Friday, November 23, 2007

"be the hammer"

tonight i saw a cadillac advertisement on television. cadillac has, in the space of ten years, gone from old man car to asshole car. this ad proves it. it shows a young white man, with stubble and a suit, driving a shiny red cadillac SUV in a tunnel. he talks in his head about how people always told him "the nail that sticks out gets the hammer," and that being different is bad.

suddenly he hits the gas, and raucous guitar music sounds, and he says, "or, you can be the hammer."

in other words, rather than growing the callouses needed to take being hit, or being tough enough to be different and take the shit the world throws at you for being different -- just get high on power. and, naturally, as the one in power, you can hit others for being different. for getting power virtually requires that one trade in one's true uniqueness. wonderful message. be an asshole and anesthetize your inner being with an injection of egotism. yuck. this commercial, unfortunately, reveals the schizophrenic soul of our society. but it has the virtue of being honest -- unlike the sentimental animated films full of messages about being yourself and accepting difference, while the movie business model is driven by celebrity, and power worship, and conformity.

leaving arizona

today there was a young guy scrubbing down the front of the stoves in our kitchen at the retirement home. i had seen him playing bingo with alzheimer's sufferers a couple of days ago. as he scrubbed away i asked him what brought him to volunteer here. his answer was unexpected. he raised his loose mop of hair and said, "I got fined 24 hours of community service for drunk driving."

it turned out he had dreamed for a long time of going to arizona state university and living the rest of his life there. he had visited resorts in the mountains, and fallen in love with the state's natural beauty. he had looked forward to partying as well. three months after going out there with high hopes for his first year, he was back, deeply disillusioned. "when i woke up in the hospital trying to rip out the IV in my arm because i was so messed up by the drug, i knew i had better get out or i'd end up dead," he said. someone had slipped a "roofie," or a date rape drug, in his drink at a fraternity party.

what scared him was the sense of danger on all sides: from homeless vagrants on the streets of tempe, to untrustworthy fraternity brothers, to brutal police. the wild partying stimulated wide public support for iron-fisted measures in response. "if you run from a cop, he will beat you down," he said, admitting nostalgia for the madison police. when i told him i had gotten a ticket for jay walking in tempe 15 years ago, he nodded his head, saying it was like that before, too. possession of pot is counted as a felony, he said. and the new university president was cracking down on fraternities, driving them off campus so as to limit liability.

it sounded like a nightmare to me. all his non-arizona friends out there had decided not to stay enrolled. a clash of a demagogic police state and a mindless pursuit of inebriation, on a mass scale. the phoenix area is home to sherrif joe arpaio, who wins election after election by promising to demean and break down offenders with pink prison garb and work camps.

what can one expect from a society growing economically, but totally cut off from the natural environment? there is an aggressiveness inherent in the political atmosphere there, an aggressiveness that comes from the system of wealth creation, which is based on relentless erasure of nature. wealth there is a mean train that leers at you and warns you to stay the hell out of its way -- or else. arizona scares me. if it is that mean when its train is chugging loud and strong, think how mean it will be if and when the housing market crashes!

black friday

black friday, the huge shopping day after thanksgiving, is becoming a folk holiday of its own, like popular festivities that grow up around official feast days or state holidays. this morning alicia, a cook and young mother, stumbled in saying she had only slept two or three hours. at four she had lined up at Wal Mart in Branford. the line stretched across the lot. with police present, the line was orderly.

but the moment the doors opened, a tremendous energy swept the crowd. people clapped and cheered, and pressed forward. the line disintegrated. alicia's face conveyed the excitement of the moment, as well as the madness that took place within the store. she told of people scooping up a dozen of a particular product, ten laptop computers. she laughed telling of people grabbing at the same thing, of the loser cursing out the winner, of the quicker grabber giving the other the finger at his demand and running away.

there was grabbing from the store as well. she saw a guy put a camera in his pocket; but no alarm went off, even though there are devices inside the cameras. someone must have turned the detector off, she said. she told of people she knew who in past years had stolen things. it was a fever of running, quick decisions, cooperation with friends, grabbing, piling high. it was laughter at the absurdity of the situation, of alicia pulling two loaded baskets by herself, of seeing people spend 1200, 3000 dollars at the checkout. of people cursing loudly when, ten minutes after opening, the Dell computers so eagerly snatched up were announced as recalled!

the store benefits, overall, from this carnival atmosphere, even as there are inevitable losses. the catholic church, too, must have made similar calculations at carnavals of the past: there are excesses, sure, but they revel in the name of the Lord.

amazingly, while the pleasure of collective madness accrues to the mother, she also anticipates another pleasure entirely different: "i do it for the look on her face when she opens the presents up," said alicia, "that makes it all worth it." but clearly this moment is not the only reward: black friday's excitement belongs all to the mother.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

the swan's in the park

the cutest thing, as we walked over to pick up E from school, was W (A's dad) chanting forcefully in rhythm with his steps, "the swan's in the park, the swan's in the park," while A, on his shoulders, tagged along arhythmically in her little voice, "swan's in the park. . .swan's in the park." my sister K carried her at first, then W took over. there was indeed a swan in the park, busily eating.

