Oh, Great. That’s Just GREAT.

With the help of the New York Times, neuropsychologist Katherine P. Rankin dissects for us what it means to recognize sarcasm.

In one videotaped exchange, a man walks into the room of a colleague named Ruth to tell her that he cannot take a class of hers that he had previously promised to take. “Don’t be silly, you shouldn’t feel bad about it,” she replies, hitting the kind of high and low registers of a voice usually reserved for talking to toddlers. “I know you’re busy — it probably wasn’t fair to expect you to squeeze it in,” she says, her lips curled in derision.

Although people with mild Alzheimer’s disease perceived the sarcasm as well as anyone, it went over the heads of many of those with semantic dementia, a progressive brain disease in which people forget words and their meanings.

“You would think that because they lose language, they would pay close attention to the paralinguistic elements of the communication,” Dr. Rankin said.

To her surprise, though, the magnetic resonance scans revealed that the part of the brain lost among those who failed to perceive sarcasm was not in the left hemisphere of the brain, which specializes in language and social interactions, but in a part of the right hemisphere previously identified as important only to detecting contextual background changes in visual tests.

“The right parahippocampal gyrus must be involved in detecting more than just visual context — it perceives social context as well,” Dr. Rankin said.

Well then. That just explains everything, doesn’t it? I hope the very important Dr. Rankin knows how much we all appreciate her contribution to civil discourse.

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Voices of the Dead

I don’t know if you’ve ever read any of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology, a 1915 collection of about 250 (mostly short) poems. If not, here’s a quick-quick summary: Over 200 “permanent residents” of a cemetery speak their own epitaphs/obituaries, in plain free-verse language.

If you’d like more information, there’s always Wikipedia, as well as lots of other sites on the Web.

One of those sites, “the definitive online edition,” offers some cool features for wandering through the book’s contents either as published or grouped, e.g., alphabetically, or “dead people who are talked about most.” One of these cool features is the ability to subscribe to a daily-epitaph feed via RSS or email.

I really liked today’s “edition,” in which one Hannah Armstrong speaks. I offer it to you here without the obvious political commentary (but boy, is it tempting…).

I wrote him a letter asking him for old times’ sake
To discharge my sick boy from the army;
But maybe he couldn’t read it.
Then I went to town and had James Garber,
Who wrote beautifully, write him a letter.
But maybe that was lost in the mails.
So I traveled all the way to Washington.
I was more than an hour finding the White House.
And when I found it they turned me away,
Hiding their smiles.
Then I thought: “Oh, well, he ain’t the same as when I boarded him
And he and my husband worked together
And all of us called him Abe, there in Menard.”
As a last attempt I turned to a guard and said:
“Please say it’s old Aunt Hannah Armstrong
From Illinois, come to see him about her sick boy
In the army.”
Well, just in a moment they let me in!
And when he saw me he broke in a laugh,
And dropped his business as president,
And wrote in his own hand Doug’s discharge,
Talking the while of the early days,
And telling stories.

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Mr. Excitement

So, The Missus indulged herself by going on a beach mini-weekend with a girlfriend.

Of course I pounced on the opportunity for a hedonistic erstwhile-bachelor weekend of my own.

And before you get your collective backs up (or, alternatively, let your collective imagination run riot): no, I didn’t do anything that a stereotypical bachelor does. Even an erstwhile stereotypical bachelor. Here’s how I spent the last couple days:

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Keeping Myself in Suspense

Man at WorkOver in the list of this blog’s categories, in the sidebar at the left, you will see “Writing” as a main category and — now, finally — a sub-category called “Merry-Go-Round.”

Actually, that sub-category has always been there. But in a WordPress blog, apparently, a (sub-)category doesn’t show up in the list until there’s an actual post assigned to it. So this is that first post.

Alas, it’s not the “Merry-Go-Round” post I would have preferred to lead with.

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Thinning the Herd

The blog known as Editorial Ass (which is short, of course, for “Assistant”) is written by an anonymous editor in NYC who identifies herself only as MoonRat. It’s linked over in the “Touchstones” category.

