Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Euro-American Men

A great article that I read last year referenced a book called "The Great New Wilderness Debate." (1988)  The authors described themselves in the introduction as:

"Euro-American men [whose] cultural legacy is patriarchal western civilization in its current post-colonial, globally hegemonic form."

Nice of them to tell everybody up front what filters they brought to writing the book!

But really, that's us, isn't it?  We modern American men of a certain age?  It does kind of sum us up.

Spin Easy Time!: Wolken Cuck-Cucks Heim

This is a post from four years ago, and the interesting thing is that I woke up this morning thinking about Wolkencuckcuksheim and recalling this post.  Within an hour I was checking my stats and discovered that this post has received 12 hits recently, it was at the top of the list.  Few things in life are more interesting than coincidence. Is there some quantum alarm network that we don't understand yet?  Or did it just pop into my head on its own, appearing on this day oddly but innocently?

Those questions are over my pay grade.  True though, that in the interim the world has only gotten crazier, and American politics has moved even further from ordinary reality.

Spin Easy Time!: Wolken Cuck-Cucks Heim: German is a language of compound words, so it should be “Wolkencuckcucksheim.” They can really turn a phrase, those Fritzes, it means “Clou...

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Morbid Anxiety And The Threat Of Being Challenged

My life has been a long exercise in the avoidance of being challenged.  It has happened, however, and I must admit that I have generally done better than I had expected in challenging situations.  “Challenging,” ha!  When you read what I consider challenging, you’ll think that this is a humor piece.

I’m thinking primarily of personal challenges, but the world itself was a very challenging place when I was a boy.  Society was faced with the aftermath of World War II; Korea; the Cold War; the ever present threat of nuclear destruction; Jim Crow laws and the Civil Rights Movement.  Then Camelot . . . and then JFK’s assassination.  It’s hard for anyone who was not on hand for that shocking event to understand just what a profound impact it had on the top to bottom of American society.  It was like splashing boiling water on a toddler, a deep and powerful trauma, indeed a re-set moment. 

The years from 1964 to 1967 were the years when America grew up.  By 1967, people were seeing things like the Vietnam War more naturalistically.  In 1968, even Walter Chronkite was saying on TV that “war is foolish.”  Growing up somewhat did not bring the onset of wisdom, though, and things only seemed to progress from bad to worse, and in leaps and bounds too.  Institutional racism fought back vigorously against the small advances made in civil rights, and we were treated to the spectacle of the extrajudicial murder of Black Panthers like Fred Hampton.  There was more to come, including Nixon and Watergate, the oil embargo, and the beginnings of a new brand of mass incarceration masquerading as a “War on Crime,” etc.  By 1980, America had become very cynical. 

Personal Challenges

Challenging situations can be merely exciting, like appearing on Jeopardy, or they can be truly terrifying, like being in the first wave landing on Omaha Beach.  In either case there are likely to be some residual effects once calm has been restored.  This may vary from a pleasant thrill upon remembrance to the inescapable horror of full blown PTSD.  All shades of experience are represented, and all degrees of aftereffects may be observed as well.
My own personal challenges might seem like garden snakes to many people, but to me they were mighty king cobras, I can tell you.  The challenge of learning how to deal with my parents was so depressing, and the effort so doomed to failure, that I am still haunted by it.  (And that will be my only comment on the subject.)  Navy boot camp was, I think, a challenge well met.  I amazed myself by doing fine and getting through it with no trouble at all (although they do seem to have marked my file, “do not let this young man anywhere near our ships or explosives”).  Law school, at the age of forty, was another one, another amazing surprise.  Law school, followed immediately by the bar exam and actual law work, is an effort that is sustained and heroic.  I got through that fine as well.  I met all my goals, clerking in a law office during my third year, graduating in the exact middle of my class and passing the California bar on my first try.  Notice that I prefer modest goals.  I’m sure that there are reasons for that, reasons based in my boyhood.

Which is the challenge that I’d like to discuss. 

Maybe, dear reader, you were one of the lucky ones, and you grew up in a town where it was an easy matter to become one of the boys, or one of the girls, and everyone kind of got along with only a smidge of that common cruelty that children sometimes encounter in other children.  We were not so lucky in my town.  I was a boy in a working class enclave of the New York City borough of Queens.  It was an isolated town of about 30,000 residents called College Point.  The East River wound around one side, and of the four roads that led to town, three ran through a barely drained swamp and were subject to regular flooding.  It was a rough place.