80s: cold but mushy

in New York a few nights ago i came across a box of old videotapes left out on the sidewalk. i am a packrat, so i rifled through them and brought some home. today i popped in "Nine 1/2 Weeks," from 1986. It was terrible. Nothing but Mickey Rourke's smug smirk -- did Bruce Willis learn this smirk from him? -- and the female lead looking uncomfortable.

beyond the erotic story, i noticed two aesthetic elements whose combination says a lot to me about an "eighties aesthetic," or maybe even something more, a cultural zeitgeist, a current of sentiment. almost every scene used white, cloudy light, which lent the scenes a stillness. and many scenes also used soft, cheesy music, keyboard tones from easy-listening pop songs. in other words, the scenes are suffused with cold light and overly soft music. we see the two people making love on a bed, on a kitchen floor, on a table; behind them are venetian mini-blinds pierced with this chill white light; after their climax a keyboard sounds a few saccharine-sweet notes.

it is an odious combination, like heavy perfumed wafted into a sterile office or parking garage, something false dolloped atop something exceedingly chilly, even harsh. like a sugary donut eaten on an empty stomach -- or worse yet, a ring ding made three months ago in a factory. you get the picture. yuck.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

corn in central park

this is just a tiny bit of proof about how certain themes current in the social unconscious are everywhere. the movie poster for will smith's new movie shows new york as deserted, with corn growing in central park. just as these hollywood script writers were toiling away on this movie, i was thinking up a novel i would like to write, about political crisis and the suburbs. an image that entranced me was the lawns of once-coveted suburban homes turned into cornfields due to the flight of the wealthy to the cities. clearly, the fascination with decline, decay, return to survivalism, the possibility of existence beyond or below industrial civilization is extremely powerful in this country.

i feel sure these fantasies exhibit desire for freedom from the structures that constrict and shape everyday life. there is a desire for destruction, and release. the idea of planting one's own crops is fascinating: for the supermarket to disappear, for a new relationship with the earth. oddly, in this particular movie, this fantasy is a solitary one. there is no new ordering of society; society just disappears!

even Toyota. . .

even Toyota has succumbed, lemming-like, to the massive, long-term trend toward fierceness in headlights. interestingly, there have finally been some good looking tail lights on cars recently. but even as head lights get more sophisticated in their elements (individual bulbs disaggregated, as in the land rover headlights), the overall "tone" and shape of these lights is to mimic angry, glaring eyes, projecting aggressiveness. the overall sameness, even with small variations, is tiresome. somehow efficiency and competence, the cultural values most prized in our economy, are seen as inevitably ruthless. there are some counter currents, toward boxiness -- the scion, honda element, the new jeep four door, which imitates land rover's high roof.


here are my neice and nephew who live in New York, looking at ducks in a pond.

public art

New York has some great public art. Here are two examples from my visit there the other day -- one in the NR Canal Street subway station and the other in Morningside Park. The bottom one is curious -- drawing you into looking for meaning where there is none. The graphics are little enigmas.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

"your money" (1)

TV: "on CNN tonight, a report on how the government is spending YOUR MONEY on pork-barrel projects."

man: "my money. . .?"

"your money" (2)

TV: "senator Clinton's health care plan would cost 65 billion dollars of YOUR hard earned money."

man: "MY money."

"your money" (3)

TV: "is YOUR money being sent to educate other people's kids, in other districts?"

man: "my money!"

"your money" (4)

TV: "today congress approved 148 billion dollars for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with little debate."

man: "our troops!"

Saturday, November 17, 2007

oh, the arrogance

As her former top aide, Philip Zelikow, puts it: "The paramount problem is what is the future of the Arab and Muslim world and how it relates to modernity and globalization. What do they want to be when they grow up? … The Palestinian issue is not at [the] center of that framework, but moving down that process is essential to progress because this issue is a source of constant resentment across the Arab world that makes it harder to focus on the future. They keep looking at this open sore instead of thinking of what they're going to do tomorrow."

I came across this quote in an article on Rice's efforts to put together a peace conference between the Israelis and the Palestinians, written by Newsweek's Michael Hirsh. Hirsh made no comment on these absurd comments, as if to agree tacitly with the notion that Palestinians were somehow stuck in the past simply because of cultural immaturity and not the monstrous fact of military occupation. How patronizing, for this official living in total comfort and privilege, to make such comments. If only these towel heads would think about the future, instead of about trivial details like lack of rights, sovereignty, respect, water, health care, etc etc. Surely, if we Americans were in their position, under foreign rule, we would have already turned that desert into the next Hong Kong! The arrogance, the arrogance -- which is just another word for the laziness of privilege.

the internet and democracy

this is an interesting interview with legal scholar Cass Sunstein, who argues that the internet is increasing political polarization, by allowing and encouraging people to only view things that suit their preferences. some of his reasoning i find to be shallow, such as arguing that some opinions are "inherently" more believable -- without regard for how a person is situated vis a vis opinions. but overall i think his reasoning has basis. i know i often seek out only leftist or liberal views. it is comfortable. but then i also crave contact, debate, combat. i feel bored just reading what i already think. so i do sometimes seek out conservative blogs, and it fires me up -- and makes me more sure that tolerance for difference is a civil religion we desperately need. and in no way does tolerance for others mean we must temper our opinions or the fierceness of our clashes.


these are two photos of my wife, Sara (Yiqian), in Taiwan this past August, right before we were married. the top one shows her (barely) with her mom and grandma.

backyard, fall morning

Friday, November 16, 2007

in my day. . .

today in the lounge of the assisted living residence where i work an old man commented to me how fast everyone drives on I-95. "i go 65, and never pass anyone. i guess in my day i drove like that, but not anymore."

what a curious phrase: one's youth is "one's day." furthermore, youth is not a matter of days, but "day." does "day" here mean something like "era" or "time"? if someone says "in my day," is the implication that the current age belongs to other, younger people? or is it instead that each person has a different "day," a personal era when one was at the height of powers and beauty? and this day is only spoken of in this way when it has already gone, as if the sun is only spoken of once it has set. . .a phrase of melancholy, but also of pride.

"i wanna get my boobs done," said a 17 year old girl in the kitchen at work. she is a nice looking girl, in her day if anyone ever was. but she does not see it that way. she wants to buy some accessories that are inserted under her skin.

the "your money" lie

i will get to this post soon.

