April 2009

Why We Are Not I : Grammatical and Other Considerations

From time to time, people have commented on the use of the first person plural in these Muse-Letters. Mostly out of curiosity—we imagine—people will ask: why we?

While it occurs to us that our use of we, in lieu of I, can sound pompous, the intent is quite the opposite. And there are after all, acceptable “atypical uses of we,” as indicated here by Wikipedia:

1) The royal we: (or Pluralis Majestatis) which is employed by such folk as kings and popes. They will use “we” at such times in speaking as a leader of a nation or institution. It is thought to be perceived as more deferential and polite than singular forms.

We can assure you, that that is not the reason we use we. Pope nor King we’ll never be. (Or did we just use a double negative thereby making it…never mind.)

2) The editorial we: in which columnists and commentators in advancing an opinion in their role of spokesperson, presume an audience, that at least in part agrees with their assumptions.

We also think that this has a folksy feel to it, and puts a little more distance between writer and reader, than “I,” which tends to be more direct, and we think, at times can sound confrontational. Which is not the agenda for most of our pieces.

3) The patronizing we: which hints at a facetious assurance that one is not alone in their situation. Like when a doctor asks: “And how are we feeling today?”

At which point, don’t you want to say something like: “WE are not getting a colonoscopy today, thank you very much.”

We use we, because unlike say, Walt Whitman, we do not have the audacity to be so full of ourselves. (We are only half-full of ourselves. And therefore relatively optimistic, “glassly” speaking.) Note the unabashed egocentricity of W2 in the first three lines of his classic poem, Song of Myself:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Wow. This from a guy who never went beyond the fifth grade in school and had to reduce the price of his first edition, self-printed, Leaves of Grass, from $2 to a buck a copy. (Which was still expensive in 1855 for an unknown poet). But it’s not bragging if you can back it up, as he did.

Finally, having spent those last 20 years of our former business lives running a department of 20+ people, responsible for managing a quarter of a billion dollars in ad budgets—a humbling experience, so subject as it was to client whim— I had always preached the use of we. We as in: we are a team… as in the old cliché that… there is no “I” in team. So we guess we just got used to using we.

There are, of course, exceptions to all of this. Particularly in the writing of our poetry wherein the use of I signifies the narrator of the poem; someone who is not necessarily us. And of course in our private journal, we do use I, lest we wonder at our sanity.

Now. Are you sorry you asked?


How Starbucks Saved My Life : A Tale for Tough Times

And how are we dealing with the current economic crisis today? A little broke are we? *

Well here is how one former six-figures-a-year, J. Walter Thompson hot shot, now divorced (owing to an affair which resulted in a child) and out of money, a job and health care—a critical consideration when you have a brain tumor—at age 62, dealt with it. He became a barista at Starbucks. And loves it!

His name is Michael Gates Gill—son of a legendary theater critic at The New Yorker, Brendan Gill— who grew up in a four story brownstone on East Seventy-Eighth St. in New York City. And in his coming-of-age years, once drank with Hemingway after running with the bulls in Pamplona. Can you have any more of a privileged pedigree than that, this side of a Kennedy? In fact, he later worked with Jackie on her pet project to save Grand Central Station (successfully, obviously) years later.

But what makes How Starbucks Saved My Life worth reading, is not just his riches to rags story—compelling though that may be— but that it deals with some universal themes, such as the faulty prejudgments we tend to make of other people, and the questionable ethos of corporate America.

Can these themes be any more timely? What with an African-American president and the bailouts of banks and iconic companies? Yes, The New York Times gave it a good review. But so did the Wall Street Journal.

Of the sixty odd books we read last year (and some were indeed odd) this one was up there in our personal top ten. Frankly we are surprised that Starbucks hasn’t promoted this Times bestseller, in its trillion stores. It speaks so well of their brand identity. (As opposed to say, Starbucks VIA™ Ready Brew instant coffee; a dim bulb of an idea for a place so steeped in the high-priced gourmet coffee concept… but we digress).

Don’t take our word for it on the book. Nor those of the aforementioned prestigious newspapers. The ultimate endorsement for anything, comes when Hollywood takes notice. And according to what we read, they will be making a movie of this, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Gus Van Sant.

