Behind Every Mildly Amusing Cartoon…


–That cartoon’s funny, but the attitude it describes is not peculiar to novelists. I’ve spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley, and entrepreneurs have the same romanticized attitude towards an unhealthy obsession with work. The software startup version of this cartoon would change a few of the details–the childhood would be geeky instead of traumatic–but the “Pathologic Ambition”, “Neglected Spouse”, and “Years of Boring Hard Work” panels would remain the same. You’re chasing an illusion. What you’re imagining to be a bohemian rejection of workaday values is really just the Protestant work ethic in disguise. Don’t be a sucker! Abandon your novel and cut out of work early. Spend time with your family and your cat. Live a normal, balanced human life.

–You’re the one chasing an illusion. The illusion is that there is such a thing as a normal, balanced human life. There is not. There are just people doing things, and monomania is one of the things that people do. This jokey celebration of bad habits is healthy in the way that a cigarette after drinks is healthy, as an acknowledgment that there is no answer book against which we’re being judged.

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Lena Dunham is Sexy

I find Lena Dunham sexy because she is talented and funny. The writing on her HBO series Girls is smart, and Dunham’s comic timing is impeccable. Starting with her debut feature Tiny Furniture (a film whose premise practically guarantees headache-inducing preciousness and yet manages to be charming) Dunham has assembled a stable of talented actors so that now in Girls–despite her obvious star presence–she can hang back as part of an ensemble, which bodes well for her current success being the start of a long career instead of just a diverting flash in the pan. To date it seems like Lena Dunham can do no wrong, and this is compelling.

When I say “sexy” I do not mean it as cheeky praise of Dunham’s artistic talent, or a nod to her current status as a hot item in the entertainment world, or some many-layered feminist reappropriation of the concept. What I mean when I say that Lena Dunham is sexy is that I personally would like to have sex with Lena Dunham. Here are some other celebrities I also find sexy: Mila Kunis, Charlize Theron, Halle Berry, and Tia Carrere circa the first Wayne’s World movie.

The difference between these women and Lena Dunham is that I don’t find Lena Dunham physically attractive. Or, no, scratch that. I find Lena Dunham physically attractive. Even when she shows up on Girls in unflattering trying-too-hard outfits, or pasty, naked, and enduring almost-unwatchable humiliation, this is all part of the comic brilliance that is Lena Dunham, which only makes her more attractive in every way. The difference is that I would find any of the other female celebrities mentioned above sexy on the basis of their looks alone, whereas if I had passed Lena Dunham on the street before I’d discovered Tiny Furniture in early 2012 I wouldn’t have given her a second glance. Lena Dunham is not bad looking, but she is frumpy and zaftig, and like most straight men my physical tastes run more in the direction of Mila Kunis et al.

Jack Black lifting up his shirt to reveal writing on his chest.

The criteria for sexiness in contemporary western society are roughly that you should be young, thin, and discernibly masculine or feminine as the case may be. These criteria apply to civilians as well as celebrities, though for celebrities the volume is turned up quite a bit. The same criteria also apply to both men and women, but with a crucial difference: a man who is not physically attractive in a conventional sense may compensate by being strong-willed, talented, or successful. This is not just a case of the markers of male power making potential mates willing to look past a general trollishness (though that happens too). No, the fireplug-shaped alpha male who commands every room he enters, the fleshy oaf with an angel’s voice, and the scrawny geek who leaves you helpless with laughter–these are sexy men. Their looks are part of the package. For women, though, the baseline is set much higher, and the fungibility of other charms is steeply discounted. So really all I’m saying about Lena Dunham is that for me she plays by a man’s rules.

From time to time in discussions of society’s standards of beauty (which are inevitably discussions of female beauty, since women are the ones compelled to play for the highest stakes in this arena) you run across a sentiment like the following: “Young-old, skinny-fat, tall-short–why can’t everyone be beautiful?” Though well-intentioned, this is hopelessly naive and can be dispatched with a concise answer: because that’s not what beauty is. By its nature, beauty is exclusive. Beautiful people only quicken our pulse because they are visibly different than us. (Or because we number among them, in which case we are visibly different from others.) The same goes for the rich, powerful, and talented. When Garrison Keillor describes his fictional town of Lake Wobegon as the place where “all the children are above average” this gets a laugh because it is, by definition, impossible. (Garrison Keillor: another person who is funnier than you or me.) In a perfect world there would still be a tiny cadre of women whose beauty makes the rest of us sick with desire and envy. It’s just that more of them would look like Lena Dunham.

