Sunday, March 19, 2017

285. Profanity and Why We Need It



  MEET BILL HOPE, WHO ONCE ESCAPED FROM PRISON IN A COFFIN



browder-cover-9781681143057-perfect-2
Bill Hope: His Story: ($20: Softcover: 6X9”, 158pp: 978-1-68114-305-7; $35: Hardcover: 978-1-68114-306-4; $2.99: EBook: 978-1-68114-307-1; LCCN: 2017933794; Historical Fiction; May 17, 2017) is the second novel in the Metropolis series. New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his scorn for snitches and bullies; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; his brief career on the stage playing himself; his loyalty to a man who has befriended him but may be trying to kill him; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder. In the course of his adventures he learns how slight the difference is between criminal and law-abiding, insane and sane, vice and virtue—a lesson that reinforces what he learned on the streets. Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a yearning to leave the crooked life behind, and a persistent and undying hope.
          This is the second title in the Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York.  The first in the series is The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), mention of which appears at the end of this post. 

         The book can be ordered from Amazon and will be shipped after the release date of May 17, 2017.  But the paperback, which goes for $20, will cost an additional $4.95 for shipping, unless you order books totaling $25 or more.  The book is also available now from the author and will be mailed immediately ($20 + postage).  And now on to profanity.


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         Followers of this blog will recall post #263, “The Golden Age of Profanity, and Do We Have a Right to Swear?”  In that post, inspired by a Times review of the two books mentioned below, I confessed my frequent resort to profanity, albeit mostly in private and with no intention of shocking others or violating things they hold dear.  That post has since become one of the most popular, with many “hits,” so here is a follow-up to this most damnedly fascinating topic.

         In the New York Review of Books of February 9, 2017, Joan Acocella reviews two new books on the subject: What the F: What Swearing Reveals about Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves, by Benjamin K. Bergen, and In Praise of Profanity, by Michael Adams.  This article is much longer than the Times’s, allowing for a richer treatment of the subject.  Rather than summarizing the reviews, which all serious scholars of dirty words should peruse, I will merely list the values of profanity that the two authors and the reviewer cite.  Profanity is good because it

·      Relieves tension
·      Helps us endure pain (quite literally)
·      Registers a complaint against the human condition
·      Prevents violence (better words than fists or guns)
·      Encourages fellowship (we share our taste for – or tolerance of -- dirty words)
·      Expresses machismo (he-men swear, sissies don’t)
·      Enhances sex (for some, but count me out).

Ergo, we all should feel good about swearing.

         But the article shares other points as well:

·      Graffiti from a brothel in ancient Pompeii are “disappointingly laconic” (an example is cited)
·      The FCC, that vigilant guardian of our morals, levies fines, but has never published a list of taboo words
·      Jonathan Green’s Green’s Dictionary of Slang (2010) lists 1740 words for sexual intercourse, 1351 for penis, 1180 for vagina, 634 for anus or buttocks, and 540 for defecation and urination, which shows how rich our English language is, and how long the FCC’s list would be, if it existed
·      By way of contrast, the Japanese language has no swear words; to insult someone, you can tell him he’s a fool, but you can’t call him an asshole.
·      People have been giving the finger to each other for over two thousand years.

Illustrating this last observation is a photo of the Donald in Paris in November 2016, right after the election, rather grumpy-faced, confronted by several Gallic hands each with one finger defiantly extended.

         We also learn that in 2009 an author named McKay Hatch published a book entitled The No Cussing Club: How I Fought Against Peer Pressure and How You Can Too.  Mr. Hatch, we further learn, was fourteen at the time and disgusted by the swearing he heard at school.  Founded in 2007, his club now boasts 20,000 members, and teachers, the mayor of South Pasadena, and an international following have told him that he may have changed the world.  Infinitely varied are the paths to fame and glory; I wish him well.  But his website has been hacked by the website group “Anonymous,” which claims that his parents founded the club, write his material, and use his website for their own personal gain.  Mr. McKay’s  response: “I’m the most cyberbullied kid on the planet.”  Even though I don’t qualify for his club, I not only wish him well, I applaud his courage and initiative.

