Dear Ophelia, part one

The trip was, in a way, misbegotten.

Maybe it fits well that I drafted this account in a hurricane that appeared destined to centerpunch our location.

Like most people in the modern age who are comfortable with computers and the Internet, Deb and I handle our own domestic travel arrangements. It isn’t that hard, and a travel agent can’t offer much value helping you plan your dream trip to Wichita. We knew the travel agency industry was in decline, but for a trip to Ireland using some unfamiliar means through an unfamiliar entry point, we felt it was of value to consult a specialist.

Nah.

We went to one of the longest-established travel agencies west of the Willamette (the river that divides eastern and western Portland, Oregon), and contacted the individual billed as their Ireland/England specialist. On everything we could as easily have done ourselves—flights, car rental, hotel nights at the airport—she seemed to perform fine. All that remained was to pick out two cottage stays, a week apiece. We had given her a three-week window and asked her to time our two weeks of travel so as best to fit the cottage schedules.

That seems logical, right? Flight day, jetlag airport hotel stay, then pick up rental car and head for cottage. Week later, transition to next cottage. Departure day, drive to jetlag hotel, drop off rental car, enjoy last day in town using mass transit, fly out in morning.

She sent us three options for cottages. In all three cases we thought perhaps we could do better, and asked for more options. What naïfs we were. We waited patiently, and time marched on. Options were disappearing daily as places booked up. After a week’s strained patience, we contacted her and asked could we please move this forward. She made a number of unverifiable excuses, the kind of plausible deniabilities one usually hears from people who have learned how to lie by habit, including that she had not forgotten about us. I grew uneasy, but presumed that she would not simply cease to bother helping us to complete our plans. A blistering review online—and if I may say so, when a professional writer wants to blister someone, he or she knows how to make sure the marks hurt like hell—would be exactly what she did not need.

It is a weakness of mine to underestimate human stupidity, laziness, and shortsightedness until nearly too late. I show no signs of improvement.

After another week, she sent us a batch of .pdfs of cottages, nearly all without prices. A rather important bit of information, one would think, and I contacted her to explain that this was hardly workable. She ignored me. I went over and over in my head: had I done something wrong, somehow alienated her? Or, more likely, had she just decided she had gotten all the money she cared about, and that we could now fuck off until her convenience allowed her to deign to finish booking our trip?

I was sure I had been very restrained and non-alienating to this point, but in case I had somehow been socially ham-handed, I asked Deb to take over the interface. Deb got no better response, not even with a message for the owner. Now we saw that the firm’s rot seeped from its leadership. After one full month since first meeting and arrangements, and with barely that long to go before departure, and no further anything from the agent or her chieftain, we realized that we must book our own cottage stays. All right; go to hell, lady, we’ll muddle through without your expertise.

We soon learned that she had botched the flight dates. Irish cottages typically run on the calendar week with Saturday as the beginning and end, and she had scheduled our flights so that the two weeks did not fit calendar weeks. After checking dozens of cottage prices, we learned was we were welcome to book an available cottage any time that suited us, but that each cottage stay would mean paying the equivalent cost of two full weeks. It would transform about a $650 experience into well over $1100, exactly the sort of blunder we had expected a travel professional to avoid. As I’ve often said to errant vendors (especially contractors), if I wanted it all fucked up, I could have done that all on my own without professional assistance.

It was either change the days off, the flights, the hotels, and the rental cars, or swallow the cost. The flight alone would be problematic to change without a large cost.

Nothing for it but to pay up and hope, and we did. Our plan was to fly into Dublin (mistake #1; we saved a lot of money we later wished we had not, as Shannon is far easier to deal with), hotel stay, then pick up the rental car and take it deep into the wilds of County Donegal. That part at least went well enough, and after overcoming the lunacy of getting out of Dublin with right-hand drive, we were free and making for the village of Leitir mhic an Bhaird (in Irish; say it, LAY-chur WICK-a-word, in English, Lettermacaward pronounced LET-er MACK-a-word).