"gifted and talented"

A while ago a wreck of a man appeared at one of the tables I served in an upscale nursing home. His name was Sid. He carried an oxygen tank in his walker. His ears stuck out, his eyes sagged and bulged open at the same time. But even this shell of a man lived with a habitual gusto. He devoured his food like there was no tomorrow, so unlike the pained picking and prodding of the rest of the residents. He asked for his sundae with the rest of his meal, and left a semicircle of crumbs and stains on the table cloth when he shuffled off.

His voice was special. It was raspy and big and windblown. His expressions were flamboyant, idiosyncratic. Once when I set down all his food with particular style he said, “B--, you’re a chaaarm!” Another time another server came into the kitchen laughing. “You know what Sid said to me? He said, ‘I want a baloney sandwich. Pile the baloney as thick as my no-o-se!’” Just these tiny crumbs of speech make me wish I had worked there when he was healthier, or known him in his life outside.

Then last week I heard from another waiter he had died. I had only seen him for a couple of weeks. One night as I was carrying a tray of dirty dishes and glasses to the kitchen I saw a woman whose face I felt sure I recognized. Her face was vaguely reminiscent of Barbra Streisand. “Mrs. Lehr,” I said behind her. She walked into the elevator. I repeated her name, louder. She turned, and I hurriedly explained who I was – that I had been her student in fourth grade, some 30 years before. “I’m flattered he still recognizes me!” she said to the person she was with. She explained that her father had just died, and I realized her father was the voracious Sid. I told her I was sorry to hear that. I was excited to have seen her after so long, but I let her go.

I realized she had not been my regular teacher, but the teacher in a “gifted and talented” program, which I attended once a week. A couple of days later I saw her again, with her husband, and I was able to talk to her a little bit more. I told her how much I had liked her father, even in his weakened state. Apparently he had been an athlete and an all around presence. She said she remembered my love of history, unusual for kids my age. I said it may have been related to my Mormon upbringing – all those stories of our origin in persecutions of the 1830s and 40s. I told her I was studying anthropology. I asked her her name.

Later that night I told my Dad on the phone I had seen her, and he said at the time they had wanted to continue me in the program but could not afford it. They had felt bad about it. I was surprised to know there was a fee attached to the program. Frankly I remembered little about it, other than that it was fun and more focused on ongoing projects than regular classes.

How strange it is that Mrs. Lehr’s appearance in my work place should stir up this memory. My very presence in the kitchen of a nursing home attests, not only to my lack of money, but to my philosophical rejection of an elitist meritocracy. I chose to be in this place, at age thirty eight, grabbing slippery silverware from plates and tossing them into a basin, slamming the plates against the inside of the garbage can to dislodge their food, stooping to hear old people sigh, “I guess I’ll have the tuna melt.”

It is one of the happiest job experiences I have ever had. So unlike the definition of power in this society, whereby greater position means the luxury of separation from others, in this job I am constantly in contact with dozens of other people, of a wide range of social and cultural backgrounds. As I race about, scooping out ice cream for dessert, or taking out the laundry, or setting out cookies for afternoon snack, the currency of staff interactions is to make little jokes or comments. We are like ants constantly rubbing antenna before hurrying along on our busy ways.

So within a ten minute period, I might interact with over a dozen different people, from South American waitresses, to Italian-American cooks, to African-American CNAs (certified nurses assistants), to a smattering of WASP types like myself, to high school “bad girls,” to old Yankee and Jewish blue bloods tottering about on walkers. Literally every moment one is adjusting oneself to meet and mirror a different person, like a city on speed. Especially in the kitchen, the banter flies fast and thick, and is almost a necessary part of the work itself. This constant ebb and flow of talk, a glorious flotsam and jetsam of complaints (what happened to the tartar sauce??), insults (bite me!), high spirits (singing along to radio songs), confession (I was abused as a child) and random commentary (Abe just took out his false teeth!), is the best cultural work there is, an ocean of words in which self and other are both merged and distinct.

I shine in this milieu, giving of myself and my creativity and quirkiness, but only in interaction with all their distinct personalities and qualities, which shine as well. The best of society is not a zero sum game where one person’s gain is another’s loss, but a place where all flourish together in a mad give and take. The premise of “gifted and talented” education is that weaker people hold back the stronger. That is wrong. Because of all these working class people and their diverse spirits I shine brighter than ever. And they too shine brighter because of me. Utopia occurs right there in the middle of wage labor.

If one person is held back or held down, everyone suffers. This explains why the division of peoples by class, race, gender, and worst of all, consumer choices, dims the bright explosive light that flares up with true communion of spirits. But everywhere this hidden sun of humanity peeks through in tiny pinpricks of light, in kitchens and train stations and barracks and schools the world over, anywhere people are pushed together, oppressed, press-ganged – into an earthly, earthy nirvana.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

out like a trout

even the high school kids working in the kitchen have their moments of artistic language.

the chicken had not been cooked. the two high school girls in charge frantically thought of ways to heat it in time. fuckin' richard, said the real tough one, every time somethin' happens, before it happens, he's out like a trout! out like a trout, i laughed.

that's right, said the other one, also from guilford, out like a trout in winter.

how could i have never heard this one before?

crass like a bass? they smiled at this, but i was clearly just bullshitting. it lacked the force of common acceptance.

on my aunt's baby daughter

on my aunt's baby daughter, said the cook, i would never, ever treat someone that way. she was leaning forward over the steam table, forearms resting on the shelf for the plates, looking at us. she was swearing, taking an oath, on the most sacred thing she knew: the precious wriggling girl born of her aunt. she herself is childless. this little girl, unknowing, had become the witness for her utter truthfulness. this baby was her bible. if anyone doubted her word, we were daring to doubt the purity and pricelessness of that baby girl!

