The dumbest criticism of writing I ever hear

Book reviews are great places to see people say dumb things. Some of those dumb things are also common in message board posts, comment sections, and ordinary face-to-face speech. I have a passionate loathing for “dumb things everyone repeats as if they were automatically true,” but this one is the dumbest of the dumb:

“Profanity is a sign of a limited vocabulary.”

The ability to rub together four brain cells would dispel this bromide at its birth, but since that ability seems so lacking, let’s perforate it once and for all with a volley of logic bullets.

In the first place, while I have been accused of many faults–some, with cause–a small vocabulary has never been among them. I don’t normally brag about it because it’s nothing for which I may take credit; it is the residue of fifty-one years of avid reading, 99% of which I enjoyed with gusto. I also have active vocabularies in foreign languages ranging from five to five thousand words depending on the tongue, with inactive vocabularies rather larger. There are few times to show off in an effort to humiliate someone, and that would be one.

I swear. I curse. I use bad words. I use them in speech and writing. Do I have a limited vocabulary? Pretty certain I do not.

People swear for many reasons. Some do it to release frustration. It’s better to swear than to break something, hurt someone, or bottle it all up inside. It can be used to intimidate, and intimidation is not always a bad thing. Some people will not do the right thing except when legitimately frightened, and a bad word or two says “I do not care what you think of me.” Some do it for comic purposes. Some swear just because it happens to feel good right about then. Some would not get through freeway and arterial traffic with sanity and language purity both intact. Some do it for effect in writing. I am sure you could think of other cases.

None of those reasons speak to a limited vocabulary. Claiming that swearing does so indicate only announces one’s own lack of reasoning capacity. Nice going. Look, if it offends you to hear or read profanity, just admit that it offends you. It’s okay to be offended. I’m offended by the foolishness of the claim about limited vocabulary, and I’m not going to apologize, so if you want to say that profanity offends you, fine. Be offended when you feel it necessary.

In our single-bit binary logic republic, perhaps a fair number of people will look at that and say: “Ah, so you advocate unlimited profanity without restraint. Classy.” Now that’s going from the frying pan of dumbth into the fire of stoopid. I advocate nothing of the kind.

In speech, as anyone not jumping into or out of frying pans of dumbth will grasp, times and places occur where profanity is appropriate or inappropriate. On the phone doing business? Mostly inappropriate, unless the situation is special. If my listing agent calls me to tell me that the buyer has bilged out of the deal for a stupid reason, and I have a long, collegial relationship with that agent, I may be entitled to a cussing-of-the-situation. If I’m calling the sheriff’s deputies to request their assistance, and there’s no reason for me to be worked up, gratuitous profanity would be a lousy idea. Let’s say I’m making a sales call on the Sisters of Perpetual Outrage convent; I probably shouldn’t drop bad words on Mother Superior, nor even on Daughter Inferior.

In writing, the rule would be: depends on the situation, but on balance one should consider profanity a chip one may play when and where it will have best effect. Like em dashes, ellipses, italics, caps, adverbs, passive voice, and all the other quirks that bad writers seem to mistake for ‘style,’ profanity loses its effect in high concentrations. Like all those chips, profanity has its place in the language. Its place is not in formal historical writing, for example, nor in a legal brief, nor in a cover letter. In a travel narrative? It may have its place. In fictional narrative? Same. In dialogue? If credible. How could one write credible stories involving bikers or ironworkers without profanity? “You better walk that stuff back, you child of a prostitute, or I’ll kick your backside!”

Telling people when to curse aloud is beyond the scope of what I do, but I can speak to the place of profanity in writing. The best approach I can suggest is: consider appropriateness and effect. Have you been burning lots of chips? If so, you should not tack on another bad habit. If not, then consider whether the likely impact is worth burning one of your precious deviations from good orthography. Would this naughty word make a real difference, enhance your narrative? If it would, let fly. But don’t do it just to indulge yet another lazy novice writing habit. Don’t waste the chip.

Admit it: you were waiting to see whether I would swear, weren’t you? Why would I? The goal of this article is to educate and persuade (with the secondary goal of shaming, in a few cases). Profanity would not do that. It would be as trite, predictable, and amateurish as the typical Facebook meme.

Not that I am incapable of triteness, predictability, or amateurism, of course. I’ve even been known to combine the three. I would like to think I rarely use them without reason. And I don’t need profanity to curse out the mentality that imagines profanity a sign of limited vocabulary. It would be fun for me, but less persuasive.

That is the point.

 

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Pastards

There are many types of clergypeople. I’ve learned in life that most broad human groupings divide roughly into three parts.

A third are failures, or purely evil. In some fields–where they ruin many square miles, steal millions, terrorize thousands–I’d be okay with humanity taking them out to a ditch and coming back without them. In others, less in a position to do serious harm, it would be better to pay them not to work (thus keeping them out of mischief) than to pay them to show up and ruin the workplace. An alarming number of the purely evil tend to rise to great power. As one moves among a trusting, ignorant populace, a complete lack of ethics will permit this.

A third are all right. They’ll never shoot the lights out with greatness, but they will do the job. They will meet expectations, and they will not willingly do evil. They will have shining moments, but their worst moment is never as awful as the daily lives of the failures and disasters.

A third are the best people you’ll ever know. Bright, hard-working, often both; considerate of the world around them; having recognized their talents and weak spots, and having acted to handle both correctly. Some are mothers who raise multiple kids on their own and amaze everyone how great the little ones are. Some are the police you see kindly giving the confused elderly man a ride home. Again. Many quietly do great things daily and you and I never learn about it.