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Samantha!. We’re confident we can build the whole show around her. She’s funny, sexy, and larger than life! The women will want to be her and the men will want to bed her. She’s also campy, so the gay men will want to be her too.
–The concept…
–…is unbeatable!
–…a single woman…
–…and her comic misadventures in the big city. Friends, romance, success. Having it all!
–…in her forties.
–Yes. Somewhere in her mid-forties. It’s not plausible for a younger woman to own her own public relations firm.
–You promised HBO it would be sexy. The development prospectus we agreed upon specifically said–here it is right here: “Sexy”.
–And indeed it will be. Part of the delight of the show will be experiencing the weekly vicarious thrill of sex with our blonde bombshell lead.
–Who is in her forties.
–Who is played by Kim Cattrall. Miss Honeywell the gym teacher from Porky’s. I can guarantee you no small enthusiasm on the vicarious-having-sex-with front. Besides which, romance is only half the show. The other half is a workplace comedy about Samantha running a publi-
–That sounds great but let’s get back to the. Uh. There’ll also be…younger women, right?
–Sure, her group of close gal pals are all younger than her. Samantha’s crabby lesbian best friend will be played by Cynthia Nixon, who’s a hoot. For the part of the naive young writer Samantha takes under her wing we’ve lined up Sarah Jessica Parker.
–Sarah Jessica…?
–One of the girls from Square Pegs.
–The one with the braces or the horse-faced one?
–Horse-face. But she’s matured into a lovely young woman.
–Oh, she’s cute…
–Well that’s wonderful, but here at HBO we need assurances…
–…that you will take full advantage of the unique story-telling opportunities that cable television offers.
–…I had such a crush on her. [Sings] Square Pegs! One size does not fit all…
–I don’t follow.
–That you will deliver an artistic product finely attuned to the medium for which it is created.
–I still don’t follow.
–He means will we get to see tits?
–Oh. Yes. Lots.
–Will we get to see Sarah Jessica Parker’s tits?
–Unfortunately miss Parker does not do nudity. But that actually works out, because her character is terrified of sex. On the other hand, as I understand it doffing her top is just Kim Cattrall’s way of saying, “Nice to meet ya.”
–Okay. So–Samantha has a boyfriend?
–Samantha has lots of boyfriends!
–Which one does she marry?
–She doesn’t marry any of them. [General consternation] Every few weeks we have a new guest star who is Kim Cattrall’s Mr. Right Now. We figure we’ll alternate between hunks and funny character actors. That’s how we’ll keep things fresh.
–Okay, but which one does she secretly want to marry?
–She doesn’t want to marry any of them. Samantha doesn’t want to pick just one man. Besides she’s having too much fun with her friends and her public relations firm.
–I’m lost. I was following you up to the tits part, but now I’m lost. Who gets married then?
No one gets married. Well, maybe the naive young writer…
–…Sarah Jessica Parker?…
–…comes close. There’s a story arc we’re kicking around, a romance between her and a character we haven’t fully worked out yet–we’re just calling him Mr. Big for now. He’s a wealthy, older, emotionally abusive sociopath who she falls for because she’s so insecure. She almost marries him, but at the last minute Samantha talks some sense into her, so everything works out okay.
–Alright. Well, I didn’t get where I am by not taking chances. I think you’ve got something here.
–Thank you, thank you, thank you.
–Just one thing.
–It can’t be set in Duluth, Minnesota.
–But-but! We’ve got this whole recurring Lutefisk motif…
–Duluth isn’t sexy.
–…and the Coen brothers have already signed on to direct an episode!
–No. No flyover territory. The show is set in New York City. Trust me. I know what I’m talking about. Sometimes you have to compromise. New York City.
–…and maybe a bigger role for Sarah Jessica Parker…
–[Deflating acquiescence] New York City.
–Listen, you’re on to something here. You’ve almost got it. Come back in a week. Give me sex, give me the city, and you’ve got a deal!

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Couldda, Wouldda, Shouldda

Recently my wife was talking about something that didn’t strike her as important. “I could’ve cared less,” she said, then corrected herself: “I couldn’t have cared less.” If you stop to think about it, the latter is the literally correct expression. If you don’t care about something your level of caring is already at a minimum, so it would not be possible to care less.1  But really both are correct. Responding to the former with, “I think you mean you could not have cared less” would go beyond obnoxious into nonsensical.

