Saturday, January 27, 2007

Howard's new hero

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 26 (Reuters Life!) - Guard dogs protecting a fruit orchard in Malaysia have met their match -- a 7.1-metre-long (23-ft-long) python that swallowed at least 11 hounds before it was finally discovered by villagers.

"I was shocked to see such a huge python," orchard-keeper Ali Yusof told the New Straits Times in an article published beneath a picture of the captured snake, which was almost long enough to span the width of a tennis court and as thick as a tree trunk.

Villagers did not harm the snake, which was tied to a tree then handed to wildlife officials, the paper said on Friday.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Words, but perhaps not "words, words, words"

Catching up on friends' blogs, now that I'm back on-line, I came across this entry on writing from my friend Brian Fies, creator of "Mom's Cancer."

Parts of it are excellent, as the young curate said. I'm very much a foe of the "story about the story" gambit, as well as stories about ordinary people with funny names or with the same names as famous people, and the "who's working during the holiday story," which I have had to do because, well, when you're working on Christmas and have to crank out a story, what else is there?

(Other than coverage one year of the fellow who attempted to burn the giftwrap but needed to keep it out of the wind so piled it up against the house, which had vinyl siding. And I managed to avoid saying that "he had apparently had too much Christmas cheer.")

But the search for cliches can become a witch hunt -- and that's a good example. The term "witch hunt" is often used because, however the actual history parses out, we all know what it means: a search for evil that turns up people who aren't guilty of it but who fit some pattern that the overzealous searcher, falsely, believes constitutes proof.

There's nothing wrong with saying that something "is threatening to become a witch hunt" as long as you confine it to things that are threatening to become witch hunts. If you only used "wind-whipped flames" for fires in which the wind is genuinely working to spread the fire, and backed that up with a quote from firefighters that, dammit, we'd have knocked this thing down easily if it weren't for that strong, persistent wind, I'd be okay with the phrase. But the wind blows more often than not and is often a factor, so save it for times when that factor rises to the point of significance.

Homeric poetry relies on certain stock phrases -- the wine-dark sea and rosy-fingered dawn being a familiar pair -- as well as a naming convention in which Hector is "tamer of horses" and Diomedes is "of the loud war-cry."

These epithets had certain purposes, both in preserving meter and in providing mnemonics for the singer, but they worked because they also produced an effect upon the listener that transmitted information without distracting from the subject at hand. If, to return to those wind-whipped flames, you came up with a long, unique description of how the ... um ... moving air was exacerbating the situation, fire-wise ... it would become a whole new subject on its own. If the wind is a factor but you'd rather use your 15-inches of copy to discuss the evidence of arson and the loss of a family business, the quick, familiar phrase allows you to make the point and move on.

Again, the problem is not in the words but in the writer. If, as ronniecat notes in the comments section of Brian's blog entry, buses always plunge, that's just lazy prose. I'd say a bus would have to fall at least three times its length and with a fair amount of free-fall involved, or at least significant speed, to truly "plunge." If it just went off the road and tumbled down a hillside, then that's what happened and "plunge" is simply the writer being overly dramatic and grabbing for a cheap effect with formulaic words.

An editor with time will ask "did it actually plunge?" But now that I are one, I realize how rarely editors have time to cross-examine their writers. You change it or you let it stand and you move on. That's not ideal, but it's how it happens. This editing thing is like parenting -- you find yourself doing things and saying things you swore you would never do or say.

I do think that it's worth devoting some thought to whether or not the bus actually plunged and to what extent the wind was whipping the flames, but I'm more concerned with someone having "too much Christmas cheer" on a night when we're getting "the white stuff" -- that is, the true cliches which masquerade as attempts to be clever. Which brings us back to the supposed cleverness of the story-about-the-story or the "I don't have an idea for my column" column.

They aren't clever or inventive and they belong on the editor's spike, if there were still an actual spike upon which stories that aren't going to see print were impaled. But spiking a story isn't a cliche -- it's terminology or, for those who hate terminology, jargon.*

(About 15 years ago, copy editors declared war on "in lieu of bail" as jargon. This is nonsense, but the idea spread and you'll rarely see it in print anymore. People go to jail rather than paying bail, but never in lieu of it. This kind of decision is what keeps low-level management types feeling important.)

