Feb 112016


Things have changed, if just a little bit, in ten years. From January 2005:

I’ve been hearing dialogue everywhere, dialogue that seems to be coming from the same play.

At the end of party I went to recently, a woman told me that I talk too much.  I didn’t know how to respond, and left the party shortly afterwards, a bit confounded and mute, and afflicted with what the French call l’esprit d’escalier – “the wit of the staircase” – i.e., my mind began filling with all sorts of things I should or could have said.

So: a mind rewind.

Here we go:  “Bob, you talk too much.”

  • “True, true, true, true.”
  • “Not ‘too much,’ just ‘much.’”
  • “If you subtract the number of times I repeat myself, then you know that at least I don’t say too much.”
  • “I can tell you why: You’re not going anywhere, are you?”
  • “I just keep going until I find a word that makes you friendly.”
  • “Does that mean you don’t think I’m interesting?”
  • “What would you suggest I not have said?”
  • Or, finally: “Oh throw me away and call it a day.”

[A friend wrote me later, charmingly: “You don’t talk too much.  People talk too little.”]

repost from basil.ca

photo by Robert Basil

Feb 122014

… and of the poem she recently published, surrounded by snark, in Marie Claire magazine. The poem is called “My Heart is a Wiffle Ball / Freedom Pole.” Writes poet and UCLA professor Brian Kim Stefans:

This [post] is partly to address the apparently universal opinion by journalists – most of whom seem to not know anything about literature – that this is a terrible poem.

My own initial post went like this: “The second stanza isn’t horrible. Worst part of the poem are those awful adjectives! Stupid Beats.” What I meant by this was that the words “digital” (applied to moonlight), “scrawled” when linked to “neon” (neon is a much overused word by poets who want to sound like Beatniks) and “abrasive” (applied to organ pumps) weren’t working for me. I also didn’t like the word “ubiquitously” especially since everything up until that point was in the singular – ubiquitously seems to suggest some sort common element among many parts. Not a big fan of “Whilst” either.

But I thought the second stanza was very delicate with sound play – “parked” and “Marfa” are good off-rhymes (I heard the word “barf” in there somehow) and there is some nice alliteration in “Devils not done digging / He’s speaking in tongues all along the pan handle / and this pining erosion…” etc. And I like the broken syntax and quick movements in perspective – there’s little to no punctuation and most people can’t pull that off. And the line “He’s speaking in tongues all along the pan handle” is very evocative to me – and seems to explain some of the eccentricities of syntax and vocabulary in the first verse!

I share Stefans’ impressions.

And I would add that Stewart’s piece provides surprise and conveys joy. These are two of the profoundest reasons we love youth.

h/t JM


May 212013

I was delighted today to find that my friend Snipey (aka Alison Gianotto), whom I met last Defcon, was newly conspiring with her friend K2 to create a blog they’ve called Gender Shenanigans, which, as they describe it,

. . . is a library of non-discouraging gender political plays. What does that mean? That means people addressing gender inequality in unique ways, using humor, snark, and other methods to educate people in a way that doesn’t make them feel like crap, but does demonstrate that their words or actions reinforced gender inequality.

We’re highlighting brilliant, positive, unique and fun ways people are pulling this off. We believe these types of actions have lasting effects, and encourage both women and men to look critically at the world around them, and the stereotypes and roles many people have come to accept as accurate – or that they never actually thought about at all.

I was pleased to find an example so soon (and superb) of the coyote communications tactics I wrote about last week. In many ways gender politics and sexism are a stagnant, stuck situation. Perfectly polite-but-assertive professional communications are proving futile, even provoking some pretty insane backlash. I love that Snipey and K2 are stepping outside of the usual prescriptions and instead inventing and honoring creative ways to turn the conflict sideways and upside down. I don’t know K2, but I know Snipey, and she’s always been courageous, outspoken, irreverent, and funny. She’s a born coyote communicator.

You can read about the inception of Gender Shenanigans on Snipey’s blog [warning: expect Snipey’s usual lovable profanity]. Or you can visit Gender Shenanigans directly.

