Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Angie was this old lady at my church when I was a kid. So deaf she couldn't hear the squeal of her hearing aids echoing from every marble surface in the sanctuary. She sung every hymn in a loud, tuneless warble, making a joyful noise unto the Lord as my mom always put it.
I remember one parish family picnic, us kids playing with water balloons in the broiling sun, and Angie jumped into the fray lobbing a green water balloon and then clapping her hands, bouncing up and down and laughing in a tuneless warble, making a joyful noise unto the Lord.
I remember just being delighted to see a grown-up play. She was too deaf to talk to, but she spoke to us that moment in play, the language every kid knows by heart. I was too young to know that this was the moment the grown-ups realized she'd gone senile. Too young to know that the moment of joy marked the beginning of her end. 

When I was a teen I worked with kids with developmental disabilities. I loved those kids like crazy, looked up to them. Their disabilities were what they had, not who they were. I never understood parents who treated their children's lives like tragedies. I was still a child, still immortal then, incapable of understanding what it was like to wonder who the hell was going to advocate for my baby when I died. To not be able to see the hope through the suffering. 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Brown Christmas doesn't have the same ring

So according to QI, England had a grand total of 4 white Christmases in all of the 20th century. However, there was an entire decade of very cold winters early in the 19th century, which just happens to have coincided with Charles Dickens' formative years - 6 of his first 9 Christmases were white. It was Dickens' portrayal of white Christmases that led the rest of us to associate the day with snow.  

Friday, December 19, 2014

Letters to Santa

The year I was five, I wanted nothing more in the world than a Cabbage Patch Kid. The Daulls are a practical people, and there was no way my folks were going to join the melee down at Children's Palace for a doll that looked like a demon baby with mumps. 

Instead, she got my a knock off from Bernie Schulman's which was, in the words of parents everywhere, Just As Good.
Which it totally was. Until I hugged its head clean off. I still have nightmares. In yet another case of me turning into my mother, if I had a kid, they would totally get the self-decapitating Just As Good model. 
Cabbage Patch kids came with birth certificates, but despite the urban legend to the contrary, you could not send damaged dolls back to the factory for a death certificate. Another urban legend held that Cabbage Patch Kids had been commissioned by Ronald Reagan to desensitize Americans to what government scientists thought the offspring of survivors of a nuclear war would look like. That is the best urban legend I have ever heard. Ever.
A few more toy-related urban legends, courtesy of Snopes:

  • A 2006 talking Elmo potty training book was not, as it turns out, saying "Uh oh, who wants to die?" He was saying "Uh oh, who has to go?" Ironically, every time I hear his obnoxious little voice, I do actually want to die. 
  • Webkinz are stuffed toys that stuffed toys that come with a secret code that let the toy's owner create an online version of their pet to play with. Rumors a few years back claimed that if children clicked on certain on-screen elements, a creature would pop out and chop of the pet's head. 
  • Despite what my favorite Chick Tract claims, playing Dungeons and Dragons does not give you satanic powers. Unless the ability to chug 2 liters of Mountain Dew is a satanic power.
  • While I haven't tested this personally, D&D figures also do not scream when thrown into fire. The Escapist website points out that when the claims about this were first made, figures were made of lead and covered with many layers of paint. So if anyone was foolish enough to throw them into a fire, any screaming they heard would likely have been in their lead-addled imagination.
This is blessedly not a legend.
Dog bless you, dollar store.

Monday, December 15, 2014

I'm not dead yet

Recently, People Magazine's website made a tiny bit of a blunder when it published an obituary for the still very much alive Kirk Douglas under the headline DO NOT PUB Kirk Douglas dies. Oops? 
This is not the first time a pre-humous obit has escaped into the wild. See, when a famous person starts getting on in years, most publications write up obits for them ahead of time so they're ready to go when the subject finally kicks. Hence the "DO NOT PUB" headline that the folks at People apparently failed to notice.
Some other folks to be memorialized just a bit prematurely:

  • Fidel Castro, Dick Cheney, Nelson Mandela, Bob Hope, Gerald Ford, Pope John Paul II, and Ronald Reagan: Not only did the folks in charge of web content at report that all these folks had died on the same day, the obits were wrong. For instance, Dick Chaney was referred to as "the UK's favorite grandmother." 
  • Pope John Paul II: This dude died thrice before he died, at least according to CNN and Fox News: CNN reported it in 1981 and then again in 2003; Fox got the day right, but ran the story a couple hours early, when he was only mostly dead.
  • Steve Jobs: hey - this one wasn't perpetrated by CNN. Bloomberg ran a 17 page story on Jobs' death three years ahead of time. Where are they even storing these pre-obits where it's so easy to accidentally publish a 17 page article? 
  • Marcus Garvey: What's worse than recovering from a stroke only to read a published story about your own demise? Reading a Chicago Defender story that says you died "broke, alone and unpopular." Not long after, poor Garvey had another stroke, this one fatal. 
  • The "Cha-Ching Guy": Long before he became show business' favorite ginger, Seth Green starred in a series of Rally's commercials, where he was responsible for the most annoying catch phrase of the early 90s. Like so many stars before and after him, he was killed by the deadly combination of Coke and Pop Rocks. Or from smoking pot and driving. Or possibly from smoking weed, then swallowing Coke and Pop Rocks while careening into a tree. This wasn't reported in major newspapers, but we all knew it to be true.

