Archive for October, 2010

October Miscellany

October 18, 2010

I’ve been out of touch for a while, owing to medical crises in the Wired family. Following are some things I keep meaning to send on:

 Doesn’t anybody learn to read out loud any more?

When I was in grade school, it was an important part of our education through the 8th grade. I mean, the teacher read to us, usually at what used to be “rest period” in kindergarten, and we took turns reading out loud during reading class. We picked up pretty quickly on things like inflection (rising for questions and some exclamations, falling for declarative sentences, emphatic where the typeface indicated) and phrasing (take a breath at commas, use falling inflection and take a breath at semicolons), and use emphasis to show various kinds of important distinctions (of the people, for the people, by the people, and yes, I know that Lincoln himself emphasized “people” in all three phrases, but that was the 19th century.) Some of us managed to sound out complicated words without stumbling, and others gazed imploringly at the teacher for help, which was usually forthcoming. But we didn’t just bomb ahead with our best guess, unless we were pretty sure it was right.

And in turn, those we turned to as exemplars, like radio (and, later, TV) announcers, preachers, and our teachers themselves, had not only mastered these skills, they read the copy before airtime, and sometimes even marked it up where necessary.

I’m not quite sure when that changed. I do remember, 20-odd years ago, some British comedy show (maybe Monty Python, maybe Flanders and Swann) in which a BBC announcer, of all people, was derided for a Belfast update reading “Police in Belfast today threw up (pause) a barricade at the scene of a bloody fight…” At the time, one could not imagine any American newreader making a similar blunder. At about the same time, I heard a public radio announcer in Miami reading a piece about some egregious incident of cruelty to animals, in which she stumbled three times over “veterinarian” before finally giving up and saying “vet.” But these were, clearly, rare enough to be memorable.

About 5 or 6 years ago, I was involved, as I often have been, in putting together some religious services for the High Holidays, in which we asked the local college students to read various interesting and relevant passages and poems out loud. I was accustomed to people reading and marking their copy beforehand, and doing a good job of oral interp. No such luck—all of these folks just put the copy before them for the first time and read until they got to the end. No inflection where indicated by punctuation, no attention to polysyllabic words. What they saw was what we got. Thus it has been ever since.

And thus it has been on radio, even public radio. I have never figured out what Speech majors did, but whatever it was, not very many of them are doing it any more. Oral interp. is a lost art. Evidently, media newsreaders now consider it cheating to read copy before air time. Actors still do a decent job on their lines. Maybe you have to go to drama school to master reading aloud these days. Interestingly, back when I was a college English teacher, I occasionally read aloud to my classes, and they loved it. These days, books on tape and various similar digital applications are readily available, very popular, and mostly done, quite well, by professional actors. So there is a market for this stuff. Why are the schools no longer teaching it? Why are even the people who get paid for reading news or announcements aloud no longer learning how to do it well? Is this just me?*

*The Wired Sisters’ equivalent of “Is this anything?”

 Bloody Well About Time Dept.

For years I have been distressed by the utterly uncensored presence on the public airwaves of ads for remedies for erectile dysfunction, genital herpes, and lackluster sex, at hours supposed to be reserved for “the family”, meaning small children. I never decided whether, if I had small children at home now, I would be more distressed by having to explain this stuff to them, or finding out they already knew about it. But all our dueling over “indecency” and the “7 Dirty Words” seemed never to consider commercial applications. One suspected that the FCC had already decided to ignore anything that came between program episodes. But yesterday, finally, I saw in the paper, a brief note that “Eli Lilly and Co. and Pfizer, makers of erectile dysfunction drugs, will provide the Parents Television Coundcil with schedules of which shows their advertisements will appear on, and the PTC said it will make that information available on its website, parentstv.org/ed.” Two cheers. (Nothing about genital herpes and lackluster sex, remedies for which probably come from some other manufacturers.)

 More BWAT Dept.