Thus with most of humanity, and thus it is with the clergy.

A third are some of the best people we’ve got. They come nearer sainthood than most people one will ever meet. They have given up much of what other people seek in order to help people, achieve a higher state, make a difference. They often do all three.

A third pretty much do what clergy are supposed to do. They hold the proper services, hear the proper things, play back the religious party line. They’re clergy, and they mostly go out and clerge.

A third are the pastards.

The pastards subgroup into two categories: those who try to tell the world “you can’t do this because it’s against my religion” (in other words, those who are pastards because they insist that non-flock members be required to obey the rules of their flock) and the megapastards. The megapastards have enormous places of worship, Denalian wads of cash. The megapastards long ago lost any connection to real life, except as it relates to milking money out of those living real life. Megapastardy is not always entirely monetary. Billy Graham said to my future wife, in person, when she asked what to do about her abusive then-husband: “You made your bed; you have to lie in it. Go home to your husband.” I hope Billy Graham had a very embarrassing, painful, soul-crushing long goodbye. He was a megapastard. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, later rebranded as “Osho” in order to help people stop dwelling so much on the fact that his followers launched a biological terror attack against Americans, was a megapastard. Pastards harm few, however virulently and invasively; megapastards harm many.

Of course, there is often great overlap between the different types of pastard. The Ayatollah Khomeini was both. However, a lot of bad clergy have short political reach. If they were better at marketing, and more outgoing/brassy/photogenic/connected, they might aspire to be megapastards, but they’re stuck at the First Christlike Pure Fivesquare Gospel Church of Jesus Almighty Bible Power in Hoedown, Indiana, pop. 78. It takes a lot of business savvy to make the jump to megapastard. Likewise, the neo-pagan high priestess for whom it has become about power and control and adoration has no chance to be a megapastard. Not that she wouldn’t jump at the chance.

A megapastard is someone that induces people to give him or her money so s/he can supposedly do religious work, and who then hogs most of the money for him or herself. It’s usually a him. And the surest sign of a megapastard?

When everyone around him or her is impoverished or stricken with some terrible disaster, and the megapastard has the material means to help improve many of their lives, you will know the megapastard because s/he will never volunteer to do so. S/he may be shamed about it, and realize that giving in to the pressure is the cost of staying in the megapastardy business, but the megapastard does it only grudgingly.

What the megapastard will do most ostentatiously is to lean on his or her flock to join hands and contribute way too much of what little most of them have, telling them that it is their spiritual duty. Better they be further impoverished than that the megapastard worry about one of the yacht payments. And you know that the megapastard will take full credit for their generosity, as publicly and loudly as possible, making sure of course to collect a percentage as a small handling fee. You don’t understand! This costs money!

Pastards are why we should end the religious tax exemption. The greatest share of lost tax dollars kept by religions do not benefit the public. The greatest share benefit megapastards.

The only thing I can think of to do to pastards is stop listening to them. It follows, therefore, that megapastards should mega-not be listened to, given to, or shown respect.

Every time some Pollyanna tells you “everyone deserves respect,” point to a megapastard, and ask if Polly really means that. Bet she doesn’t.

Irish at me

Weird sentence, isn’t it? But that’s how you say ‘knowing the Irish language’ in said language. Tá Gaeilge agam: “Irish is at me.”

Very many years ago, I studied Irish with a druid group led by my longtime friend Domi O’Brien. She has been studying and teaching Irish for what appears to be most of her adult life. While I never attained much proficiency, I wasn’t her worst student in a very challenging language.

More often than you might suppose, people ask me why Irish is so difficult. Since I’m up to my ears in brush-up, so that Irish may be at me when I visit the country itself (in which only about 25% of the population speaks any, and in which first-language immersion exists only in enclaves out west), let me go ahead and run with it. Here’s why Arabic and Russian, which use different alphabets, never rattled me as much as does Irish.

Before we go further, let’s talk ‘Irish’ vs. ‘Gaelic’ as the proper term. While Gaelic sounds really, really cool and I myself would rather it were the right term, it isn’t. The Celtic language family numbers six, neatly split into the three each of the Brythonic and Goidelic branches. The Brythonic languages are Welsh, Breton, and Cornish. The Goidelic family comprises Irish, Scots, and Manx. Yes, ‘Goidelic’ relates to ‘Gaelic.’ Thus, ‘Gaelic’ could describe any of those three, and that might be ideal: Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Manx Gaelic. But the owners of a language rightly retain the sovereign power to confer its name, and the Irish people refer to Irish just so. I’m supposing that, to them, that it is a Gaelic language is perhaps so obvious it need not be repeated on each mention. Thus if you really, really, really would love to call it ‘Gaelic,’ great–see if you can get the actual native speakers to go along with you. Let me know how it went.

In my not terribly educated opinion, the Latin characters are an odd fit for the Irish language. It would make the most sense for Irish to have its own indigenous alphabet, in my view, but it does not (at least not now). Takeaway: you can not trust a letter in an Irish word to have the expected phonetic value based on English-speaking assumptions. One must learn a whole new set of sometimes counter-intuitive phonics. Fh is silent. A leading Gc is G. Mh is a V or W, depending. Ch is what I call a ‘chutzpah H,’ the throaty hock version in a somewhat lighter Irish way. Bhf is usually W, sometimes V. That is a minority sampling. So, welcome aboard: here’s not a brand new alphabet, but much more challenging–a redefinition of your existing alphabet.

Irish does not have the words ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ Ever hear an Irish person answer something like ‘Were you visiting’ with ‘I was’? One answers in the affirmative or negative with a sentence. Are you home? I am not. Was the trip difficult? It was. Would you like some tea? I would. Does the car run? It runs. One cannot just learn to get by with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Irish, because the words do not exist.

