Saturday, April 30, 2011

From the Archives - When You Are Engulfed in Shame


Last May, I took a writing class called “Memoir: Art of the Personal.” The instructor encouraged her students not to shy away from troubling material. Her advice was something like “go where the pain is.” This makes sense. Had Dostoyevsky written a novel called Obedience and Praise rather than Crime and Punishment, he might not be so famous.

More recently, I read a parenting book called Nurture Shock: New Thinking About Children. It has a chapter titled “Why Kids Lie” that offers some, well, shocking statistics. A four-year old, a cited study attests, “will lie about once every two hours, while a six-year-old will lie about once every hour.” The book goes on to describe how “kids who live in threat of consistent punishment don’t lie less. Instead, they become better liars.”

As a kid, I was no exception: I was not above lying. Plus, I stole. If this seems interesting to you, perhaps you will enjoy this story, which I wrote for my class.

When You Are Engulfed in Shame – May 27, 2010

When I was about ten, I stole money from my family. Not just on one occasion, but repeatedly—daily, in fact—for a couple of weeks. I felt no remorse (at least at first), and had no regard for consequences. I was pilfering change from the bus money jar.

Every day, as soon as we got home from school, my brother Max and I would to get a dime from the jar for our bus fare, and walk about half a mile to the bus stop to catch the slow, meandering #5 bus that would take us all the way across Boulder to the YMCA. It was a boring trip made all the more boring by our taking it five days a week for years. At the Y we had swim practice. I hated swimming—still do—and especially hated being bullied in the locker room afterward. Bigger kids would roll towels into a “rat’s tail,” get the end wet, and snap us with it, leaving red marks on our bare skin. Then, my eyes burning from the chlorine in the pool, I’d wait with my brothers for forty-five minutes for our mom to pick us up around 7. Given the time demands of swimming and school, I had no life.

The money I stole was for Zēmis. A Zēmi was a fancy soft drink, prepared to order by a high-tech vending machine in the Y’s lobby. You’d put in your 25 cents, select your flavor (cherry, lime, whatever), and then watch in awe as a tapered plastic cup— ornate as a crystal goblet —dropped onto a little grille and was half-filled with crushed ice. The Technicolor syrup came next, climbing the ice. Then carbonated water fizzed in, right to the top—such precision! I’d treat my friend John to one, too. (He was a year older and really weird—he used to fly his hand along ahead of him as we walked, making it dip and soar, making cool spaceship noises.) My generosity was half the fun of the Zēmis for me: I loved being Big Mr. Moneybucks.

I wasn’t so naïve as to think the stolen bus money wouldn’t be missed. My family had already gone through a bus money embezzlement scandal. That time, my brother Max—the troublesome middle child—had been blamed, and was harassed for days. It finally come out that our dad had needed change and raided the bus money cache, and hadn’t thought to mention it. Though Max was exonerated, the stigma never really went away. So now, when I was stealing bus money for real, I figured I’d have a readymade scapegoat when the theft was discovered.

When Mom noticed the embezzlement, an ad hoc tribunal was formed. Each of the four brothers was both a prosecutor and a defendant. Max was harassed all over again, even while I continued to steal to support my Zēmi habit. I repeatedly accused Max myself, both to make my innocence more realistic and for the sheer joy of it. My brothers and I thrilled to the intrigue of crime and punishment, basked in the righteous indignation of shaking down a suspected wrongdoer and bringing him to justice.

(That it wouldn’t be actual justice didn’t matter a bit: the satisfaction was the same. Once, years before when I was like five, sitting around the house bored, I decided to scrape my leg with a Lego until a large red welt appeared. Then I went crying to my oldest brother, Bryan, telling him Max did it to me. I watched with great satisfaction as Bryan went over and beat on Max, bawling him out the whole time out for hurting his little brother. It made no difference to me that Max was innocent; the spectacle of richly deserved punishment being meted out was really all I needed.)

Perhaps to prevent us from all getting spanked by our dad, my mom actually offered amnesty. “Okay, this is your chance,” she said. “Whoever stole the money, step forward now, and you won’t be punished. Just admit you did it, and all will be forgiven.” I wasn’t even tempted to do this. Maybe Mom wouldn’t punish me, but I’d have to listen to my brothers castigating me not only for my heinous theft, but for having accused Max the whole time. It would also be tough to witness Max himself attaining new heights in righteous indignation.

And, truth be told, I had finally become ashamed of my actions. Funny how that works: if nobody had noticed the missing money, I’d have blissfully gone right on stealing (just like a pro athlete who blithely dopes and will go on doping until he gets caught and then, sobbing, apologizes to his fans and vows to help clean up the sport). I cursed myself, my friend, and those damn Zēmis. I’d never felt so low. It became more important than ever to hide my guilt.

The truth came out soon enough. My brothers, who had long envied my fancy drinks, now questioned whether it was really my friend John paying for them. I insisted that it was. “Well, I’ll just give a call over there and find out,” Geoff announced. I was almost sure he was bluffing—after all, all four of us were deathly afraid of the phone. (Just calling a business to find out its hours, as our mom sometimes made us do, was almost impossible. Whichever kid made the call would be almost unable to talk—his throat would go dry, his vocal chords would contract, and his strangled voice would come out in a thin, reedy squeak. Naturally, his brothers would mock him for this.)

But I couldn’t bring myself to call Geoff’s bluff. There was just that small chance that he would actually go through with the call, and my friend would unknowingly sell me out, and that was just too much to face. So I spilled my guts before Geoff dialed the first digit. I confessed.

