Using your arm or hand as a map: I spent most of my life in Massachusetts, and on a few occasions in the 1970s and 1980s, I observed a Cape Cod resident use his left arm as an improvised map of the cape and then use his right forefinger to point out a location on that “map.” Because Michigan looks very much like a hand (or mitten), I wondered if Michiganders did something similar. I forgot about that until 1994, when I traveled to Kellogg Company (Battle Creek, Michigan), to accept a speechwriting assignment. When my client wanted to point out the location of a city, sure enough he held up his right hand as a map of Michigan.* These two actions have a certain down-home charm.
Words that are older than we think: We tend to think that words and phrases, except for the more common ones, were recently coined. We are often wrong, by decades or even centuries. For example, last Thursday I mentioned that word of mouth has been used since 1553. Another example is OMG. You might be willing to bet that it was coined in the 1970s by histrionic teenage girls, but a slide show in Dictionary.com says “The first citation of OMG in the Oxford English Dictionary appears in a 1917 letter from the British admiral John Arbuthnot Fisher to Winston Churchill.” The slide show discusses seven other surprisingly old words; take a look.
This trope must drive psychologists insane: There’s a movie trope about mental problems that goes like this; a patient has a deeply buried mental problem and won’t admit it. The psychologist eventually persuades the patient to cry. As soon as the patient cries, he is completely cured or almost completely cured. A well-known example is the “It’s not your fault” scene in Good Will Hunting. Because this trope reduces psychology to a trick, it implies that psychology is vastly overpriced.
Writing as depicted in the movies: Being a professional writer, I naturally notice when a movie shows a writer writing. But as I’m sure you know, such scenes are rarely shown. And when they are shown, the writer is writing a first draft, not a revision (revisions are where real-life writers spend most of their time). Example: In Citizen Kane, newspaperman Charles Foster Kane writes one draft of a manifesto for his paper and runs it on Page 1 without further revision. An exception that proves the rule: In How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the protagonist is discovered asleep at his desk on Saturday morning; crumpled papers suggest that he has been writing draft after draft all night. But the protagonist has contrived the scene in order to impress his boss. So I am not surprised that, whenever I’ve said that speech writers often write more than 20 drafts of a speech, non-writers have stared (or laughed) at me in disbelief. Fiction trumps reality.
To open… When I was in grammar school, I heard this lame joke: “Why did the two bugs run a race on the cracker box? Because the box said ‘Tear along the dotted line.’ ” But in recalling it recently, I realized that fewer packages today display any directions for opening them. Some of the packages are like dexterity tests. As the U.S. population ages, you would think manufacturers would have more, not less, empathy for their customers, more and more of whom are becoming arthritic.
The Takeaway: Be here now.
*Another charming geographic anecdote about Michigan: When I landed at the nearest airport to Battle Creek, I saw a sign that read “Yes, there really is a place called Kalamazoo.”