Monthly Archives: July 2013

Language of Brutal Greed

Michael Duke, CEO of Wal-Mart

Michael Duke, CEO of Wal-Mart

Hi, welcome to Wal-Mart, thanks for coming to Lowes, welcome to to McDonalds, how can I help you?

Vast retail companies argue that they’re good for whatever community they build in, in particular because they provide jobs (they also like the word “community”). Here is an excerpt, for example, from a recent editorial in the Washington Post by Alex Barron, a regional general manager of Wal-Mart: “In November 2010, Wal-Mart announced a plan to bring more jobs, shopping options and fresh food choices to Washington residents. Just 12 months later, we increased our investment—from four stores to six and from 1,200 jobs to 1,800—in an effort to expand access and opportunity to more underserved communities in the city.”

The areas of the city referred to (the “communities”) could use more jobs and services, that’s true. Maybe 1,800 jobs is part of the solution. The editorial above, however, goes on to say that even though Wal-Mart was making “an effort” specifically to “bring more jobs” (and other good things) to “underserved communities” the DC City Council is trying to “undermine our efforts”. There have even been newspaper headlines that refer to “blocking Wal-Mart”.

Block jobs? Whenever anyone uses the word “job” shouldn’t we all stop and remove our hats as a sign of respect? There is currently a loud controversy between Wal-Mart and the DC City Council, which wants to require large companies (defined as “more than $1 billion in sales and store size of more the 75,000 square feet”) to pay a minimum wage of $12.50. Wal-Mart says this requirement is financially impossible, and they will refuse to build more stores in Washington. Wal-Mart is not being “blocked” of course. They are choosing because they don’t want to pay such a high salary.

The same Wal-Mart editorial further says: “Residents told us that they wanted good jobs”.

What is the purpose of a job? Would you say it is merely to have something to do with part of your day, a way to pass time? If you were suddenly rich, perhaps you would you still get up every day and go to work at the same place, doing exactly what you’re doing.

Perhaps not. The purpose of a job, obviously, is to earn a living, to acquire enough money to pay rent, buy food, and so on, and ideally, even enjoy life a bit. A “good job” as referred to by the Wal-Mart editorial, would of course make these things possible. The current minimum wage in Washington, DC (higher than in most states) is $8.25 an hour. If you worked 40 hours a week for 52 weeks (no time of, no weeks off), you’d earn $17,000 a year.

That would be a nice life, don’t you think, with all that money? What is the DC City Council bitching about? Maybe Wal-Mart can’t afford to pay more and stay in business. Paying $12.50 an hour, good Lord, you’d have workers rolling in cash at $26,000 (no time of, no weeks off, of course). Why does the City Council want to hurt Wal-Mart, when the poor company is just trying to bring “good jobs” to “underserved communities”.

What, for instance, does the head of Wal-Mart make? What does he get by on? Mike Duke, CEO of Wal-Mart, last year earned $20,700,000. (Just for fun, we can calculate that at $9,952—per hour). Of course that’s with no time off, no weeks off, but we can assume the CEO of Wal-Mart didn’t have even one day of vacation, right?

A Wal-Mart spokesman, Steve Restivo, said in justification of the salary (which they don’t call salary), “I don’t think Mike Duke needs, as the CEO of a Fortune 1 company, needs me to defend his compensation package.”

In the middle of that sentence, Restivo gives the reason why such a salary does not need defense, because Duke is “the CEO of a Fortune 1 company”. The logic is that if you make a gargantuan salary as head of a large company, this is justified because . . . you are head of a large company. End of explanation. Possibly Steve Restivo has heard of circular logic and just doesn’t care.

Or maybe we’re just stupid peasants who don’t need an explanation as to why a company that pays one man nearly $10,000 an hour refuses to build stores if required to pay an outrageously high salary like $12.50 an hour. After all, a “good job” is one thing, but c’mon, people. You goddamned communists. What do you want, three meals a day? Or maybe when large retail organizations—and not just Wal-Mart—use the word “job” it’s nothing but a noise that ends with a “b” so we’ll take our hats off. Stupid peasants.

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The Glorious Mental Life of the Writer

hands bound with chains

Getting ready to write

What do jazz, improv comedy, and tonight’s blog entry have in common? You can do them all in the nude! No, I’m kidding. You wouldn’t want to write in the nude. What they really have in common is creation on the spur of the moment.

The two regular readers of this blog would brand me a liar, if I stayed in one place long enough to be branded, but I normally give a good bit of thought to these blog entries. Last week, for instance, I prepared ahead. I spent last Thursday through Sunday flying to Pennsylvania, renting a 16-foot truck, gathering the belongings I had left behind a year ago, stopped by Washington one more time, for things I left there, then spent fourteen and a half hours on Sunday getting home—and yet there on Saturday was my thoughtful, articulate, and interesting blog entry. Or at any rate, I think I spelled everything kurrectly.

