Grand Canyon

Duck on a rock

An odd geologic formation known as “Duck on a Rock” at the Grand Canyon.

GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK, ARIZONA

We were arguing over the meaning of the word oe.

It was the last day of the Scrabble tournament.  I did fairly well on Friday and Saturday, and now it’s down to the final three games on Sunday morning.

I’m fueled up, having had my Cheerios, banana and almond milk in our hotel room.  Water? Check.  Long rack?  Check.  Pens?  Check.  Score sheets?  Check.

After sitting atop the leader board in my division for part of the day yesterday, I dropped down to second place late.  I have to win all three games today to finish in first.  No pressure.  Hey, I tell myself, I’ll be “in the money” even if I lose them all.  After all, there are cash prizes down to sixth place.

I lose the first game to an old lady from Israel.  By a lot.  I wreck my spread by leaving an open S on the board at the end, allowing my opponent to bingo out.  She chastises me for failing to engage in defensive blocking.  Not wishing to be thrown out of the tournament right before the end, I do not utter any of the Scrabble-acceptable words that I feel would be appropriate in that situation.  I square the tiles, mumble “good luck” and quickly leave the room.  What I really want to do is scream.

Trounced by the blue hairs again.  “Trounced” isn’t even the right word.  Crumpled up like a used candy wrapper is more like it.  Hemingway was right about grace under pressure.  I start burping up Cheerios.

Next, I have to play the woman who’s been sitting in the number one position for the last few games. That is, since I’ve been unceremoniously knocked off my throne.  Okay, I figure, I must be in third now.  But I’ll probably lose to her, go down to fourth, and then finish up in either third or fifth.  That depends on with whom I am paired for the final “king of the hill” round.

I return from the rest room and find myself standing in the aisle at my opponent’s table. Her previous opponent is conducting a “post mortem” (commenting on what went wrong and right during the game), marking up her tally sheet, slowly gathering her belongings before she finally moves on and I get to sit down.

I ask my opponent where she’s from. (It’s polite to be friendly to your opponent, even though you want to place a curse on her rack, her tiles, and her mother’s teapot.  Easy there, cowboy. She wants the same for you, don’t you know.)

Florida, she tells me, near Fort Lauderdale.  I tell her about my grandparents, my aunt and my wife’s friend, all who hail from the area.  We figure out who goes first and shake the tile bag.  That’s when she asks if I would mind if she runs to the rest room.

“Of course, go right ahead,” I say.  Some things you don’t mess with, regardless of the fate you might wish on your opponent.  You don’t want anyone peeing in their pants. Not to mention that such a thing would be horrible karma.  Next time it will be me who is doing the pee-pee dance and begging pardon of someone sitting across the table.

“I might be a little while,” she warns me.

“That’s fine,” I reply. “Take your time.”  What do I care?  More time to relax.  If I’m just going to lose to this shark, there’s no point in rushing it.

I close my eyes for a minute and remember yesterday, when I, too, had to use the rest room between rounds and took a bit longer than might be expected.  As I exited the rest room, here comes the director.  “Your opponent was worried about you,” he said.  Can you believe that the director was actually headed to the men’s room to track me down in a stall?  I had to bite my tongue to avoid blurting out “my opponent doesn’t give a shit about me!”  (Shit being the operative word when you have the kind of GI problems that I do.). On second thought, I should have said, “Oh, sorry, director, I was busy jacking off!”  Grrrr!

I open my eyes and the chair across the table from me remains empty.  All around me, I hear tile bags being shaken and word scores being announced.  Here comes the director.

“Who’s your opponent?”  I tell him.  Then I fill him in on the details.  “She went to the rest room. She said she might be a little bit.”

The director starts my opponent’s clock and tells me to neutralize it when she shows up.  About a minute later, she does.  Here comes the director.

It’s not like she should have been surprised.  The rule about starting your clock if you’re late was posted in the tournament flyer.  “Didn’t you tell him I was in the rest room?” asks my opponent accusingly the moment Mr. Director leaves the table.  I tell her I did.  “Why didn’t you tell him I’d be a while?”  Now she’s just sounding whiny.  I assure her that I relayed the message and that, as far as I’m concerned, she can take as long a rest room break as she likes.  I don’t tell her that I’ve been there.

Phoenix, about 7 or 8 years ago.  Same director.  I was having a particularly bad GI day and ended up stuck in the rest room between games.  The director started the clock in my absence; upon my return, I found myself left with just ten minutes to play a 25-minute game.  I was so angry that I rushed through the game on pure adrenaline, practically throwing my tiles onto the board the moment my opponent hit the clock.  I won, too, to the surprise of the elderly gentleman from L.A. sitting across the table from me.

I thought of this recently while watching World Cup speed skating from Stavanger, Norway on TV.  The announcer described the demeanor of one of the Dutch competitors as one of “barely suppressed rage.”  Uh-huh, I thought.  I get it.  The secret I know is that its application is not limited to physical pursuits.  I’ve seen how it works with mental ones, too.

But here, at the Grand Canyon, I know that losing just one minute off the clock would have little effect on my first-place opponent.  What did not occur to me until later is that having the director start your clock in your absence presents a psychological disadvantage.  It may not have been a serious psych-out in this case, but I do think my opponent’s nerves were rattled.  I kept the major bingo lanes shut down and generally played in a more defensive style, having been schooled in spades in the previous game.  My opponent is behind and begins grasping at straws.  She plunks down the phony OUTWRINGS, which I promptly challenge off.  I managed to pull off a win.

