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Friday, March 28, 2008

Living On The Beltway

What does it mean to live most of one’s life in the suburbs of Washington, DC? The way I see it I don't live inside the Beltway, I don't live outside the Beltway, I live on the Beltway. "So what?" you think, "He is a typical DC commuter." Well, it is true that I've spent so much time schlepping (and sometimes schleeping) on 495 that I sometimes feel like mowing the grass between the inner and outer loops. But that's not it. Living "on the Beltway" is seeing the silly side of Washington, and sometimes the poignant side.

I was in sixth grade when I first moved into the Washington area. It was March and I felt out of place my first day joining an elementary-school classroom during the school year. Weird and ugly Betty (yes, her name actually was Betty) plops into the school desk right next to mine. I try moving my desk further away from her, but there's only so far one can go. Out of the blue she says, "I'm a Kennedy, you know."

I try to ignore her. She's fat, with stringy blonde hair, and she has coke-bottle glasses. She continues, "I'm a distant and poor cousin, but I got invited once to a White House party. I was playing in the kitchen with little Caroline, and the dumbwaiter stopped and opened right next to us, and the President was scrunched in it, with a woman, a blonde-haired woman." This was 1964. That conversation has stuck with me ever since. I thought at the time that she was the first insane person I had ever met, but weird and ugly Betty actually saw history. That is what living "On the Beltway" means: living among the little people of Washington (in this case, literally).

Like many of us on the Beltway, I've tried to get inside the Beltway. I was doing freelance writing for Senator Paula Hawkins. (Yes she was a Republican. Yes I was writing articles in favor of Reaganomics. No, I'm not a Republican.) After my fifth article for her, just when I thought I was going to get a permanent job on the Hill, she was shooting a film and a piece of the lighting fell from the ceiling and hit her in the neck. She had serious back problems from it and quit the Senate. There went my "inside the Beltway" career. Somebody up there didn't like me and obviously didn’t like her, but in our case it was the guy who sets up the studio lighting.

My son was editor of his high school newspaper. He attended a private school in the suburbs. The daughter of a Senator and vice-presidential candidate was on his staff. She rather obviously had a crush on him. He liked her too. But she was two years younger, she worked for him, it wouldn't have been appropriate. After graduating, though, as a college man, he came back to visit. He found her, he planned to ask her out. But she by now had a boyfriend and was no longer interested. On the Beltway, the Senator’s daughter is the fish that got away.

Every morning I see the ex-comptroller of the Defense department walking his dog. Without fail, the ex-undersecretary is reading the newspaper, not paying attention to his black and white mutt on a leash. But not this morning. Today (and yes this actually happened on the day I wrote these words), he was not there. When I arrived in synagogue, he was leading the services. The mother of the ex-DoD number two passed away eight days before. He happens also to be an ordained rabbi and he was saying mourning prayers for his mother. --On the Beltway poignant.

These are just a few of my "on the Beltway" stories. The father of a guy who probably would have been John McCain's Secretary of Defense told me his son grew up playing with toy soldiers and never stopped. An ex-boss of mine said how he loaded hundred dollar bills onto trucks to save the nation's banking on "Black Thursday." A beautiful older woman I work with was arrested breaking into the Capitol's men's sauna to tell William Proxmire that LBJ wanted him on the floor to vote for the Civil Rights Bill.

This is just a touch of what it means to live on the Beltway. I don't have much choice but to follow the political news very closely. One can't help but become involved in the life of Washington. One absorbs the politics through the pores.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What They Should Teach In High School English

This was written to my son, after seeing that he was not learning how to write in high school. I thought it would be worth while sharing it on my blog:


You probably don't know that I studied writing with several excellent professional authors, including one, J. R. Salamanca, who made millions of dollars at it. He was a student of writing style, and he made certain his students learned it well. Working on my own fiction, I've come to appreciate what he, and the other writers, taught me.

Most Americans write abysmal prose. Most English teachers through high school are mediocre and do not teach their students how to write properly. Son, I am very proud of how bright you are. You earned an 800 on the English Writing SAT II. So I was stunned, after looking over the essays you wrote this year, that no one ever taught you how to write. You know how to structure an essay. You have no grammar mistakes. Your use of rhetoric is fairly good. But your sentence structure, your word choices, your syntax, and your writing style in general show that you never learned how to properly string words together. You tend to learn what you are taught. If someone had tried to teach you how to write, you would know how. I am creating this because I am shocked by this major gap in your English education. I've decided that if the people we pay to educate you don't teach you English, then I have to.

For every sentence you ever write, you need to consider each of the points that I am including here. You should work at drilling these ideas into your head so they become habit. If you have to think about all of it as you select each word you use, writing will become too much of a chore. Like any other habit, it has to be something you do without thinking, but you have to do it.

I'm putting this together from my own head. I think it might be better this way, more personal, than if I relied on reference material. I'm probably leaving out much that you should learn. But it's a start. It will improve your writing. (There is a lot of reference material, by the way. Remind me to get you your own copy of The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. It has some odd biases in it, but it's short and easy to read and will teach you a lot. It’s usually referred to as “Strunk and White.” Every writer needs to read it at least once. If you decide to become a professional wordslinger, then you also need to read Fowler, and perhaps Foster, and the GPO, MLA, and Chicago style guides. I have most of this in the house somewhere, or perhaps at my job.)

