Archive for October, 2007

Really bad words in the news

October 31, 2007

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I curse. Not here so much, but practically everywhere else, including in the kitchen. Sometimes I feel bad about how much and how eloquently I curse, but mostly I think of it as using all the words available to me in our vocabulary, and that makes me feel pretty smart.

So I was delighted to hear that a certain amount of cursing can be good for you, unless you live in Pennsylvania.

First, there was this report in the CBC News on a British study that found that workplace profanity boosts office morale. The study, “Swearing at work and permissive leadership culture: when anti-social becomes social and incivility is acceptable” [leave it to academics to suck the life out of even cool topics], found that swearing at work [but not in front of customers] reflected solidarity, enhanced group cohesiveness and released stress. My friend Ronnie takes an interesting look at this study over at her blog Work Coach.

But don’t try this at work—or at home, for that matter—if you live in Pennsylvania.

In West Scranton, Pennsylvania, a woman was charged with disorderly conduct for cursing at her overflowing toilet in her own home. Turns out her neighbor is an easily offended police officer. He was off duty at the time of the incident, but took it upon himself to summon his on-duty brethren. And here I thought the only service off-duty police officers performed was to thwart the occasional liquor store hold-up. Even more incredibly, it turns out that the use of obscene language or gestures is an offense under the state of Pennsylvania’s criminal code. How do people in Pennsylvania express themselves or make it through the workday?

And finally, there’s this interesting look at why we curse and why bad words have so much power in our culture. It appeared on The New Republic magazine’s website and was sent to me by my friend Carolyn, who always finds the most fascinating stuff online. The article looks at the issue of cursing from many perspectives—how we store emotional responses in our brains, how the historical root of swearing is actually religion, the hierarchy of bad words, even why grammatical errors would have made the FCC’s proposed [but failed] Clean Airwaves Act unenforceable… Author Steven Pinker is nothing if not thorough. He’s also not shy about using really bad words in his exhaustive, entertaining article: He starts it with the F-bomb, in fact, and takes off from there. So be forewarned. Myself, I was just impressed.

Borrowed milk, butt bumps and poetry

October 24, 2007

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The small ad agency where I work has a full kitchen, complete with—quite improbably—gas stove. Mostly, though, people use the microwave, the coffee maker and the big, communal fridge.

The other morning my colleague Matt asked if he could mooch a little milk from me for his coffee. He then said he was always doing that, borrowing stuff or even occasionally filching it [the former is fine with me, the latter drives me nuts]. I told him our styles were just different. When he brings food in, his philosophy is “what’s mine is yours.” I never take him up on it, though, because, as I told him, my philosophy [at least regarding communal fridges] is “good fences make good neighbors.”

That led to a discussion of the Robert Frost poem I had referenced and Matt had picked up on, Mending Wall, which of course led to us looking it up online and reading it. It was as wonderful as I’d remembered it to be. I’ll include it in its entirety below, so stick around.

The poem talks about two different ways of looking at life—one open, the other private, turned inward. It also talks about the walls we put up between ourselves and others. When the narrator of the poem questions the need for the stone wall he and his neighbor are repairing between their rural New England properties, the neighbor simply answers, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Besides reminding me yet again of the simple beauty of Frost’s writing, the poem also got me thinking about how, on some levels, “good fences” make urban living work as well as it does.

I live in Chicago and, like in New York, our subways and els can be packed, especially at rush hour. Once my brother was visiting me from small town Mississippi, and he took the el with me down to my office one morning. He expressed surprise later that all these people were crammed shoulder to shoulder on the train and nobody spoke to anyone else. Living in a place where everyone says “Hey” to people on the street—sometimes even people they don’t know—it seemed cold and unfriendly to him.

To me, though, it is just creating one’s own private space in very crowded conditions—and respecting the privacy and boundaries of others. And it’s what makes this kind of situation work. Riders adopt the 1,000-yard stare or read or pop in the earbuds and the “good fences” go up. Even in this most public of situations, they can retreat into their own privacy—precisely because their fellow riders have, for the most part, signed off on the same unwritten contract to respect those fences.

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And it’s not that people never speak or acknowledge one another. Delayed or stopped trains will start a buzz, for instance. I’ve gotten into conversations over what someone was reading. And once, when a fellow passenger took the whole privacy thing a little too far, hauling out an electric razor and shaving, another passenger made eye contact with me and mimed brushing his teeth, causing us both to smile, nod and roll our eyes. But all these are moments of genuine contact, however fleeting and casual, rather than enforced cordiality. I have spent a lot of time in small towns, watching relatives offer up a friendly “Hey” to someone passing by in the name of small town politeness, only to follow it up with a muttered scurrilous aside to me about that person’s character, lack of good sense or some other grievous shortcoming.

