Saturday, June 24, 2006

Midwest Log Rolling Championships

Logrolling isn't just a metaphor. It's a real sport. And today in Madison's Wingra Park "logrollers and boom runners" from all over the Midwest competed for rankings while raising money to battle Huntington's Disease. Look like fun? They offer lessons at the Wingra Canoe & Sailing Center. And click here for more information about Huntington's Disease.

Watching an endless armada entering the harbor (E. B. White Revisited: Part 3)

Want to read more of E. B. White’s work? Now it’s easy to look him up in his original showcase.

For anyone who likes to read and has enjoyed The New Yorker over the years, it’s hard to imagine a greater value than “The Complete New Yorker,” the 8-DVD boxed set that was published last fall. It contains all 4,109 issues published between February of 1925 and the 80th anniversary issue last year. It’s searchable, though a bit klunky to use, and everything’s there in PDF form -- half a million words, all the cartoons, and all the ads. It was a bargain at the original list price of $100, but it’s even more of a bargain at today’s street price.

I’ve put off the pleasure of grazing all the way through the collection for fear that I would simply disappear into this tempting electronic pasture and forget to come back out. Fortunately, James Wolcott ventured forth recently and returned to tell the tale. Wolcott worked there from 1992 to 1997, and his affectionate essay, “Tales from the Crypt” (a reference to Tom Wolfe’s famous satirical profile, “Tiny Mummies!”), is a fascinating stroll down a memory lane that winds through 80 years of American history.

I enjoyed what Wolcott has to say about the magazine’s “most valuable player.”
Behind its mask, the magazine was prematurely middle-aged, due in part to Ross’s chronic worrywart nature, but most of all to the enduring qualms of its most valuable player, E. B. White, whose folksiness, wry humor, and Yankee pith rested, like Robert Frost’s, on a bed of thorns. A prodigious miniaturist who composed hundreds of cartoon captions, newsbreaks, short stories, essays, and Talk of the Town notes and comments (scroll through his credits on the archive search and it’s like watching an endless armada enter the harbor), White taxed his feathery touch of concentration to the breaking point.
Wolcott draws on a Wilfred Sheed review of a book of White’s letters for an apt characterization.
Where Thurber had used edginess as a purely comic device (the edge of a tantrum as often as not) with White it was a simple statement of fact. He is, it seems, so finely strung that keeping his sanity has been a struggle at times and writing brightly for The New Yorker a potential torture. No wonder his stuff seemed almost preternaturally sane and well-balanced. It had to.
Wolcott sums up White’s contribution to The New Yorker with a marvelous phrase.
Under White’s tutelage, The New Yorker didn’t lose its sense of humor; its humor gained a shadow of implication.
It’s that “shadow of implication” that I was trying to get at in my last post, “The generation that didn’t trust adjectives.” And it’s that shadow that falls across “Elements of Style” and makes Language Log’s critiques (here, for example) of White’s contribution to the book seem so inadequate and one-dimensional. E. B. White just can’t be summed up that simplistically.

Friday, June 23, 2006

The generation that didn’t trust adjectives
(E. B. White Revisited: Part 2)

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

This famous line, cribbed from Horace -- “it is sweet and right to die for your country” -- was widely repeated as England was swept up in the war fever of 1914. The sentence is nearly 30 percent adjectives, far more than the 6 percent average alluded to by Geoff Pullum. You could say that World War I was launched on an optimistic tide of noble adjectives.

The optimism died in the muddy trenches and bloody no man’s land of the Great War, which made a mockery of every adjective that had been used to justify it on both sides. Not long before he died near the end of the war, the poet Wilfred Owen savagely turned Horace’s words around at the end of his caustic, haunting "Dulce Et Decorum Est," one of the great antiwar poems.
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
It wasn’t just E. B. White who came to distrust adjectives. It was the entire generation of his peers, who suffered a kind of collective post-traumatic stress reaction that made them distrust all abstractions, all descriptive modifiers and put their trust in the concrete -- specific nouns and verbs, things and actions. Hemingway described this feeling at the end of “A Farewell to Arms.”
There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.
In “The Great War and Modern Memory,” Paul Fussell writes eloquently of how the trauma of the war, its total assault on all accepted turn-of-the-century beliefs in progress and human rationality, helped lay the groundwork for modernism in the arts and literature.

