy what Starbucks did for Seattle,” a Federal source is quoted as saying.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

In Praise of the Inefficient Bureaucrat

Recently, I saw a college classmate. He’s a law school grad and now works for a big government department. For all his education, though, he still complains about the “inefficient bureaucracy.”

I hear this all the time, being a member of the inefficient bureaucracy. My job is to marshal paper through the bureaucracy. I help get policy, guidance documents, and regulations published. And so, I deal with complaints about “bureaucracy” all the time. Too much red tape. Too many hoops to jump through. Too many levels of approval. Why can’t we just do it? Just publish it without all the nonsense? We waste so much time. Why can’t it be simple?

Some coworkers and higher level officials I work with go out of their way to circumvent the bureaucracy. They want to get a policy “out” as soon as possible. So, they try to skip what they consider “extraneous” levels of review. Just get the Office Director to sign it and it’ll go out, they’ve told me. But they usually end causing more problems than they solve, and publication is usually delayed as a result. Someone has to clean up their messes.

I’ve always considered this a cowboy attitude. These people are rebels. They think they are smarter (or at least wiser) than all the GS-9s, 11s, 12s, 13s who hold up their projects.

After dealing with this phenomenon for 7 years now, I’ve come to a different conclusion. There’s a fine line between a rebel and fascist. What these people really want is the power to do anything they please. They don’t want to be constrained by rules. They want to be dictators.

But the bureaucracy is inefficient by design. And the inefficiency is good. The inefficiency is there specifically to stop such mini-dictators from wielding too much power.

(Let’s not confuse inefficiency with corruption. Corrupt governments seem extremely inefficient. That is until you pony up the correct amount of cash. Then they become amazingly efficient.)

The most efficient government is by decree. And government by decree is, of course, a dictatorship. The Nazi’s were quite efficient. So were the Soviets. But democratic government is not efficient. Everyone loves to complain about Congress and how long it takes them to do anything. But is the alternative better?

The executive departments also take forever to do anything, being hamstrung by statutes and policies that require such things as “public input” and “hearings” and levels of review, all there to protect the American citizen from government abuse.

Even if the mini-dictators in my department are nice people and what they want to publish as soon as possible is the best thing ever, the cure for cancer, the solution to world hunger, I still say they shouldn’t have that power. One person alone should not have the power to implement something that may effect hundreds of millions of people, even if it is a great thing. If it’s so great, it will get through the bureaucracy and see the light of day. The world has done without the great idea for all this time; what’s another month or two?

Complaints about the “inefficient bureaucracy” point to a larger problem that plagues so much of American society: time. The world is a complex place with complicated problems. It takes time to study and digest issues, and it takes time to think about them. At my job, whenever we rush to get something “out,” invariably, almost without exception, we have to reissue it because of mistakes, simply because we didn’t take the time to do it right the first time.

We have a saying at my office: “Do you want it done right, or do you want it done right now?” It’s trite, but I like it. So here’s to the GS-11s who make sure forms are filled out properly, and the GS-9s who give things back because all the signature blocks are not signed. Because when our bureaucracy becomes efficient, it’s time to start looking over our shoulders and searching our homes for bugs.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

On Writing Well

"You will never write a good book until you have written some bad ones.” George Bernard Shaw

I have an artist friend who says the same thing about painting. It’s about mileage. You’ve got to do a lot of work, gradually improving, until you begin to do truly good work. Doing a lot of work, generally in isolation, with little recognition and only small (but meaningful) intrinsic rewards, for a long time, years usually, is a pretty tall order. That’s why you meet so many people who “always wanted to write a book” or “want to write a book someday,” or sadly, who have given up.

Shaw’s quote brings up a couple of interrelated issues that all writers face: quality and time.

What’s good writing? What criteria can you use to judge whether a piece of writing is good or bad? For publishers, the answer is simple: what ever sells is good. There are lots of writing programs around the country who, we are to assume, will teach us these criteria. (Whether they actually do this is a matter for another posting. Let me say this: with whom did Faulkner “workshop” his writing? And can you imagine Hemingway sitting around a table listening to other people’s opinions about how he handled dialogue or characterization or “theme”?) There are also those who feel that any judgment about whether a book is “good” or not is extremely subjective. But I believe it is much more objective than people want to admit, even when it comes to fiction. Good writing says something important, reveals Truths about existence. So-so writing (and, of course, bad writing) may tell an exciting story, and it may even tell the story well, but that doesn’t make it good writing.

