Cormac McCarthy Can Write a Better Sentence than You (or I) Can

Sentences are the foundation of great writing, yet the artistry of a great sentence often fades behind the content it works to deliver. And yes, the content is and should be more important than its method of delivery. But the method of delivery —the sentence—can enhance the content. When this happens, we have a great sentence.

For a sentence to be truly great, though, its many components must harmonize: the register (level of diction) must match the scene and style of the story or its characters, the syntax has to properly highlight the words for a desired effect, and of course, the verbs must dynamically connect nouns rather than simply linking them to descriptions.

Below is one of my favorites, from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Let’s put this thing under a microscope:

They set forth on a crimson dawn where sky and earth closed on a razorous plain.

This sentence is amazing for several reasons, but the most salient reason is that verb, closed. It is a remarkably active verb describing something that is normally not active, the delineation between sky and terrain. It is as if we see these two plains moving toward each other with purpose. They don’t just appear near each other, they close upon each other. They don’t just exist side by side, but they interact visually. This verb heads something beautiful and poetic.

The final word, plain, also is great here. It displays the two halves of the characters’, and indeed the reader’s mental view. One plain is up and one down, and there is nothing between. There is only sky and and earth to be seen, and they meet tightly, narrowly.

How narrow is their meeting? Razorous. A word that isn’t in a dictionary, yet is easily understood by every native speaker to be the adjective of razor. McCarthy made up this word, and it’s beautiful and perfect here, for what delineates more precisely and microscopically than a razor?

So now we have only two plains moving together so tightly — pixel to pixel, if you will — that there is nothing else to see. Just the red — no crimson — sky and the earth. Crimson. The color of blood and bad omens, danger, and death.

And how do the men in the story cross this ominous scene? They don’t do anything boring like walk or continue or even move, which is especially dull. The author wants them to continue, but that is both too vague and technical. And the characters in this story wouldn’t use such words. No, they simply, set forth, as they were doing the night before.

Even the pronoun they serves a purpose in this sentence. Why name the men and distract from the scenery? This isn’t about them; it’s about what they encounter. Every word is focused and stimulates the reader’s senses. I would also argue that morning would be less visual than dawn and so forth. Every word is perfect.

All 16 words in this sentence are either required by the rules of English (on, a, where, and, on, a) or expertly and artistically chosen for sensory effect ( they, set, forth, crimson, dawn, sky, earth, closed, razorous, plain). Trying to improve upon any of these ten would be difficult. It truly is a 16-word masterpiece of English. And that is Cormac McCarthy.

The Lord of the Flies

Donald Trump finally went to Puerto Rico to witness Hurricane Maria’s destruction 13 days after landfall, and inso doing, made one of the most callous gestures I’ve seen by an adult in power. It was the Paper Towel incident.

Watch it here

This seems harmless at first, and in fact, some of the faces in the crowd are smiling. Many are even recording the event and photographing their president.

But this was sick. It downplayed the seriousness of the event with a stunt from the halftime show of an NBA game. Thank god he didn’t shoot MAGA t-shirts from a cannon!

Trump was giving people who had nothing after Maria, very little, and nearly two weeks — and a round of golf — after she struck. And to make it worse, he was doing it with a complete lack of seriousness. There are even reports that he wanted to throw cans of chicken into the crowd before being properly handled by his aides.

When people go 13 days without water and electricity and food, they become desperate. Desperate to the point of doing what’s needed to survive. If Trump wanted to see people lose their humanity, having them grovel and jostle for basic necessities —like food in the form of canned chicken—would be one way. That image would dehumanize them.

A crowd of brown-skinned people fighting tooth and nail, becoming violent for chicken would be a useful exhibit for his most ardent supporters.

There is an inherent cruelty in not giving aid to your people in a timely manner, and even more so in making them fight for aid while entertaining others. It was reminiscent of a scene from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a story that explores the bounds of human decency in the crucible of desperation. Trump is our Lord of the Flies.

Update: The Lord’s reaction

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40

I remember slouching in the couch cushions in a therapist's office some years ago. She looked like an NPR hostess, and that's all I can remember about her except for the conversation we had near the end of this lone session. She had asked me to describe what I imagined my future to be. At 20? 30? 40? Later in life even?

I articulated to her a truth I'd never let slip, which was that I couldn't imagine such things. I couldn't see myself at 20, or 30, let alone, the impossible: 40. There was just no way I was going to become an older, comfortable Chris. This bothered her. She wanted to know if I had contemplated suicide. I said who hasn't?