Adjectives had come to be associated with deadly lies, just as in architecture, the 19th century’s fondness for ornamentation had come to look like tawdry window dressing for a corrupt social structure. The new ideal was stripped-down, minimalist, and above all, “honest.”

Modernism was an esthetic with legs. It reigned for decades, and when E. B. White first revised “Elements of Style” in the late fifties, the modernist International Style ruled unchallenged in New York. Today, we see many of the severe glass and steel boxes of that time as cold and sterile. But in their time, they perfectly obeyed the dictum that form should (seem to) follow function, sans ornamentation. In other words -- build with nouns and verbs, and forget about adjectives and adverbs.

As it turned out, modernism dated rather quickly after alternatives appeared. The unadorned severity of Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building gave way to the sensuous curves of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao, and Hemingway’s stripped-down prose came to strike us as pretentious and artificial, unless we’re in just the right retro mood.

So it wasn’t advice for the ages. But it had a pretty good run in its time.

Basically, my problem with Madison's
"condo magnet" is just that it's not this

It was like a controlled experiment: Take two Wisconsin cities and have two different wealthy benefactors (both of whom made their money in the printing industry, oddly enough) give each of the cities a $100-million-plus bequest to finance a new, arts-related building. What will they do with the money?

In Madison, we hire Cesar Pelli and build the Overture Center. In Milwaukee, for just a little bit more, they hire Santiago Calatrava to build that spectacular addition to the Milwaukee Art Museum with the stunning "wings" that soar above the harbor.

Milwaukee hired a visionary architect whose daring design redefined Milwaukee's image in the eyes of the world. People literally come from all over the world to see it. Madison chose a competent, nationally-known architect who is good at working a committee and coming up with the requisite compromises. Which is what we got. Clearly, it's great for downtown development. It's a condo magnet. And few people outside Madison have heard of it.

Have been meaning to make one of our periodic pilgrimages to Calatrava's masterpiece, and here's a good reason: The Laundress reminds us that the MAM's great show, "Masters of American Comics," only runs through August 13. I'm especially eager to see the old masters, Winsor McKay ("Little Nemo in Slumberland") and George Herriman ("Krazy Kat").

Thursday, June 22, 2006

E. B. White revisited: Part 1

"All right, have it your way -- you heard a seal bark!"

In the post I linked to in covering the NYT story about Language Log, Geoff Pullum is right about writing, mostly right about adjectives, and dead wrong about E. B. White, one of the great American humorists and a marvelous writer -- and the man who rescued his buddy James Thurber’s cartoons from the trash bin and oblivion.
He is right, of course, that the so-called experts condemn the adjective. If you want to see what the very worst of the usage and style recommenders say, it is always a good idea to turn to Strunk and White's “The Elements of Style” first. Sure enough, on page 71 of the 4th edition, they say: "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs." As usual, moronic advice, and impossible to follow. And in the very next sentence they use adjectives themselves, of course. (An indecisive disjunction of adjectives, in fact: "weak or inaccurate". Well which is it? Be clear, they would say to you if you wrote that.)

What do these writing experts think they are doing trying to take something as subtle as how to write well and boil it down to maxims as simple as the avoidance of one particular grammatical category? Are they... Well, I'm really going to need an adjective to say this... Are they insane?

Look, you don't get good at writing by deleting adjectives. Writing is difficult and demanding; you can learn to get moderately good at it through decades of practice writing millions of words and critiquing what you've written or having others critique it. About 6% of those words will be adjectives, whether you write novels or news stories, whether they're good or bad.
Moronic advice? Impossible to follow? Tell it to Thurber, who didn’t need a single adjective to complete the silky perfection of his caption for the seal in the bedroom cartoon.