Here's my list, somewhat in order of importance.

  • For every word you write, after you've written it, look at it. If you can come up with a better word, then use the better word.
  • For every sentence you write, after you've written it, look at it. If you can do better, do it.
  • As you examine each sentence, consider the verb. If it does not convey action or something that can be visualized, ask yourself why not. Try to restructure the sentence so that you use a visual or action verb. If you can't, think about deleting the sentence. Verbs should slap the reader awake. If your verbs are boring, your readers will fall asleep. If your verbs are confusing, readers will stop reading.
  • Listen to every word you write. If you remember hearing it anywhere in your previous two or three paragraphs, it will make the reader think of a misplayed note. You don't want your reader to notice poor writing. Your readers should not laugh at you. They should laugh only when you choose to make them laugh. So, try hard not to repeat words that you've recently used (other than articles, prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, and "to be" verbs).
  • Listen to your sentences. If your rhythm is noun-verb-predicate, noun-verb-predicate, noun-verb-predicate, then you are composing a waltz, not prose. The same holds for repeated noun-verb-predicate-conjunction-noun-verb-predicate conjunction sentences, or really any constantly repeated sentence types. But don't overdo mixing your sentence structures. Most of your sentences should be short. Think of Hemingway's favorite sentence: "The horse smelled water."
  • Use pronouns wherever you can. This prevents you from banging your readers on the head with the same nouns over and over. (But make sure, of course, that your pronoun references are clear.)
  • Whenever you see yourself using a preposition (in, of, by, for, and a whole lot of others) or a subordinating conjunction (because, while, though, so, etc.) stop! Try to get your idea across some other way. Everyone has their own personal flaws in their writing; this is one of your biggest. Your prepositional phrases have prepositional phrases and your subordinate clauses take subordinate clauses. Prepositional phrases are tough to avoid, but try to. Think of gerunds and participles instead (look them up). Avoid subordinate clauses (and most conjunctive clauses) by splitting up sentences or just rewriting your sentences.
  • Try to use adverbs and adjectives sparingly. Rewrite your sentences to use better verbs and nouns. Note that "The horse smelled water" has no adjectives or adverbs. It has two nouns you can visualize and a verb describing something you do zillions of times a day.
  • Think of your prose as if it were poetry. Every word is important. Every word should convey an image or an action the reader can appreciate. Every word should sound good in relation to those around it. Be conscious of the rhythm of the words.
  • Use metaphors to clarify complicated ideas. Metaphors color your writing, making it more fun and interesting. BUT, be very careful when using them. Make them appropriate to what you're saying. Do not mix metaphors. If you have a metaphor in a short paragraph, don't use another unless it relates to the first. Algebra metaphors go with geometry metaphors. French fry metaphors go with hamburger metaphors. Trig doesn't go with chicken nuggets. Using one metaphor as a theme for an entire essay sometimes adds cohesion and power.
  • If you hear yourself using a phrase or a metaphor you've heard before, throw it away before you make your reader throw up. Those aren’t metaphors; they’re clichés. Unless you are P.G. Wodehouse, who plays with clichés on purpose to be funny, stay away from them.
  • Use odd combinations of words to add power, but do it very rarely. It jolts the reader and makes the reader notice the writing, which is something you usually don't want to do. But on rare occasions, it's a neat affect. For example, instead of mentioning a weighty question, you might say, "He let heavy seconds drop between them before he responded to her question."
  • From the level of an entire paper, it will usually help if you add one or perhaps two of the following: passion (something that you and/or your reader can care deeply about), something personal (to which your reader can relate to the same extent that you do), or one pervasive metaphor or several flowing similar metaphors that hold an entire work together.

The more I think about this stuff, the more I come up with ideas to tell you about. But I want to keep this short so you’ll read it and remember some of it. Also, the next time you have an English paper, maybe you’ll look at this before you start and it will make your paper better. So, I left out a lot of “elements of style” that you could probably find in Strunk and White if you want to learn more. But keeping what I’ve written here in mind as you write should improve your writing an awful lot.

Your father

Picasso Self Portraits

I commissioned an artist friend of mine to create a self portrait. I put this together to encourage him to actually do it (to the best of my knowledge, he mostly does caricatures for kids today, when he's not creating proposal graphics). I thought it interesting to put this onto my blog, and I'll be very interested to see what comments it gets, if any. (Actually, I call my friend Picasso; the past seven times I sent him email I put one of these next to the salutation. For the eighth one, I put them all together, since I felt it wasn't appropriate to send him "Facing Death" by itself.)

Here's the full set.
Picasso Self Portraits

First Self Portrait Charcoal Sketch Blue Period 1906 Also 1906 Facing Death

Although I don't really care for abstract art, IMHO the most abstract one here, "Facing Death," might be the most powerful. The blue period is great, but then so are the first three. It's very interesting seeing them just as faces approximately the same size.

There's a wonderful collage of morphing Picasso and Van Gogh portraits, many of them self portraits, that you might want to check out at this link.

See my own self portrait on this blog at Self-Portrait-Pencil-Sketch.