Daniel Menaker

In Honor of St. Patrick’s Day

Sunday, March 17, 2013

“Why should you never iron a four leaf clover? You don’t want to press your luck.”  —Somebody else; not me!

Here’s a piece about conversations in Ireland, posted on The New Yorker online.

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Excuses, Excuses

Monday, October 11, 2010

This, by Jay Bookman, from the Atlanta Journal Constitution:

Rich Iott is the Republican candidate to represent Ohio’s Ninth Congressional District, a seat now held by Democrat Marcy Kaptur. But as Josh Green of the Atlantic points out, Iott has had a rather unusual hobby for someone with ambitions of serving his country in Congress.

He likes to dress up in the uniform of the Waffen SS.

For several years, in fact, Iott was a member of a group calling itself the Wikings, created to honor those who fought in World War II in the 5th SS Panzer Division…. Iott explains his former hobby by likening it to Civil War re-enacters, noting that “you couldn’t do Civil War re-enacting if somebody didn’t play the role of the Confederates.  I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that here was a relatively small country that from a strictly military point of view accomplished incredible things,” Iott told Green. “I mean, they took over most of Europe and Russia, and it really took the combined effort of the free world to defeat them. From a purely historical military point of view, that’s incredible.”

So is the excuse, seems to me. And, by the way, dressing up in a Confederate uniform carries its own reprehensible implications, even if the wearer doesn’t mean it to.  Maybe it’s just better in general not to put on a Nazi uniform or a Confederate one.

Excuses for a mistake or an insult or an oversight seem to me always to be feeble unless they are absolutely true. This is why the public apologies by public figures often fall into lameness when the excuses start. Better to leave an apology as an apology, and, especially, in private life, to avoid saying things like “I’m sorry I didn’t return your call, but don’t forget that you didn’t return my call last time.”   That “but” after “I’m sorry” tends to undermine the apology. And those two proverbial wrongs continue not to make that proverbial right.  On the other hand, when you really are two hours late because you were caught in horrendous traffic, then there’s no need to manufacture any further excuses.

It’s extremely difficult to own up to the kind of deep psychological flaw that might lead one to put on a Nazi uniform. I’ve never put one on, myself, but I have dressed up as the evil monk Rasputin. No, I haven’t. But  like most of us (I believe), I have made some very serious  mistakes in judgment and behavior. The way to stop making those kinds of mistakes is to admit them and apologize for them to others, but mainly to face them directly yourself and not make excuses to yourself.

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A Conversation Worth Having

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Sometimes our conversation is simply unequal to what happens in the world. 9/11 was like that, Hiroshima, some of the more terrible earthquakes, like the recent one in Haiti.  You’re left standing there, in the relative and now guilt-ridden safety of your own circumstances, if you are lucky enough to be in such circumstances, and you don’t know what to say to friends and acquaintances and that’s what you say to them–that you don’t know what to say, that you are devastated. And that’s what they say to you. The same is true of course in the face of a death that has personal impact for us, but these large catastrophes leave entire populations more or less speechless and are a different species of event altogether.

It has seemed to me right from the start of the BP oil spew that people instinctively knew how awful it was and how awful it was going to continue to be. We talked it down, hoped for the best, but we more or less knew the truth. And ever since it has started sinking in (an awful idiom under the circumstances) to our conscious minds, it has made us and TV people and people online and people in  elected office and people everywhere who care about our world and accept responsibility for their own actions or inactions inarticulate. Grasping for new ways to speak about the unspeakable. Political impacts, arguments between England and America, visits or nonvisits by elected officials, gaffes, etc…there is a lot of talk and opining and hand-wringing and so on, but all of it seems to me like bathetic babble in the face of the enormity of this event. For once, it may not be possible to look to conversation as holding any real solace here, just as is true of a death or a terrible natural disaster. One reason this is extra-true in this case is that–as has been said quite a few times (the only thing truly worth saying, seems to me)–ultimately we brought it on ourselves.  And not doing it ever again is the only thing that matters. That is a conversation worth having and putting into action.

