Watch Words, 2006


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Watch Words (December, 2006)
Post-Election Tidbits

A Tale of Two Georges

George Stephanopoulis was only 31 in 1993, when he became President Clinton's first communications director. In the early months of that administration, Clinton took a lot of hits in the press for his lack of savvy and the perceived "immaturity" of his approach to governance. So the young, elvin-featured Stephanopoulis became an early casualty of Clinton 's PR readjustment phase. Clinton replaced Stephanopoulis with David Gergen, the distinguished conservative commentator and former speechwriter for President Reagan.

In his memoir, All Too Human, Stephanopoulis writes about how devastated he felt about being demoted to a mere "advisor" to Clinton . He was unsure about his future. Would he even last in his new station? Would he be taken seriously?

He spent an agonized weekend before giving his final week of press briefings on behalf of the president. The press corps, of course, already knew of his fall from grace.  But Stephanopoulis understood that "presentation is everything," and if he could find a way to look poised and smart on this potentially humiliating occasion, he'd have a chance to survive politically.

After many anguished hours of wracking his brain and brainstorming with his confidantes, George Stephanopoulis figured out a way to go out with a flourish. He walked confidently up to the podium on Monday morning, smiled, and gamely asked the assembled members of the press, "So . . . how was your weekend?" Laughter followed and, as Stephanopoulis succinctly states in his memoir, "My comeback had begun."

Fast forward to November, 2006. One does not normally think of George W. Bush as an avid reader. But perhaps someone put a copy of All Too Human in his hands, as it seems Bush tried to borrow a page from the Stephanopoulis playbook. The day after last month's midterm election drubbing of the Republican Party, Bush greeted the press in the East Room of the White House with a forced, nervous chuckle and this opening gambit:

"I say, why all the glum faces?"

A second or two passed. The reporters sat stone-faced, and you could hear a pin drop.

Oh well. Fire the speechwriter!

Reasons to Be Glum
Though his own name was not on the ballot this time, it was clearly a very bad election for George W. Bush personally. Not only did his party lose power, but the vast majority of the candidates that he personally campaigned for (in what were perceived to be competitive races) went down to defeat.
In California 's 11th Congressional District, Bush arrived in late September to stomp for Richard Pombo, the seven-term Republican incumbent. In the wake of Bush's visit, Pombo's Democratic challenger, Jerry McNerney experienced a spike in media interest and fundraising. McNerney's campaign issued a press release asking Bush to please come back.

McNerney went on to beat Pombo.

Interview Analysis
And then there is Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker-of-the-House-to-be. Now that the election is over, will she try to work with Bush, or work to undermine him further?
For a possible indication, let's examine a few excerpts from Pelosi's post-election-day interview with PBS's Margaret Warner on The News Hour:
MARGARET WARNER: How do you read . . . the fact that [President Bush] has let Rumsfeld go?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Well, I think it signals that he might be ready for change, but let's remember: He is the commander-in-chief. Rumsfeld or any secretary is an employee, an implementer of the policy. But the president makes the policy.

 Interpretation: Let's keep in mind that it is Bush, not Rumsfeld, who is responsible for all the terrible mistakes that have been made in Iraq .
MARGARET WARNER: You've talked about wanting to work with the president, but . . . you've called him an incompetent leader, a person with no judgment. You've talked about his shallowness.

REP. NANCY PELOSI: I don't think I ever said "shallow."

MARGARET WARNER: Shallowness. You said he still showed the same shallowness he brought to the office. And I'm just wondering, do you have that level of contempt for him, for his intellect, for his judgment?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: It's not about that. It's about Katrina; it's about the conduct of the war; it's about the deficit that is growing monumental scale in our country. This administration is marked by gross incompetence. And you have to have knowledge to have judgment, to make the right decisions, to improve the lives of the American people and the policies of the United States.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you think you can work with someone whom you think has not demonstrated that?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: Of course. He's the president of the United States . I respect the office, and I respect him. I don't respect his judgment on Katrina, on Iraq , and on a number of other issues.

Interpretation: I absolutely respect the president, because I'm an earnest, respectful public servant, and a patriot. But clearly, the man is a hopeless idiot.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, some members of your caucus are calling for big investigations into how the president got us into the war and how they've managed it. How far will you let investigations like that go?

REP. NANCY PELOSI: First of all, there are people in the country who are saying it's time for the Democrats to get even. And I say to them: We're not about getting even. We're about helping the American people get ahead. That's what our priority is here. You do have to have hearings and checks and balances in the Congress of the United States vis-a-vis the executive branch, if you're going to pass laws and improve the lives of the American people. This is about honoring our constitutional responsibility. Investigations are needed in terms of -- I think the American people want to know about Katrina, about contracting and Halliburton in Iraq . They want to know how we have the energy policy that we do so that we go forward to protect the American people in case of natural disaster, to protect us in times of -- we're engaged in a war and its cost to the American people and, of course, how we form our energy policy. That would be three places where I think hearings would be very necessary for us to go forward for better policy.

Interpretation: We Democrats have no desire for revenge or vindication, unless it's in the best interests of the country.

Meanwhile Back at the Ballot Box

I was among those who were concerned that the 2006 Congressional election could be stolen by corrupt or defective electronic voting machine software. But it was not a close election, and my team won this time. (Yes, I'm a Democrat.)