99 year old woman

you have such a nice smile, the old woman was saying to tamara, a personal aide. doesn't she have a nice smile? she asked me. i set down a paper place mat in front of her.

wouldn't it be good to go among the colored people to find a boyfriend for her? she asked me in low tones.

you're too young for 99, laughed tamara, shaking her head. i placed a knife and spoon on her place mat.

do you set the table at home? she asked me. yes, i said.

that is so wonderful, she said. and is your wife the only one, and you've never forgotten what it was that made her the only one? yes, i said.

i know, she said. you do it so you can sit with your paper and she will bring you coffee. i tried saying something but she was already somewhere else.

i haven't seen a nice boy like you for such a long time, she said, reaching out for my hand. i let her take it. i had one just like you, with blond hair and blue eyes. the aides laughed. i am not blond.

do you know how i met my husband? she said. at a party. he came in the door, saw me, and said "You!" he came over and said, I'm going to marry you. And he did! i began stacking cups out of the dishwasher.

if she heard two lines of (italian name), she said, she would go crazy, she said to me about tamara. so, sing it, i said. she croaked out some alien words. tamara was still sane.

i had ten years of music, she said. don't be afraid to let your children know opera. let them sing it in the house. i will, i said.

will both of you work all your lives? she asked.

probably, i said.

i never saw her speak, i said. she has her days, tamara said to me.

her words had a mysterious force, as if coming from somewhere very far away, as if her head were above a layer of clouds but her words were still audible. her nose was slightly hooked, her hair short, her eyes bright. i imagined upper society pasts for her: a flapper at parties, or in an opera box. was she a performer? she had that "qizhi," Chinese for personal aura or air, or the tautological "character." it was a grandiosity of statements still operating, even if the brain was more and more muddled, 99 years from the source. she was becoming an oracle.

Monday, November 12, 2007

palaces in the clouds

the above article tries to explain the financial crisis currently unfolding around us. i do not get the details, but the whole thing looks like a complex Ponzi scheme, where money was borrowed from one person to pay another, and it kept working as long as money kept pouring it, buoyed by fictitious "structured finance," fairy tales of endless profit. the whole thing is a case of money built up like palaces in the clouds. down thunders the rain.


When I was little I remember very clearly the day my mother taught my Sunday School class, the one where the killing of Joseph Smith was described for the first time. I remember her voice catching, her tears, shocking us children to silence. I remember the awful details of the event retold, the guns' muzzles belching smoke and fire into the room through the doorway, the "Joseph, I am a dead man" from Joseph's brother Hyrum, the pathos of the scene, of Joseph himself falling from the window through the bullets of the mob below. That word "mob" was so prominent in these stories. . .and even though we were suburban children in a wealthy country, those stories of our collective origin in persecution marked us all, I think, in ways hard to really understand. We were part of the mainstream, we would listen to the pop music other teenagers listened to -- but we had a secret identity. We revered a martyr. I remember very clearly this was the first time I understood that word, enunciated reverently by my mother, with tears in her eyes, in that classroom. She explained it to us. We knew.

I wonder if the Mormon Church still uses the word "martyr" in its teaching materials for young people. I wonder if the shadow of the religious war believed in by most Americans has fallen over this invisible minority, the Mormons. Has the word "martyr" been so stained by association with Muslim fanatics dying in suicide attacks that they no longer dare use it? Simply describing his Godly self-sacrifice in a linguistic detour around the precise word that denotes all this?

Sunday, November 11, 2007


I love this word. It connotes dogged effort in obtaining something: specifically, a patient working at something with one's fingers, wiggling it free. Think of a bent nail in a board. What do you do? Nag at it, work at it. Or better yet: think of a bit of meat between one's teeth. One keeps at it with tongue and tooth until it comes loose. We do not use finagle with these situations, because finagle refers only to a metaphorical wiggling loose. Did the word in the past have a "physical" meaning? I do not know, but I suspect so.

Now it is mostly used in bureaucratic situations, to convey the effort and flexibility needed to wiggle a desired result out of a complex process. "Let's try to finagle it so we are approved for a business rather than a personal loan." Actually, there is an element of manipulation in this example: the weak side using strategy and opportunism to get a certain result.

Is this word yet another Irish Gaelic addition to english? (see article below). No, what am I thinking? This word must be from Yiddish. It rhymes with "bagel," right? Being a linguist is really so easy.

Today at the place i work an old woman poked her head in the kitchen and asked, "could I finagle a cup of milk?" In using the word, she was exaggerating to humorous effect the labor and difficulty of her own request.

kat kong

i saw the children's book of this name in the RJ Julia Bookstore in downtown Madison. wow. i will try to get a photo to post here. mice capture a vicious tom cat and exhibit him in the big city. cat rampages.

regression through cheese

a major technique of advertising is humor, and a big strain of humorous advertising is laughing at the way adults become children in their unreasoning craving for a certain product. my god, these ads are all over the place. and they are funny. but isn't one laughing at the fool who is reduced to an infant state for a starburst or some other industrial edible?

just tonight i saw one on tv. it was for subway. a husband and wife and their son were walking by a subway restaurant. the husband saw the poster for the philly cheese steak sandwich and said petulantly, "that sandwich is so cheesy good, gimme one right now, right now!! i want it!" he threw a tantrum. the woman said, "jonathan, please don't act this way." we are still in doubt who this male is. then the little boy breaks it to us by saying, "Dad, come on, act your age." he flails his arms and stamps his feet. the next scene shows the baby/dad pacified, munching satisfiedly on his sandwich, mom/wife looking on with weary knowingness.

i wonder why this type of advertising is so prevalent now. is making people laugh at themselves considered effective? or is it more a sympathetic laughter regarding the (purported) human weakness of greed, turned into a charming foible to be indulged? is there a breaking of taboos in a comic way: its OK to be irrationally attached to a thing. but i think it is also significant that this advertising seems to be used mostly for food. the link is clearly made between regression to childhood and oral fixation -- in the case of the subway ad, the wife turns to responsible mother mediating the baby/husband's pleasure.