Irish has what I believe is called a vocative particle, which you might think of as an ‘O…’ word. You might render it as ‘oh,’ ‘hey,’ or even ‘yo,’ but it is not optional in Irish. Cara is friend. My emails to Domi begin with A chara, literally ‘O friend.’ If she addressed me by name (Seán, in Irish), she would render the greeting as A Sheáin. And it would be pronounced ‘ah HYAWN.’ I am not making this up.

Why the extra h? asks the observant reader. Because of aspiration, also called lenition (I’m told the latter is the more precise term). All those Hs you see littering Irish? Most are the equivalent of diacritical marks that modify the sound of the preceding letter. They matter, but they are not pronounced as English Hs in most cases. The vocative mentioned above is only one situation in which aspiration is obligatory–but only for those dozen-odd letters which experience aspiration. Thus, A Nóra (O Nora), but A Mháire (O Mary). To say ‘good morning’ to our B&B lady in Tralee, Mrs. O’Neill, I said: “Dia duit, a Bhean ui Niall.” (“God to you, Woman O’Neill.” This gave her evident delight, as it delights so many Irish speakers to hear a foreigner say a single intelligible sentence in the language. That I’m not Christian is of no consequence to the propriety of the greeting.)

That sensation in your brain is your head beginning to explode. This is normal. This is the point at which most of you will say ‘hell with this, I’m out.’ I understand, but if you do, you’ll miss out on the parts where we really wallow in pain. We haven’t even conjugated any verbs yet! (Let’s don’t and say we did, as my father used to say. The fact that the positive and negative forms can conjugate differently might be a grammar too far.)

The other form of initial mutation in Irish is called eclipsis. About a dozen letters may be eclipsed in certain circumstances, mostly the same dozen as may be aspirated (in different circumstances, naturally). One eclipses a starting letter by prefacing it with a consonant and pronouncing that letter rather than the eclipsed one. For example, C is eclipsed by G. Thus: A chara, ‘O friend;’ this is also how you say ‘his friend.’ But: a gcara, ‘their friend.’ The first is said ‘ah HAH-rah;’ the second, ‘ah GAH-rah.’ Ever seen the Irish version of Donegal, Dun na nGall? ‘DOON na NALL.’ G is eclipsed by N, and in this case eclipsis is obligatory.

Now imagine looking words up in a dictionary. Unless you know about the initial mutations, you won’t even know where to go. You’ll go to look up mbord and it would not be under M. You can’t even progress much in Irish without understanding these, you see.

Oh, it gets more fun. Irish is hyperdependent upon prepositions, some of which do not have direct, precise English correspondences. If you have ever studied a single foreign language, you know that the translation of prepositions rarely breaks along the same lines from tongue to tongue. In Irish, this is true but more so: Irish doesn’t use a verb ‘to have.’ Everything is on one, at one, with one, etc. Now you understand why I titled this post so. To know Irish, in Irish, is for Irish to be ‘at’ one. As earlier, ‘I know Irish’ is Tá Gaeilge agam, ‘there is Irish at me.’ Ag is mostly ‘at’ and here you see its declension (declension is like conjugation, but for non-verbs) to mean ‘at me.’ When I want to say I am joyful, I say Tá áthas orm–‘joy is on me.’ A similar construction is used to tell you if I am cold, ill, and so on–but the proper prepositions vary a bit.

Since ‘to be’ is handled so differently from tongue to tongue, you would expect Irish to handle it in some weird way unlike anything else you had ever seen. Irish, like many languages, has two verbs ‘to be.’ Except that–this being Irish–the second is, strictly speaking, not a verb but rather what we call a copula. It has nothing to do with sex, except perhaps to help one realize that one is truly screwed. In some situations calling for a form of ‘to be’ (for starters but not exhaustively, those conveying identification or definition, such as ‘I am an editor’) one must use the copula form rather than the existing functional conjugable verb ‘to be.’ So there’s that. This isn’t quite the same as the Spanish method of having two different ‘to be’ verbs, but the concept is not far away.

It doesn’t have as many tenses as, say, Spanish, but Irish does have the usual load including moods: present, past, future, and imperfect (‘was doing X’) in the indicative; the conditional (‘would do’), and the usual imperative (command; “Do!”), past participle (‘had done’), and verbal noun (‘doing’ as in “it’s in the doing”). A dozen or so of the commonest, most necessary verbs are irregular and require memorization in all forms; true of very many languages. To make verbs even more fun, some forms change depending on whether the question or statement is positive or negative. “Was it…?” is asked differently than “Was it not…?” To make this much more entertaining, often the difference is that one form requires eclipsis or aspiration; the other either does not require any mutation at all, or requires the other form of mutation. Just have to learn them.

Anyway, that’s what I’m up to lately, twice daily, twenty minutes at a pop. Anchoring important words to the active vocabulary surface of the vocabulary log pond lest they sink back to the inactive bottom, usually through repetition aloud: “I dtaobh; ‘about.'” If you can enforce the association on your mind, you will at least begin to recognize the word when you see it, giving context a fighting chance to prompt you.

This would be the point at which those who kept reading might think, “This would drive one insane, and I’m not joking.”

YES.

The labyrinthine fen that is Irish grammar would be enough to drive one to madness, to drink, to write like James Joyce.

If you not only understand that, but think it’s kind of neat, you should definitely take up the study of Irish. The few, the proud.