Right away my brothers lit into me, cackling like hyenas, thrilling to my shame like rabid journalists. Max was the most triumphant. Over and over he cried out, “I can understand a liar—but a fieth?” He brandished this indignant cry like a Gatling gun, making sure everybody heard and appreciated it. It became the slogan for my defeat. I felt so low I didn’t even have the heart to correct my brother (“It’s not ‘fieth,’ it’s ‘thief,’ you moron!” I’d have said). I let my brothers have their day in the sun, and felt completely deserving of my humiliation. After all, I’d stolen repeatedly, lied, and—worst of all—sold out my own brother, all for a fizzy drink.

dana albert blog

Sunday, April 24, 2011



This post is about flakage. As in, flaking: standing somebody up when you had plans together. Fear not, this won’t be a gripe-fest—this blog is not a forum for me to complain about such stuff. In fact, I occasionally flake on people myself.

In this post, I’ll start by considering some of the common causes of flakage; the types of flakage; and the types of people who flake. Then I’ll unveil my Flakage Toolkit, perhaps our best weapon in the War on Flakage. (“What?” you’re asking, “There’s a War on Flakage?” Well, there is now.)

Causes of flakage

Of course there are all kinds of reasons that a person could fail to meet up with you as agreed. It would be pointless to try cataloguing all of them. But there are a few general categories that occur again and again. Here is my list of the top three:

Lack of inclination

Sometimes, a person will commit to something he or she really doesn’t want to do, because he or she just doesn’t know how to politely decline an invitation or reject a plan. I know this is a big problem because in my Health class in high school we did a whole unit on “Refusal Skills.” I went through a great number of drills practicing how to say no to drugs, alcohol, and sex (none of which, by the way, were ever actually offered to me). Those who didn’t pay attention in Health class as kids may now find themselves agreeing to plans they have not intention of carrying out. This buys them time to figure out how to wiggle out of the arrangement later. Often as not, they never face the music and never cancel the plans, and thus end up flaking.


Sometimes someone accepts an offer in good faith, only to discover that he totally forgot about something else he’d already committed to. He has every intention of letting you know, but never seems to be near the phone or the computer when he remembers to contact you. So he stands you up, and then tries in vain to remember to apologize.

Overcomplicated life

Sometimes your friend accepts an offer in good faith, and doesn’t have any scheduled conflicts, but hours or even minutes before heading out, something happens and there’s no wiggle room in his oversubscribed life to let him recover. For example, the toddler suddenly projectile-vomits and thus can’t go to his play date. Or the dog escapes and heads for the hills. Or your friend’s spouse suddenly has to work late and will miss the carpool.

Types of flakage

As an early participant in the etymological life of the term “flakage,” I propose that we break down flakage into four categories.

Advance flakage

Advance flakage is usually committed by person who is ambivalent about a suggested activity, and/or knows he’s disorganized and really isn’t sure of his availability, and/or or knows his life is too complicated to guarantee he’ll be able to keep any commitment. He’ll hem and haw and give you a less-than-certain answer when you propose the activity. That way, if he fails to show up, he didn’t really stand you up, exactly, because he never fully committed to the activity in the first place.

Last-minute flakage

This happens when, due to any of the three causes listed above and/or any of the myriad other possible causes, the flaker cancels at the last minute rather than actually standing you up. The telltale sign of last-minute flakage is when your friend phones you up shortly before the meeting time and instead of asking a very quick question like “I forgot to ask, what should I bring?” he just shoots the breeze for awhile. It dawns on you that if he were keeping the appointment, he’d skip the chitchat since he’d be talking with you in person very shortly. The chitchat is his way of easing you into the bad news.

Last-minute flakage doesn’t always involve chitchat, of course. Often it involves your friend making a lavish explanation, like his toddler projectile-vomiting on his fleeing dog.


This is when somebody keeps you waiting awhile but eventually does show up. How aggravating this is naturally depends on how late the person is. Five minutes is a non-event. Twenty minutes is a bit of a problem, and so on. (Sometimes flakage will take a hybrid form. For example, quasi-last-minute flakage involves your friend calling to say he’ll be late.) In the worst case, your friend is so late that severe animosity develops, ruining the activity that you’re getting together for in the first place. Once, a friend of a friend was supposed to pick me up at Fremont Bart, which I can tell you is not a cool place to hang, and was like an hour and a half late. This person’s body was never found. Okay, I exaggerate—but we sure didn’t bond during the subsequent drive.

Of course quasi-flakage shouldn’t be confused with being “fashionably late.” (This term is a bit of a misnomer, I think. Appearing to be too busy to make it on time, or so popular as to be waylaid on your way to the meeting, will surely never go out of fashion.) There’s also what I call “mercifully late,” where it is assumed the hosts are behind in their preparations and the guests give them some extra time before showing up.

Complete flakage

This is of course when the person simply doesn’t show. There is very little chance of anything mitigating the obnoxiousness of this. The person may attempt a retroactive advance flakage, claiming that he had never actually promised to come. Or the person may later describe how the dog almost asphyxiated on the toddler’s vomit and had to be hospitalized. Or, worst of all, the flakage is never explained or apologized for.


This occurs with spouses (or spouse equivalents) and can take several forms. One is that one member of a couple has gotten the time wrong and leads the other astray. Both parties are at fault because the person led astray should know by now not to trust his or her spouse. Another form of co-flakage is when a husband commits quasi-flakage or complete flakage because he does not know about the commitment his wife has made on his behalf. Both parties are at fault here, too, because surely the wife told the husband about it, but he wasn’t listening, and she should know better than to assume he was. (Of course either spouse can play either role here; I was merely avoiding “he/she” pronoun Hell.)

Types of flakers

Once again, I must be careful not to oversimplify. All kinds of people flake. But a thorough survey of flakage, which to my knowledge has never been conducted, would probably show that most flakage is carried out by one of four types of flaker. Here are those types.

The “pleaser”

By “pleaser” I mean the person who can’t bear to let somebody down, even for a moment, and who thus agrees to a plan he doesn’t have any intention of carrying out. This type of person is at high risk for both advance flakage and complete flakage. He has a tendency to suffer terribly after flaking, because admitting he let you down is terribly uncomfortable for him.

