Minkey Business

"Over the cage floor the horizons come."

The American roadside attraction

“You kill it, we grill it.”

The closest Roadkill Cafe comes to living up to name and tagline is the bison burger, a road kill that would likely leave you in no shape to eat anything. But this is Seligman, Arizona, along a section of Route 66 that cleaves more accurately to a Disney Cars notion of the defunct highway than the dustier, more dangerous version Steinbeck etched in Grapes of Wrath.

Not everyone gets it. A few years ago, we recommended the Grand Canyon Caverns to a couple who came back puffy and hissy about how downmarket the experience was, how underwhelming the caverns, especially compared to ones they’d seen on their other travels around the world. They had completely missed the point.

When you park in the shadow of a giant plaster dinosaur and pay $12 to be led through the caverns by an eccentric bearded man who knows and has a name for every calcite formation (“Here are the Fried Eggs!”), through caves that contain a mummified bobcat, a model of a prehistoric giant sloth whose bones were found in the cavern, and tinned biscuits from when it was to be a Cold War fallout shelter, you have signed on the dotted line of a very American contract. All along this thoroughfare are eccentric, overblown roadside attractions whose inauthenticity is their authenticity—you hand over your money fully aware you’re being taken for a bit of a ride, and you’re okay with that. This is how you get your kicks on Route 66.

If you haven’t been to the US, and are not sure which of your grand and terrible images of this country would survive a visit, it would likely be your fevered dream of the road trip. Few other American experiences outside of the National Parks live up to or even exceed fable. Recently, I drove with my parents from home near Los Angeles, to Denver, Colorado. Taking our time over three days, we passed through Flagstaff, Arizona, and the incredible Monument Valley in the Navajo Nation. On the way back it was just me from Vail, Colorado, taking the faster route along the I-70 and I-15 freeways.

The first third or so of the sixteen-and-a-half-hour journey back (counting breaks) was enlivened by the scenery through the Rockies and the San Rafael Swell. As the land settled into less fantastical shapes, colours and textures, I switched the in-car entertainment from music to an audio book, The View from the Cheap Seats by Neil Gaiman. In his essay ‘How Dare You’ about his novel American Gods, Gaiman seemed to address me directly when he said, “I discovered, as I wrote it, why roadside attractions are the most sacred places in America.”

I was intrigued. I haven’t read American Gods, but I know that turning off a highway, and following a sign promising a “historical museum” or the like, is like turning from your idea of America to America’s idea of America. Without these signposts, the Hollywood sign is a set of large wooden letters on a hill, a burger is a round sandwich, and Route 66 is a scattering of lost roads. Contained in the American roadside attraction is the acknowledgment that somebody built this, and to it we came. Walking through a Seligman store, looking at the Route 66 T-shirts, mugs, licence plates, earrings, pins, caps, I see this dross, this kitsch as sacrament, as relics. I see the American’s longing to be told that somewhere in this vast, confusing, troubled, achingly beautiful country, is America, and that this may be it, no more, no less.

First published in Gulf News, August 16, 2016

Attaining a Grecian Urn

Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know

Thus ends ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ by John Keats. It’s an easy idea to accept, in a general sense. But what does it mean to you? What is your truth, and is it the same as my truth? If it’s all you need to know on earth, how do you apply it to your life?

Creative people use this word a lot when they talk about their craft. That their work is a quest for the truth. Or that only the truth can produce a masterpiece. But when you take one particular writer, about to write her novel’s first sentence, what is truth at that moment?

In my last ‘Off the Cuff’ I said that as we get to our 40s, our coping mechanisms seem to choke up. As a result, many of my friends are on a truth quest. They are questioning everything, acknowledging deeply buried hurt and pain. One has accepted that his relationship with his mother will never be what he needs. Another is moving on from troubling early memories. A third is re-examining what he always assumed was a happy family life, realising, among other things, that no child should have been yelled at the way he has been yelled at, with a savagery he wouldn’t subject even his dog to. But at 40, all of them are facing the mortality of the people who most affected them, and have to reconcile their anger and hurt with, let’s face it, increasingly helpless old people.

