Dear Dirty America


Cliche Phrase in NY Times Article Gets Hearty Round of Laughs

Cliche Phrase in NY Times Article Gets Hearty Round of Laughs
November 27
15:45 2013

Los Angeles

Found on the front page of the NY Times  was an article written by Mark Landler. The article is called “Airspace Claim Forces Obama to Flesh Out China Strategy”, and it starts off like this:

While foreign-policy experts and risk analysts were riveted by the nuclear talks with Iran last weekend, the next major geopolitical crisis erupted a world away, over a clump of desolate islands in the choppy waters between Japan and China.

The bold emphasis is mine. Choppy waters. I didn’t realize that phrase was going to start a debacle at my local coffee shop with the old farts who sit, like poorly aging teenagers slouched in hard metal chairs, all day long and talk politics and local happenings.

I stood just outside their blustery circle and greeted everybody. They’d just begun talking about the defiant US fly-through in disputed air space that China has now claimed as theirs. China is moving its lone battleship into place after the US floated around in what it still contends as international airspace.

Dangerous war games, and that’s what I said to the group. They seemed to agree with nods. Then I remembered Landler’s NY Times article, and, with my nearly photographic memory, I quoted, And all over a clump of desolate islands in the choppy waters between Japan and China.

A great eruption occurred around the table. Lips parted. Loud guffaws blew out from behind their yellowed teeth. “You do much drama?” one of them said. He pushed his yellow-tinted glasses up his nose and laughed. Another of the elders at the table said, “Choppier than what? Most bodies of water have a choppiness to them.”

I was baffled, I mean, it was in the New York TimesSurely what they publish is considered good writing. Surely Landler had to insert some sort of adjective there. He may have meant it metaphorically as well.

“Those waters aren’t choppy anyway,” another man said. He’d been rolling with glee as well. His long black and grey hair was pulled into a ponytail and covered with a baseball cap. “I’ve been there. The East China Sea. Hardly choppy,” he said. “Certainly not any choppier than any other body of water I’ve seen. Jesus, where do you come up with this stuff?” he asked me.

Well shit, gentlemen, I thought it was an apt description of the area, I said. Geographically, politically, all of it.

But I didn’t admit I’d lifted Landler’s phrase. I walked away with my coffee miffed that somebody writing for such a prestigious newspaper could get away with a cliche line in the opening paragraph. And it’s that paragraph that makes all the difference. The lead. Landler was trying to grab us by the short hairs and not let go, and I’d paid a dear price for not recognizing that.

Hunter Thompson preached about the lead many times to his caretaker Jay Cowan. “It’s all about the lead,” he said. “…for a column you have to grab them immediately” (An Insider’s View of Deranged, Depraved, Drugged Out Brilliance, 91-2). A book doesn’t matter as much, Hunter thought, because if a person bought a book, they’d probably read the whole thing. But a column or newspaper article is different.

I sat on a bench not far away and pondered what had just happened. Surely the Times had professional editors and fact checkers to hammer out the inconsistencies and dismantle overused, dramatic phrases like ‘choppy waters’. Maybe the heavy layoffs over the past couple of years has disintegrated quality control in the offices of America’s news gatekeepers. They’d fired their cliche-busting department and hoped the readers wouldn’t notice.

Hell, even Dear Dirty America has one lone intern who spends most of her time reading discarded drafts and trying to convince me to revive them. She works very slowly, but she would never let a ‘choppy waters’ phrase get through. She’d point at such an unimaginative line and say, “You better try harder, no?”

I’d like her to work faster, but I can’t complain because I don’t pay her, and English is her fifth language. What can you expect from slave labor? It’s not great, but it’s cheap. And it’s the type of Capitalist economy America runs these days. Indentured servitude and slavery. Work for free. Hope an opportunity opens later.

Her office space, tucked away in the corner of my narrow kitchen, doesn’t seem to inspire her much. She still hasn’t produced one decent article for the website. I framed a photo of Charles Manson on the eve of his 76 birthday and hung it over her neat little desk I’d stolen from a dilapidated school yard. But his leering eyes seem not to make a difference to her since his bald head and steady gaze reminds her of her deceased grandfather.

I’ll be happy to write Lupe a heartfelt recommendation letter when the time comes for her to move on. Maybe she’ll apply to the New York Times and help whip that slouch cesspool into order. She’s not afraid of confrontation. That’s a rare character trait in 2013 and beyond.

Lupe gets a small stipend from a little used government program that supports internships. She receives food stamps as well, so she can stock up on boxes of mac ‘n cheese and cans of soup, otherwise I’d have to pay her something nominal so I wouldn’t feel too guilty to sleep at night. She’s no different than a McDonald’s worker, paid wages not enough to sustain even an impoverished lifestyle in the US, so food stamps and government housing assistance provided by the taxpayer goes into making those jobs possible.

So the next time you order synthetic food off the dollar menu and feel like you’re getting a deal, mentally add on a couple bucks that’ll come out of your taxes so McDonald’s can reap absurd billion dollar profits by milking the life energy of its workers without properly compensating them.

Choppy waters here in the United States. Choppy economy. Choppy future. Choppy ways of life. Choppy understanding of the world, of politics, and of distant seas that separate distant countries.

[painting of choppy waters by Hermanus Koekkoek, 1836]

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