mark my words

Ever since I read my first book (‘Green Eggs and Ham’), I have been in love with words for their own sake. Sure, you can make some cool things out whole bunches of words, but some words are great all by themselves. ‘Effluvium.’ ‘Nexus.’ ‘Philology.’ Hell, ‘philology’ is just plain fun to say. Try it. Say ‘philology’ out loud three or four times (best to do this when you’re alone, as opposed to, say, while taking public transit).

I recently discovered a fascinating website called LanguageLog. Of course by ‘fascinating,’ I mean ‘interesting to people who find arcane observations about the minutiae of language interesting,’ but really, isn’t that all of us?  No? Anyway, from this site I learned that there’s an actual term for a misspoken phrase that still makes sense, like ‘old-timer’s disease’ instead of ‘Alzheimer’s.’ It’s called an ‘eggcorn.’

My favorite new word (new to me, and actually fairly new as a word) is ‘snowclone.’ While it sounds like something created by a villain in a Bond flick (“With my army of snowclones, world domination will be mine!”), the term was coined by a linguist to describe what you might call ‘fill-in-the-blank’ clichés, like ‘X is the new Y,’ or that was ‘the mother of all _____s,’ or ‘the ______ from Hell.’ (I try to make my column entertaining AND educational. You’re welcome.)

I wonder about clichés. What about the first guy who said ‘one hand washes the other’? Was he pissed when everybody started saying it? Or did his friends just look at him funny, like “Well, duh! That’s how hand-washing works!” And some clichés don’t make much sense. Before it became a cliché, did people need to be constantly reminded to look before they leapt?

Sometimes clichés aren’t all they’re cracked up to be (see what I did there? I used a cliché to describe clichés!) Like when you want to point out that two things are dissimilar—they’re like ‘apples and oranges.’ Not very effective, since apples and oranges are both fruit. Shouldn’t it be ‘that’s like apples and…trucks’? And there’s always a flipside to clichés—you could say that ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,’ but you could also argue that ‘what doesn’t kill us weakens us so that it’s easier to kill us in the future.’ Granted, that’s not as effective as an affirmation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about words lately, which I’ve found is much less labor-intensive than actually writing words. Let alone the whole ‘stringing words together into sentences’ deal. And then the sentences have to somehow connect to each other? Oy.

There are, to be sure, pros and cons about being a freelance writer. On the plus side, I work when I’m inspired to work, not because it’s…Monday. In the minus column, I only get paid when I’ve actually done something, as opposed to getting paid because it’s…Friday.

I read once that to be a successful freelancer, one should treat every day as if one had a regular job. Get up at a certain time, put in your eight hours, etc. Because the myth of freelancing is that you ‘make your own hours,’ when in reality, you have to work with the exact same hours everyone else does. It’s not like you get special ‘freelance hours’ that are eighty minutes long, or freelance days with extra hours in them.

The magic phrase is ‘be your own boss.’ Great idea in theory, but the problem I face is that I’m a shitty boss. Combine that with the fact that I’m kind of a crappy worker, and productivity can really suffer.

For instance, as my boss, I tend to let myself start work around eleven-ish, and I don’t even notice that for most of my first hour on the job, I’m using my work computer to surf the web. Now in my defense, those Scrabble tiles won’t move themselves. But still, you’d think a good boss would at least wander by my desk occasionally to keep me focused. Also, even though I appreciate a laid-back workplace, I’m not sure it’s a great idea to have a boss that lets me smoke pot at work.

I think I’m gonna find a business supply store, buy myself a time clock and attach it to my desk, just to get that tangible feeling of “Now it’s time to start working.” I’ll trick myself into being productive. Maybe I’ll pick up some partitions and turn my desk into a cubicle (I was actually curious where one would buy a cubicle, and I found out there is a company in Dallas called Cubiclemart, which may win the award for most soulless business name in history).