I adopted this formulation many years ago: we were hit by our parents at home; we were hit by the nuns at school; and when we were on our own, we hit each other.  It was a challenge to fit in, not to mention the insurmountable difficulty in trying to make sense of it. 

I was a sensitive boy, kind of day-dreamy, and I did not take naturally to all of the fighting.  Many of the boys that had temperaments similar to mine simply chose to stay at home at all times.  They went to school, certainly, but after school they went directly home and stayed there.  You just never saw them, unless it was on the bus after school.  And in those situations, the odds were that one of the other boys was drumming on their head with a pencil or something.  Staying home wasn’t an option for me.  My agenda was to spend as little time at home as possible.  Whatever was going on outside, home was worse, more dangerous and unpredictable. 

Besides, I enjoyed the games and the running around wild, the dirt-bomb fights, throwing snow balls at cars, playing with matches, I enjoyed everything but the bullying and the fighting. 

Between home, school, and the outside world of the boys, I was afraid most of the time.  That kind of situation is corrosive of the brain itself, not to mention the soul.  The challenge of learning to be a boy in College Point was one that I was not up to, and I’m paying the price for that failure to this day.   

Mea maxima culpa!  But it’s okay.  I haven’t written this by way of complaining.  Any failure for which only one person pays is small potatoes, by definition.  Besides, I’ve almost gotten used to the price that I pay in morbid anxiety.  It won’t be much longer anyway; that's the way of all flesh.  I saw a beautiful photo of Katherine Hepburn on Facebook this morning, with a quote.  “Life is hard,” she is reported to have said, “it kills us all, you know.” 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Smiles Of First Born Children

I have grown suspicious of my smile.  It is a broad smile, open, friendly and earnest.  But I do wonder if it is sincere.

Mine is the smile of the first born.  We, the first born children in our families, share this characteristic:  we flash our smile quickly and graciously.  It is the legacy of our shared desire to please the adults in our lives.  First born children are, for a time, the only children in the room, and it seems to us that job-one in the world will be pleasing these adults.  The smile becomes our introduction and our armor.  We are good children!  Take care of us!  Subsequent children usually have older children around, which gives them confidence that the adults will probably not kill or abandon them.

The smile is just part of the life-strategy of first born children.  We usually acquire language earlier, because we are the only people in the room who cannot talk.  This whole eagerness to please often makes us perform better in school, sometimes even better in life.   Sometimes. 

I am not an unfriendly man.  I smile often, and usually with pure intent.  I honestly believe that part of any winning strategy for human happiness must include smiling at each other and being kind and helpful.  This much is true.

But I smile at friend and foe alike, and here is the foundation of my uncertainty.  I am sure that both smiles appear equally sincere, because I have ample photographic evidence.  I know, however, that they are not equally sincere. 

Most of the people that I know think that am a carefree, charming man.  I only hope that I am never called to harsh judgment for this lie. 

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Surf Six

I Googled Surf Six the other day.  Came up with two strong hits.

1.       A restaurant in Old Orchard Beach, Maine; and
2.       A shopping and retail area in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The one that I was looking for wasn’t listed anywhere.  They were a group of snot-nosed teenagers in the suburbs of Cleveland, Ohio in the mid-Sixties. 

They were some kind of proto-taggers who marked up various public sites with the simple legend, “Surf Six,” or “Surf 6.”  I couldn’t say which version they liked best, I never saw one myself.  I heard about them from a member who was a summer friend of mine, and had been since we were about four years old. 

I’m at the time of life when one starts to wonder what ever happened to boyhood friends that we haven’t seen or heard about in forty or fifty years. 

I Googled my friend today, and checked the Facebook.  No luck on the ‘Book, but I did come up with two possible addresses for a man that may be his brother, or his nephew.  More likely his nephew.  I’m sending letters to each of the addresses.

My friend was a great kid, a heroic kid.  He was six feet tall by the time he was twelve, on his way to six feet, four or five inches.  As a teenager, he was well formed and very handsome, and incredibly strong.  I mean pick up a Buick strong.  That really came in handy during our later summers together, at Lake George in the Adirondacks.  The nearby town was very small, and it featured a huge lumber mill where they made, among other things, pencils with the same name as the town.  You’ve heard of the pencils.  Some nice Revolutionary War sites , too.  It was an interesting place.  Not much for the local teenagers to do though, so their main recreation was fighting.  The locals loved to pick on summer kids, but boy, did they give us a wide birth.  All they ever gave us was a cheerful smile. 