Ireland doesn’t have much freeway kilometrage, but most of the roads have good enough surfacing. There often is no shoulder, so there’s the rock wall or dropoff to avoid, and oncoming trucks can be harrowing when their right tire is over the line and won’t move. It took about four hours to reach Leitir, as locals call it, complete with confusion over directions to the cottage. This being a Gaelteacht (Irish-speaking area), some of the signs are in Irish alone, some bilingual. Our turnoff was at a place called Dooey Beach, and had I not seen the sign saying ‘Dumhaigh’ (roughly, ‘Dooey’) and figured out that part, we wouldn’t have known where to go.

The cottage had a number of disappointing aspects; no Internet (I admit that failing to note this in advance was my bad; I had been very flustered), an odd mixture of interactions between electrical devices (where you had to turn on this switch over here to make that device work, but please kindly turn it off as soon as you are done), an absentee owner, and a local caretaker who seemed put upon, leaving us to figure out much of the house for ourselves. We gave serious consideration to just leaving and finding B&Bs, but we decided to buck up and make the best of it. There we were, on a one-lane country road without Internet service, a forest behind and north of us, a pasture to the immediate south with rooks (think of a crow with a light gray beak) scavenging all around the livestock, and not much of anything in near walking distance except an elementary school. Oh, and an obviously closed-up bar. There had been a bar just after the Dooey turnoff, though, which looked like about a ten-minute walk. Fine.

One way you know you’re in a Gaelteacht: the school zone signs are in Irish alone. Just south of our cottage, painted on the road in big letters:

AIRE (AR-rah)

GO MALL (guh MAWL)

SCOIL (SKULL)

“Attention, slow, school.”

Over the next few days, we explored western Ulster by day. By night, we became part of the scene at the local pub; we’ll get to that later.

One of our trips was to the southwest Donegal coast, to visit the cliffs of Sliabh Liag (‘SLEEVE LEAGUE’; I am not going to render all the Irish names in English as well, but I will help you say them right). Great slate-layered rocky upthrust headlands gazing down talus slopes and sheer faces into the North Atlantic, with coppery sheen in the broken black stones at your feet, astonishingly white quartz chunks here and there, and of course Ireland’s ubiquitous grazing sheep. One might say, with justice, that any attraction where there is no risk of stepping in sheep crap isn’t very Irish. True to form, one had to pass a gate posted with a fógra about keeping it closed in order to avoid letting the sheep out.

I had better explain about fógraí, which means ‘notices’ or ‘warnings’ (depending on how one chooses to take them). At antiquities, the Fógra advises one in Irish and English that the site is under the protection of some state ministry, and requests visitors’ aid in preserving them. It then advises that there are severe penalties for doing the opposite. Last time we visited, Deb and I picked up the habit of giving each other ad hoc fógraí as we perceived each other’s demeanor and actions demanded it.

Another day, we took a drive up to Ros Goill (ROSS GULL), a narrow rocky peninsula sticking out of north Donegal. On Donegal’s coast, which is part of a long drive called the Wild Atlantic Way, it’s hard to find an ocean view that does not offer some kind of holy-shit-you’ve-got-to-see-this scenario. That happened to be my birthday, a fact which my treasonous wife revealed of course to our waitress during a wonderful early dinner in Dunfanaghy (dun-FANN-a-hee). Irish food has gotten a lot better since the early 2000s, though hotel bar pints are still the soured monstrosities they once were. Guinness does not travel, and responds badly to long supply lines not merely between keg and tap, but brewery and delivery.

Other trips took us to Beltany Stone Circle near Raphoe, the Giant’s Causeway in north Antrim, and Killybegs, an important port for the North Atlantic fishing fleet. The latter had delicious seafood, eaten in sight of the giant looming trawlers. We will have a lot to say about the Causeway later; what has been done to it, and to other Irish signature sights, deserves its own cross-hairs.

