Archive for the 'Words' Category



For the ultimate in introverted passive aggression, you can’t beat text messaging. Who knew the technology would become so indispensable to me?

But be careful. When too hastily thumbing a note to someone, it’s far too easy to muddy the message with entirely the wrong word. If you can train your phone well enough, that word-suggestion feature can be handy — for proper nouns and unusual spellings, especially. I, on the other hand, still can’t find the quotation marks or parentheses on my phone. There is little hope for me.

For instance, I can’t really use those abominable abbreviations so common among nearly everyone younger than me. (The title of this post is somewhat misleading, then.) I have to teach my phone almost any abbreviation. It can backfire, though. I taught my phone the abbreviation “VM” for “voice mail.”

Clever, eh?

Not when you’re trying to type “to” … a word that comes up, I have found, an awful damn lot.

There is some comfort at least in knowing that my phone expects something closer to Standard English from me.

Worse, I have somehow managed to program in some completely ridiculous substitutions. Whenever I type “at,” the number 28 appears. Instead of “can,” I get “226” — which is considerably less useful.

Often the effect is just comical. Once while thumbing out the word “pimp” I got “shop.” (I forget the context. Does it matter?) Clicking through the substitutions was almost almost poetic:


Here are a few more interesting accidental substitutions I have come across recently:

  • Hate yields have
  • Male: make
  • Save: rate
  • Season: reason
  • Soon: room
  • Note: move
  • Go: in
  • Fat: eat
  • Doll: folk
  • Brian: asian
  • Home: good
  • Stick: quick
  • Saloon: salmon
  • Kind: line
  • Of: me
  • If: he
  • Mine: mind
  • Much: ouch
  • And my favorite… Pew: sex

The Emperor’s Children

The Emperor's Children
I can’t say I don’t recommend it. Just be prepared to take some time with it.

Messud’s writing style is dizzyingly parenthetic. I lost count of the sentences I had to read over two or three times before I could disentangle the syntax. It’s like a photocopy of exact thought at times: It may have made perfect sense to her, but not everyone can follow along. I accepted it early on as a stylistic quirk, but often it seemed gratuitous, a mishmash of clauses that could have existed happily as separate sentences, whose unholy union only complicated and obfuscated rather than providing any deeper meaning.

She uses several turns of phrase that just don’t parse for me. And I think she hit the thesaurus a few too many times. I am not an unintelligent reader, and I have my own fondness for good words, but what’s the point when it obscures rather than reveals meaning? It’s inexcusable, especially considering her consistent misuse of the very simple word “comprise” throughout. Sometimes it’s not so much the fault of the writer as it is her editor.

That said, the novel is engaging. Each chapter is written from the perspective of a one of the principle characters, yet the voice is a consistent coherent narrator. The variety keeps the story from getting too dull.

The one thing that binds all of them to each other is their tremendous self-indulgence. (I’m sure her own self-indulgent writing style was not nearly as intentional.) I recognized people I dislike in these characters. And isn’t it always the case — I recognized qualities I dislike about myself in them. It kept me from liking them too much to remain objective, yet it made them familiar enough to keep me paying attention.

What drew me to this book was my curiosity about the new spate of novels and short stories that have come out in recent years in which 9/11 plays a significant part. It annoyed me at first that anyone would reduce that day and its aftermath to a plot point — even if it was done well. Six years on, it can still be a ballsy proposition. But like all such events, it is a plot point. It is our history, our story, our plot. I admire the way Messud uses it at the end as a means of releasing &$8212; shattering — the characters out of their illusions, while still capturing the horror, panic and disbelief of those days. I think it had a similar effect on all of us, however short- or long-lasting it may have been.


Is this what Michael Tolliver calls living?

Armistead Maupin may be indispensable for gay men of a certain generation, but he is not a good writer. There. I said it. May I burn forever in the fiery pits of hell.

What made him famous — no, what made him essential was his ability to encapsulate a city and a decade and a moment in gay history, American history, within the pages of his original novels.