The Type B personality

The Type B personality actually means it when he says he’ll show up, but accidentally flakes because he’s literally unaware of what time it is and sometimes even what day it is. He’s not much for advance flakage because, not being the type to hold himself accountable for much, he doesn’t imagine that anybody else would hold him accountable either—so why hedge? This type also isn’t at serious risk for last-minute flakage, because he’s usually unaware that he’s even missing the rendezvous, so it wouldn’t occur to him to phone in the upcoming flakage. He is, of course, highly likely to commit quasi-flakage or complete flakage.

Note that the Type B flaker doesn’t always irritate the flakee: one Type B flaking on another Type B seldom causes any animosity. With B/B quasi-flakage, neither party notices if the other is late because time has almost no meaning for these people.

The friction generally develops when a Type B make plans with a Type A. For example, when I was on the UCSB cycling team, I made road trip plans with a Type B guy we called Sven (due to his utter lack of Nordic features). Sven was to pick me up at noon on Friday to drive to where the next day’s race would be held. At the stroke of noon I was waiting on the curb, bag packed. After twenty minutes I went inside and phoned him. No answer. For the next several hours I alternated between waiting on the curb and going inside to phone him. Finally I gave up and, around 3 p.m., while I was frantically going through my phone list looking for somebody else to get a ride with, Sven phoned me. I expected a litany of excuses for his being so late, but instead he simply said, “What’s up?” I asked if he was still going to the race. “Yeah, of course. How soon can you be ready?” I reminded him we’d agreed to meet at noon. He said, “Uh, yeah, so … what time is it now?”

The pawn

The full name of this flaker is “pawn caught in a deadly game.” It refers to the person I alluded to above whose life is too complicated to allow appointments to always be confidently made and reliably kept. Working parents with commutes and day care and trick knees and old cars and demanding careers can build up pretty bad track records, but I cut them more slack than other types of flakers.

I don’t consider myself a flake, but I often feel like a pawn, or maybe a rook, caught in a deadly game. For example, this weekend I promised my wife I’d take our younger daughter to her soccer game. But I committed advance flakage by introducing a caveat: if my bike ride took too long, I’d have to phone her and bail out (i.e., commit last-minute flakage). My wife understood, because I was riding with my bike club, so how early I could be home depended on countless factors: how far we rode; how late everybody got started; how fast we all felt like riding; whether or not anybody punctured; etc. I ended up making good on the original plan, but committed quasi-flakage by getting home eight minutes later than the time we’d agreed on. Now, suppose my wife suddenly realized that we were supposed to bring snack to soccer game, meaning I would have to stop at the store on the way: then we’d be committing quasi-co-flakage. I would be partially responsible for it, given the hardship my own advance and quasi-flakage had added to my wife’s already complicated morning: hers would be a classic case of a pawn caught in a deadly game. But my wife is no flake, and we weren’t on snack duty, and Lindsay and I made it to the game with minutes to spare.

The career flaker

Some people are just flakes, and they have no excuse, and no remorse, and in fact basically never make good on anything. They’re different than the Type B flaker because he at least he does show up sooner or later most of the time, and has good intentions. The career flaker turns flaking into something close to a passive-aggressive act.

The Flakage Toolkit

You might be wondering, what’s the point of all this classification? Well, that’s where the Flakage Tooklit comes in. The Toolkit offers four forms of assistance in the War on Flakage:

  1. Some perspective, to ease the pain of being a flakee;
  2. A technique for preventing advance flakage;
  3. A method for dealing with Type B flakers;
  4. A handy reference chart for predicting flakage.

The Toolkit doesn’t include tips for reforming the flakers in your life. Attempting to change another person’s behavior is as difficult as gathering water in a sieve.

Perspective for the flakee

When somebody flakes on you, you’re going to feel dissed. This person has wasted your time, shown a lack of respect, and may end up making you—yes, you, the innocent party—feel lame. It’s hard not to take it personally when you’ve made plans that aren’t kept. If the flaker is somebody you consider a good friend, this can be even more painful.

Now that we’ve examined the various flakage modes, you may be better equipped to handle broken commitments. For example, it may be helpful, when making plans, to keep an eye out for advance flakage that might, to the untrained eye, look like actual commitment. Meanwhile, this is the time to identify disorganized, Type B, or overcommitted people and set your expectations accordingly. And if you’re entering into a complicated plan with various parties, you can gauge your own risk of inadvertently co-flaking. Above all, an appreciation of the causes of flakage, the types of flaker, and the reasons for flakage may help you take things less personally.

A final bit of perspective: when a close friend has flaked on you, ask yourself, has this person flaked before? If not, you can console yourself that this is just a fluke occurrence, not a sign of ill will or disrespect. If the friend has flaked on you before, you might consider whether he is a disingenuous pleaser, an unreliable Type B, or a career flaker with whom you should consider not making future plans.

Preventing advance flakage

I can recommend two ways of preventing advance flakage. One is to remove the RSVP component of the planned activity. For example, I’ll e-mail my bike club and ask if anybody wants to ride at such-and-such time, and get a rough count of who’s showing up—but I’ll make it clear that the group will not be waiting up for anybody who arrives late. A person isn’t likely to commit advance flakage if his response is not required, and nobody’s time will be wasted.

The other technique is more difficult and can be applied only gradually over a series of planned activities. It is based on my Refusal Skills training from Health class and involves teaching the spineless pleasers how to get over their discomfort with declining your invitation (or declining to respond). What you do is invite your pleaser friends to activities you’re pretty sure they’d not even be tempted to commit to. For example, I’ve sent e-mails to my bike club saying, “Would anybody like to ride up Mount Diablo and then over Morgan Territory Road, returning via Happy Valley and Wildcat Canyon? It’s 125 miles, with 12,000 feet of climbing. We’ll leave at 6 sharp, and it’ll be surgical—no coffee breaks.” Just to further encourage the pleasers to speak their mind, I like end such e-mails with “You’re either with me or against me.” On one occasion I was delighted to get a single-word reply—“Against”—from a guy whose responses hadn’t previously been so definitive. If the pleasers among your friends get enough of these absurd invitations, they may be emboldened to begin declining other invitations that sound halfway (if only halfway) intriguing.

