On the Road with Malapropisms and Misnomers

Roads are lovely places to drive. The one I live on is wedged between the sea and dark, mossy pines clinging to a craggy escarpment. Then there are back roads, like Routes 52 and 173, tarmacing their way through the pastoral, beech, oak, and birch twitching light and shade as if in some primeval game of hide and seek. Or there is Route 1, boring its way north and south along the coast, clogged with cars like a sticky swab flies.

And these roads are where you will come across such verbal misfires as this: Hidden Drive. Say what, Freud? What exactly am I supposed to be on the lookout for with this sign? The first thing that comes to mind is a portly recluse dressed in slack cords, frumpy sweater with either his university’s crest stitched over his heart or last night’s supper, and immaculately clean slippers, the ones his doting mother bought with money she’d saved for her plot of land in the necropolis.

And that drive? Well, it would certainly be hidden. Maybe exhibited each time a certain magazine arrives in his mailbox. But then there’s that very long dirt drive to shuffle along before he can get home with his prize. And by the time I realize the sign is in fact referring to an inconspicuous road instead of a sexual condition, I’ve sped by.

Then there’s this sign: Slow Children. Could use a little punctuation, this. Lynne Truss made oodles of cash from her panda that eats, shoots, and leaves. Anyone at the MDOT read that book, I wonder? So the conundrum for me, as I’m driving and fiddling with the iPod, is am I supposed to ease off on the gas or gawk about in the hopes of spotting the not-so-astute child? The when I do? Is it still politically correct to stop and commiserate with the kid for a sign that not only is shamelessly thoughtless but also grammatically witless.

And it doesn’t stop there. What about Cat Crossing? Lovely. Now, is it just my macabre sense of humor or is this useless sign a prognostication? Does it announce the impending demise of another feline? Cat Crossing . . . to its death! It also wouldn’t hurt to make it into an exclamation. That way, I might have the presence of mind to slow down and not run over your pet. Or better yet, why not keep your tabby or you Maine coon indoors if you live that close to a road. The sign may boost your feline’s reckless nature, but with a dead cat, it will soon rust, its ironmongery rattling in the wind announcing to all that a pet cemetery is undoubtedly filling faster than the one in the horrormeister’s penny dreadful. (For the record: I read Harold Bloom but I don’t put his words in my mouth and spout them. I like penny dreadfuls. Jesus, I’d have been a huckster hawking them myself on a grimy corner just before Grub Street.)

So that leaves me with malapropisms, you know, solecisms, blunders, Freudian slips that young ravishing beauties like to expose before coitus. One of my favorites I actually remember from reading James Joyce: the rheumatic wheel. Then there are others I like to ponder while driving in my hunchback car after a pleasing course in entomology. It’s the kind of thing that will either drive you stark raven mad or else you’ll be tickled blue.

Here’s one I drove by the other day with Radiohead shuffling on the Pod. Fresh Muscles for Sale. Which is so much better than old sagging ones burnt to a crisp on hot sands. Taking a slight hiatus at a harbor, I read this: No Large Births. I totally agree. My daughter’s birth was a very small affair. But then she was a cesarean and I wonder if that makes a difference? Then back on the road I entered a busy town with pedestrians aimlessly schlepping across the crossway when I saw this: Banana Spit. Watch out, I wanted to cry to my fellow semantics, some long curved fruit is hacking. Now I better understand the phrase going bananas. The next had me pressing the hazard lights: Handicupped Parking. But there was not a single travel mug in sight. Finding nowhere to park, I moseyed on in bumper to bumper traffic tickled that my five minute wait — yes, five minutes — was nothing compared to hour long crawls I’ve endured at South Bend, Indiana and unscheduled holidays on the M25 close to London. Thirsty, I eyed around for a coffee house. I located one — but it sold Decapitated Coffee. Which made me wonder how the tea would come. Hung by its string until high noon? And finally, since this could get hackneyed, there’s this juicy howler: Yankee Stripper.

For obvious reasons I can’t comment on this because I’m no Yank and also because, I believe, lap dancing is the new trend.

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Don armour at your own peril

I get to hear such unspeakable things in my day-to-day wandering through the labyrinth of triviality. And today I heard what amounted to being gagged in a chair: A writer needs thick skin when it comes to reviews.

Who needs the hide of a pachyderm, such thick skin? Is this a condition you must accept if you decide to write, Like a sick man the bitter pill of recovery?

Smells a lot like dogma to me. I bring it up because I know of a particular individual, although “individual” may be too much of a kindness, who whenever a discussion of a writer and reviews comes about immediately pulls out his gospel according to and resolutely and without a dust mote of doubt sanctimoniously declares without hesitation, as if it were his domain alone, that no hard skin, no writer.

What absolute twaddle. Am I wrong, or isn’t a writer in need of sensitivity otherwise all a reader would get would be books of fucking facts?

Maybe it’s a case of semantics, but it’s not a hard skin to criticism that’s needed, it’s a unwavering faith in you work that is not brought about by having thick skin but from having deaf ears or ears for only that which applies.

