The 7×7 Link Award

Ben Naga (http://bennaga.wordpress.com) was kind enough to gift me this award.

RULES OF THE AWARD:

1. Thank the person who gave it to you.
Thank you Ben!

2. Share 7 unusual things about yourself.

  • I once met Fidel Castro
  • In 1997, I spent three nights as a “patient” at a mental institution while doing an undercover investigative story about patient abuse there.
  • I am black, but I had a white paternal grandfather and mother’s mum was Indian. (I’m a bit like a Panda – black, white and Asian!)
  • My ancestry has been traced back to a 12th century Norman knight and one of my ancestors was Secretary of State to King James I.
  • There is a town named after my family in Canada. It was founded by my great-great uncle.
  • I once hit the only six in a cricket match… at Lords.
  • One of my friends was once a famous international porn actress (and, yes, we really are JUST good friends)

3. Share 7 of your  posts. (Most Beautiful, Most Helpful, Most Popular, Most Controversial, Most Surprisingly Successful, Most Underrated, Most Prideworthy.)

El: A Love Story (Drives readers to tears, apparently)

The Beauty of Sadness (The one most shared by my readers)

Sex musings at midnight (Most read of all time… no surprise, with “sex” in the title)

Merry Christmas! (Not the most controversial title, I know)

Sound the alarm! There are no single men left in London! (From the hits I get, there appears to be a lot of people researching this theme on Google!)

New Year’s Resolution

Parents rule! (I’m proud of all my work… but I’m most proud of my parents!)

4. Nominate seven other bloggers and notify them.

Some of these blogs are new so there isn’t much there yet; one or two haven’t been updated for a while, but I hope to encourage the bloggers because I believe they really do have something to offer!

My So-Called Space

So Far From Heaven

A Left-Handed Jew In Malaysia

Web of Liz

The Better Man Project

Bennis Inc

Dawn

Over to you!

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Alternate realities

In an idle moment I have sometimes played at imagining alternate identities for myself. Curiously, these musings almost never involve fantasies in the conventional sense, i.e., visions of scoring the winning goal for Manchester United in a Champions League Final, or becoming a real-life secret agent James Bond, or the man who breaks Jessica Alba’s heart.

Instead I wonder what it would have been like to be someone I actually could have become, with just a wrinkle or two in my genetic and environmental past. Along such lines, I have imagined myself a best-selling novelist, an actor or movie director, a perpetual graduate student or… one of those frustrated people who send angry e-mails to newspaper columnists, expressing their outrage that they don’t have a forum to broadcast their opinions, given that someone as inept as the columnist has been granted this privilege (um… hold on… I actually HAVE done that last one!)

Having been an avid Isaac Asimov reader in my younger years, a particularly plausible alternative destiny with which I have sometimes toyed is that of a fanatical science-fiction fan. I was reminded of this recently when, out of sheer curiosity, I dipped a trembling toe into the roiling waters of science-fiction geekdom by entering Forbidden Planet, a London store that sells sci-fi and fantasy memorabilia. There, I saw an astonishing assortment of merchandise that these films, books and programmes have produced. And if I were so inclined, I could have even got myself a costume to dress up as a Klingon or Imperial Storm Trooper.

It’s easy enough to mock the people who fanatically and religiously follow this stuff, and indeed many in the mass media surrender to the temptation to do so. Recently, there have been a few snide stories about obsessive ComicCon attendees or, a couple of years ago, about Avatar fans being depressed and having suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora. I also remember a few about the Star Wars fans who lined up days in advance to attend the last instalment in George Lucas’ frighteningly popular series.

But you don’t need the depressed Avatar fans or a doctorate in sociology to figure out that a large percentage of these people are eager to escape this world for a more satisfactory reality — one in which they would not suffer the indignities heaped on social misfits on our own often-cruel planet.

One of my own favourites, Star Trek, is set 300 years in the future, in a world where, at least among the inhabitants of Planet Earth, war, poverty, nationalism and ethnic and religious hatred have been eliminated. In other words it is a world that, for all its technological wonders, does not include recognisable human beings. As its legions of critics never tire of pointing out, the universe of the Star Wars films is even less plagued by anything resembling moral complexity. The good guys are really good, the bad guys are really bad, and the odds of good triumphing over evil are roughly equivalent to those of a Star Wars film turning a profit.

Nevertheless there is more to sci-fi and the like than escapism. Although I never became a science-fiction fanatic, I still remember a moment from the first time I saw the original Star Wars film. Early on, there is a panoramic shot of the landscape of an alien planet. It is sunset — and suddenly we see two suns lingering on the edge of the horizon. In the end, it is good sci-fi writers’ ability to touch the longing for the mythic, for whatever might lie beyond this world, that has Star Wars, Star Trek and Avatar fans and their brethren searching for more than just another means of amusing ourselves to death.

