Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Da Bomb

Early this morning, before I was probably awake enough, I spotted an online article in the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper the subject of which was ostensibly Hollywood actors and US politicians and societal commentary, but really it seemed to center on a term that it could not print, according to its own rules of propriety.

That term was a cuss word. That cuss word is arguably the most potent one that we English speakers can utilize.

It starts with an “F”.

I do not print it, myself, because this space may be read (who knows?) by my students. I don’t assign it as homework, by any stretch; but my students are smart people when they get near a computer mouse. They may Google me, and find this, and read it. They’re also busy people. And they’d probably rather read plenty of other things online before they get to this middle-aged music teacher’s ramblings; but that’s okay too, most times.

Equally important, this space may be read by my mother. I trust I need not go into detail.

The word that starts with “F” and ends with “K” and vaguely rhymes with “aqueduct” has always struck me as a tremendously forceful word. The first time I heard it hurled, out on the playground, it (figuratively) stopped traffic. Of late, it has become the word to drop, in certain forms of music. If a movie’s rating is PG-13 or above, it’s likely that some character has used the word, even once. Its very existence typifies this country’s schizoid take on matters of propriety: the use of the word has expanded quite freely, yet it can stir up equally strong pushback from the FCC and other standard-bearers of polite society. Pervs and Puritans, we can be.

Which, as I’ll detail momentarily, is exactly the contradiction-in-terms raised by the Daily Mail article.

 

Thirty-five years ago, a rather derivative and not-very-successful science fiction television series decided to invent some words that would convince audiences that theirs was a future world quite different from ours. Years were called “yahrons”, minutes were called “centons”, seconds were called “millicentons” … meters were called “metrons”, and – counterintuitively (or perhaps just stupidly) – kilometers were called “microns”.

And the curse word of choice was: frak.

Somehow, ABC television’s Standards and Practices division let it slide. A futuristic “darn,” perhaps. The baseline level of silliness might have been high enough to obscure proper notice of the word.

Ten years ago, when some wiseacre decided to re-invent “Battlestar Galactica” for the (then) SciFi Channel … and it turned out to be arguably some of the best work that television has yet seen … that wiseacre decided to hang on to that curse word. Scripts began to use it colorfully, inventively, in all the ways that its present-day Earth F-bomb counterpart currently can be used*** … right down to the compound word “motherfrakker”, distributed in prime-time viewing hours … and there wasn’t a thing that any network exec could do about it. Remarkable.

(***Here’s a link to a decidedly NSFW mini-audio-documentary about all the different ways that word is currently used … noun, verb, adjective, adverb, imperative, declarative, perjorative, and dangling participle … which is not for the faint of heart or hearing. (Mom, don’t click on this one. Trust me. Click on the link below instead.) A number of my Drum Major Academy staff colleagues from about a dozen years ago will hear the first strains of the accompanying music and have themselves a good old flashback laugh, not really explainable in a compact amount of time. Never mind…)

Some online publishers publish the word without apology or adornment. Some use asterisks to obscure the letters, coyly leaving no doubt as to what the word is that they meant to print. The estimable political and sports writer Charlie Pierce types it without typing it: “fk.” It’s a rare moment in which Mr. Pierce opts to be genteel in his writing.

Me, I can’t drop that bomb, verbally or in print, even in private. I’m no prude … well, I’m a tiny sliver of prude … okay, fine, I can be at least half a prude, with a side of milquetoast, sometimes. Unless I stub my toe. It takes a whole lot of concentrated sudden pain for me to get that word out. Mostly, I start it, and then it morphs into the sound of a leaking bike tire (“Fffffffffff…!”) as, even through my red haze of pain, I self-edit. I could blame it on the way I was brought up, or on the experience of seeing some kid in my elementary school class earn himself a detention for blurting it out in class. Or I could blame it on my journalism-major awareness that English is a rich language, and there are much more creative ways to express myself.

 

So, you are perhaps still wondering, what about this Daily Mail article?

It chronicles a “rant” issued by the fine movie actor Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson goes after President Obama about the way he sometimes speaks to “ordinary Americans”, specifically dropping the “G” from the end of words that properly end in “-ing”. Thereby, states Jackson, he is “promoting mediocrity” in the United States by “dumbing down” his speech sometimes.

