Pedants delight in error, not in truth, and fall upon it like scavengers on a carcass. I have books, pre-owned—or even pre-loved, as dealers in secondhand objects are now inclined to call them—in which pedants have underlined or scored out words containing misprints, as if the search for such misprints had been their main reason for reading them in the first place. A missing apostrophe may drive a pedant into a paroxysm of pleasurable fury. With what righteous indignation may he (I imagine pedants to be mainly male) mark the page to alert future readers to this disgraceful error!
I could probably maintain a separate blog devoted entirely to documenting the tiny errors I discover in my reading. Thankfully, this has only ever been an idle thought. Most errors are neither egregious nor entertaining enough to call attention to them. One recent exception presented itself in Wallace Kaufman’s Coming Out Of The Woods: The Solitary Life Of A Maverick Naturalist, where Kaufman refers to the “plaintiff sounds of whales” in a section about animal communication. The Onion once joked about the apocalyptic consequences for humanity of dolphins developing opposable thumbs. I don’t want to think about the sort of reparations we’ll be looking at should whales discover the legal process.
Someone needs to sort all this out, because I don’t see how we can proceed unless we have someone to point to and say, “You ruined everything.”
As usual, Gary Larson foresaw this long ago.
[A new, possibly regular feature in which I select a vintage post from the archives for the entertainment of newer readers. Originally published Nov. 5, 2014.]
Last stop of the day, pulling in to fill up the gas tank. I set the pump trigger latch in place and walked around to the passenger side for something. While there, I took a moment to get my small boar-bristle brush out of the glovebox and give my beard a smoothing-down. I’ve been letting it grow for the last few months, so it requires a lot more grooming now.
“Feels good, don’t it?”
I turned around to look over at the next pump island for the source of the voice, where I saw what appeared to be Billy Gibbons dressed in biker leather, next to his beat-up old pickup.
“I brush mine like that all the time. Love it,” he said, affectionately patting the fringe of his long, grey facial mane.
“Oh, yeah,” I concurred. “I wish someone had told me about these earlier. I used to use a comb, but it made it all—” I used my hands to indicate the universal sign language for wild, frizzy hair.
He winced as if he’d seen someone brandish a set of electric clippers in his direction. “Ooh, no, never a comb, no. Always gotta be a brush.”
He made as if to get back in his truck before hesitating, his head still turned halfway in my direction, as if listening to some internal monologue. A moment later, he turned back and ambled over toward me.
“Now, look, young feller,” he began, in a friendly-conspiratorial tone of voice, “I made myself a promise a long time ago never to get involved in another man’s beardly business. You can see I’ve been around a good long while, and I tell you what, you never get over the pain of seeing a man you’ve encouraged spend years growing out his beard the way the good Lord intended, only to cut it all off because of a job or some damned woman.”
He spat to punctuate his disgust before fixing me with one steely eye from under the brim of his hat. Taking the measure of me, I thought. I kept quiet and stoically bore his scrutiny, letting my beard do the talking for me. Was that the slightest crack in his stony façade, a tiny upturn in the corner of his mouth?
It was. He grinned an almost-imperceptible grin and shook his finger at me in a mock-admonishing way. “You, though…damn it all if I ain’t a sentimental old fool, but the careful, dedicated way you wield that brush tells me you ain’t gonna go that route.”
“No, sir,” I agreed. “My woman, she loves my beard the more it grows out.”
He sighed, his breath the sound of so many hair clippings fluttering, unmourned, to the floor. “Be that as it may, son, in this world, there’s many a cold winter wind blows through a man’s life with no woman there to share it with. You treat that beard like the brother it is, because it’ll be there for you when that wind’s a-whistlin’ somethin’ fierce, no questions asked.”
Pausing to make sure his words had sunk in, he reached deep into a jacket pocket and fished something out. He held out his hand, and as I took it, he clasped his other one tight around the back and held it for a moment.
“I’m trusting you’ll use it wisely, son. Don’t let me down.”
“I won’t. I promise.”
I unclenched my hand and looked down.
When I looked up to thank him, he was already gone.
The overall sleek shine, the way the potion enhances the blond hairs to glow like a golden fire, and the lively notes of pine, cedar and mint that aromatically dance around my face now are the only things that convince me I didn’t imagine the whole thing.
Some parts of this story are truer than others.