"What you want to know is if I'm going to kill myself. I don't think so. I don't want to die, just sometimes I think I don't want to exist."

That was some 22 years ago, and since that conversation I have successfully reached 30 -- to my amazement at the time. And now here I am at 40 able to look back with clear optics.

As I matured in my 20s and came to grips with whom I was, I did begin to imagine life beyond the immediate. By 21 I wanted to go to college. By 23 I wanted to go to grad school, though for what I couldn't quite decide. And since I hadn't decided much in my life, it decided me. No wonder Hamlet was such an attractive character to me as a youth. And Holden Caulfield, too, of course.

These characters are mostly without agency. But that feature was rather more in my youth than of late. And I am okay with that imperfect past of mine. I am. It enabled me to understand what I couldn't while huddled in those couch cushions: Tough times breed appreciation.

I could reflect on the familial problems, mental health problems, physical health problems, break ups and divorces, losses and aches. Agony. I could reflect on that. In fact, that was the plan for this post.

But I don't want to anymore.

Those problems aren't gone. They're here, in me, as lessons and wisdom. I'd be a masochist to want to relive my teen years, what with all the angst and questions, doubt and heartache. Or my twenties, with more heartache and fear, divorce and its resulting painful self-examination. My thirties, punctuated by the declining of my parents' health and reincarnation of a form of depression, more insidious than before.

I'm not going to play the time machine game wherein I imagine what it would be like to do it all over again, this time properly. I won't play that game, because to play it means that I would rather have what could have been, than what I've got:

-A great wife
-A nice house
-Mental clarity
-Understanding in life
-The seeds of genuine comfort and acceptance

In other words, I've got what I had once hoped for, though mine came at a greater emotional cost.

Here's to the first forty years. May the second take me further.

iCloud Photo Sharing is a Personal and Private Instagram.

iCloud photo sharing is all about sharing -- it's in the name! 

Every iPhone that's still ticking probably has this feature. It's been around for years, and it works like this: 
- Take a photo
- Press the share icon (the square with the upward arrow)
- Select iCloud photo sharing
- Choose or create the album
- People who are not you get to see it
- Cool  

It's simple and works like a more personal and private Instagram. 

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Spicey No Mas

Sean Spicer succumbed to life in the Trump administration and mercifully quit, purportedly on actual grounds of morality.

I want it to be clear that I love Spicey.

And I'll miss him.

What India Allows

What India Allows

I paid my driver a small tip while giving a slight head bow that I must’ve picked up from the locals over the past few weeks. He smiled at the money, then floored the gas pedal. The tires kicked dirt and gravel past me. I turned and found a ticket line, long, but moving.

In front of me waited a large family, surely extended. The women and girls were dressed in resplendent golden saris that flattered the afternoon sunlight. Their hands were ornamented with meandering henna. Mother and two daughters matched. The father, wearing a beige shirt and faded slacks stood proudly behind the girls, pointing his finger when one of them got out of hand. He would direct them back to the women with a curt finger wave and bark. Young men and boys circled.

An shirtless man, emaciated under a messy white beard found me and begged for some money, thrusting his empty palms into my face. He muttered something in Bengali and then scurried off as a police officer waved him away with a plastic black baton. The cop looked at me, tilted his head and massive turban forward and flattened his lips out in a friendless smile-like grimace.

When my turn in line came some thirty minutes later, I handed twenty dollars worth of rupees under the plastic protector on the ticket agent's window and simply said, "Varanasi." He looked at the money then me, then back at the money without asking me which class ticket I wanted

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My Dog Won't Eat the New Peanut Butter


Every month Charlie takes two pills. One to protect from intestinal parasites, aka heart worms, and one to protect against vectors, aka fleas and ticks. These meds are awesome. They really work well. They have few side effects, and are generally very safe. And of course, they're monthly, so its easy to administer them. 

All we had to do was put a little peanut butter on the dull end of a butter knife, and push the pill in. (One med is already in a delicious chewable.) Charlie would eat it right up! It was so easy. Was.

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Covfefe

I was going to write something about the word du jour, but then I read this and thought, "Hell, that's better than anything I'd write about covfefe." In other words, trying to compete would get me pwned.

My early vote for 'word' of the year: Covfefe, by Mark Liberman.

(PS: 'covfefe' is almost certainly coverage, but Trump doesn't come equipped with even the modicum of humility required to say, "oops, I fucked up. I typed the wrong thing and fell asleep and thereby posted it." Nope, he's got to keep the bullshit going. One day, I swear, we're going to learn that Trump's first golf game had 11 holes-in-one.