Michael Tolliver Lives rides on the coattails of an important literary achievement. But it need not have been written. It reads like an extended epilogue, neatly placing all the characters in their uninteresting fates, betraying the imagination of readers the world over who thought they knew what happened to the inhabitants of 28 Barbary Lane. It’s like one more season of Absolutely Fabulous that gets yet farther away from the characters and the audience and, while it may get the auteur some brief attention and a bit of money, ultimately does a disservice to the original phenomenon of the work that inspired the most recent re-visitation in the first place.

To start with, there’s not much of a plot. It is one of the fastest reads of my life, and the book is kind of boring because, really, nothing happens. Upon turning the last page, I thought: Is that it? The title Michael Tolliver Lives says more than the whole collected 277 pages. If Maupin is trying to make a statement about life — full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? — no thank you. I will just live my own and leave Michael Tolliver’s alone.

The Tales of the City series was at least notable its convoluted plots and excellent character studies. And part of their charm was Maupin’s insistence on placing them in time with very specific cultural references. This time around, however, it is clear that it is he, and not his characters, who are behind the times. There is too much laborious explanation of things that are already quite clear. His dialogue is wooden. Night Listener was a marvelous little novel. This one fell far short of the mark. Maupin would have done better to have left the inhabitants of 28 Barbary Lane back in the late ’80s, where they were relevant and interesting and significant. These days, unfortunately, Michael “Mouse” Tolliver is nothing more than a slightly bitter, self-indulgent, over-sentimental, unfunny, but loquacious shadow of himself.

But at least we know he lives.



The ad says something like “People who need people. People who know people. People who know people who need people.”

Something like that.

It’s a subway poster for the Freelancer’s Union, and before I even comprehend the message, I react mainly to the number of times the word “people” appears. Of course, they want to focus on people: It’s a union. But when it’s repeated, like, 10 times in a single ad, it makes the word look weird.

Look at it:


That “eo” combination is just bizarre. Stare at printed English long enough and the words begin to look as foreign as another language. (Maybe because most of them are.) At the same time, they are totally familiar.

Say it over and over: people, people, people. Pee-pull. It just sounds weird. I’m embarrassed to say it. Do people (ahhh!) really say that word?

I don’t know if the ad makes me think about people, but it sure does make me think about “people.”



Sometimes I think we get so caught up in the ordinariness of every day that we lose sight of the poetry around us.

Sometimes I think that ordinariness is exactly where the poetry is.


Kenny Rogers: Promethean Giver of Truth

There was a time in my life when the songs that influenced me most were the hymns we sang at Catholic Mass.

I am the bread of life,
Those who come to me shall not hunger,
Those who believe in me shall not thirst
No one can come to me
Unless the Father beckons.

And I will raise him up
And I will raise him up
And I will raise him up
On the last day

Those days are all but over, but I miss it sometimes. I loved the music at church, especially when they’d haul out the choir every once in a while. The music was always the best part of Mass for me. I used to copy the notes out of the hymn book to pass the time, measure by measure, into a little notebook my mom kept in her purse. I didn’t know what they meant exactly, but it felt like a productive task at the age of 5. But the lyrics… These songs were so abstract. Bread? It was good for Communion, good for Easter, but a man cannot live on the Bread of Life alone, right?

There was also, of course, Schoolhouse Rock.

Interplanet Janet, she’s a galaxy girl,
A solar system Ms. from a future world,
She travels like a rocket with her comet team
And there’s never been a planet Janet hasn’t seen,

A bit weird, maybe. How about:

I’m just a bill.
Yes, I’m only a bill.
And I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill.
Well, it’s a long, long journey
To the capital city.
It’s a long, long wait
While I’m sitting in committee,
But I know I’ll be a law some day
At least I hope and pray that I will
But today I am still just a bill.

But there was a golden great I’ve been reminded of recently that taught me so much more.

On a warm summer’s evenin’ on a train bound for nowhere,
I met up with the gambler. We were both too tired to sleep.
So we took turns a starin’ out the window at the darkness
‘Til boredom overtook us, and he began to speak.