I have noticed that when Mr. Obama is speaking to certain audiences, his speech patterns do subtly shift a bit from College Law Professor, with precise and measured intonation and enunciation, to a wee bit of Southern Gospel Preacher. I don’t know that I can entirely blame him … his remarks to live audiences in general often bring out this facet of his person, I’ve noticed, and he uses them to great effect when he needs to gradually and methodically but irresistably bring his audiences, especially his sympathetic audiences, to a slow boil. I’ve often finished watching his speeches by mumbling to myself, “now, that guy can work a room.” Everybody who can do that … has their ways of doing that. That often is his. He doesn’t go nearly as far over in that direction as a Rev. Jesse Jackson or a Rev. Al Sharpton, or … well … go back to the films of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. working a room like, oh, the National Mall in Washington, for example. By comparison, I think Mr. Obama still falls under “restrained”. And he’s probably more qualified to slip into that speech pattern than, say, I am.

Setting aside all the possible ways Samuel L. Jackson’s thesis is either correct, not correct, or so trivial as to be unimportant compared with the subject of, say, the President’s actual policies … and also setting aside some of Jackson’s comments that I do agree with, about how grammatical and other proper self-expression has not made great strides ahead in the world lately (when someone posts on his Twitter feed something like “Your an idiot”, he writes back and corrects them: “you’re!!!”) … what made me curious was the way Jackson phrased his sentiments.

For openers, Jackson advised the President to “be f*****g presidential.”

He said, “Look, I grew up in a society where I could say ‘it ain’t’ or ‘What it be’ to my friends. But when I’m out presenting myself to the world as me, who graduated from college, who had family who cared about me, who has a well-read background, I f*****g conjugate.”

Jackson continued by saying that educated men like the President who try to speak less correctly encourage mediocrity.I mean, we have newscasters who don’t even know how to conjugate verbs… how the f*** did we become a society where mediocrity is acceptable?”

The writer of the Daily Mail article noted that “Jackson’s attack has been described by some as ‘ironic’ after the Pulp Fiction star agreed to appear in a video called ‘Wake the F**k Up. Vote for Obama’ during the last election”, a profanity-laced piece that was inspired partly by the Adam Mansbach book which he had narrated, entitled “Go the F*** to Sleep.”

So Mr. Jackson asks Mr. Obama to be more dignified in his use of language, but drops an F-bomb about every other sentence while he’s at it.

All right, so Mr. Jackson is just as much a public figure as Mr. Obama is. He himself insists that he understands the difference between the environment in which he grew up and the environment in which he now has to present himself as a mature and educated adult. But still, in movies and in “real life”, the F-bombs fly.

Perhaps Mr. Jackson reasons that he makes the sorts of movies in which little kids would be unlikely to see him, or know of him, or pay attention to him, so the profanity will not reach their tender ears. I’ve seen “Pulp Fiction”, and a little piece of “Snakes on a Plane”, and I was one of the few critics who did enjoy his remake of “Shaft”. Even if this were his reasoning, and even if it mattered … yes, he does appear in at least one rather well-known little-kid movie. Kids do look up to you. What do they see when they look up?

The F-word is still, as I suggested before, a powerful expletive; and in spite of its more widespread use, the fact that this “rant” has stirred up such attention goes a long way toward proving that this word’s visceral effect hasn’t been lessened at all.

So come on, Mr. Jackson. You’re a college-educated actor, and a fine one at that. Depending on what researcher you consult, the English language has anywhere from 250,000 to slightly more than a million words available, the vast majority of which cause the FCC no sleepless nights. So please, get creative. Or please access some of that appropriateness while you’re holding others to your high standards of dignity. Otherwise, it may just encourage mediocrity.

‘Cause I’d like to be a Samuel L. Jackson fan again.

Thank you.

 

P.S. I was really, really, REALLY considering a clever last line that involved some permutation of the F-word. But, even in a moment of obvious opportunity for humor … hmph. Haven’t got it in me.

Frak.

September 25, 2013 Posted by | celebrity, education, Famous Persons, language | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Atten-Hut

A couple of my friends just got married. I mean, within the last hour.

And the run-up to it on social media must qualify as one of the most adorable wedding countdowns this planet has ever hosted.

For the last ten months or so, their Facebook posts and photos and such have just gotten cuter and cuter and sweeter and sweeter until you practically had to fall over and kick your feet in the air, it was so adorable. I am not being sarcastic. There is no snark. This is genuine. (Not to be too topical, and not to distract from the fact that these two clearly love each other more than they love air … but they also couldn’t have pulled off this wedding in some US states. Good fortune did smile.)

One truth about these particular two people that has to do with me … because this space is nothing if not “all about me” … is this: one of them I would likely never have met … and one of them I might have only shared a few brief Alumni Band hellos with over the last about 20 years … had it not been for the rather impassioned reaction to the passing of our mutual (albeit in separate decades) college band director.