Ultimately, it is really a search for meaning; for something greater than ourselves. Some might even call it the search for God.

It’s like… a whole new way of speaking!

This is one from the archives, written long before the advent of Journeys Into The Night. Enjoy!

Have you noticed that the word “like” is changing the very nature of the English language? This little word is being used so often to add an irrelevant pause in the middle of even the shortest sentence – as in, “She was, like, really nice” or “We had, like, rain all the time!” – that it has become part of some larger conversational drama.

The speaker may say, “She goes, ‘You can’t do that here,’ and I’m like (long, significant pause) ‘I don’t believe this!’”

Here, “like” signals high emotions, in this case astonishment, anger or outrage. The speaker is saying “I was shocked, I was in a total state,” and the listener is supposed to gasp.

However, the speaker isn’t really saying it, but acting it out.

Often, this kind of dramatic utterance is part of some larger story in which an important dialogue is reproduced. We have all heard it: “So she said, ‘You’re going?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I think so,’ and then she goes, ‘How come you didn’t say so?’ and I’m like (long pause, mock astonishment, mouth and eyes open in disbelief).”

We get the direct quote rather than the indirect comment on it. Dialogue is replayed rather than summarised. The story is not reported so much as it is rendered, with the storyteller sometimes mimicking the characters’ voices. Even speechlessness is mimed.

This kind of talk attempts to show rather than tell. Especially among the young, speech is turning toward performance. We’re asked not just to hear, but also to experience, the speaker’s astonishment. And if other people’s reactions are quoted, then we hear what they said and how they said it, in their own tone of voice.

In fact, the use of the word “goes” or “went” instead of “says” or “said” is also evidence of speech turning into drama. “Going” suggests activity, acting, both in the sense of doing something and of performing.

One theory I have about the origin of this sort of talk is that it started with a generation brought up on Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny – on cartoons, where everything was always spoken with great emphasis, and any conversation had to be acted out. The children liked the energy, picked it up, copied it – and a new style was born.

Cartoon talk needs the inflections, the gestures, the mimicking and clowning, to accompany it. You say, “You know, I mean, wow, I was like…”

You can only give those words meaning by creating a highly charged context. Eyes grow wide, mouths fall open, tongues hang out.

In such exchanges, body language replaces oral language. American movies and cartoons are spreading this new way of speaking all over the world. It’s the great American over-animation that never fails to impress (or distress) the rest of us.

What’s lost is a certain precision of language, a suppleness of vocabulary that comments on the action. What’s gained is that emotion that gets into the conversation as part of a performance.

Idiot box

When I first moved to Surrey, back in the early noughties, my apartment was the most popular meeting spot for all my friends. True, its location was convenient, but in those days it didn’t have much furniture and anyplace you might want to sit, if it wasn’t piled high with books or junk, was covered with a sticky film of dust and week-old pizza cheese. Look, what do you want from me? I was a single guy, living alone. If a girl was coming over or something, I’d always make sure to scrape the worst of the stuff off the walls.

But people always came by. Whenever we had a party to go to, everyone would gather at my place for drinks beforehand. Whenever anyone wanted to grab a few beers and chill out after work, good old Lansdowne Road was the perpetual destination. Why? Because I was the only guy who didn’t have a television.

It was a revolutionary concept to a group of people weaned on television. Rather than just sitting silently in a room staring at sports highlights, or cooking shows, or wild animals procreating, whoever came was forced to actually speak and interact with each other. We’d just grab some drinks, put on some music and just chat all night. And people loved it. Everyone remarked on how much they enjoyed coming by David’s place, and, I assure you, that never happens. No one could really believe it; not watching telly was not only productive, it could be fun.

I wasn’t trying to make any statement by not having a television; I just didn’t trust myself. With my telly in the front room, I was spending a frightening amount of time falling asleep on my sofa to reruns of ER. I’d just started writing more, and every time inspiration would hit, it would be all I could do to avoid the narcotic of Die Hard sequels on Channel Five. Eventually I just sold the damn thing; it was like removing a tumour. Shortly after that, I started writing my first novel, and I haven’t stopped. But now I have a TV again and the old habits are creeping back.

Of course, these days, everyone has Sky Plus or something like that. A friend of mine, a doctor, often works nights and wakes up about noon. After breakfast, he flips through all the night’s programming — specifically sports and Sky Atlantic shows, among my personal vices as well — sets up exactly what he wants to record and then goes to work. When he comes home, he watches all the night’s events, at his own pace, until the wee hours of the morning. Then he goes to bed and does the whole thing again. What’s bad about this is not that television appears to be ruling his life; what’s bad is that any of us, including me, would likely do the exact same thing.

