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Neverisms, The Game, Words, Athens - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 9, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Neverisms, The Game, Words, Athens

Sometimes movie trailers inadvertently warn you that a movie's going to be pretty lousy. The trailers for John Wick: Chapter 2 may be delivering that message.

Remember how First Blood was such a powerful, memorable story of a beleaguered man using the nature as his ally in defending himself against ignorant and oppressive authority?

Then, because this Sylvester Stallone movie was such a word-of-mouth hit, they decided to do big Hollywood sequels. What did we get? Rambo! Explosions! Huge unbelievable bullet-fests!

They made a lot of money. Completely forgettable popcorn movies all the same.

Well, after the intensely personal Keanu Reeves revenge movie, John Wick, the trailers make it clear that with John Wick: Chapter 2, the character has been rambo-ized in the effort to turn it into a franchise. The trailer has explosions. Eck.

It's a movie that really didn't need a sequel, because Wick is going to have only one dead wife and only one murdered dog, right? And that was taken care of in the original movie.

All that's left is a hit man. (And one of our most powerful actors making a little money because, you know, they gave it to him.)

Maybe the sequel will be better than the trailers make it seem. But in case Chapter 2 turns out to be as empty as the Rambo movies -- and most of the Rocky sequels, for that matter -- please don't forget how good the original was.

After overdosing on the sequels, it was easy to forget just how good the original First Blood and the original Rocky were. Let's keep in mind how powerful John Wick was, too.

And, in the hope that the trailer is misrepresenting the movie, I'm going to see it this weekend. Because I'm, you know, an American.

*

When Mardy Grothe was in school -- long before he became "Dr. Mardy" -- he began collecting good advice. He'd write down quotations with their sources. The pithier the advice, the better, until he realized that he wasn't just collecting quotations. He was collecting aphorisms -- sayings. Advice that is expressed in a clever and memorable way.

At first he posted them around his room, but after a while he had too many of them. He began keeping them in files, and now, even though his day jobs include "psychologist, management consultant, marriage counselor, and public speaker," he has a large and growing following because of his books of quotations.

Now, we all know Bartlett's Familiar Quotations. Basically, we use Bartlett's to search for a saying that we almost remember, or whose speaker or writer we've forgotten. It's easy to use because it's arranged by subject matter.

But that's not how Dr. Mardy (as he's called online) organizes his aphorisms. Instead, he groups them according to their form.

The first book of his that I read was Ifferisms: An Anthology of Aphorisms That Begin with the Word "If." You know, like "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

I also plunged into Oxymoronica: Paradoxical Wit & Wisdom from History's Greatest Wordsmiths. These are sayings that sound like they contradict themselves, like Dolly Parton's quote, "You'd be surprised how much it cost to look this cheap," or Victor Hugo's, "Melancholy is the pleasure of being sad."

But those could not compete with Neverisms: A Quotation Lover's Guide to Things You Should Never Do, Never Say, or Never Forget.

My favorite quotation from this book is "Never trust a man who, within five minutes of meeting you, tells you where he went to college."

My wife and I once spent a very entertaining breakfast meeting with a woman who had inherited a lot of money and was trying to persuade me, as rich people so often do, to donate the game rights to my novel Ender's Game for an educational game she was going to pay to develop.

People who inherited their money have no idea what it takes to actually create something of value. So they think it's no big deal to ask us to give them our most valuable properties ... for free.

Yet I was going to do it. I knew the game designers and we had a great concept going. In fact, I had already sold the novel rights to the game's scenario, so I was going to get paid -- for the book, not the game.

Anyway, what made the meal so entertaining was that this woman was a pathological name dropper. The entire conversation consisted of her finding reasons to mention this or that prominent or accomplished person.

But no matter what each person had done, the first thing she said about every one of them was where they had gone to college.

Needless to say, every one of them had gone to a very prestigious university. Apparently, this woman was not impressed by money, but she was impressed by colleges that only very rich people can afford to attend -- which, in my opinion, is pretty much the same thing.