         At age thirteen -- one year short of Mr. Hatch’s year of inspiration -- I was so bereft of profanity that the other boys in my eighth-grade class apologized if they ventured a damn or a hell within my hearing, and did so with genuine chagrin and without a trace of mockery.  Yes, my speech was pure, but little did they know what I had been exposed to at home, when my parents had such heated arguments that the house all but burst into flames.  To this day I can hear my mother, usually the essence of gentility, telling my father, “You can go to hell!”  Too tame, you think, and verging on innocuous?  Not if uttered with passion.  You should have heard and seen her say it. 

         As for my purity of speech, that fell by the wayside eons ago, though my profanity today lacks true originality, the kind expressed by Shakespeare’s Kent in King Lear, when he calls someone “a knave, a rascal, an eater of broken meats, a base, proud, shallow, beggarly, three-suited, hundred-pound, filthy, worsted-stocking knave,” and so on for a whole rich, savage paragraph.   

         But those naughty words we condemn and delight to use – most of them four-letter words ending in an emphatic consonant (vowels are too liquid, too soft, too wimpy) – are late arrivals in the arsenal of oaths, their emphasis on bodily functions being a symptom of our secular and perverted modern age.  Back in the Middle Ages, that blessed epoch of faith, those words hardly counted as vile; what really counted was blasphemy, the taking of the Lord’s name in vain.  In Shakespeare’s plays “s’blood!” is a common oath, meaning “God’s blood,” and as such can perhaps be viewed as not breaking (not quite) the Third Commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”  Similarly,  “zounds” derives from “God’s wounds,” while “gadzooks” and “ods bodikin,” which I have always thought deliciously quaint, come from ”God’s hooks” and “God’s bodkins,” meaning the nails of the Crucifixion.  Whether these expressions really avoid blasphemy I leave to the viewers of this blog – and to scholars and the arbiters of taste and decency.

          Concern about blasphemy did not die out with the Middle Ages.  In Catholic France, as late as 1866 the poet Baudelaire, was thrown out of a hospital for uttering the phrase sacré nom (“holy name”).  But today who would be offended by such utterances as criminy, cripes, gee, bejesus, gee whillikers, jiminy, or jeepers creepers, all of them variants of “Christ” and “Jesus”?  Or by gosh and golly, stand-ins for “God”?  No, for cussing we prefer references to sexual body parts and acts of copulation and excretion.  So it goes in this modern, and very secular, golden age of profanity.  

           Are there islands of purity of speech in this world of blatant profanity?  Yes, for I'm told on good authority that Hoosiers, the residents of Indiana and a good and decent folk, eschew (my favorite verb) profanity.  A woman newly arrived in the state asked a cousin of mine, "Don't Hoosiers cuss?"   But I'm also informed that two genteel relatives of mine, a cousin and her mother, are known to get less Hoosier behind the wheel, when another motorist cuts them off or otherwise offends them.  "Asshole!" the mother often exclaimed, within hearing of her young daughters.  So maybe the urge to curse is inherent in us, just waiting for the right provocation to explode.

