Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Words, Words, Words

My last two posts were about old wounds that had been reopened recently. Writing them was pretty cathartic, but now that that's out of my system I'm going to write something a little less intense and a little more fun. It doesn't even have anything to do with Asperger's Syndrome. It's about words and the rhythm of words.

I really enjoy the rhythm of words, especially in songs but also in prose writing and even on... signs. Let's first look at some lines from a few songs and talk about why they work, rhythmically:

"Magic Dance" by David Bowie from the 1986 film Labyrinth:

This works nicely because of the change in the number of syllables between each line.

I saw my baby, (5)
Crying hard as babe could cry (7)
What could I do (4)
My baby's love had gone (6)
And left my baby blue (6)
Nobody knew (4)
What kind of magic spell to use (8)

Relatively consistent, right? 5 to 7 to 4 to 6... but then the next line also has 6 syllables. Repetition. And back to 4. But then all the way up to 8. Somehow, the 8th syllable in "What kind of magic spell to use"changes a mostly consistent rhythm, especially in the way David Bowie sings it. I like it. It makes the song more dynamic. Imagine if instead the last line was "What kind of spell to use" or "What magic spell to use". Both lines convey the same meaning, but not with as much punch. And it has nothing to do with "magic" being an adjective but rather the fact that it has two syllables. Same deal with "kind of".

Another example of changing rhythm:

"Patch! Natch" from the 1985 film Santa Claus: The Movie.

Okay, okay. I know. It's stupid. It's a stupid movie (though I loved it when I was little) and the song is even stupider. The lyrics are cheesy as hell (and I think they were supposed to be). So... why do I sheepishly admit to having this song on my iPod? Well, look at the first few lines:

Patch! Natch! Patch! Natch!
Someone new has come to town. (Patch! Natch!)
A magic clown with eyes of brown. (Patch! Natch!)
Planned to be another Santa
And to share ol' Santa's crown,
He'll turn Christmas upside down (Patch! Natch!)
He's got a brand-new candy,
As dandy as can be.
It's puce and juicy, as you see

He plans to make it free.

What is it about this song? It's the change of rhythm with "He's got a brand new candy." Each line in this stanza has 7-8 syllables (one line has 6), but "He's got a brand new candy" sounds drastically different. Why? The song is playing a little trick on you. "He's got a brand new candy" has 7 syllables, but the words "brand new candy" have even longer syllables, tricking your brain into thinking there are fewer syllables. It grabs your attention. The actually words don't matter. The song could easily go like this and have the same effect (the line that I like is italicized):

Poop! Poop! Poop! Poop!
Poopoo poo poo poo poo poo. (Poop! Poop!)
Poo poopoo poo poo poo poo poo. (Poop! Poop!)
Poo poo poo poopoopoo Poopoo
Poo poo poo poo Poopoo poo
Poo poo Poopoo poopoo poo (Poop! Poop!)
Poo poo poo poooo poooo poopoo
Poo poopoo poo poo poo
Poo poo poo poopoo, poo poo poo
Poo poo poo poo poo poo

It's all in the rhythm!

It's not just songs that have rhythmic effects. Just string a couple words together:

"July fifteenth." Just say it aloud. "July fifteenth." Don't you love the way that rolls off your tongue? Each word has two syllables, and each syllable is long. Even "April fifteenth" doesn't have the same ring to it.

When I lived in New York City, there were two subway stops that I passed whose names always struck a rhythm for me. Near where I used to live there was a subway stop labeled "22nd Avenue-Bay Parkway." Say that aloud. The syllables progress from very short ("Twenty-second") to very long ("Bay Parkway"). And "Avenue" is a word with two medium syllables. Now say it aloud again "Twenty-Second Avenue- Bay Parkway". The other subway stop that has almost the same effect is "34th Street- Penn Station". Say that aloud, too. See what I mean?

From the song "The Hanging Tree" from the 2014 film Mockingjay, Part 1:

Pay particular attention to this line:

Strange things did happen here
No stranger would it be

This is a nice use of repetition. The word "strange" (and its modified form, "stranger") is used twice in one sentence. Normally you want to avoid this sort of thing in prose writing, or even in music, but it works here. I think the reason it works so well here is simply because the second instance of "strange" is a modified form. It's repetitious, but in a stylized-- not careless-- way.

Another beautiful example of repetition, from the 1983 song "Hold Me Now" by the Thompson Twins:

(Starting from 2:41)

So I'll sing you a new song.
Please don't cry anymore.
I'll even ask your forgiveness
But I don't know just what I'm asking it for.

Look at the last two lines and the creative use of repetition:

I'll even ask your forgiveness
But I don't know just what I'm asking it for.

I love this. "Ask" is modified into "asking" and "forgiveness" is shortened into "for", a completely different word. The repetition of these sounds give the lines more impact and emphasize the desperation  and sorrow that the singer feels at having broken up with his girlfriend. Would the line have as much impact if it were written like this?:

I'll even ask your forgiveness
But I don't know just why I'm asking it.