Yale, Stanford, MIT, Harvard Harvard Harvard, Princeton, Brown (though that seemed a bit like slumming), USC, Cal Tech -- you get the picture.

At one point she excused herself, presumably to go to the ladies', and my wife and I laughed very quietly. "What do you think she's going to do when she finds out that we both graduated from Brigham Young?"

Even though her standard of judging other people was phenomenally stupid, we had to give her full credit for being able to remember the alma mater of every person she considered worth knowing. But ... no, if that's all she cared about, it wasn't that phenomenal an accomplishment. After all, she only mentioned people who graduated from the same twenty or so colleges. Not that hard.

Hardly anybody on her list had gone to the Sorbonne or Oxford or Cambridge, so ... pffft. She was only in the second tier.

Anyway, ever since that breakfast meeting, I have regarded it as a sure measure of shallowness, stupidity, and prejudice when a person thinks that the most important item on anybody's resume is what school was willing to take ridiculous amounts of money from them for the kind of education that leaves you shallow, stupid, and prejudiced.

As I told my kids, "If you want to go to a prestige school, you're going to have to pay for it yourself, because I think you'll get a much better education at a state or church school -- any college with a good library. Because the higher the prestige, the less likely you are to get any classes with the best professors -- they'll all be working exclusively with graduate students and post-docs.

"Go to a big-name school, and you'll end up getting taught by grad students and adjunct professors. Go to a state school or a church school and you can probably get classes from some of their best professors -- and those may well be better teachers, rather than researchers, than you're likely to get at Yale or Stanford."

My kids listened to me so well that the two oldest dropped out of college to pursue careers that didn't need college degrees. Only the youngest got her bachelor's degree -- from Brigham Young, like her parents -- and you know what? I think they're all splendidly educated, because they took charge of their own education.

However, they would never be included in that rich woman's social circle -- which is yet another benefit of not going to one of the colleges she worships.

That wasn't the only quotation in Neverisms that rang true to me.

I read this one right after the Super Bowl: "Never trust a woman who says she likes football until she demonstrates the ability to eat a plate of hot wings clean." (Jesse Froehling)

I squirmed a little at: "Never trust a man who owns a video of his middle school musical." The only reason I don't own one is that consumer-level video cameras didn't exist when I was in middle school back in 1965.

(The musical was Tom Sawyer. I played Huckleberry Finn, and I had no idea why some of the other kids laughed when, as Huck, I was required to say, repeatedly, "Ain't that gay?" Oh, for a video of that.)

When I talked to Rusty Humphries about this on the radio, I think his favorite quote was: "Never trust an act of civil disobedience led by a disc jockey." Because, of course, the civil disobedience is not for "the cause" at all -- it's a stunt to boost ratings.

Advice to women: "Never trust a man who says, 'I just want you to be happy.'" (From the novel "A Total Waste of Makeup" by Kim Gruenenfelder)

Perhaps this one is too cynical: "Never trust a husband too far, nor a bachelor too near." (Helen Rowland)

Advice to voters: "Love your country, but never trust its government." (Robert Heinlein)

And advice to anybody who is about to be interviewed by the press: "Never trust a smiling reporter." (Edward Koch)

I can affirm that this is absolutely true. Reporters only smile in order to get you to say stuff they can twist to make you look stupid or evil.

The only change I'd make is just to remind you that with equal truth, the aphorism could be, "Never trust a reporter." Their agenda and yours never overlap.

Or, as someone once said: "Never, ever, say anything 'off the record' if you don't want to see it in print." (Ilona M. Bray)

After all the weird things Shirley MacLaine has said, I have to salute her for this one: "Never trust a man when he's in love, drunk, or running for office."

Then there are weird ones: "Never trust a man who raves about fresh vegetables." (P.J. O'Rourke)

Here's an aphorism to live by, from Teddy Roosevelt: "Never trust a man who says he is only a little crooked, and that the crookedness is exercised in your interest."