I know they will be okay, these people who are staring darkness in the eye. The ones to worry about are those that live in a fictional world of their own creation. Some live in the fiction of perfection, but when things go wrong, as they will, these people are like actors frozen on stage because suddenly the rest of the cast has gone off script. They are blindsided, bewildered and broken by the smallest upsets. Others create a fiction of a better tomorrow—that they’re only unhappy or anxious because of today’s difficulties, and that once they’ve got that new job or new toy or new body, everything will be better (I’m prone to this). Some people do this on a smaller scale, ascribing their unhappiness to a litany of minor issues—the food, the colour of the walls, the idiocy of people, anything to pretend it’s not about them.

As a friend observed recently, the problem with “sorting out one’s issues” is that dealing with other people’s lack of truth becomes harder. She is having trouble relating to one of her oldest friends. Under the black light of truth, she realises that she and her friend play out the same game of pretend they do in their families. “When I’m with her, we live in a world of unicorns, like we’re still 10. It’s fun, for about a day. Then her health issues get in the way, or I realise she’s never listening when I talk, or I get tired of being given advice, but I can’t say anything.” She paused. “Well I can say something, I choose not to.” She paused. “There’s nothing beautiful about the truth, is there?”

It’s true. The truth is usually ugly. But Keats didn’t use the definite article. ‘Truth’, as against ‘the truth’ is more a state of being. Truth is a place you reach after many, many truths, and I suspect that the reason it’s beautiful, is that you never quite get there.

First published in Gulf News, August 16, 2016

Oops, my coping mechanism has jammed

On paper, Jarvis (name changed) should be a great friend. We’re almost the same age, from similar backgrounds, with similar non-traditional interests. Like me, Jarvis enjoys words and language, and we love the same music. I really like Jarvis.

But, spending time with him is work. Hard, annoying work, like breaking stones or filling in expense reports. For some reason, I can’t let this go. I don’t just roll my eyes, and go on with my largely Jarvis-free life. Almost perversely, I reach out to him, and hope he’ll annoy me. And so, I know my problem with Jarvis has more to do with me than him.

It’s not like Jarvis is free from fault. He builds Brand Jarvis all the time. Almost every utterance of his seems calculated to push himself forward and upward. And, far harder for me, he is one of the worst listeners I know (and for some reason I’m friends with a number of appalling listeners). At best, he simply nods and shuts down conversations, but at his most annoying, he scans your conversation for keywords, and uses those to backhand a return story of his own. While you’re still talking.

I know well the damage that most likely fuels this behaviour. Not being heard and not being accepted for who you are has lifelong consequences, and I can’t look away from these faults. Sometimes we are drawn to that which is scarred the way we are scarred, so we can hate it and curse it, and pretend it isn’t like us at all. And thus, I often feel unmoored, and I’m not alone. So many of the newly minted forty-year-olds around me seem just as adrift. I feel that we’re hitting an age when the coping mechanisms start to wear out, and suddenly we’re asked to look into the blackness within. By this age, the body runs out of room to hide away its stresses, which then show up as depression, anxiety, psychosomatic pain and other illnesses. Our youth window for other abuses, such as comfort excess eating or smoking or extreme dieting or crazed exercising closes, and the chronic injuries start to show. Or quite simply, the afflicted person comes up against the same toxic situation so many times, they start to wonder, “Am I part of this pattern?”

One morning I realised that the way I call out Jarvis is the way I want to call out someone else in my life. Jarvis was the easy target. That wasn’t the revelation. What was startling is how this crept up on me, even though I believe I’m in good contact with my true internal motivations. This loss of attention is what results in you voting for Brexit because the Polish neighbour’s baby’s crying disturbs you. It’s what makes you choose a bigoted clown to be your country’s president because he vocalises your darkest mutterings when the Chinese woman in the white Mercedes cuts you off on the street you grew up on.

“Sorry for subjecting you to my psychological residue,” I wrote to Jarvis. Jarvis was gracious and mature in his response—he had never once taken the bait. “I sensed your disapproval,” he wrote, and that word shook me. Disapproval comes from on high, and is linked closely with expectation. And expectation, as I’ve learned, is a form of control. How dare I attempt to control Jarvis? I have the choice to accept him, talk to him about it, or refuse to meet him. I do not get to try and change him. Ah well, one more day, one more step towards a truthful existence.

