First published in Bartleby Snopes, in June, 2016.
On Monday our teacher decided, because the principal decided because the state decided, to remove all desks from the classroom and drill through the floor and plant an olive tree beneath the overhead projector. We threw the chairs out the windows, which our teacher said the principal said the state said would free us from the restrictions of old schooling processes and allow us to better focus on the project at hand: planting the olive tree.
But we couldn’t plant the olive tree. It was too dangerous for us to handle the equipment, and someone’s parents might sue the school; four big men came in—they were muscular and toned like Mexicans, except we didn’t hire Mexicans anymore because they were illegals—and planted the tree in the center of the room below the overhead projector. The tree was only a sapling, and when the big men finished, dirt was everywhere on the floor, and our teacher said the principal said the state said we had to push the dirt into a pile around the trunk in the shape of a female breast. This was to dissuade the boys from giggling at future mentions of female anatomy. Then our teacher projected onto the wall an image of a naked female, and the boys giggled. The breast pile of dirt was good, and our teacher gave us all outstanding marks because the principal told her to give us all outstanding marks because the state . . . .
Two weeks later the tree died. Our teacher said we watered it too often, and the principal came and said the breast-shaped pile of dirt was too flat for the tree to blossom, but our teacher said it was the perfect shaped breast-shaped pile of dirt, and she projected the image of the naked female on the wall—the boys didn’t giggle this time—and the principal nodded that the female’s breasts were equal to the dirt. But the following day the principal told our teacher that the state told him that we couldn’t show naked females on the wall anymore. We giggled, and chopped down the tree, except we didn’t chop it down because the tools were too dangerous, and three of the four big men returned to cut the tree to a stump. The fourth man was honest, and we didn’t want him to tell the state that the tree-growing had failed. Our homework was to find a replacement tree before exams.
Nobody found a replacement tree, but from the breast sprouted a sapling, which we called the nipple. The sapling was white and not an olive tree, but we were all happy anyway since we would keep our outstanding marks, and that meant passing to the next level, which was to raise guinea pigs. The classroom two floors up had already raised two guinea pigs to full size and placed them into a container to produce offspring. This was after five failed guinea pigs, all of which didn’t want to continue living under such conditions and jumped out the window and plopped onto the steamy blacktop parking lot. Once the two successful guinea pigs had offspring, the state would grant us enough money to build better lights for our football field.
A skeptical analysis of claims of a leading voice in the plant-based movement
I was recently recommended a book purporting the plant-based (vegan) diet as the single best diet for humans. I then sat through an interesting talk given by the author himself, during which he flipped through a digital presentation with snippets of studies, highlighted sentences, exciting anecdotes, and bold claims that, according to this man, should be obvious to anyone who pays attention. He mirrored his view of meat consumption to public opinion of smoking. Eighty years ago, he said, doctors endorsed tobacco (his sources being tobacco advertisements), but now, after seven thousand studies, we know better. So how soon will people know better and switch to this impeccable plant-based diet? This man, by the way, is Dr. Michael Greger, who boasts an M.D., a white lab coat seen all over his website, multiple televised appearances, and a best-selling book, How Not to Die, all aimed to promote living solely on a plant-based diet.
Corporate culture loves semantic shifts, especially when it involves turning nouns into verbs (tasking, mainstreaming, ideate). I've recently noticed a new noun-to-verb creation, one where the speaker treats ask like a noun, as if I can pose an ask or request an ask, or, absurdly, ask what is their ask. This is stupid. We have a perfectly comfortable word that already performs the action in noun form: question. Turning ask into a noun not only confuses anyone used to its standard verb function, but also creates a redundancy, even if ask is a shorter word than question.
A good synonym should perform a similar function, not an equal function. School courses taught some of us to treat synonyms as equals. Swap a common word for an equally uncommon word and you pass that SAT essay. But even words like glad and happy, which may have the same definition, imply different meanings. Happy conveys bright smiles and an extroverted cheerfulness, while glad speaks more softly—people may not smile wildly or walk with a sprightly gait, but, if asked, would confirm they are in a positive mood. Bad synonyms, like ask, add nothing new to our language. Allowing such words to infiltrate common speech and writing creates not only redundancies but also allows for habits that devolve language into a mess of nonsense.