Most of us know that this one is true: "Never trust a landlord to make improvements after you have moved in." (Wes Smith, in "Welcome to the Real World")

Dr. Mardy offers one chapter of neveristic overkill, where the aphorisms have more than one instance of the word "never."

For instance, take this World War II quotation from Winston Churchill, who, at Harrow in October 1941, said: "Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never -- in nothing, great or small, large or petty -- never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."

Then there's a quote from Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird: "Never, never, never, on cross-examination ask a witness a question you don't already know the answer to."

Here's the weird thing about the way Dr. Mardy cites his sources. He repeatedly takes quotations from movies and cites, as the speaker, the actor from whose lips the words came -- or the fictional character the actor is playing.

Apparently he doesn't know that with rare exceptions, there's a writer who actually came up with the aphorism, and the actor merely said what was written in the script.

In other words, that quote wasn't from the fictional character "Scout," it was from Harper Lee, the author of the book, or perhaps from screenwriter Horton Foote.

Mel Brooks gives excellent advice: "Never, never try to be funny!" Sadly, he didn't follow his own advice half often enough, or his movies would have been better. The reason Young Frankenstein was Brooks's best movie was because Gene Wilder was the master of never, never looking like he was trying to be funny.

"Never be the first to arrive at a party or the last to go home, and never, ever be both." (David Brown, producer of The Sting, Jaws, and Driving Miss Daisy)

That might be good advice at Hollywood parties, or any event where the custom is to be "fashionably late." But when my wife and I give people an invitation to our home or to a restaurant, the time stated is when we expect to see them.

Five minutes early is perfectly acceptable -- how else can you be sure to arrive on time? Five minutes late is understandable.

But if you come "fashionably late," your plate is no longer on the table and we don't have a chair for you. You also won't be on the list for next time, unless you're a blood relative. So at our house, if you're first to arrive, we're glad to talk to you while we do the last-minute preparations.

Here's advice that Obama could have used: "Never, ever, threaten unless you're going to follow through, because if you don't, the next time you won't be taken seriously." (Roy M. Cohn)

Publisher Michael Dirda, in "Book by Book," gave this literary advice: "Never ever take Remembrance of Things Past, War and Peace, or The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire on a summer vacation."

Skater Peggy Fleming said, "After I won the Olympics, my mom used to tell me, 'Always believe in yourself -- but never, ever believe your own PR.'" There's nothing sadder than the high achiever who believes he's the genius that his agent or his publicist claims he is.

And let me end this game with a practical bit of business advice: "Never ever ever go to see the boss about a problem without bringing along a proposed solution." (Walter Kiechel III in a BusinessWeek article. He added: "Better yet, three solutions.")

I gave you a lot of examples, but believe me, all of Dr. Bardy's books are so full of really good and interesting aphorisms that a list like the one I just gave is only scratching the surface.

The only danger in reading one of his quotation collections comes from reading it in bed when your spouse is reading something else. It's too tempting to read "just one" aphorism aloud. And then another. And another.

You may find yourself sleeping alone.

*

It's pretty daring for a game-design company to bring out a deck of cards under the title, The Game. The sheer arrogance of it! All other games are just games; this one is the game?

What intrigued my wife and me (please note: not "my wife and I") was that on the box, it says that it's for one to five players.

One?

That's right. This game makes a good solitaire game -- and, while it is probably not the game, it's a very enjoyable game in which all the players try to cooperate to beat the deck.

What you have are a set of cards numbered from 2 to 99, plus two cards labeled "1" and two labeled "100." You lay out those four terminal cards, and then play from your hands by laying down cards in descending order from 100 and ascending order from 1.

The goal (which is very hard to achieve) is to run out the deck. What makes it tricky is that each player must play at least two cards in each turn -- but they have to play a card lower than the last card on a descending pile, or higher than the last card on an ascending one.

