Monday, September 29, 2014

"First Degree Confusion (Or Is It Third Degree?)"

It has been said that English is a difficult language to learn because of all the exceptions. 

Consider spelling.

“Cough” is “o-u” and “g-h”, but “coffee”, which sounds the same, has an “o” and an “f-f.”  Both words making the same “aw” sound as “paw” which is “a-w.”  And what about “elephant”?  It’s the same sound, but it’s “p-h.”

Then there’s the silent “h.”  I say, if a letter’s going to be silent, it shouldn’t be in there at all.  A silent letter should remain on the bench, till it’s actually needed, sitting out for “honest”, in the game for “hat.”  (Unless you’re a Cockney, in which case it’s “’at”, a participating “h” sending an apostrophe in to pinch-hit)

Is your head throbbing?  Mine is.  And English is ostensibly my first language.  Man!  Look at that word!  Two “g’s.”  But one of them sounds like a “j.”

The problems go beyond spelling and pronunciation anomalies.  A while back, I became educated concerning the usage of term “Defcon Five”, which I inaccurately designated and the most serious “Defcon” of them all, when in reality, that’s “Defcon One.”

It’s an explainable – though hardly justifiable – mistake, owing to inadequate research on my part (Read: None) combined with some sloppy logic.  Since “Five” is a larger number than “One”, I (sloppily) logically assumed it reflected a more egregious level of “Defconicity.”

Why did I assume that?

It begins with “First Degree Murder.”

In “Murder”, “First Degree” is the worst kind of murder you can commit, involving willful premeditation and homicidal intent. 

(WARNING TO PEOPLE CONSIDERING “FIRST DEGREE MURDER”:  Consult state laws for variations before proceeding.  You may think, “What’s the worst that could happen? – I get ‘Life’” – when, in reality, the worst that could happen is you get “Death.”  This can be a really costly miscalculation.  You’re welcome.)

But wait.  “First Degree Murder” suggests that you should have known it was “Defcon One”, the “One’s” in both cases being the worst. 

Correct, Blue Writing Person.  It turns out, however, it is not as simple as that.  

Google over to “Burns”, which, like “Murder”, is also delineated by “degrees”, and you discover an entirely different – and discombobulating – story.

“First Degree Burns”, we are told, are the least terrible of the hierarchically categorized burns.  Sunburn is a “First Degree Burn.”  “Second Degree Burns” are awful.  And “Third Degree Burns” – I could barely look at the picture.

Are you sensing the difficulty here?  Going by “First Degree Murder”, I would have determined it was “Defcon One”, both of them being the worst.  But then there’s the “Burns”, wherein a “First Degree Burn” is “Don’t bother coming to the hospital.”

Not angling for exoneration here, but tell me.  What is a poor “Defcon” determiner to think?

What appears to be going on is a complete absence of classificational uniformity.  In “Gradations of Seriousness” “Murder” and “Burn” characterizations proceed in entirely opposite directions, “Murder” going “from ‘Three’ down to ‘One’”, and “Burns” going “from ‘One’ up to ‘Three.’”

Cancer, I didn’t even Google, for fear I might recognize something I have.  But I know that the “Fourth Stage” is the most life-imperiling variety of cancer.  Thereby compounding my confusion even further. 

They don’t even have “Fourth Degree Murder.”  What would that even be?

“I said hello to him and he died.”

The lesson, I now know, is:  “Assume Nothing.”  “Fourth Stage Cancer” is horrible.  “Defcon Four”, – I mean you keep an eye on it, but if you’ve got tickets to a ballgame, and you go. 

“Defcon Five”? 

It’s two rungs below “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.”  (And I made it the worst!)

The Thing to Remember:  If you’re not certain about something, look it up. 

That, for me, is First Class advice.

Wait!  First Class travel is “Top-of-the-Line.” 

But it’s “Third Degree Burns”?

And don’t get me started on,

“How are you feeling?” 

“I’m a little under par.”

In golf, where the term originates, “Under par” is good.  “Under par’s” what you’re shooting for.  In health?  It’s a little below average. Virtually synonymous with “So-so.”

