Commonplace Book

Weasel syntax

Uncertain Terms | The Smart Set

The British technology journalist Ian Betteridge is credited with the adage “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.” I want to make a similar claim: Any question at the end of an essay can be answered with the word yes. (Same goes, most likely, for poems, short stories, etc.) The question is a kind of weasel syntax that lets the author have it both ways: make a gesture toward profundity without having to commit to it.

Once you grasp this, the modern mantra of “no regrets” begins to look not courageous but fear-based: a desperate, panicky effort to avoid future sadness. By contrast, and paradoxically, amor fati offers a more full-throated way of overcoming regret: by accepting it. It’s not a matter of making bold choices “before it’s too late”, but rather of seeing that it’s already too late, and always has been. This is deeply liberating. You only live once. Why waste it trying to have no regrets?

The conclusion of the book provides advice on avoiding blunders.

…make a realistic effort to slow our rush to judgment before all the relevant facts are in. If we could grow more comfortable with the uncertainty around us, our daily blunders would not be as great. All kinds of daily interactions would be altered if we suspended our insufficiently informed conclusions over why others act the way they do.

As children, we harbor ideals for how the world and our lives could be; as adults, we gain bitter experience of how often reality falls short. Growing up means refusing to scurry back into childhood’s unsullied ideals – yet *also* declining to give in to cynical resignation. It’s about tolerating the tension between how things are and how they should be, while still getting out of bed in the morning. To be a good citizen, a good parent, a good political activist – a good grown-up – may require nothing less.

I’m a writer but I’m also a teacher and having been successful at both I can tell you that people who say things like “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” ought to try to teach. It is hard to be a teacher…. 

I have dedicated my life to art but honestly, in many ways, artists are parasites.  We don’t keep people warm, we don’t feed people, we don’t keep them dry (unless they use books to build a shelter.)  Give me an oncology nurse any day.  You can all deluge me with emails about how important art was/is to you and I won’t disagree, but try living in your car for a week.  

I’m proud of what I do.  But I’ve arguably changed more lives by being a mom and by teaching than by writing.

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.” 

From “How To Be Polite.”

Institutions – from national newspapers to governments and political parties – invest an enormous amount of money and effort in denying this truth. The facades they maintain are crucial to their authority, and thus to their legitimacy and continued survival. We need them to appear ultra-competent, too, because we derive much psychological security from the belief that somewhere, in the highest echelons of society, there are some near-infallible adults in charge.

In fact, though, everyone is totally just winging it.

"When you lie down with the National Review"

Rosen says the book is written with “scholarly care and memoirist’s flair,” and that it’s “a brisk, lively read, a concise and shrewdly observed portrait of an unlikely political alliance” … but by far the most remarkable part of his review came under the noxious book reviewer humble-bragging tag of “full disclosure,” where the reviewer usually confesses to having had a friendly chat with the author once years ago at the country club they once shared until they both quit when the place started admitting black people (what can I say? As the old saying goes, when you lie down with the National Review, you wake up in a gated community with alcoholic children and a wife who hates you).

"I’ve always thought most book reviews are too long,” he says, explaining his truncated reviews. “People read the review as a substitute for reading the book, whereas the review should get you to read the book, ideally. The best for that would be very short book reviews; some are just three or four words long. A long one might be 10 words, but you try to make the book sound intriguing."

How Valuable Were Your Last 40 Minutes? : The Art of Non-Conformity

Regarding my personal time management, I also try to live by the philosophy that focuses on: ‘What did I do that was productive and beneficial in the last 40 minutes?’ I literally sit at my desk completing a task and ask myself if I am actually being valuable. If I have not done anything constructive or useful in the last 40 minutes, I am not managing my time well and need to adjust what I am doing to execute more effectively.


How Valuable Were Your Last 40 Minutes? : The Art of Non-Conformity

We hear “do what you love” so often from those few people who it did work for, for whom the stars aligned, and from them it sounds like good advice. They’re successful, aren’t they? If we follow their advice, we’ll be successful, too! […] We rarely hear the advice of the person who did what they loved and stayed poor or was horribly injured for it. Professional gamblers, stuntmen, washed up cartoonists like myself: we don’t give speeches at corporate events. We aren’t paid to go to the World Domination Summit and make people feel bad. We don’t land book deals or speak on Good Morning America.

Here’s what I’ve learned from not writing about my life because I was scared you wouldn’t like it: I’ve learned that you don’t care what I do in my life as long as I’m interesting. If I am doing something that’s scary, and I tell you, then you can identify with me when you do something scary. What this community is, really, is people who want to do something scary. Because life is very, very boring if we don’t scare ourselves.

No one can accuse me of pandering or writing purely in the hopes of having a commercial hit. I doubt I could do that if I tried anyway. My friend pointed out that I also have a track record that establishes that I’m not fixated on having commercial hits. I forgot that part.

Robert Hughes (1938-2012)

Like many other Americans, I became aware of Hughes through his "Shock of the New" documentary and considered myself lucky to snag a copy of the hardback from a remainder table at the (long-gone and lamented) Intimate Book Shop in 1983. Most people can name critics of movies, music, and books because we hear those products talked about on NPR or Entertainment Weekly. Art critics -- not so much. The only one I could name with any confidence would have been Hughes. I did not read much of his stuff, but like Gore Vidal or Pauline Kael, I had only to read a few lines and I could hear the cadence of his prose, and the stunning way he could put together a sentence. I always liked his boisterous charisma and certainty.

The following paragraph is from his memoir, "Things I Didn't Know." Thanks to The Daily Beast for bringing it to my attention.

“I am completely an elitist in the cultural but emphatically not the social sense. I prefer the good to the bad, the articulate to the mumbling, the aesthetically developed to the merely primitive, and full to partial consciousness. I love the spectacle of skill, whether it’s an expert gardener at work or a good carpenter chopping dovetails. I don’t think stupid or ill-read people are as good to be with as wise and fully literate ones. I would rather watch a great tennis player than a mediocre one, unless the latter is a friend or a relative. Consequently, most of the human race doesn’t matter much to me, outside the normal and necessary frame of courtesy and the obligation to respect human rights. I see no reason to squirm around apologizing for this. I am, after all, a cultural critic, and my main job is to distinguish the good from the second-rate, pretentious, sentimental, and boring stuff that saturates culture today, more (perhaps) than it ever has. I hate populist [shit], no matter how much the demos love it.”

—Robert Hughes, Things I Didn’t Know

 

"It's no good having one without the other"

In September of 1968, in what he jokingly termed “E. Gorey’s Great Simple Theory About Art,” Gorey wrote these Yodaesque words:

“This is the theory ... that anything that is art ... is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other, because if you just have the something it is boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.”