New release: Blue Ice, White Powder, by Jack Moscrop

This free travel story, in which the author summits Mont Blanc with his friends, is a recent release. I was developmental editor.

Jack, an English adventurer with a personality that radiates goodwill, came my way via Shawn Inmon. Shawn is one of the rising stars in self-published fiction, a field in which the reader has to kiss a lot of toads. (Believe me, because I’m the guy who gets the job of test-smooching.) Shawn seems to meet a significant number of people who are like him in that they have sincere desires to improve their writing work, and I’m honored when he suggests me as someone who could help them.

It was especially great seeing Jack walk through the shop doors because I’m a travel writing enthusiast. Not that I have to enjoy the subject matter to do my job, of course, but it’s nice when I do. Jack had me work on a couple of shorter pieces, and upon evaluating the first one I dropped a large bomb: I wanted him to change the verb tense of his presentation. In many cases, such a dramatic recommendation results in an answer like: “Or I could change editors, in hope of finding one who will tell me more what I want to hear.” Not Jack. Presented with the reasoning, he buckled down and did as I suggested. Now his voice was clear, and we could get somewhere.

What Jack didn’t and doesn’t need is help with describing the natural world. Early on it became obvious: he was the hands-down champion of descriptive language. Not even most well-known travel authors do it as well. All right, Mr. Editor, what do you do now? I asked myself. How do you give guidance to improve a talent that well exceeds your own? That’s why I like my work. It has the potential to present me with situations that will require me to elevate my own game if I hope to be relevant. I could not assist my client much in shaping his best weapon, but I could help him decide when and how to wield it.

I came to understand that Jack had expected a harsher experience from editing, because at one point in the first story he in essence asked if I’d pulled any punches. This is the sort of question to which one has at least some grounds to take umbrage, but I don’t believe that one should. Especially in the early stages of the relationship: if what the author gets is not the pummeling he or she expected, what is there but for him or her to ask the question? I answered in the firm negative. In the first place, I explained, this would be a gross dereliction of my duty, my profession’s equivalent of treason. Jack is a British accountant in real life, so it was easy to supply the stigmatic analogue to embezzlement. In the second, I’d just told him to do a complete recast of his first story before I could even render an opinion. Didn’t “go rewrite the entire thing before I can even begin to help” convey sufficient pain?

My reassurances pierced the fog of uncertainty, but it’s a useful thing to know about editing. Some writers are not expecting much in the way of kind words from us, and may not know how to take them. While I’m prepared to be waspish where I think it will help, I’m not here to crush someone’s soul. I’m here to help someone improve. In some cases, that is best done with wry humor, such as: “Now may we all rejoice. Your characters have learned the secret of teleportation.” The moral is to do it for effect, for camaraderie, for a desire to help–but don’t do it just to be mean, nor to look all properly grumpily editorial. ‘Needless jerk’ does not qualify as a professional philosophy. Just because the world has a stereotype of editors as the bean counters of literary products doesn’t mean that we must prove this true. Some doctors are like Charles Emerson Winchester, some are like Hawkeye Pierce, and some are like B.J. Hunnicutt–all of which M*A*S*H characters only resembled the medical stereotype to some degree. Yet on the show they were all superb doctors. Thus with editing: one keeps one’s eyes on the prize. If one believes that the author’s initial paragraph guarantees that the story will fail, one must so state. If one believes that the author has just written a loathsome sentence, one does not need the word ‘loathsome’; one might use one’s own writing talent to say, “This sentence simply must be rethought afresh, and this time lacking in flaws X and Y.”

In any case, Jack now believes that I’ll throw a tomato when he needs it, and that’s all to the good, because he also believes any praise he receives.

One great challenge facing the author of any narrative, fiction or non, is the decision of descriptive depth. How much detail does the reader want and need? Not everything needs exhaustive detail, or is worth the investment of crafting prose that conveys subtle shadings from rose to periwinkle or magenta. A primary character needs enough defining detail that the reader may fill in the rest of the picture. The traveled landscape needs enough that the reader camera can imagine a place on the trail where something of note occurred. A special sight, one the reader’s mind would not concoct, needs the kind of description that is in Jack’s power when he takes off the governors and lets rip.

In the case of Blue Ice, my first look focused on the areas where there wasn’t enough detail. This is why it’s hard: the author remembers the scene as it was, the story as it occurred. Now he or she must reconstruct it for someone who begins with no visual, no sense of dimensions, nothing. How does one place one’s mind back into the mindset of knowing nothing, then filling in the features as the author mentions them? It is very easy to underdescribe, to forget what the reader does not know. It is another pitfall to overdescribe, to take away all mystery and reach the Plane of Pointless Blather. That’s where I come in, because I’m also a reader. If I can’t figure out what the author means, I go back and re-read it. If I still cannot, I suspect the reader also could not, and I note that for my client. Often it helps to note the picture that my mind did paint, which may be erroneous, but that mails the missing piece that my client needs to supply.

The second look focused a bit more more on details of people, and there was some need to re-stitch some of the seams of continuity that now became apparent, but Jack had brought the tale a long way. I knew this was going to be good, and we moved toward publication. We still didn’t agree on the title, but if the reception continues to be good, this may not have been a detractor. Outcomes speak for themselves, of course. About the biggest thing I had to get out of him was a full-on description of what it looked like at a breathtakingly climactic spot in the narrative where, for some reason, he had chosen that spot to keep his marvelous descriptive facilities in the psychological camera case. After a polite version of “What the hell were you thinking? Of course they want to see this!”, he remedied it exactly as one hopes when one tells a real artist: “No limits. No guidelines. Create. Let’s see what you can do without restrictions. Own this.” Oh, he did–and he makes it look easy.