I might as well say it, the town was Ticonderoga, New York, at the northern end of the lake.  Right across the hill was the southern end of Lake Champlain.  That’s what made it such an important place in the wars of the period.  Rodgers’ Rock, Ethan Allan and the Green Mountain Boys, Last of the Mohicans.  I never saw an Indian myself. 

I miss my friend, and I hope he’s okay, and that the recipient of my letters can put me in touch with him.  

The Stepchildren Of The Automotive World

Cars are complex mechanical systems.  They are made up of many mechanical subsystems, each of which is complex in its own way.  The failure of a subsystem will frequently incapacitate the entire vehicle.  Frequently, but not always.

The failure of the clutch, or the fuel system, or the master cylinder of the brakes, those things will take the car off the road until the problem is fixed.  These are the beloved systems, the important ones.  Other systems almost invite neglect.

Let’s take a moment to consider the plight of the shock absorbers and the mufflers of the world. 

Many people in America, and most of the people in some other countries, believe that shock absorbers are good for the lifetime of the car.  They may notice that they are now forced to slow down to a virtual crawl to go over a speed bump, or that the car is doing some extra wallowing in turns, but it never occurs to them to replace the shock absorbers.  Shocks are the unseen, unloved stepchildren of the mechanical family that is a car.  We should pity them.

Mufflers don’t fare much better.  They do wear out after a certain amount of use, they rot out due to moisture and get louder and louder.  Replacing them, however, seems overly discretionary, and many people choose the noise over the expense.  Heard they may be, but also unseen and unloved.   It’s a pity.

All of this is due to the immutable nature of money:  once money is spent, it is gone.  It’s gone like yesterday, never to return.  Money is a very limited commodity in many households, and money that is gone is no longer available to pay bills or buy food.  In many households, neither shock absorbers nor mufflers will even be considered for the to-do list.

If you have a car, go to it now and push down on one of the front corners.  If the car jumps right back up to where it was and stops, the shock is okay.  If the car kind of bounces around for a while, you’re riding on the springs, pal.  If you need shocks, buy them.  If you ever need to brake hard in the middle of a high speed turn, you’ll be glad that you did. 

Facebook Machine Translations

Facebook is only too happy to help out when you get a post in a foreign language.  Happy to help, but often not exactly prepared to be helpful.  Some languages are obviously harder than others for machines to translate.

Thai is one of the hard ones.  Thai is a continuous language, there are no spaces between the words.  There are also no capital letters and no punctuation, so there are no clues as to where the actual words begin and end.  To add to the confusion, Thai is largely monosyllabic, and one syllable can be as many as fourteen different words, depending on the tone.  More complex words are made up of several smaller words.  All of this amounts to a challenge that the machines are clearly not able to handle.  

I get a lot of posts in Thai, and sometimes I can parse them out myself.  Generally it’s easier to check the Bing translation.  Sometimes the “English” version is pure comedy gold; sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense at all.  Once in a while though, the translation is pure poetry.

Like this one:

“Lack of good a few like how she is, the moon has enough”

Look at it in poetic lines:

Lack of good
a few like how she is,
the moon has enough. 

It’s almost a Haiku! 

I tell my students, “if anyone wants to make some good money, create a reliable computer translator of Thai to English.”  That would be a license to mint money. 

The original post, by the way, was about those Chinese Moon Cakes that are hitting the stores about now. 

Monday, September 21, 2015

China, My China

Various politicians and certain hobbyists currently masquerading as presidential candidates are speaking the tough talk about China these days.  They’re hacking us!  They’re building air strips in the South China Sea!  They devalued their currency to try to ruin us!  They don’t play fair!  Just the thought that any country that is not called “The United States” would assert itself in world affairs is enough to drive our politicians to distraction.  It’s a fever, and I hope that it passes.  Ever the optimist!

