Can You Make a Boring Subject Funny?

Interesting search criteria today, which resulted in a click on the Home Page of this blog – “fiction book on getting rid of baby boomers”. I am pretty sure this searcher did not get what s/he hoped for.

I guess there are a lot of younger people out there who would like to get rid of baby boomers. We must be the thorn in the sides of many Gen Xers (and younger) but getting rid of a whole generation of people would be difficult to achieve. Maybe they don’t want to support us, our socialized incomes that they are forced to contribute to? Maybe they think, as we age, and retire, and go on Medicare that we will bring on even more financial ruin to this country? Or, maybe, we’re just regarded as a bunch of self-centered, me-first, egotistical cry-babies that everyone else loves to hate.

Speaking of Medicare, is there anyone else out there who is tired of getting Medicare mailings? Can anyone enlighten me, if there is a subject more boring than Medicare? Can anyone further enlighten me, on why they feel it necessary to bombard us with mailings every single day? Is it because it’s so confusing to begin with? Is it because they think more is better when it comes to junk mail? The following is a partial list of the types of junk mail one can expect to receive when one reaches a “certain age”:

  • Medicare and Medicare related mailings, including (but not limited to) Medicare Part A (hospitalization), Medicare Part B (doctors),  Medicare Part C (HMO’s which are too complicated to explain here), Medicare Part D (drug coverage), and enough Medicare Supplemental Insurance information to fill the bed of a Ford F-250.
  • Invitations to lunch or dinner, but oh by the way, you are required to sit through a presentation of how to protect your assets through annuities.
  • Hearing aid devices (to my knowledge, I am not yet deaf).
  • Funeral pre-arrangement plans.

I refuse to think of myself in these terms, that the wheels are falling off. When I hear that particular phrase, I always think of the little red wagon, the Radio Flyer. Everyone had one back when we were kids. The wheels may be getting wobbly, but they are not falling off. The paint is peeling, and the metal a little rusty, but basically the wagon is still street-worthy.

Mailings for Medicare always seem to have pictures of people with gray or white hair, smiling Crest Whitestrip smiles, who are enjoying very active lives. They go to the beach and ride bikes a lot. I think some of the people in these pictures are really younger people with old-looking hair. Good news and bad news. The good news is you get the gig to be a pamphlet model, the bad news is you have to wear a gray wig and pretend you’re 65.

Recently I received, as part of my brand new Medicare Supplemental Plan, an invitation to sign up with the “SilverSneakers” program. Really? I guess I have an aversion to signing up for programs with dumb sounding names because it went immediately to the recycle bin, even though there were lots of pictures of happy looking (albeit older) women who were very satisfied with themselves for “getting fit and staying healthy”.

Earlier this week, ten (that’s 10!) letters from my Medicare Supplemental Plan came on the same day.

I decided to blog about it, Medicare and the mailings forthwith , in the hopes that I could take a subject that is more boring than watching Pimp My Ride, and try to make something humorous out of it.

A while back, I blogged about Idiot Letters by Paul C. Rosa. The following is a Paul Rosa-type letter I composed, back to the Medicare Supplemental people who had sent the ten letters. Here it is:

20 Examples of Great Euphemisms

A euphemism is “the substitution of a mild, indirect or vague term for one considered to be harsh, blunt, or offensive”. Sometimes called doublespeak, a euphemism is a word or phrase which pretends to communicate but doesn’t. It makes the bad seem good, the negative seem positive, the unnatural seem natural, the unpleasant seem attractive, or at least tolerable. It is language which avoids, shifts or denies responsibility. It conceals or prevents thought.

Doublespeak was one of the central themes of George Orwell’s famous novel, 1984, although he didn’t use that term, instead he used the terms “doublethink” and “newspeak”.

Here are some particularly amusing examples, except where downright offensive.

1. If you are offered a career change or an early retirement opportunity, a career or employee transition, or you are being involuntarily separated, or if personnel is being realigned or there is a surplus reduction in personnel, or the staff is being re-engineered or right sized, or if there is a workforce imbalance correction then: You’re fired!

(Cartoon by Kipper Williams)

2. You aren’t poor, you are economically disadvantaged.

3. You aren’t broke, you have temporary negative cash flow.

4. You do not live in a slum but in substandard housing, or in an economically depressed neighborhood, or culturally deprived environment.

5. If you are managing company stakeholders, that means you are lobbying, which is really the same as bribing.

6. When you get an unwanted phone call just as you are sitting down to dinner from a representative of the Republican party (and you are a Democrat) or vice versa, this is called a courtesy call. Only courtesy has nothing to do with it, it’s just freaking annoying.