In the same Sunday paper, I finally saw a one-third-page above-the-fold piece about the “emerging, reshaped freelance work force.” It has been with us for nearly two decades, but mostly those interested in the issue, including freelancers themselves, have had to google to find any serious discussion of the issue. The proper name for this work force would be something like “involuntary entrepreneurs.” And proper attention to it would require, for instance, something from IRS on how many more people are filing Schedule Cs (profit and loss from business) and 1099s (reports of contract income) than did so a generation ago.

Twenty years ago, business mags first started coming out with lists of good places to work, or good places for women to work. But they presumed that the work they were reporting on always involved what many of us call “real jobs”—that is, full-time, permanent jobs with full benefits. The proportion of the work force actually holding such jobs has been diminishing for at least twenty years. Most business experts like to attribute that trend to the desire of workers for “flexibility.” The article in yesterday’s paper did that too. But pollsters have finally started asking part-time workers whether they would accept full-time work if they could get it. Surprise! Most of them say yes. Who wouldn’t? The “contingent work force,” as it is often called, provides no job security from day to day or week to week, never mind year to year. The pay rate per hour is roughly half as much as the pay received by “real employees” for the same work. There are, of course, no benefits. Or there may be an exiguous simulacrum of health insurance available to “part-timers” who work more than X hours per week, with the employer, of course, getting to decide who, if anyone, is allowed to work more than X hours a week.

We have all seen the trend, especially among retailers, of turning all clerk jobs into part-time work, even when most of those holding such jobs simply walk across the street to another retailer to pick up another part-time job. They are working full-time, and both employers are getting the same amount of work, but paying less than half as much for it as before.

There are a few organizations advocating for the interests of the contingent work force. One of them, the Freelancers Union (http://www.freelancersunion.org/), is mentioned in yesterday’s article. Another, United Professionals (http://www.unitedprofessionals.org/), is among my email lists. There are probably a bunch of similar organizations out there. We Americans, after all, have long since given a whole new meaning to “Don’t mourn, organize!”

Red Emma

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Recount of the Living Dead

October 6, 2010

Chicago politicians have never scrupled to do their campaigning at wakes. Until recently, however, they restricted themselves to other people’s wakes.

That all changed at the end of last October. Fittingly, it was Halloween, when the barrier between the living and dead is supposed to be at its thinnest. Trick-or-treaters abounded in the streets, and then people started noticing that some of the trick-or-treaters, though apparently costumed and made up, were not children. They walked stiffly, spoke gratingly, and seemed unable to figure out what to do with their treats. And when the children and their chaperones went home, these other masqueraders continued to wander in the streets until dawn.

The sunshine drove them undercover. Some of them banged on doors, others wandered into basements and places of business, under bridges and into tunnels.

Some of them fell into an uneasy slumber on stacks of the morning newspapers, sprawled across the headline “TWO LEGENDS PASS.” The two legends, both of whom had gone to their eternal reward late on Halloween night, were the Reverend Dr. Cleotas Theophrastus Jefferson, Jr., pastor of the Truth and Deliverance Cathedral and founder of Operation PULL (People United for Love and Leadership), and Edwin M. Nosferatu, Alderman of the 61st Ward and unofficial leader of Chicago’s white ethnic community.

By late that afternoon, the Reverend was being waked at Mamie Raney’s Funeral Home and Cosmetology School, and Nosferatu at Voinovich’s Mortuary. Most of Chicago’s eminent citizens, from university presidents to police chiefs, from cardinals to chefs, poured out to pay their respects to each decedent in turn, forming long lines of double- and triple-parked limos, pickup trucks, and stretch SUVs in the shabby neighborhood streets.