If you like adventure travel, I am confident you will wish to keep an eye on Jack’s work. Bill Bryson doesn’t even come close; Jack’s unpretentious humility and signal good nature leave Bryson choking on clouds of powder snow. It’s a different style from Tim Cahill’s or Tim Severin’s, thus fresh and interesting for its own sake.

This one is free, and can be had in numerous formats. Enjoy, for I think it quite likely you’ll say: I would have paid real money for this.

Eclipalypse 2017: Oregon is Doomed, Damned, Sure to be Destroyed by Barbarian Hordes

On August 21, 2017, a total eclipse of the sun has been scheduled for the United States. The timing is inconvenient in some ways, pretty nice in others. For us in western Oregon, where the eclipse will make first landfall, there is benefit in that our oft-overcast skies are likeliest to be clear in summer. If the eclipse had been scheduled for January, no one in western Oregon would get excited; the odds of seeing anything but two minutes of darkness would be minimal.

Since we no longer have education to speak of, I suppose I have little choice but to explain what a solar eclipse is. A solar eclipse occurs when the moon (which must necessarily be ‘new’ at this time) gets between Earth and the sun. Since the lunar disc is just a bit larger than the solar disc from our perspective, for about a hundred seconds the spot of totality is plunged into nightfall. As Earth rotates, of course, the current spot of totality rolls eastward. In this case, it will begin off the Oregon coast and pass through southern Idaho, smack across Wyoming and Nebraska and Missouri, then across Tennessee and South Carolina. The totality spot is seventy miles in diameter; the closer you are to its precise center, the better the show. The farther you are from the path, the farther from totality your view will be.

Oregon has a population of four million, and her authorities are in Eclipalypse Panic Mode. They expect a full million people to swarm into the state, mostly in the western part (I live about an hour north of the totality path). To hear them tell it, we are all going to die horribly. Power will fail. Cell phone towers will be overloaded. There are already no places to stay; farmers are renting little pieces of pasture for big money. All roads are to be so gridlocked that you could easily end up running out of gas (which of course will be unavailable) and dying of sunstroke when your A/C goes out while stuck on the I-5 traffic, emergency vehicles completely unable to reach you, the 911 system in collapse. The governor has called out the Oregon National Guard, and I’d bet she’ll summon the State Guard as well. Sensible Oregonians who cannot afford to flee now are committing suicide after a last meal of cruelty-free quinoa salad with a side of suburban guilt. There are quite a few preppers in Oregon, and I’m sure they are all battening down, locking and loading.

I think it’s hilarious, except of course for all the garbage people will throw on the ground (I hope the Oregon State Police catch and prosecute every single litterbug). The traffic may make Portland traffic bearable for once, with so many people drawn an hour south. Yeah, the roads should be busy down toward the totality path, but most people will go away that same day. Would it be smart to fill up one’s car beforehand? I will. Should we prepare to run screaming into the two minutes of misplaced nightfall (beginning around 10:15 AM)? I find the notion amusing. Have you all yet built your sandbag forts? Why not, you fools? We are all going to die, right?

What a fearful society we live in. Ever stop to ask who can profit most from keeping you in constant terror of your fellow humans?

Worth your time, sometime.

I doubt we are all really going to die. But I’ve been through a total eclipse. This is the first one in a long time that passes across the full width of the United States, but it’s not the first one in my lifetime to pass over part of the nation. We had one when and where I was in high school, and based on that experience, I can help prepare you for what it’ll feel like.

  • The occlusion of the sun’s disc takes a couple hours to reach totality, and a couple more for the moon to get completely clear after totality. During the before-and-after, the sun is still pretty bright, but it’s dangerously easier than usual to gaze at. The authorities warning you to be careful of imitation eclipse glasses? Believe them. The problem is that, especially if the disc is just visible through overcast, it’s easy enough to stare at the sun long enough for permanent eye damage. Even when it’s easy to look–most especially when it is–treat it as if this were not an eclipse, taking suitable precautions. It’s not worth going blind over.
  • Because this whole process takes about four hours, a lot of eager beavers will get in position very early, see the full onset of occlusion, and be bored stupid by the time the eclipse is total. See, an eclipse doesn’t have any sudden drama except for the short period of full totality; the rest of it is gradual. Once it’s over, I expect most of their attention spans to be well past exhaustion, and that’s probably when the traffic will really blow. I’d say expect about an hour of pretty slow going after totality, after which it should ease up.
  • No matter where you are in the path–even in a city–you will be amazed how many animals are around you of which you had no idea. As totality approaches, for about half a minute, the daylight will fade very quickly to a dusk. For the animals, this dusk is happening way off schedule, and it rattles the hell out of them. They will all speak up at once, and it’ll amaze you. The sudden nightfall will occur after that, and the animals will truly be freaked. If it’s not overcast, you’ll get a good show in the totality path. We can’t normally see it, but the radiant energy from the sun extends out at least as far as the width of its disc. When totality ends, you get a dusky dawn, then daylight again. With the disc itself covered up, in darkness, you can see the full corona (as we call this radiant energy). I didn’t get to see it due to overcast, but I heard they saw quite a show out at Stonehenge.

And therein lies a tale.

I attended high school at a very small place in south-central Washington. The area is sparsely populated and received minimal overrun from eclipse hunters, which is partly why I think the Eclipalypse Panic is overdone this time. Some thirty miles from where I lived, there stands a tycoon’s full-size concrete conception of what Stonehenge must have looked like before rocks began to fall off one another. Sam Hill built this replica as a World War I memorial, not far from his mansion, and it offers breathtaking overlooks of the Columbia River as well as several other solemn war memorials at which one may pay tribute to locals who lost their lives in American service.

