June 2007



Cindy McCainA really ridiculous typo from the nation’s most important newspaper The New York Times on page A22 of the Los Angeles edition. Here’s the quote:

But Mrs. McCain is clearly not interested in having her husband take a beating at the expense of his family or enduring accusations about his briery temperament.

“Briery?” What the hell is that? Is that a word? Could it mean “thorny,” as in a brier patch? Nah. I think it’s just a really bad misspelling of the word fiery.

Well, my favorite dictionary tells me there actually is a word briery! The root word brier is defined as “a prickly plant or shrub,” so it could actually make sense. Is the NYT being super clever and willfully obscure? Impressive!

Briery McCainStrangely enough, there’s a 2nd definition of brier which is “the woody root of which is used for making tobacco pipes.” Okay, I remember those pipes. My father even tried to sell them at some point in an ill-fated mail-order business scheme. The attic was filled with unsold pipes, boxes of tobacco packets, and some pretty impressive preprinted sales materials. My Dad took on the persona of fictional “Lou B. Meyer,” not a great name in the world of sedentary pipe-smoking. In fact, I’m picturing a fat, cigar-chomping 1930s show-biz mogul for some reason… In any case, isn’t a guy named “Lou” not to be trusted at all?

This 2nd definition has no adjectival variant. So I guess it would be untoward to take a leisurely drag and utter, “Hmm, this pipe is a little too briery for my tastes. I’m more of a Meerschaum man myself.”

Even stranger, there’s the other brier, which is spelled briar. I recall this because of some cartoon character who was associated with the Briar Patch. Was it Br’er Rabbit? What was Br’er Rabbit? Some of these things are just on the thin edge of memory. A friend of mine recently jogged something loose in my subconscious about a cartoon character named Odie Cologne. I obsessively watched this character in my young childhood, but it was laying inert at the very bottom of my soul until now. I certainly couldn’t tell what the context was until she told me. It was a show called The King Leonardo Show, later called The King and Odie. It ran from 1960 to 1963. She was asking me if I recalled Mr. Wizard, which rang a bell but is such a generic name, I imagined there have been hundreds of Mr. Wizards throughout television history.

When she showed me the images, especially Tooter Turtle (I didn’t remember his name) I almost got sick. It was like I was slammed back into age 4, sitting on the cold black-and-white checkered tiling in my basement in Colonia, NJ. It was such a precise and deep memory, that it effected me physiologically, causing me to shudder. I saw the pictures of Leonardo and Odie and remembered exactly their voices, clear as a bell in my mind. The images of the detective, the cop in the tiny helicopter, the elephant who could fly by dint of his rotating tail… go to this web page to see what I’m talking about. My stomach is hurting right now looking at those images, but it is an ecstatic pain, bittersweet that I had forgotten these cartoon friends but have now recovered them. Impossible!

Where were we? Oh, yes. The Briar Patch. So Wikipedia tells us the 1946 Disney movie Song of the South was based on three Br’er Rabbit folklore stories, one called The Briar Patch. So perhaps they showed that movie on TV when I was a kid. Who knows?

Ziggurt in UrLook. I’ve been pissed lately (but I kept it to myself).

The New York Times keeps using the word “Mesopotamia” with regard to Iraq. Are they being cool-retro, as in thousands of years cool-retro? Or do they honestly not know that the place has been called “Iraq” since about the 6th Century? Or am I the dumb bell, not knowing that one of the Iraqi provinces had recently been renamed in honor of the Ancient Near Eastern empire? I had to find out.

I had last circled the June 22, 2007 front page where the Inside feature blurb stated, “But only one American soldier has died in the operations in Diyala Province, where 300 to 500 fighters for Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia are believed to be hiding.” I felt like this was the last straw, so I circled this one and tossed it on the To Do pile on my desk. Actually, my entire desk is one big To Do pile. So I finally got around to it tonight.

I went to the Times’ website and ran a search. There were lots of hits on the word, so I narrowed the date range. The first hits that didn’t seem to refer to Mesopotamia, the ancient kingdom, seemed to be coming in around 2005.

I then noticed the phrase “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia” kept coming up, not the word in isolation or in different contexts. The NYT of October 25, 2004 was the first use I could find of this term: the abstract tells me it is the new name of aMesopotamian Icon militant band led by Jordanian fighter Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.”Mesopotamian IconMesopotamian Icon

Aha.