Still, there were problems, and all is not well in the voting booth. Electronic glitches were reported all over the country. The story that's been getting the most attention occurred in Florida 's 13th Congressional district, where Democrat Christine Jennings lost, officially, by a mere 369 votes. But voting machines in Sarasota County, Jennings' strongest county, rendered approximately 18,000 "undervotes"-- ballots on which no vote was registered for the high-profile Congressional race. These 18,000 ballots comprised nearly 15% of all ballots cast in Sarasota County , as compared to undervote rates of 2.2. to 5.3% in neighboring counties.

The voting machines did not generate a paper record for each vote, so there is no way to conduct a recount other than by relying on the same block box software that produced the undervotes in the first place. Meanwhile, many Sarasota voters reported that the Congressional race did not appear on their voting machine screens, or that their votes in the Congressional race did not register on the screen.

Jennings has filed suit, demanding a re-vote.

In the words of the New York Times editorial page, "electronic voting without the full array of protections, including a voter-verified paper trail, is unacceptable."

May the Luckiest Man Win
The 369-vote margin in Florida 's 13th Congressional district was tiny. But Wade Carlson of Dacono , Colorado only needed a total of 368 votes to retain the office of mayor.
On Election Day, Carlson and his opponent Larry Johnston had each received precisely 366 votes. But three outstanding provisional ballots provided two extra votes to Carlson and only one to Johnston , which left Carlson with a 368 to 367 edge.

In the days leading up to the mandatory recount, Johnston remarked, "It's been a contentious race. I would like to get to the point where we get to some closure."

(Maybe he really meant that he'd like to see things come to a place where they could get to a point where they could arrive at a semblance of some amount of closure.)

Carlson declared, "Remember this: Until the fat man sings, you don't know how it's going to turn out. And I haven't sung yet."

The 368 to 367 tally stood intact after the recount, giving Carlson the victory.

But under Colorado law, which has been on the books since 1876, if neither candidate in a political contest holds more than a two-vote lead after a recount, the winner must be chosen "by lot"--in other words, literally by a dice roll or coin flip.

However, neither candidate approved of this method. Johnston (ultimately the gracious loser) stated, "Basically it's the law, but I still think it, in essence, disenfranchises the people who did vote."

Carlson's view was more emphatic: "It's a dumb, antiquated method of luck of the draw, and it's absolutely ridiculous in this day and age. Let's put on the boxing gloves and go out in the streets and duke it out--that's my preference!"

Here's a little brain teaser: Just judging by their word choices, which of these two guys do you suppose is the Republican?

There is no right answer. It was a "non-partisan" race. But what were you thinking?

Back Words: Go Easy on Gore, and Compost
A reader-friend, Carey, wrote the following in response to the November Watch Words:

I think you are being a little too rough on Al Gore, who has been tirelessly working toward saving our species. How many of us can say the same of ourselves? He is imperfect, as we all are. It is too easy to criticize someone who is out there.... Individual conservation is quite important, but he is trying to get the attention of world leaders to make policy change first, and that is where his main focus is. If the nation's leaders change the culture, more people will fall in to conservation mode. (Of course, bottom-up change is needed too, but it's harder.)  He is painting with a broad brush, trying to get huge ideas across and make big changes first. But he has a website and might appreciate the suggestion that he stump more for individual conservation.

Composting could be added to the conservation list. . . . A surprising amount of landfill space goes to supposedly biodegradable food-- way more than to diapers! Composting is a wonderful way to contribute, both to the earth and to your garden.

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Watch Words (November, 2006)
A Few Missing Election Issues

The Election Season

I'm not one to complain about the clamor and noise of elections. I may be in the minority, but I enjoy them. I like watching candidates debate; I find it far more stimulating than, say, the World Series.

Political flyers I could do without. They're a profligate waste of paper, which translates to a waste of trees. I'd like to see candidates boast about how their campaign materials are printed on 100% post-consumer recycled paper and how, once elected, they'll continue to find innovative ways of preserving our forests. They'll mandate the reuse of one-sided paper, for example, in all their government offices.

Which brings me to the first item on my personal list of missing issues:


I hear a lot about "conservatives" but the word "conservation," like "liberal," seems to be one that our politicians are currently afraid of. How crazy is that?

A few brave souls are willing to mention "the environment." But asking the electorate as individuals to take some personal responsibility (and maybe even make a few sacrifices of convenience) is apparently deemed tantamount to political suicide.

Conservation means conserving resources. Doing with less. Creating less garbage. Driving your car less. Reusing plastic and paper bags. Using cloth bags. Turning down the heat or the air conditioner; wearing a sweater indoors, or even sweating a little. Walking. Riding a bike. Not letting the water tap run unnecessarily. Using both sides of a piece of paper. (What am I NOT thinking of? Email me. I know this is a woefully incomplete list.)

Acts of conservation are simple and humble, and they affirm our community and connectedness. If everybody conserved, it could make a staggering difference. Vice President Dick Cheney did a terrible disservice to the country when he commented, "Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue but it is not a sufficient basis for a sound, comprehensive energy policy." (He later tempered that statement but the damage, we may assume, was done.)

Even Al Gore, in his brilliant movie An Inconvenient Truth, fails to ask individuals to do anything. He speaks of the need for a "political will" to solve global warming. But only the movie's closing credits suggest actions for audience members to take in their own lives. Al himself never mentions such particulars, which makes me wonder if he really is, after all, contemplating another run at the presidency.

Though Gore never so much as utters the word, conservation is essential to controlling global warming. Most global warming gases come from motor vehicles. Deforestation also contributes mightily to global warming: On average, for every 100 trees that are felled to produce paper, 25,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions are released into the atmosphere.