Dealing with Type B flakers

Type Bs abound. Given the number of people who haven’t dropped dead of a heart attack, we have to assume that Type Bs may even be the majority. So how do we keep them from flaking on us?

The answer is, try to make plans that put you in charge of the activity. Consider my tale of woe about the road trip with Sven: my anguish stemmed largely from being dependent upon Sven for a ride. He may have been Type B and unpredictable, but at least he had a fricking car! As a college kid with no car, I had three options for future road trips: a) try to be a little more relaxed and set my expectations appropriately; b) try to find a Type A to drive me next time; or c) get my own car, and tell the Type B I’m leaving at such-and-such time, with or without him. (If I actually held to this and left him behind, he wouldn’t hold a grudge, because hey, he’s Type B!)

Handy reference chart

I truly believe that the key to not getting overly disgruntled about flakage is to set your expectations appropriately. For decades I labored under the misconception that most people out there were just like me—that is, when they made a commitment they kept it. As you can see from this post, I’ve gotten past that delusion. (In fact, I’ve come to realize that I myself am not as immune to committing flakage as I like to think.) Over the last few years, I’ve put together, in my head, a flakage reference chart that I use whenever I’m making plans with somebody. Here is that chart, presented in print for the very first time:

Blue indicates advance flakage. You can see how rampant it is!

Of course, this chart is really only a jumping-off point. The real value of the chart involves assigning each of your friends to an overall flakage profile, which can shift the entries in the right column up or down. For example, a Type B friend with a lousy track record might get the right column shifted up, so his custom chart would look like this:

On the other hand, if your friend has a perfect or near-perfect track record, he might merit this rare and elusive chart version:

The only thing that never changes is that last row. There will always be those who like to keep their options open.

Did I miss anything? Do you have further insight to contribute? Post a comment below, or e-mail me at I’ll be sure to respond. I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ll get to it. I’ll try.

dana albert blog

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Bigger Picture


The character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is often held up as the poster child for indecisiveness. However, the literary elite have called him the most intelligent character in all of literature. Indecision can be a sign of intelligence, while at the other end of the spectrum are people who are great at making up their minds and sticking to their guns (often literally), and who keep things simple by refusing to consider, process, or otherwise pay attention to conflicting information.

This post is about the struggle to see the bigger picture—not in books or plays, but the little trials that pepper our lives. I offer three case studies from my life to illustrate the complexities of honing your perspective.

Case study #1 – The Escalator

I was hurrying to Bart, the Bay Area commuter train, heading home from work. As I made my way down the escalator, two steps at a time, my train was rolling into the station below—it looked like I’d just make it. But suddenly, an obstruction: a couple was standing, side by side, instead of walking down the escalator. The young man, eighteen or so, was kind of hanging on his girlfriend. They seemed to be in their own little world, like Tony and Maria when they meet for the first time at the high school dance in “West Side Story”—you know, where the rest of the dancers blur out, the music becomes muted, and the two have tunnel vision (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, click here and watch from a little over 4½ minutes in). Now, I’m all for people getting together and enjoying their romance and everything, but in a crowded train station during the commute hour? I was pretty ticked. I mean, who did they think they were? Were they so busy being in love they didn’t realize they were holding people up?

On top of being about to miss my train, my own annoyance annoyed me. I felt that I ought to be one of those philosophical types who thinks, “Ah, young love!” and sighs with pleasure, maybe winks at the happy couple. But I wasn’t the magnanimous sort—I was a rushed commuter absorbed in his own impatience, barely calm enough to accept the delay, much less think happy thoughts about the young lovers. Was I jealous of these two, of their youth and their fresh romance and carefree attitude? Or was I really just in a hurry? I was on the brink of saying, “Excuse me, coming through!” or perhaps glaring at them. But ultimately I managed to suck it up and simply resign myself to getting the next train.

Good thing. As I followed the pair off the escalator and got a better look, I realized that the guy was blind. He wasn’t hanging on his girlfriend—he was just getting some help on the escalator. I was instantly awash with relief for not having said or done anything. What a jerk I’d have seemed if I’d rushed them along or given them stink-eye. How certain I’d been about my instant assessment of the situation—and how wrong! I think back to this near-miss whenever I’m on the brink of a snap judgment during a social conflict.

Case Study #2 – The Plastic Bag

Recently I was working on something in my home office when I heard my daughter Lindsay bawling. I figured it would be a typically short-lived outburst, but she kept it up for awhile. When it became obvious my wife wasn’t going to do anything about it, I asked her what our daughter was crying about. “A plastic bag,” she replied, a hint of annoyance in her voice.

If you think I’m about to speak ill of my wife, think again. I can relate to her frustration. Lindsay cries a lot. This isn’t uncommon for her age, but that doesn’t make the crying any quieter. And as parents, we’re torn about how to react. If we run over and make a big fuss, we’re kind of indulging our daughter, perhaps even promoting her outsized response to life’s frustrations. And by making a big show of sympathy we may be dragging out her despair, helping her overinflate a minor grievance.

I was the crying kind of kid myself, but by older brothers never let me get away with it. They’d mock me, sarcastically gushing, “Oh, poor little baby!” Of course this made me feel worse, and cry harder, but it made me mad, too, and I credit the frequent repetition of this scenario with helping to make me the scrapper that I am today. Being retroactively grateful for my brothers’ taunts, I cannot default to coddling my own child whenever she cries.

Still, Lindsay was obviously really upset about something, and anyway I felt like taking a break from what I’d been doing, so I sought her out. She tried to run away—being more angry than sad, I realized—but I scooped her up, grabbed a chair, and sat her down on my lap. (Another reason for my intervention: it won’t be long before she’s too big to sit on my lap, so I’m enjoying it while I can.) I asked her to tell me all about it. As she sputtered and sobbed, the full story gradually came out.