One big difference between a freelance career and a real job is that, in a real job, once you have the gig, you just keep showing up, whereas I have to keep getting rehired every time I finish something. The truth is, I’m not too worried. I’m starting a new assignment tomorrow, so I’ll probably take the rest of today off. Besides, I heard somewhere that not working is the new work.

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it’s all about the chair

My Muse, sometimes, is like my first girlfriend after we broke up—yeah, I could call her, we might even get together, but nothing much is gonna come of it. You try to think of topics, as a writer, that haven’t been done to death. There aren’t any.

We have reached a point in civilization where everything has now officially been covered. Oh, and mocked. And there have also been pieces commenting about the mocking. It’s all been done. Move along, nothin’ to write here.

If you’re not a writer, and instead, say, actually make things people use, you probably don’t have much empathy for the whole ‘writer’s block’ thing. I think that’s the case with most stories about the ‘struggling artist.’ I’m pretty sure the reason the film of ‘A Chorus Line’ wasn’t a huge box-office hit is that,  for the typical American worker, the notion that ‘it’s really hard to dance in a show’ didn’t really resonate.

After trying for days to start a new comedy piece (weird term–“I think I’ll just have a piece of comedy, thanks”), I finally had a breakthrough. I now know the reason why I haven’t been able to write lately. It’s my chair. It doesn’t roll. Damned stupid, non-rolling, stationary chair.

I think a writer’s credibility goes up a notch with the rolling chair. There’s something profoundly powerful about…not having to get up. Since I live in a small studio apartment, I could conceivably spend an entire day sitting on my ass. That, my friends, is living the dream. If I feel a need for some exercise…well, I can read about exercise on the internet.

Having a rolling chair says a lot about a man. It implies, “He’s so busy he can’t take the time to stand.” It says. “He must have a lot of visitors, what with him needing a chair turns around like that.” It says, “That’s kinda sad that he needs to pretend he works in an office.”

So today, to procure said chair, I entered the Swedish labyrinth known as Ikea. I realize that, to use the math of the far right, that means I’m a socialist. After all, I’m shopping at a Swedish store, Sweden has socialized medicine, therefore I want to pull the plug on your grandparents.

Ikea actually frightens me. First of all, Ikea stores are too freaking big–I shouldn’t need a map after I’m already at my destination! Just because you’re a Swedish company, doesn’t mean your store needs to be the size of Sweden. If I’m getting two things, say, a rolling chair and a skillet, and I’ve found one of the two items, I shouldn’t need to consult a GPS device to locate the other.Here’s an idea–split up into multiple stores, each specializing in something. It’s called a mall, and the concept works.

Secondly, It’s all just a little too…efficient, don’t you think? You know who else was efficient, don’t you? The Third Reich. Seriously, is that an Ikea catalog, or Aryan Monthly? Everything in a nice, flat box? Lemme tell you something, Mister…Swedish guy. REAL LIFE doesn’t come in a nice flat box! And ya know what else, Sven? Oh, never mind, imaginary Swedish person.

Now, the idea of low prices because you build the shit yourself is fine, but why stop there? Why not have a store that’s just a pile of wood and particle board, with another big pile of random screws and bolts? And no cashiers—just boxes of money at the entrance out of which you make change. Imagine the savings! I wonder if Swedish grocery stores follow the same model. Shoppers wandering through aircraft-hangar sized warehouses, picking their own bananas, milking cows… “Honey, don’t forget we’re having lamb chops tonight—bring your mallet and your cleaver.”

I guess I’m just willing to spend a little more in order to arrive home with the actual thing I bought, and not a box representing that thing. Also, I am, mechanically speaking, a numbnuts. My stepdad wouldn’t let me go into our own garage after he watched me try to hammer two boards together.

In those high school aptitude tests, I would score 99th percentile on everything except what they called ‘spatial relationships.’ They would show a diagram of a bunch of pulleys and gears, and the question would be something like, “If pulley A turns counterclockwise, which direction would gear C turn?” And I would stare at the page as if trying to decode the Rosetta Stone, thinking, ‘who could possibly figure that out?’ I remember scoring right around the 43rd percentile on ‘spatial relationships,’ which is only slightly better than Bobo the Circus Orangutan would have ranked.

