Monday, December 31, 2012

Just call me "Mr. President"

Went to see Hyde Park on Hudson today, mainly interested in seeing Bill Murray's portrayal of Franklin Roosevelt, since I had played Roosevelt in the Memorial Players' production of Annie in the spring of 2010.

Afterward I asked Kathleen which portrayal of FDR she found more compelling, Murray's or mine.

Her verdict: Too close to call.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

God and the party platform

There was a kerfuffle yesterday over the omission of the word God from the Democratic platform. President Obama stepped in to get it restored, and the manufactured controversy seems to have faded.

Mind you, the platform was not disrespectful of believers in the first place. It included this passage:

Faith has always been a central part of the American story, and it has been a driving force of progress and justice throughout our history. We know that our nation, our communities, and our lives are made vastly stronger and richer by faith and the countless acts of justice and mercy it inspires. Faith- based organizations will always be critical allies in meeting the challenges that face our nation and our world – from domestic and global poverty, to climate change and human trafficking. People of faith and religious organizations do amazing work in communities across this country and the world, and we believe in lifting up and valuing that good work, and finding ways to support it where possible. We believe in constitutionally sound, evidence-based partnerships with faith-based and other non-profit organizations to serve those in need and advance our shared interests. There is no conflict between supporting faith-based institutions and respecting our Constitution, and a full commitment to both principles is essential for the continued flourishing of both faith and country.

I am not sure that I'm keen on having God in a party platform anyhow. The Constitution gets along fairly well without any mention of the deity, the Founders having wanted to give us a secular republic in which the populace would have freedom to practice religion without imposing it on one another. Beyond that, I have my doubts that God is a Republican or a Democrat. Probably registered independent, if anything. 

And really, do you want our political parties to have anything to do with the Almighty?  They can't even contrive to pass a manageable budget, and they should take responsibility for theology as well? 

God seems to putter along quite well without the assistance of a political party, so perhaps both Republicans and Democrats would do well to keep their hands off and give some attention to establishing justice, insuring domestic tranquility, providing for the common defence, and promoting the general welfare. That should be enough to occupy them. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Not a gut course

In about half an hour I will walk into a classroom at Loyola and tell a group of students what they are in for in CM 361 Copy Editing. For those of you who have tuned in since last year's opening harangue, I repeat it here. 

This is not a gut course. Writing is difficult. It does not come to us as naturally as speech, and we have to spend years learning it. Editing is even harder. We can write intuitively, by ear, but we have to edit analytically.
But before we can even get to the analytical aspect, we will have to work on grammar and usage, because if you are like most of the six hundred students who have preceded you in this class, you will be shaky on the fundamentals. You will have to learn some things that you ought to have been taught, and you will have to unlearn some things that you ought not to have been taught.
I must also caution you from the outset that this course is appallingly dull. A student from a previous term complained in the course evaluation that “he just did the same thing over and over day after day.” So will you. Editing must be done word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and we will go over texts in class, word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. No one will hear you if you scream.
I’m going to turn my back for a minute so that anyone who wants to bolt can escape.

Now, if you are willing to stay—and work—I can show you how it is done. I have been a working editor for more than thirty years. I will explain basics of grammar so that you can shore up the spots where you are shaky. I will advise you about English usage and point to the places where you need to know that it is shifting. I will show you how to identify the flaws in a text so that you can pick it up out of the gutter, brush it off, clean it up, shave it, and make it respectable.
You are going to learn the craftsman’s satisfaction of picking up a piece of prose and knowing when you are finished with it that you have made it better—more accurate, more precise, clearer, more effective.
Let me say it again. You will have to work. You will have to be in class, because editing is a craft. One learns it by performing it, not from reading a textbook, and we will be performing serious editing in class.
I can’t make you into a full-fledged editor in one semester—or even two, and who in the name of God would want to be in a classroom with me for two semesters? But if you put in the time and work with me, you will by semester’s end be a better writer because you will be a sharper editor of your own work. And even if your editing skills are limited, you will be miles ahead of your fellow students. In the valley of the blind, they say, the one-eyed man is king.
So put in the time. My function here is to help you—you know, I already know how to do this; I don’t need to do this for me. So I will answer your questions and steer you to reliable references. I can work with you individually during office hours and by appointment. One previous semester, when we lost two weeks of class to winter storms, I came in on Sunday afternoons to be available to answer questions and go over points of editing. I can do that again.
One more thing. You may not care for my manner or my sense of humor. Not every student has. But one of the reasons you are in a university is to experience different personality types, different senses of humor, different approaches to the world. I am not the only jackass you will ever have to cope with in the adult working world, and one thing you can do this semester is to sharpen your coping skills.
Now, shall we get down to the particulars?

