Wednesday, July 29, 2009

What they say

The biggest story in the news since last week has revolved around President Obama's answer to a question about the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates. You've heard the sound bite where he says "the Cambridge Police acted stupidly." Whether you watched the press conference or not, that clip has been everywhere.

However, I'm not here to talk about that part of the sentence.

The word "stupidly" was not the end of that line; Obama continued, " arresting somebody when there was already proof they were in their own home."

Our topic today is not what you think it is.


At lunch the other day I was reading an article in Vanity Fair about the changing nature of "the American Dream" over time.

In the article the writer included some quotes from the past. From the 1931 book by the man who coined the phrase "the American Dream," James Truslow Adams, came this line about the Puritans: "[Their] migration... was one in which the common man as well as the leader was hoping for greater freedom and happiness for himself and his children."


Notice the difference between the two?

It's the pronouns when referring to a generalized, non-specific individual.


The quote from Adams revealed a bit about the common usage in past generations, where the male specific pronoun stood for both sexes if the person being referenced could be either. (Although, in that context, the leader almost certainly was a man, so to say "himself" and "his" would be applying to a male, but let's not dwell on that.)

These days, the same quotes would be phrased differently, as exemplified by the pronouns chosen by the president. Sexual equality is different. Politically correct or not, to have the male pronoun stand for both is sexist. And these days we're adept enough to want to avoid that, which is why the singular "somebody" gets paired with the plural "they" and "their," even though those are referring to one individual. (And, interestingly, it was known in this case that the "somebody" was male, and thus "he" and "his" could have been used without being sexist, but again, let's not dwell on that.)


When speaking of an individual in a gender-neutral context, proper usage would dictate that what should be done in such scenarios is to say "he or she" or "him or her" (in some acknowledgment of both sexes), but let's face it: that's awkward; it inserts extra syllables; it forces one to think ahead about whether the referenced individual could be to either sex.

As contemporary English has not invented a new pronoun to represent an individual who could be either one, to keep up with the changing mores, the common usage has taken to using "they" or "them" instead of "he or she" or "him or her." Obviously they and them are plural pronouns, referring to more than one person, so to say (for example) "If anyone wants that last piece of cake they can have it" creates an inconsistency. However, it does allow for an easier reference than proper usage would allow. Right or wrong, it's simpler. And common usage always operates to make things simpler.

However, it's still grammatically incorrect. "They" and "them" still mean something in their traditional usage, so it's not really good to turn them into pronouns that can be both singular and plural. But they are in the contemporary lexicon (and yes, use of the "singular they" does have historical precedents going back centuries, but not to the extent we see today), and I don't think even if a new term were concocted that it would supplant they/them for this purpose.

That much I can accept, at least certainly for casual or extemporaneous use. Still, even I have my limits.


A pillar of modern populist communication (for better or for worse) is Facebook. That social networking site issues alerts when a friend (or "friend") has "tagged" a photo you posted, identifying him- or herself in it. Yes, I'm being traditional in my pronoun choice, and here's why. In the alert message from the site, the wording that is used is a follows:

"[Friend's name] tagged themself in your photo." Then there's a hyperlink to the photo in question.


Again, I concede that use of they as a non-gender specific singular pronoun has become common in contemporary English. However, the use of that in a reflexive context like that, it looks really wrong.

I grant that it gets used, and there's a certain internal consistency of using it along with the singular they but... egad. (Unlike they and their, etc., themself is flagged as misspelled by every program out there. Computers still don't acknowledge that as correct in any context.)

So I propose this compromise: "They" and "them" resume their plurality of meaning, so that we don't have to run into the hideous contradiction that is "themself." When the gender of the person is unknown, the number of persons will become unknown as well, and assumed to be indeterminate. (That's what Wikipedia says. And to the extent that anything there is to be trusted, we'll pretend that supports my thesis.) Thus, "themselves" will always be the reflexive form and contemporary common usage will match proper usage grammatically.

It may not make anything clearer, but let's give up on that pipedream. Language ceased to be about clear communication a long time ago.

There's no hope for those Facebook messages, as "[Friend's name] tagged themselves..." will still look awkward. Of course, the site should know the sex of the person in question, so the code should be able to include the gender-specific pronoun. That, or the site needs to stop thinking that members need to be alerted altogether.


