Friday, August 27, 2010

Trite On

When writing, the trite, in the words of William Safire and others, is to be avoided like the plague. From the moment the would-be writer walks into a writing class or opens a book on the art of writing, he is reminded that the trite and banal will suck all life from his composition. The admonishments to shun the trite are repeated so often they almost become trite themselves. But if a writer wants the reader to think about what he has written, it is only fair that he give more than a little thought to how he writes it.

This rule does not apply, however, to the talking heads and loudmouth yakkers of the electronic media, who are as comfortable slipping well-worn phrases into their broadcasts as they are slipping their feet into a pair of well-worn shoes. For them, all accidents are unforeseen accidents, all gifts are free gifts, all surprises are unexpected surprises, and nothing happens now, everything takes place at this point in time.

TV and radio executives encourage the lackadaisical use of language because they want to give news programs a more conversational tone and create the illusion that everything the anchor, reporter or commentator says comes off the top of his stylishly coifed head. Broadcasters believe the reporter with notes in hand has less credibility than the reporter who appears to be winging it.

The insipid chatter also prevents the audience from being distracted by an incisive comment or clever turn of phrase. If the viewer is given something to think about, he might think about it right through all the important messages from the sponsor.

Unfortunately, books, newspapers and magazines are being mortally wounded by the ten-second bursts of words fired from the mouths of TV personalities. The electronic media has discarded verbal artistry and replaced it with prepackaged phrases, hoping that in time every utterance will be uttered with dependable sameness. Regardless of the topic, or whether the comment is made in Poughkeepsie, Punxsutawney, Paducah, Peoria, Pocatello or Pomona, the goal is to have the mix of words be like the special sauce on a Big Mac: always the same. People with a way with words are distrusted, thought to be con men. Commenting on the common in an uncommon way creates suspicion. Americans are encouraged to be in awe of celebrities who sport seventy-five word vocabularies.

With that in mind, perhaps I should imitate a well-known alleged news outfit and insert the following after every paragraph I write: "Tom Harris: Perceptive and witty - I give the facts; you chuckle."

Monday, August 23, 2010

Monday morning

The days are getting shorter and the weather is improving. We had rain yesterday, and it rained hard for a while last night; the wind blew from time to time, but the lightning never flashed and the thunder never boomed. It looks like we will be getting more rain today; the temperature, however, is fit for human consumption - at least this human's consumption. A gander at the Weather Channel's website reveals that it will not get above eighty around here until a week from tomorrow. I'm not sure I believe that, but it is a nice thought.

Cuddles' predatory instincts came to the fore this morning. She was crouched on the table with every muscle taut while she stared intently at a crow that was poking around on Lincoln Dr., apparently hoping to find some road kill. She spent five minutes gazing at the alien avian, never taking her eyes off of it. She shifted her stance ever so slightly a few times, trying to get in the most advantageous position to launch herself through the screen and fly Superman-like over the front yard in order to subdue the crow before the birdbrain knew what hit him. She didn't, though. She got bored with the bird and turned her attention to other things. The crow spent several more minutes out front, strutting around like the foreman of a road crew shouting at the backhoe operator to get to work. But Cuddles didn't care. She had real work to do, which was letting Nancy and me know what was expected of us.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

I Didn't Mean It, Really

(Former astronaut Lisa Marie Nowak) must stay away from the victim Colleen Shipman and has to write a “sincere” letter of apology to her within 10 days.
Associated Press item in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, November 11, 2009