The Women’s World Cup in soccer should be a cause for celebration, as the game’s best female players get to show off their talents in front of bigger crowds than most of them have ever played before. But it’s apparently impossible these days for players—as well as coaches, commentators, journalists, or even spectators—to enjoy a major sporting event without filtering the experience through the prism of resistance politics. And so, this edition of the Women’s World Cup, taking place in France now and continuing through the first week in July, has turned into a festival of resentment and grievance.
Too numerous to catalog in their entirety, the complaints have piled up: the women aren’t paid enough; the male-dominated media don’t pay enough attention—and, conversely, too many male reporters are covering the games; the commentary is sexist; the commentators engage in too many stereotypes; the greedy men who run international soccer don’t care whether the women succeed. It’s difficult to watch a broadcast, read a game account, scan a blog, listen to a podcast, or read anything on social media about the tournament without being reminded of all the injustices these athletes and coaches are enduring. One journalist even described the games an “act of defiance.”
Well, yes. As with most things, the games themselves are enjoyable; the commentary about the games is almost entirely worthless, which is why it’s best ignored altogether. It’s a shame that the usual culprits are determined to push a zero-sum gender-war narrative, because the women’s game will generally suffer for the comparison. I’ve been watching this summer’s tournament, as I did four years ago. As always, it’s refreshing to see the absence of the diving and flopping which mars the men’s game, and the overall surfeit of good sportsmanship is wonderful (notwithstanding Cameroon’s embarrassing display of petulance during their defeat to England this week). On the other hand, I can’t remember the last time I saw such a lopsided blowout between professional teams as I did during the U.S.A.’s 13-0 humiliation of Thailand, and there’s no getting away from the fact that the women’s game is noticeably slower and basic errors are more prevalent (on the other other hand, today’s Netherlands-Japan match was as thrilling as any you’ll see, a game where it was truly sad that there had to be a loser). I have no ideological axe to grind; the reason I only tune in to watch women’s games every four years is that I simply don’t have time for more than that. With limited temporal and attentive resources to spend, choices have to be made, and I prefer to watch the more exciting, competitive games featuring the best athletes. At any rate, I think all reasonable people can agree that identity politics ruins everything.
About a quarter of the way into her writing, Bowles invokes Milton Pedraza, chief executive of the Luxury Institute. Pedraza’s organization “advises companies on how the wealthiest want to live and spend,” and is now benefitting from what he calls “the luxurification of human engagement.” If you’re wondering what that means, don’t feel stupid, because the dictionary doesn’t know either.
In any case, the phrase suggests that the rich now view screen-time as a vulgar leisure activity, one offered to those who can’t afford anything else. To some, digital devices now smell like fast food. Over at Quillette, Clay Routledge has written about this phenomenon. Scores of other authors, researchers, and speakers have been desperately offering their advice on this topic to anyone willing to listen over the better part of the last decade.
Other renowned philosophers have noted this: “When possessions are too common, you start selling experiences.” “[L]uxuries turn into commonplaces, commonplaces into luxuries.” There’s no point in bemoaning the frivolity of it; one might as well despair over the changing of the seasons. A highly social species needs to invent social distinctions, no matter how absurd. I’ve heard it said that the people who truly got rich from the California Gold Rush were the ones selling shovels and picks. Likewise, I think it’s time to dust off my old toys and games from the ’70s and ’80s to provide today’s well-off tots with an optimal analog experience.
The Graphic was the creation of an eccentric, bushy-haired businessman named Bernarr Macfadden, who had started life rather more prosaically some fifty years earlier as a Missouri farmboy named Bernard MacFadden. Macfadden, as he now styled himself, was a man of strong and exotic beliefs. He didn’t like doctors, lawyers, or clothing. He was powerfully devoted to bodybuilding, vegetarianism, the rights of commuters to a decent railroad service, and getting naked. He and his wife frequently bemused their neighbors in Englewood, New Jersey — among them Dwight Morrow, a figure of some centrality to this story, as will become apparent — by exercising naked on the lawn. Macfadden’s commitment to healthfulness was so total that when one of his daughters died of a heart condition he remarked: “It’s better she’s gone. She’d only have disgraced me.” Well into his eighties he could be seen walking around Manhattan carrying a forty-pound bag of sand on his back as a way of keeping fit. He lived to be eighty-seven.