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         A note on stars:  The Science section of the New York Times of Tuesday, March 14, informs us that extraterrestrial dust – in other words, dust from vanished planets, asteroids, and stars – rains constantly upon us, though we are unaware of this shower of micrometeorites.  Only experts can tell these tiny particles from the contaminants generated by human activities like construction, fireworks, and home insulation, but the fact remains that, all around us and even in our food and our hair, there is stardust.  Which confirms a poem that I wrote long ago (and which I will spare my readers), announcing that our bodies are made of bits of stars.
         And speaking of stars, another article in that same paper – a review of Marilyn in Manhattan: Her Year of Joy, by Elizabeth Winder, reminds me how Marilyn Monroe, then at the peak of her stardom and between husbands Joe Dimaggio and Arthur Miller, fled Hollywood to spend the year 1955 in New York, an event that inspired in me no little anxiety and downright fear.  Why should the displacement of the world’s most celebrated blonde, fleeing a movie industry that had trapped her in sexpot roles, affect me, a nobody, in any way?  Because she was coming to New York, where she planned to enroll in the Actors Studio and perhaps also improve her mind by taking courses of adult education.  And what was I doing at the time?  Teaching French in General Studies, the adult education program at Columbia University, and probably the most obvious place for her to enroll.  The very thought of that stellar beauty enrolled in one of my classes terrified me.  How could I deal with her objectively, when everyone in the class would know who she was, and would be scrutinizing my feeble attempts to treat her like any other student? 
         By chance, I escaped Marilyn by getting an appointment to teach in Columbia College, where I had as one of my students Arthur MacArthur, the general’s son, who was well-behaved and caused no problem.  And Marilyn never set her lovely foot in the Columbia campus, spending her time instead drinking, reading Russian novels (not in the original, I’m sure), confiding in Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, and enticing Arthur Miller into wedlock.  But soon after that I joined the Playwrights Unit of the Actors Studio and saw, posted on a wall, a photo of one of the classes with Marilyn sitting alone and apart, radiating not just beauty but that intangible known as star quality.  Yes, her presence in a classroom, however well intended, would have been vastly disruptive.

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          BROWDERBOOKS:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series,  tells the story of a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client   It is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.




/
         Coming soon:  The Mafia and Me.  And then, Patients from Hell, to counterbalance post #283, Doctors from Hell.


         ©   2017   Clifford Browder

Sunday, March 12, 2017

284. Gators, Monarchs, and Me


 MEET BILL HOPE, WHOSE FINGERS HAVE SPENT MORE TIME IN OTHER PEOPLE'S POCKETS 
THAN HIS OWN



browder-cover-9781681143057-perfect-2
Bill Hope: His Story: ($20: Softcover: 6X9”, 158pp: 978-1-68114-305-7; $35: Hardcover: 978-1-68114-306-4; $2.99: EBook: 978-1-68114-307-1; LCCN: 2017933794; Historical Fiction; May 17, 2017) is the second novel in the Metropolis series. New York City, 1870s: From his cell in the gloomy prison known as the Tombs, young Bill Hope spills out in a torrent of words the story of his career as a pickpocket and shoplifter; his scorn for snitches and bullies; his brutal treatment at Sing Sing and escape from another prison in a coffin; his forays into brownstones and polite society; his brief career on the stage playing himself; his loyalty to a man who has befriended him but may be trying to kill him; and his sojourn among the “loonies” in a madhouse, from which he emerges to face betrayal and death threats, and possible involvement in a murder. In the course of his adventures he learns how slight the difference is between criminal and law-abiding, insane and sane, vice and virtue—a lesson that reinforces what he learned on the streets. Driving him throughout is a fierce desire for better, a yearning to leave the crooked life behind, and a persistent and undying hope.
          This is the second title in the Metropolis series of historical novels set in nineteenth-century New York.  The first in the series is The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), mention of which appears at the end of this post. 


         The book can be ordered from Amazon and will be shipped after the release date of May 17, 2017.  But the paperback, which goes for $20, will cost an additional $4.95 for shipping, unless you order books totaling $25 or more.  The book is also available now from the author and will be mailed immediately ($20 + postage).  And now on to gators, monarchs, and me.

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       New York City, that congested urban maze, that jammed-up, noisy mess of asphalt, concrete, and steel, is alive with creatures other than commuting bipeds, if one knows where to look.  So let’s look.  It’s a relief to get away from politics and controversy for at least a little while.  These creatures mean us no harm – at least, I think they don’t.  On other occasions I’ve looked up high to see soaring peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks, osprey, and even, if one goes out of the city and up the Hudson a bit, bald eagles and vultures.  But now let’s look down and around us, much closer to earth, and see what we can find.