Sure, the novelty of Facebook will wear off in a few years and people will move on to the next trend, so I need only wait it out. However, I can lay the seeds now for what sort of gender-neutral terminology will be employed by those who are almost certainly working on whatever will supplant it.

Whoever you are, please remember: No "themself." Do whatever is necessary to avoid that at all costs.

Now I just need to figure out how to make sure the president eschews "themself" in his speeches and press conference answers. Were he to do that it would only serve to cement its use, and that would be... acting stupidly.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

A steamy moment

The other morning I was on the train on my way to work, as usual. I was in the fifth row (my preferred seat) from the front of the car. Minutes in to the trip, I was sitting with my headphones on, again per usual, with my head looking down, reading a book in my lap.

Out of the corner of my eye I detected a figure leaning against the empty seats of the row in front of me. Not someone sitting down, but still mostly standing, but leaning down and facing toward me. And then a voice spoke, although I couldn't hear it over the music playing in my ears.

I glanced up to see it was a woman who had been sitting up in the first row, next to a bicycle. Along with one other man, in the third row, the three of us were the only ones in the car at that point. She rested one knee on the seat, steadying herself with one hand grasping the bar, and holding an opened cell phone in the other.

I took out one of the headphone buds out of my ear to hear as she repeated what I presume she said the first time.

"Do you know how to spell 'steam'?" she asked, with a noticeable but not heavy Spanish accent.

Without hesitating I started spelling it out. "S, T, E, A, M."

She started repeating it back. "S, T, E…"

"A, M."

She thanked me and returned to her seat up front, next to her bicycle. I speculated that she was texting something that required that term, as she didn't speak into the phone. However, I didn't watch; I finished the passage in the book I'd been reading.

This was somewhat unusual, I will admit.

I am merely glad she asked me something I knew.


The thing is: She had to pass this other man in order to get to me. Did I seem more apt to know how to spell the word she sought? Was that because I was reading? Or was it because of appearances?

The man had graying hair, but that would not play into this (I imagine).

Perhaps it was a matter of her figuring that I'd know it in the language she needed, and that the man might not know it in that language (but in a language she already knew).

That seems kind of insulting to him.

But maybe he was dozing and she didn't want to disturb him. I could only see the back of his head; I don't know whether his eyes were open or closed.


What's most interesting to me, however, is this: She actually got up and walked several steps to ask a stranger how to correctly spell a word, and just for a text message.

That mode of communication is not exactly renown for adherence to conventional spelling.

Maybe there's hope for the future after all.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Early in the morning

Around… what was it? 4 in the morning?... he awoke. The TV in the bedroom was still on—something that happened when his wife stayed up later than him, as she fell asleep with it offering its cool, glowing blanket of flickering light and muffled voices.

The remote control was over on her night stand, so he let it play.

After a while, when it became clear that his conscious mind had taken control and he wasn't falling back to sleep, he picked his glasses from the night stand nearest him and put them on. Rolling on to his back, he propped up his head with a second pillow and watched some Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reruns on Nick at Nite (being what was showing on the channel on which his wife had left it set). One was a "message" episode, where Will toys with taking drugs and it leads to his cousin inadvertently taking them and ending up in the hospital. Very subtle.

At 5 a.m. the programming changed Home Improvement. He put up with the first few minutes, as it involved Tim going to a Red Wings game, but then he was forced to get up and retrieve the remote from the other side of the bed.

No matter how tired he was, he had limits for what he could tolerate.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

While they ate and drank

As suggested by this post, I did recently have a wedding.

It went very well. Thanks for asking. But that's not our topic du jour. This post is going to list the songs that were played during two portions of the reception.


While my new bride and I took post-ceremony photos, our guests retired to the bar. Later, the guests ate (and we got in some bites, too) and we visited tables. There was more to the event, of course, but for this post I'm focusing on those portions. More specifically, I'm focusing on the music that played while they enjoyed their cocktails and dinner.