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Out of the Blue
One sunny spring morning when Bethany was four, she wondered around the yard, inspecting this and that while I cut the grass. She spotted something flopping about under the lilac bush. It was a young bird, a blue jay, apparently injured, and Bethany stooped down and picked it up. Holding the helpless creature against her breast, Bethany attempted to restore it to health with soothing, kind and loving words. But Bethany wasn’t the only one awash in maternal instincts that morning. The mother blue jay swooped down and pecked Bethany on the head. She dropped the fledgling and ran crying into the house. Debbie cleaned her wound, which wasn’t much of a wound, and called the doctor to ask if there were precautions we ought to take. Beth should be fine, he said, just keep an eye on it for a few days as you would any injury. Fifteen minutes later, Bethany was back at the lilac bush, but the young bird was gone and never seen again.
Years later, after my nest had emptied, I was eating dinner one evening while my housemate, Murphy, a ten year old beagle-border collie mix, was in the backyard. At her age, Murphy had seen it all and seldom got excited, except when she saw me with leash in hand, ready to take her for a walk. But something had grabbed her attention. A few desultory barks were followed by a few more desultory barks, which were followed by an uninterrupted stream of I-mean-business barks. I got up from the table and went to the backdoor, prepared to deliver a stern reprimand. But Murphy, barking angrily and straining to break free of her chain, didn’t so much as acknowledge me. I followed her eyes to the garage. On the roof, a squirrel stared down at her, taunting her, egging her on, and thoroughly enjoying the display of canine frustration it had created. There was nothing handy to throw at the squirrel, and I was about to pull Murphy back inside when a blue jay swooped down behind the offensive creature and reduced it to its natural state: a sniveling, frightened rodent fleeing hastily and leaving a trail of urine.
Now, the mother blue jay pecked Bethany on the head for obvious reasons. But why did the blue jay shoo away the squirrel that was bugging Murphy? Did it feel sorry for Murph? Did it understand that to silence the dog it had to get rid of the squirrel? Or, was the blue jay hungry? Blue jays eat small invertebrates, and that squirrel turned out to be one spineless creature.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A few hours at the Edgewood Diner

Tuesday evening I had dinner with thirteen or fourteen former Ash/Craft colleagues: all of them women, most of them retired and several of them in the process of preparing for their yearly migration to places where the winter weather has fewer character-building qualities. By coincidence, Mrs. Harris and her husband were having dinner at the restaurant. Mrs. Harris is the mother of Tom Harris, a municipal judge in Conneaut. A few years ago on St. Patrick's Day, Nancy and I went to a performance of Irish music. While we waited for the program to start, a voice behind me asked, "Aren't you Tom Harris?" "Yes, I am," I said. "I'm Tom Harris' mother," she said. So, in her role as Tom Harris' mother, she came over to me Tuesday and me told to be sure I behaved myself with all those women.

Maxine was there, too, with her wonderful Canadian accent and dry, self-deprecating wit. She wore a ball cap to hide the smattering of hair that has sprouted since the last round of cancer treatment. She was full of life and of stories and never said much about what ails her. But as everyone was getting ready to leave, she looked at me in the wheelchair and said, "How could this have happened to two such wonderful people as ourselves?" Neither of us had an answer to that, but Max did talk about this being her life and, while she can't do much about her health, that she is determined to make the most of each day she has.

There is a very wise woman behind that Canadian accent and dry, self-deprecating wit.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Your Slip is Showing

A few months ago, Nancy and I inherited a year's worth of Reader's Digests. Now, I hate to bad-mouth the folks in Pleasantville - two of Russ' cartoons appeared in the issues we received - but judging from the sampling we have, this is certainly not my father's, or mother's or Uncle Jim's Reader's Digest. For one thing, the "Toward More Picturesque Speech" feature has been discontinued and is sorely missed. And while all the humor features and fillers are still there, there seems to be a greater reliance on stupid-people humor.

Now, I laugh at stupid people as much as the next guy, but there is always the danger when you point out the intellectual deficits of others that your own slip might be showing (another late, lamented Reader's Digest feature). So it is that page 25 of the November 2009 issue popped right out at me.

Under the headline "5 Tips to Make Life Easier," I discovered the following:

The first suggestion was to stay away from the Internet for a while, which can be done, if you're a Mac user, by going to The second suggestion was to read up on common legal problems by going to The third was to learn about the classics of literature without actually reading them by going to Then, to reduce the clutter in your home and office, you can throw out the phone books by accessing And finally, vacation planning is a breeze when you go to But remember, before you do any of these things, the first step toward a simpler life is staying away from the Internet.

I'm being picky, I know. But if "Toward More Picturesque Speech" hadn't been discontinued, I would have read it instead.

The assignment was to use the word "translucence" as part of a metaphor. What follows is notable in only one regard: it took me five hours to compose and then I spent several hours over several days tinkering with it. If the Founders had spent this much time writing the Constitution, they'd still be in that room in Independence Hall in Philadelphia.

