One Thing & Another

Notes From My Journal: What’s in a Name?

Maybe I’m being cynical, but one of the dumbest ideas of recent memory is that euphemisms improve things for minorities.

I am not sure exactly why this sort of thing rubs me the wrong way. It just seems so phony. It seems as if we’re trying to make the problem of discrimination go away by giving it a pretty name. And that is done under the banner of being sensitive to the needs of those we are talking about.

Did colored people wake up, en masse, one day and say they didn’t want to be called “colored” anymore? Did the same thing happen as the politically correct preference changed first to “black” then to “African-American” and, most recently, to “people of color”?

What about Native American Indians? Did they all object to being “injuns”? Or were a few of their leaders looking to make some point? (“Hey, get this, I have a politically correct spellchecker! It actually automatically changed ‘injuns’ to ‘Indians.’ I had to force it to use the nasty old word.”) And when and why did someone decide that Native American Indian was preferable to American Indian?

I don’t know. If I thought that changing “midgets” to “little people” or “retarded” to “people who have a cognitive disability” would eliminate discrimination against these populations, I’d be all in favor of it. But it seems as if the opposite happens. We give them a nice name and hope they go away.

Nick Ackerman, a senior at Simpson College, has just won the NCAA Division II national title in wrestling in the 174-pound division. He’s listed as 6 feet 4 inches on the roster, but that’s only if you count his artificial legs. When he’s on the mat, he wrestles on the stubs of two legs that were amputated below the knee. I am looking at a photo of him attacking another wrestler. It looks as if he’s standing in water, as if his feet were below the mat’s surface. “Don’t call me disabled,” Ackerman says. When asked what he would prefer, he said, “I don’t know. Call me a national champ if you want.”


Today’s Word: redolent (adjective)

Redolent (RED-uh-lunt) usually refers to fragrance – to a place or thing that is especially aromatic. It can also refer to something that reminds us of something else or evokes a strong emotional response. Example from the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling: “In a world so redolent with wonder, how can we allow ourselves to conduct our daily lives with so little insight, such absence of dignity.”


From My “Work-in-Progress” Basket

No Good Turn Goes Unpunished*

You have an idea for a documentary – a look into the life of an acquaintance of yours. You’ve known him as a sophisticated writer of direct response advertising, an old-fashioned sort of writer who was fastidious about grammar and spelling. But you’ve discovered that, 30 years earlier, he was a maker of cult movies. He’s a celebrity in that universe. They call him the “Father of Gore.” The film will document his place in film history by explaining his contributions and celebrating his achievements.

He says he’ll do your documentary if you will produce a screenplay he wrote years ago. You have no interest in making a feature film, but you agree to do it. You had budgeted $100,000 for the documentary. His film will probably cost at least $400,00. You raise $600,000, the bulk of it from your own savings.

He wants to get paid up front for his contribution to both films – $20,000 for the rights to his story in the documentary and $80,000 for directing the feature film.  You can understand why you should pay him 20 grand for the documentary. But the feature film was his idea. You’re putting up a small fortune to back it. You feel he should forgo any fees.

You make that case to him. He rebuffs you curtly. You feel a twinge of anger and also fear. But you remind yourself that he is an old man who has accomplished something significant – that, in his view, he deserves what he is asking for. So you take a deep breath and concede to his demands.You are relatively new to filmmaking – and the project takes, as such projects always do, more of your time than you expected. There are moments when he causes you a considerable amount of frustration. He wants things done his way, which is the way they were done 30 years ago when he was making low-budget movies. He doesn’t seem to realize that things have changed. (Even with your limited knowledge of the industry, you know that.)

Again and again, you calm yourself down and imagine yourself in his position. And thus you get through both films as friends, completing them late but on budget.

When it comes time to market the films, he isn’t at all helpful. He tells you that you are “the business man,” although it is he, not you, who has the experience of selling movies. You do the best you can, but you discover that there is no longer a market for super-low-budget movies. Even those made with big names, much bigger than his, get very limited distribution and rarely make back the money invested.

When all is said and done, the project loses half a million dollars. When you send him the numbers, he replies with a registered letter (copied to his lawyer) that all but accuses you of embezzlement. He demands an audit of the books.

You are insulted. After everything you’ve done for him, including all the money you invested and complying with all his wishes and taking all his bullshit for nearly a year… this is how he thanks you?

You are outraged. You imagine yourself grabbing him and trying to shake some sense into him. You think about hiring a lawyer and fighting him in court. But then you do that thing that you have been able to do since you started working with him. You think kindly of the cranky old genius and allow yourself to relax.

The moment you relax, the anger is gone. You feel compassion for the man. He is old. He is fearful. He is struggling to leave something of himself behind for future generations to remember. Meanwhile, he is still fighting. He’s fighting with you. But it is now something you find sadly admirable.

You forward his letter to your accountant and ask him to comply with it. The moment you send it, you feel yourself calming down. You feel almost happy. You feel – and this surprises you since you have just decided to do nothing – in control.

* In this series of essays, which hopes to become a book, I’m exploring an idea I’ve been thinking about for a long time — that all of existence, or rather our experience of existence, can be understood by the metaphor of pulsation. My theory is that this movement — from expansion to contraction and back again to expansion — is the fundamental pattern of everything we experience and everything we do and could be said to be responsible for all of our technical, artistic, and philosophical achievements as well as all of our hurtful and destructive thoughts and actions.


Fun Fact

Dreamt is the only English word that ends with the letters “amt.”


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