Friday, December 12, 2014

It stinks

Amazon product reviews are a surprising source of hilarity. After hearing dramatic readings of one-star reviews on the radio show Wits, I decided I'd like to blatantly steal their idea. And because I'm in need of some holiday cheer just now, I thought we'd have a look at some of the one-star reviews of some beloved Christmas treasures. 

It's a Wonderful Life

Only communists share with others at Christmas
it's an American classic. NOT! It's Communist propaganda about the "evils" of American free enterprise from a guy who made a lot of pinko films but never thought HE should have to live like this "common man" he kept making pictures about.

A Christmas Carol

Atlas Humbugged
Scrooge was better at the beginning! You know the ritual: boo the curmudgeon initially encountered in Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, then cheer the sweetie pie he becomes in the end. It's too bad no one notices that the curmudgeon had a point-quite a few points, in fact... There was no need to make the object of his lesson an entrepreneur whose ideas and practices benefit his employees, society at large, and himself. Must such a man expect no fairer a fate than to die scorned and alone? 

The Polar Express

Well that escalated quickly
Santa and his village as portrayed in this book, would have fit in perfectly in Nazi germany.
A perfect book for the entitled and spoiled American child of the Uberclass of consumerist American drones.
Complaining about consumerism on the country's largest e-commerce website.

White Christmas

From a man who has never seen a movie musical before...
You have to get past Rosemary Clooney's way-to-happy-to-be-here face/personae. Add to that, sorry Clooney fans, she just can't sing. I have always wanted to slap the face of the first person that ever told her that she could. Ah. Vera-Ellen. Cutesy-cutesy and yes, she can dance (some) but her smile just gets in the way.
 I find it stomach-turning to see/hear "the kids" on the train all excited about snow. It's a song. "Snow". Rosemary Clooney wants to wash her face and hair in it. This makes Clooney, right out of the gate, an idiot... And Clooney is old enough to know better.
Vera Ellen demonstrating her apparently underwhelming dancing ability

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer 


The soundtrack is bad, it sounds like a music box with almost(dead) batteries. The message is bad. They say X-Mas is gonna be cancled. HOW CAN WE CANCEL X-MAS? THAT IS LIKE SAYING X-MAS IS ALL ABOUT PRESENTS? They treat rudloph badly because of his nose. Should we treat people badly because they are different? I DO NOT THINK SO.

A Christmas Story:

Mr. BigWords impresses the internet
The sine qua non of Christmas movies has always been a central message --some nugget of hope... conveyed either seriously or humorously. This movie... illustrates the extent to which postmodern cynicism has swallowed a beloved film genre. The movie lacks universality. No one understood universality better than Shakespeare. We relate to the plight of kings and paupers, without ourselves being kings or paupers, because their sufferings, joys, and longings, are our own, no matter the century or country. "A Christmas Story," by contrast, is parochial. The vignettes are amusing only to those with similar experiences. Parochialism is not, of itself, detrimental, but it does preclude the designation, "classic."

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


I'm reading a book called The Sense of Style by Stephen Pinker, and I highly recommend it. It's a kind of practical style guide - a guide to writing well - that puts effective communication before rigid adherence to arbitrary rules. I'm loving it. 
In the book, he writes about jargon, and how it kills good writing. In a chapter called The Curse of Knowledge, he says that some theorize that opaque prose is intentional - that academics and technical writers are intentionally opaque because it makes them feel smart. Pinker offers an alternate explanation for opaque writing - that perpetrators of it are simply ignorant of what their audience doesn't know.
I think both theories are wrong - at least when it comes to technical writing. Opaque prose happens because tech writers have to do two opposing things at the same time - be accessible and be succinct. See, the problem with jargon is that jargon happens when there's not already a word for a thing. Which means that when the tech writer tries to translate technical jargon into plain English, it take some fancy footwork to define the term without adding excessive verbiage. A good tech writer finds a way, but it's no small feat translating a term for which no direct translation exists.

