Notes on laryngitis

As some of you know, I have been without much of a voice since Friday afternoon. At that point I thought I was getting over last week’s cold, but I started losing my voice during a late-afternoon meeting and it just got worse from there. At some point over the weekend it became clear that my cold had morphed into one of the disgusting sinus infections I get at least once a year, with evil bacteria marching south to my irritated vocal cords.

That’s really how it feels — like an invading army has occupied the seat of my voice — despite my agreement in theory with Sontag that these martial metaphors for disease serve us poorly. I think it is fair to say that we guys tend to think of our identity as being tied up in certain body parts, and as much as I may fall prey to this phallic fallacy myself from time to time this incident has made me painfully aware of just how much my identity is invested in my voice. To a surprising extent, I am my larynx.

While I am a decent writer, it is clear to me that I’m a better talker, or at least that my gift for gab is the one I use to greater effect. My work in PR means that I talk for a living — less so than for a newscaster, but probably more than most of my friends. Being voiceless makes it impossible for me to counsel my clients, rally my team or share my ideas. It was a wake-up call to realize that despite my prodigious production of emails, memos and PowerPoint decks, most of my real business value inheres in my voice. Likewise at home, I’m the talkative one happily married to a man of few words. Not being able to talk to David made me feel like I was somehow angry at him, giving the silent treatment. I’m the master conversationalist, social caller, the planner of events, the maker of reservations. Just not right now. In a profound sense, being voiceless has made me feel impotent.

I spent the weekend in near-total silence. It was bad enough that I resorted to using the “text to speech” function on my Mac to talk to David, which led him to call me Mr. Hawkings. The few times I did have to talk to someone — ordering coffee, getting my hair cut at Rudy’s — my interlocutors looked stricken, as if they were unsure whether this were a temporary problem or a more permanent muteness, and that either might be catching. It was deeply strange for me, a jabberjaw virtually from birth, to be so conspicuously quiet.

It seemed like resting my vocal cords had helped, so I went into the office yesterday. That was a huge mistake. Even people who knew it was painful for me to talk couldn’t help it — they needed things out of me, and despite all our electronica sometimes an IM doesn’t always cut it. Talking was not just painful, it was exhausting. I decided, wisely, to cancel a two-day trip to Chicago for some meetings — realizing that not only would the travel probably make me sicker, it just made no sense to go to a meeting where I would be unlikely to be able to speak. Worst of all there would have been no way to keep up my two-tea-an-hour consumption habit. There are only so many times you can leave a meeting to pee and refill your tea.

On the way home last night I picked up some prescriptions designed to give me my voice back. They seem to be working, but slowly. I was  listless last night, but as soon as I went to bed I set to painful coughing and couldn’t even apologize properly to David for waking him up as I tossed and turned. Today I slept in, deep in a codeine cocoon, listened in mutely on a conference call and reviewed a few documents in a desultory fashion. I’m really ready to be talking again; whether those around me are enjoying their vacation from my voice remains to be seen. But in any case, I’m looking forward to the end of my own private quiet period, the longest no doubt since I starting speaking before my first birthday. And I will return to the land of the speaking with a newfound respect for the tone, timbre and power of my voice.

Arrival at Sydney

The title here is a bit of a reference to Elizabeth Bishop’s “Arrival at Santos.” Bishop is usually appropriate to my state of mind
in travel, but even more so for this trip:

...Oh, tourist,
is this how this country is going to answer you
and your immodest demands for a different world,
and a better life, and complete comprehension
of both at last, and immediately...

Sydney is lovely from the air, and as punishing as I always fear the 13+ hours in the air will be, this trip was easy. We had a long layover in San Francisco (which is incalculably nicer a transfer than LAX) and a great flight across. The plane was only about half full, and the Qantas cabin crew could not have been nicer. (It never seems to hurt that the stereotypes about cabin stewards hold fairly true — as a gay couple asleep on one another’s shoulders, we always seem to get extra-friendly treatment.)

Qantas never disappoints — after dinner we were served hot chocolate and marshmallows, after which we both passed out. (In my case the Ambien might have helped as well.) We both slept something close to eight hours and woke refreshed to a nice breakfast and friendly chats with our new friends on the crew. The plane had a new state-of-the art video on demand system but with such a nice rest, three iPods between us (don’t ask!) and a bag full of magazines David only managed to get through one of the dozens of options.

The most touching kindness, though, was found in the customs hall on arrival. Countless times arriving back in the States — including after our wedding in Vancouver — we have had to, in one way or another, split apart or bureaucratically disavow each other. “Single,” not married. Made to queue in one line for citizens, one line for foreigners, with no exceptions for a unit that the US refuses to recognize as family. Seeing the signs in Sydney, we decided to press our luck in the line for “Australia and New Zealand Passport Holders and Families.” After a short wait, we walked up to a podium manned by a quintessentially Aussie-looking twentysomething bloke. He asked no questions of us and, not batting an eye, said “Welcome to Australia.”

And welcome we feel. Apparently this is how this country is going to answer us, our demands for a different world, and a better life, which I refuse to call immodest.

We’re here in Sydney awaiting our flight on to Adelaide, very much looking forward to three weeks away from work with David’s folks. We’ll try to post along the way, but if I post too much people at work might wonder about our “no internet in the outback” party line. In the mean time, we hope all of you in the northern hemisphere enjoy the last of summer 2007.

Jay’s back – now with LOLcats!

I suppose I could go back and try to see how long it has been since I posted anything more substantial than vacation pictures, but the answer is pretty simple: a long-ass time.

