That time Ray Bradbury railed against Common Core

Two great books that go well together.
I can’t read just one book at a time. At any given moment, I’m in the midst of reading as many as a half-dozen books. (According to my Goodreads account, I have 11 books on my Currently Reading list.)

As a result, it takes me forever to finish a book. But my multitasking habit has its upside. Every once in a while, I come across two passages in two books I’m reading simultaneously that I might not otherwise think about. This magical synergy happened recently when I read “The Republic of Imagination” by Azar Nafisi and “The Martian Chronicles” by Ray Bradbury. The books were written more than a half-century apart, but for a little bit, both writers talk about the same thing.

Neither Bradbury nor Nafisi is a fan of the new Common Core reading curriculum. I know this about Nafisi because she makes a well-reasoned case against Common Core in her book. I am guessing Ray Bradbury hated Common Core because of an inspired massacre he depicts in “The Martian Chronicles.”

More on that in a second.

Nafisi’s case against Common Core stems from the fact that it places a higher value on “informational texts” than fiction. In high schools, for instance, the split is 70/30 in favor of the former. Not that she opposes nonfiction; Nafisi wrote that she would love to see, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” taught alongside James Baldwin’s “Go Tell It on the Mountain” to demonstrate the “intersection between history and fiction.” But that’s not what’s happening. Imagination, she says, is being sacrificed for vocational preparation.

“The goal was … to replace anything that might invite subjective interpretation — the realm of imaginative knowledge — with tangible facts.”

Bradbury shows us the danger of such a lofty goal in “Usher II,” one of the later chapters of “The Martian Chronicles.” In it, an earthling named Mr. Stendahl flees to Mars to escape the “clean-minded” people who rid the earth of all great literature by the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and others. He builds a mansion in tribute to some of Poe’s greatest horror stories on his new home planet.

When officials from the Department of Moral Climates come to inspect Stendahl’s facility, he kills them off one by one, in the fashion of Poe’s stories: an orangutan, a pit and a pendulum and of course, the Masque of the Red Death. He saves the best for last, sealing his last victim up brick by brick inside a vault.

The poor guy never sees it coming, of course; he’s never read “The Cask of Amontillado.”

Those who don’t read Poe are doomed to die a grisly death.
The late Bradbury’s predictions weren’t spot on: “Usher II” takes place in 2005, long before Common Core became a talking point among education bureaucrats. At the time, he wasn’t after those people. Bradbury was satirizing censors who used fear to silence works of art. But his point still stands, even in this age when we don’t have (as much) to fear from prude guardians of taste who would destroy anything deemed the least bit smutty.

They have the same problem as the people who dreamed up Common Core’s dull standards: a lack of imagination. Consider this passage:

“‘Oh, the word “escape” was radical, I tell you.’

‘Was it?’

‘It was! Every man, they said, must face reality. Must face the Here and Now! Everything that was not so must go. All the beautiful literary lies and flights of fancy must be shot in mid-air.'”

And if reducing a high school student’s reading list to informational prose in place of imaginative fiction doesn’t shoot down the “beautiful literary lie,” I don’t know what does. 


Confessions of a non-lifelong Seahawks fan

Sports fans are made, not born. Most of the time, team devotion is handed down from parents to children. In my case, I learned to love the Seattle Seahawks with the help of some friends, and with the help of a profound sense of loneliness.

I became a Seahawks fan about ten years ago. That was the both the year I left Seattle and the year the Seahawks became a Super Bowl team.

Before you accuse me of being a bandwagoner — or worse, a fair-weather fan — let me explain.

Becoming a Seahawks fan wasn’t just about switching loyalties to a successful team. It’s been a way to connect to the city where I lived for a significant decade of my life.

I moved to Seattle from the East Coast in my mid-twenties, while the rest of the planet was in the mid-1990s. During the ten years I was there, I spent too much time working at clerical jobs I disliked. But I also learned how to become a writer.