7. In light of the recent demise of Osama bin Laden, several politicians have stressed that it was the enhanced interrogation methods which caused the informants to squeal and give up the nickname of the courier, which we then followed around until he led us to the compound of OBL. This is one of my personal favorites, not the process it refers to of course, but the absolute ludicrousness of this particular phrase. The ultimate of euphemism. It’s torture, folks! Torture, and you can’t sugarcoat it, and you can’t make it sound nice. Torture.

8. Since we’ve been involved in two wars for ten years, stuff happens, stuff that we don’t want to happen. When you come into a country and break it, for a variety of good reasons, you might cause some collateral damage, which are really deaths of civilians. Women and children and old people. Accidental death. Accidental – but you can’t quite escape the “death” part.

9. When a geographical area is neutralized or depopulated that means the CIA killed people, just because.

10. On a lighter note, intelligent ventilation points, when speaking of a garment are – armholes!

11. You’re not buying a used car, you are purchasing a pre-enjoyed or pre-loved vehicle.

12. If you are a bank, bad, crappy debts are non- or under-performing assets.

13. Ah, genuine imitation leather. That new car smell. But really, it’s cheesy vinyl. 100% virgin cheesy vinyl.

14. If you want a raise and you deserve a raise, but there’s no money or the company just doesn’t want to do it, you might get an uptitle instead, which is a fancy name for what you already are. Uptitles are fancy job names given in lieu of monetary compensation. An example: Assistant Supervisor of Things Beginning with the Letter “A”.

15. Watch out if the company you work for says it is levering up, it means they are spending money they don’t have. See “uptitle” above.

16. If you say you committed terminological inexactitude, or you relayed misinformation, misspoke or were economical with the truth, well that means you just told a whopper. A bold-faced lie.

17. If you are a politician in Arizona, people who run across the border are illegal aliens, unless they are employing these same people to tend to their children or flower gardens, then they are known as undocumented workers.

18. We consume adult beverages which are booze drinks, beer and wine and hard stuff. Adults also drink things like water, coffee and tea but these aren’t called adult beverages, just beverages. There’s adult entertainment too, and we know what that means. So attaching the adjective “adult” to a noun, must mean the same as “sleazy” or “bad for you”.

19. If you get rejected for a job because you are partially proficient, that means you are just plain unqualified. This happens a lot to the middle class, as they attempt to find employment in other areas because the areas in which they used to work no longer exist. See my prior post about corporate buzzwords for the explanation of Outsourcing. But don’t despair because you are probably totally proficient to be a greeter at Wal-Mart.

20. Here’s the one that really hurts. When you’re called postmenopausal, or mature, or senior – that means you’re old.

What is your favorite euphemism?

5 Punctuation Tips for Writing Humor

I recently resurrected a basket to use for a small paper recycling bin, since I am an earth-lover (those who recycle) as opposed to an earth-hater (those who throw glass, paper and plastic in with their other waste products). It was a magazine rack kind of thing and had some items in it which I needed to clean out and/or discard, a couple of old magazines, a half-finished knitting project from a few years back, and at the bottom was a book which had been given to me years ago (nearly twenty) called Idiot Letters by Paul Rosa, which I had not read.

Mr. Rosa got the idea for the book when he received a letter from Pizza Hut which said it had been a long time since he had ordered from them. This “concerned” them, because Mr. Rosa was the “kind of customer they’d like to see more often”. Mr. Rosa wondered just what kind of customer wouldn’t they like to see more often? He decided to ask that question.

That started the whole project, the idea of chronicling the letters he wrote to companies regarding products he used regularly and the responses he got back. I found myself LOLing (which we all know means Laugh Out Loud and NOT Lots of Love, as some would have us believe). And it brought to mind a question. What was it about Mr. Rosa’s writing that made it funny? I noticed a few tricks he used which seemed very effective.

I have listed the 5 punctuation tips below, which brings me to one slight diversion before I progress. I recently attended a Webinar (do you “attend” a Webinar?) and incorporated knowledge received from it regarding writing eye-catching titles for blogs, which might cause people to click more often than if it were titled in some other (lame) way. The Webinar (The Copyblogger Headline Clinic) was very informative and said that one good template for a blog title which appears to work is a numbered list. Examples: 10 Reasons Why Your Mother-in-law Hates You, or 16 Ways to Retrieve a Cork that has Fallen Into a Bottle of Wine, or 21 Tips and Tricks For Removing a Squirrel from the Top of Your Dryer (this actually happened to me).