In the meantime, we just have to listen to our politicians and try to maintain some perspective.  I say, “we,” the Chinese are listening too.  The Chinese government seems to be handling this wave of hysteria very well, a lot better than I am, I can tell you.  I’m mad as hell.  But the Chinese are simply going about their business and pushing the ball down the field according to a long-term plan that seems to be working very well.  Good for them. 

To my Chinese friends:  please don’t worry about the typhoon of bullshit that is coming in your direction from American politicians.  They don’t mean it; they’re doing it for effect.  In my opinion, real American public opinion about China varies only from a strong liking to actual love and admiration.     

My opinion . . . what’s that worth?  Not much, I never assign any particular worth to my own opinion.  But there’s nothing unique about me, so any opinion that I may have is probably shared by others, lots of others.  On the more objective side, there is evidence to support my opinion.

In the Nineteenth Century, England and other European powers were raising holy hell in China.  Unless I am misinformed, the United States was only interested in trading with China.  That trade was extensive.  I will defer to experts as to whether it consisted entirely of fair deals, but it doesn’t look like any animosities were generated. 

Chinese immigrants to America were a great help in building the country.  They didn’t get the warmest welcome in all quarters, that’s true, but bear in mind that the welcome afforded to immigrants from Italy and Ireland was similarly non-fraternal.  By now it cannot be disputed that Chinese Americans are almost seamlessly integrated into American life.  They are great neighbors, co-workers and friends. 

Later on there was all of that unpleasantness with the Japanese.  We were all in that together, weren’t we?  The Chinese people were portrayed very sympathetically in Hollywood movies of the era.  Watch “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo,” and see thousands of Chinese helping our fly boys and putting themselves in real danger to do it.  That’s a true story.  Van Johnson was practically crying when he said, “they’re just like we are!” 

Watch any newsreel footage of the Sino-Japanese War and you can easily see where American feelings were tender, and where they were hard.  The Chinese were seen as longsuffering people who were putting up a great fight and who were deserving of any help that we could offer; the Japanese were seen as brutal aggressors who would be getting theirs, in spades, as soon as possible. 

(Let me just mention that yes, I am aware of the casual, na├»ve racism that was a feature of American life at the time, and I know that it fell upon the Chinese as well as the Japanese.  The smiling Chinese shop owners in California with the “WE CHINESE” signs in their shop windows.  Mea maxima culpa, we’re all guilty when those things happen.  Hopefully we’ve learned something in the meantime, although sometimes I doubt it.) 

China suffered horribly and fought very hard, at great cost, but we were there, weren’t we?  Certainly the Flying Tigers were there.  American airmen are buried in the Cemetery of Anti-Japanese Aviator Martyrs in Nanjing, and there are two museums in modern day China devoted to the Flying Tigers (the Chengdu Jianchuan Museum and the Flying Tigers Museum in Kunming).  Certainly we provided material support for the Nationalist troops doing the fighting. 

This fact is now openly reported in China.  I saw a show on CCTV a few years ago about the heroic resistance of Nationalist troops trapped in some kind of pocket by superior numbers of Japanese troops.  The Chinese soldiers wore American fatigues and helmets, and they fought with American weapons, they looked for all the world like some kind of American Marines.  The unit was supplied by an American airlift from, I think, Burma.  It reminded one of the struggles at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge.  I saw this on cable TV in Thailand.  I thought that it was most interesting that both the Nationalist troops and the Americans got a lot of credit and praise for this action.  That was an admirable accommodation of reality and a shining testament to the Chinese leadership that allowed it.  Deng Xiaoping would be proud of his children. 

Deng Xiaoping!  Mr. “Discover Truth From Facts!”  Between the war and the mid-Seventies there was little to celebrate in the relationship between China and America, but that changed quickly.  China became more pragmatic and less ideological, and America returned to the “let’s do business” model of the previous century.  My own father benefited from this shift.  He didn’t benefit financially, but he got an ego boost.  He was an engineer, his specialty was the burning of coal for electrical power generation.  This interested the Chinese government very much, since they had a lot of coal and they needed a lot of electricity.  My father made seven trips to China in the late Seventies and the Eighties as one of various groups of Western engineers who were specifically chosen and invited by China.  These engineers spent a lot of time addressing groups of Chinese engineers and responding to questions, and there were smaller group sessions devoted to brainstorming particular problems that the Chinese were encountering.  The Chinese hosts did not merely try to impress the visitors, rather they honestly sought help with challenges that they were facing. These were the actions of a secure, reality-based people.  