My one attempt at assembling an Ikea item was a desk, which took me three and a half hours, an hour of which was spent looking for more instructions than the half-page of sketches included in the box. When I was done, it looked like a desk, but I had four random pieces left over. I was afraid to use the desk, because I was worried at least one of those pieces was the piece responsible for actually supporting any kind of weight. I mostly put really light things on it, like postage stamps, and my keys.

So, I have a chair now, and it has wheels. Okay, I actually have some cushions, some metal thingies, a couple of plastic dealies, and some wheels. But I vow, someday, somehow, I will take those cushions, most of the metal thingies, at least one of the plastic dealies, and the wheels, and I will make me a chair. And then–yes then,  I will be able to write.

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i blame the music

Nostalgia for Woodstock always leaves me cold. Born in 1960, I was nine at the time. Now in 2018, however, although there won’t be an outdoor music festival to commemorate, there will be the fortieth anniversary of me turning eighteen.

I think we are shaped as people by three things—our genetic makeup, the environment in which were raised, and the pop music of our adolescence. Granted, I can’t prove the last part of the theory, but in retrospect, I probably learned most of what I know about life, and love, from the songs that were popular as I was taking my tentative first steps into manhood. In further retrospect, I probably should have dated more in high school.

The musical landscape in 1978, like at any time, was a reaction to the zeitgeist. It was the year of Ted Bundy and the Hillside Strangler and the year Son of Sam was sentenced. The year of Jonestown, and John Wayne Gacy. Rhodesia attacked Zambia, and Vietnam attacked Cambodia. It was the year Garfield debuted. As a reaction to all of these horrific events, record buyers wanted something comfortable, something they understood in a world turned topsy-turvy.

Popular music in 1978 was, for the most part, soft and mushy, because the real world was hard. Sure, you had the Camp David accord (which worked out really well—thank God that led to lasting peace.) But all in all, things were kinda scary. And the last thing Americans wanted was angry music. We wanted songs about love. (Note: I did not live in a cave—I’m aware that punk music existed, but the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever sold fifteen million copies…I’m just sayin’.)

When I turned 18, five of the top ten songs on the charts were either performed, written or produced by some combination of Bee Gees. Whether it was Barry, Maurice, Robin, or Andy, fully half of the top ten songs in the country were sung in a quavery falsetto. To this day, I can’t walk down a street in Brooklyn carrying a paint can without hearing the faint harmonies of the brothers Gibb and the incessant mind-numbing rhythm of 103 beats per minute. It’s a damned good thing I don’t live in Brooklyn, or paint.

I’ve figured out that my lack of romantic success is directly related to  the soundtrack to my coming of age. Without any siblings to consult for advice, I had to rely on the radio to understand dating, and I took the lyrics of the songs to heart. Except the lyrics to Steely Dan songs. I still have no idea what the fuck they were talking about.

In the following story, I reunite with an old flame after reconnecting on Facebook. But there’s a catch! Everything I say to her includes the title of a song that was on Billboard Magazine’s Top 100 chart in 1978, in order, starting with number one.

 “All I know is that too much Shadow Dancing will lead to Night Fever. You Light Up My Life, but I’m just barely Stayin’ Alive. I’d like to Kiss You All Over, just to find out How Deep Is Your Love. Wait! Baby Come Back. I know I said Love Is Thicker Than Water, but maybe we could just, I don’t know, Boogie Oogie Oogie? No? Oh I get it – you’re too good for that now that you’re Three Times A Lady.”

 “When I try to figure out why Grease is the word, I Go Crazy. But You’re The One That I Want—and I say that with a lot of Emotion. Now…Lay Down, Sally. I’m kidding! Of course I know you’re name isn’t Sally. I just Miss You, and I want you to know I love you Just The Way You Are.”