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File:Brooklyn Museum 22.1351 Slit Gong in Form of Alligator (4).jpg
Gong in form of an alligator, by an unknown African artist, Brooklyn Museum

         Alligators in the sewers of New York?  Grown reptiles, once flushed away by New Yorkers who bought them as cute little pets in Florida and were scared to see them growing into monster adults?  Alligators that can grow up to fifteen feet in length?  It’s an old New York legend, a perennial joke that writers and comedians have had fun with, but I confess that neither I nor anyone I know has ever seen or even heard of a full-grown alligator in the sewers.  Yes, in the subways there’s a charming sculpture of an alligator devouring an infant, but it’s just a joke.  So that’s all it is, just a legend and a joke, isn’t it?  Not according to an article by Corey Kilgannon in the New York Times of February 11, 2017.  The article reports these sightings, which I have supplemented with information from other sources: 

·      On February 9, 1935, a group of teenagers in East Harlem, while shoveling snow into a manhole, discovered a living eight-foot alligator under the manhole, looped a rope around its neck, and hauled it up into the street.  When it snapped at them, they beat it to death.  Its origin?  Maybe someone brought it back from Florida as a souvenir, or maybe it was caught in the Everglades, escaped from a boat coming north from Florida, and swam into the Harlem River and into a sewer outflow.
·      A four-foot alligator was pulled out of Kissena Lake in Queens in 1995.  (A photo shows it.)
·      A four-foot alligator was found crawling in the woods in Alley Pond Park in Queens in 2003.  The police and Park Rangers were summoned and tied up the creature, probably abandoned by its owner, and removed it. 
·      A two-foot alligator was spotted on the shore of the Harlem Meer, in the northeast corner of Central Park, in June 2001.  The hunt for it mesmerized the city for several days, and it was finally captured in the glare of dozens of TV cameras a few days later.  It proved to be a spectacled caiman, a crocodile native to Central and South America, probably brought into the city by a resident who became alarmed when it started growing into an adult.

File:A large American alligator suns himself in the creek parallel to Runway 32 at Marine Corps Air Station, Cherry point, N.C., May 16, 2013 130516-M-XX999-001.jpg
The real McCoy.

         Now let’s not panic; these are rare and widely scattered incidents.  Still, a baby alligator right in Central Park, in the very heart of Manhattan.  And a current U.S. Postal Service regulation says that alligators “not exceeding 20 inches in length” can be shipped through the mail.  Attention, all parents and nannies:  Do not leave your infant charges unattended for even a minute or two in Central Park.  Who knows what might emerge from a bush or pond or sewer nearby?

File:Asclepias syriaca sl 2.jpg
 Stefan.lefnaer

          And now let’s look at one of my favorite summer wildflowers, mildly poisonous to humans, and at the creatures it nourishes.  Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) grows in dry, sun-drenched soil throughout the city and its vicinity.  In late June and the first two weeks of July I have often seen stands of it in the dry soil of Pelham Bay Park, and across the Hudson on the Palisades near the George Washington Bridge.  The domed flower clusters are dusty rose or lavender or dull brownish purple in color and give off an intoxicatingly sweet aroma, and the stems and paired leaves, if bruised or broken, exude the thick milky juice that gives the plant its name.  Soon after blooming, the flower clusters droop and the warty pods appear that by autumn will split open to reveal the tight-packed seeds that will escape into the air and drift about like hordes of tiny white parachutes.