bizarre, that's what i say. peurile and pitiful. it might be said to critics like myself: lighten up, its just an ad. i would respond: if lightening up means accepting a debased view of humanity, a humanity captive to greed, i don't think i will lighten up, thank you.

the real push behind this kind of advice -- which is heard all over the culture, a blanket popular condemnation of all sorts of critics as people unable to just relax and get over their bizarre hangups like morality, thought, ideals, and other assorted eccentricities. "lighten up" is just another term for "detach from one's own reactions" to experience. if one can lighten up, detach, let go, deaden one's responses, one can get used to almost anything!

i am put in mind of what my coworker in the kitchen at an assisted living facility said. yesterday she revealed she had danced in a topless club some years back. today i asked her if the experience had changed her view of men. she said she had been able to differentiate the pigs and tyrants and the lonely ones. and she said she had been able to separate herself from what was happening to her as she stood onstage. she shed that "onstage self" once she left the club. i was just addicted to money, she said. and in the process damaged her liver and wrecked the cartilage in her knees, from kneeling down for the men's viewing pleasure.

lighten up enough and all kinds of horrors become acceptable -- such as destroying an independent state through unprovoked invasion. saddam did it to kuwait in 1989. we did it to iraq in 2003. how fast we learn!

oh that melty melty cheese. just focus on cheap bodily thrills (preferably solitary ones like fast food -- less messy than sex) and tune out that big bad world. regress! and enjoy!

Friday, November 9, 2007

Humdinger of a Project: Tracing Slang to Ireland

Growing up Irish in Queens and on Long Island, Daniel Cassidy was nicknamed Glom.

“I used to ask my mother, ‘Why Glom?’ and she’d say, ‘Because you’re always grabbing, always taking things,’” he said, imitating his mother’s accent and limited patience, shaped by a lifetime in Irish neighborhoods in New York City.

It was not exactly an etymological explanation, and Mr. Cassidy’s curiosity about the working-class Irish vernacular he grew up with kept growing. Some years back, leafing through a pocket Gaelic dictionary, he began looking for phonetic equivalents of the terms, which English dictionaries described as having “unknown origin.”

“Glom” seemed to come from the Irish word “glam,” meaning to grab or to snatch. He found the word “balbhán,” meaning a silent person, and he surmised that it was why his quiet grandfather was called the similarly pronounced Boliver.

He began finding one word after another that seemed to derive from the strain of Gaelic spoken in Ireland, known as Irish. The word “gimmick” seemed to come from “camag,” meaning trick or deceit, or a hook or crooked stick.

Could “scam” have derived from the expression “’S cam é,” meaning a trick or a deception? Similarly, “slum” seemed similar to an expression meaning “It is poverty.” “Dork” resembled “dorc,” which Mr. Cassidy’s dictionary called “a small lumpish person.” As for “twerp,” the Irish word for dwarf is “duirb.”

Mr. Cassidy, 63, began compiling a lexicon of hundreds of Irish-inspired slang words and recently published them in a book called “How the Irish Invented Slang,” which last month won the 2007 American Book Award for nonfiction, and which he is in New York this week promoting.

“The whole project started with a hunch — hunch, from the Irish word ‘aithint,’ meaning recognition or perception,” the verbose Mr. Cassidy said in an interview on Monday at O’Lunney’s, a bar and restaurant on West 45th Street. He has worked as a merchant seaman, a labor organizer and a screenwriter, and he lives in San Francisco, where he teaches Irish studies at the New College of California.

He pulled out his pocket Irish dictionary and began pointing out words that he said had been Americanized by the millions of Irish immigrants who turned New York into an extension of the Ghaeltacht, or Irish-speaking regions of Ireland.

“Even growing up around it, little shards of the language stayed alive in our mouths and came out as slang,” he said, spouting a string of words that sounded straight out of a James Cagney movie.

“Snazzy” comes from “snasach,” which means polished, glossy or elegant. The word “scram” comes from “scaraim,” meaning “I get away.” The word “swell” comes from “sóúil,” meaning luxurious, rich and prosperous, and “sucker” comes from “sách úr,” or, loosely, fat cat.

There is “Say uncle!” (“anacal” means mercy), “razzmatazz,” and “malarkey,” and even expressions like “gee whiz” and “holy cow” and “holy mackerel” are Anglicized versions of Irish expressions, he said. So are “doozy,” “hokum,” “humdinger,” “jerk,” “punk,” “swanky,” “grifter,” “bailiwick,” “sap,” “mug,” “wallop,” “helter-skelter,” “shack,” “shanty,” “slob,” “slacker” and “knack.”

Mr. Cassidy chatted with an Irish-born worker at O’Lunney’s, Ronan O’Reilly, 21, who said he grew up in County Meath speaking Irish. He nodded in agreement as Mr. Cassidy explained that Irish survived in New York as slang.

“It was a back-room language, whispered in kitchens and spoken in the saloons,” Mr. Cassidy said.

Mr. O’Reilly nodded and said, “Sometimes my friends and I will use it amongst ourselves, sort of like an underground language.

“Some of your words here sound like they are taken straight from Irish, even expressions directly translated, like ‘top of the morning’ or ‘thanks a million,’” he continued. “In Ireland, we pick up American slang from TV, like the word ‘buddy.’”

Mr. Cassidy laughed. “Buddy,” he contends, actually comes from “bodach,” Irish for a strong, lusty youth.

Another employee came up, Lawrence Rapp, 25, who said he was an Irishman from London, where the art of rhyming slang is practiced.

“If you have to piddle, you say ‘Jimmy Riddle,’” he said.

Mr. Rapp said Londoners often used the word “geezer” to describe people, and Mr. Cassidy pointed out that the term derives from the Irish word “gaosmhar,” or wise person.