I wanted to see if this usage was what triggered the Times’ barrage of Mesopotamias everywhere.

It took almost 8 months for the revitalized empire’s name to catch on. In fact, it turned up twice on the same day, July 10, 2005. First, it turns up as:

Representative government may, just possibly, still take hold in Mesopotamia, but neither Larry Diamond, a researcher at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University who was called by the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to temporary service in Baghdad in early 2004, nor David L. Phillips, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who served as an adviser to the State Department before and after the fall of Saddam Hussein, are at all optimistic.

And in the very same issue, a letter to the Editor states:

The only kind of democracy that will flower in Mesopotamia will be some variety that is native to the place and that has been patiently nurtured by local cultivators over many decades.

Okay, here we go. (Never mind that the first is a 74-word run-on sentence). Now everybody’s misusing the word. But I was wrong. These two were about the only usages to date. It has rarely been used that way again.

I grabbed the copy of the newspaper I’d saved and sure enough, it was indeed used as the name of the ugly group “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.” Sadly, because of the NYT standards, there is no way to call this out with either quote marks or italics. So I will probably continue to misread it and get annoyed. Here’s a case where the Times is following their traditions and I can’t fault them. Yea for following your own rules for once, but Nay for the rule itself. The ancient paper needs to find a way to clarify phrases like this in the future. J’accuse! — but in the humblest way possible this time.

OgadenOgadenOgadenToday’s Times has done it again.  A Page 1 article about Ethiopia starts off strongly, but (don’t turn the page!) deteriorates as it goes on and on and on.  Halfway down p. A8, the author decides to get coy and parody the British colonial way of thinking, but ends up just insulting these proud people.  It’s straight news reporting all the way, until:

They saw thorny hills and thirsty people.  Even today, it is still like that.  What passes for a town is a huddle of bubble-shaped huts, the movable homes of camel-thwacking nomads who somehow survive out here.  For roads, picture Tonka truck tracks running through a sandbox.  The primary elements in this world are skin and bone and sun and rock.  And guns.  Loads of guns.

C’mon, Jeff.  Yes, the British may have seen thorns and thirst.  But you are the one who sees CAMEL-THWACKING NOMADS!  Are you kidding?  You can’t just flip tones here because you want to be creative, or fun or whatever you’re doing.  And you continue the mocking(?) pseudo-mocking(?) tone with the toy truck analogy which is equally insulting.  I would preface that comment with My powers of description have deserted me momentarily, so I’ll go all omniscient narrator on your ass, which not only distances me from my subject but diminishes it as well.

This only serves to tell the reader that when it comes to this reporter’s personal view, he is too scared or arrogant to deal with it on its face.  He suddenly telescopes back until he’s seeing little ants on the battlefield.  Whew!  What a relief!  I don’t have to process the terrible things I’ve seen.Thwacked Camel

He really nails this outlook in the final sentence when he refers to human features as “elements.”  He could have flashed his poetic license with images like metal, sun, stone, sand, nonhuman “elements” in the landscape, and been just fine.  He could have even contrasted the desperate, tired soldiers or villagers against the stark backdrop of these elements. 

It’s just a quick rewrite.  Again, I blame Jeff’s editors who failed to see the desperate, tired face of their writer.

EyeglassesEyeglassesEyeglassesThree years ago, I worked for some sort of financial company. Toward the end of my run, my supervisor was abruptly fired for calling in one morning and saying he was coming in to kill five people. I wasn’t there that day, but heard about it when I turned up the next day. I found out my man had had some kind of psychic break, not totally surprising based on his usual behavior. We were instructed to be on guard in the wake of his threat. He disappeared into the Los Angeles haze. Secretly, I always assumed I was one of the five.

Yesterday, I walked into a store to buy eyeglasses and heard my name. It was psychoboss, in a blue smock with the company logo on his pocket. I froze. Please don’t be my salesman, I remember thinkGod as Anubising. I was in a dicey mood since I had just returned a bad pair of glasses and was hoping this place could solve my problem. The problem? I couldn’t see, and seeing is one of my all-time favorite senses, so I was pretty focused on having better luck at this store.

I looked up to God for a moment and whispered very funny. I audibly heard a skyborne chuckle. I’m only messing with you because you can take it–you have a sense of humor. As usual, He was right. It’s just so wearying, I thought. I know there’s a life lesson I have to figure out, but sometimes these karmic items are so confusing that my vision blurs and I feel like napping. I have to figure this one out tomorrow.