Letters and Fetters

Letters and Fetters

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Blast from the Past

Since starting my column in 1999, I've never talked about writing the column. I can't think of too much more boring than writers talking about writing. I swore I'd never, ever, write a column about how hard it is to come up with column ideas, the most boring topic of them all.

I've tried to vary voice, tone and point-of-view. I've tried to put a twist on things. I've written Q and A format columns and quiz format columns, descriptive pieces and dialogs.

I've occasionally made a point by delving into satire. Usually, I am able to pull this off without a problem, but sometimes I've fallen short, and readers have complained.

Since complaints have been pouring into the publisher this week over my last column, it made me remember past satirical columns. I would hate to have satire unavailable as a form. I know the American News isn't the Saturday Evening Post or the New Yorker. It certainly isn't the Onion.

Still, I respect my readers. If the column truly seemed to say I was cheering on those who play the knockout game, they should have complained, and I would be more concerned that so few did. I believe that most of my readers have good, discerning minds, so I do not blame the reaction to the column on them, but on my own approach to the structure and execution of the column.

I could have given clues early on, and I could have made the suggestions even more outlandish so that there was no question what I was doing with the column. When done well, satire is an effective way to get a point across. Here, there are many ways to hurt people, and too often we excuse the ones who hurt. Those excuses contribute to societal decay and pain. By using physical harm rather than emotional and moral harm, I thought the excuses would be shown up for what they are. Instead, it looks like I am advocating physical harm, and nothing could be further from my intentions.

But to show that satire can be effective, I will offer a few other satirical columns from the past that worked better. The problem is not satire.

In the following guest editorial (this was before my regular column began) I called on Congress to name Wylie Lake an official "Great Lake" so we could receive federal benefits:

Aberdeen American News (SD)-March 12, 1998

        Aberdeen's Lake Minne-eho suffers from an image problem. Not many people can tell you where it is, even if you explain that it's usually called Wylie Lake. A quick search for Lake Minne-eho on the Internet turns up nothing. If you search for Wylie Lake, all you get is a town called Lake Wylie in South Carolina.

        Now, Lake Minne-eho is truly a great lake. What better spot is there for families to hang out or kids to play? Within walking distance you've got Storybook Land (free) a terrific park, concessions of all kinds and wonderful camping facilities, the Land of Oz, zoo and many playgrounds. Lake Minne-eho is every kid's dream spot. But no one knows its name.
        That's why something needs to be done to give Lake Minne-eho the notoriety it deserves.
        Thanks to Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the best method for promoting a local lake is obvious. Yes, it's time to ask Congress to designate Lake Minne-eho the nation's seventh Great Lake.
        Last Friday the United States sprouted a sixth Great Lake: Lake Champlain in the Adirondacks near Vermont. By Leahy's sharp maneuvering and the president's order, Lake Champlain became an equal to Lake Michigan or Lake Superior, despite being 15 times smaller in surface area than Lake Ontario, the smallest of the original Great Lakes.
        The designation of Lake Champlain as a Great Lake left some observers scratching their heads. After all, Utah's Great Salt Lake, covering 1,700 miles is more than three times larger than Lake Champlain (you can actually spot the Great Salt Lake on a map).
        Perhaps the Great Salt Lake was disqualified from Great Lake status because of its salt content or because it already had "Great" in its name, or because it boasts only brine shrimp and brine flies as attractions, or because you can smell it 20 miles away. Most likely it was passed over because its deepest point is 35 feet.
        If depth mattered, however, then surely Lake Tahoe which straddles the Nevada-California border - would have been in the running. At 1,200 feet deep, it is more than three times the depth of Champlain.
        A Web site touting Lake Tahoe's virtues claims that "with one dispersion of waters, the state of California would be covered to a depth of 14.5 inches." This is indeed a virtue that ought to place Lake Tahoe right up there with the Greats.
        The Web site also boasts of Tahoe's greatness by insisting that the Panama Canal could be filled by Lake Tahoe's water and "extend completely around the earth at the equator, with enough remaining in the lake to fill another channel of the same width and depth running from San Francisco to New York."
        Why anyone would want the Panama Canal to extend around the equator is hard to fathom, but to run a canal from San Francisco to New York offers possibilities, especially if both cities also could be flooded to a depth of 14.5 inches.
        Lake Champlain probably beat out both Lake Tahoe and the Great Salt Lake for two reasons. First, Lake Champlain is famous for its monster sightings. The Loch Ness type creature, most likely invented by the Vermont Department of Tourism, appears periodically and is called "Champ" by locals.
        Certainly Aberdeen's Convention and Visitors Bureau could come up with something comparable. Or Frosty could do double duty as "Wylie" and folks could try to find out where Wylie was in the sum mer just like they try to find out who Frosty is in the winter.
        Second, Vermont's Sen. Patrick Leahy holds a lot of clout. He wanted an extra $56 million from the feds to study the lake and managed to get it, not by changing the Sea Grant Program to fight Lake Champlain's zebra mussel problem, but by getting Congress and the president to dub it "Great."
        Now that we know how these geological changes work, we should seek increased status for Lake Minne-eho. Sure, Lake Champlain is probably a thousand times larger than our little lake, but I wager that our congressional delegation can make up in influence for what Lake Minne-eho lacks in size.
        We've got the Senate minority leader. And Thune can work on the Republican majority, even if it means he has to put together a few barbershop quartets to do it. Surely, if our congressional delegation can pull down great wads of highway transportation funds, it can do something as simple as getting Lake Minne-eho designated as a Great Lake.
        Donna Marmorstein is a member of the American News Editorial Board.
Section: FRONT
Page: 4A