Global Warming

It's a "hot issue," so to speak, but who's talking about it in this election? Who has proposals to stop it? Who's acting like it's really going to matter?

If you ask them, the politicians all seem to agree that global warming is really happening and that it threatens the survival of our species. But that's only when you ask them about it. Otherwise, they stay quiet about it. Do they know something we don't? If so, is it something about the realities of global warming or . . . something about what motivates people to vote?

Everyone's talking about the war in Iraq , which is appropriate. But I don't hear them mentioning . . .

The Iraq War Veterans
Tens of thousands of young Americans have come home with shattered bodies and psyches. I don't know what the precise stats are for the number of soldiers who've returned with missing limbs, lost vision, or other major disabilities, because this isn't covered much in the news. But from the reports I have seen and heard (mostly on good old PBS), I know that their veterans' benefits do not cover the costs of their care or living expenses. Families are left to bear the burden, financial as well as emotional.

This is a national disgrace. Why aren't our patriotic would-be leaders vehemently addressing this?

Or this:

The Election Itself May Be Rigged

This strikes at the very heart of our democracy. Will the upcoming election be legitimate?

Was the last election legitimate, or were the results falsified in the mysterious recesses of electronic voting machine software?

There is an ample amount of data that suggest the 2004 election was riddled with fraud, and the coming election will be stolen.

This article by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. presents a convincing argument that John Kerry should rightfully have been our president-elect in 2004, just based on documented irregularities in the state of Ohio alone:

And Professor Mark Crispin Miller of New York University , in a sweeping analysis entitled "Our Rigged Elections: The Elephant in the Polling Booth," provides disturbing evidence that our 2006 election is likely to get stolen too:

Part 1:

Part 2:

Or just Google "voting machines" or "Diebold." You'll see what I mean.

This is not fringe conspiracy theory stuff. These are legitimate, far-reaching concerns about the integrity of our electoral process.

But for some reason, it's not an issue in this election.

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Watch Words (October, 2006)
Are We Mad Yet?
President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela came to the United Nations a week and a half ago and called our president, George W. Bush, “the devil.” Not a devil, mind you, but the devil. Just in case anyone might have glossed over his precise meaning, he crossed himself and added, “And it still smells of sulfur today.”

Are you offended?

The politicians are! House majority leader, Republican John Boehner of Ohio called Chavez’s speech “an embarrassment and an insult to the American people." And the liberal Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel of New York declared, "I want President Chavez to please understand that even though many people in the United States are critical of our president that we resent the fact that he would come to the United States and criticize President Bush."

Do either of these gentlemen speak for you?

Was He Kidding?
The next day, Chavez told Tavis Smiley on PBS, "I think it was a rather humorous speech. People were smiling. . . . And since [Bush] considers himself like God, when you call him the devil, it is just to strike a balance."

Fair enough. I have to confess that I for one was not offended. I too believe that Bush is a devilish character and I don’t take that characterization of him as a personal insult, or an insult to my country. (Comedian Bill Maher quipped that after being called "The Devil" Bush spoke out in outrage, saying “I am NOT the devil!!! Now if you'll excuse me I have people to torture.”)

I do, however, think Chavez was more accurate the next day when he described Bush to a crowd in Harlem as a “sick man.”

Other Things to Get Offended About
What I take offense at is the misleading headlines and news reports.

I saw one headline in a major newspaper that read “Chavez’ Anti-U.S. Fervor.” Many news reports alluded to Chavez’s alleged “hostility toward the United States.” All of the TV coverage that I saw focused exclusively on Chavez’s “devil” comments, with one or two mentions of the Noam Chomsky book he recommended. I saw no coverage of the meat of his lengthy speech.

Here is one germane excerpt from that speech:

The president then -- and this he said himself, he said: "I have come to speak directly to the populations in the Middle East, to tell them that my country wants peace."
That's true. If we walk in the streets of the Bronx, if we walk around New York, Washington, San Diego, in any city, San Antonio, San Francisco, and we ask individuals, the citizens of the United States, what does this country want? Does it want peace? They'll say yes.
But the government doesn't want peace. The government of the United States doesn't want peace. It wants to exploit its system of exploitation, of pillage, of hegemony through war.

Apparently, Mr. Chavez does not have trouble distinguishing between the people of the United States, for whom he has expressed respect on multiple occasions, and the president.

It seems our media and our politicians do have trouble with that distinction.
Then again, I have to wonder about Chavez a little bit too. I don’t think he is a dangerous or destabilizing force in the world; quite the contrary.  But at that same speech the next day in Harlem in which he dubbed Bush “sick,” he also reported that some (unidentified) people warned him that he could be killed for his remarks about Bush, but “I’m in the hands of God. I'm not afraid.”

He is more than a bit of a blusterer, this guy. Like Bush, he also appears to feel divinely appointed to his station. That cannot be a good thing.

Sticks and Stones
The question is, what are the effects of such words?

Chavez calls Bush the devil. President Bush calls Chavez “a threat to democracy in Latin America.”

The New York Post calls Chavez a “jerk.”

How about this? At a news conference the day after Chavez’s speech, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi stated, “Hugo Chavez fancies himself a modern day Simon Bolivar but all he is is an everyday thug.”

Reverend Jesse Jackson wants everyone to cool out. “I think that [Chavez] should not be calling President Bush ‘devil.’ President Bush should not be calling him ‘evil’ or calling him ‘tyrant.’ We must cease these hostilities.”

Why? What is Jackson concerned about?

