Parlour Games


In a different life, I used to go to dinner parties.  You remember those: friends got together to eat and drink and talk about the people who weren’t there.  I used to love it when the wine outlasted the dessert and all the boors and bores would hit the road and leave the field to the serious among us.  At really, really good dinner parties, that’s when the parlour games come out.  There are a number of them (I’ve mentioned them here, before) and most are a lot of fun.  One of my favourites is quite simple: everybody takes a turn to wonder out loud about something they’ve never understood.  As the circle gets tighter, the questions get better and can provoke general agreement and/or heated discussion. Either way, most of them are interesting insights into the world around us.  Here are a few of my favourites (as close as I can remember.)

Why can Keanu Reeves be so good in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The Matrix and John Wick and suck so badly in everything else?

Does anybody watch regular TV anymore?

Why does everybody win in Vegas — except me?

Why do they teach (3x + 2y) – 12 = (7x + 3y) even though every teacher knows it’s never going to come up in real life???

Why did August get 31 days instead of September?

Why didn’t Darth Vader remember R2D2 and C3P0?

Why doesn’t glue stick to the inside of the container?

Why do people who say they don’t believe in God, always talk about guardian angels?

How come a pizza can get to my house faster than the cops?

Who cares if a tree falls in the forest?

Why do potatoes have more chromosomes than people do?

How come people who say outlawing guns won’t change anything still think that making drugs illegal will?
How come people who say outlawing drugs won’t change anything still think that making guns illegal will?

Why are brushing your hair and brushing your teeth such totally different activities?

Why do dogs hang their heads out the window of a car moving at 60 kph but hate it when you blow in their faces?

Who owns the Internet?

How does aspirin know the difference between a headache and a sore knee?

Why do tornados always attack trailer parks?

Why, whenever there’s a riot anywhere in the world, are the protest signs always in English?

What is déjà vu “really?”

Is the light at the end of the tunnel that people say they see when they’re about to die, just being born again?  (I think somebody cheated on this one – just sayin’.)

Why didn’t Gandalf just fly Frodo to the top of Mount Doom on the eagles that rescued him?

Is calling it Mother Nature just a sneaky way of saying God?

Why, when adults talk to kids, dogs and old people, do they use the same voice?

Why do light years measure distance, not time?

Why didn’t Samantha Stevens realize she was sleeping with the wrong Darren?

And my personal favourite:

Is Harry Potter just a psychotic kid who made up the whole Hogwarts thing to cope with his miserable life, living under the stairs?


Slurring our Words Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine couldn’t access her e-mail.  She was working on an important deal and it was falling apart.  She was devastated.  She wasn’t upset, or annoyed or even pissed off — she was devastated.  It gave her license to be short-tempered with me and rude to the guy at Starbucks.  She was devastated.  She was entitled.  She was a victim.  Some un-named, unknown, unthinking, unfeeling, gigantic corporate Internet provider had gone out of its faceless, mindless monolithic way to hurt her, and she needed time and sympathy to get over it.  She told me so.

I remember when devastated was a strong word.  We used to use it for earthquakes, forest fires — carpet bombing — things that went way beyond simple destruction.  It was a great word.  Not anymore!  Now, all it means is a Fair Trade dark roast Mauna Loa slope coffee, a cookie the size of Rhode Island and twenty minutes late for work because “They’ll just have to wait!”  My friend wanted to stop for cookies and coffee but she didn’t have a legitimate reason to do that, so she took a minor situation and turned it into a major problem.  Basically, she was just cashing in the blank check we give people who are having trouble.  For example, there are several million people down on the Gulf Coast who just can’t get a break.  A couple of years ago, Hurricane Katrina came calling and it was like Mother Nature found the Mississippi delta and flushed.  Then one of British Petroleum’s gi-hugic oil rigs exploded and pumped black Vaseline all over everything that Katrina left behind — sand, surf, and swamp.  These people have been devastated.  They’re genuine victims; their anger, their frustration and their behaviour is understandable and excused.  It’s widely accepted that if your house is underwater or covered in an inch and a half of crude oil — or both — you get to stop and have a cookie on your way to work.  Even if it means you’re twenty minutes late, nobody is going to question it because sometimes in our society, you get to break the rules.  Unfortunately, we’ve started manufacturing meaningless words to accommodate anybody who wants to even bend those rules just a little bit.  If your plane is late and you’re stuck at the airport, that is not an “ordeal”.  It just isn’t.  You’re in a thermostatically controlled building with restaurants, bathrooms, tons of security, TVs and WiFi everywhere and a reasonable assurance that your plane will take off eventually.  So no matter how many times you say it, it’s not an “ordeal”.  On the other hand, if your plane crashes in the Andes and you have to eat some of the other passengers, that’s an “ordeal”.  There’s a difference.  Similarly, if you’re trying to untangle a bureaucratic foul-up – that’s not a “nightmare”.  The Dark Lords at Motor Vehicles are not trying to steal your soul.  They made a mistake, that’s all.  It doesn’t allow you to shout obscenities at them.  Of course, if you’ve just been sentenced to ten years in a Colombian prison on drug charges, that is a “nightmare.” and you can swear all you want.  Good luck.

