Archive for April, 2011

Ironic, isn’t it…

How many words exist in the English language?  300,000?  500,000?  I don’t know, but I’m sure most of us use only a fraction of those words on a regular basis.  Many of them we probably couldn’t give a good definition to, let alone explain how to use them in a sentence.  Of the words I use, there’s one word–irony, or its adjective form, ironic–which has bothered me for years.  I use it, as do many of us, but I can’t give a good definition, and I’m not sure I should even be writing this blog.  The main problem I’ve run up against is that the dictionaries and encyclopedias don’t give a good working definition either, and I’ve been forced to try it on my own.

I’ve consulted several dictionaries and encyclopedias.  Not an exhaustive search by any means, but enough to realize that they all say approximately the same thing, that irony is “the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning,” (Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary [2003]) or “a state of affairs or events that is the reverse of what was to be expected: a result opposite to and as if in mockery of the appropriate result (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged [1986]).

(Let me be clear, I’m not talking about dramatic irony or Socratic irony, which are limited forms.  I confine myself here to the irony that arises occasionally out of the incidents of everyday existence.)

These definitions of irony are close, but in my experience, there’s more to irony than simply the reverse of what was expected, or what might have been expected, or what is to be expected.  As far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t cut the mustard.  Irony is a subtle–very subtle–play on a situation, a play that almost defies definition.  For example, The World Book Encyclopedia (2007) uses the example of a soldier returning from combat to a party given by his friends.  But the soldier is killed in an accident on his way home to the United States.  Granted, a contrast does exist between what was expected and what actually occurred, but this isn’t irony.  Tragedy, yes; irony, no.  The situation would be ironic if the soldier, after dodging IED’s in Iraq or Afghanistan for two years or more, is killed by an IED on the highway from the airport to his friend’s house.  Again, there is the pulse of the unexpected, yet there is a subtlety that pervades the situation.  The irony is not simply that the soldier is killed, and it is not simply that the soldier is killed by an IED, it is that the IED is in the United States where IED’s are vastly uncommon.

The New Encyclopedia Britannica (2002) did a reasonably good job of getting to the heart of the definition.  Verbal irony, it said, “expresses a controlled pathos without sentimentality.”  Webster’s New Universal Unabridged did a somewhat better job, stating that irony “stress[es] the paradoxical nature of reality, or the contrast between an ideal and an actual condition or set of circumstances … frequently in such a way as to stress the absurdity present in the contradictions between substance and form.”  I like that “absurdity.”  Irony is absurd, yet it is, at the same time, subtle.

Irony is frequently categorized with words such as sarcasm, satire, or wit, with which it shares very little.  When someone says, “Beautiful weather, isn’t it?” during a thunderstorm or a hurricane or a blizzard, they aren’t being ironic, they’re being sarcastic.

I’m afraid I haven’t really captured the essence of the definition of irony very well here.  As a pun is a play on words, irony is a play on a situation.  Even that’s not a very good metaphor, but the play on the situation requires a juxtaposition of events which combine to produce an outcome in which two events are paired, not because they’re unexpected or unrelated, but to the contrary, because, like the soldier and the IED, they are so closely related.

Confused?  I am.

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To Hyphenate or Not

A recent mistake I made, coupled with some things I’ve read over the past few weeks has led me to use this space for a suggestion for the future.

Several days ago someone sent me an e-mail asking me to send him something.  He asked me to send it by “email” (note spelling), but I read it as “mail.”  I missed the little “e.”  I looked around for his address, couldn’t find it, then stupidly e-mailed him to send me his snail-mail address.  He wrote back giving me his e-mail address and I realized what I had done.

The mistake I made was not recognizing the “e” in front of “mail,” though I suspect others have made the same mistake.  That damn little “e” gets lost way too easily.  What’s worse is using both the hyphenated and non-hyphenated forms.  Only a few minutes before I started typing this blog, I read a news story in which the author used both versions (email and e-mail) in the same story.  Bad form.  We should pick one style and stick with it.  I suggest we use the hyphenated form, for the basic reason that “e-mail” is distinct and easy to recognize and it has its own meaning and definition.  The form “email” is a degeneration on “mail,” and is neither “mail” nor “e-mail.”  Throwing an “e” in front of a word doesn’t necessarily make it an electronic form of something.