Many of us were taught the refrain as children, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.” That’s nonsense of course. Robin Williamson, formerly of the Incredible String Band, put it more correctly: “Sticks and stones, dry as dirt, and hard words hurt just the same.”

But who is hurt in this case? And who is going to get hurt? Unfortunately, when politicians fight, it is always the most vulnerable of their citizens who wind up suffering. From the initial signs, it looks like this case will be no exception.

Left in the Cold
One of the less publicized dimensions of this story is that, through Citgo oil company, Chavez has been providing discounted heating oil to poor Americans in several states. This is especially crucial during the cold winter months.

One of the states that has received the discounted oil is Maine. But according to the New York Times:

Maine's Democratic Gov. John Baldacci, who approved an agreement last winter to buy discounted oil, said Thursday he had no plans to seek a similar arrangement this winter, and called Chavez's words "unnecessary and offensive."

So Governor Baldacci takes a gallant stand, showing the world that, regardless of party affiliation, we are all Americans. And the poor people in his state pay the price.

We can only hope that this particular war of words goes no farther, and that all our leaders’ egos are assuaged in a hurry.

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Watch Words (September, 2006)


World-Shaking News

So the International Astronomical Union took a vote in Prague last week, and now Pluto isn't a planet anymore. By an overwhelming margin, Earth's most eminent astronomers voted to demote Pluto from a planet to something called a "dwarf planet." Officially, our solar system now has eight planets, not nine.

Reaction runs deep. We have all been living with nine planets for as long as any of us can remember. Suddenly our universe has shifted. The neat, ordered clarity of the nine planets--three closest to the sun, three big guys in the middle, and three "outer" planets--no longer obtains.

And people are feeling surprisingly sentimental about old Pluto. "Ex-Planet's Fans Voice Dismay and Sorrow" read the New York Times headline. A young man was quoted as bemoaning the fact that "Pluto gets no respect, man." Children, in particular, felt sad. As one eight-year-old put it, poignantly and simply, "I like Pluto."

On the other hand, the New York Times itself, widely seen as a relatively liberal newspaper with sympathy for the disenfranchised, took an uncharacteristically stolid position on its editorial page, calling the astronomers' historic vote "a welcome step away from a proposal that would have kept Pluto as a planet [and] simultaneously opened the door for dozens of small, icy bodies on the fringes of the solar system. . . .Pluto, with its small size and oddball orbit, should never have been deemed a planet in the first place . . . Our only regret is that the astronomers chose the name 'dwarf planets' for Pluto's new category instead of abandoning the word entirely when discussing these less-than-planetary bodies."

Shades of elitism on the Times's part? Allowing Pluto to remain in the planetary club would have "opened the door" to other "icy bodies on the fringes"? Do I detect a tone of contempt in the phrase "these less-than-planetary bodies"?

Meanwhile, according to the Washington Post, other thoughtful minds are "anguished" over the news. The Post reports, "One colleague asked, 'Don't you think it's at least possible that somewhere we're being voted off the solar system?'"

Practical Implications?

Oh come on. Why should we care so much, really? Rational minds will (hopefully) agree that Pluto doesn't care.

There are, of course, practical consequences for the publishers of encyclopedias and astronomy textbooks, and for planetarium show producers.

But astrologers, for whom planets are their business, are downright defiant, insisting that Pluto's new scientific classification will have absolutely no bearing on their charts and prognostications. "It doesn't really matter what you call it," declared Patricia Hardin, president of the American Federation of Astrologers. "As far as I'm concerned, Pluto is still an effective energy source that's influence is felt on this earth."  British astrologer and author Russell Grant agrees. "I will continue to use Pluto because he gives me the ability to look into people's charts and see where they're coming from psychologically."

Note Grant's use of the pronoun, he. Pluto, of course, is not only a former planet, but also a mythical Roman God--the God of the Underworld, to be precise, or more colloquially, "the God of Death." It does seem psychologically appropriate that this "God" should occupy the coldest, outermost planet.

Does dropping this "God" from our roster of planets indicate a collective denial of death?

Was naming Mickey Mouse's dog after Pluto an attempt to tame death?

Going too far? Maybe. But personifications abound. The Orlando Sentinel's editorial page opined that "Pluto has always been the cosmic benchwarmer to our solar system's starting lineup." It's not surprising that so many people are feeling sad right now for the little guy.

Meanwhile, Closer to Home

Far less publicized has been the fate of another little guy, one much closer to home and more intimately familiar--that humble coin we call the penny. Representative Jim Kolbe of Arizona is introducing legislation, for the second time in five years, to get rid of it. Kolbe's idea is backed by Citizens for Retiring the Penny, a nonpartisan group that touts a study by the National Association of Convenience Stores, which showed that having to deal with pennies costs customers roughly two extra seconds every transaction. Plugging in the math, they say that's about four wasted hours per year per person, and somehow they've also extrapolated that this translates to $15 billion a year of lost productivity, nationwide.

Kolbe has other hard data on his side too. Did you know that the cost of producing a penny is more than a penny? It actually costs about one and four-tenths of a cent which, Kolbe asserts, adds up to about $20 million worth of waste per year.

On the other side of the coin, so to speak, Americans for Common Cents (an organization funded by the zinc industry) argues that eliminating the penny would lead to price increases across the board. What merchant would want to "round down" to the nearest nickel?

But perhaps more significantly, polls have shown that a clear majority Americans "like" pennies, find them useful, and would even pick one up from the ground. And longstanding expressions like "A penny for your thoughts," "Penny wise, pound foolish," and "A penny saved is a penny earned" are imbedded in our culture. What would become of such expressions, in what subtle ways might their meanings change, if the penny itself were rendered too quaint to live?