Sunday, September 2, 2012

And still counting

On this date on 1986 I arrived at Calvert Street to start work on the copy desk at The Baltimore Sun. That makes it, accounting for the [cough] hiatus [cough], twenty-five of the past twenty-six years.  

Never was a quarter-century better spent. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Five things you can do to improve Facebook

1. Those gorgeous pictures of food porn in magazines? Trick lighting and varnish. That lovely dish you're having for dinner? Like Joan Rivers without makeup. Just eat it. 

2. Awww, your baby is just too cute for words. No more than one photo a month, please. 

3. Cute pictures of cats. See Item 2. 

4. If you're still in Farmville, do what your ancestors have done: Sell the farm and move to town. 

5. Photos of signage with misapplied apostrophes. Even nerds deserve a richer life than this. 

Friday, August 31, 2012

Pipe down 

Wednesday was the sixtieth anniversary of the premiere of John Cage's 4'33", a work in which the performer is instructed not to play the instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

I thought of it last night while driving home from the paragraph factory, listening to the final movement of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet on the radio. When it ended, I switched the radio off rather than allow some other sound to contaminate it.

When I was a graduate student at Syracuse, the chamber music series brought in some remarkable performers, and I remember an evening when a quartet (embarrassed to admit that I no longer remember that it was the Guarneri or the Juilliard) was playing the Schubert. In the middle of the slow movement, the cellist broke a string.

The cellist nodded apologetically, walked off stage, replaced the string, returned, and tuned very briefly. The quartet took up where it had left off. Through the entire interval, the audience did not make a sound. Not a cough, not a murmur. The auditorium at Crouse College was entirely still.

I wonder how an audience would react to Cage's 4'33" today, when people appear to be constitutionally unable to stop talking.

They carry on highly audible cellphone conversations in all manner of public and private places, intruding on your personal audiosphere. Telephone conversations used to be private. You went into a booth, as into a confessional.  You would feel humiliated to know that everyone around could hear your personal affairs.

My experience at a number of Episcopal churches in recent years has been that, though the nave is not quite as noisy just before the service as a hotel lobby when Shriners are in town, there is very little reverent or reflective silence. The loud talking continues even through the prelude, as if it were lounge music. (Perhaps the organist should put a tip jar on the console.) 

Going to movies might be getting a little better, as the young abandon speech for texting.

Mind you, I would not prefer to work as the lexicographers at Merriam-Webster do, in Trappist silence. I've grown used to the newsroom, with the sports department following at least one game on the television and a reporter three desks away conducting a telephone interview in a voice that must be audible in Pittsburgh.

But perhaps you, like I, wish sometimes that people would just shut up. Let me bring this to a close, to set an example.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lobbying the dictionary

Note to readers: There’s a bug in my blogging software at The Sun (surprise!), so I will be posting here at the personal site until the boffins figure out the problem.

The morning email brings a release from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which I reproduce in full:

PETA has submitted a list of five animal-friendly terms to dictionary publisher Collins, after learning that the company is collecting new words to be added to its upcoming editions. The terms include "sea kitten," a name for fish that will elicit more empathy for these persecuted aquatic animals; "Trollsen," a name befitting each of the fashion-backward Olsen twins for including fur and other animal skins in their collections; "veganise," the act of replacing meat, eggs, and dairy products with kinder and healthier foods and ingredients; "veggie dog," meat-free franks that have skyrocketed in popularity; and "elefriend," someone who supports elephants by boycotting circuses that use or display these animals.