Speaking of words for which there's no direct translation:

  • Schadenfreude (German): Taking joy at the suffering of others. Like the feeling I get when Loki tries to jump onto something, but forgets to take his morbid obesity into account and drops like a rock.
  • Fargin (Yiddish): The opposite of schadenfreude - taking joy in the success of others. I feel fargin when the Indians win. Like every true Clevelander, I feel fargin and schadenfreude at the same time when the Indians crush the Yankees. 
  • Sitzpinkler (German): A wimp. Literally translates to "man who sits down to pee." More men should do this - nobody likes cleaning urine off the rim.
  • Yaourt (French): To sing along in nonsensical noises. After my piano lesson last week, I found myself singing the tune I'd just learned, but substituting "princess" for the real lyrics. I didn't even know I was doing it. My subconscious does some really weird crap.
  • Tartle (Scots): When you go to introduce someone to somebody else and realize too late that you've forgotten their name.
Seriously, mom, do not watch this. 
Unless you want to learn a whole
passel of swears.

Info comes from the Huffington Post, Cracked, and Better Than English

Monday, December 8, 2014

That's that

That, like this, these, and those, is a demonstrative pronoun, a word used to distinguish between a number of possible subjects. You might say that when physically pointing to something, as in "I want that one." You might say that when you're referring to something you talked about earlier, as in "of all the Christmases I can remember, that one is my favorite." 
Recently I stumbled across this academic article about emotional demonstratives or affective demonstratives, which are demonstratives used to "foster a sense of shared perspective and common ground." For example, if I met another Clevelander and said "how about that LeBron James," what I'm really saying is "I assume you, like me, like LeBron James, so we have something in common."
And you know what's magical about the word that? If I had met another Clevelander one year ago and said "how about that LeBron James," I'd have been saying "I assume you, like me, hate Lebron James, so we have something in common." 
So the word that gives the sentence a completely different meaning depending on tone and context. It got me thinking about other times a demonstrative like this or that has spoken volumes. 
This was part of one of the most iconic quotations about the Cold War: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" I think the sentence kind of hinges on the word this. Reagan was standing in front of the Berlin Wall when he said those words, but he needn't have been - everyone on earth who heard the words knew exactly what this wall was. This was the wall dividing freedom from oppression, this was the wall dividing us from them - and this became the symbol of the Cold War.
Another memorable presidential quotation - "I did not have sex with that woman." In this instance, Clinton used that to make it sound like he barely knew Monica Lewinsky, and that he found her contemptible. 
And check out all the demonstratives in this section of The Gettysburg Address: "We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this." Those men didn't die for this nation - one divided and at war, but that nation - the one our forefathers dreamed of. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Or does it explode?

I keep starting to write a post about Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, etc., and then not knowing what to say. Maybe it's overly fatalistic of me, but I feel like everyone's opinions on the matter are set in stone and there's not a word I can say or write that will change that. I feel like someone's thrown the cover off a new breed of racists... folks who have no idea that they're racist, but just happen to always side with the white guy. People who would never say the n-word out loud, but who find ways to make bigotry sound like civil discourse. 
In short, I feel helpless and a little hopeless. 
So I've been reading a lot, looking to people far wiser than me for guidance.
I think that former St. Louis police officer Redditt Hudson is right when he says this:
The problem is that cops aren’t held accountable for their actions, and they know it. These officers violate rights with impunity. They know there’s a different criminal justice system for civilians and police.
Even when officers get caught, they know they’ll be investigated by their friends, and put on paid leave. My colleagues would laughingly refer to this as a free vacation. It isn’t a punishment. And excessive force is almost always deemed acceptable in our courts and among our grand juries. Prosecutors are tight with law enforcement, and share the same values and ideas.
We could start to change that by mandating that a special prosecutor be appointed to try excessive force cases. And we need more independent oversight, with teeth. 
I agree with David Bales, Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission commander when he says
“We are guided by the underlying goal of producing officers who are guardians as opposed to warriors. The most common corresponding emotion to fear is anger, and anger does not facilitate ongoing compliance... that when they mistreat people they actually may make that person more dangerous.”

If the above sounds naive, I can say that people who work with adults and teens with severe behaviors, know a dozen ways to take a man, every bit as big as Eric Garner, to the ground without causing injury. They do it every day. The officer in the Eric Garner case didn't even try other interventions before he throttled him.

And did you know that the Cleveland police didn't even bother to determine whether Timothy Loehmann, the officer who shot Tamir Rice, was remotely qualified to do his job... all they'd have had to do was ask his former employer, the Independence police department, to see their report on the officer, where they'd have read that Loehmann:
  Ptl. Loehrnann's inability to perform basic functions as instructed... leads one to believe that he would not be able to substantially cope, or make good decisions, during or resulting from any other stressful situation.
They'd have read the recommendation from Deputy Chief Tim Polak which said in part:
 Due to this dangerous loss of composure during live range training and his inability to manage this personal stress, I do not believe Ptl. Loehmann shows the maturity needed to work in our employment.Unfortunately in law enforcement there are times when instructions need be followed to the letter, and I am under the impression Ptl. Loehmann, under certain circumstances, will not react in the way instructed.
For these reasons, I am recommending he be released from the employment of the City of Independence. I do not believe time, nor training, will be able to change or correct these deficiencies.
Regardless where we stand on individual cases, we should all be outraged that grossly incompetent police officers are running around with badges and guns. That officers are so poorly trained that the don't know how to subdue a subject without killing him.

