Doghouse and Writer’s Block

Humor, by Fred Leeds

I am holed up in an attic trying to write something. They may have to keep me here if I don’t come up with something soon. Let’s see… It is a dark and stormy night… I got rid of Lucy but am stuck with Schroeder. Charlie Brown lost at baseball and is sprawled asleep in the doghouse below me. Schroeder keeps playing Beethoven’s Fifth and I’m about to go mad. I must take off in my airplane and seek the wide-open spaces. Red Baron, my old friend, even you are better company than this. Linus, prepare my scarf! I will ride my rickety typewriter into yon evil sky.

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The Curse of the Norton Boys

contributed by Dave Norton

The following is an email sent to brother Charlie after Thanksgiving Day, 2000:

Hi Charlie!

After talking with you on last night, I realized that you, Dan, and I are victims of an insidious curse, inflicted at an early age by our mother: the Curse of the Norton Boys.

We have the misfortune of having been taught by Mom that, when visiting other people’s homes, the following rules apply:

If you’re there for dinner, you ask how you can help.

If you’re family, you begin setting the table until asked to stop.

After dinner, you take your plate to the kitchen.

You then help clear the table unless asked to stop.

If family, you clear the table and rinse and stack the dishes by the sink, unless asked twice to stop.

If a big dinner, you watch for full trash cans, and ask where to dump them.

If you sleep over, when you first get up, you make your bed.

If you sleep on the couch, when you first get up you fold the blankets, stack them neatly, and set them aside.

If you have children, you control them.

In short, you respect the time, energy, and space of your hosts and do what you can to make your visit a pleasant experience for them.

If you are fortunate enough NOT to have been infected by the Curse, then these different rules apply:

Sit on a couch and watch as preparations are made, with feet on a table if available.

At table, you ask for what you want and let others get it for you.

After dinner, you sit at the table while it is cleared and dessert is brought to you.

After dessert, you return to the couch and turn on the TV while others clean up the mess.

It is not necessary to actually watch the TV, just enjoy the ambiance of the inane chatter and commercials in the background.

If you sleep over, leave your bed as it is when you get up, either for someone else to make, or to stay unmade all day.

If you have children, turn on the TV with a Winnie the Pooh tape as soon as you arrive, so the children can watch for 2 minutes and wander off to explore the house while the TV stays on.

Anytime during the day that you notice your hosts have soothing classical music on the stereo, or NPR news, start a new tape and turn up the volume to the extent that the radio is no longer distracting.

At the end of the day, as the hosts hint that it is bedtime, put the children’s favorite 3-hour movie on the VCR.

Encourage your children to take a piece of fresh fruit, take one bite, and leave it somewhere around the house.

Encourage them also to open a can or bottle of soda, take a drink, and place the can in a position where it can’t be readily seen but is easily tipped over, onto carpeting if possible.

Repeat the fruit/soda process 3 times a day.

Encourage them to make several tours of the house during the day, turning on lights and closing doors to unoccupied rooms.

Throughout the day, feed your children nutritious foods of the sort found at supermarket checkout counters, packed in bright cellophane packaging, consisting primarily of sugar and cholesterol. These packages are left randomly about the house, with at least 3 open at a time.

Encourage them to fill up on such items immediately prior to dinner.

During dinner, excuse the children from table as soon as they have taken 3 bites of the Jello or applesauce served just for them.

During dessert, insist that the Children not be allowed to eat dessert since they haven’t eaten dinner, then serve each one a full-sized slice of home-made Lemon Meringue Pie, from which they will take one bite and stir the rest.

When your child misbehaves, correct them in the following manner:

Billy don’t do that. I’ll count to three. One, two, Billy don’t do that. I’ll count to three… Repeat this process several times daily to reinforce the pattern.

There are an infinite number of variations on these rules, such as making sure your automobile drips oil, then parking on the cleanest whitest most conspicuous part of the driveway, but you get the picture. The guiding principles are:

1. You deserve to be served.

2. Your hosts are here to serve you.

3. Your children are a joy to your hosts, who will think their antics are darling.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Brother Dave

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‘Mind Jazz’

by Fred Leeds

Like musical jazz, mind jazz stresses the offbeat. The goal is to get you to think about old ideas in new ways. Mind jazz is usually taken as a mistake at first. That is because it jars on the ear that sticks to the original phrases. Mind jazz is a rebel’s language and an English teacher’s nightmare. Here are some examples:

Happy-go-lacky describes a person who becomes a servant to others by not taking things seriously. This is especially fitting in our cash-on-the barrelhead society, morally on the lookout for the lackadaisacal.
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Fact-Checking

To most magazines, and to those newspapers that use them, fact-checking departments are the thin blue line between a crowd and a riot. They function like radiation monitoring personnel in nuclear facilities, NASA Mission Control in a space launch, the “clean room” in electronics assembly, or software QA in mission-critical software. But fact-checking is a labor of devotion; it comes at a cost.

