October Miscellany

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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