Friday, June 30, 2006

Night: Dark, stormy, etc.

This year's winners of the Bulwer-Lytton contest, a.k.a. the "Dark and Stormy Night Contest" run by the English Department of San Jose State University. The object: write only the first line of a bad novel:

10) "As a scientist, Throckmorton knew that if he were ever to break wind in the echo chamber, he would never hear the end of it."

9) "Just beyond the Narrows, the river widens."

8) "With a curvaceous figure that Venus would have envied, a tanned, unblemished oval face framed with lustrous thick brown hair, deep azure-blue eyes fringed with long black lashes, perfect teeth that vied for competition, and a small straight nose, Marilee had a beauty that defied description."

7) "Andre, a simple peasant, had only one thing on his mind as he crept along the East wall: 'Andre creep... Andre creep...Andre creep.'"

6) "Stanislaus Smedley, a man always on the cutting edge of narcissism, was about to give his body and soul to a back alley sex-change surgeon to become the woman he loved."

5) "Though Sarah had an abnormal fear of mice, it didn't keep her from squeaking out a living at a local pet store."

4) "Stanley looked quite bored and somewhat detached, but then penguins often do."

3) "Like an over-ripe beefsteak tomato rimmed with cottage cheese, the corpulent remains of Santa Claus lay dead on the hotel floor."

2) "Mike Hardware was the kind of private eye who didn't know the meaning of the word ' fear '; a man who could laugh in the face of danger and spit in the eye of death -- in short, a moron with suicidal tendencies."


1) "The sun oozed over the horizon, shoved aside darkness, crept along the greensward, and, with sickly fingers, pushed through the castle window, revealing the pillaged princess, hand at throat, crown asunder, gaping in frenzied horror at the sated, sodden amphibian lying beside her, disbelieving the magnitude of the frog's deception, screaming madly, ''You lied!"

Monday, June 26, 2006

Gets probation in hazing case

From the Dallas Morning News, June 26:

The first of eight men charged in an SMU fraternity initiation received 10 years probation and a $10,000 fine Monday after he was convicted of aggravated assault last week.

Jurors found Raymond Lee, 26, guilty in connection with the November 2003 off-campus ritual of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity that involved drinking gallon jugs of water and caused a pledge to pass out and nearly die. His sentence could have ranged up to 20 years in prison.

Libbie Lee, a former probation officer who leads a community youth program, begged the jury earlier Monday to let her son return to the community so that he could teach others not to make the same mistakes he did.

Read the rest here.

Boxing Day

I'm moving to a swanky new place this week, so blogging will be haphazard, if at all. The heat is withering. And as my friend T. says, every empty room yields three more carloads.

Worst thing about moving: Having to touch every single thing you own. Twice.

Best thing: Finding stuff I thought I'd lost. A favorite raincoat given to me by a Dallas designer, now dead, whom I interviewed in the 1980s. Tons of letters friends wrote me in the 1970s and 1980s (pre e-mail). At some point in the past, I filed dozens of their supremely funny letters neatly in binders. When was I ever so organized?

Found a photo of me with the late actor Robert Urich. Sweet guy. Another of me and that little boy from Jerry Maguire. Whatever happened to him? And whatever happened to my long, dark hair?

Tons of school stuff to sort and toss. Grade cards. Blue books. Quizzes. The hefty file from a grade dispute case four years ago.. Egad, what a freakin' nightmare. Wrote about it in three parts, starting with Double Trouble.

And underneath a pile of books, a yellowed certificate recognizing my performance of "Them There Eyes" in the first-grade talent show at Stonewall Jackson Elementary. I couldn't make myself throw that away.

Question to you: What's the silliest or most sentimental thing you've hung onto through the years? Post your confession in Comments here.

I'll be back with more news of the Alpha Phi hazing trial and other items after the move is over later this week.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

First testimony in water-hazing trial

The victim testified yesterday in the trial of Alpha Phi Alpha members who hazed a pledge in 2003 by forcing him to drink gallons of water while enduring physical and verbal abuse. Result: a 10-day coma and permanent brain damage.