File:BBGMonarchButterflyWings.jpg

         I love this wildflower, its aroma, and its tiny seeds adrift in the autumn air, and often search its stem and the underside of its leaves for a black- and white- and yellow-striped caterpillar that feeds on its leaves, absorbing greedily their milky juice poisonous to humans.  This caterpillar, feeding exclusively on milkweed, is the larva of the monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus), a handsome species whose orange wings marked with black tracery I have often seen in autumn as it feeds on asters and other late-summer flowers, before beginning the annual migration south to Mexico.  Their bright colors may protect them from predators, for it identifies the butterflies clearly as monarchs, whose foul taste, resulting from their feeding on milkweed, predators have learned to avoid.  (Also protected is the viceroy butterfly, whose pattern resembles the monarch’s, deterring predators even though the freeloading viceroy doesn’t feed on milkweed and therefore is a tastier morsel than the monarch.)

File:Viceroy Butterfly.jpg
The viceroy.  Not a monarch, but close.  Can you tell them apart?
PiccoloNamek

         Unique among butterflies, the monarch migrates each year from Canada and the United States to the forested highlands of the state of Michoacan, some 75 miles west of Mexico City.  Amazingly, these fragile creatures, each weighing less than a dollar bill, can make this 2500-mile journey to Mexico, where they are now sheltered in the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve (Reserva de la Biosfera Mariposa Monarca).  In late September and early October I have seen them southward bound in Maine and New York City, though never at the peak of the migration, when in some years they are so thick in the fields that you have to gently sweep them off your path with your arm.  Arriving in Mexico, to survive the cool nights they cluster so densely on the fir and pine trees that their blanket of orange and black bends the branches and often breaks them.  There they mate and reproduce, before beginning their return migration to the north.

File:Monarch butterfly migration.jpg

Monarchs in migration. 

         Unfortunately, the monarch is vulnerable and easily decimated.  In March 2016 storms bringing rain, cold, and high winds felled hundreds of trees where the monarchs spend the winter, killing more than 7 percent of the butterflies.  Another threat is the illegal logging in their reserve, which the Mexican government hopes to control through a newly created special national police squad. 


         Just as threatening to the monarch’s survival is the loss in this country of milkweed habitat, because farmers use herbicides to control weeds, and mow the edges of fields.  For farmers, milkweed is a “pesky” plant to be eliminated, and their practices, along with climate change, the conversion of habitat to cropland, and development (fields converted to luxury housing, etc.), have so decreased the monarch population that the butterflies could become extinct within twenty years, if the loss of habitat is not reversed.  There is hope, for Americans alerted to the problem have been replanting milkweed in backyards, schoolyards, and parks, though the cooperation of farmers will be necessary as well.  To secure that cooperation, the Environmental Defense Fund has created a Monarch Butterfly Habitat Exchange that gives farmers credits for growing milkweed, credits that can then be sold through the Exchange to buyers or investors interested in helping the monarch to survive.  Will this program be enough to save the monarch?  Time will tell.

          And why is this butterfly named "monarch"?  Because, back in the 1690s, English settlers in North America were impressed by the butterfly's bright orange and wanted to honor their monarch, King William, the Prince of Orange. 


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          BROWDERBOOKS:  No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World, my selection of posts from this blog, has received these awards: the Tenth Annual National Indie Excellence Award for Regional Non-Fiction; first place in the Travel category of the 2015-2016 Reader Views Literary Awards; and Honorable Mention in the Culture category of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards for 2016.  For the Reader Views review by Sheri Hoyte, go here.  As always, the book is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


No Place for Normal: New York / Stories from the Most Exciting City in the World

The Pleasuring of Men (Gival Press, 2011), the first novel in the Metropolis series,  tells the story of a young male prostitute in the late 1860s in New York who falls in love with his most difficult client   It is likewise available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.




          Coming soon:  Maybe patients from hell.  Maybe a follow-up to post #263, The Golden Age of Profanity, since it has proved so popular.  And maybe Gay Bars and the Mafia, reminiscences of the good old days of organized crime and gay life in the 1950s and 1960s.  Maybe, maybe, maybe...

          ©   2017   Clifford Browder