Even with one instance of repetition ("ask"), the line has considerably less impact.

And by the way, forget about what your teacher said about never ending a sentence with a preposition. Does this line captivate you?:

I'll even ask your forgiveness
But I don't know just for what I'm asking it.


I also like when a song occasionally does the unexpected.

For example, in "Castle on a Cloud" from the 1985 Broadway show, Les Miserables:

Pay attention to this line:

"There is a room that's full of toys.
There are a hundred boys and girls."

You expected "There are a hundred girls and boys", right? Probably, since "boys" and "toys" rhyme. Well, that would have been boring. "There are a hundred boys and girls" works so much better since you don't expect it!

There's another slight deviation from the expected in "The Merry Old Land of Oz" from the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.

Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion are getting cleaned up in preparation to see the Wizard. When the citizens of Oz sing to the Scarecrow and the Tin Man, they end each verse with "That's how we [insert action here] in the Merry old land of Oz." But when they sing to the Cowardly Lion, he sings the end of the verse himself, with "That certain air of savoir faire in the merry old land of Oz." You just expected another "That's how we... in the Merry old land of Oz", didn't you? The song wants to make sure you're paying attention!

Then there's allusion. I'm going to use another example from the Thompson Twins' 1983 song "Hold Me Now":

You say I'm a dreamer
We're two of a kind

You know damn well what that's alluding to. Whether or not the songwriters intended it, the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear that line is:

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one

It is, of course, from John Lennon's song "Imagine". And what's interesting about this allusion is how something about the tone in the "You say I'm a dreamer; we're two of a kind" sounds a little more blunt. It's almost like that line is saying, "Yeah, I get it. I'm a dreamer. So are you." It's almost like the song is "self-aware" of what it's alluding to. And it works. Why? I couldn't tell you. It just does.

Finally, I want to end this blog post not with song lyrics or even subway signs but with a line from Steven Pinker. He wrote a book called The Sense of Style, about why different writing styles work and why writing rules are meant to be broken. I haven't read it yet but I have a feeling that the book likely addresses a lot of what I said here. So, at the risk of being divisive, let's look at a line from another Steven Pinker book (The Blank Slate) that nicely uses a rhythm of sorts:

People who say that IQ is meaningless will quickly invoke it when the discussion turns to executing a murderer with an IQ of 64, removing lead paint that lowers a child’s IQ by five points, or the presidential qualifications of George W. Bush.”

Aside from the obvious jab at Dubya, the line does a few things:

1) It's a list. And it's a list of three. Somehow a list doesn't have as much impact unless it's a list of three things or more. Why? I don't know. We seem to be attracted to lists of three or more. Maybe it's the very basic counting system of "one, two, and many".

2) Change in parts of speech. The first two discussion points on the list begin with verbs ("executing", "removing"). The third one is a noun ("the presidential qualifications").

3. The term "IQ" is used in the first two discussion points but not in the third. Overall, what makes this work is the way the third discussion point is set apart from the first two. All three discussion points have 16 syllables (I didn't count "or"), and yet the third discussion point gives off the impression of having fewer. But it doesn't. The phrasing is enough to make the rhythm seem more different than it actually is.

Well, that's my little observation for today. I hope everybody enjoyed reading this. And if you write, have fun (jeez, it's supposed to be!).

Saturday, January 3, 2015


This is a bit of a follow-up to my previous blog post, "Owning Your Emotions".

You have seen the intensity of my emotions when I become infatuated with someone. I should also note that I get ragingly jealous, but not in the way you think. Unlike most people, I don't get jealous when the object of my affections already has a girlfriend. To me, that makes no sense. Unless the person is polyamorous (or having a secret affair), only one person can be the significant other. It is not something that singles me out. It is something where only one person gets put on a pedestal, and it is a statement about the person, not me. If it were a statement about me, it would be a statement about everybody else who didn't get to be that person's girlfriend/boyfriend. What's frustrating is people don't believe me when I tell them this. They think I'm not being honest with myself. I think if anything my blog posts show just how honest I am with myself.

So how do I experience jealousy when I become infatuated with someone? It's simple. I'm jealous of everyone else who gets to be friends with that person. I, after all, have been singled out as someone not worthy of that person's friendship. And then I become ragingly jealous, to the point where it haunts me in dreams. For example, after Sergio, of my last blog post, stopped talking to me despite reaccepting my friend request a few months after the initial blowup, it was already firmly planted in my head (mostly due to my mother's comments) that I was too "immature" to have friends who were a few years older than me. 