Back in Leitir, I learned why Guinness traveled badly by asking at Elliott’s Bar… (To be continued)

 

[The title is a stupid self-indulgence. Stupidly self-indulgent titles are a peeve of mine, and I deal with them in clients on a regular basis. The client thinks she has just come up with the coolest title ever. She should kill this Faulknerian darling, but she will not, so she ends up with a garbage title. In this case, the title is stupid because it barely says anything clever about the story, and in fact is just a lyric from an Abney Park steampunk song. It’s like the author had only heard two instances of the word ‘Ophelia’ in his life and decided that somehow they deserved connection even when every reader would be left asking: “and what was the point of this?” However, I went through a lot to bring you this story, so I am stupidly indulging myself in this, covering the privates of my indulgence with the fig leaf of intellectual honesty.]

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An abnormally long absence

I do not normally go this long without posting.

Here’s what happened: I was preparing for international travel. It is clear to most people that if you are about to leave your home for a couple of weeks, what you don’t do is announce it to the entire world. That invites criminals to come visit you.

Deb and I were in Ireland. I did not post from there for a number of reasons:

  • There was no Internet at our first week’s stay.
  • The Internet at our second week’s stay was glutinous.
  • About halfway through, Deb grew very sick, and I had other things on my mind. As she began to improve, naturally, I got sick.

Having to spend fourteen hours in aircraft seats, plus seven hours sitting around airports, doesn’t do much for a sick person–especially one who has not had access to familiar remedies. When I got home, I was ill enough I could not sleep reclining, and every cough created a ripping feeling all the way up my trachea. A couple of times I even coughed up tissue. In short, I have not really had a very good time since returning.

I do have some material I composed in Ireland (when your wife wants only to lay around and suffer and be helped by you, you have a lot of leisure time), and will sort it out and publish it as I regain strength. For now, that strength is limited but improving daily. I also have some client work that is due soon, and I trust the reader to appreciate that such has first claim upon my finite energy supplies.

Thank you for your understanding. I have not forgotten my regular readers, and I am grateful for each of you.

The dumbness of single-bit binary logic: everything that is not this, is not necessarily that

My bro JT, one of the most unconventional thinkers I know, has long commented upon the problems with single-bit binary logic. I understood this, but I’m embarrassed at my failure to process it until very recently.

In binary notation, everything is a 0 or a 1. They is a this or a that, as the old umpire used to say. This is a base two system, and it is the basis for digital electronics. If you don’t know what base two means, that means there are two numbers before you have to start a new column. We count in base ten, logically since we have ten fingers.

Binary notation works fine as the basis for our electronics. In the world of humanity and issues, where things are rarely so clear and exclusive, it is an indicator of feeble-mindedness. Consider: “If you aren’t for us, you are against us.” “If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” Stop and think, as I believe in doing any time someone trots out a glib saying repeated so many times that people assume it wise. This is dumb. Just because I am not for you does not mean I am against you. If you’re dumb enough to construe me as your enemy because you can’t bully me into signing onto your cause, that’s your problem and mistake. And just because I am not participating in a solution does not automatically signify that I am part of the problem. I may be neither. I might be a little of both. I might be in the process of using my brain to make up my own mind without consulting you. And this attitude isn’t adding luster to your side, I might add.

The fundamental problem with single-bit binary reasoning: it allows only two categories, choices, alignments, what have you. When applied to a human issue, that’s feeble-minded. It oversimplifies the human condition down to a moronic level. It works only for those who yearn to be spared all nuance. Is Bill Gates an evil man or a good man? He made a fortune by monopolizing our computing environment with increasing mediocrity. Then he decided to retire and use his wealth for such good causes Warren Buffett said “here, take mine, too.” He left behind his company still doing all the same things, growing more mediocre by the year, but no less monopolistic. Hate or love? Respect or disrespect? It is not so easy. It confounds feeble thinking. It makes modern America’s brain hurt, so its members just apply selective amnesia. They derided him back when his software company was strangling every possible competitor, and he was an evil guy, but now that’s old hat and he is a good guy. Nuance is hard. Absolutes provide comfort of the shallowest kind.