May 132013

I’ve been thinking about coyote wisdom. Coyote is a main character in the stories of many North American aboriginal cultures; he is a trickster, a wise fool who shows up when everyone’s taking themselves a bit too seriously. He transforms through disruption and often humor and playfulness, pointing out absurdities and hypocrisies. The trickster archetype pops up in many different cultures in different guises, but I like to call him Coyote.

Communicating like a coyote is a powerful tactic, but not one that’s typically taught in schools and universities. Unlike writing a cover letter or a recommendation report, there is no set protocol. Indeed, coyote communications operate entirely outside protocol.

First, let me give you some examples.

The Oatmeal vs. Funny Junk’s lawyer

It’s no surprise that Matt Inman is a master of coyote communications, since he writes the popular comic The Oatmeal. Matt had contacted the folks who operate the website Funny Junk after discovering his comics had been repeatedly posted there without credit. He asked them to remove his comics from from their site, and when that proved ineffective, he blogged and cartooned about the dispute. Funny Junk’s lawyer responded with a letter claiming defamation and demanding money.

This is where the story gets awesome. Undeterred, Matt drew a comic of the lawyer’s mom seducing a bear, and suggested that, rather than spend money making lawyers rich, it would be better to call the whole thing off and donate the money to charity. He began a crowdfunding campaign called “Operation BearLove Good, Cancer Bad” to benefit the American Cancer Society and the National Wildlife Federation. He set the initial goal at $20,000, which had been the lawyer’s demand, but raised over 10 times that for the two charities.

After some additional comical and sometimes bizarre back and forth, Funny Junk’s lawyer dropped the complaint. He still claimed victory, but it was quite clear to everyone else who really won: Matt Inman, bears, the American Cancer Society, and The Oatmeal community.

Deescalating a domestic dispute

The first chapter of Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion, begins with a coyote story.

It was the most outrageous way to bust up a fight I had ever seen. I’d been a rookie cop ten days when my partner got the call. At two a.m. we were dispatched to break up a nasty domestic dispute in a tenement on the east side of Emporia, Kansas, notorious for drug dealing and random violence.

We could hear the couple’s vicious, mouth-to-mouth combat from the street. My training sergeant and partner, Bruce Fair, and I approached and peeked through the half-open door. Then Bruce just walked in without bothering to knock. I watched as he strode right past the warring couple, took off his uniform cap, sighed, and planted himself on the couch. Ignoring the argument, he picked up a newspaper and thumbed through the classifieds!

. . . Bruce kept reading, and the couple kept arguing, occasionally glancing at the cop on their couch. They had yet to notice me. As the man cursed his wife, Bruce rattled the newspaper. “Folks. Folks! Excuse me! Over here!”

The stunned husband flashed a doubletake. “What are you doing here?”

Bruce said, “You got a phone? Look here. A 1950 Dodge! Cherry condition! Can I borrow your phone? I know it’s late, but I don’t want to miss out on this. Where’s your phone? I need to call right now!”

The husband pointed to the phone, incredulous. Bruce rose and dialed, then mumbled into the phone. He slammed it down. “Can you believe they wouldn’t talk to me just because it’s two in the morning?”

By now, the fight had evaporated, the couple standing there as dumbfounded as I was. “By the way,” Bruce said pleasantly, as if just becoming aware, “is anything the matter here? Anything my partner and I can do for you?”

The husband and wife looked at the floor and shook their heads. “Not really, no.” We chatted with them a bit, reminding them that it was late and that everyone around would appreciate a little peace and quiet. Soon we were on our way.

Dealing with Internet Trolls

A few weeks ago I came across an IRC (Internet Relay Chat) transcript [warning: language]  on the channel for the programming language Haskell. The person who tweeted the link to the transcript commented, “It’s hard to troll the haskell community.”

Here’s how it goes down.

A young man (presumably) who calls himself xQuasar shows up and begins slinging homophobic insults at the chatters and touting the superiority of Javascript.

They respond in unexpected ways:

“Wow…I suddenly see the error of my ways and feel compelled to write Node.js!”