“I could’ve cared less” is one of those prescriptively incorrect expressions that is nevertheless the way people actually talk. Linguists have many of examples of these supposed solecisms at their fingertips–flammable/inflammable, can/may, “That is a rule up with which I will not put”–and delight in explaining why they are not ungrammatical. The “error” when you say “Can I use the restroom?” when you “mean” “May I use the restroom?” is actually a demonstration of your linguistic competence. Part of being a native English speaker lies in possessing three pieces of knowledge: 1)  that there is a subtle difference in the meaning of “can” and “may” that hinges on the latter being a request 2) outside deontically ambiguous contexts this distinction collapses and “can” can (may?) be used everywhere 3) nevertheless there is a convention of correcting someone else’s use of “can” in a strictly-speaking “may” situation, usually as a way of making fun of the sort of person who would do such a thing.

Could-have/couldn’t-have flounders at step (1). There isn’t a well-understood distinction between the two phrases that native speakers choose to ignore because it’s a difficult phrase to understand. There is a subtle three-way interaction between the irrealis of “could”, the negation of “n’t”, and the relational semantics of “less”–and that’s before you throw “have” into the auxiliary verb pileup. The aspiring martinet must be willing to solve a logic puzzle before being able to get on someone’s case about their supposedly incorrect usage. In its focus on the details of negation, could-have/couldn’t-have resembles the prescriptive criticism of negative concord in English–e.g. “If you say ‘I ain’t got no money’ doesn’t that really mean you have some money?”2 But there’s a difference in that English negative concord is highly stigmatized, whereas could-have/couldn’t-have is mostly overlooked.3

My wife didn’t even say “couldn’t have cared less”. In fluid speech it ran together, sounding more like “couldn’t’ve have cared less”. You have to be listening closely to even hear the distinction. So given all this may I now propose a new English word: couldda. It can appear in any context that admits “could have/couldn’t have” and means the same thing, except it also signals to the listener “I am aware of the subtle logical distinction that may arise at this point and emphatically don’t care because we both know what I mean.”

Question: does this word already exist?

1 The former works if you’re being sarcastic–“I could have cared less (…but it’s not likely)”–but this requires an extra twist of prosody.

2 In both cases the smug prescriptivist ignores the fact that it is English being spoken, not propositional calculus. If upon being asked whether I may dump of pot of hot coffee into his lap he responds “No, no, no, no!” I do not think “Aha!–you said ‘no’ four times, and -1 raised to an even power equals +1” and then proceed to scald him.

3 By the way, my wife disagrees with this judgement and thinks that “could care less” is just plain wrong.

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Proposed New Preposition: Subind

A and B are standing in the living room, A behind a couch and B in front of it. B’s shoes are on the floor behind the couch where A can see them but B cannot. B says to A, “Where are my shoes?” A replies, “They’re subind the couch.”

α is subind β means that α is concealed by β for the listener but not the speaker. It is pronounced /sʌbaɪnd/ and functions syntactically as a preposition. Like other prepositions its meaning is relative to the immediate physical context of the utterance. Unlike on, above, in etc., the point of reference is not the internal argument β but two lines of sight. If A and B switched places, A could no longer say that the shoes were subind the couch, though he could say they were behind it from anywhere in the room.

Subind’s semantics is similar to proximal/distal relationships in that it is a function of the interlocutors’ positions. English’s here/there and Spanish’s aqui/allí/allá are examples. Korean has a three-way distinction 이/그/저 based on the relative locations of the object, speaker, and listener. Unlike these, however, subind’s deixis involves the interlocutors’ ability to see the subject α of the preposition. This relative capacity vis-a-vis β is all that matters, not the locations of A and B or the structure of β itself. (So the fact that a couch has a front and a back side is irrelevant.) Irrealis intrudes in the form of ways the relative visibility of β is likely to change in the near future. If neither A nor B can see the shoes and A says “Maybe they’re subind the couch” this implies that he intends to go check behind the couch soon. (Much like “Let me check behind the couch”, which, note, is a statement of intent, not a request for permission.) Whether “Maybe they’re subind the couch” is permissible when A is heading behind the couch for the express purpose of finding the shoes or only in a scenario where A was already planning to go there for some other reason is a point of contention even among native speakers.