First published in Gulf News, August 2, 2016

About that bass, no treble

Today in class, I learned how to slap. No, not a self-defence lesson, nor a Dickensian parenting course. I was at my bass guitar class. A few months ago, I stopped dreaming and started doing, and bought a cheap electric bass, found a teacher nearby, and started learning to groove.

Slapping and popping is a playing style favoured in disco, funk, and by solo bass players. The thumb is hammered on the lower two strings, and the higher two strings are plucked upwards, causing them to twang metallically against the frets. When you’re learning, it’s better described as “making a racket”, and I am thrilled that this is not just sanctioned, but a part of my student duties.

I’ve taken music classes before, and they’ve all been classically circumscribed. Here, I was intentionally “misusing” an instrument in grand tradition. Jazz for example, began with the misuse of military marching band instruments, which is why the genre so heavily features saxophones, trumpets, and trombones.

Early jazz musicians often had to make do with heavily worn or even broken instruments, and many of the chosen textural elements of jazz—the brays and the squeaks and overtones—probably trace back to when musicians had no choice but to incorporate them into their sound.

American bassist Marcus Miller, backs this up in an online article on For Bass Players Only by Jon Liebman, July 10, 2014. In it, Miller says, “If you notice, all the great cultural creations around the world, they come from poor people, people who don’t have a lot, from the ghettos.”

The article is specifically about slap bass, a technique that’s supposed to have originated (for Western music) in New Orleans in the early part of the twentieth century. While the tuba is the traditional marching band bass instrument, early bass players would be expected to play the tuba outdoors, and the double bass—the largest of the violin family—indoors. Presumably because the tuba or other brass bass instruments are too loud at close quarters. But the double bass was too soft (if you like jazz, you’ll know how the band comes to a halt for the bass solo), so players developed the slap technique to cut through the room.

Last night, at a theatre in Pasadena, I heard the composition Stronghold by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Julia Wolfe. It’s for eight double basses, but this performance, by experimental music group People Inside Electronics, had one live player and seven on tape. In the notes, Wolfe had written, “…I discovered that the bass had a limitless universe of expressive possibilities rarely explored.” She goes on to describe her piece. “Stronghold starts with webs of rolling harmonics, very high overtones that take advantage of the long length of the strings”.

In popular music, solo bassist Victor Wooten, exploits these harmonics to play entire tunes with them. Stronghold was interesting certainly, but for me, really came into its own at the end when the player pressed the bow heavily into the lowest string and created what Wolfe described as “thick, resonant sounds”, the sounds of discovering why we’re here, what we’re meant to be.

Using slap and pop on an electric bass combines percussion and musical tones in a way that feels like what a six-year-old would do if let loose on the instrument. Channeling that racket creates a propulsive, powerful sound, that’s overwhelming if overused. It also feels like a strong connection with the ingenuity, misuse and non-conformity that led to the creation of much of the music we listen to today.

First published in Gulf News, July 16, 2016

Fire on the mountain

After many summers in Southern California, I knew those weren’t clouds. And yet, from the window above our kitchen sink I saw the smoke rise from the mountains as if from a factory that made cumulonimbus for the entire sky.

It was the start of the San Gabriel Complex Fire, the giant love child of the Fish Fire and Reservoir Fire that burned 5,399 acres in the San Gabriel mountains above Greater Los Angeles. Standing in the 43ºC heat on June 20, I watched the two DC-10 Air Tankers make passes over the ridge, striping them with bright red Phos-Chek fire retardant. Helicopters flew back and forth making water drops.

As the sun set, the plane and most of the helicopters departed, but a Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane continued the trips from water source to above the flames, where, as my wife observed, it looked as if someone was trying to put out a bonfire by flicking droplets of water at it. At night, the flames outlined the slopes, with occasional flare-ups as they hit dense vegetation that hadn’t burned in over a decade.