By now, of course, China is our biggest financial backer and our lender of first resort.  The trade relationship has been mutually beneficial to a wild degree.  We have financed China’s growth; they have financed our wars and built our consumer goods.  That we should be anything but great friends is a notion so stupid that only a presidential candidate would espouse it. 

Most importantly, we like each other!  We have a history of trade and cooperation!  So I say to China, my China, and to you, dear reader, “don’t believe the hype.”  The rhetoric of a presidential campaign has its own unreasonable logic, and should be taken with a grain of salt.  The reality of it is that China and America are friends, and are likely to remain so.  Wishful thinking, you say?  Perhaps, and I’ve been wrong before.  But the odds are with me. 

P.S.  But Fred, what about that whole Korean War thing?  That was an aberration, plain and simple.  We asked for it, by marching right up to the Yalu River and waving nuclear weapons around, and they gave it to us.  That was a long time ago.  Get over it. 

Readership On This Here Blog

Readership is down, but that’s my own fault.  For a few months there I was posting rarely.  For one of those months, I wasn’t allowed in at all, so I couldn’t post if I’d have wanted to.  (I was in America for a change, and they didn’t believe that I was me.)  Regular readers prefer regular posting, and I understand that.  I’ll try to be more consistent. 

I still have good days, high hit-count days.  High for Spin Easy Time! is something approaching one hundred.  I check the stats, and I try to figure out who’s reading and what you all seem to like.  The analysis is challenging, and my conclusions are probably dubious. 

The blog gets what to me is an amazing number of hits from the Ukraine and Russia.  I mean, thank you all for reading, and you are certainly welcome, but I really don’t know what attracts you.  Interested in American culture?  (That was the guess of a Ukrainian friend of mine.)  I suppose most of what I write is illustrative of that, or comments on it.  The U.S.A. and Thailand are numbers one and two, which is not surprising as I am from the former and live in the later.  

Readership in Germany has spiked!  That was a nice surprise.  Vielleicht soll ich ein wenig auf Deutsch schreiben, von Zeit zu Zeit.  Ich habe zeimal in Deutschland gereist, und die Deutscher haben mir immer nett und hilflich gewesen sein.  Wilcommen! 

My sincerest thanks to everyone who is hanging in there.  

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


"Conjuring tricks performed as entertainment."   Prestidigitator.

From the French, "preste," (nimble) plus the Latin, "digitus," (finger).

I'm not impressed by the big set pieces.  I saw a Sigfried and Roy show in Las Vegas long ago.  It was quite a spectacle, with the disappearing tigers reappearing on the other side of the stage.  But who cares?  It's a trick.

I am impressed by a talented performer of card tricks, viewed close up.  A guy holding a simple deck of cards, sleeves rolled up, standing within a few feet of you, and relentlessly making the cards dance to his tune, that, my friends, is entertainment, that is true amazement.

A New Orleans themed restaurant in Los Angeles that I really liked had a Mardi Gras party one time.  They had jugglers and magicians walking around, entertaining at the tables.  The fellow who did some card tricks for us stood right next to us and astonished us time after time.  He was terrific.  All I could notice was that his hands seemed to vibrate at high speed from time to time.  You really needed to look closely to see it. Afterwards, while I was complementing him, I mentioned it.  "Yeah," he said, "I'm working on that."

Penn and Teller are fun, I like them. They play around with the whole notion of it and they have taken the time to master the small game.  Good for them.  Making the Statue of Liberty disappear on TV is probably much easier.  And who cares?

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Post About Cooking!

This is a first!  Not surprisingly, as I hardly cook at all.

I have cooked though, and I have picked up some tips along the way.


This is not an opportunity to go lean.  Get meat with some fat in it.  People go nuts with the sirloin, but some fresh chuck-chop is fine.

Grilling them outside seems like a great way to go, but it's almost impossible to do it without drying out the burgers.  Better to start them outside, sear them good, and finish them in the oven.  350 degrees for what, forty minutes?  Something like that.  Starting them in a pan that's hot and heavy works too.

Don't forget the salt and pepper.

Meat Balls and Spaghetti

I love a good meatball, but it's very tricky to get them right.  It's easy to dry them out, too.  So I forgo the meatballs altogether.