I’m not saying that good writing is didactic. Usually, stories that teach lessons fall into the category of “bad.” Good writing reveals, but doesn’t preach. It isn’t pushy or bombastic or egotistical. The best I can say is, while I can’t specifically define good writing (or bad writing), I know it when I see it.

This understanding of what’s good and what’s not comes from putting in the time. Time writing but also time reading, observing, and thinking. It is the rare writer who has success early on, and even those writers put in the time at some point, because there is no substitute for time. F. Scott Fitzgerald published This Side of Paradise, to great acclaim, soon after graduating from Princeton. But he wrote and read a lot his entire life up to then. Plus, he was probably a genius. But his best work still lay ahead. Most writers hit their strides in their 30s and 40s, and some continue producing quality writing late into their lives, if they haven’t been poisoned by success. (That, too, is a topic for another time.)

Where does this time come from, especially for people who are forced to make a living doing other things, be it bartendering or proof reading or bureaucrating? That, actually, is a deceptively simple question: you make the time. You get up an hour earlier. You write on weekends. You write in the evening. You take days off to write. You do what ever it takes. It’s a simple solution, but extremely difficult to implement. These are the problems that every writer faces, especially when it’s easier to meet friends for drinks than face the blank screen again.

I’ve always been of the opinion that you can learn to write, but you can’t be taught how to write. That may seem counter-intuitive. But let’s face it, you learn to write well by writing, just like you learn to hit a tennis ball well by hitting lots and lots of tennis balls. And you have to write a lot. I’ve probably written a million words of fiction so far in my life, and I have one published story to show for it. But I keep going, for reasons unknown to me, ever trying to make “good” writing.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Pittsburghese and the Grammar Rodeo

My wife and I have gotten into a grammar competition of sorts. It hasn’t risen to the level of a Canadian-sponsored Grammar Rodeo yet, but it’s getting there. And it’s really not much of a competition, either. I, being of a literary bent, am far inferior in matters of grammar compared to my artist wife (who knows 3 other languages). I’m also from Pittsburgh, which doesn’t help. While she has broken me of the habit of saying that the “car needs cleaned”, I have a number of other grammar challenges which she takes a certain joy in pointing out.

It goes like this: I’ll be regaling her with a spell-binding story, and I’ll say something like “…and the snarling man-eating bear was so much bigger than me…” and before I can get out another cliff-hanging word, my wife will say in a calm voice, “than I.” This always stops me dead in my tracks, and usually causes me to say “than me,” which prompts her to respond “than me am?” She also catches me on the use of “who” and “whom”, the subjunctive, and I’m pretty sure, from the way she looks at me, she knows if I’m intending to use the word “you” in the subjective case when it should be in the objective case.

Naturally, I’m always on the look-out for any tiny mistake she might make, but I’m not very good at it. For instance, just this weekend, she said “I gave the book to him,” and I jumped right in and said “you gave the book to Bill,” which was a lie, and so she said “who?” and I said “WHOM” (in all caps, too). She walked away.

This competition can become quite heated (at least on my part), so to diffuse a volatile situation, I throw some humor in from time to time. For instance, if she says something about having to “dye the sofa cover”, I’ll say, “no, no, you have to kill the sofa cover.”

It’s hard fighting with her about grammar, because she’s always right and I’m from Pittsburgh. Which brings up another language-related issue: pronunciation. When we first started dating, she thought I had a speech impediment. I don’t have the traditional “yinz gawn dahn-tahn to Permantees n'at” accent, but apparently I have a bit of an “inflection,” as I like to say. I have a problem, it turns out, with the letter “l” as it relates to the letter “o”, causing me to sound like a two year old just learning to speak. For instance, when I say “boy, it’s cold outside,” I’m actually saying “boy, it’s cowid outside.” The problem is, I sound perfectly normal to myself. As it turns out, I’m not “two years owid”, the house across the street wasn’t just “sowid”, and I’ve never been “towid” I remind someone of Jack Lambert. But with her gentle tutoring, my grammar is getting more betterer each and every day. My brain just needs rearranged and between my wife and I, I’ll soon be the best.