But another reason I suggest we use the hyphenated form has to do with some other terms that have appeared recently.  The problem is becoming compounded by the presence of various types of electronic gadgets which are being given names beginning with “e.”  Now we have ereaders and ebooks and etablets, and God only knows what we’ll have in the future.  I don’t mind “ebook” too much, but ereader is hard to grasp with all those vowels converging at the front of the word.  For this reason I suggest the following:  “e-reader,”  “e-book,” and, if necessary, “e-tablet.”  To be consistent, we should also use “e-mail,” and that’s the form I intend to use from now on.  Bryan A. Garner in his book, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, recommends the hyphenated version, but he admits the non-hyphenated form may predominate eventually.  Generally, hyphens have a way of disappearing, unless a good reason exists for them to be retained.

Of course I’m not deluding myself that I have much clout in the world of grammar and syntax and punctuation and style, so the real problem is getting others to go along.  Tell all your friends and neighbors (and your e-friends and e-neighbors–my God, where will it all e-end?).  The ultimate is to ge the Chicago Manual of Style to go along and insist that the hyphen be retained.  That’s going to take some time.  I’ll work on that.

(Note: some of these words, like e-reader, are so new the spell checker on WordPress doesn’t recognize them.)

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The Mask’s the Thing

As I’ve been watching the images of the destruction by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan over the past several weeks, I’ve been struck by one common factor among the Japanese people as they struggle with the devastation and the damage to the nuclear power plant.  Many of the Japanese wear masks.  Exactly why, I can’t say for any individual person, but I suspect, generally, they’re afraid of breathing something, most likely radioactive dust or some other noxious particles, like bacteria or viruses that might cause a dread disease.  The real question behind the wearing of the masks is, do they really work?

The simple answer is, yes, they can.

But if you’re going to wear a mask, there are several factors you have to take into account before wearing it will really help you ward off disease or keep out harmful dust particles.  First, you have to wear the mask properly.  A mask that doesn’t fit well is as useless as no mask at all.  Second, and very important, all the air you breathe has to go through the fabric of the mask.  All of it.

One of the most common masks I’ve seen on the news images is the traditional rectangular mask, similar to the type worn by surgeons in an operating room.  It has two sets of straps that are tied, one behind the head and one behind the neck.   I’ll bet you’ve seen them too, they’re ubiquitous and they’ve been around for a long time.  Worn properly, they can work, but I’ve seen many people in news footage and in still photographs who simply strap one on and leave large gaps on each side.  In this situation, all the air they breathe is going in and out through those gaps, and the mask is useless.  Totally.  It’s not filtering out anything.  I know, because I’ve worn this type of mask, and unless it’s fitted to the face properly and tied tightly in both places at the back, it won’t work.  Remember, all the air–all of it–has to go through the matrix of the mask in order to be of any value whatsoever.

Another type of mask is roughly circular and usually has an elastic band that slips over your head to hold the mask in place.  Some have straps that slip over each ear.  Personally, I prefer this type.  It usually has a metal strip at the top of the mask that you pinch down tightly over the bridge of your nose to make it air tight.  These masks, in my experience, can work well.  If you want to wear a mask, wear this type, and make damn sure it’s air tight.  Remember, all the air…

Why would you want to wear a mask anyway?  Or, more to the point, why are the Japanese wearing them?  Are they getting any benefit from them?  I suspect they’re deluding themselves somewhat.  Masks have their limits.  A mask has to be made of some material that allows air to flow through easily enough to make breathing not only possible, but reasonably comfortable.  I’ve worn several different types of masks, and all of them, worn properly, restrict breathing to one degree or another.  I’ve never worn a mask for longer than a couple of hours at a time, and at the end of that time, I’ve always been glad to get the mask off.  Breathing though a mask requires more work than normal.  If there’s a person, Japanese or otherwise, who wears a mask all day, or at least as long as they are out of the house, and that can be eight or ten or more hours, then they’re probably not wearing the mask properly, and much of the air they breathe is probably not going through the mask itself.

It’s that restriction of breathing that is at the heart of the mask’s effectiveness.  The mask is a filter; it’s designed to remove certain things from the air, either when breathing in (inhalation) or out (exhalation).  Not usually both.  Surgeons wear a mask to prevent their germs from getting into the incision of the patient and contaminating the wound.  They’re not too concerned about inhalation.  But people, like the Japanese, who wear masks outdoors, are wearing them to prevent something from contaminating them.  They’re not worried about what they exhale.  I wore a mask when I visited AIDS patients, not to keep from getting AIDS, no, the other way around, to prevent my germs from infecting them.  But how effective are those masks?