The new Wonder Woman film restores my faith that superhero movies, like Hollywood's video game adaptations, are doomed to be bad films. But to detail the multitude of mistakes, inaccuracies, inconsistencies, clichés, and lazy dialogue would be a waste of our time; instead I'll focus on two prominent issues that plague all modern Hollywood action-driven films, particularly the superhero sort: slow motion and, for lack of a better name, the horny cameraman.
Slow motion is exactly that: slow motion (traditionally by an over-cranked camera). It's a simple editor's device that, when used correctly, can provide extra depth—emphasize an emotion or death or failure (Seven Samurai)—or more commonly enhance the coolness of an action. Like most devices, good slow motion shouldn't call attention to itself as a tool, just like proper word choice shouldn't pull attention from the content (unless word choice is the content, as in the opening paragraphs of Lolita), but should enhance the current emotion, mood, or experience of a scene. Lately, though, Hollywood treats slow motion as a simple trick to increase the coolness of any given action sequence. Boring superheroes fighting endless aliens we don't care about? Slow motion! Cool martial arts move that took the actor fifteen tries to pull off? Slow motion! Wonder Woman jumping into a room of German soldiers? Slow motion! And again. And again. And you know what, it's been three seconds since we saw Wonder Woman jump in slow motion, so let's do it once more for the hell of it. (After all, there's nothing like seeing the perfectly shaven and toned legs of an Amazonian warrior in slow motion.) But in reproducing the same effect Hollywood cheapens its use every time. The first moment Major, from the new Ghost in the Shell, jumps through a window in HD slow motion, it's cool. It has weight—we know she'll kill the enemies, we've been waiting for her cool entrance, and here it is in its slow, glass-sparkling, glory. Skip ahead to the end, after a few more slow motion shots, to the final roof jump, and we don't care one bit about the slow motion. It adds nothing more than time to a film already long enough. It becomes a gimmick, a toy, a nuisance.
Nintendo recently released its Switch, which sold out and as of writing has just been restocked in some stores. Nintendo expected X demand for the Switch and thus made X+N Switches (I assume). As it happened, demand trounced supply, and all Switches sold out. Now, Nintendo could say, people like this product; we should raise the price to increase revenue. I hope they don’t do this, but in short, supply is less than demand, increasing the value of the little that’s available. Then, as demand decreases, supply may increase, and the price should drop. This is basic economics, and we can agree on that (look, economics is too damn complicated to be summarized by a grammar snoot, so just pretend that this is how basic demand and supply economics works).
With that in mind, how is our modern economy? And I’m not asking about consumerist America—that’s always golden—I’m asking about that lovely job market. Is it easy to get a job? Can you walk to a gas station or some entry-level position, like you could in the 1980s, and walk away with a job? Probably not. So what’s the problem? It is this: the supply and demand of humans to jobs is awry, unbalanced, fucked. There are simply too many people—the supply—compared to the jobs available—the demand. Simply put, seven billion people is a surplus, and, as with any surplus, we need to stop making more until our product matches the current demand. But of course we can’t stop making more (well, we won’t), and we need to look at other methods of fairly limiting the supply.
How can I follow such a bold claim with an equally bold introduction? Perhaps a general hook sentence will do me well: schools have often taught children bad habits. Now I follow that excellent hook with some bla-bla, then, finishing the introduction, I present my thesis: primary and secondary schools (in America) teach, to some extent, essay-writing incorrectly. The methods I specifically refer to are the inverse pyramid, the five-paragraph, and the hamburger methods to essay-writing.
The inverse pyramid refers to an introductory form where the first sentence—the hook—is general and catchy, and the last sentence—the thesis or whatever’s left—is the most essay-specific. You might hold this method dear to your heart; I did for a while. Well, it’s shit. It’s utter garbage and an excuse to weaken forceful writing. Why? Because it teaches kids to start with vague nonsense like “throughout history, governments have often spurned people toward mistrust and violence,” when the writer really wants to argue that “British administrative methods in Palestine following the 1920 riots and 1929 Arab revolts in Jerusalem spurned Zionist mistrust and, in turn, the formation of an independent Israel in 1947.” One is petty and boring, the other forceful and direct. The first shows nothing of an argument, a setting, or I dare say a voice. The second gives a setting, a timeframe, and an argument (this being the most important element of all three). Arguments interest people. Continuing the theme from my previous example, if I shout “different nationalities claim rights to the same land,” nobody will care. But if I shout, “Israel belongs to the Palestinians,” quite a few people will care; arguments matter. Start with the thesis, then give us the bla-bla needed in the introductory section. This does not mean tipping the inverse pyramid right-side-up: don’t start specific and end vague. Start specific and elaborate on the topics you wish to discuss. If this seems too difficult to do—years of incorrect education drilled into your head—try this trick: write your introduction as you normally would, then highlight the first sentence and delete it. Don’t bother re-reading it. Chances are it’s meaningless dribble you would be better without.