Her older sister Alexa had a friend over and they were playing at something that involved large Ziploc bags. Lindsay was tagging along, and the two older girls gave her a bag and asked her to fill it with water and bring it back to them. But it was a trick: the bag had a hole in it! They expected her to carry the thing back leaking water all over the place; if they were lucky, she’d even get in trouble.

This is the kind of thing older siblings are always doing. I remember one time during my pre-teen years when I was at a video arcade with a friend playing Tempest and we got tired of my friend’s little brother hanging around watching us play. So we gave him fifteen cents and told him to head down to Dairy Queen, a couple blocks away, to buy us some whip. (I’d once seen it on the menu under “toppings.”) Happy to be included, even in a servile role, my friend’s brother gamely headed out on the errand. It was a really hot summer day, and this was the most popular Dairy Queen in town, and the poor kid stood in line for at least half an hour before getting to the little window and being told he couldn’t just buy whip by itself. He came back bearing the bad news, and—managing not to laugh—we scolded him: “Doggone it, we told you to get us whip! What do you mean they won’t sell it to you?! It’s right there on the menu! Now you march straight back there and get us our whip!” (We will both go to Hell for this, of course.)

Mostly, though, I was on the other end of these sibling affairs, being brushed off by older brothers who wanted nothing to do with me. I remember once how Max (the next oldest) and I once wanted to play in our bigger brothers’ friend’s clubhouse. They refused to let us in. Max demanded a reason, so they told him it was because his nose was running and he had an ugly bruise on his forehead. They even made a song to taunt him with: “No snotty-pot bruise-heads allowed in the clubhouse!”

Now, Lindsay’s response to her sister’s prank was pretty clever—she was no dupe. She spotted the hole in the bag, and instead of merely pointing out the older girls’ treachery (which would have accomplished nothing), she devised a clever retaliatory plan: she would swap out the defective bag for a perfect one, and casually return with it properly filled, not leaking a drop. She could pretend to be sweetly accommodating, and watch with delight as the other girls, astonished, beheld her achievement. It would be, in the parlance of childhood triumphs, a “burn-royal-fry.” (If this term confuses you, allow me to explain. When I was a kid, getting the better of somebody was called a “burn.” Getting him real good was a “burn-royal.” A true burn-royal-fry, needless to say, was exceedingly rare.)

But (my daughter now sobbed), her plan did not work out. She managed to obtain a good Ziploc bag, but in the process of trying to open it, she ripped it, and it turned out to be the last Ziploc bag in the house, and now everything was ruined. This was the real cause of the outburst: she’d had the perfect plan but she botched it through sheer clumsiness and haplessness. She was furious with herself.

Poor kid. It’s my fault: she’s clearly got the Albert self-flogging gene. Not all of us Alberts have it, but it’s not uncommon in our family. Of course, this excess of self criticism—a refusal to be compassionate with oneself—is not unique to us. I remember a childhood pal who made a mistake during his piano recital and actually stopped playing so he could smack himself in the head and say, “Stupid! Stupid!” I’ve also seen self-flogging behavior on TV when a pro soccer player has screwed up and falls to his knees, tearing at his hair. Etc.

But the self-flogging gene isn’t all bad; it all depends on how it pans out. If it leads you toward sorrow, you can become paralyzed, depressed. But if it leads to toward anger, you might either a) hit yourself in the head and say “Stupid!” or b) take some constructive action. So, hearing Lindsay’s story now, I realized the best thing I could do would be salvage her original scheme. I found some food in a large Ziploc in the fridge, dumped it out, and gave her the bag. Her spirits were instantly restored, and she galloped happily away toward the sink.

My point here is that to fully appreciate Lindsay’s grief, it’s not enough to know about the ripped bag. You also have to have been a younger sibling: it takes an understanding of the casual cruelty with which an older sibling turns the younger into a plaything on the way to rejecting her. Moreover, it takes a kindred pugnacious spirit. And, to truly feel Lindsay’s pain at the ripped bag, you need to share with her the self-flogging gene. Given the full picture of the poor kid’s angst, it’s almost a miracle she found anybody who could truly understand and relate.

Case Study #3 - Mad Max

When I was about twelve, I saw “Mad Max,” an action movie about a renegade cop taking revenge on a gang of psychotic bikers. But I came in late, to a scene where one of the cops, Jim Goose, goes berserk and tries to beat up some guy, and has to be held back by his fellow cops. I was fairly horrified at his behavior.

However, some time later I saw the whole movie from the beginning, and had a totally different reaction. Goose was a hugely likeable character, and the guy he tried to beat up, Johnny the Boy, was a little bastard who liked to terrorize small towns, raping and pillaging just for fun. In the scene where Goose loses his temper, Johnny and various other thugs had just been released from prison because no witnesses showed up for the trial, being too cowed by the gang to testify. In this context, Goose’s outburst seemed completely appropriate, and I was swept right along with the rest of the movie, where Max hunts down the gang members one by one and murders them.

For years I had fond memories of that film, and my brothers and friends and I frequently quoted bits of its dialog, but somewhere along the line it dawned on me that this movie is a guilty pleasure at best. Obviously it’s not a morality tale, and isn’t supposed to be anything but entertainment, but for a mature person to fully buy into the revenge fantasy, as I had as a teenager, would be kind of sick. My malleable teenage mind, I have come to understand, had been manipulated by the filmmakers. Looking back at Goose’s blowup, I realize my reaction has come full circle: I was right to be appalled when I first saw it.

This presents an interesting case in my “big picture” discussion. Sometimes a total lack of context is just fine, because context doesn’t always matter. For example, police brutality is never okay, period. Looking at a somewhat bigger picture—such as the one the filmmakers made—gets you into dangerous territory: you’re lured into an extreme position by a totally one-sided narrative. The real big picture here requires a nuanced appreciation for what a filmmaker may do to titillate a jaded audience, without regard to how his movie, and others like it, may gradually pollute our attitudes.