Obviously, you want to play a card as close in value to the last card played as you can, so that there's plenty of room for other players to put down lower or higher numbers after you. You don't want to play a 20 on a descending stack whose lowest card is 50 -- that cuts out all the numbers between 20 and 50.

Yet sometimes you're faced with choices like that -- either play a 20 on a 50, or a 90 on an ascending pile that's only at 45.

Fortunately, there's a quirky rule that sometimes allows you to move a pile back exactly ten numbers, allowing more room for sequential numbers to be played after all.

I have to say, it's really fun to all be working together, jointly bemoaning fate when a player has to put down a terrible card because every other card in their hand is worse. And sharing the thrill when the luck of the draw allows a player to put down a tight sequence, like 42, 45, 46, 49, 55.

The game ends when nobody can make a legal play. If you're extraordinarily unlucky (or you have players who don't yet understand the game), you can reach that point with twenty or more cards left on the draw pile. You count it as a win if the game ends with ten or fewer cards left unplayed.

And if you end because nobody has any cards left to play, and the draw pile is exhausted, then you have beaten the deck -- a miraculous total victory.

The game takes about twenty minutes to play -- because no matter how many players you have, you're working with the same 98 cards. There are no suits, no tricks, no trumps -- so it really can be played by anyone from age eight on up.

It's a game you can play just before bedtime. Or you can play it over and over and over again for hours at the beach or during the holidays. And if you're the only one who wants to play at a particular time ... you can.

It's called The Game, from IDW Games.

*

John McWhorter, the best explainer of linguistics ever -- a hard thing to achieve in a world that already includes Steven Pinker -- has come out with a wonderful book that might help people calm down about the irritating things that other people do when they talk.

Words on the Move: Why English Won't -- and Can't -- Sit Still (Like, Literally) takes on a lot of people's complaints about other people's English and points out that there's not only nothing wrong with the way they speak, but also that because language changes, your annoyance probably means you're being left behind.

For instance, take "literally" used as an intensifier rather than, er, literally. Compare it with what has happened with words like actually, really, totally, and very.

"Actually" now means "really" instead of the original meaning "right now"; "really" now often means something more like "extremely" than "in reality"; "totally" means "even though you think not" as in "He's totally going to dump her, you know?"; and "very" has completely lost all the connotations of truthfulness that were there when the word was still pronounced "verily."

Most of us are perfectly content with actually, really, and very, though totally can be annoying because annoying people use it so much. Literally has been "misused" for more than a century, and it's time to just recognize that the meaning has changed to "it felt to me as if." As in, "I was literally dying" or "He literally threw up on everything."

It's like the word unique. Only a twit now insists that you can only use the word to refer to something that is literally one of a kind. How many times would we even use the word, if that were its only possible meaning? It now means "very unusual in a positive way," and something can indeed be more unique than something else.

Then there are annoyances, like when teenage girls (especially) pepper sentences with random instances of "like": "I was, like, so bummed about the way that he, like, dumped me by text. I mean, like, it's a phone, so if he could text, he could, like, call me, right?"

In this case, like is not supposed to convey meaning. It's a way of checking to make sure the listener is on the same wavelength as the speaker.

Same thing with "you know." You insert it -- perhaps too often -- so that you don't seem to be bossing someone or assuming that they're ignorant. The words are doing an important job in the sentence.

Modal Pragmatic Markers (MPMs) aren't there for meaning. They're not semantic. They're present to smooth the conversation.

Like LOL in emails and texts. It now has nothing to do with "Laughing out loud." For that, we use ROFL or LMAO. LOL is now a general smoother and softener, carrying the message, "Please don't take this as some kind of attack. Gently, gently."

Another habit of (mostly) teenage girls is uptalk -- making declarations with the rising pitch of a question. "So I'm driving to Weaver and I'm stopped at a red light? And this guy behind me starts to honk? I mean, give me a second to push my magic light-changing button first, right?"

All that questioning when you aren't really asking a question is an MPM that serves to check in with the listeners: Is this how you see it, too?