For my part, I want writers to make sense, to be well-organized and to avoid lazy, sensational prose. I'd like them to think about what a story is -- the two questions being "So what?" and "Who cares?" Why am I writing the story, who is going to be reading it and why should they bother?

If they do that, they won't use a lot of cliches, though they may use some familiar and useful expressions. And their stories will read like Homer.

Well, maybe. Hey, an editor's reach should exceed his grasp.

* Poorly written stories never end up on "the proverbial spike" because, as far as I know, there is no proverb about spikes. At least, not this kind. But that's a rant for another day.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

My Dinner with Howard

Howard made the move to Maine in a small plastic tub in the cab of the U-Haul. It was pretty frigid out and I didn't want him to end up hibernating or worse. Now, Destry rode in a kennel back in the van, which was on a flatbed behind the truck. He didn't much like the experience, though he was okay after 24 hours of wandering around feeling insecure.

But somehow Howard thrived on the change. Maybe it shocked him into some kind of growth spurt, but since arriving in Maine, he has become Mr. Curious, not just popping out of his cave -- a cut-off plastic cassette tape caddy -- but stretching his neck up and even putting a front paw on a rock to rise up a little whenever he sees motion in the area.

It's tempting to mistake this for sociability, but the other day, a piece of food drifted where he couldn't see it and I reached in to poke it back towards him. When my finger got within about eight inches of him, he struck -- of course, he didn't come close, since his neck is only about an inch and a half long. But it sure served notice that Howard, bless his heart, operates entirely on prehistoric instinct.

When he gets to hockey-puck size, I'm going to have to really start handling him like an armed mousetrap. Meanwhile, he's a pretty funny little guy. Here's what happens when you drop a small chunk of meat into his tank.

As you'll see, he's not much for dinnertable conversation.

Friday, January 19, 2007

This picturesque little snow-covered homestead is, in fact, my new home. The weather at the start of the week was horrifically cold, but the natives acknowledged as much, so I'm not too shocked, and that is how you get such beautiful blue skies. And it was wonderful today -- cold and crisp but not bone-chilling.

The house is about 4 miles from the office and quiet, though cars sometimes pass by. If the road weren't at all busy, I'd have to worry about being snowed in, but it has just enough traffic to be a priority and it gets cleared quickly and well. I've got a neighbor across the road, though you have to look sharply to see his house, even with no leaves on the trees, and another in back, but at quite a distance. I don't know they're around unless I want to.

The house has three bedrooms upstairs, and a large livingroom, generous kitchen and closet of a bathroom downstairs. My friend Terry, who I discovered quite by serendipity was living here, figures it's a century or more old. I'm quite sure he's right.

Terry is someone I've known for nearly 40 years. We met in the 1968-69 academic year, when I was a sophomore and he was working construction and playing music in the various coffeehouses on and off-campus. We even lived together briefly in the fall of 1970, but then I dropped out of school and moved to Colorado.

I ran into him again when I was moving back east in 1987 -- I stopped off at my old college as we drove through Indiana and ran into Terry, who happened to be visiting from Maine. It was quite a surprise reunion. We then saw each other on purpose in 1989 twice, again at a musicians' reunion in Indiana in 1994 and at a second reunion concert there in 2005. At that last meeting, he told me he was living in some little town in Maine -- a different town than in the 80s -- but it didn't mean anything to me at the time.

When I got this job, they sent me a few copies of the paper so I could get a handle on it, and I saw a letter to the editor Terry had written. Turns out he lives about 10 miles from here. This meant I had someone to run me around and help me find a place to live, and also to help unpack the truck. (A task shared by me, Terry, my son Gabe and my new boss, David.)

The job is good. In fact, it's a lot of fun and the people at the paper are all good folks who like working with each other. The work is more time-critical than at my last job, in the sense that, while there isn't more of it, there are people specifically waiting for various tasks to be completed, so I can't necessarily put off one thing while I work on something else, which I could back when I was a one-man band and the final deadline was all that mattered.

The trade-off is that I'm not working without a net anymore -- there are people to help troubleshoot the work as it's being done, and to pick up some of the pieces when I'm starting to flail. I like that.

I'm still living out of boxes, and without TV or Internet at home -- posting this from the office -- but I'm busy enough that it isn't too big a deal. I plan to do some unpacking this weekend, explore the area a little and then go over to Terry's to watch some football on Sunday.