The upshot of today’s exploration?

  • Stop and think, hard, before you accost a complete stranger.
  • Appreciate that, though it might take a highly specific perspective to realize it, sometimes a plastic bag is actually worth crying over.
  • Try to remember that in the quest for the big picture, sometimes bigger isn’t big enough.

dana albert blog

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Trouble With English


I have an English degree. This leads a good number of people to assume that I have above-average knowledge of grammar, and these people are not wrong. However, I think the link between an English degree and knowledge of grammar is a lot more tenuous than most people think. The number of college courses that taught me grammar was exactly zero. (Only one grammar class was offered and I didn’t take it.) I know a lot of grammar because I’ve studied other languages; such study requires more of a structural approach than kids take when learning to talk.

Having struggled with Russian, French, and Latin, I came to appreciate what was easy about them and what was not. My general impression has been that whatever difficulty I had, these languages are easier to learn than English (though French is impossible to pronounce). In this post I’ll examine just a few of the things that make English so hard: the absurdity of English spelling; the impossibly vague unwritten rules; and the challenges of pronunciation, slang, and jargon. Along the way I’ll offer up some examples of warped English sentences, mainly for your amusement.

Is English really that hard?

Yes, it is. Consider the following insert that came with an electric mosquito repeller my mom bought back in 1992. (Yes, “repeller” actually is a word, even though my word processing program flags it as a misspelling.)

Mosquitoes frequently infect you place in Summer, especially at night, They are externely irritating as they disturbed our sleep and the most annoying of all is the difficulty in getting rid of the itch & soreness. After, ordinary mosquito‑increase or "Electrified Mosquito Killer" are used. However the odour is unbearable and the abuse of some of them may become dangerous. . . . According to the research of insect ecology, most of biting mosquitos are female ones in spawning period. A Spawning female mosquito is very disgusted at the approaching of male mosquito. Therefore, the trequency of Repel‑It' is made to imitate the sound signal of male mosquitos to repell female mosquitos away.

Beyond its laughable gaffs, that passage struck a chord with me because I once lost a spelling bee because of the word “mosquito,” which I thought was spelled “misquito.” (Another time I lost on “maize,” not understanding the clue “The Indians called it maize.” Had my pugnacity been fully developed back then, I’d have said, “Excuse me, but whether you mean Native Americans or persons from India, they’d have used a word from their own language for whatever they were talking about. That you couldn’t have meant ‘labyrinth’ is not at all clear and I deserve a new word.” But I digress.)

In the repeller insert, “they disturbed our sleep” seems ridiculous, but then, whom are we talking about, anyway? I’d have used a different verb and the pronoun—“they disturb your sleep”—but this formation is also easy to find fault with. To somebody new to English, the use of the present tense to imply habitual behavior is far from obvious, and “your” suggests that the writer of the insert has met the reader, which of course isn’t the case. The unwritten rules of our language seem so sensical, and yet they’re completely arbitrary. And that word I just used, sensical? Of course it’s not a word. How come things can be nonsensical, but not sensical? Because. Just because.

The absurdity of English spelling

As I note my children’s various misspellings I appreciate afresh how easy it is to guess wrong at the spelling of an English word. At school my daughter Lindsay was assigned to draw a monster than then write about it. She wrote, “He is Rushen.” When I first read this I thought, gosh, my daughter sure is stupid! But then I thought, wait, why does “R-u-s-s-i-a-n” make any sense? That ought to spell “Russ-ey-an.” Lindsay’s spelling actually makes more sense.

Now, my more patriotic readers might try to blame this crazy spelling on the Russians themselves, but of course they would spell it “русско,” which is pronounced “ROOSE-koh.” And it’s spelled totally phonetically: the “р” makes an “r” sound, the “у” makes an oo sound, the “с” makes an “s” sound, the “к” makes a “k” sound, and the “о” makes an “oh” sound. These letters always make these sounds; the Russian “с” is always an “s” sound, never a “k” or “z” sound, and so on. None of this “-tion” or “-sion” nonsense for the Russians; they have a letter, “ш,” that makes the “sh” sound. Latin is similarly consistent in its spelling; in fact, if you see two “u”s together (e.g., in the handy phrase “ignis fatuus”), you pronounce both the “u”s: “ig-nees fat-oo-oos.”

Next in my exhibit of hopeless English spellings is the street name “Gough” in San Francisco. Nobody I knew when I lived in that city could produce a definitive pronunciation of this street name. It could rhyme with bough, through, cough, tough, or even the second syllable of “borough.” It could be “Gow,” “Goo,” “Goff,” “Guff,” or “Go.” All we can say for sure about “Gough” is that the second “g” doesn’t make a “g” sound. I mean, why should it, right?

My final evidence about the hopelessness of English spelling is the existence of the heteronym. A heteronym is a pair of words that are spelled the same but pronounced differently, like “tear” (that rolls down your cheek) and “tear” (to rend something). I know of seventy-eight of these double-words in the English language, most of which you can find on the Heteronym Homepage. (One they missed is “entrance,” the way in, vs. “entrance,” to put into a trance.) The only way to know how to pronounce an instance of a heteronym is by context.

We think of the English language as phonetic, but it barely is. Our spelling rules are really more like tendencies. In Lindsay’s classroom the teacher has posted a large collection of “word wall words”—that is, words that cannot be sounded out and must simply be memorized, like multiplication tables. Some people are better at this memorization than others—hence the many English speakers you encounter who are no good at spelling.

Impossibly vague unwritten rules

In the mosquito repeller insert was the phrase “very disgusted.” If this didn’t make you chuckle, what’s wrong with you? After all, we all know (once we stop and think about it) that “disgusted” is a word with a built-in sense of the absolute. Similarly, I know a fellow from Hong Kong who often uses the phrase “extremely delicious,” which I’ve actually adopted myself due to its delightful oddness.