 

I didn’t intend to start thinking in that direction today. This week, the third anniversary of that passing, had already been one of sufficient introspection and nostalgia. Not that this is a bad thing; but I’d previously expressed blogospherical angst about the process of moving on, and etc. … and didn’t I already submit my annual commemorative blog post last weekend??

On the other hand … if we can draw any Good Things from that passing, and from our band alumni community’s collective and individual responses to it, well, so be it.

Three years ago, after the immediate slap of shock and grief, we turned to each other for support … and then for the exchange of GNP stories, both serious and funny … and pretty quickly, plenty of people became each other’s new Facebook friends. The tangled web of social-media friendships worked its subsequent magic … and suddenly I found myself commenting on silly photos of family barbeques featuring UMass bandos with whom I hadn’t even marched. Por ejamplo.

One response to our director’s passing that became clear right away was that a whole lot of band people from the 1980s were now in regular contact, social-media and otherwise, with band people from the ’90s, the 2000s, … the 1970s… By contrast, I remember many previous Homecoming days when, after Alumni Band rehearsals were done, the ’80s alums hung out with each other, the ’90s folks with themselves, and so on. We weren’t ignoring each other, not at all … but it was a very gentle and benign version of high school clique activity. Not brought on by wanting to ostracize anybody, but just because those were the people we knew well.

And then, in 2010, everyone was kinda snapped into a fresh realization: we’re all Band Alumni. We all share more than we consciously thought about, before. And the many, many photos of 2010’s Homecoming rehearsals and game and etc. display groups of people that include different shades of gray hair, different levels of wrinkle, different versions of the official band jacket! … all getting on like a house on fire. Myself, I’ve re-connected with a number of people with whom I’d pretty much lost contact, and I’m thrilled to be back in touch with them. And I can look with admiration at a couple of entirely new and wonderful friendships of mine … which barely existed or didn’t at all before three years ago.

 

Last week, amidst the third-anniversary tributes, came some thoughts posted by a couple of my colleagues from the band community. I like these people greatly – and, not coincidentally, neither of them marched when I did. And their thoughts were heartfelt and enjoyable to read. But there were a couple of tiny bits in them that made me sit up and think, “do I totally utterly agree with that?”

To paraphrase: these gentlemen supposed that our fallen leader’s most impressive gift to his massive roster of students was delivered those three Septembers ago, posthumously: the high level of connection amongst us, and the great intensity of our efforts to “raise our hands two inches higher” and to live up to his example. And they supposed that perhaps that connection and that intensity hadn’t been in this condition prior to his passing.

I see their joint thesis: that sometimes it does take a wrenching, sad event to (again) snap people back to recognizing what’s important. When someone we know passes away, or becomes ill, or has something else awful happen to them, it adjusts our perspective: make the most of every moment, you never know when you might not have one again, or when life will change permanently somehow. Sit up – because you can. Write your former teachers a letter – before you can’t send it, or they can’t receive it.

But, again, with great respect (because I like these folks), I took issue with one tiny point: I’m not sure that I think we, the band alumni community, weren’t a terribly close-knit group before. Or, that we were more jaded. (Yes, sometimes when Mr. Parks would say something very GNP and yet very silly or awkward … “it only takes two dollars! … every week! … for a couple of years! …” … we would smile sheepishly and murmur, “oh, George.” And many times we’d look at the ominous Homecoming Day weather forecast, exhale deeply, and think, “maybe not Alumni Band this year.”) Or, that we were less inclined to remember and celebrate our time with the Band and our links to all the people with whom we shared that time. We all need reminders, now and again – and this reminder was especially harsh. But we weren’t starting from zero and working up, exactly.

I’m sure my reaction to that tiny point was knee-jerk and self-centered. “Hey! – I was a good person about all this before 2010! … wasn’t I? … I thought so … would someone please reassure me that I was?…” As Dr. Tim Lautzenheiser would put it, I might have had a flash of “I/me” that momentarily obscured my goal of being a “we/us” person. (It’s not them… it’s not them…)

 

One way to think of this … a helpful way? … is this:

Maybe the events of three years ago – the tragic passing, yes, but also the physical and online gatherings that followed – have acted as a focusing lens. We’ve been made more aware of what we have to do to live up to the standards toward which Mr. Parks was always encouraging us. Before three years ago, we were not awful people. We may have been preoccupied. We may not have been thinking of all those things consciously, or as often as we have been, since.