Here's the DMN's take on what's happened so far.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Deadly weapon: Water

So far the Dallas Morning News hasn't printed anything about the jury selection and imminent trial going on in the case of Alpha Phi Alpha members and a near-fatal hazing incident on campus in 2003. Barely a mention on local TV news yesterday and today.

Here's a link to the details of the case. I'll post updates this week as local media cover the proceedings.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Tech Bubble Babies

If someone's self-identity is fragile, as is the case with many young people, he or she needs to bolster it "by constant contact with others who validate and enable them," she says. "Now you go to your Facebook entry and look at the comments left for you, and your sense of self can be shored up by the 50 people who have commented."

For more of the story about the lack of social skills and the need for constant approval among the new generation of "tech bubble babies," check out USA Today.

The Gobloots

Remember the episode of I Love Lucy when she was faking being sick to get Ricky's attention? He got back at her by bringing in a fake doctor who diagnosed Lucy with "the gobloots" (pronounced "go blutes"). To make her think she was seeing blue, Ricky replaced the lightbulbs with blue ones. Poor Lucy.

Today I had something like the gobloots. After the throat thing cleared up, I developed a horrendous bronchial cough. The doc gave me pills for it and I took one. Within an hour, I was wracked with seizing stomach pains. Looked at the prescription warnings. Side effect: Upset stomach.

Now 24 hours later, I still feel like I'm in the 30th hour of birthing triplets. This kind of pain brings on weird hallucinations when you try to sleep. I dreamed I was wrestling an angry weasel in the back seat of my mom's old Ford Fairlane. I kept trying to hold the weasel by the scruff of its scrawny neck so it wouldn't leap on my and chew me to shreds. If I could only roll down the window -- it was a 1965 Ford so you had to roll down the windows -- I could throw the snarling beast out. But it was wiggling so bad, I couldn't get a good grip on it.

Then I dreamed that Vince Vaughn and I were in Venice (how alliterative!) and he was buying me ice cream.

When I woke up, Dodgeball was on.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Random clicks

Confessions of a Community College Dean tells some familiar stories. Hey, nobody told him the dangers of blogging on campus?

Does TV need to catch the chick-lit trend? Why, of course! And I say so here.

Ate some fine boiled shrimp and sweet tater fries at Starfish, a gay-owned joint in Oak Cliff (across the river from downtown Dallas). Here's this week's review of that experience.

And I saw a bunch more plays. That column is here.

In my spare time, I stare at the walls and mumble quietly to myself.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Eat up

Why I always take my funniest friends to help me review restaurants (one of my freelance gigs at the moment):

Me (tasting a Cajun entree): Does this taste too salty to you?

Funny Friend (after tasting same): Who's cooking today? Lot's wife?

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Throat lump

Woke up with a bitchin' bad scratchy throat yesterday and by this morning swallowing felt like gargling gravel. I think the swimming pool is just a huge blue bowl of germs. This throat thing gets me every summer.

Funniest thing the doc asked me this morning: "Are you breast feeding?" And I wanted to say, "No, what should I feed them?" But I couldn't croak it out.

I shall recline in a shady room now. Outside it's over 100, with "red air warnings," which sounds like something Ray Bradbury put in The Martian Chronicles.

The homeopathic theory would be that my closed-up throat is the result of my not being able to say what needs saying (see entry below). But I'm hoping it's just a bacterium that will be zapped by the $35 Z-pack of antibiotics.

If you have home remedies, I'm game to try anything.

I'll leave you for today with this line from a recent Conan O'Brien monologue: According to a new campus study, iPods are now more popular among college students than beer. Experts say the trend won't last unless iPods make ugly people look good at 2 a.m.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Hugging and learning

The motto among the writers of Seinfeld was "No hugging, no learning." They never resorted to "a very special episode," where, say, Elaine had a pregnancy scare or Kramer got a brain tumor. Even when George's fiancee, Susan, died from licking poison glue on the wedding invitation envelopes, the reaction from Jerry and the gang was a flip "Wanna go to the coffeeshop?"