The following duct tape banning column wasn't universally effective. This one brought a call from a Minneapolis radio station, but once they realized it was satire, and they didn't find a nut-job who really wanted to ban duct tape, they were no longer so interested in an interview.

Had I been on my toes when the radio station called, I would have insisted on a duct tape ban and launched myself into fame and fortune. I could have started an anti-duct tape movement and become the spokesperson. But I hadn't had my morning coffee yet, so here I am, churning out misunderstood columns and contemplating tar and feathering as a new exercise regimine.

April 2, 2000

        Bold restrictions needed on duct tape
        The danger of duct tape became apparent this week when a 12-year-old confessed to me that she had helped bind a classmate with it at school, just for fun. No one was hurt, but the potential for harm was chilling.
        Duct tape figures into more and more crimes and malicious acts. Recently, a Massachusetts day care manager admitted taping an 8-month-old baby to the wall for amusement. The manager joked with co-workers about the baby's struggles on the wall. This act went beyond expression of a sick sense of humor and ventured into cruelty.
        We've heard about ugly uses of duct tape before. Armed robbers have wrapped up convenience store clerks with it during robberies. Kidnappers and murderers have bound and suffocated victims with it.
        Dangerous use of duct tape is becoming a common practice. It is time to reflect on the role of duct tape in our society and ask ourselves this vital question:
        Is duct tape necessary?
        We've gone for thousands of years without duct tape. We can get along perfectly well without it now. Masking tape is a much safer alternative in most instances and is not as gaudy as duct tape. No constitutional amendment gives us the right to use duct tape. No legitimate use overrides the need to protect OUR CHILDREN from its adhesive perils.
        The truth is patently clear: Duct tape can be harmful and even fatal. We must take measures to clip the growing abuse of this silver menace, even at the cost of curtailing legitimate uses of it.
        If cities can restrict spray paint sales to minors because of graffiti and vandalism, surely they should be able to limit duct tape sales, too. And for extra protection, especially for children, tape manufacturers should be required to package duct tape in containers equipped with special locks.
        These measures could help avert youth-oriented tape abuse, though they would not be enough to stop adult duct-tape-armed criminals. That's why we also must consider background checks and pre-purchase waiting periods.
        Who knows? Maybe that day care manager had a long record of taping babies to walls. A simple background check would have warned the owner to steer clear of this baby taper even before any job interview. The day care would still be in business today.
        No doubt some will play up "legitimate" uses of duct tape in arguments against duct-tape restrictions. They will demand free, unhampered access to duct tape as a right, pointing to such crucial uses as repairing eyeglass frames, cracked tail lights, ducks, faulty diapers, space shuttle parts and board game boxes. Convenience to duct-tape activists --- sadly --- overrides the escalating potential for abuse.
        The time to act on duct tape is now --- before the formation of a powerful duct tape lobby. If we wait much longer, we may be stuck.
        Donna Marmorstein is a mom and a fill-in copyeditor at the American News.


Edition: AN
Section: FOCUS
Page: 1E

In this next column, I suggested that welfare recipients be trained to be scam artists. In only one column, I was able to make light of misguided welfare reformers, Internet scammers and stupid government programs all at once:


Aberdeen American News (SD)-February 6, 2000

        New York recently came up with the idea of paying welfare recipients to work as telephone psychics. Though bad publicity forced the program to end, New York had been paying 15 welfare recipients $10 an hour to interpret the future with tarot cards.
        Even if those helping troubled callers were troubled themselves --- financially struggling and socially suffering --- and even if they weren't clairvoyant, they were qualified if they could manage English and had high school diplomas. New York wouldn't, of course, pay psychics without high school diplomas!
        Callers desperate enough to spend $4.99 a minute for supernatural help would end up talking to people who --- though maybe not gifted with extra sensory perception --- were trained to foresee the future through a welfare-to-work program called Business Link.
        Someone in New York was on the ball. Recruiting companies who teach welfare recipients to pull in the bucks from desperate people is --- well --- clever! And if New York can come up with clever ways to get welfare beneficiaries supporting families, certainly South Dakota should be able to do the same or better.
        One way would be for South Dakota Job Service or similar groups to train welfare recipients to offer slick deals over the Internet.
        By looking at my full e-mail box I see infinite possibilities. One e-mail I recently received says, "Dear Internet Goer, I am writing you this letter to share with you some very valuable literature. Internet Goer, if you have very bad credit and a lot of negative marks on your credit file that hinder you from obtaining loans, debt consolidation, credit cards, etc., then Internet Goer, this letter may be of interest to you."
        It was of interest to me. For one, I have never been called Internet Goer. For another, my interest always peaks when I'm offered a chance to share "valuable literature."
        But of even more interest was the possibility that some needy welfare recipient could profit by sending out valuable literature, too.
        Would such a program be legal? Well, this e-mail says so. "With this information you will be able to get a new credit file legally! Yes, you can get a totally new credit file with no trace back to your old one --- and it's legal by law!" Legal by LAW, now. Not legal some other way.
        Or, welfare recipients could offer plans to lose weight FAST while sleeping. Another e-mail reveals this amazing break-though. "If you restrict calories, the body goes into starvation mode and starts consuming MUSCLE for food and FAT for reserves! DREAMAWAY was developed by an M.D. and is backed by extensive scientific research!" An M.D. and scientific research? Well, then. What are we waiting for? People actually pay for these "unique combination of nutrients."

        Why shouldn't welfare recipients get in on the by offering their own similar promotions?
        Next week, see how offers of fake driver's licenses, fake diplomas and get-rich-quick schemes can help reduce welfare rolls.
        Donna Marmorstein is a mom and a fill-in copyeditor at the American News.
Edition: AN
Section: FOCUS
Page: 1E

This one was just fun. I never heard that anyone took it seriously, but one never knows for sure.

For safety's sake, curb your language

Recently, the San Jose Mercury News reported on a Vallejo, Calif., arsonist sentenced to 12 years for firebombing the Vallejo courthouse. The man’s accused accomplice was found dead in her jail cell, having hung herself.

  Arson and its aftermath: deadly.

  What causes someone to engage in arson? No one really knows. What we do know, however, is that potential arsonists are frequently exposed to fire metaphors. Public officials and journalists sometimes resort to insensitive turns of phrase, “igniting controversy,” “sparking” discussion or change, “emblazoning” a company name on a label.

  The same newspaper that reported on the arsonist’s conviction used fire terms metaphorically numerous times in the last 3 months. Could it be possible that “heated” rhetoric could blaze itself into the consciousness of unstable individuals with tragic results?

 The New York Daily News reported this week, that a male model confessed to killing a gay journalist in New York. He is accused of using a corkscrew to mutilate sensitive areas of the journalist, and leaving him to die in his blood.

  The same publication reporting the incident used the metaphor “skewered,” at least 8 times in December alone: Jon Stewart skewers Republicans, a councilman “dashes off a skewering response,” a comedian “skewers” Angelina Jolie. Sure, it’s just a metaphor, but who knows what effect a careless metaphor might have on a person at the breaking point?

  Last week, two of four murder victims in a Washington D.C. suburb were bound with duct tape and killed. Duct tape. How often do we hear of duct tape used as a key instrument in murders, kidnapings and other crimes?
  Duct tape is a silent, deadly menace. And yet politicians and journalists still resort to adhesive metaphors. He “adheres to the belief that...,” “The candidate sticks solidly to his core beliefs,” “She adheres firmly to the idea that...” Worst of all is the metaphor that combines subtle duct tape imagery with ballistic language: Stick to your guns. Stick to your guns!
 “Stick to your guns” is a tragic event waiting to happen. No one should ever be allowed to use this phrase.
  Keith Olbermann, after the mass shooting in Tucson this month, laid the blame squarely where it belonged: on metaphors.
  It’s easy to see the harm in metaphors of violence. But even metaphors that aren’t directly violent could be the very catalyst that propels a disturbed person to commit violence. Did I just write “catalyst”? Scratch that. Scratch? Excuse me. I’ll try again: Even seemingly nonviolent metaphors could result in violence.
  Olbermann asks us to “re‑dedicate ourselves to our vigilance to eliminate all our own suggestions of violence ‑ however inadvertent they might have been.”  Since so much of what we say is metaphorical, and so many metaphors could spark – uh – lead to -- inadvertent violence, we will have to be extremely vigilant. Extremely.
  The challenge, then, is to end all metaphors. Free speech is a lovely idea. But if free speech allows people to ignite heated rhetoric in the crowded theater of disturbed minds, we are going to have to slap a price tag on metaphors. The first step is to fine people who use metaphorical language.
  Fifty dollar fines should do the trick. Anyone using a metaphor should be subject to a $50 fine per metaphor. That ought to cut down on the use of – Cut? Uh, sorry.  That ought to lessen the deadly use of metaphors.
  Since all language is metaphor, we won’t be able to stop at the most blatant examples. We’ll eventually have to slap -- oops -- place fines on words. All words. And after words, we’ll go after thoughts. It’s the sensitive thing to do.

Jan. 16, 2011



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