The subway isn’t the only place “good fences” come into play in urban living. A friend was recently in Shanghai for work and was amazed by the constant crush of people everywhere and the attendant reduced personal space. If you were walking too slowly on the sidewalk, someone would gently touch your shoulder, a sign to move aside and let that person pass. This scene is repeated thousands of times a day, and no one gets upset or takes it as an invasion of privacy. Nor is it cause for greetings or conversation—it is simply how this many people get where they are going in such a confined space.

And in New York, with its astronomical real estate prices, stores are typically designed with narrower aisles. As a New York magazine article on the Duane Reade drugstore chain put it, New Yorkers are more tolerant than most people of the “butt bump”—someone brushing past you in a crowded space.

Which is not to say the fences don’t come down, even in the big city. On one visit to New York, Marion and daughter Laurel were in the Sephora store on Broadway on the upper west side. I was standing outside, enjoying the cool morning air and the passing scene. I had my can of Diet Pepsi in one hand and Laurel’s Coke in the other. A young woman hurrying by glanced my way, made eye contact and smiled. Pointing at the soda cans, she said, “So which one tastes better? Haha! Just kidding!” I smiled back and nodded, and she continued on her way. It all happened much faster than the telling of it, human connection for just an instant. I’ll take that kind of connection over an enforced “Hey” any day.

And now, the Robert Frost poem that sparked this whole diatribe.

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me—
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

 

About photographer Travis Ruse

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In December 2004, New York photographer Travis Ruse began what he planned as a one-year project, to photograph his daily subway commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan and post one photograph of each day’s commute on his blog. With occasional breaks here and there, he actually continued the project into June 2007, posting 684 images in all. Together, they form a glorious mosaic of New Yorkers and that quintessential daily New York experience, riding the subway. Ruse’s project has been written about in the New York Times and exhibited at Redux Gallery in Manhattan. It has also caused my inner New Yorker countless pangs of longing.

“We write ads or people die.”

October 17, 2007

I work in advertising. When I tell people that, I get a wide range of responses. Everything from some wistful version of “wow, I bet that’s really interesting” to a kind of pitying reaction, as if I’ve just confessed to selling used cars or liking Danielle Steele—or perhaps that this lowly, somehow vaguely criminal activity [in their view] is the best I’ve managed to do in life. Interestingly, I can almost always count on academics to hold the latter view.

Truthfully, though, I like what I do. Most days, anyway. Sure, there are sometimes long hours, boatloads of stress and unbelievably idiotic clients. But there are also days [or at least moments within days] that I agree with legendary adman Jerry Della Femina’s view that advertising is “the most fun you can have with your clothes on.” [Now, apparently, so is running a restaurant in East Hampton, but that’s another story.]

For a while, I was so completely into advertising that I mainly wanted to hang out with other advertising people after work and considered anyone not in the business a “civilian.” Which is why, when this video showed up on YouTube, I found it especially funny.

A little set-up before you hit PLAY. I generally hate insider jokes, and this video is rife with them. To give you a better idea of the dynamics in play, there is often more than a little tension between creatives—copywriters, art directors, creative directors—and account service people. Creatives sometimes view account people as spineless creatures ready to rubber stamp any stupid request from clients who often need to be saved from themselves. Account people sometimes view themselves as the lone voice of sanity standing up against creative crazies who only want to goof off, piss off clients and win awards. Both sides are wrong, of course. Both sides are sometimes right too. And both sides are every bit as passionate in their views as depicted in this short clip. Enjoy.

Hardboiled and well done

October 10, 2007

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Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” For me, one of the biggest joys of reading is finding authors who so unerringly find the right word, the right phrase, every time. I will put up with so-so story lines or plot holes you could drive a truck through if the writer uses language well.

For my money, no one used language like Raymond Chandler did. Perhaps the ultimate pulp fiction writer, he broke into the detective novel business writing for publications like Black Mask and Dime Detective. Writing from the late 1930s until his death in the late 50s, Chandler created one of the most memorable and archetypal detective characters of all time, Philip Marlowe. Dashiell Hammett may have invented the American hardboiled detective novel, but Chandler perfected it, with classics like The Big Sleep, The Lady in the Lake, The Long Goodbye and Farewell, My Lovely.

For me, Hammett’s writing is almost a parody of the genre, filled with over the top tough guy talk. Chandler refined it, dialed it back. Oh, Marlowe was plenty tough. So tough that he could just be it without saying he was. Instead, as Chandler’s protagonist and narrator, he sizes up tough situations and just deals with them—with a detached sense of humor and a rock solid, if world-weary sense of right.