I would get a piece of top or bottom round and cut it into strips.  Cheap cuts, you don't need the marbling for this dish.  I always called it "Steak Pizzaola," but I'm pretty sure that's another dish altogether.

Start with a not-hot dutch oven, the big one you'd use for spaghetti.  Cut up some garlic, big pieces, and saute them for a while in olive oil.  Any olive oil is okay.  Throw in some peppers if you like, I know I do.  A Serrano pepper would be nice.  Take out the seeds, cut it in rings and saute it with the garlic.  Better to take the garlic out.

Then sear the strips of beef in the oil and put aside.

At this point you can put in a little more oil and saute some chopped onion.  Leave those in.

Put your sauce in the pot.  I'd use a jar of Prego and a can of crushed whole tomatoes.  Something like that, it was always different.  Use your own judgment.  Salt and pepper are a good idea.  I like some red pepper in there, maybe some oregano.

Bring the sauce to a boil, add the beef, and simmer for as long as you think is necessary.  When you're done, the beef should be fork tender and very tasty.  If it's not tender, add some water, or more canned tomatoes, and simmer it until you think it's done.

Make the pasta separately when the time comes.

This one was always a big hit.


It's not as easy as they make it look on TV, but it can be done and it's worth it.

Get the dough pre-made and don't start to fight with it until it's at room temperature.  They say a pizza stone is nice, but isn't there enough crap in your kitchen already?  A baking pan is fine. Thickness is more important than shape.  If it comes out the shape of Florida, that just makes it look home made.

Don't put on too much sauce!  And don't overthink it either.  Almost any sauce that you would consider will be fine.  I like to use half goat cheese and half mozzarella, maybe put on some crumbled feta.  Very important:  not too much sauce or cheese!  It'll make the pizza soggy.

You can make it without pepperoni or sausage if you insist, but I wouldn't recommend it.  Chorizo  is nice.  Black olives are okay, chopped up.


Omelets are a real stand-by for the non-chef.  They're easy and delicious.

The pan is always important for these things.  Now I have a nice ceramic Tefal that was made in France.  It was a little pricey, but worth every penny.  It's very heavy, and it really holds the heat. Use butter in the pan, it's worth the cholesterol. You can always eat a lot of fruit tomorrow.

Give the eggs a very good shirring.  I recommend putting in some red pepper, "to taste," a little salt, a very little bit of milk, and a drop of soy sauce, just a drop.  If you don't like the darkened color, use fish sauce.

The top should be good and runny when you put your stuff in.  Remember to only cover half of the surface, the other half gets folded over.  I usually just go with a couple of slices of cheese and some chopped up sandwich ham.  Tomatoes work good.  Many people like chopped mushrooms, but I find that all of the mushrooms in America taste like dirt.  So maybe canned mushrooms or something. Asian fresh mushrooms are very neutral tasting, like I think that mushrooms are supposed to be.  Them you can just throw on.

Bonus Recipe:  Pasta With Sauce in One Sauce Pan

This one is fast and easy.  The cleanup is done before you eat the dish.

Boil some water (with salt) in a regular sauce pan.  Cook the pasta about 85 or 90%.  Penne is easy. Remove from heat and drain the water.  Put in some jar sauce and maybe some cut up sandwich ham or a cut up half a Bratwurst.  Put the pan back on the still-hot burner, stirring more or less constantly.  This finishes up the pasta and warms up the sauce. Voila!  Dinner for one or two!

After it's plated, wash the pot immediately.  Takes twenty seconds.

This post is offered as a public service and a sincere thank you to all of my readers.  I know that you're out there, much like a person who looks in the direction of a known forest on a dark night knows that there are trees there, even if the person can't see the trees at this moment.  Thank you for your interest.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

English Grammar

Grammar can be a challenge, depending on which language one happens to be studying.  Some languages have more grammar than others, for one thing.  English is somewhere in the middle.  German and the Romance languages certainly have more grammar than English.  Thai is on the “less grammar” side of the equation.  Thai is often said to have no grammar at all, but that’s not true.  It’s true that Thai has no conjugations, no declensions, no tenses per se, no punctuation, no plurals, and indeed, no spaces in between the words, but it does have rules for word order.  The most complex languages, grammar wise, have fortunately passed from the earth.  Latin was bad, and Sanskrit was much, much worse.  English is probably the most studied complex grammar language in the world today, and people do complain about it.