So, for no reason other than it took so long to write, here it is:

The Mist Use of Words

The politician’s speech - a Hollywood shower scene, with a beautiful woman behind frosted glass in a bathroom clouded with steam, luxuriating suggestively while caressing herself with soap, that tempts the viewer to imagine transparency where there is only translucence and bawdy anatomical exactness where there is but a fuzzy silhouette – led the listener to fill the fog of artfully blurred oratory with pleasing and explicit details conceived in his dreams of life without taxes.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Summertime Blues

The unbearable heaviness of summer took the weekend off but returned to its post Monday. I am a little ashamed - and with good reason, some would say; although this has nothing to do with any other shameful facets of my life - to be whining about summer weather, since I spent all winter complaining about winter weather. Ah, but Grandma, who was on target with "It's hell growing old," also got it right when she said, "As a rule, man's a fool./ When it's hot, he wants it cool./ When its cool, he wants it hot./ Always wanting what is not."

I, however, have an excuse for my summertime crankiness. Apparently, it is a medical fact that people with multiple sclerosis do not do well in the heat. Hot-and-humid was never my favorite climatic condition, and a few years before I was diagnosed, I did notice the weather weighing me down more than in the past. So, when the medical professionals told me that the heat was hard on those with MS, I said, "Aha, I knew it. This weather-induced ennui doesn't have anything to do with age." And I felt so relieved. In truth, the word "ennui" did not pop up in my thoughts that day. It is, however, a word Mom introduced me to many years ago on Myrna Drive; it was the answer to a clue in the crossword puzzle she was doing that day. And since Mom also had a narrow range of acceptable temperatures, I believe my use of the word - while perhaps not an accurate quote in the narrow, persnickety sense - is justified.

The downside of summer weather has been unrelenting this year. In a more normal summer, we have tropical conditions for a week here and a few days there. The rest of the summer is reasonably pleasant - hot, but not oppressive during the day, comfortably cool at night. In those years, there are nights when friendly Canadians send us cool air from across the lake and it gets a little chilly here. This year, the Canadians have banned the export cool, dry air, and the tropical systems, like our politicians, are operating on the premise that it is better to make the people miserable than to occasionally compromise.

Still, life goes on, and in just a few months, I'll again be complaining about the cold. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, but I am not now, nor have I ever been, the exception to Grandma's rule of foolish men.

And, as long as I'm whining; according to the news, e-books are now outselling books. This probably doesn't mean the end of civilization as we know it - and can a civilization with Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck
be called a civilization? - but if bookstores and libraries wither and die before I do, I will surely miss them. I buy most of my books on-line these days, and it's quick, easy and convenient. But, it's not much fun. It's difficult to browse on-line, and the real fun of going to a bookstore or library isn't finding the book I'm looking for, it's finding the book I don't know I'm looking for until I find it.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Just Wondering

Reading opens up a world of wonder. For instance, in the Plain Dealer this morning, I read that Bristol Palin has called off her engagement to Levi Johnson for the second time. Levi, it seems, told Bristol that he might have fathered a child with another girl. The name of the other girl hasn't been released, but a pregnant ex-girlfriend of Levi's has publicly denied that Levi is the father of her child. Then, Levi told Bristol he was going to Hollywood to see a hunting show, but the real purpose of the trip was to make a music video mocking the Palins.

So I'm wondering: If Grandma Sarah is elected president, will the White House be moved to the trailer park, or will the trailer park be moved to the White House lawn?

And, while I'm at it: Where is the other half of a semi-trailer?

In Salt: A World History, Mark Kurlansky writes of the various efforts made by the Chinese since ancient times to deal with the economic and social problems involved in or caused by the production and sale of salt. In 880, and angry mob protesting the salt monopoly took over the city of Xi'an. Which leads Kurlansky to write: "And the other great moral and political questions of the great debate on salt and iron-the need for profits, the rights and obligations of the nobility, aid to the poor, the importance of a balanced budget, the appropriate tax burden, the risk of anarchy, and the dividing line between the rule of law and tyranny-have all remained unresolved issues."

This leads me to wonder: How come the human race got smart enough to make it possible to blow up the world at the push of a button but never wise enough to find the answers to its most basic questions?

Turning his attention to France, Kurlansky writes: "Like the cheese of Parma, Roquefort also becomes overly salty, and this unfairly gives the cheese a reputation for saltiness."

Which leads me to wonder: What the hell is this guy talking about?


Alisha, the activities director, asked me to play Reader's Digest editor and condense an article on spring health tips she'd found ...