This whole diatribe started with me thinking of one of my favorite passages of 20th century American writing the other day. I’ll end with it. Don’t skip ahead.

Trying to find the exact quote, I came upon a treasure trove of Raymond Chandler lines and knew I had to make up an excuse to share them. These are all classic Chandler—tough, sometimes funny, sometimes smartass, never pulling any punches, always economical in conveying everything with just a few words:

 

“It was a blonde. A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.”—Farewell, My Lovely

“Even on Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, he looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.” —Farewell, My Lovely

“From thirty feet away she looked like a lot of class. From ten feet away she looked like something made up to be seen from thirty feet away.” —The High Window

“I felt like an amputated leg.” —“Trouble Is My Business”

“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.” —“Red Wind”

 

Chandler’s writing is filled with moments like these, passages that make you stop and reread them, savoring them before moving on. And for all his nailing Marlowe’s wisecracking, gimlet-eyed worldview, he can also deliver heartbreakingly beautiful descriptions of a late evening sky over a Los Angeles street.

So the Raymond Chandler passage that beats out all others for me? It also comes from Farewell, My Lovely. Philip Marlowe is lying in bed in a cheap hotel room, waiting for it to get dark enough to try to sneak onto a boat in the harbor where some very bad people are most certainly waiting. In these few lines, Marlowe assesses not only the situation, but his life as a whole. And then he does what he has to do.

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Goodbye, “good kitty”

October 3, 2007

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On Monday, we had to say goodbye to Cosmo, our family cat for more than 17 years. Never a big cat—a mere eight pounds at his most robust—he was felled by old age and a chronic thyroid condition that basically caused him to waste away. In the end, he just stopped eating and found a place on the floor where he spent all of his time. He was done.

But this little cat had lived a big life in his 17+ years. He was about six months old the September day he showed up on our front porch in St. Louis and announced that he was our cat. There are a lot of stray cats in St. Louis—cats are much more indoor/outdoor creatures there, and [surprise, surprise], that leads to lots of unwanted kittens. Some cat owners try to find homes for them or at least take them to animal shelters. Many, though, just dump them on the street. That had obviously been the fate of this scrawny little black cat.

More than a few strays had appeared on our doorstep before Cosmo, but there was just something about him. Even though it was apparent that he’d been on the street for much of his young life [he didn’t meow, for instance—obviously it had gotten him nothing for a while, so he’d just stopped], his manners were impeccable. He was a polite dinner guest, graciously accepting the milk or tuna or whatever that first meal was offered him and hanging around socially afterward, not just eating and running. And he didn’t merely tolerate the attentions of our delighted daughters that first day—they were two and six at the time—he genuinely seemed to enjoy it. His timing was impeccable too. Certain factions of the family [though not this one] thought it was about time for the girls to have a pet. The girls agreed [surprise, surprise]. So it was settled—Cosmo was indeed our cat.

We packed him off to the vet for a complete check-up, including shots and getting “fixed.” [As a guy, I have to admit I’ve never understood the use of that particular word for that particular procedure.] And then he moved in.

Having spent so much time on the streets so early, he insisted on the freedom to come and go. He made the most of this freedom, waking me to be let out about 4:30 every morning [he quickly learned that I was the easiest to wake]. While his territory was probably huge [recent studies have shown that domestic cats range amazingly far afield], his absolute domain was our backyard. He stalked Marion’s long, lush garden. He lounged about in the distance, the cat version of being social, when the kids played. He even watched me cut the grass—the power mower scared the hell out of him, but fascinated him nonetheless.

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Being an indoor/outdoor cat was not without its dangers, of course. I don’t think Cosmo thought of himself as a small cat, so he constantly picked fights with much larger cats and frequently got his butt soundly kicked.

Even more exciting, though, was his car surfing. Cosmo loved cars. Anytime anyone popped a hood on our block to work on his car [and this happened a lot in south St. Louis], Cosmo would sit on the sidewalk, watching him. If he’d had opposable thumbs, he would have been handing the guy socket wrenches or helping him hook up jumper cables. Most of all, though, he liked car surfing. Here’s how it worked: We’d get in the car to go somewhere. When we got to the end of the block and stopped for the stop sign, Cosmo would come tumbling down the windshield, across the hood and right off the front of the car. Okay, so he wasn’t very good at it. But he was very enthusiastic about it. Even when we dashed from the house, jumped in the car and pulled away immediately, if he was outside he would somehow manage to get to the car and make it up onto the roof, all without being seen. And always with the same result.

