»  National Review Online Diary

  February 2002

[Note:  My regular monthly diaries were not yet an established feature. This "February Diary" is pasted together from two NRO columns, dated February 19 and February 22, 2002, titled "February Bloggings" and "More Bloggings," respectively.]

To coin a phrase.     If you could take out a patent on a phrase, I would have done it with my "Underperformin' Norman" the other week. Norman Mineta may be the first cabinet officer to be laughed out of office since … Who? Anyone know? There was that weird Surgeon General of Clinton's who wanted us all to masturbate for peace … But I don't think Surgeon General counts as cabinet-level.


Pet cloning.     And if you could take out a patent on an idea, I might have a claim to this one. Nearly two years ago (actually 3/15/00 — I looked it up in the e-group archive) on the Human Biodiversity e-group I posted the following:

Having spent 14 yrs on Wall St I should know better than to suggest stock tips, but … I just heard an item on the radio news about an outfit out west somewhere that is setting up as a pet-cloning enterprise. Love your pet? They'll take a DNA sample and, when Fido has passed away, clone you an identical copy. This is a winner, even at the prices proposed ($50,000 and up). As the owner of a much-loved pooch, I would go for this if I had the money. A lot of people do have, and will. If this outfit goes public, buy.

Well, now someone has actually cloned a very cute little kitten. Call your broker.


Boilerplate.     A few days ago I wrote a piece in which I implicitly compared the suicide bombers of the Middle East with "the terrorists of Sinn Féin/IRA." I got the inevitable sprinkling of emails from readers carefully explaining to me that the SF/IRA lads, far from being amoral psychopaths, are in fact brave selfless patriots; and that the real terrorists in Ireland are the thuggish dead-eyed sadists of Her Majesty's armed forces, crushing the helpless Catholic folk of Ulster under the iron heel of British Imperialism.

I don't normally use boilerplate in replying to readers, but for cretins of this stripe I make an exception. They all get the same answer, which reads as follows: "Dear [Name], Thank you very much for explaining that to me. Yours sincerely, Marie of Roumania."


Patriot's Day.     Writing about my INS interview, I noted that my oath ceremony — the point where I actually become a U.S. citizen — is to be held on April 19th. Numerous readers emailed in to tell me that this is the date of the battles of Lexington and Concord, and is in fact celebrated as Patriot's Day in Massachusetts and Maine.

I knew about the events, of course (Emerson's wonderful poem "Concord Hymn" is number 3 on my 36 Great American Poems CD) but not the date. I think it's way cool that I'll be taking my citizenship oath 227 years to the day after "the shot heard round the world." And if you think I included this paragraph just as a bare-faced plug for my CD, well, shame on you. As if I would!


Pastor anxiety.     I'd like to offer a nomination for entry into the list of ailments recognized as diagnosable by the American Psychiatric Association: pastor anxiety. This is the state of mind a person falls into when perfectly satisfied with the minister of his own congregation, but despairing of the state of his church in general.

I think we Episcopalians are especially susceptible to pastor anxiety. My own minister suits me perfectly. He gives plain, no-nonsense sermons in literate English, milks the incomparable Anglican liturgy for all it's worth (introducing the Lord's Prayer, for example, with the spine-tingling  "We are bold to say …"  rather than the feeble and colorless alternative offered in the prayer book  "We now pray …"), and is personally a model for the Christian life: honest, courteous, hard-working, self-denying and a devoted family man.

The Episcopalian church at large, meanwhile, is in a sorry state, the playground of all kinds of cranks, freaks and ideologues. To judge from Rod Dreher's pieces in National Review, the Roman Catholic Church is trending in the same direction.

So what happens when my pastor moves on to some higher position in the Church — as, if there is any justice, he deserves to? Who are we going to get? Some crop-haired lesbian playing her guitar in the pulpit while her fricatrice works the aisles handing out Greenpeace pamphlets? No wonder our kids are converting to Islam.

Pastor anxiety — coming soon to a church near you. Time to revisit that old John Mills, Dirk Bogarde movie The Singer Not the Song.