"Dictionaries are updated to reflect the times, and animal-friendly terms reflect one of the fastest-growing social movements of our time: animal rights," says PETA Executive Vice President Tracy Reiman. "Word choices have a lot to do with shaping attitudes, so it's time that animals receive the respect that they deserve in our everyday language."

I don’t expect them to have much success, or wish them any, partly because sea kitten for fish is risible, and partly because lexicographers do not take well to lobbying.

PETA also exaggerates the influence of dictionaries.

It is true that Samuel Johnson’s great dictionary, because it was the first comprehensive one in English, had enormous prestige and a lingering conservative influence. It is true that Noah Webster’s great work, because it was the first comprehensive dictionary of American English, had great influence. It was he who got us to drop the k from critick and the u from honour. Dictionaries since, not so much.

Most schemes to reform the maddening and chaotic spelling of English have failed, despite the prestige and power of George Bernard Shaw, Col. Robert Rutherford McCormick, and other would-be reformers.  

Similarly, the campaigns by numerous cranks to supply English with an epicene pronoun (rather than accepting singular they as the simplest and most reasonable remedy) have come to nothing. And no mention of cranks should go by without a salute to the recently departed Queen’s English Society and its nutty efforts to establish an Academy of English.

Failure is their portion, and deservedly so. English is the most democratic thing we have. We collectively shape it, and each of us has onevote. It goes where it will, or rather where we will, and no Authority can dictate to us how to speak and write. Lexicographers follow us around and diligently make notes about what we’re doing.

I admire PETA’s principled vegetarianism. And if they make me feel guilty about my fondness for brisket and bacon, that is surely salutary. But they are wasting their energy lobbying lexicographers. Language shapes itself from the bottom up, not the top down.


Sunday, May 27, 2012

Promises to keep

A week ago at Memorial Episcopal Church there was a baptism, in the course of which the entire congregation reaffirmed their Baptismal Covenant, promising, among other things, to "respect the dignity of every human being."

That promise was echoing in my head during the week as I read about the clergyman who preached from the pulpit that gays and lesbians should be rounded up and put in concentration camps.

I am not making this up. The Rev. Charles L. Worley of Providence Road Baptist Church in Maiden, N.C., proposed building a fence of a hundred or so miles and herding gays and lesbians inside it. "And have that fence electrified till they can't get out. Feed 'em. And you know what, in a few years, they'll die out. Do you know why? They can't reproduce." And there have been other sermons like unto it in North Carolina as the state considered a constitutional amendment against gay marriage.*

One of the marks of evil, one of the ways you can tell it when you see it, is to deny humanity to individuals or groups of people. When the Nazis proclaimed that Jews were subhuman, "vermin" being a favored term, that made it easier to gather them into concentration camps to die.

The human tendency to define oneself against the image of an enemy has flowered in Christianity over the centuries, not merely in outbreaks of anti-Semitism, but also in the bloody hostility between Protestants and Roman Catholics. It can be found today in hysteria about Muslims, most of whom are no more terrorists than the Rev. Mr. Worley. Actually, most of them a good deal less so.

Respecting the dignity of every Christian, Jew, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, homosexual, or whoever does not mean approving of them all or endorsing all they do or say. But it does mean, if you are serious about the Gospel, that you do not get to treat them as if they were any less human than you are.

And so is the Rev. Mr. Worley. One challenge for those of us who try to honor the dignity of every human being is to find a way to approach people who have been warped by prejudice and ease whatever fears, distrusts, bad experience, and faulty education have led them into hatred, to help them emerge. 

*Let's get this out of the way. Civil marriage is secular, because it is in the interest of the state to regulate property, inheritance, and the welfare of minor children, and churches accommodate to it. Civil marriage permits divorce, for example, and the Roman Catholic Church does not dictate terms to the state; neither does the state regulate religious marriage in the Roman Catholic Church.