“Even the word ‘dude’ comes from the Irish word ‘dúid,’ or a foolish-looking fellow, a dolt,” Mr. Cassidy said. “They called the guys dudes who came down to the Five Points section of Manhattan to chase the colleens.”

He showed a passage in his book that notes that the Feb. 25, 1883, edition of The Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported the coining of the word “dude,” referring to, among other things, a man who “wears trousers of extreme tightness.”

“You dig?” he said. “‘Dig,’ as in ‘tuig,’ or understand.”

this is from the November 9, 2007 New York Times.

peace group forming

The Source
Letters to the Editor
Re: Madison Anti-war Group Forming

Dear Editor, November 9, 2007

In our market-organized society, people tend to sense the occurrence of crises only through the narrow lens of prices. But by the time a social or political crisis begins to affect prices, the crisis is already well advanced. The crisis of American power in the Middle East was masked until September 11. After that day, this crisis has grown clearer, not only to close observers of the region in Madison, but even to apolitical citizens, through the rising price of gasoline.

It has often been said that indifference to politics, even stupidity, is the right of citizenship in this country. I beg to differ: rather than a right, indifference is in fact a privilege. Moreover, this (fool’s) privilege is fast disappearing as the crisis overseas spreads to the shores of the nation, in the form not only of rising prices but in political failure at the center. The situation is akin to the spread of a cancer from some small corner of the body to the central organs. The days of suburban – and American -- insularity are disappearing. One can buy security, but not peace of mind.

I welcome this new age with a spirit of openness and possibility. Terrorism and war need not entail greater defensiveness and hostility: peace is a choice made of courage.

I would like to welcome people interested in taking a deeper look at American power beyond our shores to join an anti-war group to meet in Madison. Guilford, which has long had a peace group, possesses a proud tradition of civic engagement. We Madisonians need not sit on the sidelines, narrowly focused on our own “island” of investments and privileges. In any case, this island of class privileges is intimately connected to American power in the world. Whether one wishes to preserve these privileges or distribute them differently, it is our duty as citizens to understand the linkages between morality, power, and privilege. The era of optional attention to the undersides of power is ending. Rule by experts is no longer working: greater democracy is the only (good) answer.

For anyone interested in such a group, please e-mail me at We can decide the shape and format of this group together.

Thank you,

"not-profiling profiling" (1)

A: so, we're gonna "map out" Muslim communities in LA? Aint that sorta. . .racial profiling?

B: Nah, it ain't racial, or religious, or any kind of profiling. It's "research" so we can improve "services."

"profiling" (2)

A: it's not "religious"? then what's Islam, a lifestyle choice?

B: well, no, its a . . .hereditary condition!

A: and what are these "services"?

B: better wiretapping. . . you know, nice crisp digital sound!

note: the point about the mapping project not being religious or any other kind of profiling but an activity related to "service" provision was made by the LAPD's public affairs officer on NPR's "All Things Considered" on November 9, 2007. And how much do these propaganda robots get paid to peddle patent falsehoods?

"patriots" (1)

A: so now they want government-controlled health care! since when has government done anything right?

B: you said it! cut taxes, i say. . .starve the beast!

"patriot" (2)

A: and the schools are cramming secularism down kids' throats! home schooling is the only way in this corrupt culture.

B: and Hollywood!

"patriot" (3)

A: you know what i say? ship all the liberals off to Kali and New England, and let em have their Marxist paradise!

B: let em grab-ass and gay-marry all they want!

"patriot" (4)

TV: today protesters rallied against the US's attempts to overthrow the government of. .

B: Damn 'blame-America-first' crowd!

A: Anti-Americans!

Thursday, November 8, 2007


Conservative bloggers enjoy creating their own abbreviations. UBL stands for Usama Bin Laden; HRC stands for Hillary Rodham Clinton; MSM stands for mainstream media. It is interesting to note that these abbreviations come at a time when abbreviation as corporate branding is also flourishing. Somehow, corporations feel that using three letters together is a sign of cool that consumers will embrace. Are they right? Do consumers, or potential consumers, feel a tiny sense of inclusion, of being in the know, at recognizing the meaning of "MGD," especially if accompanied by a corporate logo? Could it be that this strategy of disappearing words, and turning them into visual logos, is just another deepening of niche marketing? Could it be too that this is another sign that language as a public sphere where all citizens meet is being further carved up into semi-private, consumer enclaves?

In any case, the bloggers too are creating cryptic signs out of words and names spelled out in letters. They are not cryptic to them, of course, or to anyone who spends more than five minutes reading them. Nonetheless, they are part of the creation of a linguistic community. In the case of UBL, the sense of uniqueness lies not only in the abbreviation, branding Bin Laden in a particular way, but also in using "U" rather than the more common "O". Here we see the influence of Fox News, which regularly puts banners like "UBL calls for overthrow of Musharraf" on its screens. Did these bloggers copy Fox's propensity to abbreviate? Or did Fox copy from them? In any case, we can see a small part in the development of a code, which is an enclave set within (and against) public, standard language.

If the argument is made that there is no objective Truth out there, the existence of parallel languages or codes makes this argument all the more compelling.

"radical" -- like us, only bad

man: "the other day, Glenn Beck of CNN suggested the general ruling Pakistan kill all the Islamic radicals in that country."
woman: "so, he (Beck) is a conservative, then?"

"radical" (2)

man: "that's right, a real patriot."
woman: "it's a great country where that kind of speech is not only tolerated by law but totally cool in mainstream media!"

"radical" (3)

man: "yeah, dude!"
woman: "thank god Musharraf is shutting down the press over there. all those people calling for death to Westerners gives me the creeps."
man: "you mean, those ultra-conservatives?"

"radical" (4)

woman: "Uh, no -- they're radicals."