But life is not a sitcom (usually). Life requires hugging and learning.

And life also asks a girl sometimes to shut up and listen. Which is what I found myself doing with Professor Lunch-Guy yesterday. Shutting up is not my best thing. I talk. A lot. In the classroom this is an asset, as it helps fill 50 to 80 minutes that otherwise would be left to the sound of crickets and the a/c cutting on and off. But on a long lunch date with a lovely human being who has a story to tell, shutting up is better.

I won't tell you the story. It's his story of love and loss. Happened a good many years ago but it still hurts -- as anyone over 40 can tell you, it will always still hurt, even long after you've thought it didn't anymore -- and I could tell it was hard for him to tell me about it.

We've been having these afternoons together since last year. I look forward to them, getting a bit fluttery and girly-girl about dressing nicely and dabbing on a little stink-juice here and there.

It's taken a long time to build up to the story of what happened when and why. So I just shut up and listened.

He looked so sweet in the telling of it. He's handsome anyway -- I've thought so since I was in his class years ago in grad school. But getting into the nitty-gritty of real life stuff, golly. He was beautiful.

And when he finished the story and sat back and rested his spoon on the purple tablecloth of the little cafe in Deep Ellum where we were eating very salty Cajun food, I couldn't think what to say. And he says, "Did anything like that ever happen to you?"

Of course, it has. It's why there are certain songs I can't hear on the radio and certain movies I can't watch. Maybe I'll tell him my story someday. Pretty sure I will. But right then the big lump in my throat kept me from saying anything. I just whispered, "I can't tell you yet." He looked right into me and said, "That's OK. You don't have to."

And I knew at that moment I had learned something important about this man. And right after that, I hugged him.

Crossing crosses with politics

A reader asks for your help with an academic "Religion and Politics in American Life Survey." Here's the request:

"This survey is about attitudes towards religion and politics. Some people think that this country is becoming too secular. They want to see more people in government who share their values. Other people think that religious groups have too much influence in politics. They would rather keep religion and politics separate. We are very interested in your thoughts on this matter. What do you think about religion and politics in the U.S.?

Click here to take the survey.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Bursting with truthiness

Stephen Colbert's 2006 Commencement Address at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois:

Thank you. Thank you very much. First of all, I’m facing a little bit of a conundrum here. My name is Stephen Colbert, but I actually play someone on television named Stephen Colbert, who looks like me, and who talks like me, but who says things with a straight face he doesn’t mean. And I’m not sure which one of us you invited to speak here today. So, with your indulgence, I’m just going to talk and I’m going to let you figure it out.

I wanted to say something about the Umberto Eco quote that was used earlier from The Name of the Rose. That book fascinated me because in it these people are killed for trying to get out of this library a book about comedy, Aristotle’s Commentary on Comedy. And what’s interesting to me is one of the arguments they have in the book is that comedy is bad because nowhere in the New Testament does it say that Jesus laughed. It says Jesus wept, but never did he laugh.

But, I don’t think you actually have to say it for us to imagine Jesus laughing. In the famous episode where there’s a storm on the lake, and the fishermen are out there. And they see Jesus on the shore, and Jesus walks across the stormy waters to the boat. And St. Peter thinks, “I can do this. I can do this. He keeps telling us to have faith and we can do anything. I can do this.” So he steps out of the boat and he walks for—I don’t know, it doesn’t say—a few feet, without sinking into the waves. But then he looks down, and he sees how stormy the seas are. He loses his faith and he begins to sink. And Jesus hot-foots it over and pulls him from the waves and says, “Oh you of little faith.” I can’t imagine Jesus wasn’t suppressing a laugh. How hilarious must it have been to watch Peter—like Wile E. Coyote—take three steps on the water and then sink into the waves.

Well it’s an honor to be giving your Commencement address here today at Knox College. I want to thank Mr. Podesta for asking me two, two and a half years ago, was it? Something like that? We were in Aspen. You know...being people who go to Aspen. He asked me if I would give a speech at Knox College, and I think it was the altitude, but I said yes. I’m very glad that I did.

