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Weekend Miscellany

Consistent writing will make you a better designer, according to Eugen Eşanu.

Not so fast, reports John Seabrook. After all, predictive text could change everything.

Which is probably just fine and dandy with closet descriptivists like Pippa Bailey, who rather enjoys “standing back and watching a living language grow and wrestle with itself.”

For the rest of you, take heart. Y’all will be happy to know that “old-fashioned English grammar” has been saved by the good ol’ U.S. of A.

Every Musical Genre Has Its Keith Richards

You’ve heard of Bach, right? Johann Sebastian? That rather dour-looking Baroque composer of cantatas, oratorios, and liturgical music? Turns out there’s more to him than 18th-century Lutheran piety. Ted Gioia has the details:

I’ve talked to people who feel they know Bach very well, but they aren’t aware of the time he was imprisoned for a month. They never learned about Bach pulling a knife on a fellow musician during a street fight. They never heard about his drinking exploits—on one two-week trip he billed the church eighteen gorchsen for beer, enough to purchase eight gallons of it at retail prices—or that his contract with the Duke of Saxony included a provision for tax-free beer from the castle brewery; or that he was accused of consorting with an unknown, unmarried woman in the organ loft; or had a reputation for ignoring assigned duties without explanation or apology. They don’t know about Bach’s sex life: at best a matter of speculation, but what should we conclude from his twenty known children, more than any significant composer in history (a procreative career that has led some to joke with a knowing wink that “Bach’s organ had no stops”), or his second marriage to twenty-year-old singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke, when he was in his late thirties? They don’t know about the constant disciplinary problems Bach caused, or his insolence to students, or the many other ways he found to flout authority. This is the Bach branded as “incorrigible” by the councilors in Leipzig, who grimly documented offense after offense committed by their stubborn and irascible employee.

There’s more—much more—in Mr. Gioia’s newly published Music: A Subversive History. And while you’re waiting for that Amazon shipment to arrive, check out his Twitter feed. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t learn something from him.

Hey CK, I’m gonna need an advance on my paycheck…

More than a thousand guitars, amps, and assorted gear belonging to the late Walter Becker will be auctioned this weekend in Beverly Hills. Here’s the catalogue if you’re, you know, wondering what to get me for Christmas this year.

The thing is, I was always a little embarrassed by my love for Steely Dan. In college, the guys I knew who were into more straight-ahead rock disliked their slick sound; my jazz friends were offended by the band’s commercial success (even though they all thought Toto IV was brilliant); fellow music students didn’t think of their work as anything even approaching serious art.

But I eventually learned to embrace the Dan. And why not? If you can’t appreciate the intricate harmonies, the pristine production, or the stellar musicianship, you ought to at least be able to dig the lyrics: sophisticated, yes, but also subversive, cynical, ironic, and wickedly funny.

So news of the auction makes me a little sad, to be honest. Like I mentioned in the post I wrote on the occasion of Becker’s death back in 2017, these guys were my people—my tribe, as they say now. It’s weird, I know, but I miss the guy.

Stop! Grammar Time!

I was reading a pretty interesting article this morning about how a Pittsburgh TV celebrity rigged the state lottery back in 1980. (I’d throw in a link, but I think you have to subscribe. It’s free, though, so check it out.)

Anyway, everything was hunky-dory until I came across this sentence:

Over a week, 25 witnesses — including co-conspirators, shop owners, and angry senior citizens — took the stand. 

I know that co-conspirators has become so entrenched in our language that we hardly notice it anymore, but still. What’s with the extra co-?

According to my copy of the OED, a conspirator is “a person who conspires or is engaged in a conspiracy”; a conspiracy is “a combination of people for an unlawful or a reprehensible purpose.” So. Conspirators conspire. They work together toward the same purpose. In fact, they have to work together, otherwise it isn’t much of a conspiracy.

Doesn’t that make the addition of co- redundant, then? Shouldn’t “conspirators, shop owners, and angry senior citizens” have sufficed?

Yes. And yes.

A Portrait of the Music Snob as a Young Man

Big milestone in music history today: On October 10, 1969—exactly fifty years ago—King Crimson released its debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, while Frank Zappa dropped Hot Rats.

Obviously, I’m not the first to notice that the stars aligned that day, as both records were hugely influential in the genres of progressive rock and jazz fusion, respectively.

But they’re much more than historical footnotes to me.

Crimson King is one of those albums that opened up an entire world of musical possibilities, from early Peter Gabriel-led Genesis to David Bowie to Brian Eno to Gentle Giant; Zappa’s cosmic jams were in part what led me, in a roundabout way, to a more profound appreciation of – and ultimately a return to – the Grateful Dead.