He said, “Son, I’ve made a life out of readin’ people’s faces,
And knowin’ what their cards were by the way they held their eyes.
And if you don’t mind my sayin’, I can see you’re out of aces.
For a taste of your whiskey I’ll give you some advice.”

So I handed him my bottle and he drank down my last swallow.
Then he bummed a cigarette and asked me for a light.
And the night got deathly quiet, and his face lost all expression.
Said, “If you’re gonna play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right.

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

Ev’ry gambler knows that the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away and knowing what to keep.
‘Cause ev’ry hand’s a winner and ev’ry hand’s a loser,
And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.”

And when he’d finished speakin’, he turned back towards the window,
Crushed out his cigarette and faded off to sleep.
And somewhere in the darkness the gambler, he broke even.
But in his final words I found an ace that I could keep.

You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.

The Gambler by Kenny Rogers. This is one of my all-time favorites. This was the stuff of real life. Metaphors that gave me some insight into the grown-up world — even if I didn’t know exactly what he was singing about at the time. I used to imagine a satanic, horned man dealing cards to a table of cowboys whenever I heard Kenny sing: “There’ll be time enough for counting when the demon’s done.”

(I must have had a little too much of the Bread of Life.)

Still, I was astute enough to gather valuable lessons about:

• Cross-country railroad etiquette
• The joys of traveling without a destination
• How to share a smoke
• The value of a sip of whiskey
• Winning gracefully (you never count your money…)
• Knowing what to throw away (and what to keep)
• The unpredictability of life
• The inevitablilty of death, and the ability to look at it without sentimentality
• And most importantly, how to tell a story

There’s another famous attempt at a similar theme:

I’m a gambler, and I will take you by surprise
Gambler, I’ll aim this straight between your eyes
Gambler, yeah I know all the words to say
‘Cause I’m a gambler, I only play the game my way, yeah

Not nearly as informative, I think. But it’s a lot of fun, and you can dance to it.


Oxford English Dictionary

I don’t think any part of me is English. I know I’m 50% of Polish extraction. The other half is mainly German, with a smattering of French (the Alsace-Lorraine region, my grandma says), Swiss and Native American. Not nearly enough of the latter to win me a scholarship, of course. And none of this is a source of pride or an attempt at establishing any sort of credibility; it is merely fact.

Nevertheless, my non-Englishness has not prevented me from feeling a kinship with England. It surfaced first most notably when I was a kid with my very strong reaction to Mary Poppins. I cried like a whipped child every time the wind changed and she left the Banks children. (This also led to an unassailable love for Julie Andrews.) When I got older, I bought the series of books by P.L. Travers, which I now, of course, prefer to the movie. (I think the “P.L.” stands for “persnickety lesbian,” which is why we love her.)

Now I collect the hard-cover, cloth-bound, first edition, British-published Bloomsbury editions of the Harry Potter series. The British spellings and slang just seem more true than what we see in the American editions. The British cover illustrations are far superior. Even the Bloomsbury typeface of the text is better.

When I was in London in the summer of 1997 for overseas study, I felt very comfortable. It was all a big romance for me — until I was dressed down by my writing professor once for something I wrote about the charming chimney sweeps dancing with Mary Poppins across the rooftops of London. Chim-chim-cheree and tally-ho!

Those men were overworked slaves of the aristocracy, he said — they often died of various kinds of cancer from the soot they inhaled throughout their lives — any child born to a chimney sweep inherited a short, dismal life of extreme hardship and abject poverty — shame on you, Eric, for romanticizing such a detestible way of life. You are overprivileged. You are petty. You are American.

Touché, Professor Penn.

However, those sweeps sure could dance!

So, I think I’m an Anglophile.

I am aware that this is a completely superficial appreciation for England. It is, after all, filtered through the lens of American history, literature, public television and BBC America. I’m comfortable with that.

But maybe I’m just biased.

Part of that love is manifested in an intense love of the English language — which, it is rumored, some people still speak in the U.K. This love knows no bounds but my general laziness for study. However, I did write a senior project in college on the history of punctuation. And I took graduate-level courses as an undergrad on the history of English. It was taught by an Oxford English Dictionary researcher. (I say this, again, not out of pride, and not to establish myself as any sort of expert — Lord knows, I am not — but just to show my love.)