I head back to the rest room while waiting for the pairings for the final match of the tournament to be posted.  The loo is disgusting, as always.  A lot of these guys seem to have chosen Scrabble over archery as their chosen pastime simply because they can’t shoot straight.  I step my shoes into a puddle of sticky pee as I approach the urinal.  I see guys turn around and walk out as soon as they finish their business.  “Wash your hands, pig!” is what I’m thinking.  Some of my fellow Scrabblers don’t appear to be fully socialized.  I wonder if they have mama issues.

In the playing room, there is a hubbub of conversation as we wait.  There is talk of flights and airports and shuttles.  I mention that we drove all the way from northern California and had a tire blow out on Interstate 40 in the middle of the desert.  “You’re hardcore!” opines one of my fellow players.  I roll my eyes, but I guess I am.  A lot of us move heaven and earth and spend thousands of dollars per year just to play this silly game.

Someone alludes to “the incident.”  The word the director used in telling us about it during the pre-games announcement that morning.

If you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, you may not appreciate just how remote a location it is.  This place is truly in the middle of nowhere.  I suppose that helps to preserve its natural beauty.  But for those of us who have no interest in camping and who generally prefer to experience the great outdoors through works of spectacular photography, the nine-building Maswik Lodge is just a bit out of our comfort zones.  My wife’s attitude has understandably deteriorated from mildly annoyed to frustrated to truly pissed off in the last three days.  She can work from wherever we are (have laptop, will travel), but depends upon having a reliable internet connection at all times.  Unfortunately, the connectivity up here is a joke.  Uploads and downloads proceed at a snail’s pace.  Email sent first thing in the morning doesn’t arrive until evening.  My wife’s work is backed up as it is, and she is about ready to tear her hair out.  “If you come to a tournament here again, you’re going by yourself!” she informs me.

It doesn’t help that the food here, well, just plain sucks.  Served cafeteria style, you take a tray and walk around to the various food stations.  As a vegan, I have the privilege of standing in one line for a baked potato, in another for some black beans, and in a third for a Tepa burger on a gluten-free bun.  By the time you make it to the cashier’s station, most of your food is cold.  Visitors get to pay premium prices for the privilege of queuing up like cattle for cold food.  And then they don’t even get your order right.  “This is the weirdest looking veggie burger I have ever seen,” is my first thought upon applying mustard to a grey-looking patty that strikes me as what airline food must look like in a Communist country.  I take one bite and spit it out.  Let’s just say that the taste of dead animal flesh is unmistakable.  I get up and look for a manager, who is already fumbling his way through an apology to another dissatisfied customer.  When it’s my turn, he explains that he’s been having a lot of problems with his interns from Thailand.  Apparently, they don’t know the difference between a Tepa burger and a turkey burger.  Then the manager is summoned to the table next to mine to take a complaint from one of my fellow Scrabble players.  She had ordered a Cuban and was served a Reuben.  Not that there’s a language barrier or anything.

And then there is the cold.  And the dark.  At around 7,000 feet in elevation, it gets bloody cold here in the November night.  Granted, it’s not exactly sunny and 75 in northern California this time of year, but temps down in the 20s are a bit out of our league.  The slightest breeze carries a bitter bite that chills you right through.  As for the darkness, the dozens of miles between the park and the nearest city lights render the nights pitch black.  Walking down the road from the main building to one’s accommodations, you can barely see the hand in front of your face.   We use the flashlight function on our iPhones to see where to step.  Others, however, are not so lucky.  I suppose disaster was inevitable.  Two Scrabblers, walking back to their rooms in the thick blackness.  One woman misses the curb and falls.  Her face gets pretty scraped up.  Her companion bends down to help her, and she falls, too.  Breaks her collar bone.  Has to be airlifted out to a hospital in Flagstaff.  The director tells us he will visit our unfortunate colleague in the hospital on his way home to Phoenix.

Back at my table, the discussion turns to the pluralization of “vowel twos” (2-letter words consisting solely of vowels) — which words take an S and which don’t.  Ae?  No, it’s an interjection, an exclamation.  Ai?  Yes, it’s a three-toed sloth.  Oi?  No, another interjection (although I know from playing online that ois is perfectly acceptable in the Collins dictionary, used by Scrabble players in most of the world outside the U.S. and Canada).  What about oe?  Does it take an S?  “Yes,” I immediately chime in.  “It’s a bird.”  I detect a dirty look shot in my direction.  “From New Zealand,” I add, authoritatively.  A fellow player seems pleased, declaring that she will henceforth think of a bird whene’er she sees the word oe plunked on the board, and will know that it can be pluralized.

“No!” cries the player seated next to me.  “It’s a wind!”  She jumps up and runs to her travel bag in the corner to rummage for her Scrabble dictionary.  Bird or wind, we’ve already established that it takes an S.  But her mission is to prove that she’s right and I’m wrong.

She plops back down beside me and riffles the pages, seeking the letter O listings.  Oe, she shows me, “a Faeroese whirlwind.”  That smug look of victory.

“I stand corrected,” I mumble sheepishly, wondering where on earth I got the idea that an oe is a Kiwi ornithological species.