I was raised by a family of religious fanatics whose psychological stranglehold I would not escape until my mid-twenties. When we heard that a bunch of weird hippie pagans were going to go out and have a ritual of some sort at Stonehenge, I accepted the conventional wisdom: they’ll all probably get naked, have an orgy, load up on LSD and likely OD, stare at the sun until they go blind, and not understand what’s wrong with all this, all while clawing their faces off in the throes of bad trips. As we were in the path of totality, we ourselves did not need to travel to Stonehenge or anywhere else. A friend from school came up to our front yard to watch it with me, a good excuse to play hooky for the morning. In our callous teen male manner, intolerant of difference and immune to empathy, we joked how it would serve the doped-up weirdos right. Dumbass hippies.

I did mention, right, that it was a pretty small town?

The eclipse itself was a damp squib, as I mentioned, and we all went about our lives. Now advance the clock a dozen years, give or take, bringing me to the age of perhaps twenty-eight. Not long before, I had broken up with my ex-fiancée (and we all know how that turned out). A few years earlier, I had left Christianity and become a practicing Wiccan. Go ahead and say it, whatever it may be; I have it all coming. I’ll take my due hazing. I was studying Irish with a druid group led by my (then-new acquaintance, today longtime friend) Domi O’Brien. A scholarly lady of legendary hospitality and generosity, Domi hosted (and still hosts) amazing feasts to accompany spiritual events. Her sons have since grown into the wise, compassionate men I expected they would.

At one such event, I met a delightful lady named Cyndie. She was from Oklahoma, with a comforting gentle drawl a bit stronger than my own part-time rural Kansas twang. Her interest in me was obvious if decorous. This adjective is not always the case at pagan events, where there is often a shortage of obviously masculine straight males. There is absolutely zero in Wiccan culture to shame women from taking any initiative they might deem fit. Put another way, any straight, single young man in paganism doesn’t have to take a lot of initiative of his own in the gender relations department. If he’s not a complete jerk or moron, the only reason he’s going to stay by himself is by making an obstinate effort to do so. I wasn’t making an obstinate effort to do so.

Cyndie being a few years my senior, and a somewhat old-fashioned Midwestern daughter, when I mentioned my many times cleaning eave-troughs at the ranch with Grandpa, she saw her opening and played her best card. She told me that her house’s eave-troughs were well past due for a cleaning, but she just could never make time to get up there and do it.

Well, you don’t have to hit me over the head with a mallet. You all know the drill: the man gallantly offers to come over and do the dirty, unpleasant job. After pro forma protests, the woman agrees with thanks. She would not have invited him anywhere near her home if she didn’t feel pretty good about the whole situation, but the only certain thing is that she’ll make up a nice hearty dinner which they will share. Anything else that may occur depends purely upon how they both feel. This has probably been going on since Homo erectus, when demure young Ugha hinted to testosteroney young Gruk that the rocks in her firepit were misaligned, and perhaps he might find time to come over and straighten them up.

The eave-trough job turned out to be much worse than I expected. The ladder was in poor repair and a couple of rungs broke, once nearly dropping me all the way to the ground. It poured, of course, triggering her gallant duty to offer me absolution from the muddy, chilly task. The script called for me to carry the job through at all hazards and discomforts. (This satisfies the woman that the man is stupid enough, or interested enough in her–or both–to put some pain and broken skin into the game.) But before we even got to that part, I got the first shock of my day when I stepped inside her front door.

On her living room wall was a large painting the size of a modern big screen TV. It depicted a crowd of robed backs and mostly hooded heads gathered inside Stonehenge. Above them was a sun in a state of total eclipse, corona splattered about the black central disc.

Captain Obvious was on point, of course: “Oh. That’s the eclipse in 1979 seen from Stonehenge!”

“Yes,” said Cyndie, pointing in sequence. “That’s me, and over there is Isaac Bonewits, and here is Shadowstar Breakwind, and this is Silver Raven Moontime, and…” (Not actual names, those last two. In Wicca, there seems to be a hard and fast rule that everyone must incorporate into one’s pagan name as many of the words ‘star,’ ‘shadow,’ ‘silver,’ ‘raven,’ and ‘wolf’ as one can arrange. Other words are allowed in the name, provided at least one of those five is in use. Otherwise, it’s a foul.)

How much can shift in a dozen years. Before, I had dismissed a bunch of people I’d never met, all based upon inherited prejudices and juvenile arrogance. Now I was not only one of ‘those people,’ I was on a dinner date with one.

Cyndie and I dated for over a year. We weren’t really fated for the long term due to very divergent ideas on life, but it was a good time; she remains the only former flame with whom I keep in some contact. I can still hear that gentle Oklahoma drawl in my mind; she is a considerate, warm, and wise lady who taught me a lot. And I did do a good job on the eave-troughs.

I’d better, or my grandfather might reincarnate and start critiquing me.

Enjoy Eclipalypse 2017, all hundred and twenty seconds of it.

If we all die horribly, please send me an email informing me, so I can decide how to proceed from there.

The Facehole, and the hoarding world

Two things happened to me of late: my Facebook account got messed up, and I helped a friend with the prep for a hoarders’ estate sale.