All of the tracks were selected from our personal music collection. (Yes, we prepared our own music, which is a story for a later post.) I present it here (with samples found online*, if you're interested in hearing them) not to show what phenomenal taste my wife and I have (but hey, if that's what you take away from it, who are we to quibble?) but because a couple of the guests commented on having liked it, and wanted to know what the songs were.

(This'll teach 'em to reinforce that sort of behavior.)

I will spare you any grand rumination on what mood we were going for, or annotations about why each song was selected. I'll let the music speak for itself (at least for now).

* Some had embedded samples that could be played by clicking the button with the play arrow, and some open a new window to play the sample from a different site, but that proved to be too much of a colossal pain in the ass.

With no further adieu...


Cocktail hour playlist:
A Taste of Honey - Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass
My Baby Just Cares For Me - Nina Simone
Me Gustas Cuando Callas - Brazilian Girls
Hawaiian War Chant - Ella Fitzgerald
Be Without You - Mary J. Blige
Green Onions - Booker T. & The MGs
Baby Wants a Diamond Ring - Squirrel Nut Zippers
Todavía - Esquivel
Tin Tin Deo - Dizzy Gillespie
The Girl from Ipanema - João Gilberto/Stan Getz
Designs On You - Old 97s
Concrete & Clay - Unit 4+2
Salt Water Sound - Zero 7
Dansez-Vous - Pink Martini
Cantaloupe Island - Herbie Hancock
East St. Louis - Russell Gunn
Psychedelic Sally - Lionel Hampton
Maintenent - Rupa & the April Fishes

Dinner hour playlist:
Everybody Eats When They Come To My House - Cab Calloway
Weve Only Just Begun - The Carpenters
Summertime (From Porgy & Bess) - Miles Davis & Gil Evans
Let My Love Open The Door (e.cola mix)- Pete Townshend
Kaya - Bob Marley & The Wailers
Everything in Its Right Place - Radiohead
Anybody Else But You - Moldy Peaches
I Feel Beautiful - Robyn Hitchcock
It Could Be Sweet - Portishead
Here Comes Your Man - Pixies
Tempo de Amor - Smokey & Miho
As Long As The Grass Shall Grow - Johnny Cash
Good Day - Paul Westerberg
'The Simpsons' End Credits Theme (Jazz Quartet Version) - The Simpsons
Love Dog - TV On The Radio
I'd Like That (Sunflower) - XTC
I'm the Man Who Loves You - Wilco
(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 - Nat King Cole
On Interstate 15 - Wall Of Voodoo
You're Just A Baby - Belle And Sebastian
Nubian Lady - Yusef Lateef
Caravan - Tito Puente and his Orchestra
The Sidewinder - Lee Morgan
S'Wonderful - Ella Fitzgerald

Friday, July 17, 2009

More reasons learning is overrated

While flipping through the local morning news shows the other day I noticed this graphic that displayed just before they went to commercial, to "tease" the upcoming stories.
I know from the voiceover of the anchor that the first story pertained to the document that lists one's professional experience, but without the accents over the e's (résumé), I couldn't help but think for a split second the text next to the bullet indicated pertained to resuming mistakes.

And the thing is: The mistakes never stopped, so there was no need to resume them.


Yes, I know spelling it without the accents is an accepted variation, and it's likely the font used doesn't allow for accents.

Still, if only I didn't know those six letters spell two different words I wouldn't have such moments. They need to do a story on unlearning such things. That's what I need.


No, I won't be listing this amongst my accomplishments.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Syfy sounds catchy

I've known this was coming for months, but now that it is in effect it is really drawing a lot of attention to itself whenever I pass by the channel. Which, now that Battlestar Galactica is no longer airing, is not all that often. But as I'm scrolling through the listings on my DirecTV guide, the name is right there (channel 244), whether I stop to watch or not.

The "Sci Fi" channel changed to "Syfy" last week. Over the weekend the ubiquitous ID in the lower right corner of the screen alerted the viewers to this fact, featuring the text "SciFi is now Syfy."

I know from an article in the TV Guide from a couple weeks ago that they arrived at "Syfy" largely because it was a web URL that wasn't already taken, and one they could copyright. And apparently they think the new four-letter designation may help them expand their audience by getting away from the geeky association that the abbreviation for science fiction had.