Hundreds of people had to be evacuated, and several hillside neighbourhoods were in danger. But eventually the fire was contained, and several days later, I rode past some of the earliest neighbourhoods to be evacuated, marvelling at how close the flames had come to houses. A lone Skycrane landed at the water tank next to the San Gabriel River Trail and picked up a tank-load of water. It took off over my head into the mountains, to disappear around a ridge for about ten minutes before returning for the next load. It was the only aircraft in the vicinity but followed a clear flight path, hugging the south face of the valley on the way back and the north on the way out.

It was evening, so the CalTrans vehicles, and fire support trucks came down from the still-closed Highway 39 where a sheriff’s SUV sat behind the ‘road closed’ sign. The bored-looking sheriff talked to the driver of the big orange truck with a bulldozer attachment on the front.

I turned and rode down to the Santa Fe Dam Recreational Area where I had a view of the fire command staging area. There were mobile offices set up under the trees, and single person tents scattered all over the park. A helicopter sat the middle of a huge field, a tent pitched next to it. Nearby was a series of big-rig trailers converted to bunk-style housing. It made me think of the term “war footing”.

A day later I drove up to Chantry Flats and hiked to Hermit Falls, parts of the forest that would have been ablaze if it wasn’t for those hard-working fire crews and pilots. The trail went steeply down the side of a mountain into the shaded valley that led to a rocky swimming hole. I looked with renewed awe at the terrain—and imagined the “hand crews” hiking through it in 43ºC heat, carrying chainsaws, pulaskis and shovels, to spend hours creating fire breaks, often at great personal risk.

Scattered on the rocks around me were empty Corona bottles, and more of the plastic water bottles that were visible along the entire hiking trail. There were abandoned sweatshirts, shorts, socks, and even the packaging of a new Speedo. I collected the plastic bottles, uncapping them before stepping on them and recapping, the way I’d seen homeless people do at garbage cans. I turned for the car, following the trail of plastic, like breadcrumbs leading me out of the forest.

First published in Gulf News, July 5, 2016

‘We don’t call 911′

I always stare curiously at gun shops here in the US. As with most non-Americans, I’m not used to casually encountering one in a row of other more familiar businesses.

Once, one had a sign outside that I didn’t understand at first. “We don’t call 911,” it said, referring to the American emergency phone number. Later, the thought chambered. Gun shop employees don’t call the police because they shoot robbers themselves.

“We don’t call 911”. How neatly those words encapsulate an entire national rifle association ethos; that link between gun ownership and civil independence. (Among the most laughable of reasons given for regular Americans to bear arms, is “invasion readiness”.)

On June 1, a friend and I visited a gun shop for the first time. It was in the town of Duarte, in the Greater Los Angeles area, and we went on a whim, noticing it standing there opposite the restaurant where we’d just had delicious fish tacos. Next door to it was a dance studio advertising Zumba classes, and next to that, a pawnshop with a sign saying, “We buy gold”.

It wasn’t what I expected. We didn’t have to be buzzed in like they do at some pawnshops. Nobody looked up as we entered, nobody kept a sharp eye on these two foreign-looking men staring at the shotguns, even as news of the UCLA shooting was emerging. A sheriff stood at a counter, talking guns with an employee. A pimply looking young man finished buying a gun already in its case.

“Enjoy your purchase,” said the employee as the man left with the four-foot long container.

“I will,” he replied.

Of all the gun-buying possibilities in the US, the one that makes Rest of World (and many, many Americans) shake their heads the most, is the assault rifle. A former work supervisor of mine runs an online gun business, and I recently visited his website. Apart from a range of handguns and shotguns, you can—for the cost of a decent television—also choose from nine assault rifles. Most are in the AR-15 style favoured by armies and mass shooters, including Omar Mateen, the Orlando nightclub killer. You might know this style from the M16, the famous Vietnam-era assault rifle.

At the lower end, for just $789 (I bet you’ve paid more for your home-entertainment system), you can own a DPMS Oracle semiautomatic tactical rifle. For $1,025 you can get an Armalite M15 A4, and because California restricts high-capacity magazines, it comes with only a 10-cartridge capacity. In 42 other US states, you could buy a 100-round magazine if you wanted.