UPDATE 6/11/2017

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Zbigniew Brzezinski

Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's National Security Advisor, died on May 26th at the age of 89. For many the name not only doesn't ring a bell, but is unpronounceable. The correct pronunciation is /ˈzbɪɡnjɛf bʒɛˈʒɪnski/ or zbig-nyef bzhe-zhinsky, romanized.

Anyhow, I won't elegize him because his mistake to arm the mujahideen against the Soviets prior to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan created the Taliban. (For a further look into this, watch Charlie Wilson's War, an excellent movie that discusses the increase in arms to people who eventually became enemies, and the politics behind it several years after Brzezinski and the Carter administration left office.)

As is the case for most people in powerful and important positions, Brzezinski's resume contains both acts of heroism as well as extreme mistakes whose impacts will far outlast the life and memory of the man who made them. I can't think of a worse mistake than fomenting a religiously-backed battle (in the minds of the mujahideen, anyhow) between people who should've never been trusted and the Soviets, our cold-war enemy, who only through extension and necessity made the mujahideen our temporary 'allies'.

But what about saving the world from nuclear annihilation? Found via twitter, here is a story of the man who remained calm in the face of certain death to us all:

"As he recounted it to me, Brzezinski was awakened at three in the morning by military assistant William Odom, who told him that some 250 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States. Brzezinski knew that the President's decision time to order retaliation was from three to seven minutes ?. Thus he told Odom he would stand by for a further call to confirm Soviet launch and the intended targets before calling the President. Brzezinski was convinced we had to hit back and told Odom to confirm that the Strategic Air Command was launching its planes. When Odom called back, he reported that ? 2,200 missiles had been launched?it was an all-out attack. One minute before Brzezinski intended to call the President, Odom called a third time to say that other warning systems were not reporting Soviet launches. Sitting alone in the middle of the night, Brzezinski had not awakened his wife, reckoning that everyone would be dead in half an hour. It had been a false alarm. Someone had mistakenly put military exercise tapes into the computer system." -- Robert M. Gates. From the Shadows: The Ultimate Insider's Story of Five Presidents and How they Won the Cold War (New York: Simon & Shuster, 1996),114.

(NOTE: I left the '?' mistakes in purposefully, as copied.)

The part that sends chills up my spine is him sitting in bed next to his wife, who he chose not to awaken. Why panic her? Why let her know that she--and the bulk of North America, and perhaps the world--was about to die in a matter of minutes? What must have gone through his head while he waited for those confirmation phone calls? And how did he have the fortitude to wait for confirmation during the final minute?

He was a complicated and amazing person who saw the rise of Nazism, and watched his father save Jews from it. He lost out on a teaching position at Harvard to Henry Kissinger, only to eventually teach another Secretary of State, Madeline Albright.

His 89-year life was amazing, though not perfect. Zbigniew Brzezinski.

The Six Senses of Cycling

John Denver said a night in the forest would fill up one's senses, but I don't need to go that far or get that high. I'll just get on my bike and right at night. It's exhilarating and fills more senses than that forest, but not more than whatever John was smoking.

Sight

This is the sense most that most people rely on. On a bike, it's actually kind of boring usually. We see most of these same sights from the seats of our cars as a matter of course. But cycling has made me seek out new places to ride to and through, and so in that way, there is a heightened sense of sight.

Sounds

This is one that cyclists truly rely on. We use our ears to hear the traffic, the gears, the tires, and of course the wind through our helmet straps. We diagnose problems in the derailleur with our ears and listen to the cadence of our breath as we climb in our lowest gear for what appears to be hours but is usually minutes. Sigh.

Touch

To most new cyclists the sense of touch is usually associated with taint pain. I get that. I mean I got that. A long time ago. It goes away quickly with consistent riding. I'm talking about the feel of your hands sliding in the gloves and over the hoods. The feeling of the pedals and tires doing their jobs well. Those touches. We need them to diagnose mechanical problems and to feel the wind and occasional bug in our faces. Cycling really is a sensory feast at times.

Smells

Hopefully the only smells one encounters while cycling are from the fields and forests and cities around. The occasional whiff of cedar mulch or cow shit is welcomed even when it's too strong because this is cycling and driving only gives you Cherry Bomb and New Car Scent.

