Do What in the What Now?

What does the NFL Draft have to show us about language and storytelling? I think there’s at least one important point this year, centered on Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston.

If you don’t know, Winston is a gifted player and accused rapist. After an incompetent at best police investigation he was never charged. He’s also done a lot of knucklehead college kid stuff that wouldn’t usually stand out.

But I think one of his ‘minor’ misdeeds deserves greater scrutiny. Most articles describe the incident as Winston “shouting an obscenity” in a crowded room. Nobody describes the specifics, because they’re thinking of the children.

I think they should. This isn’t a case of a white reporter not using the N-word. The reader can’t understand the full story without knowing the specific obscenity. Winston shouted “Fuck her right in the pussy!”

That’s not harmless fun. It’s violent, misogynistic, and just plain creepy. And please don’t argue that the phrase isn’t about rape. While I admit it wouldn’t be as snappy to add “after receiving her enthusiastic consent!” you can’t expect that to just be implied when you’re bellowing F-bombs. It’s probably a better idea to simply avoid shouting about fucking anybody in the anything.

Back to Winston, shouting a sexually violent obscenity in public when you’re the most visible representative of your school is both creepy and mindless. Doing it when you’re under investigation for committing sexual violence shows an utterly psychopathic lack of awareness for the perceptions and feelings of others.

And it’s not even hard to give the specifics of the obscenity without writing out the words. Look how I did it in the last paragraph. Commentators are leaving out half the story for decency’s sake, and I wish they wouldn’t. This isn’t knucklehead college kid stuff.

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Excuses Excuses

I started several (or at least one) introductions where I meditated on the difficulty of sitting yourself down to do some writing as a jumping off point for a larger yet still brief reflection on the pace of information overload that drives our modern world. But it sounded stupid and now I’m hungry.

So skipping ahead, here are some of the actual excuses I’ve concocted to not get writing:

– I’m too tired to write well.
– I’m too hyped up to focus.
– I’m too mad at the prospect of sitting around for two hours waiting for the Verizon guy to use the time to write.
– I read a lot today, so at least I did something literary.
– I can’t concentrate knowing there’s a new episode of Castle/Agents of Shield/Game of Thrones/etc. on the DVR.
– I don’t have two bucks to get a drink at Starbucks where I can sit and write.
– I can’t find a table at Starbucks at which to sit and write.
– I only have an hour (or two, or four) until the thing I have to go to. Why bother getting started?
– I’m so close to finishing that one mission in that game to concentrate on something else.
– I can just get started on the next mission in that game before I write.
– I’m halfway through the next mission. Might as well finish before I write.
– I haven’t written anything so far this week. Let’s wait until next week so I can start a streak.
– I forgot to charge my laptop, my tablet, and my other laptop. Only barbarians write on paper.
– I executed a home repair with out hurting myself or making the problem worse. I deserve a break.
– I made the problem worse and/or hurt myself executing a home repair. I deserve a break.
– I blogged today. That’s like writing.

Obviously, none of this is my fault and I’m being held back by the universe.

Selfish Nobility

One key feature of maturing as a reader is you learn to recognize when heroes screw up. The odd thing is when you re-read a scene where the hero makes an obviously incorrect decision that the author wants you to respect.

The leader refusing to save himself is one that has been bothering me lately. Aaron Sorkin and Tom Clancy offered similar takes on this story: the White House is under threat of imminent attack and the President refuses to evacuate.

The tone of each scene conveys that the reader should respect these characters for standing firm. They lead from the front and accept the same risks as their followers.

But there’s a reason most generals lead from the rear. The leader is inherently more valuable than most if not all of their followers. We kind of need the commander-in-chief more than we need the deputy communications director and the head steward. Is a massive crisis a good time to have the Vice President suddenly thrust into authority?

What Bartlett and Ryan are doing is just selfish. They compromise their country’s because they can’t live with the idea of cowardice. But no one is entitled to a clean conscience. That seems like one of the sacrifices you have to accept when you get the nuclear launch codes.

Ryan even has the female head of his Secret Service detail physically coerced into evacuating. She’s pregnant, you see. He’s far too honorable to let her risk her life performing her sworn duty. (Another thing about maturing as a reader is you realize Tom Clancy was a tool.)

None of this is to say that these fictional presidents aren’t making perfectly natural and understandable choices. But I feel like the story would be better served to explore these actions a humanizing weakness in otherwise noble characters, rather than a rousing act of honor.

Freedoooom!

Let’s talk terrorism for a moment. I’ve seen various media outlets taken to task for not showing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons mocking Islam that we assume served as a source of motivation for yesterday’s attacks in Paris.

“You’re letting the terrorists win!”

“Censorship!”

“Freedom of expression! Blargh!”