Again there’s a difference, but it’s more than a question of degree, you see, every time we casually use a victim word to describe ourselves we slide a little further into actually thinking of ourselves as victims — hopeless, helpless, haunted, victims — until eventually we spend our whole lives lurching from crisis to crisis, with our actions and our attitudes controlled by, and at the mercy of, terrible unseen forces. And the number one, kickass, kung-fu, Lara Croft, Mac-10, victim word?    Issues!  This little dynamo is so soft it’s going to be the one that finally does us in.

Part 3 – How issues solved all our problems.

Slurring Our Words: a clear and present danger

When I was young, I had a little green turtle.  He was about the size of a month washed bar of soap, and he cost an expensive fifty cent.  I took care of him and he sat in his bowl and was, I suppose, happy.  The only irritation in his little turtle life was that, on occasion, because he didn’t play or fetch, I would tap him on the back and watch him pull his head into his shell to protect himself.  After a couple weeks that game got old and my turtle and I got along quite well together.  Sometime later — time is a variant for kids — I absentmindedly tapped my finger on his shell, but he didn’t react and his shell wasn’t hard anymore.  In fact, it was quite soft.  After a couple of days, I discovered my turtle was going from bright green to dull brown, and maybe a week later, he finally stopped changing color and went to amphibian heaven.  When you’re a kid, these things happen.  Kids understand this, and they deal with it.

Now, many turtle-less years later, I’ve detected the same softening symptoms in our language.   I’m worried that English, once strong and robust, is slowly softening to death.  I’m not talking about clichés or euphemisms — they’re always with us and have been long before I was a child and my turtle had his fatal event.  Nor am I complaining about young people who fill every sentence with incoherent combinations of “like” “totally” and “Whatever!”  That’s just jargon — teenspeak — every generation does that.  The same thing happened back in the 20s or the 60s or whenever I thought I was cool or groovy or hip or whatever I was.  No, I’m talking about the systematic suppression of meaning in words that should actually mean something; about taking the rich bright palette of Shakespeare and Yeats and smooshing all the colors together until all we have left is some brownish-yellowish, listless mud.  We use language to express ourselves, certainly.  English is so precise, direct and dynamic we can pinpoint an idea within millimetres, but we also use it to define ourselves.  We are what we say we are.  But we’ve been slurring our words for so long we have no idea what we’re saying anymore.  And as our words get squishy, so do the ideas and the attitudes they express.  Now we’re sitting in a world that has become timid in the face of strong words and uncomfortable with bold or clearly defined ideas.  The sad part is that, as we change our language to accommodate our fears there are some pretty serious side effects.

Unfortunately, our society absolutely loves a victim.  We’re infatuated with injustice.  In our affluent, stable society, where nothing much happens to ordinary people, victims are cool.  They get to do things, fight battles, have setbacks, overcome odds, persevere and sometimes — because, for the most part, we do live in a kinder, gentler society — triumph.  Along the way, they get to collect cool stuff — cards, flowers, those icky little teddy bears, the extra doughnut, and if it’s bad enough, a short term, part-time, celebrity.  It’s like a perfect Reality TV slash Video Game.  We can hardly wait to play “Ain’t It Awful?”  We love victim-ness so much that, over the past few decades, we’ve paid Oprah Winfrey (yes, she still has a last name) and her wannabes gabillions of dollars just to tell us just how badly some people are getting kicked around.  In a homogenized world where kids aren’t allowed to play tag and even the most extraordinary luxuries are merely a few mouse-clicks away, victims remind us that the world is still real – but in a carefully-controlled, electronically-safe environment.  The problem is, from the outside, it looks like a good gig, and we’re adapting our language so more people can take part in it.   Especially since victims get one other thing: they get to bitch.

Tomorrow — the words that are killing us