As a businessman, he seems to have dedicated his life to the proposition that where selling to the public is concerned no idea is too stupid. He built three separate fortunes. The first was as the inventor of a cult science he called Physcultopathy, which featured strict adherence to his principles of vegetarianism and strength through bodybuilding, with forays into nakedness for those who dared.
— Bill Bryson, One Summer: America, 1927
I dare say that a full biography of Macfadden would only be a disappointment compared to this delightful little character sketch. I’ve always liked Bryson’s dry, understated wit. I especially appreciate the tricolon here: “doctors, lawyers, and clothing.” It’s followed by a tetracolon, which is often assumed to not work well for rhetorical effect, but it would probably have sounded too singsong had he followed the first tricolon with “bodybuilding, vegetarianism, and getting naked.”
I realize that I will probably be accused of breaking a butterfly on a wheel here. Admiral McRaven doubtless means well in a tough-talking sitcom high-school assistant principal sort of way. If he were working in a vacuum, I would say live and let live. But Make Your Bed is only one example of a flourishing genre of pseudo-hardass commentary that is exercising a massive influence over young men in the English-speaking world. Like McRaven, the Canadian academic psychologist-turned-YouTube superstar Jordan Peterson seems to be under the impression that rote performance of mundane tasks (“Clean your room” in the professor’s case) coupled with a kind of vague meta-obsession with purpose for its own sake is a catch-all solution for any number of postmodern afflictions. Joe Rogan, the tattooed podcaster whose stock-in-trade is telling his followers what they should think about whiskey and the keto diet, is another.
I have no doubt that the Petersonists are responding to a real need felt by their audience. The question is whether their answers are the right ones. I am not at all convinced that what lonely disaffected male millennials need to hear most is that performative masculinity will make them feel happy or fulfilled. As I write this, there are hundreds of thousands of American men who, under the influence of these no-BS masculinist gurus, have learned to confuse selecting the perfect razor and using it correctly with a sense of vocation. It is all of a piece with the alt-right; indeed as far as its political ramifications go, it might as well be considered the same phenomenon — a retooled social conservatism in which the issues at stake are not abortion or same-sex marriage but complaints about whining SJWs and “political correctness.” The average Petersonist is teaching himself how to use tools and getting really into evolutionary biology and lifting and will tell you all about it over a cigar or a glass of bourbon in his backyard (assuming that he has one).
One of the most tiresome things about the age of “hot takes” is what I think of as “performative quibbling” — making the most of trivial disagreements in order to distinguish oneself. As far as I can tell, the only thing that truly unites these, uh, “Petersonists” is that they put too much emphasis on the necessity and benefits of personal discipline for Walther’s taste (though they also have large audiences, which naturally stirs envy, especially among hack writers for online political tabloids). If that makes them “alt-right” — a term which has clearly become utterly worthless due to rhetorical hyperinflation — then I fear a lot of us will find ourselves classified as Nazi-adjacent before long. At any rate, Walther goes on to assure us that he does have concerns about the robustness and capability of young men today, but if he has a better answer for them than the, uh, Petersonists, he couldn’t squeeze it in under his word count. Milquetoasts to the left of him, meatheads to the right; in between, in the “reasonable middle ground,” stands our hero, thoughtfully stroking his chin, gazing off into the middle distance, sighing over the sheer complexity of it all. I’m reminded of an old XKCD punchline: “Well, the important thing is that you’ve found a way to feel superior to both.”
One appealing aspect of dad jokes is how they can be self-mocking and teasing simultaneously. An ironic distance is baked into them. No wonder they’re popular among Generation X parents.
But they have deeper roots. Dad jokes tend to be clean, generic and short, requiring no context or explanation. In many ways, they are throwbacks to the days when comics leaned on bits that started with a trio of religious figures walking into a bar, or evergreen one-liners that began with, “Did you hear the one about … ?”
Professional comics once trafficked in these jokes, but they went out of fashion as stand-up became more ambitious, and also more personal, putting a premium on original material that reflected a specific point of view.
Dad jokes may not work within the context of stand-up anymore, but given that stand-up appears to be progressing toward its nadir, that’s probably not a bad thing. Political/therapy comedy is probably best suited to this histrionic age of sturm und drang self-expression, but for a placid and mature sensibility, the rococo flourishes of linguistic cleverness are good enough.