Life is good here on the farm.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Some Immigrants Just Never Stop Immigrating

Here's a column I wrote at my old job seven years ago, but which seems applicable today. The picture is of my son, Gabe, and my dog, Mr. O'Malley, on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi on yet another move from Colorado to New York, in 1987.

The way I heard the story, my great-grandfather Pedersen was sailing into Copenhagen when he realized he'd made a mistake. Others in the family say he already knew he was only coming back to say good-bye.

In any case, he and his brothers had gone to America with a plan to earn money and buy farms back in Denmark. They worked around the country at about anything they could put their hands to and, somewhere along the line, he gave up the part about coming home again.

He wound up on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, among a lot of other Scandinavians and some Cornishmen, too, who had come to the iron mines to make new lives for themselves. He never got rich, but he lived long enough to see his son head off to Wisconsin for college and then, later, move to Pennsylvania as manager of an iron mine there.

I'm sure it never occurred to him to tell his son not to move away. After all, it was how he had found his own place in the world. That seems to be what we built in this country: A family tradition in which you define yourself by who you are, not where you are.

My mother's family tree is full of people who were born with itchy feet, and who passed them on to their children. Great-great-great grandfather Leander Phoenix came from Quebec to Saratoga Springs, married a Broadalbin girl and then took her away to the midwest, where they produced a son, Josiah, who, as an adult, used to take long walks every Sunday, visiting a different church, sampling a different religion, each week. Just to see what it was like.

Another great-great-great grandfather on that side of the family came from Cork via London, then worked a farm in northern Indiana, where he helped the local priest build the first building of what would, 125 years later,
be my university. He moved on to
Clinton, Iowa, and later out to Boone. Family tradition says he finally found a place to stay, not because it was perfect, but because that was where the horses died.

In short, we arrived as immigrants and never stopped moving. Some brothers and sisters along the way stuck a peg in and stayed put, but those in my direct line, my parents, grandparents and various degrees of greats, never did. Except for a few transitional periods, I don't think we ever had two adult generations living in the same place on this side of the Atlantic, and my own siblings are now in Colorado, Florida, New York, West Virginia and suburban DC, none closer than 300 miles to another.

It is, however, a willingness, rather than an eagerness, to move. That is a distinction often lost on those with an instinct to stay put.

When my father was about the age I am now, he'd already moved once, from Pennsylvania to New York, where he had built a solid career in the mining business and raised a family in an idyllic little town where people cared for each other.

But the company had become enmeshed in what was then a brand-new phenomenon, the leveraged buyout, and the new owners had started cannibalizing it to maximize profits and pay off the cost of acquisition. Decisions made, not by steel people in Pittsburgh, but by money people on Wall Street, were about to kill the mines, and the town that relied upon them. My father did not fancy presiding over this cold-blooded, miserable process.

For all the arrogance of a 20-year-old, I knew when to listen with respect, as we walked around the lake one spring day and my father poured out his frustrations and unhappiness. But when, a few months later, my little brother, his youngest son, was killed in an accident at 17, I challenged him.

"Tony never got a chance to do the things he really wanted to do with his life," I said to him. "When are you going to do the things you really want to do?"

A few months later, he called to tell me he'd found a job that combined his experience on the school board with his years of industrial management, as labor negotiator for the Kenmore School District. The change from life in
Star Lake to life in Buffalo was wrenching, but the price of staying in one place had been exacting a far greater toll.

It was time to move on, and so he moved on, and it was a good move. He finished out the last 10 years of his career doing something he wanted to do, something he truly enjoyed, something he could feel good about doing.

For all the wonderful, generous things my father did for us, I was never so proud of him as I was when he accepted the legacy of a family that has never let a well-established life and the fear and inconvenience of change
keep them from living the lives they must live.

Now my own adult children, speaking from their homes in New York, in Massachusetts and in Connecticut, have accepted the role I took before them, that of nagging their father into exchanging comfort for disruption,
into overturning his life for the better, into doing what he truly needs to be doing.

So this will be my last column for the Press-Republican, as I end 12 happy years in Plattsburgh, and set out for the next place.

Thanks for everything. Maybe we'll run into each other again, somewhere down the road.

Copyright 1999, Press-Republican, Plattsburgh NY