Civil marriage, like the rest of the law, changes with social mores. At some times and places it was possible to secure a divorce only with proof that one party had committed adultery.** Now simple incompatibility suffices, because society no longer labels divorce with the stigma it formerly did. If North Carolina were to approve civil marriage for gay people, no one could compel the Rev. Mr. Worley to officiate at such a ceremony. The Constitution grants him a cloak for his bigotry.

**Now that I think of it, Scripture informs us that adultery is a great sin. But I do not see reports that the Rev. Mr. Worley has advocated herding adulterers into concentration camps to fulfill God's word. Is it unduly cynical of me on a Sunday to suggest that such a measure would empty many congregations?

Monday, March 26, 2012

A tree grows in Hamilton

In 2008, at our request, the city planted a redbud tree in the tree lawn in front of our house. It was a little taller than I was.

The winter of 2009, you will recall, was a hard one, and in the spring only a few branches budded, most of them appearing to be dead. The spring and summer of 2009 were also a time when my career appeared to be dead, or at least moribund. Having been laid off by The Sun, I was fruitlessly applying for other jobs and scratching around for freelance work.

At loose ends on many days, I spent time trying to revive the faltering redbud, watering it nearly every day and fertilizing it at intervals. It produced some leaves, and I was encouraged to hope for it.

The following summer, when The Sun hired me back as night content production manager, the tree budded more vigorously and put out new branches. I pruned most of the dead ones and kept up the watering and fertilizing.

Today, as it blossoms again, I can say that my career, such as it is, continues, and during my hiatus one substantial thing that I accomplished was to keep a tree alive.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Against introspection

Memorial Episcopal Church publishes a series of Lenten meditations by members of the parish. I was invited to contribute this year but, distracted and preoccupied by other matters, missed the deadline. Now, to stop ruminations from rolling around in my head, I offer them to you.

In Lent we are invited, encouraged, and exhorted to engage in self-examination, which is a healthy enough thing to do, but which can easily lead us astray.

In introspection we may wind up dwelling on the pains of the past: the injuries we have done to others, the wounds we have suffered that still ache, the actions we have failed to take, and the defects of our character that stubbornly persist throughout our lifetimes. Introspection can mire us, and the more we reflect on our failures, our hurts, and our limitations, the less we may be able to extricate ourselves, the more we may feel powerless.

I'd like to suggest that after a little self-examination, it might be better to consider actions.

For many people, the main action in Lent is to give something up: red meat, liquor, desserts, caffeine, cigars, whatnot. How about, instead, giving up something from the past that is beyond remedy? Those love letters from a failed romance? Recycle them into pulp. The same with that letter of rejection for a job you sought. Mark something over and done with in your mind, and rid yourself of the physical manifestation.

Another action is to make something right. Make an apology to that person you injured. You may not be forgiven. Or give up on the resentment of someone who injured you.

Cast your mind on what you might yet do instead of what you have done or failed to do. As Paul Writes to the Philippians, "forgetting what is behind me, and reaching out for that which lies ahead, I press towards the goal."

Some of this might be good for us corporately as well. As much as we honor our history and our identity as a denomination, a diocese, or a parish, it is better to live in the present and press toward the future than to live in the past. Reflecting too much on our past glories that have faded, or focusing on past failures and resentments, will not get us where we wish to go.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

An explanation for Mr. Morrow

Both Clark Elder Morrow and Robert Hartwell Fiske have objected to my comments on Mr. Morrow’s writing about the Oxford English Dictionary, complaining that I have failed to give Mr. Morrow’s texts full consideration. I had endeavored to spare you, my readers, such an examination, but the worthy gentlemen are entitled to get what they have asked for.
Therefore I will go over Mr. Morrow’s original article on the OED’s “slide into stark irrelevancy,” demonstrating in some detail that it is a tissue of inanities wrapped in rodomontade.

A major deficiency comes to the fore immediately as Mr. Morrow goes on about the “once-august and once-respected tsar of all dictionaries” having including the heart symbol under the entry for love. There is much huffing and puffing,* and what you may take for ponderous waggery, about how this will help to “precipitate the Apocalypse of St. John.” 