I think a lot about the fact that I feel I have almost a secret life as a writer. In some sense it’s my real life, the one that I hope will survive me when I go to meet the Great Winemaker in the Sky. But the life I spend most of my time on is certainly not that one. How many writers have spent most of their life being writers? Does Stephen King do that? At least he can afford to, and people read his books. Or what about Tolstoy? By the end of his life, at any rate, I think he must have spent much of his time walking about being a writer.

Most of us, though, get up and go to work (and I can tell you from several years experience, that’s if you’re lucky, goddamnit). We work all day, with perhaps a poem or possible scene in a story working in the mind at odd moments. On the way home we stop by the cell phone store, we buy shirts, we come home and see the bills on the table that still aren’t paid, we stare into the refrigerator thinking about dinner, feeling tired, just wanting a drink. That ain’t literature. But if you write about that trivial drivel of life, and do it with clever phrases and a bit of philosophical depth, then that’s literature.

Of course you might be too tired to write, or too whacked about by the trivial drivel to feel like staring at a white space, wondering what words to put there. For most writers, though, it happens something like that, after work, after dinner, even if you’re tired, even if you don’t feel like it. If those things discourage you enough to keep you from picking up the heavy weights and trudging down the linguistic rows, then you may be one of the many people who claim they want to write. And if you say that, I believe you, though I bet it wouldn’t sound quite so good to you if you were actually doing it.

I find it hard now to find time to write, always rather late, which I’m used to, but even of the time I have, I spend some of it writing marvelous blog entries (marvelous!), writing email (I do a good bit of email), reading on news sites (I need to know what that despicable bastard Vladimir Putin is up to—and he gets worse and worse, by the way).

And yet, and yet I just finished the lyrics to a song, if no music or even possible music can be called a song. I also continue to move ahead with the current novel, if only writing two sentences some evenings can be called “ahead”. I do find the book already taking some shape. I know, without actually accepting it yet, that Leola will be the main character, her aunt Carmen will be a secondary plot, and everyone else will be more peripheral characters. I hate that I can’t do more with Jethro, the organic farmer. I really like him, even though he only exists in my notes and in my head, but that’s how it is. The book needs a dramatic focus, and Jethro detracted from that.

Maybe I’ll write some on it tonight, but it’s almost ten o’clock, and since I’m not Stephen King or Tolstoy, I have to go to work tomorrow (on a Saturday, too), getting up at 5:30. That’s nighttime, people, good God. What kind of world do we live in that people get up at 5:30 in the middle of the night? A badly mistaken world.

I bet Tolstoy didn’t get up at 5:30. But I’ve got to go tomorrow and collect air samples outside asbestos removal sites. I keep the public safe. I’m kind of like Spiderman in that sense. Except he probably doesn’t get up at 5:30 either.

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I Just Cannot Imagine That

dog driving car“I had the weirdest dream last night.” I’ve said that. I imagine you’ve said it.

It has occurred to me in the past year, when I’ve remembered a dream now and then (which I rarely do), that in fact for every dream I might have said “that was so weird”, until I realized that all dreams are weird. Sometimes when I’m lying in bed, still half awake, I’ll be just conscious enough to notice my thoughts and think “Dogs don’t drive cars. I’m falling asleep.”

Thinking about dreaming this week suddenly gave me an idea regarding imagination. Here in our real world (which I believe is actually an illusion, but I won’t go there now), it is often said that some people have good imaginations and some don’t. The people with the good imaginations occasionally use them for their profession or passion, becoming writers, musicians, architects, painters, and so on.

But maybe a strong imagination is not so limited. If we define “imagination” to mean something like an ability to conceive of variations on reality that are either extremely diverse or extremely different from reality, well…doesn’t everyone have dreams?

Everyone has a deep capacity to imagine a wildly different reality, which they do every night in dreams. Since we can all do this, why do we say that some people seem to have little imagination? Because in fact some people do seem rather dull in the daylight. Whatever vivid alternative world they live in at night, they seem a little flat in that daytime department.

Why?

It’s possible that my discussion is based on a false idea. Maybe what I’m calling “imagination” is actually two different things, and the brain’s ability to conceive of alternatives when asleep and when awake are totally unrelated mental activities. Yet somehow I don’t think so. The ability of the brain to create newness clearly exists, as our ubiquitous strange dreams show.

Or maybe everyone is born with a vivid imagination, but we somehow kill it in many cases. Maybe we do this in a hundred ways, telling each other “Get your head out of the clouds. This world is hard and we’re trying to survive here. Pay attention to the world you’re in.”

Think about how our schools operate. One of the most important things kids learn is to be quiet and sit in rows. If they don’t learn that, they won’t learn anything else, because we’ll throw that disruptive child the hell out of class. But the kind of people who become Picasso or Steve Jobs or Mahatma Ghandi probably don’t sit quietly in rows very long.