Scanning a bulletin board at a Laundromat ages ago, I came across a handwritten ad for the services of a “reliable French young man.” I found it impossible, upon reading this, to prevent the song “International Bright Young Thing” from invading my head and lingering there. I can imagine that no native English speaker would let “reliable French young man” go by without at least a raised eyebrow. Surely you would immediately see that a more correct order would be “reliable young French man” or “reliable young Frenchman.” And yet nowhere in Strunk & White does it say, “Any adjective specifying nationality must be placed immediately before the noun it modifies.”

It’s also curious to note that it’s intuitively obvious that “French man” can be shortened to “Frenchman,” while “German man” cannot be shortened to “Germanman.” It really only works with French. From the standpoint of accepted linguistic forms, you can shorten Chinese man to “Chinaman,” but you never, ever should because it’s disparaging, obviously.

And even if we eliminate the “French” aspect of the Laundromat ad, there’s a right and a wrong way to order the adjectives. The phrase “reliable young man” sounds totally fine, but not “young reliable man.” The placement of adjectives officially matters in French: a word can have a totally different meaning based on whether it precedes a noun or follows it; “propre chemise” means “my shirt” whereas “chemise propre” means “clean shirt.” In English it’s assumed the adjectives can go in any order, but that’s not really the case if you want to sound like a native speaker, as the Laundromat ad shows. Is this subtlety taught in grammar class? I think not. Latin, meanwhile, offers not only the opportunity to put adjectives in any order, but every word in a sentence in any order. You could write a sentence on a piece of paper, cut the paper so each word is its own scrap, and rearrange the scraps any old way and the sentence would still make sense.

You might wonder why I capitalize Laundromat. Well, originally I didn’t. My spell-checker caught that. I looked it up, and it turns out to be a trademark, like Band-Aid. So we capitalize it, just like we capitalize Dumpster, Jacuzzi, and Lycra, even if we’re using the word to refer to a general thing, rather than a specific brand. Is this a hard-and-fast rule? No, we don’t capitalize aspirin, bundt cake, cellophane, escalator, or zipper, though they all derive from trademarks as well. Why don’t we capitalize them? We just don’t. (In the case of zipper, the B.F. Goodrich company sued—unsuccessfully—to protect its trademark. Whom did they sue? I don’t know. Look it up.)

One unwritten rule that continues to confuse my kids is that verbs of desire should be rendered in the hypothetical subjunctive. Now, before you take my kids’ side on this, it’s not as complicated as it sounds. Instead of “I want a snack,” they should say, “I would like a snack.” And of course they should say “please.” In my household, “I want a snack, please” isn’t good enough. The “please” in that instance sounds tacked-on. “I would like a snack, please” is close enough to “May I have a snack, please?” that I’ll accept it. Why does the hypothetical subjunctive convey humility and politesse? Beats me.

Then there are the words that only exist in certain comparative forms, as with my “sensical” bit above. For example, you can be overwhelmed, and underwhelmed, but never just whelmed. You can be overbearing, but not underbearing. You can understand something, and you can stand something, but you can’t overstand something. A library book can be due, or overdue, but not underdue. You can be incognito, but not cognito. I’m not the first person to point these out so I won’t dwell on them. I’d just like to make the point that we pretend this language is modular—that is, we can tack on prefixes and suffixes as we please—but it’s just not the case.

There are countless other unwritten rules, of course, but I just saw you checking your watch so I’ll move on.

Pronunciation, slang, and jargon

I group pronunciation and jargon together because they’re both examples of how a language can seem deliberately designed to stymie the outsider. All languages are guilty of this to a greater or lesser degree. Perfect mastery of a vernacular is like membership in an exclusive club.

I can’t say whether English is particularly hard to pronounce, at least when compared to the French who seem to speak without the use of their teeth or hard palette. The French somehow weasel out of most consonant sounds. They have a strange knack for beautifully speaking a language that sounds awful on a foreigner’s tongue. But English has its own difficulties, and not just the famous “th” sound that the French cannot make.

The most subtle (but undeniable) unwritten rule of pronunciation I can think of in English is the tendency to put emphasis on a specific word in a two-word phrase, consistently. (I describe this at length in my post about how to write a sonnet.) There is a right way to pronounce “hot,” and a right way to pronounce “dog,” and—this is the weird part—a right way to pronounce “hot dog.” You accentuate the first word, not the second: “HOT dog.” (The exception is if you’re expressing great delight and excitement: “Hot DOG!”) Another phrase like this is “boy scout”: always “BOY scout,” never “boy SCOUT.” Another is “TRASH can.” Another is “BIG time.” There are probably hundreds of phrases like this; they’re hard to come up with until you hear a foreigner get one wrong.

Obviously all languages have slang, but I suspect English could be the worst offender (or greatest innovator, depending on your perspective), because it is widely thought to have more words than any other major language. And the very existence of Cockney rhyming slang shows a willful desire to make language more complicated (but also more fun) through obscure word substitutions. (I realize that my assertion of English being more slangy is the most fragile one I’ve made, and quite possibly completely untrue. I’m baiting somebody to call me out on it.)

Slang would be no problem for newcomers to a language if the natives didn’t use it unconsciously. But we do. For example, I was watching bike race coverage recently and the Irish commentator (and bike racing legend) Sean Kelly kept using the word “ride” in a special sense I’ve only recently come to understand. “Ride” in this context doesn’t just mean to ride a bike; it means riding aggressively and pedaling really hard as opposed to tucking behind other riders and trying to conserve energy. Kelly is presumably speaking to a very wide viewing audience and may well fail to realize he’s using a highly specific connotation of a very general word here.