The final game gets underway and I am desperate to win.  I must be in second place after winning the last game, I figure.  A victory here could put me in first place and net me a $500 prize.  I play defensively again, hoping it pans out just like before.  Between the two of us, we manage to block most of the bingo lanes and effectively shut down the board.  Neither of us is able to get off a bingo in this low-scoring game.  But my opponent is able to lay down QUITS for 61 points, handing her the win.

I am sorely disappointed, my first-place dreams dashed.  I try to console myself by thinking that I can probably still take third.  Someone had borrowed my clock, and I track it down after the score slip is turned in.  I pack up my stuff and walk out into the vestibule to take a look at the leader board.  Games are still going on, so I know that what is posted represents the state of the tournament after the penultimate game, not the final.  The director has drawn a line across the chart below the sixth-place player, to indicate that the money winners lie above that line.  My name appears below that line.  In estimating my standing, I didn’t take into account the predation done to my spread in the first game of the day.

I am totally disgusted.  I buttonhole the director to thank him for a great tournament and beg off the award ceremony, pleading a very long drive home ahead of me.  I grab the handle on my heavy Scrabble bag and pull it through the lobby and out to the curb, where I lean against a wall.  I take in the bracing air as I text my wife to tell her I’m done.  She tells me she’s in the cafeteria having a sandwich and asks me to join her.  But I don’t want to go back in there.  No way.  When I am upset, I cry.  So I ask my wife to come on out whenever she’s done.  A few minutes later, she shows up with half a sandwich and fries in a Styrofoam take-out container.  We walk to the car and then head south, out of the park, stopping in Tusayan, the first town, for me to stuff my face with baked potatoes, care of the drive-through at Wendy’s.

After a 12-hour drive home, the next day I look up oe in each of the dictionaries in my collection.  It takes me a while to find it.

First, I consult my trusty Webster’s New Collegiate with the red cover, a sentimental favorite of mine despite its age.  My parents gave it to me around the time I started high school, and today it has a place of honor on my desk at work.  Nothing.  I then check my employer’s standard, the American Heritage.  Still nothing.  I suppose oe was deemed a sufficiently esoteric word that it didn’t make the cut in the editing process.

I check my gigantic Random House Webster’s Unabridged, where I do find oe listed — as an interjection meaning “oy.”  Well, that’s surely not going to take an S!  Next, I go to my Chambers, my British dictionary.  OE is listed as an abbreviation for Old English, but that’s it.  What am I to make of this phantom word that has somehow made its way into the Scrabble dictionary?  It’s a bird!  It’s a wind!  It’s Superman!  Uh, it doesn’t exist?

Finally, I reach for the last dictionary on my bookshelf, Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed., 1997).  And lo and behold, there it is, oe in all its glory.  It is indeed a Faeroese whirlwind.

I feel stupid, but not as stupid as I do the following day when the tournament results are posted online.  Apparently, I ended up in seventh place, just out of the money.  However, the woman in sixth place won a $200 cash prize for finishing highest above seed.  Due to a rule that players can’t win more than one cash prize, the sixth place award went to the seventh place finisher, yours truly.

And then I feel stupider still when, two days later, my winnings arrive in the mail in the form of a check for $150.  The attached note states that it is for “highest place finisher in the lower half.”  The director asks that I email him to let him know that the check arrived.

I do so.  I don’t mention that I didn’t finish in the lower half.

Elk

We were surprised to encounter an elk at the side of the road at Desert View, near the east entrance to Grand Canyon National Park.

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Regret

I am standing on a sidewalk in Albany, New York with my father.  It is the late 1970s and I am, loosely speaking, a college student (I spend more time working on the college newspaper than in going to class, reading, writing papers or any of that boring stuff).  My father visits me often, for which I am eternally grateful.  Not only does he remind me of that other world, outside of college, but he takes me out to dinner (Yes!  No dining hall goop for me tonight!  Red Lobster, here I come!), buys me milk and orange juice for my tiny refrigerator, and leaves me with a twenty to stuff into my perpetually empty wallet.

I do not drive.  Driving might be a useful skill to have at this point, considering that the dorms are stuffed full with tripled-up students and I am forced to live five miles from campus on the tenth floor of a downtown single room occupancy firetrap hotel.  This means that there is a particular ordeal involved in getting back and forth to campus or getting anywhere else I might want to go:  I ride the bus.

There are the long green college buses, which are free to use with a college ID card, although the drivers almost never ask for it.  However, if I wanted to go anywhere other than up Washington Avenue to campus or back down Western Avenue in the opposite direction, there was the Capital District Transportation Authority, which went by many names.  The CDTA, the city bus, the shame train.  Back then, the fare was forty cents for a ride.  Most of the time, I didn’t have the forty cents.  But when I did (such as right after one of my father’s visits), I knew that if I were standing on the street corner when it was, say, ten below zero with a stiff wind blowing, it was exactly 30 minutes before the start of my first class of the day, and there was no Green Machine in sight, a glimpse of the #12 chugging up State Street hill would be an answer to prayer.  I gained more than a passing familiarity with the city bus schedule.

A bus blows past us and, staring at its tail lights, I remark to my father that I don’t know which bus it is because it has no number displayed in its rear window.

“Why would you want to know that?  To know which bus you just missed?”  My father laughs.  His son is weird.