That’s 100 bullets in the 5.56 NATO calibre, a projectile that reaches three times the speed of sound, and penetrates 38 to 51cm into soft tissue. And because it’s used by armed forces, it has been developed for “stopping power”, or wound-causing ability.

Some defenders of these guns say they are hunting or sporting rifles, and should not be thought of as assault weapons. I visited the Sig Sauer website to look at the gun Mateen used in Orlando. “The SIG MCX is an innovative weapon system built around a battle-proven core” says the web page. “The first true mission-adaptable weapon system” says the PDF brochure.

“Shooter make ready” goes a webpage subhead. The SIG has been built to be silenced from the “ground up”, “enabling you to build a complete weapon system for any scenario or environment”.

Very little of this sounds like deer hunting to me.

I searched for dealers within 50 miles of me. There are ten. The closest is a 16-minute drive away. Welcome to America.

First published in Gulf News, June 21, 2016

The largest trees on earth

When you talk of the giant sequoia, people often think it’s the same tree as the coastal redwood. But actually, the redwood, the tallest trees on earth, are cousins of the giant sequoia—the largest trees on earth. Giant sequoias don’t grow as tall as redwoods, but have much broader trunks that don’t taper very much. If they weren’t 250 feet tall, they’d be funny, stubby looking trees.

What struck us again, on this sixth or seventh trip to Sequoia National Park, was that the drive to the park gives no clues about the monsters that live in the hills. Sequoias grow only between about 5,000 and 7,000 feet, and encountering them is literally a matter of rounding a corner and entering the giant grove. The farmland and scrubland on the approach to the Sierra Nevada mountains give up no secrets. There are no especially large trees, or mushrooms the size of footstools, or mysteriously fat pumpkins for sale at the farm fruit and vegetable stalls.

Even after you enter the park, paying what I’ve described here before as the most value-for-money entry fee on the planet, the mountain drive whispers no warnings. Flora and fauna is as expected for pretty much any California ascent, until about 45 minutes up the mountain when those enormous trunks appear, and your mind yaws as it tries to comprehend their size.

Some of the trees in the park are 2,500 years old. General Sherman, currently the largest tree on earth, is estimated to be as much as 2,700 years old. When it was a seedling, the Classical Greek civilisation was at its height, and Alexander the Great was yet to be born. General Sherman shared this earth with Plato, Ashoka the Great and Julius Caesar. When Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) was born, General Sherman was already an incredible age for a tree at 1,000 years old. From classical antiquity onwards, through the Middle Ages, through wars, plagues, fires and the rise and fall of cities and civilisations, art and literary movements, through the lifetimes of all your recorded and remembered ancestors, General Sherman has stood and respired and grown in a grove of fellow giants.

Who knows how long General Sherman will live? Giant sequoias die only by toppling, though they are also under pressure from climate change. Even if General Sherman’s life is 90 per cent done, your great-great-great grandchild will be able to stand in front of the tree and wonder at its humbling long life. I’m assuming they won’t have to wonder if you’ve been there, because even if Facebook doesn’t exist in 200 or so years, digital archaeology will be a thing, and emulators will let them access this vintage data.

The US National Park Service (NPS) is rightly proud of choices it has made to reduce development in the park. It documents the removal of a restaurant and cabins that were right in the middle of a grove of these trees. Perhaps in 200 years your descendant will get off some low-impact maglev monorail and look in askance at the pictures of roads running through the park, and in horror at images of the lines of personal vehicles waiting to get in.

As we left the park just before Memorial Day, the line of cars waiting to enter extended almost a kilometre from the gate through the town of Three Rivers. The NPS has preserved these precious natural spaces, but the stress of so many vehicles and visitors made us consider that staying away from a National Park (and perhaps donating the entry fee to the NPS) is sometimes the right thing to do.

First published in Gulf News, June 7, 2016

‘The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth’

“Southern trees bear a strange fruit / Blood on the leaves and blood at the root / Black body swinging in the Southern breeze / Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.”

Singer Billie Holiday recorded ‘Strange Fruit’ in 1939. The lyrics were from a poem by Abel Meeropol, which he published in 1937 and later set to music. Lynchings in the United States occurred regularly until as late as the 1960s.