Personally, though I try not to carry around a lot of pennies, I like that little tray of pennies at the convenience store, from which you can take one if you need one, or leave one for the next customer if you have an extra. People are not afraid to be generous with pennies, which is a nice thing. Pennies represent a currency of generosity. That in itself seems healthy, negligible though the penny's monetary value may be.

Last week, Al Whitaker of the U.S. Space and Rocket Center stated, "I woke up this morning, and there was one less planet." That had meaning for him, obviously.

It might have meaning too, if we wake up one day with one less usable coin in our purses.

There is something to be said for advocating for the little guy, whether he's a penny or a person or a planet.

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Watch Words (August, 2006)


Knowing What’s Good

Growing up in the sixties and seventies, I loved pop music, but my dad, a big band musician who had entertained presidents, detested rock and roll. He explained why the music I liked was bad music. Besides being too loud, it was too simple in its structure. It lacked depth and complexity. It was coarse. Occasionally my dad’s musician friends joined the discussion. One of them put it to me bluntly, like this: “You know what you like; I know what’s good.”

It occurred to me that knowing what I like might be every bit as useful in the long run as knowing what’s good. Knowing what I like sounded like a recipe for happiness, whereas trying to like what’s good sounded like a big effort. Musical appreciation, like sex, like sleep, should never be a territory of struggle.

Besides, what’s wrong with a nice, catchy two-chord melody, if it hooks you and it feels great to listen to? Then punk rock came along and it scared me a little. Bands like the Sex Pistols did not even pretend to make “good” music. It really was too loud and coarse; it was filled with nihilism and hostility. Yet people loved it; no one cared whether or not it met an “artistic” standard. Was that a “good” thing? I didn’t feel it to be so. I bristled at the sheer anarchy of popular culture. Suddenly I understood my dad a little better.

Knowing What’s Valuable

I believed there was “value” in the literature and music that I liked, and I felt a need for other people to perceive what I perceived, to love what I loved in whatever I listened to or read. I would enthusiastically loan out books and records to friends and acquaintances, and expect a detailed report back within a week or two. As a close friend wearily observed, “Watch out—Marc doesn’t really loan things. He gives assignments.”

So then, naturally, I became an English teacher and I assigned novels and poems that I felt were outstanding. Sometimes my students even agreed with me. But there was an element of struggle—the fact that they were required to read what I made them read, and that they had to give something back, write a paper, pass a quiz, participate in a class discussion, earn a grade—all of this mitigated the delight that some of them might otherwise have taken in the assigned material had they stumbled on it in a more serendipitous context.

Ultimately I left teaching, partly because once I “taught” any piece of literature, if my students by and large didn’t love it, I found I didn’t love it that much anymore either. Besides, anything I set myself to “teach” became an assignment for me as well.

Knowing What’s Correct
Of course, having been an English teacher, I am cursed with knowing more about correct English usage than a mentally healthy person should ever want to know. For example, did you know that the famous question, immortalized in song and legend, “Who do you love?” is actually grammatically incorrect?

Strictly, speaking, it should be “Whom do you love?”

But perhaps the more pertinent question is, “Why should we care?” I don’t really know, but as a friend wryly pointed out, “You can take the man out of the English department, but you can’t take the English department out of the man.”

Then again, there are some truly arcane grammatical distinctions, such as the difference between toward and towards, which I have no idea about, so maybe there’s hope for me.

Knowing What’s Right

Clearly, certain things are more important to know than others. We can survive and be happy without knowing that much about what good music is, or good literature, or even good grammar. Yet it’s important to know some things, like the difference between right and wrong.

But we do not have an ultimate guide for knowing what’s right. We have religious scripture and the wisdom of saints and visionaries, but unfortunately (or fortunately!) there is no Chicago Manual of Style that covers every situation in life. For example, what do you do or say when your small child utters an offensive swear word, in mixed company?

I once heard an interview on the radio with author Scott Peck, who opined that if we are well-intentioned, and if we’re trying our best to be moral and good, but we’re not quite sure that we’re always getting it right, we’re probably doing just fine. Life is supposed to be like that; it’s supposed to consistently challenge us to discern what’s right. That’s how we grow our minds and souls. People who are absolutely certain of their righteousness, convinced that their every deed is inspired by revealed truth, are dangerous people.

So we get it as right as we can, and that’s usually good enough. And as for music, literature, grammar, and even politics, it’s not even necessary to always have an opinion, much less know everything.

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Watch Words (July, 2006)


Dangling Modifiers

I know this is asking a lot, but please bear with me as I put on my old English teacher's hat for just a moment.

A dangling modifier is an introductory phrase that fails to modify the subject of a sentence.

Are you with me? No?

Here is a correctly constructed sentence: "Easing into his armchair, the mayor snorted with pleasure."

Note that the introductory phrase of the sentence, "Easing into his armchair," is something that the subject of the
sentence, "the mayor," is doing. Therefore we say that the phrase "easing into his armchair" modifies the subject "mayor."

Here's an incorrectly constructed sentence: "Blowing his nose often, the mayor's speech was not very effective."

Note that "Blowing his nose often" does not modify the subject "the mayor's speech." The speech did not blow his nose. (Indeed, the speech does not have a nose.) Therefore " Blowing his nose often" is a dangling modifier.

Class over. On to the show.

An Old News Story
In February of 2004, it was becoming obvious that no weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq. Also, a news story was circulating about how the CIA had issued a report prior to the war, strongly disputing the war's premises.