It is often necessary to use proper grammar, and that is all well and good.  Writing for the court, for instance, or writing academic papers and articles.  Sometimes proper grammar is critical. 

Sometimes it is less important.  Articles for newspapers or magazines may or may not employ proper grammar.  Newspapers routinely abuse the passive voice, or the comma, by overuse.  Magazines may discard grammar altogether as a matter of style.  This is especially true since writers like Hunter Thompson and Richard Meltzer popularized the vernacular style that they picked up from the beatniks. 

Reaching the issue of novels, short stories and, God forbid, blogs, grammar becomes a matter of discretion.  These are very personal forms of expression.  The writer must be more concerned with the story itself, or the feeling, or with the tone of the communication.  About poetry, I will quote Erwin Panofsky or Bernard Berenson (referring to Jerome Bosch): “this, too high for my wit, I prefer to omit.”  (I’m seventy/thirty for Berenson having ended his book on Northern Renaissance Painting with this quote.) 

The tension created by grammar is this:  what is more important in a particular case?  Proper grammar or direct communication?  Sometimes the critical thing is that the reader understand the material in the manner intended by the author. 

I was very careful about my grammar when I was writing for the court.  The audience for court pleadings consists of judges, lawyers and court clerks.  These people are highly educated and they can be hypercritical.  If they don’t approve of your style, then they are not likely to believe your argument.  I was also very careful writing letters to clients or other lawyers, for similar reasons.  Anything in writing can come back to haunt you.  Other lawyers may wish to hire you, and clients frequently wish to sue you.  It’s best to be careful and err on the side of caution.

Here on the blog I don’t worry too much about grammar.  I try not to get too carried away with style, but abuses are common.  Run on sentences, comma splices, initial dependent clauses, dangling participles, it’s all here.  I’m going for a conversational tone, more like a letter to a friend than a serious piece of writing.  If it’s readable, persuasive, and/or informative, I hit “publish.” 

Spoken language is very much the same.  I spend a lot of time speaking with English learners.  Many of them are worried about, or embarrassed about, their grammar.  I tell them that they should speak English as often as they can, just go for it.  It’s all about communication unless you’re taking a TOEFL test or something.  “If I understood you,” I tell them, “you said it fine.”
A few of these English learners are particularly interesting.  On the one hand, you would have to say that their English grammar is not good at all, but on the other hand you recognize that they have extensive English vocabularies and great hearing comprehension, and they can converse easily on a wide range of subjects.  Proper grammar is nice, but these people are doing fine without it. 

The bottom line is that whether you are writing or speaking it is your language.  Writing or speaking your own personal brand of English is okay, because few things in life are more personal than language. 

So have some fun!  You English learners should ruthlessly inflict your English on the world, without regard to occasional grammatical errors or failures to communicate.  There’s no substitute for practice, and mistakes are great teachers.  And you native English speakers, be daring!  Be stylish!  If the beatniks taught us one thing it was that you could be yourself and still make a living. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

Yeah, We Played That

Dateline: College Point (Historical).  We were prime-time Baby Boomers in densely populated Queens, New York, and there were certainly a lot of us.  That didn’t mean that you could always count on enough boys to play a full game of baseball or football though, nor did it mean that you could always get one of the baseball diamonds.  We were very adept at scaling down our favorite games to fit the number of boys that wanted to play, or the space that was available to us. 

When school was out, or over for the day, many of us would take our baseball gloves and head for the park.  As soon as our numbers reached critical mass, two boys would spontaneously take charge and we’d choose up a game.  Baseball was our game of choice, and we had lots of options.


The main diamond in my town was very interesting, as in “the curse of interesting times.”  The infield was very nice.  It was full sized and laid with a heavy layer of real infield clay, and there was a half shell back-stop made of mesh fencing.  But there were problems.  Inside the bases were another set of bases for soft ball.  These were in the area that had been grass, but now the spots for bases and the base paths connecting them were rough dirt.  Not ideal for fielding ground balls.  Many locals walked their dogs along the third base path, and there was always some dog shit over there, just outside the field.  Since it was New York, broken glass could sneak up on you from out of the grass.  So yeah, it was interesting. 