Well, yes, Dad.  Actually, knowing what bus you just missed is pretty important.  After all, you wouldn’t want to wait out in the cold for a bus that had already come and gone, thinking that it was running late today.  It was important to know that you missed the bus, dummy, now you’re going to miss your European politics class again.

Seeing that “12” in the rear window of the city bus when you’re still about half a block away would occasion nothing but regret.  Regret that I didn’t wake up earlier, regret that I wasn’t able to walk faster, regret that I was forced to live so far from campus, regret that I was even taking this dumb class.  On particularly bad days (sleet and freezing rain come to mind), I would regret attending college in a city with such ungodly weather or I would regret going to college at all.  I knew I would never survive another 2½ years of this (somehow, I did).

Regret is a tough road to go down.  The older you get, the more the regrets accumulate, piling up like snowflakes in an Albany winter.  To get from one day to the next, you lull yourself into complacency by saying that, all in all, you made the right decisions and that, given the chance, you’d do it all again.  You start singing Sinatra.  “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention.”

But then it hits you over the head suddenly.  Or it comes stealing over you as a foreboding sense of dread in the middle of the night.  Those two words.  What if.

You never know what will be the trigger for these head games.  It could be a remark overheard from two cubicles down the hall at work.  It could be a story on the six o’clock news.  Or for one such as myself who daily gorges upon the smorgasbörd that is the internet, it could be lurking stealthily behind any URL or hyperlink.

This week, the regret monster hit me not once, but twice.

First, I read the story of fiftysomething Dan Lyons, who, after being laid off from his editorial job at Newsweek (just like me, when I was laid off from the state court system!), braved the culture shock of joining a startup firm full of 21 year olds with their bean bag chairs, foosball table, free beer and workspace décor “like a cross between a kindergarten and a frat house.”  Damn, I want to do that!  The place was presided over by a charismatic leader pushing platitudes that evoke both Orwell and Communist Russia.  I keep hearing that, in the tech sector at least, this is the face of corporate culture today.  It fascinates me, and I wish I were a part of it.  This is the reason that, for the last couple of years, I’ve had a vague fantasy love affair with the idea of working for Zappo’s in Las Vegas.  (I unsubscribed from their emails some time ago in order not to be repeatedly reminded of what I’m missing out on in my gray, government bureaucratic job.)

As if that weren’t bad enough, I then ran across an article about people who make a living (get this) writing dictionaries! Kory Stamper’s new book, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, tells the story of what it’s like to be a lexicographer with Merriam-Webster.  For one who is a word nerd and who has loved the intricacies of the English language since childhood, this seems like the ultimate dream job.  I recall reading Simon Winchester’s The Meaning of Everything, about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, when it was published almost 15 years ago.  Not long after, at a job interview, I was asked what would be my ideal job if I could do anything in the world.  The interviewer told me his was “rock star.”  I didn’t hesitate when I told him that I wanted to be the editor of the OED.  Need I say that I didn’t get the job?

Alas, nothing is ever as good as it sounds.  Decades ago, I read (mostly while standing in the aisle of a bookstore in Paramus, New Jersey, as I couldn’t afford to actually buy the book) Scott Turow’s memoir of his first year at Harvard Law School.  One L mesmerized me and was certainly one of the factors that influenced me to eventually attend law school.  Yet as much as Turow waxed poetic over “learning to love the law,” I never managed to quite pull off that particular flavor of amour.  I wonder if I’d be similarly disappointed if I were, like Stamper, “falling in love with words.”  The irony that Merriam-Webster is located in Springfield, Massachusetts, the same fading industrial city in which I attended law school, is not lost on me.

Regret returns with a vengeance to bite me in the ass again!  As a third-rate student at a second-rate law school, I suppose that I shouldn’t have been surprised upon graduating from the big U to the little u (unemployment).  The only employer willing to hire me was Wendy’s (yes, that one, home of the Frosty), and even they were concerned about whether they could find a uniform large enough to fit me.  I ended up going back home to New York to work for a temp agency until I finally found a low-paying job as a typesetter with a weekly newspaper.  I would lay awake at night regretting having wasted three years and untold thousands of dollars, and thinking about burning my law diploma, or tearing it to bits and putting it out with the trash, or perhaps using it as toilet paper and flushing it down the loo (no telling what that would have done to the wonky septic system in my parents’ house).  And all of that when look what I could have done!  I could have just driven my aging Pontiac down to Federal Street and asked for an application to work as a lexicographer!  If only I had known.  How dumb was I not to know what was available right in the very city in which I lived?

I must confess:  After reading the review of Stamper’s book and staring a bit too wistfully at the MW dictionary with the red cover that I’ve owned since junior high and that now graces my desk at work, I couldn’t resist taking a peek at Merriam-Webster’s website to see if there were any jobs posted.  My labor was all in vain.  While the link to “Join MWU” was tantalizing, it was not about joining the staff but about paying $29.95 annually to join an email subscription to definitions to “over 250,000 words that aren’t in our free dictionary.”  There was a “contact” link on the website, but none of the categories on the drop-down menu had anything at all to do with career opportunities.

The fog soon cleared and it all started to make sense.  Stamper herself admits that when she first tells others that she works writing dictionaries, “one of the first things they ask is if we’re hiring.”  Well, it wasn’t long before I came across another article citing that, with the popularity of free dictionaries online, Merriam-Webster, which didn’t have a large staff to begin with, recently laid off seventy employees.