A journalist, citing the CIA story and the "missing" WMDs, asked President Bush whether he might be having any
second thoughts regarding the wisdom of his decision to take the country to war.

Bush responded: "Knowing what I knew then, and knowing what I know today, America did the right thing in Iraq."

Are They Dangling Modifiers?

Bush's sentence contains two introductory phrases, "Knowing what I knew then" and "knowing what I know today." Do these phrases modify the subject "America"?

That is, did "America" know what Bush knew before the war, and did "America" know what Bush knew the day he uttered this amazing sentence?

Let's take a rhetorical step back. Perhaps what Bush really meant was "I did the right thing in Iraq." or  "I made the right choice."

So then the question arises, Is Bush America? Does being president make you not only the temporary leader of America, but also the personification of America?

Another Explanation

Let's assume the president didn't really mean to equate himself with America, in which case he simply committed a small grammatical error. (I wouldn't put that past him.) Maybe he really meant, "Knowing what I knew then, and knowing what I know today, I believe America did the right thing in Iraq."

This quickly dispatches the dangling modifier issue, but raises other questions, such as: Who or what is "America"? Does "America" act in unison? Does America think in unison?

Who or what "did the right thing" in Iraq?

Watching the Words More Closely . . .

I think Bush is a lot smarter than he looks. Perhaps he does not think it through quite this deliberately (or maybe he does; or maybe his handlers do), but he is a very cagey semanticist. With one simple ambiguous turn of phrase, he communicates multiple messages, including:

"I am America."

"America is indivisible, one nation, one will."

"Not a person, nor a specific group of individuals, but actually America made the choice to invade Iraq."

Looking closely, you'll see that just those three statements, taken together, contain an implicit contradiction--the idea on the one hand that he, the individual known as George W. Bush, is America--and on the other hand, the idea that no particular individual or individuals, but rather the corporate being known as America invaded Iraq in March 2003.

Bush is also implying that if you're an American,  you are just a responsible as he for the invasion of Iraq.

It gets weirder. He's also suggesting an identification between you and him.

We are all Americans. America is George W. Bush. Guess what? You too are George W. Bush. He is you and you are he and we are all together. (Apologies to the Beatles.) He's saying, "Look in your mirror and see my face."

It's no fluke that Bush is president. Even with low popularity ratings, he's got plenty of tricks left. Keep watching his words.

Commentary on Perfections of the Heart

My wife Eve's heart-lifting revelation of a CD, Commentary on Perfections of the Heart, is now available for purchase online. Just go to Check out the sound clips.

Back Words: Right Speech, Right Song

My musical friend Brenda wrote the following in response to the last Watch Words:
     Words are carried on waves of vibrational sound, a potential source of healing.  So language has
     that inherent benefit. But perhaps if we all hummed, sang songs, and scatted more--to ourselves and
     each other--we wouldn't need to resort all the time to our finite vocabularies.

     On the other hand, words help me to articulate thoughts and feelings that burn inside. That makes
     me thankful for the limited forum of language.   Words are necessary, if not sufficient, tools for
     connection and understanding.  So I like words, but I still think we should all sing more!

Comments? Questions? Corrections? Rebuttals?

Send 'em on! Respond to (If you allow me, I might even include some of your feedback in the next Watch Words, with due credit to you of course.)

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Watch Words (June, 2006)


True, Kind, and Necessary

According to the Buddhist precept of “right speech,” the questions to ask yourself before you speak are “Is what I’m about to say true? Is it kind? And is it necessary?”

Tonight, June 1, 2006, my wife Eve Decker and various musical friends will perform Eve’s new Buddhist-oriented folk-pop CD, Commentary on Perfections of the Heart, at the Freight and Salvage Coffee House in Berkeley, CA. In one of her songs, “Truthfulness,” Eve will sing:

I told myself I needed more laughter and that was a fine thing to say
I told my friend I couldn’t laugh with her and our friendship ended that way
Truth can arise as it may inside
But harsh honesty toward others can be cold as a lie.

What’s true is usually clear enough. But “kind and necessary” is mostly a judgment call.

(For more about Eve and her CD, please go to

Talking to Fill the Silence
People often refer disparagingly (which in itself violates the “kind” standard) to talk that functions simply to fill a silence, as if such words are, almost by definition, the epitome of useless chatter. But in fact, who’s to say that “empty” words are never necessary? Often, words that have very little meaning in and of themselves can serve to ease tension, and often smooth the way to more “meaningful” conversation.

Silence too has value, of course. In a rich, fertile silence, the best words gestate, simmer, and steep. More than that, in the depths of silence, we might enjoy a visceral understanding with others than cannot be achieved via the noises we make with our mouths. Again in the words of Eve, “What looks austere and humble is thick and warm with peace.”

Is it possible that human beings communicated to one another with pristine telepathic clarity before the invention of words? Could this have been what William S. Burroughs meant when he stated that “Language is a virus from outer space.”? Was it impossible for us to lie before we had language?

Still, not every silence is precious. We are all familiar with “loaded” silences. As a friend once put it “Some silences are louder than others.” And in those stifling silences, a vapid pleasantry or two might be required to begin stirring the air a bit.

Necessary for What?

One can argue that many common utterances are not strictly necessary, including casual greetings and simple courtesies. But then the question becomes, necessary for what? Very little speech indeed is strictly necessary for survival. So what else is speech for?