A recent post there, on the surface, was stimulated by a lecture, which MR attended, given by one Jonathan Karp, one of those uber-powerful “publisher/editors” who have been given their own imprints; his is called Twelve. The hook for Twelve — what distinguishes it from nearly all other publishers nowadays — is its emphasis on quality over quantity. The imprint’s name highlights the main rule: it publishes exactly twelve titles a year, one a month, and since publishers’ catalogs are issued to book buyers every quarter, this means that each new catalog from Twelve features exactly three books.

This is both exhilarating and scary as crap.

Exhilarating, because — although unlikely to become a widespread trend — the focus is great for readers.

And scary as crap because — although unlikely etc. — the focus means that only the very best writers and books (at least in a given editor’s eyes) can “make the cut.” No slacking. No room for “good enough.”

Of course, we now live in a world (e-books, print-on-demand, and so forth) where the barriers to entry for a new book in some form are lower. So — even if likely etc. — the “good enough” work will still have an outlet.

Still… If you’re a writer, you don’t even have to think twice about the answer to these questions: are you good enough for a highly selective publisher? if not, why not? are you satisfied with a “good enough” publisher? why?

See what I mean? Scary.

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The Boy Hears Himself (Part 1)

A Recordio reel-to-reel recorderDuring an… odd few years in my younger life, my friend Dean and I became absorbed in experiments involving a reel-to-reel tape recorder. The brand name which Dean and I both “owned,” in those days when electronics were still manufactured domestically, was “Recordio.” (And yes, all right: we didn’t own them; our fathers did.)

What “odd few years” would these have been? I am pretty sure we first started doing this at around age 12. And — because of some of the “work” we did, particularly our parodies of popular TV shows — I know we must have continued at least to around age 15 or 16.

These experiments revolved around a fictional radio station, call letters CBX. Most CBX productions were ad-libbed “newscasts,” frequently starring the same two people: anchorman “Don Gurky” (played by Dean) and roving reporter “Quentin Frammistan” (guess who). I don’t have any idea how Dean came up with his character’s name; I know where Quentin Frammistan came from, though. The first name came from Quentin Reynolds (author of a series of Landmark Books — history for kids — whom I frequently cited back then as “my favorite author”); the word “frammistan,” which meant God only knows what, often appeared in the text of MAD Magazine.

In addition, two other friends put in occasional appearances. Alan’s character, Harry Two-Seven, had been so named by Dean for (I’m sure) no particular reason. Like Quentin, Harry was (most often) a field reporter; unlike Quentin, Harry tended to get caught up in situations of an embarrassing nature — something like Biff, on the Letterman show.

The other friend came along some time after we’d first started the “station” — yes, CBX endured for more than a few weeks — when we met him later in high school. His name was Tom, and his character’s name was Colonel Tom. Quite independently of us — he lived in the next town, which until we got to high school might as well have been the next planet — Tom had had his own imaginary radio station for a while. During the waning months of both stations’ life cycles, we swapped personnel every now and then.

In addition to the newscasts, CBX occasionally produced Special Events, such as (again, ad-libbed) parodies of Star Trek and Mission: Impossible. From the start, many of these Special Events featured a, umm, well, I guess you could call it a musical comedy troupe with the remarkably unembarrassed name “The Peenie Players.”

Hey, gimme a break: we had barely hit puberty yet. We certainly hadn’t heard of Dr. Freud. No, we chose the name strictly for its sound: nasal and plosive. And the reason this sound was important in the name was that it was important in the Peenie Players’ body of work, which consisted entirely of speeded-up versions (a la David Seville and The Chipmunks) of familiar songs and works of literature. (The latter ceased to be considered literature after the Peenies were through with them.)

Imagine my surprise and, well, delight (?) when a CD of some Peenie Players recordings came to me — delivered (I think) by my brother, from Dean.

More, including some samples, below.

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Remaking a Blog (a Little)

Obviously, I’ve changed the name of the blog. The former Meat and Poison was all right at one level; I’d come up with it after recalling the title of a collection of essays by E.B. White, One Man’s Meat.

But really? The …and Poison was a bit creepy. Running After My Hat? Much more satisfyingly, umm, ridiculous.

If you haven’t read it already, you might be interested in reading the brief About page here, where I explain the origin of the new name.