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

sun pierces

Sun pierces the blinds and
lances the eye come morning;
moon you drool cool light.

Moon, my moon, Maimunah!
Back row, bright eyed, not knowing.
She was a diligent student
she orbited my days.

Lune, la luna, lunacy!
Alone in bed, I throb with guilt
nonetheless for wanting
damsels in distress.

Qomar, il mare, unmarred still!
A globe warms but
you’re safe you bob in
a sea of chill ink.

Yueliang, put me on, woebegone!
A white body in the grass
A tear that cannot last.

November 7, 2007

oh moon

Oh moon, brute orb,
pooled cold, eye of light
that broods over fools!

Oh moon, oh moon, when will
you still the highway’s howl
that hums my skull abed at night –

when will your crystal moodless calm
bloom mutely in me –

or failing this
when will you too storm, and be
drowned, when will you toss
on wind-moaned boughs?

When will you know, when will you
see, privy to our doom,
and knowing, blink Oh eye
of light that looms
but nears not, and not, evermore not?

November 6, 2007

Monday, November 5, 2007

good missionaries

This is the only picture I took of my parents the morning I drove them to the airport to fly out to the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah. Nor do I have any photo of them wearing their name tags upon their return from there. They have been in Baltimore for two weeks now. The house slowly subsides into a relaxed disorder: dried leaves on the carpet, zip lock bags on the counters. We miss them.

how amusement wearies

I took this picture at the Durham fair this past October. It shows a scene of the weariness that pervades such fairs, among the workers who must endure the overwhelming force of crowds for hours on end -- and then endure their neglect. There is a melancholy, especially noticeable among the poorer purveyors of fun.

moon over I-95

The highway howls hoooowls
night’s long all
night long
with big rigs’ roar
a moon, silent
silent moon, an eyeball, a glaring,
a stone, a white marble
in socket dead,
witness to these deeds
this dread

The highway’s howl
hoooowls unheard by the stare,
withering, cherry pit
frosted with mold,
pitiless eye in velvet
And we are witless, made mad by
the howl hooowl
never notting all night’s
long all, long long all.

A moon silent, a moon –
yes. She knows
but speaketh not.
On on we go
never knowing why
O awful sightless eye.


Sunday, November 4, 2007

hi and dear

How amazingly far apart are the tones of e-mails that begin with "hi" and those that begin with "dear." My use of "dear" is hard to break because I grew up being taught that one began letters with that word. But I can't help noticing that this usage makes me seem archaic, so I increasingly resort to "hi" in ordinary correspondence.

It is too informal for my taste, though, or rather it is too detached and chilly. It is like running into someone in the supermarket by accident while searching for spinach ravioli. "Oh hi (so and so)," one says without stopping or scanning the shelves. Interestingly, we in this country tend to associate formality and formalisms with emotional coldness, but I think informality can be just as if not more dismissive and off-putting. This country's modern economy and culture is largely founded on emotional detachment. In a word, on "cool."

I find my brother R, for example, to be most formal and ritualistic when he is most affectionate, such as when he presents a gift with a little speech telling where he saw it and how it reminded him of you. Formality may be the resort of the emotionally distant, but at least it is clear -- more clear than a lackluster, monosyllabic "hi."

The scope of "dear" has shrunk I think from older times, when it was used in a wide range of emotionally charged contexts. Now it has narrowed considerably to opposite sex romantic relationships. But I still will use it in e-mails with men, if I want to mark it -- and them --- as important.

galivanting and dropped "t"s

At the assisted living facility where I work, I am constantly bouncing between two very different linguistic worlds: the dining room world of old fashioned Yankee blue bloods with their very proper charm, and the kitchen world of Italian immigrant English, a blustery, warm dialect. I love it. Yesterday I overheard Harriet, a strong willed old Jewish matron, who grew up in Bridgeport where her Dad owned a shop, say to another woman, "Oh, I suppose they'll be galivanting all over the shoreline," referring to a field trip being offered.

Galivanting strikes me, in its sound associations, as a kind of baroque and utterly superfluous galloping about for pleasure.

In the kitchen, I heard Alicia say "I hadda pick him up after work! Can you believe that?" Another dropping of t's is the pronunciation of "nothing" as "nu'in'." But I think they only use that exaggerated pronunciation to express contempt, as in, "That dumb kid don't know nuttin." I heard that my first day at work, as Lena put her cell phone back under the counter after talking to a friend or boyfriend.

I listen to speech forms like some people listen to symphonies, and I smile with delight to myself when a particularly rare or colorful word flits through my ear-scape.

Speaking of which, I saw a political impersonator on Kieth Olberman a couple of days ago named Jim Morris. Oh my god, this guy was a genius: he took on the speech and manner of John McCain, George Bush, Bill Richardson, Al Gore, and John Edwards within the space of about 4 minutes. It was incredible, how a single person can be so well and fully captured in speech.

While it is true, as some commentators point out, that the US is not racially or ethnically defined, I have to say in response that belonging to the American linguistic community is nonetheless decisive. One can look at a person who is racially or sartorially exotic, but as soon as they open their mouths and utter fluent American, one is convinced that they are "really" American. No matter that they may be equally fluent in some other language, like my friend Mariem, whose Dad is Tunisian. I love hearing her jump back and forth between "known" and "alien" within the space of a sentence.

jack o'lantern pie

The pie is a success. I pureed the baked pumpkin pieces in the blender (with some added bits of spatula tip) and mixed in evaporated milk, two eggs, garlic, and a bunch of spices (sage, white, black and red pepper powder, salt, oregano). I picked dark meat off the chicken I had boiled and placed it in the bottom of the pie crust; on top I scattered chopped up onion. Then I poured the pumpkin over it and cooked at 425 and 350 for almost an hour.