“you might be pleased to learn that you can compile haskell to javascript now”

“I don’t blame him, I’d be this angry to [sic] if I had to write javascript all day too”

xQuasar changes tactics, but no one takes the new bait. “This is sort of like a puppy trying to be angry with you…it’s just kinda adorable to see him think he has any effect :)”

Finally, xQuasar admits his true purpose. “i just want to get kicked out of a bunch of channels for fun. . . why is no one cooperating with me”

“We are cooperating with you,” someone responds, “you’re just not aware that your goal is learning Haskell.”

In no time, xQuasar admits defeat — “alright i’ll admit i lose” — and actually begins asking intelligent questions about the language.


First, you have to recognize that societal (and personal) prescriptions and habits have got you in a stagnant, stuck situation. There’s no rational way out, because all parties involved have taken a fixed position and no one is budging. Or the rational way isn’t feasible. Of course Matt Inman had every right to pursue legal means against Funny Junk, but resolving the situation in that societally prescribed manner would have come at too high a cost.

Second, you have to be able to envision the creative possibilities that exist outside these prescriptions, habits, and rules. A less experienced cop in our domestic dispute story would have followed procedure, separating the warring couple and calming them down. Indeed, Bruce and the rookie had done just that earlier in the evening with a different couple under different circumstances. But Bruce was able to see outside procedure to the opportunity that the newspaper on the couch presented him.

Third, you must be willing and able to set personal importance aside. If the person you’re dealing with is still pushing your buttons, you’d be better off writing that angry message and never sending it, or taking a walk around the block and then writing a nicely worded, professional response. But if you want to communicate like a coyote, you must be willing to give that all up and risk appearing crazy, foolish, even clueless. You have to let insults slide, as the Haskell chatters did. And you have to be willing to see conflict as not just a zero-sum contest of winners and losers, but as an opportunity for transformation.

Mar 042013

It’s fitting that I should write this post on National Grammar Day. Choosing and arranging the right words with the right endings in the right order with the right punctuation isn’t even close to the most interesting thing I could tell you about language.

I recently had the opportunity to guest “lecture” for an Interdisciplinary Expressive Arts (IDEA) class at Kwantlen. I use the term lecture loosely; what we actually did was meditate upon, collect, and play with words.

Words are how we come to know the world. Though unable to speak intelligibly, infants begin to understand what spoken words mean at around six to nine months. Before we can do much of anything besides eat, poop, sleep, roll over, and turn towards sounds, we are picking up on the complex and consensually constructed language we’ve been born into.

Language has no inherent meaning; in a process that is almost magical, we imbue it with the concepts and objects and actions it comes to represent. Apart from onomatopoetic words like coo and screech, spoken words in no way resemble the ideas they represent. It’s a quality of language called arbitrariness. Look at that word: arbitrariness. Stare at for a little while, whisper it to yourself, until it unyokes from its meaning and begins to look weird and sound foreign. Neat, huh?

The wonder of words is that our creations are viral. Words enter language because we invent them to represent a particular thing, and then enough people must use them for the word to spread. It tickles me to think that words like boustrophedon — which refers to writing that alternates left to right and right to left, like an ox (bous in Greek) plowing a field — and aglet — the cap on the end of a shoelace — filled such a need to describe an idea or a thing that they were coined, they caught on, and they still exist. And the process of adding new words never stops. Want to see it in action? Visit Wordspy.

Not only do we come to know our history and our culture through words, we come to know each other. We are the sum of the words in our vocabulary and the frequency and manner with which we use them. Our idiolects, dialects peculiar to just one person, betray our worldviews and our personal histories. If you can forget politics for a moment, President Obama’s English charts a fascinating life.

That we can string words together into near-infinite variations within the bounds of grammar, an attribute called generativity, allows us to share with another the vicarious experience of our personal histories and imagined futures.

Words make us, we make words, and our words make the world.

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Jan 262013


Language Log » Tiny grass is dreaming.

When I found this gem through @stevesilberman‘s Twitter feed, I knew I had to blog it. I could talk about this as a product of a higher context culture than ours, but I prefer to talk about its delightfulness as a piece of communication.

The world is full of harsh warnings and commands. Keep off the grass. Stop. Don’t Walk. No Soliciting. No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service. But it’s always better to invite someone into compliance than beat them into submission.

“Do not disturb: Tiny grass is dreaming” is a lovely reminder to lighten up.