The 1960s were also the decade in which M was born; his lifetime, and certainly his parents’, overlaps with a time when black men, women and children were hanged from trees by extrajudicial mobs.

M is my neighbour, a man I’ve written about before. I’m fascinated with his mindset in a time we’re more sensitised to diversity than ever, but are in real danger of having a US president try to make good on his promise to build his great big wall.

This February, in Anaheim, California, the Ku Klux Klan gathered for a rally. A crowd of counter-protesters was waiting, and charged the Klan members as they got out of their cars, causing most to flee. Three Klansmen were left behind to be attacked, an altercation that resulted in three stabbings—at least one by a Klan member apparently acting in self-defence with a ceremonial flagpole.

It’s notable that the KKK had no voice in a California town once so overrun by white supremacists, it had the nickname Klanaheim. Today, there’s something hopelessly out-of-date, even childish, about grown men gathering to celebrate their race’s perceived superiority.

Back to M. He and his friend recently took the Metro train to downtown Los Angeles. They wandered through historic Olvera Street, and had the famous “French dip” lamb sandwich at Philippe’s for dinner. It was past 10pm when they got the train back, and as it entered Pasadena, two young men got on, one black and one Hispanic. The men sprawled across the aisle, their legs and bicycles in the way of other passengers. A Bluetooth speaker on one bicycle started blasting gangster rap through the carriage.

“It was awful,” said M, of the music. “It was all misogyny and incest, and just terrible—everyone could hear it. And it was all N- this and N- that.”. M had no qualms about using the N-word in full, loudly on our front lawn.

From personal history, I knew that part of M’s horror was the realisation that public spaces didn’t automatically belong to him, a white man. Even so, I was with M so far. Loud music is rude (and illegal) on the Metro, and it’s even worse when the lyrics are offensive. But M lost me when he told about his follow-up. The next day he called the Metro complaint line and started railing at the person on the other end about “the N- on the train with the loud N- music”. The black Metro employee told M that he didn’t want to take his call, and would transfer him to someone else. M got angry, and demanded that he be heard.

That’s when I got angry too. I think it’s safe to say that no black person in America today should have to listen to a white person use the N-word in anger, certainly not if the recipient is a presumably hardworking, far-from-overpaid city employee.

“How dare he?” said M of the Metro employee. “I was oppressed too!”

His righteous anger sounded plaintive, almost pleading. All I could do was walk away. The wind rustled through the trees around us. “Blood on the leaves and blood at the root.”

First published in Gulf News, May 24, 2016

The disappointment of a salesman

When Sam thought he had the sale, he was indefatigable. The sports version we wanted wasn’t available, so he urged us to consider the regular one, and drove one out “from the back” to send us a picture. But we were sure of what we wanted, so he got to work. He called the port. He updated us on progress. In one afternoon, he found us a car.

That evening, we did some research, and decided to go another way. I texted Sam before business hours the next day, so that he would know not to start any more work on us. I thanked him for his time, acknowledged his effort, apologised for changing our minds, and gave him the reason why.

Sam didn’t reply.

While he may have merely shrugged and moved onto the next customer, his silence was a blank canvas onto which I projected my assumptions of his state of mind. That he was annoyed, and maybe upset. That he was sulking.

Sam’s not the first to have displayed how important it is for salespeople to handle disappointment positively. I’ve had so many experiences that suggest that sales training does not put enough emphasis on how to behave when a transaction doesn’t go as expected. Too many salespeople get hurt or angry (and show that hurt or anger) when a customer changes his or her mind. Car sales especially demand empathy and patience from sales staff, as these are big, important purchases for most people.

Sometimes, I’ve seen salespeople act in anticipation of disappointment. In cycling culture, you are encouraged to support your LBS, or local bike store. It’s considered bad form to go to your LBS to try on something, then buy it online. But many people do this, and sometimes it’s obvious that a bike store employee has made an assumption about you. The result? Self-fulfilling prophecy.