My question is why should the news show the cartoons? Obviously, if the public can be better informed by seeing the cartoons and you fail to display them out of fear of violence, your self-censorship weakens freedom of expression.

But not showing the cartoons strikes me as a defensible editorial decision. Do the specifics of the cartoons matter to the public’s understanding of the story? If you know they mock Islam, you’ve got the whole story. I think we can safely assume that no matter how offensive the cartoons might be, no civilized person would look at them and say, “Wow. Those cartoonists totally had it coming.”

Authors and artists often offend to make a point. But I don’t feel comfortable when people act like they don’t just have a right to offend, we have a moral responsibility to do so. Just last month, some audiences sang the national anthem before watching a mediocre to terrible Seth Rogen movie. As far as stands for freedom go, I’m a lot more impressed when middle schoolers pass out free copies of banned books.

There should be a conversation regarding the right to express ideas that offend and the responsible use of that right. But it should be separate from the events in Paris. The men who attacked Charlie Hebdo are murderous lunatics. They would still be murderous lunatics without the cartoons. Let’s not act like all the other murderous lunatics will pack it in if we keep putting the cartoons out there.

Better Than Average Vertical Leaping Ability

“Scott popularized a lot of lingo that now just seems childish. Hops, ups, really compelling adjectives like mad, crazy. His shtick dumbed down vocabularies of America’s youth.”

That’s a random internet poster on the passing of sportscaster Stuart Scott showing some serious lame white guy English snobbery. As a lame white guy myself, I’m pretty sure this sort of attitude arises from simple jealousy. Why do I sound like a massive tool if I say someone has mad hops, but that guy on TV sounds smooth and natural. Not fair!

And let’s not forget that mad hops is a way more efficient phrase than this post’s title. This is how we continue inventing the English language, even if us snobbish English Majors don’t like it. Some people are just really good at it. If the internet had been around in Shakespeare’s day, I have to assume there would be a bunch of snobs complaining about all the words and phrases the bard just made up. Then they’d get even madder as people started using those words in everyday speech.

I have to admit I didn’t grasp Scott’s influence until people started mentioning it after his death. He was on ESPN for as long as I can remember, and he spoke the way he spoke that entire time. That’s just another way I’m a lame white guy, though. To me, he was that interesting guy on TV. To a lot of people who don’t look like me, he was the first TV personality who looked and sounded like them.

So I guess this is a welcome reminder that even ESPN is something that different people experience differently. Also, fuck cancer. Seriously.

Words Do Help

I thought they were like birthday messages on Facebook. Reflexive, pointless, stock phrases empty of meaningful emotion and connection. I always pictured the exchange like this:

“I’m so sorry for your loss.”

“Thanks.” Do I even know you?

Or like this:

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

“I will.” But unless you can return the dead to life, there isn’t.

Whenever they passed a card around the office, I’d stare at it for a while, trying to pick which empty phrase to write. It embarrassed me to be part of something so pointless. Stop trying to come up with a new take on my thoughts are with your family and let the person grieve.

Then Dad died.

And I learned that those words do help. Sometimes they truly do come from the heart. Sometimes they really are the vacuous social fluff I suspected. But they help either way.

Because really, there’s nothing TO say when someone has been lost. It sucks. That about covers it. It sucks hard if he was a constant force for good in your life, if he was your inspiration, your hero. What can a pithy few words accomplish in the face of that sudden void?

They can help. A tiny point of light won’t illuminate the darkness, but it can’t be ignored. It reminds you that the speaker is still in your life, and that they care. Maybe they only care enough to say the words. Maybe you know you can count on them for more. But they do care, and that helps.

Don’t be arrogant enough to think you’ll find the words that will make things okay. But don’t be embarrassed that you won’t. And whatever you do, don’t stay silent.

Words do help.

Memo of Babel

You don’t need me to tell you that any large organization is going to create its own dialect of English. It probably works the same way in other languages, but I don’t speak any.

The point is, I’ve been coming up with too many excuses to not blog (or write, really) lately, so I’m going with the low-hanging fruit. So here’s some vocabulary from the peculiar corporate dialect I speak in my day-to-day.

The business – Any set of people that does not include the speaker but is nominally able to give orders to the speaker. I have, in consecutive meetings, received direct orders handed down by the business and been addressed as a member of the business myself.

Let’s take this offline – We should discuss what you just said outside this meeting. Depending on tone and body language it may mean that the speaker needs to Google whatever the hell you just said before they can discuss it.

Learnings – Discrete pieces of information gained from a test of some kind, i.e. the individual quanta of knowledge. “We obtained 14 key learnings from the exercise.”

Ideate – To submit an idea for improvement with the understanding that you will need to do extra work to implement said idea.

That’s a Day 2 Concern – We’re not doing the thing you just suggested but I’m too polite to flatly refuse.