Look at the United States’ political system, which embeds and defends single-bit binary logic. If you aren’t one of these, you are one of those. This is idiotic. There are lots of things to be other than those two. Single-bit binary logic works fairly well on life and death (it’s very rare to be neither dead nor alive, I’ll concede), sports events on the field (can’t really play for both teams at once, I’ll go along with that), and other such clear-cut situations. Most matters of opinion are not so.

Thus it is with public demonstrations. Not every failure to join in a public demonstration of homage amounts to disrespect. Only single-bit binary logic can conclude that it does. Suppose that my national anthem is on television before a hockey game. I could choose to stand, interrupt my activities, pay attention, even sing the song: that would be respectful. I could choose not to pay attention, but to avoid doing anything overtly self-indulgent or gross. I could talk with someone about the imminent game, look at a magazine article, or simply sit in silent passivity; that would be somewhere in between. Or I could choose to scratch my groin, flip off the TV, use bad language, drink cheap beer, chomp tortilla chips, and/or make a snide remark; that would be disrespectful. It’s feeble-minded to think that all non-respect is disrespect, just as it is feeble-minded to think that all the different forms of respect can be conflated into one term.

(One of these days I will go into depth on that. There is the respect born of fear (s/he can and might hurt me), that born of affectionate regard (s/he has done great deeds I admire), and that stemming from positive regard without affection (s/he may be a bastard, but in some ways I respect him or her). In some situations, more than one may apply in some proportion. Our error occurs when we fail to qualify what we mean by respect.)

Single-bit binary logic works fine for dogs. If you are a dog, I recommend it without reservation. In most cases, a dog not mistreated either likes you (you are best pal for life) or hates you (you are intruder, competitor for scarce affection, etc.). My friend Jim had a rather ratty little dog named Willie. Willie liked everyone. I mostly don’t like dogs, and I didn’t like Willie. Willie didn’t care; he liked me.

(And lest you think Willie had no importance, let me tell you, Willie was an impact player in one of the funniest pizza-related instances in the history of the faux-Italian menu. I think I’ve told that story on here. If I have not, I must. If I haven’t, you are permitted to rag on me until I do.)

Why are so many issues presented to us in single-bit binary logic? Because it’s easy–and because it makes us easier to manipulate.

Who’s a good boy? Good boy!

How to fix your self-esteem problem

This can be done.

I got to thinking about it while reading yet another forum post by a Lost Soul wondering why he didn’t have any friends, why people stood him up and showed him little consideration. It looked pretty straightforward: he had low self-esteem. The other theoretical explanation, that he was an asshole, does not work in practice. Assholes have all kinds of associates, even friends, and people might be less likely to stand them up. Assholes might be assholes about it, after all, and people tend not to want to stir that up. So as I see it, we’re back to low self-esteem: they do not esteem him because he does not esteem himself.

All right, fine. He doesn’t esteem himself. He doesn’t really think he amounts to a lot. He may tell himself he does, but he doesn’t feel it. Maybe he’s afraid it would bring out a latent narcissism (I can think of people I wish would have considered that). Maybe he’s let the world tell him what opinion to have of himself. However one looks at this, it’s all too simple to say and quite another thing to do: “Then treat yourself with some respect, and people will respect you more.” That’s like telling a fat person to exercise more and eat less food. Certainly it is correct, but if it were that easy to break bad habits and establish new ones, we wouldn’t need a whole medical specialization in bariatrics, a drug rehab industry, or eternal therapy for neurotic people.

Okay. Let’s assume that a person who is consistently ignored, disregarded, stood up, not considered by others has probably conveyed a lack of self-esteem. If it’s not so, my advice won’t hurt. If it is so, this might help.

You can’t get self-esteem from others’ approval. It comes from within; whether it’s a conscious choice, a value judgment after examination, or just ingrained from youth, no one can confer it on you. It’s self-administered and self-maintained if it has any validity at all. Likewise, no one can take it away unless you grant him or her that power. If you grant someone the power to determine your self-esteem, I submit that it’s not your own to begin with.