All of which teaches me that you can’t go home again.  Even Dan Lyons soon left the startup for greener pastures.  Scott Turow became a novelist.  And Kay Stamper, while still a lexicographer, no longer occupies an office in the brick building on Federal Street, but now telecommutes from her home near Philadelphia.

Life goes on, but I know that, sooner or later, I will read or hear or see something that will once again have me craning my neck to make out the number of the bus that has passed me by.  As my wife often reminds me, I need to learn to be content, to count my blessings.  To tell that bus “later, gator.”

And it’s true.  Life’s been good, so there’s no need to constantly ruminate about the road not taken.  Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention…

Cilia Than You Can Imagine

BERKELEY

It’s amazing the things that stick with you from your schooldays.  I remember seventh grade science as a horror for many reasons.  Among them were the fact that my mother was teaching more or less the same curriculum in another school a few miles away, the fact that my mother had worked with my teacher and knew him quite well, the fact that my teacher was a mean old so-and-so, the fact that I came close to having a nervous breakdown that year, and the fact that I had no interest at all in the subject matter and never bothered studying for the class.  Science just wasn’t my thing.  In that regard, I favored my father, the English major, far more than my mother, the biologist.

Accordingly, I am shocked that I still remember the unicellular microorganisms that we learned about in that class, more than 45 years ago.  There was the amoeba, pretty much the basic model, just a blob with a nucleus.  Never mind that drinking the water in Mexico could introduce a few million of those critters into your system, resulting in the ghastliest case of Montezuma’s revenge imaginable.

Then there was the euglena, which has a whiplike tail called a flagellum that it uses for locomotion.  And finally, there was the paramecium that contained all kinds of anatomical structures that I never could remember.  The only ones that have stuck with me are the vacuole and the weird hairlike structures, the cilia, that surround the organism on all sides.

I found myself thinking back to seventh grade science class while attending a Scrabble tournament in the Bay Area this past weekend.  Allow me to start by saying that Leesa is truly the hostess with the mostess.  This was the fourth tournament that I have attended at her home in Berkeley in 2017.  Most of the tournaments that she hosts are one-day events on Sundays.  For the Memorial Day holiday, however, she held a two-day event followed by a “late bird” on Monday.  Although I did not attend the extra Monday session, I learned quite a bit over the weekend.

By the way, “vacuole” is a seven-letter word, a rack-clearing “bingo” that nets the player an additional 50 points.  But it was those paramecium hairs that have gotten me into some interesting spots during games lately.  Keep in mind that “cilia” is a valuable “vowel dump” in that it allows a player to clear two Is and an A off his or her rack.

So last weekend, I played in a one-day tournament in San José (a six-hour round-trip, thanks to traffic on Interstate 680), where I was paired with host John Karris for the final game.  The guy is good.  He grabbed a blank out of the bag late and bingoed out with “ciliates.”  I assume those are critters that, like our hairy friend the paramecium, are blessed with cilia.  Then, in Berkeley this past weekend, I had plunked down “cilia,” whereupon my esteemed opponent attempted to bingo by hooking an S to my play.  Challenge!  Off the board it went.

I guess it pays to know your Latin.  “Cilia” is already a plural and, hence, does not take an S.  The singular, in case you’re interested in such trivia, is “cilium.”  After I won that challenge, my opponent sheepishly admitted that she had erred, that “cilia” actually takes an E hook (“ciliae”).  No!  It doesn’t!  Granted, adding an E to the end of certain nouns is a way to make them plural in Latin.  And while “ciliae” has a certain ring to it, it comes back down to the concept that one cannot pluralize a word that is already a plural.

I was not so lucky when it came to other plays.  One of my opponents started our game right off with a bingo, “beetier.”  I thought it plausible, so accepted it and struggled to make headway against my opponent’s 72-point lead.  Just call me stupid right now, shall we?  Let’s just say that there are a lot of words with “-ier” suffixes that are permissible in Scrabble.  Among my favorites (although not a bingo) is “eelier,” which gets rid of three Es and and I.

If a particular comestible tasting of grapes can be “grapy,” “grapier” or “grapiest,” why can’t a food tasting of beets be “beety,” “beetier” or “beetiest?”  To make things worse, some veggies and fruits only take you half the way.  Does that taste like onions to you?  The Scrabble dictionary says it’s definitely “oniony,” but cannot be “onionier” or “onioniest.”  Oh, you think that’s bad?  Well, what’s good for the goose apparently is not good for the gander, at least when it comes to garlic.  Forget the onions and grab yourself a K, as the Scrabble dictionary allows “garlicky,” “garlickier” and “garlickiest.”

These things seem more than a little arbitrary, don’t you think?  When it comes to citrus fruits, for example, you’re in the clear when it comes to the superlatives of “orange,” “lemon” or “lime.”  My favorite grapefruit is feeling left out of the citrus pantheon.

But that’s quite okay.  I’d probably have to tear my hair out if one of my opponents were to try to extend the word “grapefruit” into the 14-letter phony “grapefruitiest.”

 

Commatose

Commas are a bit like farts:  They usually stink and they can be quite funny.

If you are on excellent terms with the comma, I salute you.  If you’re not, however, you are in good company.  And if you have any doubt that commas stink, just ask the opinion of a third grader, or for that matter, of a college student struggling through the ordeal that is freshman English.