What I object to more than anything is how easily such a person is able to condemn. And it says more to me about that person than his general theory of absolute. Who makes these people the mouthpieces for art? Makes them the holy shrine where all us other poor sods must drink to gain fresh insight?

It’s true that as a writer you have to be able to handle the criticism that bites where it hurts most, but not by cultivating a tough skin. The body is not a shield where emotions get to hide. Sometimes a criticism is going to fucking hurt, hurt bad, but what needs to be done is not show that it has affected you. Or maybe it’s better not even to read a review of your work, good or bad. I’ve read that a lot of writers do this. And I’ve also read of a lot of writers who have been broken by reviews of their work and carry it around with them. Should I or anyone else condemn them for being so human and not this amazing thick skinned mutant?

Of course my time for having a review of my work has not jet arrived. But I like to think I won’t need this person’s “thick skin” but come up with my own discipline.

Because we all have to have our own personal ideals. If we don’t other people will fabricate them for us.

I just can’t accept that there is only one way to deal with reviews as a writer and that’s to have a thick skin. That’s like saying the only way to deal with life is to have science or religion or intellect of imagination or intuition or philosophy. All are needed to be human. And a writer isn’t a writer first he’s a human being.

So it’s no thick skin for me and no damnation and absolutely no rigid thinking or monolithic truths from the mouths of the so-called “chosen.”

Absurd Good News

I had a blood orange today, and it was clamant to be eaten. It is the closet Maine comes in winter to anything exotic. Blood-red slices of the tart and sweet. And it was organic.

Now you can roll your eyes at the organic movement, but if you choose not to eat organic, then my only chunter to you is what will your children and your children’s children eat when the earth is robed of its essential nutrients by over-farming and the effluence from corporate agribusinesses have made the rivers sludge and the air a miasma of pollutants?

Maybe choosing organic makes me a Pangloss, or perhaps I’m just concerned about how my food comes to me. As a personal code of gastronomy, I don’t like the idea of other people handling what I eat, so from that point of view, I find it hard to imagine the food I eat getting sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. And similar to the person who mistrusts too much government in their daily lives, I’m chary of modern farming techniques that are unconcerned about our wellbeing and more guided by greed and profits. Food is not only what fires this mass of flesh, sets the kinetic relationship between cell and body and life, but it is also our daily, or should be, connection to life other than our own. What we eat is a reminder that we are reliant on the natural world for the life-sustaining foods we ingest.

The poet Wallace Stevens considered poetry to be “the bread of faithful speech.” I take this to mean that poetry offers good nutrients, is nourishing, and fulfills us.

Food should do the same. Let’s keep it simplistic. Let’s not complicate a basic necessity for the results of mass-produced food that feeds us but does not nourish us both bodily and spiritually. Because food does much more than keep us healthy and alive, it has aroma and taste and texture and flavor, qualities that enhance any meal and ourselves in the feasting.

And I’m not advocating that we all take up shovels and dig our own garden plots, although that isn’t such a bad idea — if Einstein could revolutionize the way in which we appreciate the world with his general theory of relativity, then a small vegetable patch in the garden could equally have cosmic effects. What I’m dishing up, (pun intended) is a rethinking of this firm belief that food must come our way altered. Why? Solely to meet an overwhelming demand? The only way that can be accomplished, states one jaundiced view, is to produce on a great scale and plaster in chemicals to ensure that the crops survive. And it’s all at our, the consumers, expense.

Why we as a society allow our food to be manipulated is the de rigueur question we should all be asking ourselves. Would we stand for such manipulation of our children in the classroom if, say, a teacher started to extol the virtues of racism? We wouldn’t. And, obviously, there’s a big leap between a racist teacher and a farmer who sprays his crops so he can in turn feed his family. The farmer has a legit reason to do it. But where the differences diverge the similarities converge, like light being able to be both particles and waves. The convergence is that both stem from a manipulation. We are manipulated by big agri-businesses.We are also manipulated by the organic movement. The difference, however, is that the organic movement cares for our wellbeing, it wants us to eat and be merry. And I can’t think of a more humanistic approach to food than that.

Prometheus, the bounder

Fires. There was a time, gone now, but remembered in poetry and scrawled in jakes, when my childhood house was without one. Empty grate. And mounds of ashes out in the woods where small animals scurried to the heights and got shot by Mrs. Mary O’Donlan, second brigadier to the admiral and fond of cream puffs when her man danced naked behind a parasol.

At such times, I would get together a band of brothers and hunt out houses with smoke rising from their chimneys. Then we’d chose one house. Send in a scout, who typically turned out to Wally “Wanking” Rogers, zip always at half-mast, face like a lecherous mask a priest may have designed if only he had insisted on more lashings.

Wally’s job was to make sure the fire was ablaze and that there was either a sleeping cat in front of it, a dozing patriarch with a belly like the Teton, or David Jones’ older sister drying herself in a new Marks & Spencer’s towel before a hissing radiator.

When we’d scoped the house out, I was chosen to go in and steal the fire. Usually I’d knock on the door, say I was a Welsh Baptist in desperate need of a total immersion in a house of sin to repent — or I’d pry a window and sneak in. Or even better, one of the houses would belong to an ex-girlfriend and I’d say I was there to make up.