English is huge. More than 400,000 words, and growing. Highly adaptable. Many of those words are absorbed (I will not say stolen) from other languages. As a result, it is monstrously confusing to second-language learners. (Even I, when typing “monstrously,” had to ask myself: Is there an E?)

I can’t wait until 2010, when the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary is scheduled to be released. Far more than a simple, boring compendium of definitions, the OED is a treasure chest of history. Every word is traced back to its earliest appearance, from Old English to modern Standard English.

I love the OED. I covet it. All 20-plus volumes of it. I want to pore over it with a magnifying glass. I want to sleep with each volume in turn, wrapping myself around its sharp, hard-bound edges.

Years ago, I wrote an article for the Hitchhker’s Guide to the Galaxy Web site, about the OED. I was inspired by a book I had just read called The Professor and the Mad Man, by Simon Winchester, about a criminally insane OED researcher and his relationship with the dictionary’s original editor.

I was amazed and gratified when the entry was edited (hence the British spellings) and published.


How P!nk Helped Me See the L!ght

As a kid, I imagined God literally controlled each one of us. I visualized it with Flintstone vitamins. I’d pour them out on the kitchen table and take Fred and Dino in each hand and bounce them toward and away from each other, making them talk to each other and interact.

“Hi, Dino.” “Ruff! Ruff!” “Down, boy!”

You find philosophy in the strangest of places.

Like lately — I’ve been downloading crap for the last few weeks from iTunes. Everything from Tim Burton movie sountracks to mindless pop music. Something tickles my fancy, and 99 cents later, it’s mine. Recently I was reminded of a little gem from P!nk called “God is a DJ.”

I’ve heard worse.

In fact, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, I like the song. It’s kind of clever, isn’t it? (Isn’t it?) Father forgive me, for I have sinned. It is … a long time since my last confession.

If God is a DJ
Life is a dancefloor
Love is a rhythm
You are the music

If God is a DJ
Life is a dancefloor
You get what you’re given
It’s all how you use it

At first, I thought that last line was “And somehow you use it,” which I actually like better.

I suppose there’s a sort of theological relevance: God is not a puppetmaster, manipulating us like marionettes. God doesn’t move us one by one. Rather, he spins the record, and we groove along the best way we can. He merely controls our environment, and we are left to make our own choices.

Of course, “God wants you to shake your ass,” as P!nk so gamely shouts toward the end of the song. It’s the sort of clever conceit that passes for deep thought in pop music. But truthfully, it’s not a bad metaphor. “Get your ass on the dancefloor,” she shouts again. Get out there and do something. Take what you have in life, and move. Don’t stand there against the wall and watch everyone else dancing.

I can see why someone might believe that. It might also be total crap. Who knows if P!ink herself even believes it. It’s irrelevant.

At any rate, it’s a much more comforting way of comprehending divine intervention than what my childhood imagination allowed. It outs a lot of pressure on a kid to think of himself as a chewable pawn between the index finger and thumb of God’s hand.


You Go Girl

I found this on the Editor and Publisher Web site:
Oprah “Freys” President Bush: Read It Here First

It’s an interesting idea: What if Oprah grilled Bush like she did James Frey, the published liar. (By the way, if you publish a memoir and change — even embellish — a few things, I have no problem considering it non-fiction if you follow the example of such confessors as Augusten Burroughs, author of Dry and Running with Scissors, and at least tell us so at the beginning. Frey did not do this, ergo, “liar.”)

I always find these “what if” columns to be a bit silly and unhelpful in the end. Mind you, I’d rather Oprah grill Bush on his criminally irresponsible tax-cut schemes or his unrealistic expectations of the future of the American health care system. But that’s just me.

Nevermind what you think of her. I love the way Oprah wins no matter what she does. At first, she declines to slam Frey, instead taking that bizarre middle ground: The book is good and important and meaningful whether it’s non-fiction or not. And people coo and sigh and say, “She has such personal integrity.” (However, it must be noted, some of her biggest critics were fans of her show.)