Actually, as the linguist Dennis Baron patiently pointed out, the OED has not included the heart symbol; neither has it listed such a meaning in the love entry. It has added to the entry on heart as a verb, indicating that that sense is sometimes represented by the symbol. Given Mr. Morrow’s windbaggery about precision of meaning, one might have expected better of him, and of Mr. Fiske for reproducing this error in his Dictionary of Unendurable English.

Putting that bone aside, Mr. Morrow proceeds to chew on some initialisms: “LOL and OMG are included now, of course, Not words, you say? Doesn’t matter. Any burp, any eructation, any sound-producing escape of noxious fumes from a human being. …” Say, you don’t mind, do you, if I begin to abbreviate some of the repetitive blowhard rhetoric, do you? Professor Baron points out that the inclusion of initialisms in dictionaries is not a novelty. And unless Mr. Morrow uses ante meridiem and post meridiem instead of a.m. and p.m. with times, he should know this.

He also deplores the inclusion of phrases, such as tinfoil-hat-wearing (and I will not speculate on why that particular one is a burr under his saddle). I wish that he had expanded on this (not a wish I frequently voiced while reading the article), because all of the dictionaries I’m familiar with include phrases.

There is some extended carrying-on about slang and ephemeral phrases. I’ll move to the punch line: “Does the OED really want to produce a fifty-volume set (and it will be fifty volumes if it continues in its mad lust for passing verbal hiccups), the vast majority of whose terms will have to be marked Obs. In a relatively brief time?” I begin to wonder how much time, if any, Mr. Morrow himself has spent in these sacred precincts. The OED is a dictionary on historical principles, beginning each entry with the oldest meaning to be found. Virtually every page has an entry with some archaic and obsolete meaning.

Let me skip to the peroration: “The inclusion of a heart symbol [not actually there, remember?] in the OED renders the entire enterprise suspect, in my view, and wassup and LOL nestling in its pages mean that I will return (for all my lexical explanations) to the 1913 edition of Noah Webster’s masterpiece.” 

Now all begins clear. After all this tick-tocking between tosh and bosh, we see the point. Mr. Morrow dislikes not only the language of the twenty-first century, but also that of the twentieth. And the Oxford lexicographers have had the temerity to include in a dictionary words that he does not like, without consulting him. This galls him.

The point of a dictionary is to provide meanings for terms, and I expect that many current readers and writers appreciate a resource that sets out to explain the meaning of language they encounter that is unfamiliar. Not to speak of how much future readers and writers may need it to understand the writings of this age.  

But for Mr. Morrow, that is not the point. The point is that a dictionary should exercise Authority, should pass judgment on what words are acceptable for the language, showing arrivistes to the door. As I concluded previously, he complains about the OED for not doing what it does not set out to do.

I suggested originally that Mr. Morrow might be a coxcomb. Here’s a meaning from Dr. Johnson’s dictionary: “a superficial pretender to knowledge or accomplishments.” I leave it to you, gentle reader, to judge my surmise.

*Viz., “So it is now undeniable that there is no phrase, no adjectival compound, no tattoo symbol, no random smudge on a page or a pair of pants anywhere in the world, that the editors of the OED will not enshrine in its pages—electronic and otherwise. It does not matter how far the term in question may lay [oh, sic] from mainstream usage—it doesn’t matter how completely unheard-of the word or mark or scrawl may be—it does not matter how asinine or silly or childish or contemptible the pictogram or smear may be—it matters only that some sort of consensus emerges among the geeky gurus of the OED as to its inclusion, and the mark or scratching or happy face is hallowed forever in some corner of the estimable tome.”

Mind you, the OED, however estimable, is neither a shrine nor a hallowed place nor a repository of sacred scripture, but a dictionary, a place to which people resort to find the meanings of words they do not know. And, of course, I have to remind you, the odious symbol that gave rise to this chivvying is not actually included. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

New Sun blog site

The version of You Don’t Say that operates at has relocated to a new Web address and new software. You will be able to find it at, where the first post, “Dunce English,” is already up.
I hope to see you there.