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Boomer Memory

Aerial view (GMaps) of former Hickory St. School areaThe New York Times reported the other day on the frenzied efforts among Boomers to sharpen their minds — particularly the parts of their minds involving memory.

When David Bunnell, a magazine publisher who lives in Berkeley, Calif., went to a FedEx store to send a package a few years ago, he suddenly drew a blank as he was filling out the forms.

“I couldn’t remember my address,” said Mr. Bunnell, 60, with a measure of horror in his voice. “I knew where I lived, and I knew how to get there, but I didn’t know what the address was.”

Mr. Bunnell is among tens of millions of baby boomers who are encountering the signs, by turns amusing and disconcerting, that accompany the decline of the brain’s acuity: a good friend’s name suddenly vanishing from memory; a frantic search for eyeglasses only to find them atop the head; milk taken from the refrigerator then put away in a cupboard.

Yeah, feeling like you’re losing brain cells with each passing year isn’t fun, although (as the article mentions later on) it’s not really as bad as most people seem to think it is. But something needs to be noted about the uselessness of boomers’ declining memory: it’s not all our fault.

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Signature Samuel L.

Last night The Missus and I watched 1408 on DVD. If you’re not familiar with the film’s plot — or that of the Stephen King story on which it’s based — and don’t want to follow that link to the corresponding IMDB page, here are the tagline and plot summary from there:

Tagline: The Dolphin Hotel invites you to stay in any of its stunning rooms. Except one.
Plot: A man who specializes in debunking paranormal occurrences checks into the fabled room 1408 in the Dolphin Hotel. Soon after settling in, he confronts genuine terror.

The man in question, one Michael Enslin, played by John Cusack, is determined to stay in the room over the objections of the hotel manager, Gerald Olin — played by Samuel L. Jackson. Olin says although he does a good job as a hotel manager, he has no training as a coroner and is tired of cleaning up the “mess” which inevitably results when people stay in 1408. So he no longer books people into that room.

Enslin doesn’t get it and requests more details. What sort of spook, spirit, ghost, long-legged beastie is supposed to be responsible for all the death and destruction?

“You misunderstand me,” says Olin, “I didn’t say there was a spirit or ghost.” It’s the room itself, he insists. And then, in classic Samuel L. Jackson form, he sums up: “It’s an evil f*cking room.”

I noted the line at the time but didn’t think much more about it until watching a couple of the “special features,” which in this case were mini-documentaries (“webisodes,” for cripe’s sake) on the making of the movie. The scene is excerpted in both of these featurettes…

…but in both, what Jackson says is, “It’s an evil room.” No F-word at all.

It does make one wonder if the scene was re-shot in neutered form for release in the mini-docs. That wasn’t my first thought, though. I actually prefer to think that the re-shooting took place for the scene as it appeared in the final version. I picture a handful of screenwriters sitting around in a bar, congratulating one another on the great job they did with the script. (They didn’t do a great job, but in the post-production afterglow, it’s easy to imagine, they may have.) Suddenly one of them stops in mid-sentence and slaps himself in the forehead.

“What?” they all ask him.

“I just realized,” he says, “we’ve got Samuel L. Jackson in a key role… and he never once says ‘f*ck’! We can’t do that!”

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Department of Mixed Messages

So I’ve got my annual car registration renewal notice here.

In Florida, Virginia, and probably some other states, car registration isn’t handled via a state DMV (although there is such a thing). Rather, it’s handled by the county tax collector. Presumably, this simplifies keeping tabs on everybody — the DMV doesn’t have to “know” you’ve moved, because the tax collector (and God love ’em) will know it.

Anyhow, there’s an option to renew the registration online. The notice provides the Web address to do so, specifying that you can use MasterCard, Visa, ATM, debit, or cash card to make the payment. And there’s a caveat:

(Additional fees apply for registrations processed through this web site.)

Elsewhere on the form is a yellow information box. It says:

Please complete your renewal as usual. Consider renewing online — it saves time, money, and gas.

Got that? Additional fees apply when you renew online. But… it saves you money!

Fair enough: it doesn’t say whose money it will save. Maybe it means the tax collector’s — don’t have to do all that troublesome handling of paperwork.

I’m just sayin’.

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