Then she changes her mind and rips Frey a new one on her couch, on TV, in front of millions of housewives and unemployed gay waiters, and people coo and sigh and say, “She has such personal integrity.”

Her couch is truly a hot seat. What a crazy world that she is among the most powerful and feared in media and the American press corps is continually disrespected and emasculated by our government. Let’s send Oprah after Scott McClellan. I’d love to have seen her go after Ari Fleischer, too.


Patience and Fortitude

Today is the first anniversary of my wedding day. Jeff and I celebrated with a quick walk around the environs of the New York Public Library building at Bryant Park, where, three years ago, he proposed to me, and a quiet dinner out in the West Village.

Patience flanks the south side of the NY Public Library front steps. (

Standing just behind the marble lion on the south side of the front steps, Jeff distracted my attention toward some pigeons or something, and when I turned back, there was a small, gray box sitting in front of me on the low wall surrounding the terrace. What else could it be but a ring? Its sudden appearance was still a total surprise. And the first thing I thought was “Why didn’t I propose to him first?” And then “How long has he been planning this?” I snapped open the lid and looked at the simple white gold band, and I hardly knew how to look at him anymore.

“Will you marry me?” he asked. And wishing I could say something more heroic, I took a deep breath and said “Yes.”

After slipping the ring on and holding Jeff for a good long time and looking back and forth several times between his tearful eyes and the shining ring, we walked away together to explore the city.

Incidentally, as we turned to go, we saw we were in front of a Starbucks and were sort of amused and horrified at once. Had he just provosed to me in front of the Starbucks? Technically, yes. And looking in three directions and seeing three more Starbucks, we realized there was little chance in Midtown Manhattan of not proposing in front of one.

This was two years before we moved to New York. September. Jeff thought the library was simply a good bookish place to propose to a former English major. And I loved him for making that choice.

When I later learned that the two lions in front of the library building are named Patience and Fortitude, the appropriateness of that location was even more clear, whether Jeff intended it or not. After love, what are the most essential ingredients of a relationship? Patience and fortitude: a willingness to deal with not only your own problems, but also the challenges someone else brings to your life; and the strength to do it again and again.

And again.

Jeff and I got into a stupid fight the night before our anniversary. We were drunk, and I was being stupid. It was not the way either of us wanted to start our second year of marriage, but there it was — poorly timed, but when is a good time for an argument. I slept in the second bedroom and woke up clear headed enough to remember almost everything from the night before.

We’ve had some spectacular fights in the last eight years. Nothing physical. We don’t duke it out. We just suddenly snap and bark at each other like young dogs. Once I slammed the bedroom door so hard it I broke the door jamb. Once Jeff threw a brick of sharp cheddar on the floor. Broken plates. Overturned ashtrays. Nothing that can’t be swept away.

And we still enjoyed our pilgrimmage to the library today, albeit after sleeping in until mid-afternoon and sheepishly tip-toeing around the apartment. We visited our little sacred spot behind Patience and kissed and held on to each other like our lives depend on it — because they do. We still had our dinner out at his favorite place, Good (which was not-so-good tonight, as it happens). We got dessert at a café with a few friends and had an early night in watching a movie and teasing our cat.

Because we can.

With patience and fortitude all this marvelous mundanity can be ours.

The Starbucks is no longer on that terrace in front of the library. The lions aren’t so easily moved. Those marble guardians stand against time and the elements. And in a way, so do we. We stand against a legal system that is only reluctantly starting to accept us but still doesn’t recognize my marriage, a population that pendulates between misunderstanding and ignoring us, and patterns of self-destructive behavior that threaten to divide us from our friends and family and each other. Witness last night: We can clearly stand against each other. But even in doing this, we do not stand apart. In the end, we always settle in to a soft, close, quiet place and sigh and take a moment to look around at the leather-bound volumes of our years together and find a sense of pride and accomplishment and relief. We remember how important it is to stand together, guarding this little relationship of ours.

P.S. We’re now looking for statues named after “wisdom,” “beauty,” and “financial responsibility.” If you have any leads, let me know.

the untallied hours