Plus I did lots of things that underemployed people in their twenties ought to do: I dabbled (and failed) in sketch comedy; I bar-hopped and went to ridiculous clubs. I appeared in drag in a stage adaptation of “Night of the Living Dead.”

I went to the Folklife festival every Memorial Day weekend and I went to Bumbershoot every Labor Day Weekend. I saw Death Cab For Cutie in a small club. I was not impressed, but they grew on me. I saw a band called The Paperboys. I was impressed. I have been a devoted fan ever since.

I bought a share in a Mariners season-ticket package. I spent two seasons as a shareholder in a Sonics season-ticket package. I went to an NFL game at the now-imploded Kingdome, when the Seahawks were bad and Dennis Erickson was their coach.

I joined a writing group that met every other weekend, filling notebooks with character sketches, scene studies and bits of micro-fiction. I fenced competitively, then quit when it became too expensive.

I eventually figured out that I wanted to work in journalism. I sold some stories to various weeklies and covered soccer, gymnastics and volleyball games for a daily newspaper. Then I was hired to run one of the small neighborhood papers where I had sold some articles. I continued to follow the Mariners and the Sonics.

I went to two more Seahawks games but only because the tickets were free. Century Link field was under construction, so both rainy December contests were held at Husky Stadium on the University of Washington campus. It was a giant horseshoe with the open end facing Lake Washington. Both times, it rained so hard my waterproof jacket became waterlogged and I left before the games ended. Though the Seahawks had improved — they had Mike Holmgren as head coach and a promising  young quarterback named Matt Hasselbeck — I still wasn’t ready to switch allegiances from the Philadelphia Eagles, the hapless team I had followed since I was a kid.

I learned a great deal in my editor job, writing tons of stories each week, laying out the paper, writing headlines, editing copy and occasionally delivering papers on Wednesdays to the nice old ladies who called after circulation closed (but before I left the office).

I also learned that Seattle is an expensive place to live — and that  editors of weekly newspapers don’t get paid much. After three and a half years I needed a job that paid enough to let me start paying off my student loans. Since Seattle was fresh out of newspaper jobs, I moved back to Pennsylvania, the state I had been glad to leave a decade before.

Everything about that move was painful. Seattle had become my home. I missed my friends. I missed the beach at Golden Gardens. I missed the sight of mountains. I missed living in a major city. (I moved from Seattle to Easton, which was half the size of Ballard, the neighborhood where I had worked.) Financially the move made sense. But in the immediate aftermath I was depressed, lonely and struggling to adapt to my new life.

Along came the Seahawks.

That same year, the team had the most successful season in franchise history, going 13-3 behind Hasselbeck’s arm and MVP running back Shaun Alexander’s legs. They were just plain fun to watch. Because good teams are shown more often on national TV, I got to watch the Seahawks more than anyone on the East Coast normally would have. Following the team gave me a connection back to the city I knew and had so recently left. Their postseason run and Super Bowl appearance only cemented my loyalty.

I know that makes me sound like a bandwagoner. But I still followed them through the stinking seasons between 2005 and 2013, when they again dominated the NFC West (and finally won a Super Bowl).

Friends who are devoted Eagles fans don’t understand how I could switch my allegiance. I do root for the Eagles when they’re not playing the Seahawks. But on those rare occasions — such as the 2014 season, when the two teams met in Philadelphia — I pull for Seattle. My rationale is simple: I lived in Seattle. I never lived IN Philadelphia.

In the ten years since returning home, I have married a wonderful woman, purchased a house in a great neighborhood and get to experience the everyday joys of being a father to a beautiful child. Leaving Seattle was  also good for my career.  I wouldn’t change anything about the life choices I made since leaving The Emerald City.

Still, Seattle is a place that I will always miss, no matter how many times I visit. Nostalgia makes us long for the past as if it were a geographical place. For me it is: the northwest corner of the country where it rains much of the time and everyone has a library card. I may go back to visit, but Seattle will probably never be home again.