Hurting vs. killing.     A reader emailed in to chide me for supporting capital punishment but opposing torture. Gimme a break. Anglo-Saxon civilization got along just fine for the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries with torture illegal and strongly disapproved of but capital punishment legal and popular, and that's the way I'd like it.

Does being hanged, shot or electrocuted hurt? I bet it does, and I don't mind admitting I hope it does. (Apropos which, by the way, the English magazine New Scientist had a fascinating discussion a few weeks ago about whether decapitation is painful. The consensus among experts was: Yes, it hurts like a bitch, but not for long.) With execution, though, the pain is incidental to the point of the thing; with torture it's the whole point.

Could I live with a regime of painless execution? I guess. Could a person who supports torture live with a regime of painless torture? Huh? How do people come up with this stuff? It's like those other people (probably the same people, actually) who tell me I can't disapprove of abortion and approve of capital punishment. The hell you say. What crime has a fetus committed?


The late O'Connor brothers.     Over dinner the other night the kids were talking about "multicultural week" at the local school. Each of them had been assigned to do a little event. Danny: the Mexican hat dance. Nellie: an Irish jig.

To amuse Nellie, I sang the following little bit of schoolboy doggerel to the tune of the Irish jig. (Is there more than one? This is the one that, as Isaac Asimov pointed out, scans like "paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde," which is to say, dactylically.)

O'Connor is dead and his brother don't know it.
His brother is dead and O'Connor don't know it.
They're both of them dead, and they're in the same bed,
And sure neither one knows that the other is dead.

For some 9-year-old reason, this seized Nellie's imagination, and she spent the rest of the evening skipping round the house singing it at the top of her voice. Danny, the inquiring mind of the family, wanted to know how these unfortunate Hibernians died. "From drink, I suppose," said Derb, who just can't get the hang of this Political Correctness business. "Shot by British soldiers," riposted Rosie, who still nurses a grudge for the Opium Wars.


Gun safety lesson     There's a plan I want to carry out to impress the importance of gun safety on my kids. Here is the plan.

I shall call both my kids (ages 9 and 6) down to the basement (unfinished, concrete walls) with the announcement that I'm going to teach them gun safety. I shall then stand them at my work bench and bore them with talk about how they must never, ever touch a gun without permission, if they see a gun lying unattended should call an adult, etc., etc., … To the point where they begin to fidget (i.e. approx. 20 seconds).

Then I'll show them my two handguns lying on the bench, waiting (I tell them) to be cleaned. I'll assure them the guns are unloaded. However, I'll warn them that even when you are absolutely sure a gun is unloaded, you must never fool with it, and must never, ever point it at anyone.

While explaining this I shall pick up my revolver and handle it in a manner apparently casual (but in fact carefully rehearsed). I'll add that as well as never pointing a gun at anyone you don't intend to kill, you must also never put your finger on the trigger, except when intending to shoot.

At this point I'll "accidentally" press the trigger … firing a single magnum round into a large block of wood set behind my bench for this purpose, backed by concrete wall & solid earth.

The noise will be absolutely deafening, the smoke visible & pungent, the shock effect tremendous. (Neighbors will be forewarned.) I myself shall act surprised and embarrassed. The kids will run howling from the scene, and will for ever afterwards take guns very seriously indeed.

That's the plan. I am sure it will have the required effect. Unfortunately, it has hit one largish snag: Rosie tells me that if I try to implement it, she will divorce me.


First French.     I wrote in my INS piece last month about being the only person reading a book among 80 or 90 people in a waiting room. A number of other chronic readers wrote in to share my bafflement.

This is genetic, though, or at the very least congenital. As a child I was forbidden to read books at the table. It was, I was told, very bad manners. I therefore read the labels on condiment bottles.

This gave me my first encounter with a foreign language. Bottles of HP Sauce — a wonderful mustardy concoction that can be found in every working-class English home — used to have the label printed in both English and French for some reason. I had memorized the French long before taking any formal instruction in that language, and I think can still recite it from memory:  "Cette sauce de haute qualité est un mélange spécial d'épices orientales …"


Fo'c'sle and poop.     Anyone who writes for the public knows the following rule: You can say anything you like about the President, the Governor or the Mayor. You can pour scorn on religion, science, capitalism, socialism, motherhood or the flag. You can spit at the PLO, the IRA, the Chinese Communist Party, the EU, the UN, NOW, the AFL/CIO, ACT/UP, Rainbow/PUSH, or even, if you are exceptionally brave, the teachers' unions.