After being asked the proper rules and not having a concrete answer, I decided to write a short reference on italicizing, underlining, and quoting in formal writing. It's all a matter of deciding what is important enough to tilt and what isn't.
The simplest rule to grasp is that, in handwriting, you underline where in formal writing (the stuff you type on a computer) you italicize. Nothing that comes out of your or anyone else's printer should have words or phrases underlined (I haven't checked a style book recently, but not even your titles should sit atop a horizontal line). More complicated is the decision between quoting and italicizing. Generalized, any work of larger stature earns italics. Short works or sections of larger works deserve only quotations. And since that explains nothing more than what you already knew, here is a simple-to-use reference list:
John Wick: Chapter 2 follows the original impenetrable assassin as he fights his way through a few dozen expendables and about two hours of screen time. But Chapter 2, as opposed to the original, offers us much more in terms of acting, dialogue, pacing, and believability; it shows us what does not work in an action film.
It's not much to say that Chapter 2 offers us less credibility than the original, which claimed that a mafia boss's son would blindly steal a car and kill the dog of that same mafia boss's best assassin who, as we learn throughout now two movies, every man and his mother recognizes on sight. The premise of the second one, while still forcing John's retirement down our throats like a misshapen bone, exists on a threat: in order to retire, John must fulfill a blood oath he made to a younger Jarvier Bardem lookalike mafioso. John naturally wants out of this oath, but another character warns him that if he kills the mafioso or doesn't fulfill the oath, he's dead. But why, I must ask, would the threat of death mean anything to the world's most anti-social Baba Yaga "ghost" assassin? I'm fairly certain multiple folks threatened to kill John in the first movie, and that didn't end too badly for him. But, like certain internet-distributed videos, do we really watch John Wick for the plot?
Northrop Frye describes comic narrative—as opposed to comedic drama—as that which concludes with optimism; the comedic writer closes with a reflection of the idyllic society. But there comes a point when comic narrative descends into comedic drama—the funny stuff we first think of as comedy—by accident, and that is the case with Passengers, the recent science fiction film centered around two attractive folks (Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence) who wake up ninety years early on an intergalactic spaceship only to find everything's gone to hell.
Here is a good time to yield the statutory spoiler warning. But don't let that dissuade you from reading the remainder of the article—it may save you a few bucks at the movies.
I admit to holding many gripes with this standard-issue Hollywood blockbuster: basic laws of physics are optional; realism applies except when sound travels through space; an accomplished writer has never written about herself; Lawrence Fishburne appears only to give the protagonists access to the engine rooms, then dies; a spacesuit protects Chris from a fusion (or fission?) reactor's radioactive exhaust; and love magic saves the day (more on this later). But perhaps the worst crime this movie makes is that it insists on a happy ending where none was due.
How do we punctuate properly around parentheses or quotation marks? This question arises often, and the answer contains enough variables that it deserves its own article. Without further ado, the rules:
If part of a sentence within parentheses falls within a larger sentence, punctuate outside the closing parenthesis. When the movie came out (starring Tom Hanks, Alice May, and Tim Curry), we all went to see it. I used to think that anything inside parentheses was optional. Let's pretend that's true (it sort of is); a sentence must still flow correctly if you delete everything within the open and close parentheses. We could then rewrite the example as When the movie came out, we all went to see it. If the last comma were inside the parentheses, it would read, When the movie came out we all went to see it. That is grammatically incorrect and fails my test.
If parentheses surround a full sentence, the period must be within the parentheses. The game was late. (But of course we all attended.) It was a good game. The parentheses mark off an entire sentence, which deserves its own period. Applying my test again, we get The game was late. It was a good game.