I have Sky Plus, myself. I got rid of the movie channels over a year ago and kept all the sports. Still, included in my package are several Lifetime affiliates and, as of earlier this year (woo hoo!), Sky Atlantic (aka HBO UK). Now anytime I want to watch Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Sopranos, it’s all there. This is not good. This is bad. This is trouble.

I had a long week and have been putting off writing this piece, mostly out of exhaustion and, um… lack of electricity? But now, I’ve sat down to do it, in front of the TV.

I’m watching golf on the telly right now. It’s a little embarrassing to say this, but either I’ve got older and more boring or golf has become considerably more interesting since I last paid any real attention to it. It’s very soothing, golf… shit, watching golf is better than actually being outside… let’s see, what else is on…

A man just told me how, when he got genital herpes, he decided that wasn’t gonna stop him from living his life. (You go, guy!) Dave (the channel) is showing Friday the 13th, Part VII. (Stay out of the woods, people!) Ozzy Osbourne appears unable to articulate syllables while singing at some outdoor gig. (Um, isn’t Ozzy a professional singer? Does anybody believe this act anymore?) OMG, Newcastle’s Joey Barton just got slapped by Gervinho of Arsenal… wow, Sky has an on-demand service that lets you watch porn ANYTIME… ooh, look, Kate Winslet is nude in a movie again… that’s wild that you can chop all that salad so easily…

Usually, writing a piece for this blog takes about an hour, maybe a little more if I’m feeling particularly windy. This piece, written on a laptop in my living room, in front of the telly, took me seven hours. Sky Living is running a marathon of that Monk show, you see. There’s three hours, right there. (That little dude always gets his man!)

How anyone gets anything done these days, honestly, I have no idea.

I can live without semicolons!

Writers try to make concessions to what interests readers but inevitably they end up writing about what interests them. I spend so much time writing that punctuation looms large in my life. However, I recognise that a lot of people couldn’t care less about it — or “could care less” as the expression has become even though it doesn’t make sense.

There are nine punctuation marks in that first paragraph of mine and they all serve a purpose. The period, full stop or dot used as an unequivocal stop to a flow of words is one of the great inventions of all time. It’s simple and there’s no doubt about what it means. It’s interesting that it has recently acquired a whole new use in computer language as “com”. When you speak it, you say, “dot com,” not “period com.”

I especially like dashes in a sentence, like the one in my first paragraph, although I don’t think they were even an acceptable punctuation mark when I started taking English Language and Composition classes in primary school. A dash is somewhat similar to but different from three dots in a sentence… if you know what I mean.

Commas are useful in making the meaning of a written sentence clearer to a reader but copy editors seem to have turned against them and I don’t understand why. There are fewer commas going around than there were, say, 20 years ago. (I’m not sure, of course, whether it’s the editors or the writers who are using fewer of them, but I often have to re-read a sentence to understand it because of a missing comma.)

I like using parentheses like that occasionally, too. It indicates the thought is sort of a side remark being made to the reader. If you use brackets, they convey a different meaning. Parentheses are rounded marks to set off a group of words. Brackets are a different shape, usually with right angles at top and bottom. I think of them as strong parentheses and hardly ever use them even though there are keys for them on every keyboard.

No one writes as he speaks and no one speaks as he writes, but when you put words down on paper, you ought to be able to hear yourself saying them. If you cannot, the chances are that what you have written is stilted, stiff and too formal. You can’t write exactly as you speak, though, because it would be repetitive and rambling.

The advantage the written word has over the spoken word is that you can think a moment about what you want to say and how you want to say it instead of blurting it out. When we speak like that, we usually recognise that we haven’t said what we meant accurately so we rephrase it and say it again. On paper, you have the opportunity to say it right the first time.

There is one punctuation mark I have never fully understand so I hardly ever use it. That is the semicolon. The colon is a practical divider of ideas and I often use one, but I rarely use a semicolon because I don’t know what it does. I don’t even know why it’s spelled all one word instead of being hyphenated as “semi-colon.”

The semicolon is a period over a comma. If you use a period, a comma, a colon, question mark, quotation mark, hyphen, dash or bracket, you know what you’re doing, but what does a semicolon do? Is it sort of a colon? It is used to separate ideas in a sentence that are more different than when you use a comma but not so different as when you use a period. This bears no likeness to the use of a colon and so, seems to make no sense.

But after four centuries, it would appear the semicolon has finally achieved its true calling. The semicolon: helping people wink online since the 1990s!    😉