When it came out, I tasted it and found it was much saltier than expected. So this morning I had to add another step -- pureed more pumpkin, added in some chicken broth and butter, as a topping for the pie, to balance out the saltiness. It was delicious!

Thursday, November 1, 2007

seaside grim reaper

I was about to eschew my political costume plans -- a grim reaper advocating war with Iran -- when my brother S suggested a different twist. Why not be a grim reaper wearing a swim suit and sandals, advocating global warming? As this also had the advantage of humor, I decided to do it.

I shaved my beard into stripes and then used my fingertips to apply the face paint. What an amazing feeling, seeing me transform into a devilish figure! There was a surge of excitement. I recall my friend Radu's photos of New Year's festivities in Romania, where country people dress as mythical animal-spirits that do ritual battle, in dance. How rich are these dramas of the past, dramas now in decline or disappeared altogether -- or transformed, as is our Halloween, into a consumer holiday. And yet, it still is not altogether without traces of that older playfulness, that smiling approach to darker forces.

As we three walked down the New Haven streets, passing groups of revellers, we could not help noting that practically every woman we saw was a "slutty (something)." Not that we overly minded -- just that it was so uniform. "Oh, here's another slutty secretary," someone would say. I saw a woman with a leg cast and miniskirt. "What's this, a slutty invalid?" R said Halloween had become a holiday for women to do what normally they are not allowed to do -- or at least, to appear as if they would do those things. In this way, they mimic celebrities, who are expert not so much at doing dirty deeds, but at going just to the point of stirring that fantasy in viewers, and then stepping back into respectability.

pumpkin chicken stew

My wife, who is from Taiwan, told me when I had described my Jack O'lantern plans, "Make sure you don't waste that pumpkin. Make a soup from it." I recalled having eaten pumpkin soup in Taiwan. So as I gathered up the cut out mouths and eyes and noses, I obediently washed them and sliced them into chunks. My wife is still in Taiwan awaiting her visa -- her instruction had come by phone.

I boiled a whole frozen chicken for a couple of hours, and then added sliced carrots, onion, potatoes, and pumpkin, not to mention garlic. For flavor I added salt, oregano, some Carribean Curry mix, chipotle pepper powder, ground sage, black pepper and white pepper. Oh, and garlic powder. It was maybe the best stew I have ever made. The pumpkin's contribution is subtle but significant, I think. As I had cut them, I noticed the slippery secretion of the flesh, common to other squashes, but even more pronounced. It is a mysterious plant with special qualities I do not really understand.

But today I went and got the biggest Jack O'lantern out of the back of the truck (picked up last night from the Green on our way back from New Haven -- its candle already blown out) and sliced it in half with a bread knife. I will roast it and use half of it for a pie and the other half for a savory pie -- maybe chicken and pumpkin pie? My wife does not like cinnamon in sweet things, so I jokingly suggested a salty pumpkin pie for her. Then I thought, hey, why not a savory pie with pumpkin and chicken? I did a tasty chicken pie a couple weeks ago.

I am trying to think outside the box of industrial food, reconnecting to nature in a creative way.

I still want to work on drying seaweed for cooking. My main question now is how much seaweed absorbs pollution. Is it like fish in that regard?

I think of the people who lived here before us. Surely they harvested seaweed for food -- or for growing crops.

jack o'lanterns

Jack o'lanterns are beautiful things, rich in the enigma of spirits and their human supplicants. S carved the big one puking the small one. I carved the rest. When I parked the truck and stealthily placed the lanterns in public places and lit them, I felt a tiny bit of that primeval flirtation with the spirit world of ages past. I felt it as I put on my makeup for the Grim Reaper costume, and then when I climbed the low rock wall next to the cemetary. Creeping near the fence, beyond which ran Route One, I knelt and lit the candle, placed the lantern, and stole away. I glanced briefly up at the moon in the cloudy, windy sky. I could imagine the excitement of the spirit festival of centuries past, when people dressed the part of the demons they feared, partaking illicitly of their power by imitating. Except that here I was a solitary figure, not part of a festive, mischief-making, lascivious mass.

halloween without children

Last night as I and S rushed around, putting out our Jack O'Lanterns and preparing our costumes, it slowly dawned on me that no children were coming to our door. I had not really given it much thought, or even cared much, earlier in the day. I guess I had not expected many to come. Mom and Dad only saw three last year, S had told me. But all of a sudden, while R and S were eating a late supper in preparation for a trip to New Haven for a little partying, I felt sad. I had gone out to the desk by the front door to open up a candy bar for myself and seeing the untouched bowl, I felt it. Not one kid!

We have a dark little dead end road, but S had placed his masterpiece, "Big Jack O'lantern vomiting out Little Jack O'lantern," out by the mailboxes.

As I had driven around placing my three Jack O'lanterns around town, I had only seen one group of kids on the road. Where were all the kids? When I was young enough to trick or treat, the roads were alive with kids.

Later on in the truck on the way to New Haven, we tried to make sense of it. There are probably few families with kids in the apartments on Wall Street, I reasoned. But it did not make me feel better. S said he had heard a few years ago that parents were more and more trying to keep their kids to "secure" activities, like planned parties or school events. In other words, even in this super safe suburban town, where the police have so little to do that they have plenty of time for hobbies such as pilfering seafood from restaurants and stalking old girlfriends online, kids are still in danger. Or at least, they are perceived to be in danger -- from one's very own neighbors!

There was a sense of excitement in trick or treating at will, roaming the darkened landscape in costumes, approaching houses familiar or strange, pressing the doorbells. And now -- dangerous? Do parents in this suburb really believe their kids to be in danger? Even from people every bit as rich and white and devoted to their property values as they themselves?

It just goes to show, once one is insecure, nothing can make one feel safe. The problem is the fear itself, not external conditions. Children need small chances to stray from the watchful eye of parents -- to feel the beauty and risk of life.