The Facebook thing seemed like a bug. The system demanded I add a cell phone to my account, something I resist because in the first place go to hell, in the second because I don’t want my phone number in such a hackable place, and in the third because I don’t ever desire to have to rely upon Verizon’s text messaging to permit me to log in. I couldn’t bypass it, so I tried–and FB wouldn’t take my verification code. It behaved as though I had entered nothing. Eventually it threatened to punish me if I didn’t “slow down,” a warning that persisted even when I hadn’t tried it for nearly a day. In an abundance of caution, I took a guess my account had been hacked; I changed my password and clicked on some link to alert Facebook.

I vanished from my friends’ view. For all they could know, I’d blocked and defriended them. In the world of Facebook, I’d been grabbed by the hacks and thrown into the hole.

Facebook did not respond to a single email.

In the meantime, I kept trying. Once a day, I’d retry the login process. I also kept feeding more focused search strings into a search engine. I tried from three different browsers. Some of my friends e-mailed me; my wife notified as many as she could of my situation, and some helped by passing it on.

Facebook didn’t fix it; searching did. I finally turned up a slight FB variant site mentioned on a message board in direct connection with fixing my exact problem. It looked a bit different, so I knew I might have reason to expect a different result. Indeed so: I was back in.

Some have speculated that my criticisms of FB had come back to haunt me. I thought it far likelier that FB had declared war on people who used a number of effective ad blockers, but I didn’t put anything past them. There have been people who have, for no discernible reason, found themselves permabanned from FB with no right of appeal. By far the most disturbing aspect for me was the concern that I would lose touch with people, especially older people whose technophobia might lead them to jump to the conclusion that I had blocked them. How do you explain to all of six hundred FB friends what happened? Oh, sure, when you get back on, you can post, but some of the most technophobic will have hmphed and gone on their ways. I didn’t like not being in touch, and it’s fair to say that I value FB more than I once did.

After a few days I got used to its absence, but I did miss a lot of people. For many, it was the only way to get in touch with me. In time I’m sure I’ll find that I lost a few elderly game-related friends and referral friends (“omg you and this person should link up, you would love each other”), and I’ll get a PM or two asking me why I blocked them, then unblocked them, and how was I able to refriend them without them knowing it. I won’t try explaining. I’ll just tell them it looks to have been a bug.

One thing that happened while I was in the Facehole was that I got a visit from one of my oldest friends, an antique dealer who was in town for the Portland show and then had to begin work on the estate sale for a hoarder house. Being a little short on honest casual labor manpower in this area, my friend hired me to help him begin the shoveling process.

Hoarding is a frightening thing. In this case, both homeowners are now in assisted living and their descendants are managing their affairs. It took a lot of work just to clear paths through the home, which had been done before I got involved. The guy was a sort of Gyro Gearloose, and my friend assigned me to battle my way to the basement’s back wall. What an amazing experience.

Imagine this: several shelves full of loose fuses, gadgets, gizmos, gauges, light bulbs, gaskets, pieces of conduit, screws, wire nuts, switches, fossilized tubes of stuff, matchbooks, pencils, razor blades, tuning forks, and other crap. A bunch of the same dumped on the floor. Atop the loose stuff, many boxed and new versions of the same thing, most seeming to date back to the 1950s.

I gathered light bulbs of kinds I’d never even known existed. I gathered adapters and fuses by the dozen. I gathered pieces of conduit. I gathered up several huge pipe wrenches and many boxes of fussy little stuff. Thermometers. At one point, a large box containing a plastic bag was fused chemically to a pair of wooden blocks and a can of metal faceplates. The white stuff in the plastic bag had leaked. No matter how I might maneuver this awkward mess, I could not avoid rupturing the bag. Good thing I assumed the worst, because only then did I see the label on the now-exposed side: CORROSIVE: CONTAINS POTASSIUM HYDROXIDE.

In case you don’t know, that is near kin to the active ingredient in Drano. It’s possible that, in fifty years, all of it had reacted with ambient moisture or some other thing, but if you’ve ever had a caustic soda burn (KOH also goes by the name of caustic potash), you understand why I didn’t take that on faith. I told my friend to get some dilute vinegar and spray the area until nothing further foamed up.

Fighting my way through piles of electrical components and toxic chemical spills, I pushed through to the wire.

Much of the wire was remnant solid insulated copper, neatly coiled. I was an electrician’s helper, one summer long ago, and I never saw this much scrap wire around the shop. Stacked–if that were possible–it would have formed a human-sized column about 8′ high. My buddy’s clients are sure going to like the kicker of maybe six hundred pounds at about $2.50/lb., and on top of that, he doesn’t have to wait for estate sale clients to buy it.

At least they hoarded stuff like glass bowls and pipe wrenches and light bulbs, as opposed to yogurt cups, bags of trash, and rats. I’m a member of a Facebook support group for relatives of hoarders. It didn’t take them long to show me where I ought to count my blessings.

Old friends, and an investing epiphany

Live long enough, and even the somewhat socially awkward will accumulate a network of old friends with decades of experience in various fields. This is great for getting answers. When I have a question about physical science, I can contact a professor of physical science. Question about U.S. military history? I’m fortunate enough to know someone who teaches it at the collegiate level. Want to understand how a given firearm works? I can choose from multiple enthusiasts, none of whom need any encouragement beyond a hint of interest. Need an antique valued? One of the best men at my wedding has been in the business for thirty years. Question about the workings of a suburban police department? How about the deputy commander of a well-respected suburban police force? Real estate? In addition to agents I’ve worked with in three states, I could also call a friend and past client who made his career in the field. My uncle is a civil engineer, one cousin a retired petroleum chemist, another cousin a speech therapist, and so on.