Nothing much will happen to you. Your house will not be fire-bombed, your car will not be vandalized, your children will not be taunted in the schoolyard. But if you leave a dangling participle, split an infinitive, or attribute an H.L. Mencken quote to Ambrose Bierce — then, get busy stocking up the fallout shelter and set the kids to filling sandbags. Nothing gets people worked up like a slip in grammar or usage.

A few days ago, by way of excusing myself for a misquote, I wrote this in a web piece:  "You try being chained to this oar 3 times a week while Goldberg whacks a big drum up on the fo'c'sle and Kathy Lopez strides up and down the aisles brandishing a whip." This drove the language nuts crazy. It turned out, in fact, to be one of those sentences — like that famous passage about the tide in Timon of Athens — that has about as many factual errors in it as actual words, if not more.

On a slave galley, the drum was not on the fo'c'sle (where the rowers, who of course faced sternwards, would not be able to see it) but on the poop deck. Since there can only be two oars, left and right, there can only be one aisle … etc. etc. et bloody cetera.

Well, phooey. Much as I like the word "poop," I like "fo'c'sle" a hundred times better. In my galley, the drum is on the fo'c'sle. Why do the rowers need to see it? The point of a drum is to be heard. And my galley has a middle row of seats where fresh slaves are positioned ready to take over a rower's place when he drops from exhaustion and has to be pitched overboard. So there are two aisles. Got it?

Now leave me alone to brew up more wild metaphors — or better still, read chapter 12 ("The Language Mavens") in Steven Pinker's book The Language Instinct.


Homo Tysoniens.     My assertion that Mike Tyson is not a member of the human race drew some disapproving email. Well, here's one small item of evidence: the actual words Tyson said at that encounter with Lennox Lewis the other week. I have had to asterisk them considerably for display on a family website, but I think I have done this skillfully enough to maintain the essence of what Iron Mike was trying to convey.

Remember that these words were uttered in front of a battery of TV cameras and microphones. They were not reported in full in any of the U.S. newspapers I consulted — why is that, I wonder? — but the British and Australian press had them in all their pithy vigor.

Responding to a reporter who had shouted out that he, Tyson, should be in a straitjacket, the champ responded thus:  "I'll put your mother in a straitjacket, you punk-a** white boy. I'll f*** you in the a** till you love me, f***ot. You're a little white p***y scared of a real man. You wouldn't last two minutes in my world, bitch." I rest my case.


Math Corner.     I've been reading Littlewood's Miscellany, a collection of observations and donnish anecdotes by the Cambridge mathematician John Littlewood (1885-1977). Here are a couple of gems.

(1)  Concerning the outbreak of WW1, Littlewood noted that: "All the sensible and enlightened people said one thing, and all the damned fools said the other; and the damned fools were right." This is something that occurs to me often. It is, of course, not original: it occurred to Saint Paul 2,000 years ago (I Corinthians 3:18-20). However, in the present age of universal education, when anyone whose voice gets heard at all has a string of academic credentials after his name, we have a problem that neither Littlewood nor Saint Paul had to contend with: How can we reliably tell who the damned fools are?

(2)  In a December blog I boasted of my Lancastrian antecedents, and offered some pointers to help readers understand the strange, rich culture of Lancashire. Well, here's anothert titbit from Littlewood's Miscellany.

This particular story rests on the fact that Lancashire dialect switches the long "u" and the short "u," so that the word "put" is said with a short "u," while "putt" is said with a long one.

Well, one of the Cambridge colleges hosted a visiting lecturer with a strong Lancashire accent, who gave an address about the Antarctic exlorer Sir Vivian Fuchs, pronouncing the name as "Fucks" throughout his talk. Afterwards, one of the organizers took him aside and gently pointed out the correct pronunciation, with a long "u."

"Yes, I know," replied the Lancastrian, "but I couldn't very well say it like that, could I? After all, there were ladies in the audience."