Whatever the case, you can’t wait for it to come from anyone else. What they offer is not self-esteem; it’s their own esteem of you. They can esteem you with a mighty esteeming and you can resist it if you wish. Or you can accept it, consider this handled, and then learn that your supposed self-esteem can be taken away as easily as it was given. Only self-esteem you confer upon yourself gives you the power to veto anyone else’s attempts to damage it.

Let me also present this: in order to esteem yourself, you must not have a terminally bad metric for value. If nothing you could do would make you think better of yourself, then any such effort is gutshot until you decide that you would permit a path to better self-esteem. That too is a choice. No one can make it for anyone. Nothing I can write will make it for anyone. Anyone bound and determined to loathe him or herself will always find a way.

If you buy that, here’s what I propose: do anonymous good deeds.

Do small good deeds. Do them a lot. Do them as a way of life. When you cannot do them anonymously, do them with minimal fanfare and the simplest possible ‘you’re welcome’ for any gratitude. If need be, ask of the recipients only that they never mention it again (very good in the case of monetary aid). When possible, do them for complete strangers you’ll never see again. Do them for humanity at large, or the environment: pick up that litter, wave to those kids (even though you live in a big city and big-city coolness more or less demands you act like a self-absorbed ass), take your shopping cart back to the collection area.

Your massive-ass grocery shopping takes an eternity in front of that young guy just buying a six-pack? Ask the checker to tack his charges onto yours. You knocked a bunch of crap off the grocery shelf? Pick it up and put it back. Leave good tips and give retail service people kind words. If they do really well, tell their supervisors. When you sense that you’re about to bitch about something where bitching won’t help anyone, swallow it this time. Make a regular habit of doing a lot of little things, and some bigger things, that you can respect in yourself. Be the kind of person you respect–but do most of it where no one else will see or know or praise you. You’re doing this to earn your own respect, not theirs. If they respect you anyway, fine, but see that for the potential pitfall it is: their respect, while kind and probably sincere, can distract from the real reason you did it. They could withdraw that respect as easily as they proffered it. It’s nice to have, but at the core, you did it so that you could look back at the day and say, believing it: “I did good. I lived my values today.”

You could esteem that in yourself. Made a habit, it would sink in. You’d like that person. You’d respect that way of life. You’d esteem you.

And if it doesn’t work? If you still don’t like yourself? Then you know have rigged the game against yourself in the way I described earlier. In that case, since it’s your game, you’ll be needing to change the rules. Rules that say “I can respect myself when I brighten others’ lives” are perfectly reasonable.

And what when you are treated with disrespect? Stop wanting that person’s respect. Letting the same person keep disrespecting you, and wanting him or her to change, signals permission for everyone else to do the same. Bear in mind, that doesn’t mean you have to ruin your work environment, go nuts, end up in jail. It just means you don’t want what they won’t offer. Go about your life. Don’t make plans with people who dump your outing as soon as something better comes along. Don’t make efforts to make the office snob happy. Don’t offer a place to stay to people who don’t treat your home with respect. Do your work, live your life; do good things because you respect them in yourself, and do good work because you respect it in yourself. It’s true that we teach people how to treat us. It’s also true that if we do not treat ourselves well, others learn that they also may mistreat us.

There is a very toxic person in my life, one I cannot readily erase from it. This person has always talked as if I were the bee’s knees, but has for many years behaved so as to provoke me whenever possible. This sort of dichotomous conduct is par for that course. This person knows all my buttons and had (yes, past tense) regularly completed his/her own toxic circles by jabbing at them. This person is mentally ill and there is nothing I can do to change that–nor is it my job.

What I could change was my judgment on that person: his/her utterances, actions, attitudes. The key point for me was where I realized a thing about judging: the reason not to judge wasn’t that it was fundamentally bad or wrong or not my right. Screw that. I am perfectly entitled to judge bad behaviors, and there is nothing morally wrong about it. However…by judging the behaviors, I opened the door to the toxic manipulation. I’m entitled to judge, but it wasn’t working in my favor. It was leaving me vulnerable.

Only when I no longer judged the mentally ill behaviors did I learn to let them wash past me. Now this person has no idea how to relate to me. The vending machine is eating the quarters. Maybe s/he will learn better behaviors; more likely s/he will not. Either way, it is not my problem. This person must own his/her own problems; I already own enough and can’t add new ones.