Should you wince at the mention of the comma, finding nothing funny about it at all, I direct you to the panda that is the subject of the famous “eats shoots and leaves” joke (and also to Lynne Truss’s grammar book by that title, comma added after the first word).  And if that’s not enough to free your inner belly laugh, I refer you to some of my experiences as a proofreader with a major pharmaceutical company, some 35 years ago.

Now, you may argue that proofreading is about the deadliest dull occupation in existence.  Like anything else in life, however, it is what you make of it.

One of my fellow proofreaders was seriously mismatched for the position (she had previously been a printing press operator for the company and, well, we had a labor union).  English was not her first language, she was very poor at spelling and she had no interest whatever in grammar or punctuation.  I am not proud to say that I joined the other proofreader in making some rather cruel jokes at this poor woman’s expense, particularly after one of her written instructions to the typesetters indicated a missing coma.  You have to work for a drug company to truly appreciate that one.

After that incident, we proceeded to make horrible comma jokes at every opportunity.  I’m talking about everything from “Can you comma over here for a minute?” to bad karaoke attempts at singing James Taylor’s “Handy Man” (click on the link and listen to the end of the song if you don’t get the reference).  From there, we moved on to mangling other forms of punctuation in the name of medical proofreading humor (correcting an improperly punctuated sentence might involve a “semicolonoscopy”).

I thought about those long ago days while I was standing in the checkout line at the supermarket this morning.  I noticed a sign regarding the use of plastic bags.  Let’s just say that this topic has become something of a big deal in our fair county since a local environmental ordinance, passed by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, requires supermarkets and box stores to charge ten cents per plastic bag.  Many of my neighbors drive across the county line to Roseville to do our shopping, where no such ban is in place.  But even the “avoiders” may be out of luck come November, when an initiative to extend the measure statewide will be on the ballot.

The sign in question read:  “Say so long to single use plastic bags.  Bring Your Own Sac.”

Whoa, Nellie!  Sac?  Seriously?

My Webster’s defines the word as “a pouch within a plant or animal, often containing a fluid.”  I also checked one of the online dictionaries, which added the note “can be confused with sack.”

No kidding.  Just when I was processing images of shoppers bringing cow stomachs and goat bladders to the supermarket, I realized that that the issue was not one of spelling, but one of punctuation.  To understand this, it helps to be aware that, locally, “Sacramento” is often shortened to “Sac.”  Apparently, the statement in question was intended as an instruction to county residents.  “Bring your own, Sac,” has quite a different meaning than the same sentence without a comma.

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed grammar or punctuation in this space, so let me know if you’d like me to do so again (or conversely, feel free to lob rotten tomatoes at me).  In other words, please leave me a comma.

 

Haircut in My Language

Someone, please tell me:  Why is it so difficult to find a place for a man to get a decent haircut?

It’s not like I need a haircut all the time.  I show up for this quarterly, like a corporate financial report.  My father tells me that he is old enough to remember a time when men sat in the barber’s chair on the corner for a touch-up every week.  I have a feeling that the experience was intended to be more social than depilatory.

I’ve read about remnants of the haircut as social experience lingering on in barber shops frequented by African-Americans in urban communities.  And while I support public opportunities for socialization, perhaps it is my suburban sensibilities that cause me to prefer an arm’s length business transaction.

Notice to hair cutters:  I’m not here to make a new friend; I don’t expect you to be my bartender.  I don’t want to swap life stories, nor do I wish to discuss the presidential election, my marriage or even the weather.  If you do ask me a question, I will endeavor to respond politely and I expect the same courtesy in return.  Please can the rudeness and do not inquire about my weekend plans or what I’m having for dinner.  In return, it will be my pleasure to include a generous tip to express appreciation for your time and expertise.

Some would claim that my attitude paints me as inhuman.  At some level, I would have to agree.  I’m still hoping that modern technology comes up with a reliable robo-barber.  Tim Cook and Satya Nadella, are you listening?

These days, it seems that my alternatives are the national unisex haircutting chains or the local three-chair shop that we pass regularly along the highway.  Yesterday, I tried the latter and was quite disappointed.  I suppose that, from an “it’s all relative” viewpoint, I have no cause to complain.  At least I didn’t emerge looking like a Marine on Parris Island, as I did after my previous haircut in Fresno.  My chief complaint is that the hair cutter, who was not at all gentle, nicked me twice.  I attempted to point this out by yelling “Ow!” but I don’t think she got the message.

I suppose I should be grateful that this hair cutter did not attempt to engage me in conversation.  Perhaps this was due to the language barrier.  As she seemed to understand the general type of hair cut I was requesting, I was not aware of this issue until she was done and I asked how much I owed.  Although she repeated herself twice, I could not understand what she was saying.  She finally resorted to the international language of money by holding up the corresponding number of fingers.  Now, I am all in favor of multiculturalism, but I do believe that we require a common language in which we can all communicate.  Perhaps this is easy for me to say, because English has become something of an international language and happens to be the language which I speak.  Perhaps I need to “check my privilege.”  Should the common language we choose turn out to be Spanish, Mandarin or something else, I will begin studying.  In the meantime, however, I expect those with whom I am spending my money to speak enough English so that we can conduct business without resorting to sign language.

Until then, does anyone know a decent place for a guy to get a haircut?