The outfield barely stood muster.  Center field was a considerable hill, rising pretty steeply from just outside the infield.  Right field was dominated by a large tree, the branches of which began just off the ground.  It was a great tree for climbing, but a mixed blessing in a baseball game.  (Balls hit into the tree were considered to be “in play.”  Local rules!  As the ball made its way to the deck, pinball style, if a player caught the ball, it was an out.) 

But like I say, many times we did not have enough boys to field whole teams.  If there weren’t enough for full teams, we’d play that your own men pitched and caught.  This livened up the game too, because your teammate would lay them in there so you could hit the ball.  As our numbers went down, we might play only to the left field side.  That way there was no need for a right fielder or a second baseman, so you’re down to five on a side.  We played “Bunts” too, any ball that rolls out of the infield is an out.  Three or four on a side was plenty for that.  All of these games so far had full base running, with a player at all three bases. 

Fewer boys than that could play “distance.”  No bases, your own man pitches, and the limits for a single, double, triple or home run are just agreed upon.  You still got to hit and field.


I generally avoided football.  There were some full contact games played without pads or helmets, but I learned the hard lesson fast playing that.  No thanks.  Touch football was okay, even if I was lousy at it. 

Four boys on a side street could play a nice game of touch football.  You had your line of scrimmage, a quarterback, and one or two receivers.  Decide on the location of the goal lines and you’re ready to go.  The curbs are the sidelines.  I played a few times when there were only two of us.  You were the quarterback and the receiver, all in one.  You had to toss the ball up in the air, cross the line of scrimmage, get past the other boy, and then catch your own toss.  Thinking back on it now I wonder why we didn’t just have a catch with the football.  Some of the boys were very competitive though, and nobody ever won a game of catch.


There was a lot of stick ball played.  And handball, and the closely related box ball.  Wasn’t there a version of box ball called diamond ball?  Stoop ball, punch ball. What am I forgetting?  Stick ball was the best of these, as I recall.  

You could play stick ball with three boys all together.  Three one-man teams, rotating from outfield to pitcher to batter.  Four boys was better, two two-man teams.  I don’t recall a lot of games larger than that.  We always played in concrete school yards, just climb over the fence when school was not in session.  I know that other neighborhoods played on streets, but I never saw that.  You needed one or two rubber balls, preferably the good ones.  They cost 25 cents, but they were worth it.  Spauldings (Spawl-Deens) and Pensy Pinkies.  The 10 cent balls were kind of dead.  You needed some chalk too, the big kind.  You marked out a box on a wall for the strike zone, and chalked a score card of some kind in the concrete.  The stick was very important.  An ordinary broom stick was acceptable, but really not thick or heavy enough.  A commercial mop handle was best, and some of the boys had them.  They were very durable, not like baseball bats.  The bats were easy to break; the mop handles could last generations. 

Stick ball, I can tell you, was an awful lot of work.  All of that pitching would just plum wear you out, and there was a lot of chasing down balls.  Many of us loved that game, in spite of it. 


Oh, don’t wait for me to discuss basketball!  I know almost nothing about the game.  The only situation that could get me to play basketball was gym class in high school.  Then at least you had an adult around that would prevent most of the horrible violence that I associate with basketball. 

There were always pick-up games at the park, but after a few tries I stayed completely away.  Those were always the biggest, strongest, most competitive boys, and often the toughest to boot.  There were no adults to keep an eye on things, and the games were very rough and tumble.  All assholes and elbows, and quite a few fights.  So no thanks.

Unknown Games And Conclusion

We saw Puerto Ricans playing soccer sometimes, but we never tried it.  I played volleyball a couple of times in gym class, but never in town and never for fun.  Some of the rich kids played tennis, but I never did.  Golf came later, with its shame and regret.  What a horrible game.

We sure did love the games that we did play, though.  We had a great time too.  We played games that included a lot of throwing, catching, hitting and running, typical American games of the mid-twentieth-century.  I had a big check-up last month that included an EKG, an echo-cardiogram, and a cardiac stress test, and the doctor told me although the blood pressure was a little bit high, all of the signs and rhythms were very good.  “You have the heart of a race horse,” he told me.  I was waiting for the gag line, but it never came.  (“A very old, decrepit race horse.”)  If that’s true, maybe I can thank all of that strenuous game playing when I was a boy.  We played these games every day and often all day.  Before school; at recess and lunch; after school; weekends; summers.  Maybe it was good for something.