As explained by John McPhee in his fascinating New Yorker article “Checkpoints“, February 9-16 2009, a mis-statement of fact in a reputable magazine has serious and long-lasting repercussions. If an error actually slips past the challenges and research of the fact-checking department, it is inspected and usually caught by thousands of exceptionally eagle-eyed readers, but the damage at this point is already done. The magazine, complete with embedded error, checked or un-checked but false as a green fire engine, finds its way into thousands of libraries across the country and world, where it is accessed by further generations of readers and researchers, who, aware of the rigorous screening and checking process through which all such printed statements of fact are filtered, are prone to accept the statements at face value, and thereby propagate them further.

If we were spies in some ministry of disinformation and propaganda, we would do well to bypass the planting of false rumors upon the lips of dips, snitches and fallen patriots amongst the rabble, but instead to conspire to get our subversive misrepresentations published as gospel in the printing houses of the land. This, of course, is what modern Public Relations departments already do for a living.

I used to do software QA for a vendor of financial accounting systems. This was not “mission-critical” computer code in the sense of life-support systems, but clients understandably object when there is an error in the computational algorithm in even a very obscure piece of the functionality. We tried very hard to devise tests to catch these errors while the code was still in development, and then in recurrent testing afterwards. Like so many modern corporations, we had limited resources. While a development test plan on a larger project might exceed a hundred pages and the require execution of hundreds or thousands of specific tests, we and our clients, like New Yorker readers, banked off the fruit of previous labor. So, the entire final report on a downstream “credibility” checkout of the code of the whole software system, when ported to a new machine or through a software upgrade, might read, “no problems noted.”

Not so with magazines. McPhee published an article in the New Yorker, he wrote, called “Coal Train”, in 1995. It included the passage:

The releasing of the air brakes began at the two ends, and moved toward the middle. The train’s very long integral air tube was like the air sac of an American eel.

The checking department informed McPhee there was an apparent problem with the eel metaphor. It seems several experts stated that the air sac of this particular fish was proportionally shorter than the air sac of most other fish. It took a phone call to Harvard to straighten this out: “The train’s very long integral air tube was like the air sac of a rope fish.”

Last night I listened to a newscast in which a politician was asked if it was true that spin-off costs of a certain program were going to be $300 billion. His instant response was: no, no, no, it would certainly be much lower than that, but what we really need to appreciate is blah blah blah … And of course he never stated what the “much lower” cost actually was, and of course the interviewer dropped the ball and didn’t ask. Successful politicians use circumlocution and equivocation like champion Olympic skiers use body english. Even if he actually says “$300 billion” – which he wouldn’t , and, my goodness, was that $300 million? –  people don’t expect him to mean that to all the precision of twelve significant digits – or was that nine digits? – he is merely indicating in a political fashion that we’re talking “real money” here.

So there is political capital to be gained by letting the listener discount the source. Perhaps there is something to be said for the art of equivocation after all.

If I were writing this piece for the New Yorker, which I am most certainly not – the New Yorker never having heard of me, and, except for a fluke of fate, me never having heard of the New Yorker, but for the fact I discovered early on I prefer literature to vacuous twaddle – I would elect to equivocate as much as possible. So, if I were publishing McPhee’s original, un-fact-checked assertion that a certain “first” Budweiser plant produced “an average of thirteen thousand kegs a day”, in New Hampshire, I would simply render it: “While traveling inland New Hampshire, I overheard a stranger claim that a certain local Budweiser plant originally produced somewhere in excess of thirteen thousand kegs daily.”

In my own expert rendering above, you can plainly figure out the following:

  • – Except for a tiny corner of New Hampshire in which the wonderful city of Portsmouth accesses the Atlantic, the entire state is landlocked. It is hard to actually travel the breadth of New Hampshire without going inland, so my statement is true, but gratuitously redundant.
  • – My source is an anonymous stranger.
  • – I omitted the claim that this is Bud’s “first” plant, since I have no personal knowledge of anything of the kind.
  • – I have waffled on the actual amount of Budweiser produced so badly that there is nothing for the fact-checking department to do except verify that the plant is, or was at some time or other, actually located in the state of New Hampshire.

You see, it was only the rigorous ministrations of the New Yorker fact-checking department that saved author and publisher from the embarrassing blunder of damning Budweiser plant capacity with faint praise. It seems their first plant had turned out an average of eighteen thousand barrels a day.

In the future, if I ever do submit an article to the New Yorker, recognizing that the inclusion of un-checked statements of fact can pose challenges of great consequence to the resources and ingenuity of a fact-checking department, I shall submit as few of them as possible. While I harbor the suspicion that my posture will increase the likelihood of my article being scrutinized with somewhat less than the attention it richly deserves, I do believe that the resources of a great fact-checking department should be reserved for those authors who have something to say.

I enjoy writing as well as almost anyone, but I would hate to be a bother, and then too, don’t we all instinctively distrust those social gadflies whose first instinct in a crowd is to redirect everyone’s attention to themselves?

Forthwith, I resolve to include in my articles a disclaimer, absolving both reader and fact-checking departments of any responsibility for my sins, whether by omission and commission, and I think it should read something like this:

It could be said that I did not check my facts before writing this article, but then, I have not become aware of any mis-statements of fact during the commission of this article, so I could not, on the whole, say that.

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