And the thing is this: No matter how much I grasp what they were going for, with the re-branding plan, with trying not to be tied down in their programming, I cannot look at that new moniker and imagine it being pronounced as one would say "sigh fie"; words where the first syllable sounds like "sigh" start with "si" (sign, sigh—hmm, they appear to start with "sig" but absent that last consonant the g ceases to be silent… oh, and silent), "sci" (science), or "psy" (psychology, psyche). "Sy" connotes a soft i sound, such as in syllable. So in my mind "Syfy" is pronounce like "siffy" (i.e., like "silly" but with f's). And the first real word that pops up when I think of the "syf" part: syphilis. Which obviously doesn't have an f but the homonym ph combination, but that doesn't matter; it's what springs in to my consciousness, despite all the efforts of my brain to the contrary.

It's juvenile and stupid, I concede, but it is where my mind goes.

That probably isn't what the powers that be at the network were going for, but on the off-chance it was, this certainly would open the door to allow them to air very different types of programming, which could appeal to a... different... audience. (Perhaps those who feel they've had something done to them by the Spike network?)

Not sure that it will increase the odds of me watching, but there's plenty of other channels without the association of venereal disease in their name available.


The inexplicability of the new name has already had one benefit for the channel: I am so distracted by it that I cannot dwell on the dubious grammar of the channel's new motto: Imagine Greater.

However, I find myself starting to think that doing so might result in me needing to go to my doctor for a penecillin shot.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Stuck in the middle

On a Boeing 737 there's three seats on either side of the aisle. When those three seats are filled with people, that's six elbows. However, there's only four arm rests.

Clearly the person on the aisle gets the arm rest nearest that side, and clearly the person by the window gets the arm rest up against that side of the plain. The person in the middle gets at least one of the two that run between the seats. However, that leaves one left on the other side of the middle person. Who gets that one?

It would seem that because the persons on the aisle and on the window have, respectively, the option to get into the aisle or the option to look out the window, the person in the middle should get the extra arm rest as something of a consolation prize; you can't get up and you can't see out, so your elbows should have dibs on that space to rest.

However, the situation works thusly: The extra armrest goes to the person who is the bigger asshole (whether intentionally or obliviously).

One thing is certain: No one gets any of the space over those middle armrests. Even if one claims the extra armrest, one only gets that two inches; one does not get to poke one's elbows over into the seat area of the person in the next seat.

And perhaps someday Queen Oblivion in window seat 33F will figure that out. Or maybe someday she'll get an elbow in the face. Hey, there won't be room for that arm on the rest; it has to go somewhere.


The best part is this: When she walked up during the boarding phase, me already in middle seat 33E, and she saw she'd need to ask me to move in order for her to get to her window seat, she said "You're going to hate me." At the time I joked that it was too early in the flight for me to hate her, and as I moved out into the aisle to let her in I asked jocularly if she planned on doing something later. She just smiled and slid over to her spot by the window.

Shortly after the plane took off she had already claimed that armrest between us and poked her elbow over it as she flipped through the in-flight magazine in the exaggerated manor of someone annoyed. However, I think she was just too much in her own space to have any grasp of what she was doing.

And later, as she (along with most of the others on the red-eye flight) was asleep, her elbow, under a blanket, had taken residence against my side.

What did I do? I watched the in-flight movie, and waited for landing. Of course I didn't say anything to her. It's not my job to educate the middle-aged on what they should have been taught long before. Writing about it later accomplishes as much as trying to get through to her would have.


I can't say the woman didn't warn me up front. I just didn't grasp that at the time.


Hey, at least I got the arm rest on the other side.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

King of Pop

Michael Jackson's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Valentine's Day 2004

Monday, July 06, 2009

A rose by any other term of reference (other end of the tunnel)

As something of a follow-up to this post, I have another announcement:
I will no longer be alluding to "my fiancée" in these posts.

If appropriate, I will be making reference "my wife" if post mentions the woman I love.

Which is much easier to type, as it doesn't require that silly accent mark. And to speak it aloud, it's only one syllable rather than three.

(That's not the reason I married her, but it is a bit of a nice side benefit.)

Again, just alerting my intrepid readers of this alteration of future phraseology, so there's little confusion. Thank you.