How I reacted, and why I reacted (or more accurately, did not react), were the point. I didn’t do it to change this person. This person cannot change, and I was foolish to hope otherwise. I did it to change myself, to liberate myself. It was what a self-respecting person should do. I didn’t respect in myself the feelings that came up after those interactions, and I had to find the key to their banishment. I think it’s the same way with wanting people’s approval. If we live in ways and make choices that give us reason to approve of ourselves, esteem ourselves, respect ourselves, people’s approval is a nice-to-have but doesn’t control us.

I know another toxic person who is a career ass-kisser. Literally, in the career part of the term: this individual made a living for decades marketing instruments by sucking up to unbearable assholes, treating them as though they were the most important persons in the world, enduring all their disrespect without ever daring complain or walk away. Over time, ass-kissing became this person’s fundamental identity. AK, as I will name this person for short, was also famous for giving things away. No one could outdo AK in giving, which was not the same as generosity. AK was trying to buy people–friends–by kissing ass and giving them stuff. If you knew AK, AK told you how neat you were, how great you were, and tried to load you down with stuff. AK probably never gave anything anonymously in AK’s life, because the point was that AK wanted to buy people’s favor. Doing so anonymously would only be a good deed; what would be the point of that?

After a while, AK and I stopped seeing eye to eye because I didn’t respond to the constant overpraise and layers of bullshit. I understood that it wasn’t sincere; bullshit was simply the way AK rolled, and if AK’s current bullshit level wasn’t getting results, AK kept dialing it up. AK was not used to people who declined excessive gifts; AK felt most comfortable when AK had ‘bought’ someone’s ‘respect’ or ‘friendship.’ A person who could not simply accept all the bounty–who recognized it for the toxicity it was–made AK very uncomfortable. A person who attempted to reciprocate (the act of a self-respecting person) sent AK into orbit. AK’s game was to always be the giver, and that is pure toxicity. Anyone who can’t receive can’t give, and vice versa, because there is giving in all receiving and receiving in all giving. AK doesn’t really give; AK bribes. AK doesn’t really praise; AK sucks up.

AK doesn’t have very much self-esteem. AK lives a fearful life, dwelling on the slightest negative feedback, always trusting the wrong people and often betrayed. AK has been in therapy for decades, and it doesn’t seem to be doing much good. When AK’s spouse of many years just walked away, AK did not understand. Had AK not done all the requisite things? Had AK not kissed sufficient ass? Had AK somehow managed to give insufficient material things? Whatever AK’s spouse had most wanted in life, AK had not provided it, and when the kids were grown, AK’s spouse got out. Maybe said spouse had decided that decades of toxic relationship patterns were enough. Maybe said spouse had self-esteem, a thing unknown to AK.

When AK retired from the first ass-kissing career, s/he began a second one. Life without kissing ass was unthinkable; ass-kissing had become an identity. Some people are manipulators, some people are tough, some people are cold, some are cuddly; some suck up. All AK’s esteem came from the people with whom AK shopped for it. Sometimes it was genuine; other times it was a facade. In the end, nearly none of them will stay bought. In the end, AK does not esteem AKself, and neither will the people AK has tried to buy esteem from.

I am glad to have distanced myself from AK. Had I kept associating with such an individual, it would probably have drawn me into more toxic cycles. The last thing we need is to add more of those to our lives.

It begins with doing good things, but always for the right reasons: because they are meritorious, acts that speak for themselves in the way they validate our self-concepts. The fewer other people that know who did them, and the less accolades they bring, the better they work. If I were independently wealthy, I’d just go around wiping out medical bills with several layers of anonymity between myself and the recipients. From those who have been blessed in life, more is expected. You’d be surprised how little self-esteem some of them have. Or not, considering that celebrity suicide is a thing.

There. If you want self-esteem, stop lamenting over the way people treat you. Go get it in a way over which no one on earth has a veto.

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.

 

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.

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