We suspected that he didn’t confine his surfing to our car. Our suspicions were borne out when one day he came limping home with a busted hip. His car surfing days were over. The hip healed, but after that, he confined his car adventures to falling asleep in the back seats of our cars when we left them open, which we did frequently on hot days. This often meant that Marion would race off to pick up the girls at the bus stop after school and suddenly discover that she had a furry little passenger with her. And on one occasion, it meant that I made it almost all the way to my office before he appeared sleepy-eyed and surprised in my rearview mirror. I was less than happy that morning.

Cosmo was a fierce and efficient hunter too. Our neighbors Bud and Helen hated cats, but soon changed their tune when the annual fall influx of mice didn’t happen. He had quickly dispatched all the mice in our yard and theirs—and probably yards all up and down the block. Helen actually took to calling us to tell us the latest cute thing she’d seen Cosmo do.

He was equally lethal to the local bird population, fortunately mostly killing prolific, prosaic house finches. But one single kill of his impressed me more than any other with how much like little tigers cats really are, with amazing strength and ferocity pound for pound. Cleaning leaves out of the basement stairwell one fall day, I found the back half of a squirrel. When it had been whole and alive, this squirrel hadn’t been appreciably smaller than Cosmo. Wow.

But for all his animal ruthlessness, he was unfailingly gentle and well-mannered with us, almost never biting or scratching anyone, no matter what. Well, with a few notable exceptions. Once when he had been let in for the night, he shot upstairs, a cat on mission. A moment later, older daughter Claire yelled, “Ow!” He had apparently gone straight to her room and bitten the sleeping Claire—not hard enough to break the skin, just enough to register a protest. We figure it was a long overdue payback for the many times he had come streaking down from her room wearing some doll’s dress Claire had somehow wrestled him into. Mostly, though, even when his patience was sorely tried—being held too long and pestered with endless smooching, for instance—he would just raise a warning paw or even rest it on the offender’s face, making it clear he could rip you open like a catfish belly if he wanted to.

Cosmo’s outdoor adventures ended abruptly when we moved back to Chicago. Our neighborhood was less cat friendly than our St. Louis neighborhood had been, and we knew he would just be healthier not facing who knows what every day. And certainly our vet bills would go down, not having to occasionally have him patched up after his latest dust-up with a much larger opponent. He wasn’t too happy about it at first, but he eventually adjusted. But the first warmish day every spring when we threw open windows to air out the apartment, Cosmo would race from window to window, his nose muscles working overtime, remembering.

For someone so small, Cosmo had a huge impact on our family. Younger daughter Laurel does not remember life without him. Both girls honed their early writing skills with countless tales of his adventures, both real and imagined. Marion and the girls absolutely doted on him. And he returned the favor, providing them with endless entertainment, company, affection and even solace, as needed. For all the alleged aloofness cats are supposed to exhibit, Cosmo seemed to know instinctively when someone was sick or upset or sad and would stay at that person’s side.

My own relationship with Cosmo was a complicated one. Having grown up with an endless parade of pets—dogs, cats, fish, birds, hamsters, lizards, turtles—I had long ago gotten over the need for what pets offer. For much of our time together, Cosmo and I kind of viewed each other as coworkers with whom we got on okay at the office, but it would never have occurred to us to go out for a beer together. Most of the pleasure having Cosmo in our lives gave me came from the pleasure I knew he gave Marion and the girls. But that was considerable, and that alone was plenty for me.

And if one had to have a pet, Cosmo was about as good as they come. Friendly, undemanding, a gentle creature [unless you were prey or a piece of string] and a gentleman. On the rare occasion he needed to be reminded of proper etiquette [mostly regarding someone’s unattended dinner plate on the floor in front of the television], a simple firm “no” usually did the trick. For a while, this led the daughters, whenever a firm “no” was uttered in some other context—in conversation, on the television—to interject a reassuring “good kitty” to Cosmo. It began as a joke, I think, but became something they did almost unconsciously.

For all my being mostly immune to what pets have to offer, as Cosmo’s health began to fail over the last couple of years, I became more protective of him, trying to puzzle out from day to day what might appeal to his diminishing appetite [a constantly moving target], fretting when he didn’t eat or became ill and taking heart in his rebounds. I once knew someone—a great, adoring father to his little girl—who said he hated kids, just not his kid. I think that’s where I netted out with Cosmo.

The end, when it came, was about as peaceful as we could have hoped. Cosmo, once a car surfing champion, had come to hate car rides. So Marion found a vet online who specializes in house calls to spare Cosmo one last indignity, and when it was obviously time to let him go, we made an appointment. Instead, Cosmo just let go on his own, with Marion at his side comforting him. If there is any justice at all, his spirit is now happily ensconced in our old backyard in St. Louis. Goodbye, old friend. “Good kitty.”