Emerson Trueblood, one of the City News Bureau’s new stringers, slipped into Rainey’s with the crowd and found himself a corner by the door where he could take down the names of the guests and note any peculiarities of the demeanor and interactions. Protocol required them to work their way to the front of the room to shake hands with the widow, Sheila, Cleotas III (popularly known as Threebie), the Reverend Dr. Desiree, and Mohammed (“Mo”), the family outcast. “So sorry for your loss,” they would say. The response, always, was “Thank you for coming.” It went on like that for nearly an hour, until the room had filled up and all the handshaking was pretty much over. Then Threebie stepped up beside the open casket, cleared his throat, and tuned up his solid bass voice with, “ Brothers and sisters, ladies and gennumen…” The talking and milling around stopped. People who could find seats took them. “Our family wants to thank you all for coming to comfort us in our time of sorrow. In my father’s life, you were his friends, and now…”

No one was looking at him. No one was listening. They were all staring at a point directly to the right of Threebie’s right hand. When he realized it, he stopped orating and followed their eyes. Followed their eyes to his father’s casket, where the late Reverend Dr. C.T. Jefferson Jr. was sitting bolt upright and clearing his throat.

“Brothers and sisters, ladies and gennumen,” he said. “It gives me great pleasure to see you all here today in my honor. Unaccustomed as I am to speaking from this position,” awkwardly he climbed out of the casket and stood beside his son, who, like every other living person in the room, was struck speechless. “Threebie, what in hell was I doing in that casket?”

It was the City News Bureau stringer who had the presence of mind to answer, “You were dead, Reverend. Heart attack, allegedly.”

The Reverend thought about that, then felt for his pulse, unsuccessfully. He held out his wrist to Threebie, who had no better luck. “Halleluyah!” he said, finally. “I b’lieve I am dead. Praise the Lord!”

Trueblood, who knew a good story when he saw it, stepped up to the front of the room, switched on his pocket tape recorder, and said, “Reverend, now that you’ve risen from the dead, what are your plans?”

The Reverend raised his arms. “I b’lieve the Lord has a plan for me. I b’lieve He means for me to overcome the forces of hatred and reaction and greed just as He has enabled me to overcome death. It ain’t ev’y day a man rises from the dead. But I am not considering a run for the presidency.” Trueblood clicked off his tape recorder, ran outside, and phoned the Bureau.

When he got back to the office, the security at the front desk was watching the news. A sleek blonde reporter was asking a tightly corseted middle-aged woman dressed in black, “Mrs. Nosferatu, how did you feel when your husband sat up in his casket?”

It was now two days before the election. The Reverend’s disclaimer of any plans to run for president seemed untimely at best. But that evening, the ragtag assemblage of trick-or-treaters swelled, and it became apparent that the two politicians were only the most noticeable of the revenants. They filled the streets, bringing traffic to a standstill. The police tried arresting them, but were stymied by the fact that none of them (except an occasional dog-tagged veteran) carried I.D., and most of them were unresponsive to questioning. It was the same, apparently, all over the country. The dead were returning, and making a complete nuisance of themselves.

At midnight, the police commissioner held a press conference. Emerson Trueblood was one of the few reporters present, mainly because he had walked all the way from 87th and Lafayette, rather than trying to drive through the horde of decedents. So he had a front row seat for a change, when the commissioner announced, “We are consulting our legal staff for a determination of what measures of restraint and detention are constitutionally appropriate upon subjects who are strictly speaking, ah, deceased.”

“Are we talking about cannibalism here?” asked the commisioner’s driver, apple-cheeked Officer Mary Jane Piatek, tremulously.

The reporters all moved closer, goggling. The commissioner growled, “Hell, no, Officer Piatek, we’re talking about aggravated jaywalking. If you don’t stop watching those late night horror movies, I’m gonna put you back on the swing shift.”

Trueblood, whose journalistic background leaned more to politics than to crime, asked, “Has your office considered contacting some of their leadership?”

“Leadership?” said the commissioner, too frazzled to continue in police report English. “What the hell kind of leadership are you talking about?”

“Sorry, sir, I thought you knew. C.T. Jefferson and Ed Nosferatu both—ah—resurrected yesterday.”