Facebook, texts and phone calls help me stay connected to my friends in the Northwest. Sports helps me stay connected to the city. Football is ideally suited for that. Following the Mariners from three time zones away (especially on a daily basis) is a chore. The once-a-week (and occasionally on TV!) football schedule, on the other hand, is easier to manage. For a team representing my favorite city in the world, I can make that commitment.

Go Seahawks.

Grammar never goes out of style; well, sometimes it does

In 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. So was Robert F. Kennedy. A Viet Cong prisoner was shot in the head by a South Vietnamese security official.

In short, it was not a good year.

Riots broke out in Chicago, as well as Paris. Richard Nixon won the presidency. The Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia.

And the Associated Press stylebook that year was a scant 52 pages and took just two staples to hold it together. This fact has nothing to do with the above historical events; I just wanted you to know how chaotic the world was at the time and how tough it must have been to hold onto any kind of order — even grammatical order — with just a pair of staples.

I want to drink an old-fashioned just looking at this.

Want proof that language changes? Exhibit 1,493,832: The 2011 AP Stylebook is a whopping 472 pages long, spiral bound (unless you’re a cheap skate and bought the perfect-bound copy, which was a couple bucks cheaper) and so thick I was able to write my name in nearly 72-point-tall letters on the bottom edge.

Only one of these has the proper spelling of Chiang Kai-shek.

This is as it should be. Language evolves, and the rules need to change with it.

That may sound like a contradiction: Why have rules for something in a constant state of flux? (If you seriously want to know that then please, I beg you: Don’t have children.)

But Sarah Palin tweets notwithstanding, rules – and rule changes – help us understand one another in writing and speech. And the rules of English are stronger than people think. I’ve been hearing for decades that “whom” is on its way to the linguistic graveyard, yet smart people still use it, and people who want to seem smart still use it incorrectly.

Martin van Buren knew the difference between "who" and "whom." I would hope.

I found the 1968 AP Stylebook amid a shelf of old reference books at work. One night this week, while life on the copy desk was continental-drift slow, I perused the nearly ancient tome to see what rules held up and which ones went out of style like a pair of bell-bottom jeans.

For instance:

  • The word “ax”: Two letters in 1968; two letters today.
  • In most cases, spell out nine or below, then use figures for 10 and above.
  • If you were the Beatles’ No. 1 fan, your grandchildren think Justin Bieber is also No. 1. For this I am deeply, deeply sorry.
  • Clergy get “the Rev.” before their title; never just “Rev.”
  • Not even in the tumultuous 1960s did the AP editors allow for a hyphen after an adverb ending in “-ly.” So those hash brownies were newly baked, not newly-baked.
Some rules still apply.

Then there are the changes. You don’t get from 52 pages to 472 without them, you know.

  • In 1968, the AP thought it important to stress that you can have “policemen, detectives, deputies, investigators, etc., but not ‘lawmen.’” In 2011, the word “lawman” didn’t even rate a mention.
  • Neither does “policeman,” by the way; the accepted term is “police officer.”
  • “Goodbye”was spelled without the “e” on the end in 1968 but by 2011 it had returned.

    This would have been completely different if they called it "The Goodby Girl."
  • “Wheel chair” in 1968 fused to become one word 43 years later.
  • It should go without saying that the 1968 AP Stylebook had an entry for “U.S.S.R.” but not one for “VoIP.”
  • In the 1960s, you could write a story about “paris green” – the insecticide made from reacting sodium arsenite with copper sulfate – without bothering to capitalize it, and do the same with “brussels sprouts.” Today, AP style dictates you refer to the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, which capitalizes “Paris” in the former and “Brussels” in the latter. C’est la vie.
I'm also fairly certain the phrase "teletypesetter" has gone the way of, well, the teletypesetter.

The most notable difference I saw was not in a rule, but in an example. Both editions stress that when it comes to hyphens, avoid ambiguity. But here’s the example the 2011 stylebook provides:

“The president will speak to small-business men” vs. “The president will speak to small businessmen.”

