Tuesday, May 27, 2008

US vs. France

During several days in Paris spanning this past holiday weekend, I couldn’t help but compare the United States to France. And like most comparisons, this quickly morphed into a competition. Witness:

Category One: Celine Dion

One of my first sights out of the airport was a billboard the size of a small European country featuring Ms. Dion. Apparently, my visit was timed to her nine-show appearance in Paris. (No, I did attend any of her performances.)

I know she’s not French, but—at least for now—her reign in Vegas in over and France is stuck with her.

Point: US

Category Two: Lunch

Americans are always in a hurry. Much of the time, we’re pissed off if we have to wait more than a minute between our appetizers and our main courses—and often we ask for the check before we’re even done stuffing our faces.

Lunchtime in Paris is different. Hours can go by, and time passes while watching passers-by and drinking a glass of wine. Or three.

Point: France

Category Three: Cars

With gas prices still rising, you’d think I’d bemoan our big American cars and the SUV culture that costs us billions of extra dollars—and makes parallel parking a real bitch.

There’s an argument there, yes. But it’s easily overwhelmed by how ridiculous all those French dudes looked cruising around in the SmartCars—putting themselves in danger of severe physical injury if they got into an accident with a small poodle:

Point: US

Category Four: Pastimes

In their free time, the French focus on romance. They seduce, they woo, and they canoodle on benches and in alleys everywhere.

In America, by contrast, we collectively obsess about time-wasters like American Idol.

Point: France

Two points each. We seem to be in a quandary; both countries have things going for them. So it comes down to a tiebreaker:


As much as I hated it growing up, the French language just flows. Sure, the French annoyingly fail to pronounce a few letters at the end of many words … but at least you know it’s coming because the language is well ordered and easy to follow once you know the rules.

English, by contrast, must be a real pain in the ass to learn as a non-native speaker. With borrowed words from dozens of languages and inconsistent rules, it’s tough. But so are the American people. And we don’t need all those silly accents that often get garbled in print.

Voilà! We have a winner.

Point and match: US

Monday, May 19, 2008

Worldly Lyrics

Being a geography geek by upbringing, more comfortable with National Geographic than The National Enquirer, I’m always pleased to hear rock songs mention world locations.

The Beatles, for example, referenced the Soviet republics of Ukraine and Georgia decades before their independence in 1968’s “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Toto’s “Africa” gives a nod to both Mount Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti Plain of Kenya and Tanzania.

This week, one of the CDs in my car was Probot, the metal side project of the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl. I heard a wonderfully obscure geographical reference in the song on the album featuring guest vocalist Max Cavalera of Sepultura, “Red War:”

The sign of the cross I carry into war
The Khyber Pass where no one rests

To the best of my music memory, this is only the second song to mention the strategic mountain pass between what is now Afghanistan and what is now Pakistan.

The first song is a veritable bounty of world-geek references. Tom Cochrane’s “Life Is a Highway” blesses us with this atlas-hugger’s dream line:

From Mozambique to those Memphis nights
The Khyber Pass to Vancouver’s lights

Beat that, National Geographic.

Speaking of music and world locations…

(1) I’ll be leaving the country late tomorrow for a week at the edge of civilization—a place I fear going to lest I lose touch with my personal safety and sanity.

Yes, I’m going to France.

Although I’ll miss the opportunity to react to your comments here, I’m looking forward to seeing your words upon my return—when I’ll surely post something about my trip to the Old World.

(2) I’ve recently joined some gifted music critics on the Whole Lotta Album Covers site as a fellow contributor.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve posted there my musings on the covers of Skid Row’s Slave to the Grind and Rush’s Vapor Trails. Ray, Mark, Chuck, and Bob have recently shared their thoughts about album covers by artists ranging from Robert Johnson to Battleroar, from Tom Waits to Chainsaw.

Check out the site while I’m gone. You won’t regret it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Using Apostrophes Correctly: A Post To Prove It’s Easy

It’s dangerous to appear as if you’re lecturing your readers.

So I’m usually not one to bitch and moan just to get things off my chest. But last week I went ballistic. Items were thrown and curses were spewed because of one thing that angers me every time I see it: Misused apostrophes.

The rules are simple—much easier to remember than most other grammar madness. Yet many of us throw apostrophes around so poorly that we show utter disrespect to our readers and allow ourselves to be seen as complete idiots.

The basics aren’t hard:

(1) Apostrophes are used for contractions and possessives, like “You’re reading David Amulet’s rant about apostrophes.” Note: Contractions can occur in numbers; my “Underappreciated ’80s” series of posts use the apostrophe because I’ve removed the “19” from the decade.

There is one key exception to this apostrophe/possessive rule ...

(2) It’s is a contraction for “it is” or “it has.” If you’re indicating possession and not saying “it is” or “it has,” use its—without the apostrophe. Both are used correctly here: “It’s David Amulet’s post about apostrophes that makes its points clearly.”

(3) Apostrophes are not used for plurals, except in odd cases where their absence creates combinations of letters that could be confused with words.

This can be seen in a sentence like “David Amulet received neither A’s nor B’s in English classes despite his apostrophe obsession.”

(4) Don’t rely on spell/grammar check; it’s often dead wrong on the use of it’s versus its. For example, Microsoft Word spurred me to change the “It’s” in the title to “its,” confirming that Microsoft is an evil hive of scum and villainy bent on destroying Western civilization.

Style maven Lynne Truss writes in her bestselling Eats, Shoots and Leaves that if you continue confusing it’s and its, “you deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot, and buried in an unmarked grave.”

Thankfully, I’m not as manic as Ms. Truss about this.

But for your own sake, stop giving the impression you’re an ignorant ass-clown. Stop confusing it’s and its. Stop using apostrophes for plurals.

Consciously or subconsciously, readers tend to discount what you’re writing if its presentation is bad … so do yourself a big favor and take an extra three seconds when you’re posting to get the apostrophes right.

And don’t tell me it’s none of my business. It’s because I care.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Underappreciated ’80s: Ernie “Coach” Pantusso from Cheers

When you think of the bartenders on the hit ‘80s TV show Cheers, the womanizing Sam Malone (played by Ted Danson in his prime) probably comes to mind.

Most people next think of his simple but charming sidekick behind the Cheers bar—Woody Boyd, the character that gave a young Woody Harrelson his big break.

Both Danson and Harrelson won Emmys for their roles; one of the greatest travesties of television history is that Nicholas Colasanto did not for his stellar performance during three seasons as Ernie Pantusso, better known as “Coach.”

Coach had a big heart—after all, he stuck with Sam Malone even through the ex-pitcher’s drunken escapades—but was not the brightest bulb on the porch. Most of the time, he misunderstood even straightforward questions or statements, leading to some of the best humor in all the years of the show.

At least one episode blamed Coach’s condition on taking far too many pitches to the head while playing baseball. Whatever the cause, Coach’s childlike innocence about his own condition was his best quality.

My favorite Coach moment, however, involved his unusual expertise on Albania. To help him get through a geography class, he had memorized various factoids about the country by singing them to the tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In:”

Albania! Albania!
You border on the Adriatic
Your land is mostly mountainous
And your chief export is chrome

Colasanto passed away as the show was peaking in popularity in early 1985, throwing the show a curve. Several episodes filmed after his death included outtakes from previously taped segments to stretch out the inevitable, but eventually the show brought Harrelson on board to give Cheers another bartender. But as good as Harrelson was, he never matched Colasanto’s best.

Rest in peace, Coach.