But I’m back. I’m going to make a concerted effort to reenter the blogosphere on a regular—if perhaps not daily—basis. Even I am tired of my pathetic excuse, “it’s been really crazy at work.” Well, when isn’t it. My company’s CEO and other top execs manage to blog regularly, so I really need to get over myself.

To celebrate my triumphant return to nonfamous, I want to talk about something VERY important… LOLcats. More specifically, LOLcats and the future of the English language.

If you’re not familiar with this particular species of animal, please to enjoy:

These images courtesy of this, a site with the hyper-accurate tagline “Dear Productivity, it was nice knowing you.” But the reigning champion of the LOLcats phenomenon is I can has cheezburger?, a site that you should never visit unless you want to become that guy who just has to show co-workers funny pictures of cats. Reader, I became him. Which is especially sad when you consider that I don’t even like cats!

But as usual, I have an overintellectualized rationalization that allows me to partake of an otherwise guilty pop-culture pleasure. I put my Amateur Linguistics Society hat firmly on my pointy head every time I wade into the syntactically strange habitat of the LOLcat. These are not normal cat photos, you see… LOLcats are cat photos captioned in a strange hybrid of Internet jargon, text messagisms and assorted geek memes. What’s really interesting to me (and apparently Anil and some linguist guy I’d never heard of) is the fact that that LOLcat syntax and usage, however hilariously fractured from the mother tongue, have rapidly acquired a fairly durable structure—deserving, perhaps, to be understood as a pidgin. It simply doesn’t take long (500 LOLcats, say) to recognize a “correct” caption from a wrong one. And almost invariably, the funniest captions are those that best comport with canonical (catonical?) usage. (Here’s a primer, if you’re interested.)

What’s interesting to me is that the LOLcat penomenon takes something with fairly universal appear (pictures of cats) and creates a shared inside joke. Anything you have to explain isn’t funny, but when I showed my boss the insanely cute photo above, I had to explain the whole “im in ur ___ ____ing ur ____z” thing to her. Granted, some LOLcats captions are pretty accessible, but the whole movement is more or less as cliquish as highschool—LOLcats fans are the unlikely cool kids with their special words and inscrutable hierarchies of hilarity.

Which brings me to my final point. What is a grammar-geek with a degree in English to think of this? Isn’t it another sign of linguistic apocalypse? Maybe so, if you as the Ireland’s State Examination Commission, which just released a report which apparently tries to answer the question “Y cant teh jonny rite?”:

“The emergence of the mobile phone and the rise of text messaging as a popular means of communication would appear to have impacted on standards of writing as evidenced in the responses of candidates,” the report said, according to Wednesday’s Irish Times. “Text messaging, with its use of phonetic spelling and little or no punctuation, seems to pose a threat to traditional conventions in writing.”

The report laments that, in many cases, candidates seemed “unduly reliant on short sentences, simple tenses and a limited vocabulary”.

It may well be that LOLcats and its fellow tech-inspired argots are “in ur brainz, fraggin ur wordz.” If LOLcats is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

Finally, those Mexico pics

Sorry for the egregious delay. These things take time… and the ability to look at vacation pictures without wondering why, why, WHY we came back!


Seriously… why? David and I spent a week in Troncones, which is simply amazing. It’s rustic and off the beaten path, but features a dozen places where you can get a great meal and killer margaritas. And Casa Colorida, where we stayed, is nothing short of amazing and we can’t wait to stay there again. It’s just a short stumble down the beach from “El Burro Borracho.” In addition to cheap booze, El Burro serves a mean huachinango, the local specialty of red snapper fried with garlic, as well as an amazing ceviche.
The full gallery is here. Enjoy!

O Happy Day!

I think all of us were just too nervous to blog in the lead-up to the midterm elections, for fear of jinxing it. But yesterday’s results exceeded my expectations. I really did not believe we would win the Senate. I stayed up late last night watching the numbers trickle in, growing ever happier. (I’m still convinced that Darcy Burner might beat Dave Reichert–how is it that only 50% of the returns are in yet?)

I was almost giddy today. Imagine how that giddiness became sheer wonder when I learned that newly re-elected Senator Maria Cantwell was visiting my office for a meeting! She’s headed on a trip to China that our public affairs team help put together. We were all invited (not commanded, in case there were a few Repubs in the office) to greet her when she arrived. About 75 of us crowded into the lobby, surprising her with thunderous applause and whoops of joy. Though she was a bit shocked at the reception–and no doubt exhausted after the end of a grueling campaign–but she launched into some great impromptu remarks and the early news that Montana was considered a done deal. I was positioned perfectly to get one of the first handshakes when she decided she wanted to meet everyone who had greeted her so warmly.

I interned in the Senate and have been around a lot of politicians… I am, frankly, pretty jaded. But when Senator Cantwell asked me what I did, I had a hard time getting the words out. She radiates poise and intellect–no surprise–but she has an almost (Bill) Clinton-esque personal charm that surprised me. Shaking her hand was the perfect memory to seal the joy I felt as the great American pendulum paused weightless at its scary apogee and began to swing back toward sanity.



Four Minutes of Fame

If you go to WGBH Morning Stories and click Home Alone you’ll hear – hey, wait! That’s me! I start at about the six minute mark, but you should listen to the whole thing.

I am giddy with delight to find that I don’t sound like a complete idiot. It is odd to hear the edited version – we talked for probably half an hour and this is just a few minutes with big chunks cut out. Still, the sentiment of the conversation is very much intact and wait ’til you hear what Tony Kahn says to me. I really want to do it again.

Morning Stories is doing some fundraising; you might think about sending them a nickel or two.

The original story is here.

Oh, and while I’ve got your attention, it costs 63 cents to mail in that absentee ballot. Don’t forget!