Speech is not just for exchange of information. It is also a medium that conveys (among other things) humor, warmth, kindness, and encouragement. Does it make sense to ask what quantity of these qualities is “necessary”?

How much kindness is necessary? Probably all we can stand.

Back Words: Big Nothing!
Sadly and surprisingly, nobody had anything to write to me in response to our last topic, Word Warriors. Perhaps it wasn’t as provocative as I’d imagined. Oh well.

Comments? Questions? Corrections? Rebuttals?

Send ‘em on! Respond to (If you allow me, I might even include some of your feedback in the next Watch Words, with due credit to you of course.)

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Watch Words (May, 2006)


For Love or Power

I’ve heard it said that there are only two fundamental human motives, love and fear, and that at any given moment, our deeds and words stem from one or the other.

I think another way of expressing this idea—or a very similar one, anyway—is to say that in the big game of life, you play for either love or power, especially with your words. (Playing for love means playing to increase or extend love, not necessarily to get love.)

And it’s not always easy to tell what someone’s game is.

Word Warrior #1: Mr. S
My jury is still out, for example, on my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. S, a former army sergeant who occasionally wore his old uniform to school. One of Mr. S’s passions was making sure that his students understood the distinction between “can” and “may.” He explained it to us early on. Can meant “have the ability to,” as in “You can scream and throw your books across the room, though you might get in trouble for it.” May meant “have permission to,” as in “You may use your notes for this test, but you may not scream or throw books.”

Of course, Mr. S knew that we’d all been using “can” our whole lives to mean “may.” (“Can I please have another cookie, Mom?”) So his work was cut out for him.

Here is how Mr. S successfully drove home his favorite semantics lesson.

Whenever a student raised a hand to ask, “Mr. S, can I go to the boys’ (or girls’) room, please?”, Mr. S replied, smiling broadly, “Sure you can!” Then, when the student reached the door of the classroom, Mr. S would add emphatically, “But you may not!” and the unfortunate ten-year-old would be obliged to resume his or her seat for another five minutes or so.

By the end of about three months, every child in the class had the difference between “can” and “may” down cold.

Evaluating Mr. S
So was Mr. S all about love or power? I had no special window into his soul, but based on my overall sense of the man, my best guess is love. He had a genuine esteem for precision in language, and a strong belief in the character-molding value of appropriate discipline.

But had Mr. S kept his word-unwary students away from the restroom for more than a few minutes at a time, I’d have a different judgment. Furthermore, personally speaking, regardless of his motives, I disapprove of Mr. S’s methods.

By using children’s bodily demands as a tool in his peculiar grammar pedagogy, he was conveying other, less wholesome lessons too (whether he meant to or not)—lessons about elemental human issues such as control, dignity, helplessness, . . . and power.

Word Warrior #2: Lou the Cook
I once worked at a small café. On our employee bulletin board, Sam, one of the waiters, posted a flyer about Men Overcoming Violence (MOVe),  a group devoted to uprooting sexism and stopping male violence, particularly male violence against women.

Lou, the cook, circled the word “overcoming” in red pen and wrote: “This word means ‘to overpower by force.’ It is a violent word. This group is unconsciously guilty of the very thing it presumes to oppose.”

Semantically, perhaps, Lou had a remotely arguable point. But I think Lou was playing for power here, trying to "one-up" Sam, or to put it simply, Lou was just being a little mean.

Warriors to Come
This is a fertile subject, isn’t it?

We’ll look at other word warriors in future editions of Watch Words.

Back Words: More on Love and Ambivalence
My thoughtful friend Elizabeth, reflecting on the ambiguous nature of love, wrote:
I feel thrilled, and grateful, to feel any amount of love, even reluctant, begrudging love (yes, it's possible) whenever I come upon it, though I must say, if not for my kids I don't know how open I would be to this most fickle and temperamental emotion.
I wrote back:
I'm curious about this notion of “reluctant, begrudging love.” I am not sure exactly what you mean, but if I read you right, it sounds a bit like what I call “guilt."
She responded:
I wasn't really talking about guilt, but about letting go of anger and resentment just enough to let a little love in  . . . though it might be that I do that so that feelings of guilt are eclipsed by feelings of love.

Comments? Questions? Corrections? Rebuttals?

Send ‘em on! Respond to (If you allow me, I might even include some of your feedback in the next Watch Words, with due credit to you of course.)

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Watch Words (April, 2006)


We Are the Fools of April

On April Fool’s Day, it seems natural to talk about love. What else has made fools of us all at one time or another?
The Shadow Side
Here’s a little fourth-hand information. I’m going to paraphrase something out of a book I’ve never read. I heard about it from my wife, who also never read it. My wife heard it from her friend. Think about that: Anything I say about this book is removed from the source by a factor of four.

The book is called The Shadow Side of Love and, as my wife explained to me (third-hand), its thesis is that it is impossible to have loving thoughts and feelings for anyone at every single moment. Over the course of a lifetime, especially if you live with someone, you are going to have all kinds of thoughts and feelings about a person. So there’s dishonesty inherent in the notion of unwavering love, and that’s its shadow side.

You’re Asking Me . . .?
One of the most powerful pop songs I grew up with was “Something” by George Harrison. Frank Sinatra, the legendary crooner-swooner of the 20th century, called it “the greatest love song of the last 50 years,” and he even (unfortunately) covered it.

To me, the most dramatic moment in the song was always the bridge:

You’re asking me, will my love grow?
I don’t know, I DON’T KNOW!