Either scenario got me in. Then I’d scoop out big burning chunks of coal and toss them into Thicky Dicky’s callused hands and shove him out the back door.

Dicky’d go howling down the street and burst into my home and dump his fiery load onto the empty grate. And every time my mother would shout out, “Why doesn’t that boy ever wipe his feet!”

And then I’d sit by the fire, warm my hands, and listen to the ambulance siren slowly die away.

A grandeur indifference to the norm

John Cowper Powys. He was an extremely prolific writer, yet he started late. (Which is something I can see myself aspiring to.) I’ve heard him described as a writer of tragic grandeur and everyday comedy, of sexual perversion, and lots of cups of tea. (I guess more cups of teas are consumed in his books than by Irish road workers. And I’ve seen how many pots they’ve brewed.)

His books are large. His subjects even larger: Welsh myth, vivisection, pornography, magic, the nature of evil, Nietzsche’s philosophy, and communism. He was also considered the English degenerate. And he had a horror of “fucking” but depended on enemas for bad gastric trouble. And he liked girls of the demimonde, and prostitutes, and slim young women in men’s clothing.

Which all makes him extremely interesting and bordering on an obsession for me. I’m like that. I weevil some author out of the woodwork and then I get to munch on all the grubs until the only thing standing is the chair I sit in, lonely and forlorn without me.

Half my love for reading is discovering writers that are over-looked by the literary mainstream. I feel like an archaeologist who has suddenly uncovered, say, the femur of a new animal or the fossil of some invertebrate that turns out to have had a huge impact on evolution. Maybe I’m a little disturbed. But then the sluggish blood of the mundane is set flowing again like a river in spate and all the flotsam is washed to the bank and it’s damn refreshing. Life, that is.

Some reviewer had this to say about Powys: “The realm of John Cowper Powys is dangerous.” Now that’s my kind of writer.

And what about towns that think they’re cities? What I’m saying is that these so-called cities should be regulated to the fifth division. True I lead a rural life — and like it that way — but when I want to go to a city I want to go to a City! None of these namby-pamby places masquerading as cities but without the vibe. I want a city to have bookstores where the owners can tell you what book you want to read even before you’ve uttered a word. I don’t want chain book stores where the cashier says, “Oh, John Cowper Powys, wasn’t he the prime ministrant of London?”

And I want funky and underground coffee houses with a seat against the wall where you can observe and drink in flagrante instead of one single café where you ask if the place is connected and they reply, “Yes, my dad knows the bank manager so I got a deal on the place.”

Or music stores where every decibel of sound is collected into a arena of audio delight. A music store with every conceivable band and some not even yet formed. Not some dinky music store where the owner smirks at your purchase and says, “Edwyn Collins’ new one, huh? I have the Aberdeenian’s fist band Orange Pulp if you’re interested.” To which I will reply. “Thanks, but the Glasgow kid’s early band Orange Juice is already on my iPod.”

Did you know that Woody Allen was once asked did he consider sex dirty. And he replied, yes, if it’s done properly.

Condemned by the Synod of Carthage in about 418.

Sense and susceptibility

I think I suffer from a psychological term called pagan candour. Oh, the Shakespearean foppery of the world. It is too much with us. You know, illusion and ideology. “I am moved by fancies that are curled / Around these images and cling.” Eliot. And that is why I love art, the uselessness of it is a scandal to hard-headed pragmatists.

Was it Matthew Arnold that wrote: “With noiseless current strong, obscure and deep”? That’s life in its true essence, the underlying stream of all that we feel and are. The subterranean current that is life, the force, the being of our matter. The imperative is always to tell it how it is. But it’s such a strong current to maneuver since life flows back and forth. It’s not a constant rushing forward because there is always the nimbus of introspection that carries us helplessly back to the past and pours us over the falls to the future.

Some days I imagine myself as a lord with whip and spur and by the chantry I fly on toward the cathouse. I think it was Ted Hughes who wrote there is in all of us a real struggle between the Puritan and the Hedonist. But then Hughes was more than Frank — he was Ted — about his need for more than one sexual partner. Fidelity is the long boat on the stream of lust that touches nothing but the water of transience. I don’t know who wrote that. Wait! It was me. Am I committing an act of Mutatis Mutandis or in flagrante delicto? I can’t tell. My Latin’s very poor since the Celt got mixed up with it.

And some hours, the bewitching ones, I wish I could only have a morsel of Blake’s creative recklessness. There is so much ballast now in the calculative spirit of utilitarians. And Blake is seen as a visionary drawing a lot from religion, but his force was not to align his spirit with the scriptures or even the dogma, he sought out the extravagant and maverick ethics of Jesus. You know, “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” If they ask for your coat you give them your robe. If they ask you to walk one mile you go three. If they ask for your allegiance you give them your rebel yell. If your desires are restrained by religion or politics, and a political state keeps power by convincing us of our limitations, then maybe those desires you have are feeble enough to be retrained.

Thus Spake Zerk, grease fitter