The question is not whether one can locate the expertise, but whether one may fairly impose upon the friend. I’m not unique in this, nor even above the curve. I have this only because I lived to my mid-fifties without spending it all in a shack somewhere out near Glenallen, Alaska. Everyone else my age, except those who live in shacks near Glenallen, has at least as great a network. Those who got out more than I did probably have far greater networks, but I’m very satisfied with my folks. I wouldn’t trade any of you.

For them, it follows, I’m the old friend who edits. When they begin to consider doing some writing, it is quite natural that they ask me about it. I’m glad, because gods know I’ve bugged all of them often enough about this or that. If it comes to an actual project I’ll charge something, but advice is always free to old friends. Truth told, I don’t mind a bit. It’s rather nice that people would think I could help them understand something.

One old friend of mine is named Randy, and with some admitted contact gaps, we’ve known each other since college. Randy retired as a stockbroker with one of the big brokerages, and while in most people that might not mean as much, I’ve always known him as a maverick immune to peer pressure where he knows he is right. That tends to be true of me as well, so I found it easy to believe that he had knowledge and instincts on behalf of his clients that the average full-commission broker might not have had. Put another way, there aren’t very many such brokers I’d have steered anyone toward, but Randy would be the one.

Not long ago, Randy and I had a long conversation about investing. We agree in substance, especially in matters such as that people should remain within their comfort/knowledge zones. I told him I no longer buy separate issue securities, because while it’s possible I could develop the knowledge to do well at it, I know that I will not, and thus shouldn’t fool myself. I received a precious pearl of approval, which I will have set into a suitable mounting in a place of honor.

Maybe it’ll distract everyone from all the little tombstones representing my dumber investing mistakes.

While schooling me, Randy crystallized a realization that explains so very much: winning vs. losing, and the arithmetic. The instinct and habit is to look at an investing choice as one decision, to get right or wrong. It isn’t. Most investing decisions are based on some stated goal, even one as nebulous as “make money.” There are two decisions to make, and for an investment to meet or exceed expectations, both decisions must be right. There is the decision to buy (when/what/how much), and the decision to sell (when/how much) or hold (some or all). That’s a thing to consider: not to sell is also a decision.

If you are wrong 50% of the time, you will probably like your results 25% of the time because that represents the percentage of the time you will do what in hindsight turned out to be the right thing both times. That means that two times out of four you will likely be disappointed, and once out of four, you’ll probably take a straight-on bath.

If you are right 60% of the time, you will get satisfactory results 36% of the time, same reason. You are taking a hosing. About half the time, you will get one decision or the other wrong, with disappointing results. You’ll go splat big time about one time in six.

If you are right 70% of the time, all other factors being equal, you should be happy 49% of the time. You are still losing, though not by much. Slightly less often, one decision or the other will be wrong enough to disappoint. About once in ten, the disappointment will be great.

You have to be right just over 70% of the time just to be pleased more often than not. If you can arrange to be right 75% of the time, you will get a favorable result about 57% of the time. Not many people are that good. I’m not even close.

In the meantime, of course, the overall market does whatever it does. Goals can vary, as can strategies. This is a rabbit hole of exceptions, and I have felt the need to oversimplify this (yes, I am aware I am doing so), but the key takeaway is that there are two opportunities, not one, to screw up a given investment. A mistake in either case will probably cause disappointment.

Thus: even then, even being right three-quarters of the time, you’re pretty happy just slightly more often than not. Enough to matter, of course; enough to be meritorious, and definitely enough to offer a shot at outperformance over time. Your good decisions should outweigh your bad ones. And I guess if you are confident enough to feel you will be right 75% of the time, you probably should carry that through.

The minority of people who can achieve that success is small indeed. I have learned that I am not one. Many of the rest are more or less playing the slots in a different format. Whenever I find myself tempted, nowadays, I remind myself how much I despise gambling, and ask myself whether those glitzy casinos were built with the money people won. I suppose it’s like a former smoker who, when tempted to lapse, looks at graphic images of cancerous lung tissue: if that helps, go ahead.

And how often does one get to make an analogy between casinos and cancerous tissue? You’re very welcome.

For the rest of us, it’s buy and hold index ETFs all the way. We will generally not outperform, but we will get the market return less (very bearable) expenses. Even Jason Kelly, a noteworthy author and manager who has an excellent track record with stocks, has shifted entirely to a mechanistic method involving index ETFs. I’ve been running it in two different portfolios now for a couple of years, and I think it stands a good chance of outperforming because it takes the emotion out of the decision. The only free choice one makes is when to add more cash to the plan. From there, the entire course of events can be handled with a pretty simple spreadsheet and two trades per quarter per portfolio. You can learn more from his book on the topic.

Jason’s writing is entertaining and straightforward. My favorite part is the way he begins by politely butchering out the pundits who bray frequent predictions for which they are never held to account. It’s hard to imagine they can even keep writing, much harder to imagine anyone still wasting time on them, after Jason hits them with the literary equivalent of a fire hose loaded with ice water. He calls them “z-vals,” as in “zero validity,” and when he’s done with them they look like Leroy Brown at the end of the famous song.

You want to hate the media? Don’t hate the ones who are trying to tell you what has happened around the country and world. Start with the mainstream financial media, because they have hate coming. They get to tell you what will happen, be wrong on a consistent basis, and never suffer. They don’t even lose readers. Were you able to confront one, he (most of them are men; for some reason, it appears harder to find intellectually dishonest women) would tell you that doing your own research was your problem, and not to blame him. “If you believed me, it’s not my fault you were that big an idiot.”

Even the salesiest full-commission broker at Merrill Lynch has more accountability than that.

As for me, if I have to be right three-quarters of the time in order to do well, maybe I’d better keep my decisions in the comfort zone.

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