The following is what I noticed about Mr. Rosa’s book of letters:

  • Exclamation points! These little darlings of punctuation are frowned upon when writing serious literature, and should be used very sparingly, but for humorous writing they work really well to indicate a certain dorky enthusiasm. Take this example, from Idiot Letters, where Mr. Rosa writes to the Oil-Dri Corporation of America congratulating them on the effectiveness of Cat’s Pride Kitty Litter:

For the first ten years of my cat’s life, it was a living hell trying to get her to use her litter box!

  • Quotation marks. Quotation marks have been said (by serious editors) to be like Christmas tree lights, that they are mere decorations. I “respectfully disagree” when writing humor. Using quotes sets a phrase apart, draws attention to it, as if the writer is standing next to the reader, giving him a nudge and a knowing look. Just between you and me…  Mr. Rosa says the following after telling the letter reader that he began using Cat’s Pride on the advice of a friend:

Well, we were delighted, nay ecstatic, when Jesse — without hesitation — stepped in the litter box and “unloaded”.

  • Italics. This method of altering a font shows emphasis and stressing certain words is funny, because it portrays an ebullience that may be uncalled for. In the same letter, for instance, the idea that anyone can be so charged up about kitty litter is in itself, funny, but the italics make it more so. Mr. Rosa says the following after telling the letter reader that he wonders at the wisdom of the name “Cat’s Pride” for kitty litter:

When Jesse is heaving and straining in her box, I don’t think pride is one of her sentiments.

  • Ellipsis. Mr. Rosa used the ellipsis (…) in order to disguise an activity, in a way that the reader knows it was disguised and further, knows exactly what that activity is:

We were often woken from a sound slumber, or interrupted during … Matlock.

  • Parentheses. Whenever a thought is an aside, and could be separated from the text with commas, it is appropriate to surround that text with parens. This should probably not be done in serious literature in most cases, but is most effective when writing humor. He also names the cat, the friend, the wife and even his mother by putting the name of the person in parentheses. Here are examples:

Whenever she would get the call from nature (night or day), she would howl until someone would let her out.

We were actually tempted to give her away, but simply love her too much — she was a gift from my mother (Irene).

The excerpts from the letter, the random sentences probably don’t do the letter justice when taken out of context, so I am including it here in its entirety:


Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a review of Idiot Letters. I liked some of the the letter exchanges quite well, but some were a bit over the top for me. I will be using some of these tips in my next novel (which is supposed to be humorous in parts) because I think they work.

Toys Then and Now

Much as I’m sure I probably shouldn’t rant and complain at this time of year, I guess it’s what I’m doing, as this is the time when us helpless grandparents are out Christmas shopping for toys. I think about the subject all through the year too, and decided it’s as good a time of the year as any to rant, and complain, and be generally disrespectful to major toy chains and the marketing of junk to small children.

At Christmas, if one doesn’t do a good enough job ordering online, one might be forced to venture into the dreaded [insert name of huge megopoly toystore here] in order to pick something out. Oh, how hard can it be, I ask myself. I can get puzzles, or coloring books, or story books, or whatever.

No. Not really. These items are located in Aisle 37, just before you get to the restrooms, and it appears as if no one is looking after this particular area. The merchandise is scattered and disheveled and misplaced.

Once inside the place, the agoraphobic comes out in me, and I want to go home and sit in a chair and pull a blanket up around me and think how glad I am to be where I am and not at [insert name of huge.. okay, it’s Toys R Us, but you already knew that]. You enter the fluorescent-lit cavern, accosted by screaming children, excited children, running children, in the company of frazzled parents.

I always stand for a moment, get my bearings, before actually getting up the nerve to move past the shopping carts (super-sized for your convenience). My husband and I kind of look at each other and I expect him to lead the way, and he is clearly expecting me to. A few blank stares, a shrug or two of the shoulders, and we start wandering aimlessly, and I mean that literally, aimlessly.

Legos. We need Legos. Do we find them in the Age 5 – 8 aisle? My husband always asks, I never do. We’re the opposite of the norm, where men don’t ask for directions. He wants to get it over with as much as I do, so he asks, and we are directed to the Lego Aisle. Yes, there is an aisle just for Legos.  A set of Legos only makes one thing. That’s so you build it once, get bored with it, and buy another one. I don’t think buying a set of generic Legos – that you could build and tear down and build up again – is really encouraged. That would mean the Lego company made less money. Less Profits = Not Good. Maybe it’s possible to get a set of basic Legos, but I didn’t see them at Toys R Us.

Back then, in the fifties, there were no Legos, but I had a set of bricks, made out of some kind of clay-like substance. They hadn’t (and I’m not making this up) really invented plastic yet, or at least it hadn’t yet been used for toys. The bricks were about the size of a domino, and there were half-bricks too, so you could build window and door frames and angle up the sides so the cardboard roof would fit over. The doors and windows were cardboard too, painted on pictures of doors and windows. I loved those bricks, and then wonder of wonders, the plastic kind came out and they were the same size but they had (get ready) white plastic doors and windows that actually moved! You could swing them open! How cool was that?