 

Just Google It: An Essay on Self-Reliance

As I’ve mentioned before in this space, among my favorite words in the French language is la débrouillardisme and its adjective form, débroubillard(e).  While I do not believe that there is any English word that exactly captures the nuances of the term, the closest translation that I’ve encountered is “resourcefulness.”  The word also has a certain patina of what, back in my college days, was termed “gettin’ over on the man” and what (even earlier, as a kid) adults called “pulling a fast one.”  The implication is one of knowing how to get things done, particularly in terms of which back channels must be traversed and whose palms must be greased.  But the French word also contains an element of the concept of “cleverness,” somewhere between knowing how to spin straw into gold and knowing how to trick people into doing what you want.  It’s no wonder that “il/elle est très débrouillard(e)” is among the highest of compliments that a French person can bestow.

I also think of the term as bearing elements of “self-reliance,” as in “he can take care of himself.”  That presents a fine line between the admirable trait (in terms of the Protestant work ethic, anyway) of not needing to depend on anyone else and the (arguably) more questionable trait of “being a sharpie” who obtains advantages for him/herself at the expense of others.

I thought about this concept today because of Google, and because of the U.S. presidential debates that I’ve been watching on TV recently.

Painted with the broadest of brush strokes, I’ve heard it expressed that the Republicans are the party of laissez-faire economics and rugged individualism.  The Horatio Alger “rags to riches” myth (and its closely associated phrase “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”), with its implication that “any kid can grow up to be president, just look at old Abe Lincoln who was born in a log cabin,” is alive and well in America.  The GOP has a reputation as being “the party of business” that rewards the rich with tax breaks that aid them in retaining their wealth.  The party also has a reputation of favoring a reduced role of government, with the underlying philosophy that most of us have deep wells of fortitude upon which one can draw to reach the nirvana that is self-reliance.  Don’t mess around with the economy and things will find their own level as people make decisions based on self-interest.  Coddling Americans with government largesse encourages sloth and leads to every type of weakness, from the personal to the national.

The Democratic Party philosophy appears to embody a decidedly different world view that includes awareness of society’s troubles, from poverty to mental illness to drugs (what I like to term “the three Hs”:  homelessness, Haldol and heroin).  My fellow Democrats like to be proactive rather than reactive.  Rather than closing the barn door after the horse has escaped, we believe in spending money on things like education, social justice and prevention rather than prisons, hospitals and cemeteries.  We believe that those who “can” have a duty to society to give their all.  But we also know that there will always be those who “cannot” and must be supported rather than left to be trampled on by the herd, to suffer and to die in desperation.  “There will always be poor people in the land.  Therefore I command you to be openhanded.”  Deut. 15:11  We may admire self-reliance, but it is wrong to disrespect those who, for whatever reason, lack that ability.  It takes all kinds to make a well-rounded society, and everyone has something to contribute.  We all agree on the need to care for the children, but too many of us fail to see that there are those among us who will always be children and must be taken care of regardless of their chronological age.

The stresses of modern American life put the lie to the ideal of self-reliance and expose the Horatio Alger myth for what it is.  I think of Donald Trump, whom I believe is rightly admired for his many successes, but who may not have been able to achieve them had he not been preceded by his millionaire real estate developer father, Fred.  While Trump may see himself as a modern-day Lincoln (I suspect that The Donald is a legend in his own mind), he was definitely not born in a one-room log cabin in Kentucky.  Nor was he raised in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, as Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders was.

I find a supreme irony in the fact that both Trump and Sanders are native New Yorkers, the former from Queens and the latter from Brooklyn.  One was born with a silver spoon in his mouth while the other was born to impoverished immigrants who sought a better life in America.  I suppose it’s no wonder that Sanders seems to have an appreciation for the suffering and hope of those who risk everything to escape death in places like Syria, while Trump wants to build a wall on the Mexican border and keep Muslims out of the country.  I think it’s clear that we have two different world views going on here, each propounded by a man who achieved success through his own vision of “resourcefulness” and “self-reliance,” la débrouillardisme.

This is where I have to mention Google.  It seems that hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear someone say “Why don’t you Google it?”  After hearing this phrase roll off the tongue of coworkers, my wife and my teenage niece, the profoundness of its ubiquity struck me when I heard it from my octogenarian father not too long ago.  The essence is that if you don’t know, it’s no big deal.  You can just Google it.

Over the centuries, the United States has progressed from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy and, finally, to an information economy.  Despite the importance of information, however, no one much cares what we have stored up in our brains anymore.  Why commit anything to memory when you can just Google it?

Among the arguments in favor of search engines is that they are capable of storing exponentially more information than any person could ever hope to know.  I imagine that today’s grade school students must find it insufferable to have to memorize anything (from multiplication facts to state capitals to spelling words) when you can just Google it.

Is this what has come of self-reliance?  Have we truly moved on from Nike’s age of “just do it” to the age of “just Google it?”  One could argue that we no longer rely on the self, but instead rely on computer databases (and hope to God that they are accurate).  Speaking of accuracy, I suppose there is no comparison.  The human mind is subject to the vagaries of recollection and the ravages of time, but zeroes and ones (like diamonds) are forever.