The literal meaning of subind has to do just with obstructed sight lines and not with any sense of intentional concealment, but those shades of meaning are all accessible via metaphor. If I recently moved the scissors from their customary location to the top drawer, I might answer your inquiry about their location with “They’re subind the top drawer” as a way of jokingly acknowledging the fact that I just made it difficult for you to find them. (The same as if I had said “I hid them from you in the top drawer”.) Metaphor also gives access to more abstract notions of concealment. I say “John’s vindictive nature is subind an air of superficial friendliness” when you think John is a good guy but I can see right through the S.O.B. By itself subind has no connotations of deception. If “Susan’s self-interest is subind a smile” Susan may be merely oblivious, but if I throw a little agency into the mix and say “Susan is putting her self-interest subind a smile” I am calling her a liar in no uncertain terms.

Does the meaning of this preposition strike you as unusually complicated? This is an illusion. Subind’s perfectly ordinary semantics is subind your familiarity with the equally-nuanced meanings of prepositions you use every day.

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You Know What I Mean, Motherfucker!

In the world of obscenities, “motherfucker” is a winner. It combines the incest taboo with English’s most vulgar term for the sex act. Interjections typically weigh in light, but this one’s articulation gives you room to play. It’s a long word. Four syllables with pleasing assonances between the first and the third and second and fourth. There is also an orthographic symmetry in the way both halves end in “er”, which transforms into a delightful asymmetry when you realize that “er” is a bound nominalization suffix in the latter case but just part of “mother” in the former. The citation form puts the stress on the first syllable—/‘mʌ ðɹ fʌk ɹ/—but in contexts where the point is to emphasize the element of surprise it may be shifted penultimately.

–So he was Kaiser Soze all along. /mʌ ðɹ ‘fʌk ɹ/!

The common interpretation of “motherfucker” is that it’s your own mother who you are fucking. But why? If you were to just fuck one mother randomly in the world, the chances that you would commit incest are vanishingly small. Conversely, for every mother there necessarily exists a motherfucker, though they more commonly go by the name of “father”. The semantic charm of English’s strongest four-syllable obscenity lies not just in its capacity to offend but also in its literal unlikelihood.

This is a Gricean effect, right? My money would be on the Maxim of Quantity. I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of using taboo language unless I had meant it to be really taboo, so you should give the maximally shocking interpretation to the “mother” morpheme. But then the quantity in question is not in the world but is rather the quantity of offensiveness in an expression. Is this a meta-linguistic stretch? Canonically we have just four maxims to flout—Quality, Quantity, Relation, and Manner—but maybe the discretization into finite categories is unjustified, and really there’s only one maxim: expect the unexpected.

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Strike Plate

The screw on the strike plate to my hotel room had come loose, so the plate just dangled and had to be repositioned every time I closed the door. I told the person at the front desk about this and she said she’d pass the information on to maintenance.

A strike plate

That’s a simplified account. Our actual exchange went more like this.

—So on the door there’s the little part that goes in an out when you turn the handle.


—Then there’s a metal plate there on the inside edge of the door around it. That part’s loose.

—I think I know what you mean. I’ll tell maintenance. I’m just not sure what to call it.

—I know. It’s that little thing. The part that goes around the part that goes in and out. If it was a deadbolt I’d call it the “bolt”, but it’s just a regular lock. I don’t know what to call it either.

—Right. That little piece.

—You could probably just tell them “door broke” and they would figure it out.

Later investigation revealed that the metal plate is called a “strike plate”, which is “mortised” into the inner edge of the door and covers the head of the “latch mechanism”. This last term appears to apply to the entire spring-loaded device: I can’t locate a word that means just the little curved nubbin of metal that slides in and out to keep the door in place. Ours was a clumsy but illustrative exchange.

Language works. Two native speakers of the same language can walk up to each other and interact fruitfully on basically any issue of immediate practical significance. We all do this all the time, instantly and efficiently, without any attention directed towards the act of communication itself. There’s a misconception that only a small number of highly intelligent (whatever that means) people can speak well, and the rest of us just kind of grunt at each other and manage to communicate by dumb luck, but nothing could be further from the truth. The average person’s capacity for everyday conversation is an ability that dwarfs oddball corner cases of speech like poetry, oratory, witty banter, and so forth where one actually makes note of eloquence. Because we are all so uniformly good at it, we don’t realize how good we are. People speak the way fish swim.

Usually. But here is a case where two competent native English speakers approached each other with the intention of communicating about a simple matter and found that words literally failed them. You could argue that we were stymied by technological jargon (certainly there are plenty of carpenters and hardware store employees would have had the vocabulary read to hand) but at the same time it’s not rocket science, it’s an everyday object. It’s a door. Fortunately, the human capacity for communication outpaces the human capacity for speech, so I am confident that the door will get fixed. Still, in that moment the woman at the front desk and I got to see how language works by momentarily feeling the machine break down.

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