Of course, the whole misfit-attracted-to-musical-misfits angle can’t be ignored, I suppose. Crimson and Zappa spoke to me in ways that the made-for-MTV pop stars of the 1980s simply couldn’t. But then, I’ve since outgrown that phase—mostly—and the music still has a power over me. So there’s that.

If you’ve not heard this music before, you’re in for a treat. It’s creative, challenging, and wholly unlike anything else that came before it.

How to Write Good

Nature has published novelist Cormac McCarthy’s tips on how to write a great science paper, and—surprise!—much of his advice just happens to be perfectly suited to everyday writing as well:

• Only use an adjective if it’s relevant.
• Try to avoid jargon, buzzwords or overly technical language.
• Use a personal tone because it can help to engage a reader.

I do have one tiny little nit to pick, however. “It’s more important to be understood,” writes McCarthy, “than it is to form a grammatically perfect sentence.” True, I suppose—but a grammatically perfect sentence will be understood. I mean, isn’t that why we have grammar?

Fright Night

There are few things that truly terrify me. Falling into a giant vat of mayonnaise is one; being trapped in an elevator with Oprah Winfrey is another. But working as a page turner for a live performance is truly nightmare-inducing. Nevertheless, Benjamin Poore explains why page turners – “part of the semi-invisible superstructure of the performance business, along with the répétiteur in the opera house, prompter in the box under the stage, or piano tuner working their magic in an empty auditorium” – matter.

Weekend Miscellany

According to Jack Kelly over at Forbes, it really doesn’t matter whether you go to college: you’ll earn about the same either way.

The season’s hot new ice cream flavor isn’t pumpkin spice. It’s, um…guinea pig.

One of my favorite writers takes on one of my least favorite writers: Andrew Ferguson on Malcolm Gladwell.

Speaking of writing, Zadie Smith defends fiction. The fact that she feels she has to, of course, is a sad commentary on our current age.

And, apropos of nothing, really, I recently discovered the excellent Ambient Music Guide. Better late than never, I guess. Anyway, you’ll find information, reviews, and recommendations therein.

A Writer’s Favorite Complaint

Here’s a fascinating review of John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. While I don’t agree with everything in the piece, I’m not about to miss yet another opportunity to remind y’all that, as reviewer Phil Christman says, “Writing…is hard, and has always been so.” He goes on:

It is recursive: at every level of achievement, the same difficulties reassert themselves. It is an activity in which renegotiating the rules as you play is part of the game itself. We not only expect wildly different things from different writers, depending on the situation, audience, genre, and era, but we read in the hope that a writer will flout our expectations in a clever way, or give us new expectations we’d never thought to have. There can be no “mastery” under these circumstances.

Read the rest of Christman’s review. It’s damning and infuriating – and a hot mess when you get to the obligatory “capitalism is the root of all evils” section – but thought-provoking throughout.

DIY Jargonectomy

Does any part of your job involve writing? Are you employed in the marketing, communications, or PR fields? Have you, in the last 72 hours, used incentivize in a sentence—and meant it?

If you answered “yes” to any of those questions, stop what you’re doing RIGHT NOW and read this list of 150 Business Jargon Fixes. Apart from a few glaring omissions—e.g. onboarding and turning ask into a noun—it’s about as comprehensive as it gets. And it’s helpful, too: Instead of simply providing a list of offending words and phrases, it actually offers ways to avoid sounding like a pretentious twit.

Thanks to B. for sending this my way. She knows me too well.

Dio benedica l’Italia

In the small towns of eastern Tuscany—where I recently spent the better part of a week—a cappuccino can be had for €1,20. That’s $1.32 at today’s exchange rate, or a third of what we typically pay in the U.S., according to USA Today.

And that cappuccino is amazing. Honestly, I’ve never had coffee so good.

The thing is, Italians seem to have a workmanlike approach to their coffee. There’s no fuss, no fanfare, no unnecessary flourish. It’s made quickly and it’s served at the proper temperature for drinking, which means you can either toss it back and continue on to your train platform or linger over it while you enjoy a cigarette.

I know comparing America to European countries is a tedious thing, but contrast that approach with the way we do things here. At a coffee shop in Mission Viejo a couple of weeks ago, I watched as the kid behind the counter spent a good ten minutes weighing the grounds, attempting some milk foam artwork—I say “attempted” because he ultimately overfilled the cup and had to do everything over—and finally delivering a tarry-tasting concoction that cost me $4.50. And the poor guy worked so hard at it that I felt obligated to tip him.