There are those who argue that the knowledge economy transcends the memorization of yesterday.  Computers spew and vomit out data nonstop; the value-added individual is he or she who can interpret what it all means.  How important is it really that a presidential candidate at a debate botches the name of a world leader, a quotation or a statistic?  We all know that CNN, Fox News and the New York Times will be fact checking every statement.  So there really isn’t any need for a dog to bark at the lies and misstatements of the candidates, as so colorfully recounted by Hillary Clinton recently.  We have the news media to do the barking for us.  And think of all the money we save on vet bills!

In his famous essay, “Self Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that we are obligated to decide things for ourselves rather than rely on the views and opinions of others.  He praises nonconformity, at least in the sense it shouldn’t matter what anyone else thinks.  After all, who’s to say that we’re not right and everyone else is wrong?

I suppose Emerson’s ideals could be said to have influenced the self-reliant types who head off into the Alaskan wilderness to live the life of a resourceful hermit.  And yet, the French ideal of la débrouillardisme is not about separating ourselves from our fellow man, but learning to succeed in spite of him.  It’s all about being Dickens’ Artful Dodger, knowing how to turn the tricks of the trade to your advantage, how to smooth talk others into giving you what you want, how to execute what Trump refers to as “the art of the deal.”

While it’s fine to admire the clever among us, and to refine our methods of dreaming and scheming, it would be well to remember that we are not dealing with a level playing field here.  Many of us are disadvantaged right out of the gate, including African-Americans and recent immigrants, who face every variety of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination, and including those with mental and physical disabilities, and including those who were raised in abject poverty that weighs one down with a gravitational force that precludes pulling one’s self up by even the strongest of bootstraps.

While those of us who “can” pursue our self-reliant ways, we must never forget to proffer the assistance needed by those who “might” with the aid of additional resources, and we must never forget to provide for those who “cannot” under any circumstances.

So I say to all the presidential candidates of both parties:  Know this for certain, that the day will come when you will require an answer that neither Google nor Siri can provide.  For as King David taught us centuries ago, in time even the mighty shall fall.  And it is then that those of former greatness shall gain personal knowledge of what it is like for those of us who live without help and without hope.

 

Doin’ the Circûmflex Dance

One of my favorite cartoons of all time (which I discovered several years ago in Jonathan Fenby’s excellent France on the Brink) depicts a harried teacher before a French grammar class composed of teenage hoodlums.  In an apparent effort to help her students relate to the rather dry lesson, she writes the following conjugation on the blackboard:

nous brûlons une voiture
vous brûlez une voiture
ils brûlent une voiture
ells brûlent une voiture

“We burn a car, you burn a car, they burn a car . . .”

Best of all is the wry caption:  “And don’t forget the circumflex!”

I remembered this today when I read about the new rules and words developed by the Académie Française, the nearly 400 year old body that protects the integrity of the French language and determines how words are spelled in the French dictionary.  Among those changes, to take effect in schoolbooks next academic year, is the removal of the circumflex (the little hat- or roof-shaped accent) from words in which it has heretofore appeared over a U or I.  So brûler in the teacher’s lesson above will become bruler and entraîner (“to practice”) will become entrainer.

Quite a ruckus has been raised on social media by French speakers who are appalled at the mangling of their language and their perceived betrayal by the organization that exists to protect it.  The hashtag #JeSuisCirconflexe (“I am circumflex”) has been trending on Twitter among those expressing their indignation.  This, of course, is a play on “Je Suis Charlie,” the defiant phrase carried on signs and worn on clothing following the murders at the Paris satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo last year.

As you can see, the French get rather touchy about their language.  Granted, the circumflex doesn’t totally change the pronunciation of a word the way the acute accent or cedilla does (changing a short E to a long E and changing a C from the K sound to the S sound, respectively).  Some believe the accent is pretty much useless, a relic of Old French adopted to indicate locations where the letter S had been omitted (for example, bête, the word for “beast” gained its circumflex when it lost its S in the transition to modern French).  And the circumflex will not be completely disappearing; it will still appear where it always has on the vowels A, E and O, as well as on words in which its absence would change the meaning (such as sur, “on top of,” versus sûr, meaning “sure”).  But it is still a matter of pride for the French.

As if the disappearing circumflex weren’t bad enough, the Académie Française also saw fit to change the correct spelling of a few words — oh, about 2,400 in all.  For example, oignon, the word for “onion,” becomes ognon.  And it’s not only the circumflex that will be seen less often.  Fewer hyphens will be around, too.  Compound words like porte-monnaie (change purse) and week-end will lose their hyphens.

I had to laugh when I heard about week-end.  That, of course, is a prime example of “franglais,” the slang Frenchification of English words and phrases that so many of the French detest.  And although there is a perfectly good phrase for “weekend” in French (fin de semaine), the Académie Française has apparently capitulated to the unstoppable waves of popular culture that have been beating against the shores of French linguistics for decades.  Now, the French can not only use the English word “weekend” knowing it is officially sanctioned, but French kids can even spell it just the way it’s spelled in English without getting points marked off their papers.

I have to wonder about grand-mère, the French word for “grandmother.”  Back in the Stone Age, when I was in school, it was spelled grand’mère, with, of all things, an apostrophe.  By the time I arrived in college, the apostrophe had been replaced by a hyphen.  Could it be that the French will now be able to address their grannies without the need of punctuation?

Something tells me the grandmothers of French aren’t going to like this one bit.  But they can look on the bright side.  At least they won’t be losing a circumflex.