 “I was thinking that With A Little Luck we could work it out, but If I Can’t Have You, I guess I’ll just Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah). That’s it—Feels So Good. Maybe I should ask that girl to dance…she looks like a Hot Child In The City. I just have to remember—Love Is Like Oxygen, and It’s A Heartache. But me–along with my buddies here—you know, We Are The Champions. We Will Rock You.”

 “Of course, when I walk along Baker Street, I realize I Can’t Smile Without You, but I suppose it’s Too Much, Too Little, Too Late. How about you just Dance With Me? C’mon, Two Out Of Three Ain’t Bad. My friends Jack And Jill both think you should Take A Chance On Me, but I’m not so sure, because Sometimes When We Touch, it feels like our Last Dance.”

 “I gotta tell you, I am Hopelessly Devoted To You. I’m Hot Blooded (check it and see)…You’re In My Heart, and The Closer I Get To You, I realize that all we are is Dust In The Wind. Or we’re like a Magnet and Steel or…something.”

 “By the way, I have nothing against Short People. In fact, a short person Use Ta Be My Girl. I know I’m not making sense herer, it’s just—Our Love…well, let’s just say Love Will Find A Way. And I’m talking about An Everlasting Love, especially since Love Is In The Air. I could be wrong, though—don’t leave–oh, well—Goodbye Girl.”

 I had felt her Slip Slidin’ Away for some time, so maybe I just need to get into the Groove Line, whatever that is. Or take a trip to Thunder Island with an Imaginary Lover. Realistically though, it’s Still The Same situation—me thinking about My Angel Baby. Frankly, I could walk past a Disco Inferno right there On Broadway, and if she were to ask me to Come Sail Away I would be Back In Love Again.

 This Time I’m In It For Love, and I ‘ll just come right out and tell her “You Belong To Me.” Oh my god—I can’t believe it—”Here You Come Again! I thought you were moving to Blue Bayou, Peg (that’s her name—it’s Peg, not Sally!), but apparently You Needed Me. Yeah, sometimes I feel a little Shame when I start Reminiscing, especially since I said you could Count On Me. Baby Hold On—”

 “Hey, Deanie—I wanted to ask you about those Summer Nights.  I’m sorry—What’s Your Name? Sorry, thought it was Deanie. Anyway, I’m here with Sally—er, Peg, so I gotta go.  Talk to you later.”

 “Hey—watch this—this is cool–when I start to think about you, Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue? Don’t it? Because The Night does strange things to a man.” You’re leaving again. Well, fine. I guess it takes Every Kinda People. “Well, at least we’ll have the CopacabanaAlways And Forever, You And I. And, of course, the tragic memories of that Serpentine Fire. I know you remember that, because you always were a Sentimental Lady.”

 “I will not be Falling again any time soon. Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood—I am Bluer than Blue, but I’ve been Running On Empty here, and it seems like Whenever I Call You ‘Friend‘, you just say “You’re a Fool (If You Think It’s Over). That really doesn’t help– I just want to Get Off with a Sweet Talkin’ Woman. How am I doing? Well, Life’s Been Good, and you know me, I Love The Nightlife, but–hey, you’re changing the subject–You Can’t Turn Me Off (In The Middle of Turning Me On).”

 “It’s So Easy for you. You’re a Native New Yorker. You should probably go, but…here, take this Flashlight, and whatever you do, Don’t Look Back. I’m serious—you’ll Turn To Stone. Take my umbrella, too, because I Can’t Stand The Rain. Now go…don’t look at me with those Ebony Eyes. Don’t cry—leaving is The Name Of The Game. We’re All Alone now. Just remember those Hollywood Nights.” They call Alabama the Crimson Tide—call me Deacon Blues.

 Questions for Discussion

  1. Did the serpentine fire CAUSE the disco inferno?
  2. If love is thicker than water, how can it also be like oxygen?
  3. If you’re ‘bluer than blue,’ doesn’t that make you…indigo?
  4. If you date someone who is ‘three times a lady,’ are you actually cheating on two of them?
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