Such terms and tactics McWhorter groups in four categories to which he assigned names that spell FACE. Factuality (for real!), Acknowledgment (I hear you!), Counterexpectation (much to my surprise), and Easing (no worries). In fact, some of these MPMs serve all four functions at once.

Anybody who begins sentences with "Well" or "So" -- which are just as meaningless as interjected "like" -- really shouldn't complain about other people using words without meanings attached.

McWhorter points out that all languages have MPMs -- words and sounds that carry no meaning, but which lubricate conversation. And as we began to use writing, not for formal letters, but for jotted-down conversations as in emails, online forums, and texting, we found that we couldn't function without equivalent MPMs in our writing.

Just because such things don't belong in formal writing -- you don't want a lot of "like" and "literally" in the company's annual report, or even in the Sunday School announcement flier -- doesn't mean that they're "wrong" in spoken and written conversation.

Since it's always a pleasure to read anything McWhorter writes -- I mean, he not only studies language, he also knows how to use it, literally, you know? -- I can whole-heartedly recommend this book.

And even if, after reading it, you're still annoyed by people who can't get through a story without thirty-eight repetitions of "like" or "you know," you'll still be a little less stressed out ... and avoiding that stress might add years to your life.

That's right, I'm saying Words on the Move can save your life. Why don't you already own it? Why haven't you already read it? It'll be the best-tasting medicine, the easiest therapy you ever had.

*

I just finished listening to the audiobook of Anthony Everitt's book The Rise of Athens: The Story of the World's Greatest Civilization, read by Michael Page. It was a thorough yet relatively brief retelling of the whole history of Athens and, along with it, the Greek and Persian world as it affected Athens.

I know, I know, the greatness of ancient Athens ended more than two thousand years ago -- a hundred years before the people of Athens themselves noticed that their great days were over. Why does it matter to us today?

One reason is that Athens gave rise to -- indeed, created -- the whole Western system of thought and action that we are still a part of. The founders of the United States were keenly aware of Greek civilization, which meant (and means) the achievements and history of Athens.

They wanted to emulate and learn from the Greeks -- including a strong aversion to "democracy," direct self-rule by the citizenry, because the people could so easily be deceived and whipped up into a frenzy by demagogues who, whether cynical or sincere, mastered the art of manipulation.

We might have thought we saw democracy at its worst in the Twitter War we called an election campaign in 2016, but no, it took the actual inauguration of Donald Trump to show us what the mob that killed Socrates looked like -- in the hate-filled rhetoric, the death threats, the deliberate lies passed off as news, the mob violence to suppress free speech at, for instance, Berkeley.

At least, that was what kept going through my mind as I listened to Everitt's account of Athens in its glory days, and Athens in decline. He didn't make any contemporary comparisons, beyond the most obvious references to representative government as opposed to democracy. But it was clear as I listened to the book that the decline of Athens was already present, already happening, when Athens reached the peak of its power and influence.

When, as a junior high student, I read Plutarch's Lives of Solon and Lycurgus -- the near-legendary founders of Athenian democracy and Spartan militarism -- I came away with the impression that Solon's system was, in fact, the beginning of Athenian democracy.

The Rise of Athens reminded me that this was far from the truth -- it took a tyrant to break the power of the oligarchs many years later, and Athenian democracy, when it finally came into being, was an experiment that could have failed, and eventually did, precisely because it's impossible to carry out a coherent foreign policy when that policy swings every which way with every wind of democratic fervor.

We're relearning that same lesson ourselves, as we watch Donald Trump duplicating all of Obama's foreign policy mistakes -- repudiating everything done by his predecessors, making promises we can't, won't, or shouldn't keep, and revealing, as Obama did, a complete ignorance of history, of law, and of other nations and cultures.