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Dan Talks to John Marks @ Purple State of Mind

Monday, March 29, 2010

Check out this new Q&A with Dan and John Marks of Purple State of Mind, an interesting and influential blog.

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Small Talk = Perilous?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Here’s an interesting little blog post about the possible relationship between small talk and unhappiness.  The experiment in question appears to be flawed in a number of obvious ways, but its conclusions nevertheless seemed to me to be true to a phenomenon I’ve often observed: a kind of weariness or sense of defeat among those who for whatever reason stay on the surface of conversation.


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Speaking Plainly

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech was not only eloquent, modest (in its way), and possibly historic but it also set a new standard for direct language in recent public discourse. “We must face the world as it is,” he said. Notice: No word more than one syllable. Maybe this directness accounts for the defiant expression the President wore throughout the speech: mouth turned slightly downward, chin often thrust out, eyes just a bit defensive. He was, after all, trying to reconcile his Peace Prize with our being at war twice over.

The President’s style, in speeches and in more relaxed settings, often verges on the academic, and sometimes he falls victim to euphemism–we will “transition” out of Afghanistan (if we’re lucky), not leave it. Usually he talks pretty straight, but “transition” got me thinking about the language’s seemingly inexorable tendency to smooth, euphemize, and tame tough words–words like “leave.”

English contains many wonderfully elemental words that get ameliorated in Orwellianism and gentility. Here are some examples of words that have been sandpapered down or left behind: Janitor (custodian), crippled (handicapped), superintendent (resident manager), civilian dead and wounded (collateral damage), operation (procedure), deaf (hearing-impaired), drink (beverage), people (folks), etc. There are much better examples that will no doubt come to what’s left of my mind after I post this.

But two conversationally endangered words really must be saved–mother and father. Mom and dad threaten to obliterate these earthy, primal words, so thick with King James-style consonants, so similar to “faith” and “earth.” So, I suggest trying to say mother and father as often as possible in place of mom and dad. Mom and Dad won’t mind.

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“Isn’t It Grand?”

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Embedded in this story I wrote for the Daily Beast, about the recent death of Liam Clancy–the last surviving member of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem–is a small fragment of conversation between me and my daughter, who is only the sweetest person in the world (in a tie with your daughter, of course). It shows how much complex humor and feeling and, yes, love, can be contained in one brief exchange.

And yes, I got her permission to use it, after she asked me to correct her age from 22 to 23. Come on–her birthday was only a month ago. Takes a while for things to sink in these days.

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An Unusual Prize?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

From yesterday’s Dallas Morning News crime blog:

“If you’re a death penalty opponent or simply a fan of the book/movie Dead Man Walking, you may be interested in a drawing being held by the Texas Moratorium Network. The anti-death penalty group is offering a prize of a phone conversation with Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who gained fame for her work with death row inmates.”

Well, perhaps “winning” a chance to talk to someone isn’t all that unusual as a prize–schools and charities often raffle off lunch or dinner with a famous parent or a prominent contributor for those who donate sizable sums, though I’m not sure I’ve seen a conversation named as such as a kind of trophy. But it makes sense, because good conversations are indeed like prizes in many ways: they make you feel good, they can be “kept” on the mantel of your memory, you can refer to them with pride, and they are often partly a matter of luck.

And in this particular case, the prize is valuable indeed. I know, because it was my good fortune to work with Sister Helen Prejean at Random House on The Death of Innocents, the book she wrote after Dead Man Walking, and she is exhilarating to talk to. She is passionate about her cause, of course, and of course impressively knowledgeable about it, but she also possesses one of the best senses of humor I’ve ever encountered. If you ask her to, she will tell you one Cajun joke after another. Such as: Marie (unmarried daughter): “Papa, I’m afraid I am pregnant.” Pierre: “Wait, wait, ma cher–are you sure you’re the mother?”

Sister Helen faced down Supreme Court Justices but is also totally down-to-earth. This is one contest well worth entering.

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