Sergio is a phenomenally talented professional artist: he's a painter, a filmmaker, a musician, and an actor. He even appeared in an opera. There was a photo of him on Facebook performing in the opera, and he and a few friends were commenting on it. I thought to myself, "Opera is sophisticated. I'm not interested in opera. That makes me immature. My parents are, of course, interested in opera because that's what intelligent people have to be interested in." Never mind that around that time I had started reading books about evolutionary biology by Richard Dawkins and others. Oh, no. Not being into opera makes me "immature" and "uncultured". But yes, my mind latched onto that as a possibility of one reason why I did not have Sergio's permission to be his friend. And my mind did not let that go. It doesn't help that I have incredibly vivid dreams, complete with sharp images and convincing sensory input. 

One night I had a dream that I walked into a room and saw my mother effortlessly talking up a storm with Sergio. She was allowed to talk to him and be his friend. I stormed up to her, jabbed my index finger at her chest, and said, "Why the hell do you get to be friends with him?" This dream was a perfect symbol of my jealousy and my anger of what was expected of me. My mother-- who was co-captain of the cheerleading squad in high school; who has always had a very feminine hairstyle, has always worn big hoop earrings and makeup, not because she feels she has something to prove but because these are fashion decisions that reflect her personality; whom everyone loves within nanoseconds of meeting her; who loves hanging around with large groups of people-- was allowed to be friends with Sergio. After all, she was in great contrast to me, the high school track runner who always came in last; the tomboy who hates makeup, rarely wears earrings (and never big hoops), and who felt relieved when she got her first androgynous haircut at age 20; and who does not enjoy spending time in large social groups. No, my mother was the standard of normal and socially acceptable, and I would never meet that standard. And unless I could, I would not be allowed to be friends with people a few years older than me, or even have the privilege of talking to them on an equal basis. No, once neurotypical people reach adulthood, having friends of varying ages is not an issue. And they take this for granted. It seemed that I, on the other hand, was expected to say to myself, "Well, I have Asperger's, so I'm immature, so of course I am not allowed to have older friends. Why would they want anything to do with me? Hey, no problem."

Likewise, when I have had crushes on other people, I have felt a similar jealousy. In college, when my teacher, Doug, lied to keep me out of his class, I was jealous of everyone else who got to be in the class. Not being pushed out of a class is something that neurotypical people take for granted. Oh, and there was the time when I got him an Onion anthology to give to him on the last day of class the first semester that I had him. His response when I tried to give it to him? "I don't want it." However, the following year one of my classmates gave him a Christmas present and he thanked her profusely. She was "normal", so she was allowed to give it to him. I'm sure anybody else who wanted to give Doug an end-of-semester present would have been allowed to. After all, everybody else was allowed to be buddy-buddy with him. There was one particular girl who had this privilege (and no, she wasn't a "hot babe"-- she was severely overweight). She, like my mother, is "sweet", "charming" and "charismatic", things that I'm not. One day, because I was just in such a horrible state of mind over all this, I went up to her and said accusingly and with no small amount of sarcasm, "It must be so nice to be Doug's favorite."

Then at the camp in Michigan there was Joe who went to Gary, Indiana with a friend after promising to go to Chicago with me. I saw him hanging around groups of people but refusing to associate with me and acting like I was beneath him in front of all of his neurotypical friends (all the while assuring me, when we were alone, that he really liked talking to me). I was jealous of all those friends of his who, once again, took for granted things that I was expected to earn. 

I should also note that I don't feel jealousy only when I am infatuated with someone. I have felt jealousy for other reasons. Once, someone who I went to camp with got a book published. It was about "women's issues"-- marriage problems, childbirth, shame of infertility-- and it got rave reviews. I felt a pang of jealousy, that such issues that have been done to death in the past were in a book getting rave reviews. I denied to myself that I was jealous but my unconscious knew better. How? Well, one of my vivid dreams, of course. I had a dream that the author of the book was being interviewed and was getting a princess-Diana style greeting. You've seen the footage of the incessant camera flashes that went off when reporters took Princess Diana's picture. It looked like a strobe that would be dangerous to someone with epilepsy. In the dream that's what was happening to the author of this book. In the dream I also went to my mother about it, and she said dismissively, "Well, this is the kind of thing that women like to read." I want to be a writer, and I would never write something like this.

Ultimately, I bought and read the book to support the author. Ironically, the book was actually therapeutic-- it was about raging jealousy. I was up all night reading it. But the point still remains. I felt like who I was was "wrong" and I would never be who I was expected to be. 

This post has been very cathartic. The issue with Sergio came up last week with my mother (long story as to why) for the first time since it had happened seven years ago. To my surprise, Mom said she had thought about it several times over the years and that she thought Sergio's shunning me was horrible and insensitive. Then she asked me why I didn't mention it if it still bothered me. I said, "Because whenever I tried to bring it up with you, you just shut me down and told me to get over it." She apologized profusely. She also admitted that she was wrong. She told me she was ashamed of how she reacted and admitted that her reaction was humiliating to me and made things exponentially worse. She also admitted that Dad saw with greater clarity what was actually going on. Most importantly, she admitted this: 

"I was blind."