I think you’ll remember the older example better, if only for its vivid imagery:

“The 6-foot man eating shark was killed (the man was).”

“The 6-foot man-eating shark was killed (the shark was).”

We’ve come a long way, but I think the man-eating shark – or the man eating shark – would have stood the test of time.

The misunderstood copy editor

Do not pity the copy editor. Pity instead the reporter who thinks the copy desk isn’t important.

A National Post opinion piece earlier this week heaped both pity and scorn on the “lowly copy editor,” the newsroom functionary whose job is never romanticized. Our value as a guardian against poor grammar and bad spelling is rendered even less so by readers in the Internet age, who don’t fret the niggling details of such trivia, he argues.

Who cares about dangling modifiers when there are Keyboard Cat videos to be seen?

To be fair, this IS adorable.

This rationalized laziness would be bad enough, even if it were true. Let me assure you that, based on letters to the editor and occasional clippings sent back to my paper’s newsroom with the occasional typo highlighted, readers still do care. They notice typos, misspellings and sentence fragments. Every one that they spot sends a subtle signal to the readers’ minds that the publication has gotten sloppy. Each time the reader spots a “typo here, a grammatical glitch there,” a newspaper — and website, for that matter — loses credibility. If we can’t get the small facts right, how can we be trusted to get the big facts right?

That leads to another important function of the copy desk, one that the National Post columnist (and, to be fair, most haters) failed to mention: Copy editors prevent libel.

Copy editors know the difference between a “shooting suspect” and an “accused shooter.”

Copy editors know when a statement needs no attribution (“It rained Monday”) and when it needs it (“the school’s sprinkler system is woefully inadequate”).

Copy editors know the difference between stating a fact and expressing an opinion.

Copy editors know that papers can, and have been, sued because a sloppy reporter left the “Jr.” out of a suspect’s name in a police log.

Copy editors know that even the best reporters, even the best line editors, miss red flags in stories that can lead to trouble.

Should writers know this? What about editors? Of course they should. But they don’t.

That’s why you have copy editors. We are the last line of defense. Without copy editors, newspapers would have to devote much more than just a corner of an inside page to list corrections. One of my favorite job descriptions comes from a posting on the American Copy Editors Society website, called “Why Editing Matters”:

“Copy editors are cheaper than lawyers.”

If those duties make copy editing sound like drudgery, let me finish by talking about the part of the copy editor’s job the most fun in the newsroom: the headlines.

Some of the best writing you’ll see in a newspaper comes in the form of a six- to eight-word phrase on top of a story you might not otherwise read. Almost no one remembers the details of what when a dead body was found in a strip club in 1983, but the New York Post headline lives on:

Headless body in topless bar

That one is so famous that it’s the nickname the Post used for the killer when he was up for parole earlier this year.

Variety famously summed up the Oct. 29, 1929 stock market crash in five words:

Wall St. Lays An Egg

And one of my favorites from the Philadelphia Phillies’ 2008 World Series championship: This came from the Philadelphia Daily News:

Send In The Crown!

Not every headline is a gem like the above. (To be fair, not every headline is written by a copy editor, but instead by a page designer or someone else in the newsroom who has a flash of brilliance.)

But every headline in the paper serves to bring the reader into the story, to make the daunting task of reading 10, 20, 30 inches of gray copy a little less intimidating. In talented hands, the headline succeeds. The craft of headline writing is not easily mastered, but when it works, it’s a thing of beauty. As one former, incredibly talented, colleague of mine used to say:

Copy editors write fewer words than reporters and are read by more people.

So maybe the National Post columnist is simply jealous.

Postscript: I am not a regular reader of the National Post; nor do I troll the Interwebs looking for examples of copy-editor-bashing. The offending piece caught my attention because I read the highly entertaining blog of John McIntyre, a veteran editor at the Baltimore Sun. I tried not to duplicate his arguments against the same post.

If you’re interested in editing, or language in general, you should make his blog a regular part of your reading day. I do.