Assuming we could both encourage and allow more people to use their imaginations, would the world be a better place? Certainly the world is a hard place and we’re trying to survive here, but at one time there were people who sat watching birds, looking foolish, imagining what it might be like to fly. Now we do. Or there were people who imagined making a terrible disease simply go away. Now smallpox is eradicated. Is life better with airplanes and no smallpox?

Life is also better because some people, against the odds, get away with using their imagination to write books, compose music, and create paintings, as these things help us make sense of life and in trying to find our place in the world. Life is hard, and we need novels. The world has plenty of imagination, we’re just not using it all.

I have to end this by telling you that my own imagination got up to no good one night this week. I had just gone to bed in a large house alone, when the dog—a real dog downstairs—suddenly barked hysterically for 10 seconds and then grew silent. I wondered whether the killer, who had obviously managed to poison the dog within 10 seconds, was carrying a knife or a gun. And the bed wasn’t the kind you could get under. I think the dog ought to make up for spooking me like that and drive me to work. I’ll give him a treat every time he stops properly for a red light.

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I Gobbledygook Your Blah Blah

blah blahBack in 1660, the king returned to England after a period of rule by the Puritans (an intolerant, fanatically religious, authoritarian government—like, say, the Taliban in Afghanistan). That same year, the Royal Society was formed as the first scientific organization. Writing about the history of the organization in 1667, Thomas Sprat described the intentions of the society, when reporting on science, to use the clearest possible language: “to reject all amplifications, digressions and swellings of style; to return back to the primitive purity and shortnes…a close, naked, natural way of speaking…” Whether science has achieved this is another question.

The capacity of language, especially written language, to be complex and confusing has often been noted, as in the desire of the Royal Society to avoid what they felt was the ridiculous convoluted style of many writers before them. Lack of clarity is a problem we still deal with daily, 346 years after Thomas Sprat published his history.

In a different field of endeavor, in business, a lot of modern writing reads like this: “Pursuant to applicable GDI insurance regulations, this denominational notice is a reminder that all pro valorum policies purchased prior to updated interest changes will be held to remain in effect in the event of called-out charges, unless such charges are applied to intermittent policies.”

There is in particular a natural tendency in professional language to communicate badly. Among the reasons for this we can cite: (1) necessary technical language, (2) sloppiness and laziness by the writer, (3) an actual desire for obscurity, to keep outsiders from understanding, (4) a desire to create a legal protection against the reader, (5) a desire by the writer to project a personal image of particular qualities (educated, professional, intelligent, important, etc.).

Of the five reasons given here for miserable, useless writing, only one can be somewhat justified, the need for technical language. Even that explanation, however, merely hides incompetence as a writer when we can reasonably assume that the audience is not going to understand the technical language.

Sloppiness and laziness are never justified, ubiquitous though they be. A lack of knowing how to approach the task may also be an indication of lousy education. How many serious professional writing classes do you think people take? How many did you have? But even when someone knows how to write well, laziness may intervene, and the sheer effort involved can cause a person to say “Ah, to hell with it. It’s good enough.” Which it usually is not.

The third and fourth reasons for crapezoid trash writing are a desire for obscurity (often called doublespeak), or a desire to create a legal document as protection against the reader. Both involve a basic dishonesty, of writing something that is meant to create the illusion of communication.

As a desire to pretend to communicate, we can find phrases from government: “illegal combatants” (to hide the fact that these are actually prisoners of war, but we aren’t going to call them that, as doing so would invoke the Geneva Convention, which we don’t intend to follow); business: “downsizing” (firing or “laying people off”, but firing sounds so, you know, true). You can also find dishonest, snakelike language pretty much anywhere else you look, including in your own home.

An example of a company perniciously protecting itself can be seen rather vividly with “package inserts”, the small papers that pharmaceutical companies put in the box with drugs. Because these documents are almost literally unreadable (right down to tiny font sizes and almost no margins), it is clear that no one is actually expected to read them, but the inserts will serve as legal protection against the readers, who have been “informed”.

The fifth reason that prevents clear communication is almost the most interesting. If we gave little pondering to the topic, we might say that the purpose of writing is to communicate a message. As we see in the paragraphs above, this isn’t always true. In addition, every time we use language, we are also saying something about ourselves and about how we want to be perceived. If I want you to think I’m a qualified doctor, I may say that we’re going to do a “cardiopulmonary exam”, instead of looking at your heart and lungs. Or if I want you to think I’m a cool 15-year-old who’s not a derp, I may say “My mains are cray, but they’re good guys.”

In both cases I’m communicating a message, but I’m obviously saying something about myself at the same time. This is an inherent aspect of language and cannot be separated from it. This tendency to show ourselves can, however, be somewhat controlled when we seriously try to address readers clearly. It takes a lot of effort, but before the effort is even begun, we have to be comfortable with whether people will still think we’re smart/cool/etc. if we lose the bullshit and just try to be as clear as possible.

That’s a psychological issue about self confidence. As I sometimes said to my business writing students, “Are you bold enough to be clear?”

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