A mask, regardless of type, has a limit on how small a particle it can filter out.  No mask can filter out everything.  For all masks, particles will exist that are too small to be removed.  Any mask that could remove all particles would be too tightly made to allow breathing at all.  There’s always a practical limit.  I’m not an expert on radioactive particles, but I suspect some particles could exist that are smaller than the ability of the mask to filter them.  I doubt that masks do much good there.  Even the best mask won’t stop a gaseous vapor of radioactive iodine or cesium or whatever.  For that you would need a very special mask, like a gas mask.

I do know a little about viruses and bacteria, though, and masks can be effective at removing these and preventing the transmission of disease.  Strictly speaking, viruses and bacteria are smaller than the filtering ability of most masks.  That may sound like the mask wouldn’t work, but that’s not all there is to the transmission of these agents.  Viruses, especially, have to be kept wet in order to stay alive and transmit disease, and a virus particle all by itself, even though it’s smaller than the mask can filter, is invariably dead and won’t cause disease.  When a virus gets dried out, it’s inactivated.  Viruses and bacteria are transmitted through the air in small droplets of fluid from the nose or mouth, droplets that are much bigger than the microbe they carry.  In fact, there can be thousands or even millions of viruses in one droplet.  (That’s no exaggeration.)  These droplets are what you have to worry about, and this is how some diseases (mainly respiratory diseases like colds and flu) are transmitted.  But masks are designed to filter these small droplets (many of which are too small to see, even though they can hold lots of virus particles), and worn properly, the mask can work.

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The New-found Writing

What’s new about writing?  The computer?  Well, yes, largely.

In the March/April issue of Poets and Writers, Ellen Pollack, director of the MFA program at the University of Michigan, wrote a piece she titled “Ditto Machines to Digital Literature.”  In the article, she makes several comments that got me to thinking about what and why I write.  The article is a wonderful, and sometimes humorous, romp though the recent history of writing, from the pen (or pencil) to typewriter to computer.  While I admire her tenacity in sticking with writing though all those years, I feel I must take issue with a couple of her comments.  For example, she says that “technology has changed not only the way we write, but also what we write…,” and much later in the piece she goes on to say, in an apprehensive and somewhat disquieting way, that because of the smooth and almost seamless divisions between writing/research/publishing/marketing/sales to which we have become accustomed in this world of computers/internet/email/instant messaging, she worries that we are “approaching the point at which writing a story feels less like practicing an art than posting an entry to a blog, or worse, generating a spam campaign…”

Okay, I can understand her concern.  The computer and the internet, and electronics in general, have changed the way we write.  Considerably.  Even profoundly.  It certainly has changed what we write about.  After all, if we didn’t have computers (and all the other parallel worlds it implies), we couldn’t write about computers.  That, however, is a minor point.  The major point I wish to make is that I disagree substantially with her feeling that writing has become something less than an art form anymore.

I’ve been writing fiction for only about twelve years.  I’ve finished two novels and several short stories and I did all of it on a computer, and it’s been fabulous.  That may not be a lot compared to writers who have written fifty or sixty novels, but I came to this vocation late in my career.  I can’t imagine doing as much as I have on a typewriter.  The ability to store text in e-format, to bring it up any time I want, to make changes simply by deleting and writing over, to move text around like pieces on a chess board–all of these maneuvers have made the difference between writing and merely scribbling words on paper.  (If I didn’t have a computer, I’d write on paper, and it would take so much longer.)

But at no time have I ever felt that what I wrote was less than an art form.  Even typing this blog is not a simple matter of whacking out words to a blog site.  Writing is still an art form, pure and simple.  I think we make a serious mistake when we confuse writing with the process of writing.  My novels took serious time, many, many hours spent in front of a computer writing, revising, rewriting, re-revising, etc., as well as feeding them to critique groups until I’ve gotten them to the point where I feel confident of sending them to an editor for a professional opinion.  It’s still an art; I could have written them without a computer, but it would have taken much longer.  The computer may have shortened the time to publication, but it did not lessen the creative process I went through to get where I am.  The creative process, after all, takes place in the brain, not in the computer.  The computer is no different from a pencil, just quicker.  (I can type faster than I can write in longhand, and that allows me to put my thoughts down as they come to me.)

In short, don’t be concerned about that computer you sit in front of.  It’s not going to degrade your artistic and fertile imagination.  The novels we write today are just as noteworthy as those of Dickens or Austen, if not necessarily in the same category.  Granted, there’s a lot of crap that comes from computers, and the easy road to publication offered by electronic means will probably flood our world–and our Kindles and Nooks and iPads–with worthless pap, but there will be some gems among the junk, too.

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