Did I mention that tips aren’t expected—or accepted—in Italy? At least they weren’t where I was staying.

It’s funny how we Americans just can’t leave well enough alone. A cappuccino—equal parts espresso, steamed milk, and milk foam—really can’t be improved upon, yet in our zeal to differentiate ourselves or to outdo the competition or to loudly proclaim our individuality, we mess it up.

Oh, and another thing: I have no idea where the coffee beans in Italy came from. I’d see the occasional Lavazza or Illycaffé logo, but that’s about it. Walk into a coffee shop in America, though, and you’re assaulted on all sides by self-righteous messaging about how what you’re about to drink is fair trade, organic, shade-grown, responsibly farmed, and hand-crafted by Certified Oppressed Peoples™. That’s cool, I guess. But I just want a cup of joe.

Yeah, I know there’s more to Italy and America than coffee. But man, what a stark difference in how the two countries approach something so simple. And as far as cultural signifiers go, it’s a pretty big difference.

This weekend is supposed to be chilly.

With a cold weekend ahead, why not just decide now to head over to the Greek Festival (if you live in or near Spokane), grab some to-go heavenly grub, and hunker down this Friday night watching THIS:

Season 2 (ALL of season 2) out on Netflix as of Wednesday. You will not be disappointed. Pinky-promise.

God Bless America

Just got back from a glorious two-week vacation, during which time the missus and I drove more than 3,000 miles, camped, hiked, flew to Italy for our son’s wedding, had In-N-Out for breakfast, watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, and made pilgrimages to a couple of filming sites—one for the 1960s Batman TV show, the other for the film Stand By Me.

What can I say? We take our time off very seriously.

It feels good to be home, though—back to a regular schedule and a normal diet and walks with the dog and the usual chores and responsibilities. Plus, after spending even a little time in a foreign country (more on that later this week), it’s…comforting to know that some things back home will never change.

Like, say, mysterious cattle mutilations. No entry wounds, no bullets, no major lightning storms in the area, no outward signs of a struggle, no scattered hoof prints, no strangulation marks, no blood. “The bulls, said a rancher, “look like they simply fell over and died”—except for the missing tongues and genitalia, of course.

My money’s on aliens (obviously), but I wouldn’t rule out murderous cults—in which case it might be a good idea to resurrect the Satanic Panic. You know, just in case.

Either way, it sure is good to be home.

Because, mountains.

A trip home was long overdue, especially one filled with family, fishing, glaciers, hiking, and camping. And my visit last week to Alaska did not disappoint. After meeting my sister, her fiance, and my 2-year-old niece in Anchorage, we made our way to Seward, up through Talkeetna and Denali National Park, and on to Fairbanks (my hometown). (Fun fact, Talkeetna had a cat for their mayor, Stubbs, from 1997-2017.) Though the weather was already similar to late-October in Spokane, the chilly air and changing colors were more than welcome – it was absolutely perfect hiking weather. To avoid the crowds of end-of-season tourists in Denali, we took off on a 7-mile hike that started outside the park and traveled inward called Bison Gulch. Was it hard? Yes. Was it windy as hell? Yes. Did I complain? You better believe it. But damn…you can’t beat that view.

Joel (my SO) halfway through the hike looking back at the park entrance.

A few more because, Alaska.


Seward, Alaska


Hiking to Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park.


The Tanana River, outside of Fairbanks, Alaska.

Life Lessons from Peanuts

As a kid, I didn’t just look like Charlie Brown—I was Charlie Brown: loser, misfit, blockhead. Probably why I loved reading Peanuts so much.

It’s also why I enjoyed Bruce Handy’s essay on the “absurd precocity” of Charles Schulz’s nihilistic comic strip, adapted from The Peanuts Papers: Writers and Cartoonists on Charlie Brown, Snoopy & the Gang, and the Meaning of Life.

“On some level,” Handy writes, “Charlie Brown’s relentless suffering comforted me, a lightning rod, I think, for my own anxieties about my place in the world—Peanuts as catharsis, as worst-case scenario, with the awaited thunderclap of laughter substituting for the reassurance of a fairy-tale happily-ever-after.”

If I were a better writer, I could have written that sentence myself. But here’s where I part company with Mr. Handy. Sure, Peanuts taught me that life is cruel and people are terrible (lessons borne out pretty much every day, it seems), but it also reminded me that there’s beauty in the world. And beauty, wrote Dostoevsky, will change the world.

Like Charlie Brown, I’m still hoping.

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