Somebody needs to coordinate these things.  Unless they’ve been made deliberately confusing so that the people who know English can torture the people who are trying to learn it.

Which in my view is just mean.

Friday, September 26, 2014

"Protection On Ice"

The one time I got to meet and interview perennial funnyman Mel Brooks, he told me the story of when, back in the 1940’s, he had peppily charged onstage, opening his neophyte stint as a stand-up comedian at a Catskills resort with the traditional,

“Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen…”

At which point, a woman at a ringside table lamented,

“Oy!  English!

Each year, I purchase for my friend Paul and I, both of us expatriate Canadians and both inveterate hockey fans, a “Hockey Heroes” calendar merchandised by the NHL Hockey Hall of Fame. 

Each month of the calendar features the picture of a different Hall of Famer, going back to the 1930’s, every decade distinguishable not just by the era-appropriate player but by the designated equipment of the day. 

And every time we flip the calendar page to the following month and behold its accompanying picture, we experience to same dread as the audience member from the Catskill, only instead of “Oy!  English!”, it’s

“Oy!  Helmets!

Though it could equally easily be,

“Oy!  Teeth!

Here’s what that means, for those who, through lack of interest or enthusiasm, may not identify with our disappointment.  Our personal “Hockey Heroes” – Frank Mahovlich, Gordie Howe, Johnny Bower, played in an era before helmets and, more often than not, without teeth.  (And, in the case, of goaltender Johnny Bower, without any manner of protective mask.) 

So when we encounter helmeted “Heroes” on that month’s calendar picture – and a full set of choppers, as today’s helmets come equipped with Plexiglas visors – you may detect a sense of underlying disgust flying off of the screen  – we are inconsolably chagrined.

These more recent practitioners may be “Heroes.”  But they are not our heroes.  And comparatively at least, they are wimps.

I get what I am rooting for here.  I am rooting for nostalgia.  But inextricably concomitantly, it now occurs to me, I am indefensibly rooting against safety. 

It’s like a diehard racing fan car complaining,

“Oy!  Brakes!

(Assuming the racing cars of yore came without brakes and any racing car fan ever said, “Oy!”)

I realize something is wrong with being against safety.  How can root injury and disfigurement?  (And by “you”, I mean me.)

Which, of course, I don’t.  I just no root against the protective headgear that prevents injury and disfigurement.  (And also against change.)

I don’t know how far I can go favoring the wrong side of an argument.  (Though it does not feel entirely uncomfortable.)  It’s just that, even acknowledging the right of the players to retire unmarred by faces stitched up like a baseball and still retaining the ability to smile without oral prosthetics, here’s what I dearly and sentimentally miss.

Hockey before “safety” was natural.  It was “human scale.”  It was black-and-white photography.  And most of importantly, before “safety”,

You could see the faces. 

(And the hair.  As memorable as his cannonading slap shot was Bobby Hull’s long, golden locks, flying skyward as he streaked unstoppably up the ice.)

And yet…

Lobbying for injury and “What happened to your nose”?

If I like those guys, I have to be for their protection, don’t I?  Not against it.  Even though – this may be a self-serving argument, or it may actually be true, or, most likely, a combination of them both – insulation from physical endangerment via protective equipment may arguably lead to feelings of invulnerability, which could lead to even greater physical endangerment, wherein the protective devices are wielded as weapons.  See:  Football.  Subsection:  Helmets. 

See Also:  Semi-Persuasive Rationalizations.

I can’t help it.  I miss what I miss.  Still, how many players of the past were seriously lacerated for my enjoyment?  Even if…

Semi-Persuasive Rationalization Number Two:  They never complained about it.  They were hockey players; they expected to retire ugly, their Frankenstinian scarring and lifelong limps worn as proud “Wouldn’t have missed it for the world” badges of distinction.

It’s complicated.  The players (for the most part) fought against it.  The fans hated it.  The game was irreparably altered.  The only arguments in favor: 

Reason, compassion and preeminent common sense.


As Fagin once sang in Oliver’s “Reviewing The Situation”,

I think I better think it out again.

But in the meantime, “Hockey Heroes” calendar manufacturers…

More Mahovlich.

Less players I never heard of.