I imagine Pullum would say I am being too literal, that he wasn’t talking about a single, short sentence. Granted. But he is also being disingenuous in setting up E. B. White as some sort of literal-minded, pedantic “writing expert” whose views can easily be dismissed by a real-world language expert like Pullum.

White wasn’t a teacher. He was a writer. Part of what made his revision of “Elements of Style” such a breath of fresh air when it first came out was that it was not written by an academic, but by a writer, one of the great prose stylists of his time. And an ironist. Pullum is really missing the joke when he accuses White of hypocrisy in using adjectives to give advice about not using adjectives. Nobody was better equipped than White to see the humor in this paradox -- about as absurd as a seal in a bedroom -- and to play with it self-referentially.

I couldn’t agree more with Pullum’s larger point that language is a living organism and that trying to pin it down with inflexible rules can only backfire. I’m very fond of “Elements of Style,” but I can’t imagine turning something as essentially light and playful into a fetish. And to the extent that teachers use it too literally, that’s their problem, not White’s.

Is the United States turning into Mexico?

In other words, a nation where one party uses election fraud to stay in power for decades? That’s what I began to wonder after listening to Mark Crispin Miller talk about the Republicans’ blatant theft of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections on the Kathleen Dunn show on WPR this morning (audio to be posted later at this link).

After all, Mexico was governed by a single party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), for more than 70 years.
After it was founded in 1929, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) monopolized all the political branches. The PRI did not lose a senate seat until 1988 or a gubernatorial race until 1989. It wasn't until July 2, 2000, that Vicente Fox of the opposition "Alliance for Change" coalition, headed by the National Action Party (PAN), was elected president. His victory ended the Institutional Revolutionary Party's 71-year hold on the presidency.
Miller, the author of “Fooled Again: How the Right Stole the 2004 Election & Why They’ll Steal the Next One Too (Unless We Stop Them),”takes an even darker view of the 2004 election than Robert F. Kennedy Jr. did in his recent Rolling Stone cover story.

According to Miller, John Kerry actually won the election by 8 million or more votes. The exit polls were right. One way or another, some 20% of Democratic voters were kept from voting or their votes weren’t counted. And it could happen all over again this fall.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Summer solstice sunset

From the Edgewater Pier, Madison: It rained off and on all day, but the clouds finally parted for a few glorious hours. Hard to believe it's already the longest day of the year.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

In which the New York Times quotes from a blog and trips over the difference between newspaper and blog style

The New York Times ran a story today about Language Log, that quirky, provocative and funny blog that gave birth to the new book, "Far from the Madding Gerund" by the blog’s founders, Mark Liberman and Geoff Pullum. The way they quoted the latter raised an interesting question: Can a blogger be said to “snap”?
They also lay into "The Elements of Style," by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, who instructed writers, "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs."

"Look, you don't get good at writing by deleting adjectives," Professor Pullum snaps. "Writing is difficult and demanding; you can learn to get moderately good at it through decades of practice writing millions of words and critiquing what you've written or having others critique it. About 6 percent of those words will be adjectives, whether you write novels or news stories."
“Professor Pullum snaps (emphasis added)”? I think not. Maybe in a podcast. This sense of “snap” is normally used to characterize the spoken word. But this is a blog post -- the written word. He would have to “keyboard impatiently,” “write peevishly,” or something like that.

Why interject the phrase “Professor Pullum snaps” at all? Why not let the words speak for themselves, the way they would in a block quote in a blog? Because of newspaper convention: It’s a longish quote, and so it needs to be broken up. The trouble is, this sets in motion a subtle chain of distortions.

To begin with, it would be more accurate to say “Professor Pullum writes.” To the casual reader, the oral connotation of “snaps” suggests that the quote was something Pullum said to an interviewer, rather than just a small part of a longer blog post.