It’s easy for me to appreciate how subtle “ride” is in this context, but other cycling slang has become second nature, to the extent that I don’t even realize I’m using it. For example, I was talking one of my wife’s friends, a newcomer to cycling, and was surprised when she didn’t know what “drop” means, as in “I dropped him” or “don’t worry about getting dropped.” I thought everybody knew this.

The vernacular causes trouble when a writer is trying to educate a large and diverse population and, though trying to be clear, buries the reader in highly specialized terms. This unconscious use of jargon is what can make owner’s manuals and computer messages so hard to understand. Many a creator of such texts, through failure of imagination, sells short his audience. In the course of a single workday, I was nonplussed by three such puzzles. Here is the first:

What does “share” mean in this context? What would that look like? What would happen, on my screen, if I selected “Nobody”? Isn’t sharing with nobody the default behavior—i.e., what I was already doing? By the logic of this menu option, shouldn’t there be a button labeled “Simply exist”?

Check out this error message:

This was annoying because it popped up instead of whatever I had hoped would happen on my screen. (I can no longer remember what I was trying to do.) It’s frustrating, in such situations, to have as my only recourse a button to click that says “OK.” OK? No, it’s not okay! What are our children learning, through computers, about the meaning of the word “OK”? Perhaps this explains why, whenever I tell one of my daughters to do something, she says “OK” but does nothing. I always thought she was consenting to my command; now that I think about it, saying "OK" is just the non-PC equivalent of making my window go away so she can get back to what she was doing.

The last of the error messages was truly perplexing:

Whatever the difference is between the Outlook Address Book entries and e-mail addresses in contacts, it’s not obvious here. A colleague commented, “That is like saying, ‘Adding lettuce to a salad is prohibited.’” Amen.

Owner’s manuals can be even worse. (I’m not even completely satisfied with the term “owner’s manual.” Who is this mythical “owner”? Why can’t they just call it “Your manual”? After all, they go on to refer to you as “you” throughout the manual anyway. It’s not like they say “The owner must gather information about his machine…” and so on.)

When you’re reading about how to set up your new PC device, you can’t just ignore what you don’t understand—you have to grasp what you’re reading or you’ll never get anywhere. You’re depending on the comprehensibility of that manual. So it was when I set up my new printer.

(A quick note about my printer. It’s not an expensive one. The manufacturer probably lost money on it in the short term. It’s really just a delivery mechanism for very expensive ink, according to the “first time’s free, kid” revenue model perfected by Gillette. Note also that I do not have a lot of ink stashed away here: only what came with the printer. You’d be much better off breaking into the home of someone who blogs about his iPad.)

So. The printer. I was quaking with fear at the setup process, because the last time I did this, for my mom, I failed. Nothing worked right, and the manual and help menus were worthless. Printers are a bitch. (Imagine that sentence, “printers are a bitch,” from a learning-English point of view. It’s not “printers are bitches.” It’s not “a printer is a bitch.” It’s “printers are a bitch.” How can multiple printers be one bitch?)

The manual I got is actually pretty well written. The setup process is pretty complicated, but the directions didn’t generally lead me astray. But there were some very perplexing bits. For example, in the part about removing the countless bits of orange tape securing everything for shipping, there was this note: “The tape and protective materials may differ in shape and position from what they actually are.” Wait. So you mean to tell me that as intimidated as I already am about this printer, there will be shape-shifting going on? “See this tape? It’s tape, right? No, look now—it’s a flower!” (I suspect they meant to say, “The tape and protective materials may differ in shape and position from what is shown here.” But if this is the case, why didn’t they just say so?)

The next troublesome point: “A USB cable is necessary to connect the machine with your computer (USB connection only).” Normally, context can help with these things, but it’s a wireless printer. Ignoring for a moment the parenthetical part, the basic statement is that the cable is necessary. (The fact that the printer doesn’t come with this cable is immaterial; printers have never come with cables, due to the “gouge them” revenue model.) Anybody could be forgiven for being misled by this statement into thinking the cable is necessary, especially since the parenthetical bit only seems to reiterate the rest of the statement. This is the kind of tautology you could get lost in for days. If you called the help desk for advice, the conversation could get really weird:

[Consumer] “It’s a wireless printer but it says here ‘A USB cable is necessary to connect the machine with your computer (USB connection only).’ Does that mean I need a USB cable?”

[Help desk] “No, the USB cable is only necessary when you’re using the USB cable.”

[C] “But I don’t have to use the cable?”

[HD] “No, you don’t have to.”

[C] “So why does it say I do?”

[HD] “You only need to use it if you’re going to use it. If you were going to use the cable but didn’t connect the cable, you wouldn’t be using the cable.”

[C] “Which would be a problem because…?”

[HD] “Because it was your intention to use the cable.”

[C] “Was it?”

[HD] I don’t know—you tell me!”

Of course this hypothetical dialog is completely unrealistic because the help desk person, regardless of his or her nationality, wouldn’t be nearly this articulate.

The last confusing bit is this: “Additional computers on the same network It enables the computer to use the machine.” I have tried and failed to figure out where this one went wrong. My first theory is that there’s simply a period missing before the word “It.” But this can’t be, because the first sentence would have no verb—and no object, for that matter. So maybe the word “It” was put in by mistake? No, because then the subject (“computers”) wouldn’t agree with the verb (“enables”). So “It” must belong, but what’s the antecedent? Impossible to tell. And logically, what would additional computers have to do with enabling “the computer” (whichever one that is) to use the machine? Besides, computers don’t use machines—people do.

My (very patient) wife suggested that the point here is that multiple computers can share the machine over a network. Great point, but this point was already made, earlier on the same page: “If the machine is already connected to a wireless/wired connection, it can be used from additional computers on the same network.” Despite the needlessness of “already,” and the strange yin/yang of “wireless/wired,” and the use of “connection” where “network” makes more sense, this is a pretty clear statement. Why follow it up with the totally muddled one? I can only assume that the technical writer here is paid by the word.

I only wish that I were paid by the word—I’d be rich now. And on that note, I shall end this post mid-

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