If online commerce means that only two out of ten walk-ins buy, it’s even more important to give all ten a level of service that reminds them why they’ve sought out a brick-and-mortar shop. And that’s the greatest thing about non-online sales: you have the customer standing before you. He or she is giving you a chance to build a relationship. The sale is secondary—the most important thing, I believe, is to bring the customer back just one more time. And then one more, and one more, and soon, it’s “their” shop.

When things go badly, our lizard brains never forget. If you’ve had bad service at one shop in a mall, have you noticed how your gut forever wants you to not even drive past the mall again?

If Sam had replied to my text, thanking me for letting him know, and telling me to come back any time, I’d feel obliged to him. I’d remember him, and six months or a year from now, if I or a friend was in the market, I’d seek him out. But now? I might tell a friend, go there, but don’t work with Sam. Or I might steer the friend from the dealership altogether, because I assume that Sam’s possible emotional immaturity is a reflection of management’s character.

Thoughtful brand owners must shiver in their sleep knowing that thousands, even millions of dollars of brand value lies in the hands of Sams—people they have no control over, who are the first (and often only) human face of the brand for most customers. The brick-and-mortar shop today is either a useless rock or a precious gem, and only the staff at the specific location can decide which.

First published in Gulf News, May 15, 2016

When nouns are ‘doing words’

Whether bathroom policies at universities, racial attacks on buses, or police shootings, we live in a time where contexts of delicate issues are discussed and exposed in a way that was either impossible or overly long-drawn without the internet.

Within hours of triggering events we are able to read in depth on issues of gender, race, or culture. While most commentary is nuanced, enlightening and well-written, it’s common to have some of these ideas lost in a labyrinth of verbiage known as “academese”.

I’ve always been intimidated by academese. Its confidence trick requires readers who are either insecure enough or humble enough to assume that if they don’t understand something (or have to read a paragraph four times) it’s their fault. I’m usually insecure enough, having taken on the burden of wanting to be intelligent in all contexts that don’t include numbers.

Even when I write, if my confidence falters, I find I reach more often for academese and its keystone, the nominalisation. Turning verbs into nouns is a great way to play confidence tricks. Instead of, “the actor climbed the ladder”, the actor could “utilise a ladder for the exploration of verticality”.

A recent discussion on a copyeditors’ list confirmed what my gut has long known—that academese is simply bad, pompous writing. To watch these editors fearlessly tear down pedestals was an editing and writing lesson: don’t be cowed. One list member shared a note on the word ‘privilege’ by the American novelist David Foster Wallace, written for The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, 2012. It begins, “Even though some dictionaries OK it, the verb to privilege is currently used only in a particular English subdialect that might be called academese.”

Wallace provides a “ghastly” example sentence about the privileging of “univocal discourse”. “Contemporary academese,” his note continues, “originated in literary and social theory but has now metastasized throughout much of the humanities.”

Note the use of a verb associated with the spread of cancer. Wallace mentions two other words used the same way, situate and interrogate. So, for example, “to situate cultural bias”, or “to interrogate gendered attitudes”. He goes on to say these and any such phrases should exist only in “a university course taught by a professor so thoroughly cloistered, insecure, or stupid as to believe that academese constitutes intelligent writing. A required course, one that you can’t switch out of. In any other situation, run very fast the other way.”

Not mentioned as a fault of these professors is laziness. This bloated, intestinal writing might sound like hard work, but it’s far harder to take complex ideas and make them accessible and readable. Nominalisations and long noun phrases click together easily to build swathes of imposing text that utilise the auto-sanctioned ambiguity of abstraction’s faux-representationality for the conferring of dubious yet unquestioned agency. See?

In the years since the Thesaurus was published, the privileging (and more) of abstract nouns has metastasised into daily discourse—the social media posts and “10 ways to” articles. The internet has broadcast voices previously too oppressed and alone to be reliably heard, and yet, many of these stories are told by, or through, or because of, an academic. The style is instantly recognisable and isolates the people who most need to hear these tales; these different ways of looking at the world. Whether it’s because they are marginalised, persecuted or misunderstood, some people need great courage merely to tell their stories. It’s vital that their editor (internal or external) is as brave, and finds ways of presenting it that won’t send Wallace, and most of us, running very fast the other way.

First published in Gulf News, April 26, 2016