“Holy flogging crullers, why doesn’t anybody tell me anything!” The commissioner sent his harried assistants off in search of various contact people, and then belatedly declared the press conference over.

The morning news aired nothing of that press conference. It did, however, carry an early-morning press conference from Mamie Raney’s banquet hall. C.T. Jefferson and Ed Nosferatu sat side by side at the main table, the very picture of multicultural amity. Ed spoke first. “I’m glad youse could be here today to see this historic moment. Hell, I’m glad I could be here. The Reverend and I has had a coupla hours to talk, and we discovered we got a lot more in common now than we ever did before. From what they’re tellin’ us, dead people are comin’ back at the rate of thousands every hour, all over the country. Some bean-counter at U. of I. says that dead people make up more than half the adult population of the U.S. Some of you out there, listenin’ to us now, are probably dead. If you can hear us, pay attention. Quit hangin’ out and millin’ around in the street. Come down here, to 87th and Lafayette, and meet us. We wanna represent you. It don’t matter who you was when you was alive. The Reverend and I wouldna give each other the tima day back when we was alive. But now, we see how important it is for us to work togedda for the good of all of us dead Americans. So now I’m gonna turn the mike over to my good friend and colleague, the Reverend Dr. C.T. Jefferson.”

He sat down, looking more modest and humble than he ever had in life, and the Reverend stood and gave the speech that may well be remembered for decades. “Brothers and sisters, my dear friends among the deceased all over the country, we speak to you from Chicago, a city that has pioneered in furthering the civil rights of the dead. Our fair city has a hallowed tradition of fairness toward deceased Americans.

“Brothers an’ sisters, we are the majority of voting-age Americans. We have the wisdom of the ages at our fingertips, we speak from the perspective of centuries. You are entitled, we are entitled, to choose our own leadership.

“The professional live politicians will deplore and decry our movement. Their veins pulse with the denial of our rights. They will point to the primaries and conventions that have already chosen the official candidates, and they will say, ‘These, and only these, are the men you can vote for.’ They may even point to you, and say, ‘Only the living may vote. Only the living may run for office. Only to them belong the sacred rights of liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ But we, my brothahs and sistahs, know bettah. Do we not pay taxes, and therefore are we not entitled to representation? Do we not have eyes and ears, most of us anyway? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you diss us, shall we not revenge?

“And so, brothers and sisters, we ask you, my friend Ed and I, to give us the privilege of representing your interests in the halls of power. On November 4th, two days from now, go to your polling place, and cast your write-in votes for Ed and I.

“The living have had their chance at running the country. What have they brought us? Greed and poverty, hatred and misery! It’s our turn now. It’s time to give death a chance. Brothers and sisters all over America, I ask you to rise up, from Old North Churchyard in the East to Forest Lawn in the West, from Arlington to Graceland, from sea to shinin’ sea, gathah yourselves togethah and proclaim with one voice, ‘I was somebody! I was somebody! I was somebody!’”

The rest, of course, is history. Jefferson and Nosferatu were elected by the largest vote ever cast in the US, and the largest write-in vote anywhere. The Reverend began his administration by moving White House operations to Arlington National Cemetery, and then calling a constitutional convention. Among the issues under discussion was affirmative action for minorities.

Minorities. That’s us. Mostly they’re polite. Politically correct, I guess you could say. The Reverend and Ed and their honchos would never dream of calling us “breathers.” They disown fringe groups like the ones that want to move us into holes in the ground. And the reparations nuts, who want refunds of all their inheritance taxes.

We still haven’t figured out all the implications of this mess. For a while, some of the hard-line “red-bloods” were seriously discussing overturning the election results on the grounds of fraud, just as if this was the same kind of graveyard vote we used to have, with live people usurping the votes of the dead, instead of dead people exercising their own god-given rights. But cooler heads prevailed. In fact, some of us have even learned something from the Reverend and Ed: the thing we’ve got in common—being alive—is bigger than all the ways we’re different. That’s a good start toward something, I guess.

Red Emma