Here is the picture of the 1950s version of legos:

Remeber Lincoln Logs?

And Jacks?

And of course the favorite Viewmaster:

And finally, the popular Slinky:

Today, there are huge, elaborate swing sets, with built-in clubhouses. There are bars to climb, and a couple of slides, and different kinds of swings, and some black rubbery stuff has to be put down all around the thing so that no one gets hurt. It’s probably a law, I’m not sure about that.

Back then, my father hung a swing from the old Umbrella Tree (I was never sure of the correct name for that tree, but it was shaped like an umbrella and if you pumped high enough your feet might touch the leaves.) And we had clubhouses too, where we took our comics and our dolls and other stuff, and there was a secret password you had to know to get in. The clubhouse was usually nothing more than a few boards and whatever material could be scrounged, which was the fun of it. We did it ourselves.

Today, backyard children’s swimming pools are ten feet high, and need a special pump to blow them up, and there’s water slides and they’re shaped like castles or pirate ships, in garish colors, and they’re so… well, plastic.

Back then, when it was hot, if we were lucky our Moms would fill up the old washtub and we could sit in it and play with water.

We didn’t have that much to play with. We made do. We played tag outside, we raked big piles of leaves and jumped in, we played hide-n-seek, we built tents by throwing blankets over card tables. I had a playroom that was nothing more than a closet under the stairs. It was fine by the door but you couldn’t do too much in a room that’s a foot high, as it was at the other end. Some kids didn’t even have that, I was one of the lucky ones.

I remember all of this fondly, of course.

What will happen to all the plastic we cast aside today? Plastic toys are never recycled, plastic swimming pools spring leaks, and we don’t fix them. Just throw them away. Get something bigger, better, more plastic, more fun.

We baby boomers think we were more resourceful than children today. Today’s kids are scheduled up with baseball games, and soccer games, and gymnastics, and swimming lessons, and ballet, and music lessons and have the technology that makes it possible for them to not have to think up ways to have fun. It’s kind of sad.

But I don’t think today’s children think they’re missing anything. It’s all they know, as it was for us; we, who couldn’t imagine what it was like to grow up in the depression.

I wonder where it will take us. To a new level of plastic and technology? Or maybe back to basics.

National Novel Writing Month 2011 Ends

National  Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for 2011 is over now, and a lot (thousands? millions?) of writers have accomplished the 50,000-word goal. I completed mine, with a few hundred words to spare, and even though I didn’t write every day, and even though I didn’t make the daily wordcount every day, I had enough inspired days where I wrote twice the number of words to make up the difference.

It’s a way to encourage authors, both first-time and those who’ve done it before, (I will refrain from using the term “experienced”) to get it down on paper, whether or not it’s ready for prime time. And it’s likely that it won’t be ready, when writing under a deadline like that.

I’ve been writing on a deadline for several months now, with this blog, so I was fairly used to it, and I have come to realize that yeah, it’s probably going to suck, the first time you scratch it out, but it will get better and better as you go along, easier for the words to flow onto the page. And the bad stuff can be changed later.

I had a head start anyway, because my novel, Perigee Moon, was already in outline form. I pretty much knew what would go into each chapter, yet I did find that some chapters needed to be split up, as I was writing. I completed 17 chapters out of 38 so I’m nearly half way, and I’m aiming for a 120,000 word count or less, so it fits.

Going into December, my personal goal (without the NaNo people to keep urging me on) is to do the next 50,000 words and wrap up the first draft by early January. I’m aiming for completion at the end of January in order to submit it to the ABNA, in which I will once again no doubt be thrown out in the first round, because my short descriptions are never any good.

One thing that is troublesome, is that once again, the story is chronological, and I fear that may be amateurish, to have a story start at the beginning and end at the end. It’s one of those baby boomer stories too, and so it goes on for a really long time. But I wanted to chronicle a relationship that began very early (age 9) and develop it through the years, and couldn’t see how to do it other than as it happened, step by step.

I really enjoy writing, and thinking about the people I’m constructing makes me happy, but I seriously wonder if it’s not just a hobby. There are just too many great authors out there, and it’s too easy to get a book onto a Kindle or into print, for me to ever make a difference in the literary world.

Perigee might be my last effort, or I might take one more on, at the suggestion of a couple of friends, and write about a group of us, and the different directions of our lives with some fictional intrigue to make it more interesting. Kind of a joint effort, basing characters on real people. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, I’m plotting on.