A Dream Deferred

by Langston Hughes

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up 
like a raisin in the sun? 
Or fester like a sore-- 
And then run? 
Does it stink like rotten meat? 
Or crust and sugar over-- 
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Dream Baby Dream

Jim Carrey gave this inspirational speech a while back about how you shouldn't settle for safe in the name of practicality - that he's living proof that it's possible to achieve your dreams. His dad, he says, could have been a great comedian but chose the safe job of CPA to support his family. And then he lost his job anyway.
I saw a TED talk once with a similar message - some guy talking about how there are no good jobs, there are only lousy jobs and great jobs, and you should shoot for the moon and try to get a great job, and how you shouldn't let your kids be your excuse for settling.
What I don't get is, when did choosing to focus on being a good parent become "settling"? Is it so bad to choose the dream of being a great parent over the dream of being a great comedian? Seems to me that the accomplishment of creating and raising a happy, healthy human being is pretty damn impressive too. Not saying it's not okay to pursue both dreams, just saying I don't think choosing to create life constitutes failure. 
People always talk about dreams like they're some pot of gold, that each person only has one pot of gold, and that anything less that getting to the end of your own personal immutable rainbow is failure. 
They sold us on the idea that we'd grow up to become astronauts or actors or athletes so long as we believed in our dreams. But not everybody gets their dream, no matter how hard they believe. Otherwise we'd have far too few trash collectors and Hollywood would have to annex surrounding counties to make room for all the movie stars. Seems like a generation ago, there was no shame in dreaming of office jobs and white picket fences. And now it's like it's the moon or nothing.
Thing is, dreams are what you do when you're asleep. On the way to the end of whatever rainbow you're chasing, might be worthwhile to open up your eyes and see the dream you're living on the way.

I'm choosing to believe the vines broke this window.
If there's one thing that The Ruins taught me, it's... that
"man eating vines" is just as terrible a concept as it seems.
But if it taught me two things, it also taught me to never underestimate
the destructive power of vines. Where was I going with this?

Monday, December 1, 2014

Patient Zero - World AIDS Day

World AIDS Day. December 1.

In 1981, folks at the Centers for Disease Control noticed a rash of men being diagnosed with a rare fungal lung infection called pneumocystis pneumonia. The men were all gay, and they all presented with a bunch of other rare infections as well. By the time the CDC published its first report on the subject, two of the five men discussed in the report were already dead. 
The disease was officially called GRID - Gay Related Immune Deficiency, though it was often called the "gay cancer." With next to no funding, and the US government unwilling to touch "gay issues" with a ten foot pole, a small group of dedicated researchers thrust all they had into finding the cause.
Researchers soon figured out that the disease was sexually transmitted, and began taking detailed sexual histories of all those afflicted. One name came up over and over, the name of the man who would become known as patient zero, Gaeton Dugas. This marked the first time the term patient zero was used.
Dugas wasn't, of course, the first person to have AIDS. He was just an incredibly promiscuous flight attendant who traveled all over the country, infecting men wherever he went, even after doctors told him that the disease killing him was sexually transmitted. 
It's likely impossible to find the real patient zero, of course, but scientists have come shockingly close. 
See, AIDS had been in America since long before 1981, when it was discovered. Scientists looked through countless medical records for AIDS-related infections, like pneumocystis pnemonia and Kaposi's sarcoma. They found a likely case in England 1959. And another likely case in Chicago in 1961. 
All of this is just speculation though. To find out for sure where the virus came from, they needed to look at the virus itself. So they dug up blood and tissue samples from every known and suspected case that they could. Then they looked at mutations in the virus' structure - see, viral mutations happen at a really steady rate, creating a trail leading back to the earliest cases - the fewer the mutations, closer the source. Scientists found that the disease took hold in the US after arriving from Haiti in 1966 (earlier cases may have existed, but not been passed on). And it got to Haiti from Africa. In Africa, scientists were actually able to locate blood and tissue samples from two individuals, both of whom had HIV, both from around 1960. Scientists could then look at the two samples and determine, from the differences between them, that the disease had made the jump from chimp to human around 1908 in southeastern Cameroon. The likeliest scenario is that a bushman killed a chimp infected with simian immunodeficiency virus and cut himself in the process. 
Even though it's not in the headlines as much anymore, AIDS is still killing people all over the globe. Wanna do something about it? Here are some charities that could use our help.

Info from Randy Shilts' And the Band Played On,, and a Radiolab story also called Patient Zero.