And Michael Gates Gill, might once again smell the coffee.

* See the use of “The patronizing we” in the first piece of this Muse-Letter.


Putting Down Two Cats

They used to say, “put to sleep”
When we put the first cat down.

But turns of phrase, have ways of turning;
Sometimes juxtaposed or redefined.

And returning alone that day in the Honda—
Pet carrier vacant save for the collar—

I heard the sucking sound of one man sobbing
Over a cat, who at that, had come along with the marriage.

Shocking for someone so dog person singular.
And I thought I had had this thing licked;

This business of crying over spilt milk.
The puns came up empty even then.

So I tried to blow up my mind in the car
With rock music driven by some garbage-can percussion—

Distraction being the better part of valor.
Fast forward. Same spouse. This time in a Lexus.

This time, this cat, was cuddled and coddled
And my wife did the crying—coming and going.

“And I—I took the road most traveled by”
Cursing at the traffic passing

Along with the acceleration of time.
Neither showing the courtesy to signal;

Neither allowing any access to
Life… in the slow lane.


“Clapp” Hands For Gordon’s One Man Show

You knew him well as Detective Greg Medavoy, if you ever watched NYPD Blue. He won an Emmy for that role. And if you ever go to a Broadway play, absent the flamboyance of all that singing and dancing, you may have seen him in a revival of Glengarry Glen Ross a few years back. He got a Tony nomination (Best Featured Actor in a play) in that production for his performance as Dave Moss, a crude, tough talking, f_ _ _ _ _ _ real estate salesman.

We sound an alert for his next great performance: as Robert Frost in a one man show entitled, This Verse Business. His name is of course is Gordon Clapp .

And we were fortunate to be invited last month, to a private “work in progress,” of this show. It was quite a memorable experience.

Absent makeup, costume, fancy lighting or a set, we watched Gordon morph before our very eyes, from a genial host, into a curmudgeonly Robert Frost. An octogenarian at this point in time, reflecting on his poems and his life as a poet.

Capturing perfectly, the sound and cadence of Frost’s unique voice and delivery (we speak from having tapes of Frost in performance, as well as remembrance of his reading at JFK’s inauguration), Gordon’s recitation of some of Frost’s “greatest hits” was astounding. Among those poems recited in full: The Road Not Taken, Death of a Hired Hand, Birches and The Pasture. Plus some funny commentary by “Frost,” on his famous Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening, and having to deal with the literal minded questions he received about the intelligence of horses in general, and the one in that poem in particular.

The “play” is perfectly pitched between, humor and serious reflection. That it works so well on both of those levels, is due in no small part to Gordon’s great performance. One that goes far beyond any vocal mimicry, to a building of an inner life for a Frost, who we sense was a man with some issues. And in this vein, one doesn’t even have to be a fan of poetry to be moved by this legendary poet, who perhaps we’ve only known from some classroom assignment.

It’s an evening of theater we’d put on a par with Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain, or the late James Whitmore’s Will Rogers—yes, that good. And so we can’t wait to see a final production, in the not too distant future. We’ll keep you posted.


What Have They Done To My Song Ma

In so many ways, the world has caught up with us. Here’s still one more, albeit small, such way: Japan eliminated the United States, in the semi-finals of the World Baseball Classic last month, by a dominant score of 9-4 in a game at Dodger Stadium. Our home soil, yet!

To quote Tommy LaSorda, a Hall of Fame manager and roving ambassador for the game: “Can you believe this? Look at the score. We taught these people the game.” He might have added, Isn’t this supposed to be our National Pastime?

It’s just a baseball game. Of course. But on top of all the other bad news regarding that which used to speak so unequivocally about America’s dominant position in the world, one gets a sense that something has gone terribly awry.

We are reminded of a song written and recorded by Melanie in 1970, that seems now an apt metaphor for these disquieting times:

Look what they've done to my song, ma
Look what they've done to my song
Well it's the only thing that I could do half right
And it's turning out all wrong, ma
Look what they've done to my song.

To hear the song sung by Melanie in its entirety, click below:

Hearing it again after so many years, and in this newly applied context… we found it particularly bittersweet.



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