The distortion continues with another aspect of newspaper style. Because space is limited, newspaper quotes are almost totally devoid of context. What context they have is supplied by the reporter or copy editor via descriptive words and conventions. Using “snaps” instead of a more neutral word characterizes the tone of Pullum’s words. Such a qualifier might be fair and necessary with an oral interview, when just a few words are quoted out of what might be a long conversation.

But in this case, the NYT has simply added a screen of someone else’s interpretation between the reader and Pullum’s blog post -- which readers could easily check for themselves, if someone had given them the URL. But the NYT is a newspaper and not a blog, so it is not in the habit of embedding links with their quotes. So here it is. Check it out. Does he sound snappish to you?

I still don’t think so.

UPDATE: I got so caught up in the fine points of NYT journalistic style that I lost track of what originally intrigued me about the story in the first place -- the E. B. White connection. More about White as a writer here (Part 1). And here (Part 2). And here (Part 3).

“Think globally, laugh locally”

That’s the motto of the World Laughter Tour, which trains certified laughter therapists. One of them, Diane Kane, was Kathleen Dunn’s guest on Wisconsin Public Radio this morning (streaming audio should be up at the link tomorrow). I don’t know who was more fascinating -- Kane, or all the callers who shared marvelous stories about the importance of laughter in their lives.

The photo refers to something Kane says about stress hormones: They suppress the immune system because they focus all the body’s energy on the fight-or-flight response. “That’s fine if you’re being chased by a bear,” she says.

Not so great if the stress is chronic. Then the effect of the stress hormones is debilitating. Laughter can help with that, even if it’s laughter about nothing at all. After all, there are only so many jokes to go around. That’s why Kane does laughter exercise workshops. “You don’t need something funny to laugh,” she says. “You just need an open mind.”

I opened my mind and laughed as I drove, all the way to work. It felt awkward at first, but I got into it, and by the time I walked into the office I felt great and had a goofy grin on my face.

Monday, June 19, 2006

When feelings of futility close in, go ahead and have the beer. But don't delete the blog -- it's a node in a precious social network

All bloggers get discouraged occasionally. Maybe you have a small blog, and you're tired of watching the sitemeter creep along at its petty pace from day to day, tallying meaningless visitor totals that could easily fit in a thimble, with no evidence that anyone whatsoever cares. It's natural to ask, "What's the point?"

Or maybe you have a lot of traffic and even some ancillary income, but you find that the blog that was once your passion and a labor of love has become a voracious monster that knows no bounds. Life, love, gainful labor -- everything suffers. "What's the point?"

Or perhaps you've lost faith in what you were doing, becoming in your own mind a kind of defrocked minister of the blogosphere, feeling that every word you write mocks your hypocrisy and presumption. "What's the point?"

That's when it becomes tempting to go drown your sorrows -- after deleting your blog on the way out the door. It's so easy, deceptively so. On Blogger you just click on the "Delete This Blog" button, confirm -- and your blog is history.

Resist the temptation. If you need the beer, go ahead. But don't delete the blog -- at least not without reading "Proper Procedure For Shutting Down A Blog" by Coturnix at his old Science & Politics archives, many of which he is in the process of reposting at his new blog, A Blog Around the Clock.

First, spammers are mighty quick at taking over abandoned blog addresses and placing various shady businesses, including porn, on those addresses. Everyone who has ever linked to you is now linking to porn. Bad idea.

Second, even if you started your blog because you are a loner, once you got readers, got blogrolled and linked to, your blog is a node in the web. Deleting the node injures the web. This is anti-social behavior. All the links to your blog become dead links - a big no-no in the blogosphere, where link is the currency, like ATP is currency of energy in living systems.
Read the entire post. He explains in some detail various options for shutting down a blog without deleting it and leaving a permanent tear in the intricately woven fabric of the web.

Who knows? By the time you finish reviewing the options, you just may get your second wind and decide not to shut down the blog, after all.