Ah, new love! The wonder, the exhilaration . . . and the uncertainty. Because as any good Buddhist will tell you, the only thing we know for certain is that conditions will change, one way or another. But perhaps it is uncertainty itself that is the very spice of new love. As Stephen Stills sang:

Where are you going now, my love?
Where will you be tomorrow?
Will you bring me happiness?
Will you bring me sorrow?
Questions of a thousand dreams . . .

Now, how romantic is THAT?

Gracious Imperfection
A couple of decades after “Something,” the art-rock band Dead Can Dance did a song called “American Dreaming,” which contained the lines:
I’m in love with an American girl
Well, she’s my best friend
I love her surreptitious smile
that hides the pain within her.

The beauty of this lyric is its recognition that all of us, in some way, are broken or hurt or compromised. But we don’t have to be “completely healed” in order to enjoy the ecstasies of love. In fact, part of what we love in someone could be the beautiful, brave, or graceful way in which they carry their particular pain.

Even ambivalence contains a deep charm sometimes. Not the ambivalence of “I don’t know if I want to commit to this relationship,” but the innocent and inevitable ambivalence of “Gosh, I just don’t honestly know if I can meet your feelings for me right in this moment, even though I want to.” As Elton John sang in “I Need You to Turn To”:

Did you paint your smile on when I said I knew
That my reason for living was for loving you?

The point being, I think, that even the forcedness of this particular smile evokes a feeling of tenderness in the singer. Maybe he’s simply touched by his beloved’s kind efforts. (Of course, if he’d sang “paste your smile on,” that would have felt altogether different.)

I have always felt that the most moving and authentic love songs are those that contain traces of ambivalence or uncertainty, or even, if you will, “impurity,” though perhaps that term’s a little too loaded. What do you think?

Back Words
So after the last Watch Words, a lot of people wrote to me about qualifying phrases I hadn’t mentioned. My favorite was this one from Jeff Spoden:
You know what my favorite qualifier is? "With all due respect." Because it basically means "You're an idiot and I'm about to tell you why!"

Comments? Questions? Corrections? Rebuttals?

Send ‘em on! Respond to (If you allow me, I might even include some of your feedback in the next Watch Words, with due credit to you of course.)

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Watch Words (March, 2006)


Ever Heard This One?

Rush Limbaugh made broadcast history in 2004 when, commenting on images of abuse from Abu Ghraib, he rhetorically asked his listeners, “You ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?”

Limbaugh was widely rebuked, yet how much more offensive and patently asinine might he have come across had he put it simply like this: “Our soldiers were just enjoying a little emotional release. They were just blowing off some steam.”

“Ever heard of” can be a sneaky way to advance a weak argument. When the phrase is meant literally, as in “Have you ever heard of that guy who invented both the mosquito net and the modem?” it’s not a problem. But used rhetorically, “ever heard of?” implies that you’re ridiculous if you disagree with the speaker’s view of things.

Another example: A friend, explaining why Nixon escalated the Vietnam War after becoming president, asked, “Ever heard of finishing what you’ve started?” Well, of course I have heard of it. But is it a universal principle? “Always finish what you start”?

A fairer way for this person to have made his point might have been to say, “There is value in finishing what you start, even if it’s a war, even arguably a misguided war.” This would have invited further discussion, whereas the purpose of “ever heard of?” seems to be to curtail thought in a debate.

Oh Well . . .

Another word I’ve had my eye on recently is “well.” Was there ever a time when people did not begin half their statements with the word “Well”? Have you noticed how often you start sentences with that word? Well, what does it mean?

Random House Webster’s Dictionary defines “well” as an interjection “used to introduce a sentence, resume a conversation etc.”-- which is like saying that “well” is simply a convention that means nothing at all.

Then again, the dictionary also states that “well” is sometimes “used to express surprise, reproof, etc.” as in “Well, there’s no need to yell!”

All well and good, but if we look a little closer, we see that “well” can suggest much more than this. Much like “ever heard of?”, “well” is often employed as a sneaky persuader. One of its implied connotations is “I hate to have to say this, but it’s obvious.” For example, “Well, your idea is unworkable.” “Your story is, well, completely ridiculous.”

“Well” can falsely suggest a softening, almost apologetic quality, even when it precedes a blatantly offensive remark. “Well, I just think your performance was pathetic.” In an instance like this, “well” stands in for “I’m sorry, but . . .”

Probably the most common, and most deceptive, usage of “well” is to imply humility, before making a big claim. Politicians do this. Ronald Reagan was the master at it. He famously fielded questions from reporters by starting with “Well,” and then a self-effacing downward glance, and a moment’s pause. But his unshakable sense of righteousness was really the opposite of humility, so his use of the qualifier “well” was downright OrWELLian. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

Of course, “well” has many other, more innocent purposes. It’s often used as a way of buying time, hesitating before speaking, indicating that we’re not entirely sure of something. But still, it’s amazing, isn’t it? Even a simple little word like “well” is one we need to keep honest.

A Couple of Obvious Ones

A couple of my favorite over-qualifiers are “fact is” and “truth be told.” They’re not used much anymore, but every once in a while, you may hear someone trying to sound like the earnest salt of the earth: “Fact is, you said earlier that . . .” or “Truth be told, I was only trying to . . .”

These introductory phrases are declarations of pristine sincerity. But since we would like to assume anyway that people are telling the truth, the question is: Why should anyone have to rhetorically emphasize their own honesty? To me, that’s a red flag.

Comments? Questions? Corrections? Rebuttals?

Send ‘em on! Respond to (If you allow me, I might even include some of your feedback in the next Watch Words, with due credit to you of course.)

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