qualified

Here’s a game for you….

In order to play, you’ll need your change purse, a jar or box, a comfortable place to sit, and access to cable TV news.

Before you start watching, you’ll need to know that you’ll be listening for two expressions: “Sort of” and “Kind of.” It’s important to realize that these synonymous expressions can be used in two different ways. First, as means of defining or clarifying type, as in, “A morel is a sort/kind of edible fungus.” Second, as a means of qualifying or lending uncertainty to the state of something, such as, “My room is sort/kind of messy.”

All set?

Good. Now, turn on the TV to one of the three major cable news stations, it doesn’t matter which you start with, because, after 30 minutes (yes, you’ll need to give it that long), you’ll change the channel to one of the others for comparison.

From this point the game is simple. Every time a show’s host or guest uses “Sort of,” or Kind of” as a way of qualifying their comments, throw a coin into your chosen receptacle. As you play, keep track of what, exactly, the expression is qualifying, and how that affects the impact, and, even legitimacy of the commentary. Also, keep track of which station causes you to throw in the greatest amount of coins, and how that difference between news sources affects you. If you want to make the game more interesting, you can grade the seriousness off the qualifications. So, if a reporter says, “So-and-so was sort of unsure in his/her response to the question,” you might throw in a penny. But, if a doctor advises the public to, “Sort of stay home if you can,” you might throw in a quarter.

I’ve been playing for a year now, and am convinced that qualified truths are not truths. They are maybes which give viewers and listeners permission to disregard them. That makes them only slightly better than useless.

I haven’t yet heard anyone say, “She was sort of pregnant,” or “The victims were kind of dead,” but the way things are going, I won’t be surprised if I do.

And that frightens me.

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Clichés

William Shakespeare

Griselda disappeared a couple of months ago.

Before setting off for subconscious terrain, she left a long letter on my desktop, beside a file of the novella I was writing, accusing me of suffering from a “Plague of clichés.”

I didn’t scoff, as I might have if anyone else had said it. Her list of grievances was too long, and too pointed. All I could do was sigh and groan.

“Perhaps,” she concluded, “you should take that statue of Shakespeare you’ve had since childhood, and move it from the bookshelf to your desk for inspiration….”

Which is exactly what I did.

So far, he hasn’t said a word. Nor has he budged. I turn the desk light on periodically to see if his expression has changed, but it hasn’t. And, if the light bothers him, I can’t tell. He doesn’t squint, and he doesn’t complain. Not even about my clumsy drafts.

***

In the past couple of months, I have read two novels in which he plays a significant role. Both use similar construction and literary devices.

I enjoyed reading them, but, when I finished, I was struck by how many other books I have read in the past year in which the Bard plays no role, but the construction and devices do—the same ones in my work that triggered Griselda’s departure.

And so, I am left with a silent Bard, too many versions of a manuscript driven by stale contrivances, too much time to rue over them, and a reluctance to let them go.

Shall I be like Donatello, before his statue of the prophet, Habakkuk, and scream at my silent icon, “Speak, damn you, speak!” Hoping, praying for instruction? Or shall I regard the lack of it as trust? The Bard’s way of saying, “You can do this. Think….”

Think, he says…. Of folders nested within folders, unused titles, inscriptions, settings, characters, words…overused construction and devices…and Griselda’s exasperated notes….

A plague of clichés.

Maybe that’s where I start.

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2020

“…in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort….” (From The Republic, Plato)

It’s hard to avoid the irony—the titular year of perfect vision, the unraveling of once reliable norms, political structures, checks and balances, civility in all arenas, the losses of loved ones and heroes to injustice and disease.

And it’s equally hard to avoid the comparison—between that titular year of sudden perfect vision, and the years of blurring and distortion, loss of sight preceding it.

That loss creeps up on us slowly. Colors lose their intensity, fading from brilliant to dull, letters spread into each other across pages and screens as poetry and prose and road signs seem layered with petroleum jelly. For a while, it’s easy to grow accustomed to, and comfortable with changes, a world smearing out of focus, and accommodate them with sharper lenses and adjusted habits. It’s easy to say we can deal with things as they are. We’re not missing anything truly important. We can still make out the big picture.

But then, one day, those street lights that come on at dusk glare at and confuse us, make us misread road signs. Or, the newspaper goes untouched because it’s too taxing to decipher small print. That’s when we realize how much of the big picture we’re not seeing.

I’m getting to that stage with my own vision, which has been on a steady decline for years. And I’ve been through enough cataract surgeries with friends and family to understand how startling sudden clarity can be.

More than one friend has related how shocked she was by her first look at herself after surgery. “I walked by the mirror, not intending to stop, then did a double-take after I caught sight of a strange image moving across the glass. I couldn’t believe the woman’s wrinkled up face was mine.”

For many of us, the severely clouded lenses that enabled our old lives and habits and beliefs have been stripped away, and we aren’t quite sure how to process and respond to the stark and painful clarity of new vision, or function with it. No matter which way we turn, no matter how well we think we’re adjusting, there’s always another flaw, another act of cruelty, corruption, injustice, bigotry, stupidity, selfishness, and there’s always another loss—of a loved one, or hero….

I wish I had words to ease the pain, fury, and helplessness over being assailed with such clarity, the harsh reality it exposes. But all I have is an increasing sense of urgency to more actively care for those I love, impress upon them the necessity of taking care of themselves and their loved ones, paying attention to persistent symptoms, scheduling life-saving tests, looking both ways when crossing the street, wearing a mask…wearing a mask….

That, at least, is a start.

Stay safe. Be well.

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