On a beautiful day like this I’m reminded of my own graduation 20 years ago, at Northwestern University. I didn’t start there, I finished there. On the graduation day, a beautiful day like this. We’re all in our gowns. I go up on the podium to get my leather folder with my diploma in it. And as I get it from the Dean, she leans in close to me and she smiles, and she says...[train whistle] that’s my ride, actually. I have got to get on that train, I’m sorry. [Heads off stage.] Evidently that happens a lot here. ...So, I’m getting my folder, and the Dean leans into me, shakes my hand and says, “I’m sorry.” I have no idea what she means. So I go back to my seat and I open it up. And, instead of having a diploma inside, there’s a scrap—a torn scrap of paper—that has scrawled on it, “See me.” I kid you not.

Evidently I had an incomplete in an independent study that I had failed to complete. And I did not have enough credits. And, let me tell you, when your whole family shows up and you get to have your picture taken with them—and instead of holding up your diploma, you hold the torn corner of a yellow legal pad—that is a humbling experience. But eventually, I finished. I got my credits and next year at Christmas time, they have mid-year graduation. And I went there to get my diploma then. They said that I had an overdue library fine and they wouldn’t give it to me again. And they eventually mailed it to me...I think. I’m pretty sure I graduated from college.

But I guess the question is, why have a two-time commencement loser like me speak to you today? Well, one of the reasons they already mentioned...I recovered from that slow start. And I was recently named by Time magazine one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World! Yeah! Give it up for me! Basic cable...THE WORLD! I guess I have more fans in Sub-Saharan Africa than I thought. I’m right here on the cover between Katie Couric and Bono. That’s my little picture—a sexy little sandwich between those two.

But if you do the math, there are 100 Most Influential People in the World. There are 6.5 billion people in the world. That means that today I am here representing 65 million people. That’s as big as some countries. What country has about 65 million people? Iran? Iran has 65 million people. So, for all intents and purposes, I’m here representing Iran today. Don’t shoot.

But the best reason for me to come to speak at Knox College is that I attended Knox College. This is part of my personal history that you will rarely see reported. Partly because the press doesn’t do the proper research. But mostly because…it is not true! I just made it up, so this moment would be more poignant for all of us. How great would it be if I could actually come back here—if I was coming back to my alma mater to be honored like this. I could share with you all my happy memories that I spent here in...Galesburg, Illinois. Hanging out at the Seymour Hall, right? Seymour Hall? You know, all of us alumni, we remember being at Seymour Hall, playing those drinking games. We played a drinking game called Lincoln-Douglas. Great game. What you do is, you act out the Lincoln-Douglas debate and any time one of the guys mentions the Dred Scott decision you have to chug a beer. Well, technically 3/5 of a beer. [groans from audience] You DO have a good education! I wasn’t sure if anybody was going to get that joke.

I soon learned that a frat house—oops—divided against itself cannot stand. How can I forget cheering on the team—the Knox College Knockers? The Prairie Fire. Seriously, the Prairie Fire. Your team is named after something that can get you federal disaster relief. I assume the “Flash Floods” was taken.

Oh, yes, the memories are so fresh. It was as if it was just yesterday I made them up. And the history, you don’t have to tell me the history of Knox College. No, your Web site is very thorough. The college itself has long been known for its diversity. I am myself a supporter of diversity. I myself have an interracial marriage. I am Irish and my wife is Scottish. But we work it out. And it is fitting, most fitting, that I should speak at Knox College today because it was founded by abolitionists. And I gotta say—I’m going to go out on the limb here—I believe slavery was wrong. No, I don’t care who that upsets. I just hope the mainstream media give me the credit for the courage it took to say that today. I know the blogosphere is just going to explode tomorrow. But enough about me.... if there can be enough about me.

Today is about you—you who have worked so hard to pack your heads with learning until your skulls are all plump like—sausage of knowledge. It’s an apt metaphor, don’t question it. But now your time at college is at an end. Now you are leaving here. And this leads me to a question that just isn’t asked enough at commencements. Why are you leaving here?

This seems like a very nice place. They have a lovely Web site. Besides, have you seen the world outside lately? They are playing for KEEPS out there, folks. My God, I couldn’t wait to get here today just so I could take a breather from the real world. I don’t know if they told you what’s happened while you’ve matriculated here for the past four years. The world is waiting for you people with a club. Unprecedented changes happening in the last four years. Like globalization. We now live in a hyperconnected, global economic, outsourced society. Now there are positives and minuses here. And a positive is that globalization helps us understand and learn from otherwise foreign cultures. For example, I now know how to ask for a Happy Meal in five different languages. In Paris, I’d like a “Repas Heureux” In Madrid a “Comida Feliz” In Calcutta, a “Kushkana, hold the beef.” In Tokyo, a “Happy Seto” And in Berlin, I can order what is perhaps the least happy-sounding Happy Meal, a “Glugzig Malzeiht.”

Also globalization, e-mail, cell phones interconnect our nations like never before. It is possible for even the most insulated American to have friends from all over the world. For instance, I recently received an e-mail asking me to help a deposed Nigerian prince who is looking for a business partner to recuperate his fortune. Thanks to the flexibility of global banking, a Swiss bank account is ready and waiting for my share of his money. I know, because I just e-mailed him my Social Security number.

Unfortunately for you job seekers, corporations searching for a better bottom line have moved many of their operations overseas, whether it’s a customer service operator, a power factory foreman, or an American flag manufacturer. They’re just as likely to be found in Shanghai as Omaha. In fact, outsourcing is so easy that I had this speech today written by a young man named Panjeeb from Bangalore.

If you don’t like the jokes, I assure you they were much funnier in Urdu... And when you enter the workforce, you will find competition from those crossing our all-too-poorest borders. Now I know you’re all going to say, “Stephen, Stephen, immigrants built America.” Yes, but here’s the thing—it’s built now. I think it was finished in the mid-70s sometime. At this point it’s a touch-up and repair job. But thankfully Congress is acting and soon English will be the official language of America. Because if we surrender the national anthem to Spanish, the next thing you know, they’ll be translating the Bible. God wrote it in English for a reason! So it could be taught in our public schools.

So we must build walls. A wall obviously across the entire southern border. That’s the answer. That may not be enough—maybe a moat in front of it, or a fire-pit. Maybe a flaming moat, filled with fire-proof crocodiles. And we should probably wall off the northern border as well. Keep those Canadians with their socialized medicine and their skunky beer out. And because immigrants can swim, we’ll probably want to wall off the coasts as well. And while we’re at it, we need to put up a dome, in case they have catapults. And we’ll punch some holes in it so we can breathe. Breathe free. It’s time for illegal immigrants to go—right after they finish building those walls. Yes, yes, I agree with me.

There are so many challenges facing this next generation, and as they said earlier, you are up for these challenges. And I agree, except that I don’t think you are. I don’t know if you’re tough enough to handle this. You are the most cuddled generation in history. I belong to the last generation that did not have to be in a car seat. You had to be in car seats. I did not have to wear a helmet when I rode my bike. You do. You have to wear helmets when you go swimming, right? In case you bump your head against the side of the pool. Oh, by the way, I should have said, my
speech today may contain some peanut products.

My mother had 11 children: Jimmy, Eddie, Mary, Billy, Morgan, Tommy, Jay, Lou, Paul, Peter, Stephen. You may applaud my mother’s womb. Thank you, I’ll let her know. She could never protect us the way you all have been protected. She couldn’t fit 11 car seats. She would just open the back of her Town & Country—stack us like
cord wood: four this way, four that way. And she put crushed glass in the empty spaces to keep it steady. Then she would roll up all the windows in the winter time and light up a cigarette. When I die I will not need to be embalmed, because as a child my mother hickory-smoked me.

I mean even these ceremonies are too safe. I mean this mortarboard...look, it’s padded. It’s padded everywhere. When I graduated from college, we had the edges sharpened. When we threw ours up in the air, we knew some of us weren’t coming home.

But you have one thing that may save you, and that is your youth. This is your great strength. It is also why I hate and fear you. Hear me out. It has been said that children are our future. But does that not also mean that we are their past? You are here to replace us. I don’t understand why we’re here helping and honoring them. You do not see union workers holding benefits for robots.

But you seem nice enough, so I’ll try to give you some advice.
First of all, when you go to apply for your first job, don’t wear these robes. Medieval garb does not instill confidence in future employers—unless you’re applying to be a scrivener. And if someone does offer you a job, say yes. You can always quit later. Then at least you’ll be one of the unemployed as opposed to one of the never-employed. Nothing looks worse on a resume than nothing.

So, say “yes.” In fact, say “yes” as often as you can. When I was
starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and.” I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what’s going to happen,
maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in an ice cave. That’s the “-and.” And then hopefully they “yes-and” you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you
do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other’s lead, neither of you are really in control. It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as
it is to the audience.

Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what’s going to happen, often with
people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back.

Now will saying “yes” get you in trouble at times? Will saying “yes” lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn
anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge. “Yes” is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say “yes.”

And that’s The Word.

I have two last pieces of advice. First, being pre-approved for a credit card does not mean you have to apply for it. And lastly, the best career advice I can give you is to get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And
eventually some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.

Congratulations to the class of 2006. Thank you for the honor of addressing you.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Malaysian malaise

From a student/reader in Malaysia (lots of mixed metaphors, but the message is pretty interesting):

Academic freedom in Malaysia is like the Holy Grail. Everyone knows somewhere, in the future, it will surely emerge, a beacon of emancipation and enlightenment. But though everyone knows (or thinks) it exists, it is elusive. Somewhere over the rainbow where leprechauns bury their gold, it is to be found. And while this country certainly faces no shortage of homegrown Indiana Joneses tempting fate, it is a sad reality that they are doomed to be eaten by the crocodiles of conservatism, the lockjaws of the law.

Certainly, one can propagate the notion that the absence of academic freedom is the cause of all problems. Graduate unemployment, graduate miseducation, graduate unintellectualism...And of course, university rankings come back to haunt for more than just a few sleepless nights.

Threats of expulsion should one not show favour of a university's candidate. Threats of expulsion should one show favour of a university's candidate who is not of the mainstream. If Edmund Terence Gomez sees greener pastures overseas, he can leave. If Dr. Azly Rahman disagrees with the establishment, it's time to go. Such is the simplicity and transparency of higher education and its machineries.

Of course, resources and time should not be wasted on such trivial maters of choice like these, but spun into finest gold. God forbid Rumpelstiltskin should stoop by a dorm window to find underwear hanging on the panes. Heavens no! Tight security committees and permission for male law enforcers (oh! how smart they look in their uniforms!) must be formed with immediacy. Now these are what undergraduates should be concerned with! Such is the true mark of intelligentsia! To hang or not to hang. Now that is the question.

In the end, the pro-establishment won. And what did they bring? More promise of a better future rooted in Wal-Martian blind consumption habits and lesser intelligent life on earth.

In the University of California-Los Angeles, things are certainly more laidback. No, there is no monitoring of laundry habits over there (proof that the society is more liberal) but there is a surveillance machine eyeing 'radical professors'. A website called the Bruin Alumni, the self-styled moral police, is making the call for undergraduates to rat on their professors. Maurice Zedeck, Professor of Sociology, takes the hit as Public Enemy Number One.

The Universities and University Colleges Act (AUKU), or commonly known as the Akujanji, restricts student activism from reaching into 'anything beyond the status quo'. Indeed one is baffled at the need for activism when there is a need to maintain the status quo.

Certainly the authorities are going a little postal at the drop of a hat. Dorm raids among others are but a sure sign of power differentials. Ethics? Do as I say. Not as I do. Guaranteed you'll be okay. But who are we to digress and philosophise? Unless one is granted diplomatic immunity, it is best not to interfere in events. Academics should be seen, and not heard. Ever wonder why the culture of students visibly burying their noses deep in books, but afraid to speak to their professors?

It will be a sad loss for the Raiders of the Lost Voice if the situation were to anchor itself into the ground. What we will be left with will be a nation without its treasure; an economy without a brain. Humans will become drones, slaves to the god of Materialism. They will lapse under the great feeling of anomie; they will continue to buy more and more. And when they have satisfied their urge, the cycle shall continue.

And the word goes round

In the old days, when everybody was a "man" and copy editors still worked with pencils and paper, copy desks were often horseshoe-shaped. Rank-and-file editors -- "rim men" -- sat around the outside, while the guy in charge sat in the "slot" so he could reach all the rim guys when he needed to hand out stories to work on.

The term is still widely used today (though often it's just "slot"), and some copy desks are still set up in basically the same fashion, except with computers.

That's from The Slot, the greatest blog for word nerds and anyone else who cares about the proper placement of apostrophes and the correct usage of "round" and "till." (No apostrophes needed for those.)

Check out the Slot Man. Good stuff. And helpful when you have a quirky usage question.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Barney, This 'Un Made Me Cry

May 31, 2006/New York Times

It's a Tough Life, to Live It and to Write It, but It Just Got a Little Better

RENE MILES, who has been teaching English for 32 years, has a writer's eye for detail, and that fall of 1999, what she noticed about her new sixth grader, Jessica Atkinson, were the cuffs on the little girl's yellow sweatshirt. "They were dirty and worn and stiff," Ms. Miles said.

Ms. Miles teaches creative writing at the Charleston County School of the Arts, a 6th- through 12th-grade public school where students must audition and only one of three is accepted. Even among such talent, Jessica stood out. Ms. Miles felt her writing mixed a child's directness with startling, grown-up insight. The first month of sixth grade, the teacher singled out one of Jessica's poems, "Flame," giving it a 96 and praising "each simile as unique." ("I am like a flame," 11-year-old Jessica wrote, "so elegant in a way, yet so dangerous to curious fingers.")

In the writing program, students stay with the same teacher from sixth grade to graduation, and over those seven years, the simile Jessica brought to mind for Ms. Miles was a mystery novel, slowly unfolding. "Some days she wouldn't have her book bag or a paper signed and I'd get angry," Ms. Miles said. "She was real quiet, didn't make excuses. She'd just say the facts: 'I stayed at my grandmother's last night,' or 'I didn't go home after school.' I wanted to say, 'Where'd you go,' but I didn't." Jessica often didn't have money for field trips or supplies, and Ms. Miles helped out.

Over time, bits of Jessica's life peeked through her writing. Somewhere around eighth grade, Ms. Miles said, "I realized there was no mom there. I remember crying one day when something she wrote about her mother made me understand her situation a little better." By high school, Ms. Miles said, "I realized she was having trouble with her father. Jessica's writing was tackling some of these things head-on. By that age, they're writing from their heart, from their inside."

What came from Jessica just kept getting better. At its best, her writing feels like something by Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver, stories about ordinary people living on the edge, trying to maintain their sanity and continue going forward. In Jessica's stories, a young woman can be accidentally squeezed into the same section of a revolving door with a man in a business suit, and in a few seconds' time, as she steps away in the opposite direction, she knows "my boyfriend wasn't going to be my one and only."

Ms. Miles's favorite is "Swampland," a short story about a 22-year-old woman working as a supermarket bagger and living with a boyfriend who doesn't know many of her secrets, including that she is pregnant.

At the start of senior year, Jessica moved out of her father's home, was supporting herself by working as a supermarket bagger at Publix and paying rent to share a room at her boyfriend's family's house.

The teacher worried: What was Jessica and what was Jessica's fiction? "I tried to get a sense, but she was evasive," Ms. Miles said. At a meeting last fall to plan for college, Jessica said she had no idea how she could afford it or where to go. "It was the first time I'd seen her cry," Ms. Miles said. "She looked at me and said, 'Ms. Miles, is my life ever going to get better?' "

Each year Ms. Miles's seniors enter the national Scholastic writing competition, which dates back to 1923. Five $10,000 first prizes are awarded. Winners have included Bernard Malamud, Truman Capote, Sylvia Plath, Joyce Carol Oates. Only once, in 2003, had Ms. Miles produced a winner, Sara Saylor. "Someone asked me, 'Rene, you think you have one this year?' And I said, 'If someone wins, it will be Jessica.' "

JESSICA was hoping, too, though she didn't say so aloud. "Since I was 15, I wanted to win like Sara Saylor," Jessica said. "She was just an idol for us. Ms. Miles talked about Sara Saylor, Sara Saylor. Some people would tell me, you're the next Sara Saylor. I didn't think I had a chance, but also thought maybe I did."

There aren't many people she can show her writing to. "I get scared when my family reads my stuff," she said. "I don't want them to think it's about me." She is particularly close to her grandmother. "My grandmother made sure we were fed every day, made sure we had the rent," she said. "Swampland" frightened her grandmother. "She said, 'You're pregnant?!' recalled Jessica. "I said, 'No, it's not me.' "

She asked her boyfriend, Justin Wooton, a music major, what he thought of her writing, but he doesn't say much. Jessica is a voracious reader, loves Milan Kundera, Natsuo Kirino, Chuck Palahniuk, Philip Pullman; Justin rarely reads. "If I say, 'Is this good?' he says 'Yeah,' " Jessica said. "I ask why, but he says, 'I don't know, it's just good.' "

"I'm in CP English," Justin said. "That's the lowest English. A lot of it was above me, but I liked it."

They have been together two years. "She was probably the most independent kind of girl," Justin said, "the way she dressed and how she acted. It didn't seem like she cared about what people thought."

As for Jessica, she said it wasn't love at first sight. "He liked me first, but I didn't like him," she said. "I don't know why I started liking him, he just seemed to get cuter. He's very good looking. He's just so genuine. Not like most guys. I think most guys cheat. But he's one of these guys who doesn't, he's gentle and sweet." When she moved in, she said, it was hard at first, living with him and five family members in a small ranch house. But now, she said, "I like spending time with him, it doesn't bother me at all."

As for her parents, she prefers to say little. She says she loves her father, a car salesman, and feels he did his best even though they had trouble living together. He and her grandmother always ask if she needs money. "I try not to take anything," she said. "It feels kind of selfish if I'm not living with them." About her mother, Jessica said only, "She recently came back into my life."

Last month, Ms. Miles got a call saying Jessica had won a Scholastic $10,000 first prize. Tracking her down took awhile; Jessica doesn't have a cellphone or home phone, but Ms. Miles knew to try her grandmother. "Remember at the beginning of the year you asked if your life was going to get better?" Ms. Miles said. "It just got better."

Jessica had one concern, that took her a few weeks to voice. Did she win because she could write? Or because the judges felt sorry for her? "I know they're giving people opportunity," she told Ms. Miles. "I thought maybe it was like, 'Let's give a girl a chance, she didn't have a mother.' "

Ms. Miles showed Jessica the cover letter to Scholastic. There was nothing about Jessica's background, only Jessica's writing.

"Then I really won," said Jessica, "didn't I?"

"You really won," said Ms. Miles.

This fall, Jessica will attend Oglethorpe, a small liberal arts college in Atlanta that has given her a scholarship to go with the Scholastic money. She chose it, she said, because she will be near an aunt who has looked out for her, because "all the teachers are Ph.D. doctorates, and the tour guides were really nice."

Justin decided to go to Oglethorpe, too, and major in business.

In early June, Jessica Atkinson, the writer, will fly to New York City to get her Scholastic award. Each winner is allowed to take one adult, usually a family member, but Jessica chose her teacher, Ms. Miles.