Taste

The taste of cycling is found in the sweet coolness of the water bottle and the bite of energy bar or PB&J. Bananas are perfect too. On long rides beer provides calories and a little zing for the second half, the harder half. Saltiness, of course, is a taste to become accustomed to if you want to ride. After a long ride my face can be panko crusted in white salt.

The Mystery Sense

This is a visceral scense wrought in failure and humility. This is the sense that says, Chris, you're gonna crush that hill today. And the even more common, Chris, you gotta drop some weight. I first started developing my cycling sense when I bonked climbing Mt. Hamilton in San Jose. I later conquered it, but only because I learned the proper cadence and to pace myself. No really, pace yourself, that's my best advice for continual riding. Eventaully, my cycling sense sharpened and sharpened, and when I ride, it's accurate. When I don't it's not. It's best to keep it honed. That's good advice too.

You Better Watch Grammar Changes

Here is the difference between descriptive and prescriptive grammar, also the difference between English majors and Linguistics majors, both categories into which I belong. One tells you what to do--prescriptive grammar as explained by English majors--and the other tells you what is actually going on--descriptive grammar as explained by Linguistics Majors.

So here it is:

"You better not..."

Or

"You better be..."

Have you noticed this? Have you been "corrected" by an English major?

Well, of course the modal-like word better is "missing" from the sentences:

"You had better not ..."

"You had better not ..." became "You'd better not," which is perfectly fine.

But then this contraction reduced the saliency of the voiced /d/, which transitions into the next voiced consonant, /b/, in the second part of the modal-like you'd better, helping that /d/ disappear by having it's voicing still there, sort of. Because this voicing is still there in the /b/, the voicing in the /d/ became redundant, sort of. Native speakers can figure out the meaning without both voicings, so why have them? Grammatical minimalism kicks in here.

Of course dropping the had has become perfectly acceptable in daily conversations between native speakers. This is a grammatical change that is happening right before our eyes. In some time,

You better be careful

Will be just as correct as today's:

You had better be careful.

And you know what that means? Some grammarian eventually will look down on you for not using it correctly.

Spicy Language

Sean Spicer is my favorite member of the Trump administration. He is about 5 years older than I am, so I kind of relate to him generationally. Also, his wife sells beer, sort of.

But the real reason that Spicer is my favorite member of Trump's team is that we both toil in language as our primary means of livelihood. There's just one thing about that, though. Spicer is terrible with words.

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Alan Watts

My site has recently become far too focused on the Trump administration and its abuse of language and semantics. So I'd like to focus on someone whose wisdom has brought me comfort and intellectual challenges, Alan Watts.

There are so many YouTube videos of his that are well worth your time. But here are some of his quotes that I've been touched by over the years:

"It is obvious that the only interesting people are interested people, and to be completely interested is to have forgotten about 'I'."

Something to think about at the next cocktail party.

"The secret of the enjoyment of pleasure is to know when to stop."

This one stings.

"Muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone."

Meditation has helped me at times. At times it's far too hard to endure, but that's when I need it most.

"One of the highest pleasures is to be more or less unconscious of one’s own existence, to be absorbed in sights, sounds, places, and people."

The zen of the bike.

"One is a great deal less anxious if one feels perfectly free to be anxious, and the same may be said of guilt."

Forgiveness is important, especially of yourself. A lifelong lesson.

"People think it would be nice to have peace of mind, to be serene, to be calm, to be undisturbed by this, that, and the other. But as long as you make all those things objects of desire, you have defined yourself as lacking them. A person who is looking for peace is obviously in turmoil."

Oh, hello there, conscious.

"This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play."

Why I studied what I studied: to have a job I would always hold passion for.

"We have somehow conned ourselves into the notion that this moment is ordinary. This now moment, in which I'm talking and you're listening, is eternity."

This never penetrates depression.

"Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way."

Not an endorsement for drug abuse, but it sounds like it. What it is is permission to have fun in life.

"What happens when you just wait? There’s nothing you can do. You watch. And all you see is what goes on that is happening of itself. You’re breathing, the wind is blowing, the trees are waving, your blood is circulating, nerves are tingling. It’s all going on by itself. That’s you, that’s the real you! The you that goes on itself. Not the symbol, not the person. It’s you that’s happening as when you breathe."

This is one reason I'm okay being alone for so long.

“Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth.”

I wish I had heard this in high school.

"The more a thing tends to be permanent, the more it tends to be lifeless."

I can't help but to think of people who chase everlasting beauty.

"Enough is as good as a feast."

I may never fully be able to internalize and accept this.

May these quotes bring your peace and curiosity as they have me.