I'm amused by "conservative" applause for Trump's government-by-fiat, which is exactly as destructive of the Constitution as Obama's was, while the far right (Hi, Mr. Hannity!) ignorantly demands that the Republican Congress act right now -- forgetting (or not caring) that all the techniques that Republicans used to block Obama are now being used by Democrats to block Trump.

In other words, both of the insane "philosophies" that feel themselves entitled to govern all their own way seem to think that America is, or should be, a democracy -- but one in which only their team gets to vote. Then changes in the law would be instantaneous. Snapchat government.

Except that in the real world, bad government decisions don't just disappear after a while. Their effects continue long afterward.

For instance, Trump is talking and acting as if he thought he had inherited the military developed under George W. Bush's presidency. But no. He has a military crippled by Obama's starvation diet and his irresolute and vacillating policies, and so Trump is carrying a tiny stick while talking as if he could brush aside any enemy. This is one road to disaster.

On one policy, Trump and Obama are identical: They both treated our best allies and trading partners with contempt. They both showed America at its unreliable, ignorant, bullying worst.

So as I listened to the story of Athens, I was saddened to realize that America reached its greatness with the same suddenness as Athens -- and that we, by stupid decisions buttressed by lies and propaganda, are throwing away that greatness just as Athens did.

The real difference is that I'm not sure whether America has anything like the cultural achievements that have kept the memory, reputation, and influence of Athens alive for two millennia after they dashed themselves to pieces on the rock of history.

Our American experiment reached its greatness (its Marathon) with World War I, and reached its pinnacle (Salamis) with World War II. And, like Athens, we ran a major empire for a while by coasting on those achievements: We saved the world from the Evil Empire (in Athens's case, the Persians) but then gave rivals all kinds of reasons and causes to resent and oppose us.

We're still in that process, as Trump, instead of governing in a statesmanlike, measured way, is bullying and blustering, as if saying "we're number one" and shoving people on the playground could function as a diplomatic, political, and military policy.

Meanwhile, his opponents are even worse bullies and liars than he is. We don't even have anybody of the stature of the demagogue Demosthenes -- though maybe that gives us hope that without such a self-destructive leader at the helm, we won't grind ourselves to pieces against the rocky shore of history.

Look, The Rise of Athenian Democracy is really about ancient Athens, and when you've read this well-written, clear, thorough account, you'll have as good a perspective on the first great democracy as you can hope for. The book is interesting from beginning to end because Everitt balances stories with facts so that it's easy to keep track of all the players.

But the truer title would be The Rise and Fall of Athenian Democracy, and at the end, the story doesn't become a tragedy as much as a farce, with people running around hitting each other with sticks while the house burns down around them. How could I not compare the end of Athens with our own era, when both sides have contempt for the Constitution, democracy, and the rule of law?

Trump is not as bad as the Left is painting him, because he's not a supernatural monster of evil. He's a perfectly ordinary clown of self-love, the perfect outgrowth of the whole self-esteem movement. He's the child who has no idea how to deal with criticism because he's never heard (or listened to) any -- just like his equally self-adoring predecessor.

Doesn't it make you long for the man who is likely to go down in history as America's last competent president, George W. Bush? He was a grown-up who surrounded himself with, and listened to, people who knew more than he did.

Whereas his two successors both talk and act as if Muhammad Ali's voice were inside their heads, constantly crowing "I am the greatest." Except that neither of them knew or knows what to do with their hands in the ring.

So we are already living in post-Constitutional America, while the people who are destroying that Constitution all claim to be its protectors.

All you Trumpicles who are criticizing the Republican Congress for not having obeyed Trump's absurd edicts with sufficient alacrity: If Congress obeys the President and enacts legislation so quickly that there has been no chance for discussion and compromise, what do you get? Obamacare -- which was rammed through exactly as you want Trump's incoherent program to be rammed through.

Look at the Constitution again, and remember who is supposed to make the laws. Look at history, and see how the best and longest-lasting changes in policy and law were created.

When all else fails, Republicans, why not try the Constitution? You might as well -- the Democrats aren't using it.

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