Tag Archives: Barack Obama

Sticking the Landing

Because any modern language is functionally an open-ended system–there are nearly infinite ways to mix words to convey meaning–it’s remarkable that we can (mostly) express what we mean.

We’ve all seen videos of planes landing on a windy runway:  Seemingly down. . . then not quite down. . . veering to the right and then the left. . . and finally down. The phrase “sticking the landing” is common to both pilots and gymnasts.  Both want to land in the right spot. Verbalizing thoughts on the fly is a cognitive version of the kind of precarious act.  Successfully explaining ourselves in the space of mere seconds is a marvel of mind-body coordination.  Every word reflects a choice.  Do we go for a literal description, or one that is metaphoric?  Should our words be a first person report, an act of truth telling? How much detail is enough?  And will a colorful word quickly plucked out of the air give the wrong impression?

Especially in front of others we are conscious that the laydown of language that is still to come needs a attention. We pre-verbalize. And most of us are remarkably good at what then follows most of the time.

To sense this fluency-on-the-fly watch a four or five year old explain themselves.  We can almost see their little brains putting it all together.  Eyes get wide and their focus becomes intense as they search for the right combinations of words, grammar and syntax.  It’s always a treat to see grandkids find pathways for their ideas.

Kids acquire this capacity at the speed of a SpaceX rocket. Language is a culture’s gift to it’s young.  But fluency itself is a life-long quest, mixing memory and experience with synergies that grow with larger vocabularies and refined understandings of how to use them.

Some of this prowess  begins to ebb in old age.  And some among us never fully master the task of linking impulses to coherent expressions. Consider, for example, the rhetoric of a few presidents.  George W. Bush was known for coming close to what he wanted to express, sometimes settling on phrasing or dependent clauses that trailed some loose ends.  As he knew, the results could be funny.  Here’s a few Bushisms from their official custodian, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg:

1. "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."—Washington, D.C., Aug. 5, 2004

2. "I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family."—Greater Nashua, N.H., Chamber of Commerce, Jan. 27, 2000

3. "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"—Florence, S.C., Jan. 11, 20004. 

4."Too many good docs are getting out of the business. Too many OB/GYNs aren't able to practice their love with women all across the country."—Poplar Bluff, Mo., Sept. 6, 2004

“Sticking the landing” can be hard for all of us.  Using the wrong acronym, I once explained to students that “unexploded IUD’s” were a particular problem in places like Afghanistan. They humored me by not bursting out in laughter.

What is interesting about presidents is that they leave a clearer record of their rhetorical misdeeds.  Listen to a collection of Trump teleprompter gaffes that he tries to correct by doing what amounts to some freelance riffing after the wrong word has been said.  He usually works sideways to get back up to the term he intended to use, like a jazz musician trying to turn a wrong note into a useful improvisation.

Donald Trumps teleprompter trick or is it a tic MSNBC

Donald Trumps teleprompter trick or is it a tic

President Obama was more conscious of word choice. He often spoke like an academic, sometimes using tedious pauses while he searched his brain for the phrase or word. To achieve this kind of fluency, Obama had to speak more slowly than the human norm of about 200 words a minute.  He gave up a certain glibness for the advantages of more precision.  It’s now apparent that some of us miss the rhetoric of such a laser mind.  Others relish the circus of visceral responses that now issue from the West Wing.

Even so, let’s not let the impurity of political rhetoric taint what remains a miraculous capability spread far and wide across the species.

Lunch Anyone?

 My Dinner with Andre                                             YouTube

I’m always interested in the response of my friends to a simple question. If they could conjure up anybody from the past or present, who would they like to have a leisurely lunch with? 

Sometimes we could use some new conversation-starters.  In my circle the usual topics run all the way from A to B, from the cool and wet summer, to the latest norm-violating behavior of our President. There are also some local issues that are good for a few minutes of hand-wringing, including plans to build an unwanted pipeline through our valley, or the always-good-for-a-comment angst about our state’s high property taxes.

But sometimes it’s worth taking a leap into the unknown, or even the frankly impossible. I’m always interested in an acquaintance’s response to a simple question:  if they could conjure up a meeting with anybody, who would they like to join for a leisurely lunch? A meal can not only satisfy an appetite, but ruminations with a good conversationalist can stay with us a long time.

All of us come into contact with remarkable people, friends or strangers with wonderful stories to tell or experiences that extend well beyond our own. It is usually just an intellectual exercise to imagine what it might be like to spend time over lunch with a famous person. But people we already know can be just as interesting. Think of the conversations with familiar companions that bubble up in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981) or Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013).

To be sure, it sometimes works out that someone with intimate knowledge of a notable achiever may come away from a meeting chastened. More than a few writers have admitted that their living or deceased subjects remained interesting, but not necessarily as candidates for a fantasized social outing.  Biographer Nell Painter remembers working on a study of the famous slave preacher, Sojourner Truth.  But several years ago Painter told a C-Span interviewer that her “closeness to me receded” as she worked her way deeper into Sojourner’s life.  She respected her subject to the end, but finally doubted they would connect in a conversation. Sometimes a little distance keeps the great and good on a pedestal where we want them.

In a recent dinner with friends the question drew various responses.  Singer-songwriter Paul Simon came  up as  a good lunch companion.  He  has been a stream-of-consciousness poet for several generations.  And some of those enigmatic lyrics in Graceland: what do they mean?  Another liked the idea of sharing a meal with Jesus, and  it’s hard to quarrel with that choice.  But the guest of honor would probably make me a nervous eater. Did I order to much? Should I have shared it? Why didn’t I suppress the joke about turning my water into wine? Another mentioned Barack Obama.  He’s articulate and sometimes funny.  And his off-the-record perspective in this political moment would be fascinating  to hear.  Would he make us feel better about where the nation is headed?

Another person suggested the African-American blues musician, Daryl Davis. Davis seems to have a knack for drawing in listeners, including KKK members.  He told an NPR interviewer that in some cases he was the first black American these white men had spoken to socially. One measure of his success is that he has a pile of KKK robes that his newly sensitized friends have sent him after they renounced their membership in the Klan. Think of what he might teach us about the subtleties of face to face conciliation.

American culture exists most vividly when we focus on agents of insight or change.

My choice tends to change by the week.  But right now I’d love to have lunch with the arranger, musician and producer, Quincy Jones. He is in his 80’s, with a career that spans playing trumpet in several great 50’s bands, to arranging and conducting some of the best performances caught on record: everything from Sinatra at the Sands, (1966) to Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982). He’s a walking history of American music: big-band Jazz, R&B, Pop and Funk. In interviews and a growing list of tributes (including 26 Grammys) Jones is unfailingly generous and interesting. Can a person still be hungry when sitting next to a national treasure?

There’s a useful point to this exercise. It’s a reminder that American culture exists most vividly when we focus on agents of insight or change. They may be famous or obscure.  But more than we think are close by,  their lives are testimony to the value of pluralizing our world beyond the shallow celebrities that sometimes narrow rather than broaden our horizons.

Since the fantasy lunch with the fantasy check is on me, who would you choose?