But, it’s possible that the autumn of 2010 reminded us just how great we can be to each other, if we just pay attention.

 

P.S. Happy Wedding Day, you two.

September 21, 2013 Posted by | friends, GNP | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Snort

Some stories should be told. Other stories should never be told. Some stories sit right in the middle there.

 

If you’re a regular reader of this space, you know that my church gig (adult choir and other sundry permutations of sacred music) has provided moments both inspiring and loopy.

This morning’s service managed both.

So far this program year, our choir has brought a rather impressive “A” game. Yes, the program year is only two weeks old; but what a fortnight! Many voices, all in rather good form. The choir sound rushes past me, and I set aside a fraction of my otherwise-engaged brain just to enjoy. I have the best seat in the house, I think.

We’ve also picked up right where we left off, back in June, in the sense of humor department. Our bass section has not lost a step in this regard. The altos that traditionally sit in front of them have continued to develop their ability to dish it right back to the basses where appropriate (and funny). The tenors are quite frankly lagging in their traditional role as the cut-ups of their choir; but we’ll watch some game films and they’ll solve a few things, I’m sure.

Before last week’s service, the choir retreated to our rehearsal room to go over a few details before the morning began. Our senior pastor came in, with the intention of making a couple of brief remarks and then leading us in prayer. “Morning, choir! It’s been a long summer. I’ve missed you.” Not missing a beat (appropriate for musicians), one of our basses cracked back, “Yeah, where ya been?”

This week, the choir got up and sang a curious anthem, a quodlibet (hotshot music major term for “partner song”) combining the gospel song “I Believe” and J.S. Bach’s “Ave Maria”. Hit it out of the park. After service, a couple of folks from out of the congregation tracked me down to tell me they’d had tears in their eyes, during that anthem. (“For the right reasons, I hope,” I joked; but thanked them kindly.) And the other anthem of the day was a nice, slow 12/8 rendition of three verses of “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know”. Considering how much work the Quodlibet had been, I figured that “straightforward and well-known” would be a wise choice for the other music slot. When a group knows a melody real well, it gives them the opportunity to sing and not worry. …Sure enough.

By contrast: toward the end of every service, one of our pastors briefly summarizes some of the “opportunities for service” that are scheduled for the coming week (better known as “announcements”). This morning, as our associate pastor did so, he came to an announcement that dealt with a few books that our congregation is being encouraged to read, in preparation for some conversations later in the year.

He came to one of the book titles, and faithfully read it out loud. For the sake of dignity in this space, I shall not include that title here. Sometimes a reader’s imagination can fill in a blank or two. In this case, please take my word: I’m sure that the book’s author had regarded his title as completely innocent.

But a number of choir folk recognized that a phrase inside that rather lengthy title could have been interpreted in a way that (let’s just say) had nothing to do with the church Sanctuary, but rather with the public restroom next to it.

Yes. Our bass section (and I think a few folks across the Chancel in the soprano loft) took note of the opportunity for toilet humor. In church.

 

The sequence of events ran thusly:

Our associate pastor read the title of the book.

There was a brief silence.

Followed by the continuation of the announcements.

Followed by a moment where a number of choir brains processed that title and its alternate meaning.

Followed by a moment of rustling.

Followed by one of the most intense moments of silence that arguably should have included a *snort* sound effect from somebody, but miraculously didn’t.

The service moved on. “They sang a hymn and went out.” Thanks be to God.

 

Earlier this evening, I sent an eMail to a trio of bass gentlemen which said, in part, “You should know that during this morning’s service, [at that Moment,] … I could not allow myself to make eye contact with any of you.”

In fact, as I think of it, it was also guaranteed divine intervention that my brother-in-law Kevin, at the organ console which faces toward the alto/bass side of the choir loft, couldn’t allow himself to make eye contact either.  If either of us had done so, it might have been all over except for the murmurs of the parishioners in the congregation who would have been wondering why half the choir was crying.

One of my bass section colleagues replied to my eMail, saying that another bass “nudged me right about the time I was about to open my mouth. And it was one of the few times that I actually said, ‘Don’t go there.’” That nudging bass reported that he had just chewed the inside of his cheek and looked at the floor. And the third bass (yes, this might as well be Abbott and Costello) eMailed me, “For once in my life I decided to remain silent.”

I wonder if anyone grasps just how large a bullet we dodged, this morning?

So: the moral of the story, if there really should be one? Don’t skip church on a Sunday. You never know what’s going to happen – or what’s just barely not going to happen.

September 15, 2013 Posted by | choir, humor, SUMC | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment